colo iowa photo
Photo by cwwycoff1

I lived in Winder, Georgia in 1996-1997 when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree. I was married, and my daughter was a toddler. There was a house on Center Street in Winder that was blue with red trim, and it had a porch I fell in love with. I was one of those large Victorians with great big shady wraparound porches. I have a goal of living in a house like that, some day. I think if I could find a place like that, with a nice swing, I could really be at home.

Moving around was hard. It was not easy being the new kid, especially since I was what we called shy. Now it’s considered more or less normal, and we call it introverted. I have lived in a lot of places, but it’s hard to call most of them “home.” That’s not to say that I have not liked and even loved some of the places I’ve lived. They just didn’t stir some deep place inside of me that felt like home.

One place that did feel like home was Athens, Georgia. When I went away to college—and I should write a post this month about how I chose my college—at the University of Georgia, I lived on campus. I felt so at home in Athens. There was a spot on North Campus with a small fountain. It didn’t get a lot of foot traffic. I used to love to walk over there and sit on a wrought iron bench and read or study. One of my fondest memories is hearing the trains at night. I have always loved living where I can hear the trains at night. I also used to love to wander as far as I could go up Prince Avenue. It’s hard to explain the pull that Athens had on me, particularly some places in Athens. It is a college town, and a pretty typical one. The first night we drove around downtown when my parents were dropping me off to school, it was like I fell in love. Some time later, I discovered that my family used to live near Athens. As much as it was not the same Athens that existed when they might have ridden into town to do one thing or another, it was there, and some parts of it would have been familiar to them—the parts I loved best, anyway.

Another place I fell in love with at first sight was Gambier, Ohio, where Kenyon College is. I have said that it’s a shame I didn’t know about that place when I was trying to figure out where to go to school. I would have loved it there. Alas, I’m not sure that I could have afforded it, even if I had managed to get in. Still, the place felt familiar and right. One night as I was walking back to the dorms where I was staying during my workshop, I could hear frogs, and there were fireflies flitting through the trees. I remember thinking, “Oh stop it; no place is this idyllic.” Before I even arrived on campus, I remember as our driver was taking me from the airport in Columbus up to Gambier, we passed through Licking County, which is where my father’s family lived for a while in the nineteenth century before moving to Story County, Iowa. Why did this landscape, just one county over from where my ancestors lived, speak to me?

So then I started wondering, given how much I fell in love with Gambier, do we carry our family’s rootedness and love for a place somewhere? A recent study has shown that we do inherit trauma through our DNA. If that is possible, is it also possible for positive environmental experiences to impact our DNA in the same way? Logically, I admit it doesn’t really make a lot of scientific sense. It’s hard to say what it is that produces the feeling of falling in love with a place. I have been other places where my family lived for some time and not felt a thing one way or the other.

On the other hand, what both of these places have in common is that they are college towns, and both are fairly dependent on the college for their existence. I suspect that I would be equally drawn to many other college towns, recognizing in those places a mix of old and new, interesting architecture, and a focus on academia. Perhaps, after all, that is what I’m really in love with: college. I have said many times to students that when they go to college, yes, they should study, but they should have fun, too. My one regret about college is that I wish I had just done more and had more fun. I can’t get that time back.

Still, I wonder what it is about these two special places, Athens and Gambier, so far apart from each other, but each places near where my family once lived—places they, too, may have visited. What, exactly, is it that makes a place feel like home?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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travel photo
Photo by Moyan_Brenn

I was thinking of traveling today because I have been doing family history research all day, and one feature of the software I’m using allows me to attach geocode tags with longitute and latitude for places that crop up in various family events. It was interesting to see the westward movement of some members of my family. Others remained more or less within the confines of a small area their entire lives. Nowadays, that kind of movement is so much more rapid and frequent. In the 1800’s, when our ancestors traveled west in covered wagons, that was it. You were staying, and you were not going to be able to go back for visits. It takes a matter of hours for me to cover the same ground, and if pressed, I can go there and back in less than a day.

It’s strange, but one of my fondest travel memories is driving from Cape Fear, North Carolina, where I was living at the time, to Aurora, Colorado with my then husband and young daughter to visit my grandparents. We didn’t plan very well and assumed (you know what happens when you do that) we should be able to stop the first night in Tennessee. I think we had planned to stop in Nashville. No room at the inn in the first place we tried. We kept going. No room. We kept going. Finally, I decided to keep going while my husband slept, and then we could trade off. I felt somehow like I was all alone. There were no other cars. The family was sleeping. I was cruising down I-24. My husband woke up when I got on I-57; he felt the vehicle slow down. I think he might have volunteered to drive. We made it through St. Louis in the wee hours and stopped at a rest area on the western side of the city to nap for a little while. I remember crouching in the floor of the car and resting my head on the seat. There’s no way I could sleep like that now. After a little while, we got back on the road and drove across Missouri and Kansas, finally stopping in Goodland, Kansas, not far from the Colorado border. It was probably only 5:00 P. M. Or maybe not even that late, but we were exhausted, and the weather looked threatening. I’m pretty sure it could have produced a tornado if it had wanted to. We drove into Aurora the next day. It was probably only about four or five hours before we were there. It’s funny how indelible and strangely happy that memory is to me now, that feeling of being alone with just my road trip music on in the car, the whole road wide open to me. I couldn’t do it now. I had so much more energy in my 20’s.

Even going 1,800 miles across the country was something I could do, at least when I was in my 20’s, in two days. I know we take this miracle of travel for granted. Certainly, I do. As long as we have a little money for gas and food, we can go virtually anywhere, and we can come back when we’re ready.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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books travel photo

For some reason, Emily Dickinson’s line, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away” is running through my mind after re-reading Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. My AP Lit students read and studied Mrs. Dalloway before spring break, and I asked them to read Cunningham’s book over the break. Since it had been quite some time since I read it, a re-read was in order for me, too. I remember it didn’t quite land for me when I first read it. I recognized it was well written, but I couldn’t have foreseen I’d read it again. Because I really love the idea of intertextuality, and also because I borrowed my AP book list largely from a friend and colleague, I decided I’d do Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours together.

My students empathized with Septimus Warren Smith, and they really wanted to talk about him in our discussions, though they also marveled at Virginia Woolf’s writing and tried to connect to Mrs. Dalloway as a character, too. I think they did good work. I will be curious to see how they appreciated The Hours after having read Mrs. Dalloway first, because my first reading of The Hours was years before my first reading of Mrs. Dalloway, and I believe I appreciated The Hours more after understanding how it is in dialogue with Mrs. Dalloway.

What I have really been thinking about today, however, is re-reading. I often tell students that we bring everything we are, everything we’ve read, and everything we’ve done to each book. When we re-read with a gap of time, we often find we respond differently to a book the second time because we are not the same people we were the first time we’ve read, we’ve read more books, and we’ve lived more. In the case of The Hours, my response was entirely different. I connected deeply to the characters in a way I couldn’t when I first read the book 13 years ago.

I remember having the same reaction to re-reading The Catcher in the Rye. I read it as a teenager and despised Holden. Who cares about some ungrateful, annoying preppie teenager roaming New York? How horrified I was when a high school friend once told me he thought all teenage boys were Holden Caulfield. Years later, I saw Holden entirely differently, but it took becoming a mother and a teacher for me to empathize with Holden. Now I love that book and count it among my favorites.

While I know that there is a popular movement in English teaching today to throw out the whole-class novel study, I do still see value in it. I know for a fact that some of the books I am asking my students to read won’t land for them, not yet. I have told them so. And yet there is still value in reading and thinking about these books, letting them rattle around in our brains, and returning to them (if we want to) years later when perhaps we are ready for them to land. At the same time, I do think students need to learn what they like to read in order to become readers, and we should offer opportunities for students to choose what they read as well. The tricky part is not ruin a book so that students have no desire ever to return to it again. Of course, I never really know if students do return to books unless they make a point of telling me, and often they are living their lives, reading other books, and doing other things, so I never know for sure if they pick up a book we studied together, look at it again with their more experienced eyes, and connect to a book in a way they didn’t when they were in my class. But they do at least have the book, somewhere in their minds, and later, perhaps the book might just take them lands away.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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St. Patrick’s Day

four leaf clover photo
Photo by forestfolks

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I have always had a special connection to St. Patrick’s Day. It’s my half-birthday, which may seem like a silly thing for a woman my age to pay attention to, but you remember when you were a kid, and the distinction “and a half” was important? Even though that distinction is no longer important to me, and about 87% of the time I can’t even remember how old I am, never mind the half, I still feel like St. Patrick’s Day is a special day. Not just because I’m about half Irish, really, because the importance of the holiday in Ireland is somewhat lost given how long ago it was that most of my ancestors immigrated to America and also given its diluted nature in the States. We might lift a pint of Guinness and wear green. We might even go to a parade, depending on the concentration of Irish descent in our neck of the woods. But it’s really not a holiday in America the way it is in Ireland. My Irish ancestry is so far removed at this point that I actually don’t feel all that Irish.

Except… In some ways I do. When I took Celtic Literature in college, I really responded to the Irish and Welsh myths that we studied in ways I didn’t, necessarily, to Greek and Roman myths. I also respond in a visceral way to Celtic music—fiddles, whistles, Uillean pipes, and bodhráns speak to some part of me that goes deeper than my general love for music. Same with bluegrass or Appalachian music. I don’t always count it my favorite kinds of music to listen to, but if I hear it, it stirs something deeper inside me than even some of my favorite music does. It’s one of the reasons why Sharyn McCrumb’s novel Songcatcher was so moving to me. I responded to the idea of music traveling through DNA.

But there are no recipes that have been passed down, at least not traditionally Irish ones. There are no stories about family in the “old country.” I’ve tried to trace my family to Ireland using a paper trail, but it’s nearly impossible. Or I should say it has been up until now. I was actually surprised that a DNA test confirmed I had such a high percentage of Irish ethnicity. I expected to be quite English, and I was a tiny, tiny bit English, and that was all.

Tomorrow I’ll be putting a different DNA test from a different company in the mail. This company allows you to do a bit more with your results than the other test I had. It also has a larger user base, so I can potentially find more relatives as well as learn more about my genetic history than the first test I took will tell me. I wish you could just port your test results over from one place to another, but I guess it doesn’t work like that. I will be interested to see how the results from each test compare, since they focus on different aspects. I’ve been watching a lot of back episodes of Henry Louis Gates’s show, Finding Your Roots. Gates has Irish ancestry, just like I do. I learned watching an episode last night that about 1 in 10 Americans do. Gates tests the DNA of all of the guests on his show and compares them. Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly were shocked (and I think mortified) to discover they’re related. One thing you learn about watching shows like this, however, is that we all are related and woven into this great tapestry of humanity. And we all have stories. If more people realized what connected us rather than focused on what separated us, it might be more beautiful world.

On this day when everyone’s Irish, may the luck of the (half) Irish smile on you.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Granna’s Sewing Room

Granna Sewing on Papa's Stripes
Granna Sewing on Papa’s Stripes

“When did you first realize that room was unique? That not many houses had one?”

I was in a session at NCTE and had written about a special place on the direction of the presenters. All of us participants were asked to share our special places with others, and this woman and I were the only ones in in the front right corner of the room. We exchanged those glances that said “Do you want to be my partner?”

I read her a little something I had written up, and she asked me those questions. I had never thought about it, but she was right. That room was unique. I didn’t know anyone else who had a sewing room in their house. My grandmother was, as she always described herself, a seamstress. When I was a child, I used to go to her house every day after school until my mother’s workday ended. I usually sat at her coffee table and did my homework. All the time, the burr of her sewing machine could be heard in the background, and there was usually a visit from a customer or two. She did everything from alterations to wedding dresses.

When I was at Kenyon last summer, we did a wonderful place exercise in which I wrote about that room, and ever since that writing activity, that room has been a deep well of inspiration for me. I wrote a zuihitsu poem about it, which I won’t share here because I would like to try to publish it—rules about prior publication are pretty strictly defined to include personal blogs. I have returned to that to room many times. I can see it so vividly.

Granna had several sewing machines, but the ones I remember being set up when I was a child were a metallic green Rex, a newer Bernina, and a Juki serger. She also had a complicated-looking ironing apparatus. The iron was always hot and was attached to a large steam bottle that looked like an overlarge IV. She had a large table in the corner. It was covered with fabric. I don’t think I ever saw its surface. She had stacks and boxes of old patterns. Many of the patterns featured on the McCalls Pattern Behavior Tumblr wouldn’t have been out of place in her collection. There was an area to the right of her Rex, which was her main sewing machine at the time. A small table nestled between her sewing table and the large fabric-laden table against the wall; here Granna kept spools of thread and trays with bobbins, pins, needles, sewing machine feet, buttons, and every kind of sewing notion you can think of. In second grade, I had made her a memo board with woodgrain contact paper and my picture—grown out perm and overlarge permanent teeth coming in—framed in pieces of lace. It still hangs there, next to her machine. I could usually find stale pieces of Freedent gum on that table, too. The floor in that room was black tile, pitted with scars from the wheels on my grandmother’s chairs as she whipped around the room from machine to machine.

It is probably the place I associate most with my grandmother because it was where she spent most of her time when I was a child. I used to go back and visit her in the room. Often she would be humming. When asked her what she was humming, she always said she didn’t know. She usually had two or three straight pins sticking out of her mouth for safekeeping.

This is the image I most associate with my grandmother

She could fix a tear or a hem in nothing flat. In the years she was still actively sewing, you could turn anything she made inside out, and it would be lined and the seams would be straight, rough edges serged and neat. There was no flaw in anything she made. I only came to appreciate the craftsmanship and learning her skills took when I tried to learn to sew myself and put one of my pockets in backwards in the shorts I made and sewed my top too tight to wear. I do remember going through a period when I wanted store-bought clothes because I was desperate to fit in and wear the same kinds of jeans and jackets as the other kids wore. By the time I was an adult, I appreciated the love that went into the clothes my grandmother made. She used to sew little tags into the back of anything she made for me:

Made Especially for You by

When I last visited my grandparents, I was able to interview my grandmother about her career and hobby as a seamstress. I hope you enjoy the digital story I made.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Music is Life

Music is Life

Not a lot of people who read this blog know this about me, but I’ve been a musician most of my life. I never pursued it in any serious way, aside from playing in band in school and learning how to play the guitar. I also noodled around on several other instruments, including my sister’s clarinet, a neighbor’s violin, and the French horn owned by my middle school. Recently, I completed an online Introduction to Guitar course offered by Berklee College of Music through Coursera. I was rusty and thought I’d benefit from going back to the beginning, and I did. The instruction was excellent, and I learned things about music theory that I didn’t know. I received an electric guitar for Christmas. It was the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since high school. At the time, they seemed so expensive and so outside the realm of anything I would ever be able to obtain that I gave up.

My Guitar
My Guitar

You could say that music runs in my DNA. My father played drums in school, and my uncle still does. He’s been a lifelong professional musician, in fact. My grandfather played the trombone. My great-great-grandfather played the fiddle. My great-great-grandmother and her mother played the organ. Many generations back, I have an ancestor, a rifle-maker tired of paying high prices for gun locks from New York, who supposedly charmed a gun lock manufacturer out of his secrets by playing the violin. In times gone by, if you wanted music, especially on the American frontier, you needed to make it yourself. Willa Cather’s short story “A Wagner Matinee” has long been a favorite because I connect to it so deeply.

I was, of course, lucky enough to grow up in a time when access to music was ubiquitous—through the radio, through music stores, through mixtapes made for friends. It wasn’t quite like today with access to new music on various streaming sites and YouTube, but it wasn’t hard to hear about new music. I can remember trying to make requests on the radio (they were ignored). I can remember taping music off the radio. I nearly wore out my copy of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet when I was 15—until I discovered Led Zeppelin and left Bon Jovi in the dust. There was a period of time in the mid-1990’s when I listened to The Joshua Tree on a loop in my car. Around 2005, I think, I discovered Jeff Buckley. A few years later, Jack White. I can’t say I stay as current as I did when I was young, but I love discovering new artists, and still try to listen to new music. There was a time in my 30’s when I felt like I didn’t know anything about current music, and I admit it was a bit of a panic. I suddenly felt old.

I was in college when grunge was popular. Nirvana broke my sophomore year. Pearl Jam even came to my university and gave a free or cheap concert (I can’t remember now). I didn’t go. Can you believe that? Big regret of mine. At the time, I didn’t think I liked them, really. In fact, if I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t go see as much live music as I should have. I saw some; I just didn’t take advantage of opportunities I had to see more. There really isn’t anything quite like seeing music live. I listened to so much music in high school and college that there are certain songs and albums I can hear that will take me right back to that time. I listened to a lot of things—hard rock, classical, big band swing, blues. Later on, I developed a fondness for old school country.

One of my friends recently posted this question on Facebook: “Imagine you’ve met someone who has been severely cut off from the world, and you get to introduce this person to music. What would be the first recorded song you would play?”

This is a fraught question for me. I like music so much that picking a favorite song is difficult, and I’m not sure I could do it. I also feel like this is one of those questions that says a lot about a person. Even picking one song that represents each genre I like would be too hard. It’s the kind of question that stops me cold in a quandary over how to answer. With all those caveats in mind, including the one that no such list could ever possibly be comprehensive or representative, I would suggest this person check out the following:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The Empty Garden

Granna and Papa

These are my grandparents. I spent seven years of my childhood living near them in Aurora, Colorado. They mean a great deal to me. I am sure they are the reason that I consider Aurora “home” even though I didn’t live there the longest, and even though I have not lived there since I was 14, and even though I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited Aurora since I moved.

My grandfather was a tremendous gardener, and his lawn was always beautiful when I was a kid. He isn’t really able to keep a garden now. I remember going with them to Dardano’s Flowerland in Denver to buy marigolds and other flowers. In the front yard, right in front of the front door, they grew marigolds with large, bulbous orange and yellow heads, almost too perfect and too similar to one another to look real. Around the corner from the front door, on the side of the house they grew roses. In the backyard, way in the corner of the yard, they planted purple irises. The power lines hung low over their backyard, and I can never hear doves cooing today without being once again in the back yard.

The other two gardens were devoted mainly to experiments. Granna usually had some zucchini going, but we tried watermelon with some success, and one year she let me pick out some seeds, and I grew some pretty little flowers that looked like closed mouths. I could squeeze right under the bud and make the mouths look like they were talking. The grass was thick and green and cool under my bare feet in the summer. We used to lie under the bean tree in her front yard at night and look up into the sky filled with stars and almost feel like we were falling into the sky.

I knew how much work went into cultivating this yard. Every year we went to Dardano’s Flowerland for the big spring trip. We circled around the greenhouses for what felt like hours as mt grandparents puttered, inspecting and selecting plants. I tried to do anything to relieve the boredom. I looked for rocks with green moss growing on them under the wet flower trays. I touched all the plants. It seemed like the yard was transformed as if by magic almost overnight somehow into a wonderland of plants and trees and flowers. The sprinkler ran every other day; Papa never tried to cheat the water restrictions that I knew of, but his lawn was always verdant and lush.

I was sad to learn from a quick Google search just now that Dardano’s is closed. I can’t really say I enjoyed the trips to the greenhouses at Dardano’s because all I really recall is boredom. Strange that I recall that boredom with so much fondness. I can feel the humid air in the greenhouses. I can smell the flowers. I can hear the trickles of water running. I don’t know much about the history of the place, but I gather it was one of those Mom and Pop businesses that had been around for over 60 years. It’s such a weighty history, and it won’t be too long before people forget it ever existed. Their URL is up for grabs. Their last tweets were posted in 2012. People have moved on and buy their flowers from another nursery, I’m sure. This place was an institution in my childhood, though.

Photo by Dardano’s

I visited Aurora almost two years ago. It was wonderful to see my grandparents. But there was so much about the town that I didn’t recognize. To be fair, much was the same, too. The plains are still flat out there east of the Rockies, and the sky still goes all the way to the ground. But there is a University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and Children’s Hospital on Colfax Ave. now, and it looks completely different with all the new buildings in the huge medical complex.

I used to walk down the street to Hoffman Park to play, and as early as the 1990’s, all the playground equipment had been replaced—I’m sure the playground equipment we used was unsafe. A lot of the places I used to walk or ride my bike to are closed. The library was probably the first casualty—the old library on 13th Street, where I used to check out books and get hot chocolate from a machine on cold fall days. Dolly Madison’s ice cream and dairy—that was an old-fashioned soda fountain place. Hatch’s Gifts. The Munchen Shop, a German deli. Hancock’s Fabrics, where my grandmother spent hours. The art supply store where I used to buy posterboard for my projects. The large number of empty storefronts, pawn shops, and check cashing and cash advance places tell a story of the kind of place the old shopping center has become. And yet, there is still a donut shop where old Winchell’s Donuts used to be. The large grocery store is still there. It’s hard to explain. Enough of it is similar that its recognizable, but it’s changed enough that in many ways, it’s completely different. Those places are new, and they don’t remember me anymore.

I guess, in that way, it’s kind of like all of us. Parts of us are the same, but we change enough that those we knew in our youth might not recognize the people we’ve become.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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My Hair

Today was the first day of the Slice of Life March blogging challenge that I felt at a loss as to what to write about. I peeked over at their idea suggestion page, and I had to laugh out loud at this line: “Does the thought of writing 31 slices in a row scare anyone? If it doesn’t now, about day 13 it will.” Yep. That’s about right. Day 13, and I was stuck.

One reason I think I was feeling especially uninspired is that I just finished reading an inspiring book, and all I want to do right now is process it and tell everyone to read it. I wrote a review already, and I know that Slice of Life is not about reviews, so that’s all I will say about it.

One item on the 31 Slices to Inspire word cloud on the suggestion page jumped out at me in particular. Hair. My friend Glenda has already written about her decision to go gray. I thought to myself, perhaps I should write about my hair.

Prematurely gray hair must be hereditary in my family because my mom says my dad had gray in his sideburns when they met each other at the age of 19. I found my first gray hairs when I was 18. I can’t say where they came from, though, because in pictures, my grandfather’s hair was black except for some gray at the temples, until he passed away in his 70’s. My grandmother’s hair was gray, but I can’t say when her hair might have started turning gray, as she colored it most of her life. My dad’s hair is now a beautiful shade of white. Our hair is exactly alike, so I know in twenty years exactly what color mine will be. For right now, though, this is a pretty recent picture.

Alison BechdelSome people think it’s actually platinum blond until they see me in person. A friend of mine once argued with me about my hair. It was a walnut brown before it turned gray. I was there. I know it was. My friend insisted it had to have been blond because it didn’t look like it had been brown. You’re not going to win an argument like that. Still, I was there, and I remember.

It was the French horn player who sat behind me in band (I played flute) who first noticed gray hairs in the back of my head. Inexplicably, she pulled them out whenever she saw them. Why I didn’t give her a black eye, I’m not sure. I think at one point I did tell her to keep her hands off my hair.

I dyed my hair a variety of shades of brown and red in the 1990’s. Nothing I tried looked right, and it was horrible for my hair. I never did use a salon, so perhaps the results would have been different if a professional had colored it. When I was pregnant with Maggie (who just turned 15), I think I must have read that you shouldn’t color your hair. My hair looked pretty bad, I guess, while it was growing out. I can’t remember anymore. I fully intended to color it again once I gave birth, but my husband said he liked it. It was, at that time, more of a slate gray. So I left the hair alone.

I am really low-maintenance when it comes to hair. If a style requires more than blowing it dry, I don’t want the hassle. I found that the hair recovered from those years of coloring it. It felt better. Still, I was worried that I looked old before my time. I was in my early 30’s. I was in the hair color aisle at Wal-Mart one day looking at different colors and trying to select one. Two women stood nearby, and I could hear them whispering. Finally, one of them called down the aisle to me, “Don’t do it! See, I’m trying to convince her,” she said pointing at her friend, “that her hair can look like yours if she grows it out.”

I think I must have thanked her and left. Then, at Panera, a younger man complimented my hair. What you have to understand is this was years before gray hair and the granny look came in style. Hairdressers were always trying to convince me to color it. I was the only woman I knew—well, certainly the only one my age—who was not fighting the gray hair.

Eventually, it just sort of started turning silver. Then, lo and behold, young women started dying their hair gray. I was asked at Kenyon last year why I had chosen to color my hair gray (it was clear from the context and the way it was asked that the person liked it). I said I didn’t choose. It was natural. She said, “I like it even better, then.” From what I understand, the process of dyeing your hair gray is time-consuming and difficult.

Photo courtesy Glenda Funk

I am not someone who has always felt comfortable in my skin. When I was young, I was teased for being skinny. Having three babies made short work of that. Like many women, I often looked in the mirror and focused on all my perceived faults. But my hair? I admit it didn’t take long before I really enjoyed rocking the gray hair, even before others did, and even when others told me I should color it.

I could not have guessed I’d feel that way. I remember seeing Emmylou Harris on television when I was young and wondering why she didn’t color her hair. But at some point, even though it was something that made me stand out, I decided to just let it happen. My headmaster admitted to me a few weeks ago he was quite curious about it when we met, but couldn’t ask me anything about it during the interview process because it’s not legal. One former colleague said it’s “superhero hair.” I think someone said silver hair is the new blond. Whatever. I’ll take it. One time in my life I was actually ahead of the trends.

I actually do get a lot of comments on my hair. One of the most recent from a woman cutting my hair, and for the first time, a hairdresser was not telling me I should color it. I learned to love my natural hair before it was cool. My hair is now such a part of my identity and who I am that I can’t imagine it being any other color. Me at the Folger Library


Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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How I Decided to be a Teacher

Playing School, William Hahn
Playing School, William Hahn

Teaching was the first career I ever considered, and I actually do remember making that decision. I was in first grade. My experience with education was not that expansive at that point. I couldn’t possibly have had any idea exactly what age group or which subjects I would teach when I grew up. I don’t think I had even considered high school. I’m not sure I even knew the subject of English existed. But I was pretty set on teaching. My teacher that year, Mrs. Jones, awakened my curiosity about dinosaurs and books. Aside from an incident when she embarrassed me in the midst of scolding me for talking with a neighbor, I remember her fondly and remember wanting to be like her.

I remember putting my stuffed animals and dolls in circles and lines and giving them assignments to complete. I remember reading to my sister. My best friend in elementary school swears that I used to go over the material we were studying in school with her. I wish I could remember that.

I thought briefly about being a lawyer in seventh grade after doing a project in which I played the role of a lawyer, but I think my understanding of what lawyers did was quite narrow. I assumed, based on what I had seen in TV and movies and read in books that all lawyers were trial lawyers, and being a trial lawyer didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t long before I was back to my original plan.

In middle school, I fell in love with French class. I thought I might teach French. I took French in high school, where my teachers were admittedly a lot less inspiring than my middle school teachers (with the exception of one teacher in my upper level French classes). I thought I might one day teach French. I can’t remember if I was told I should also study Spanish, or if I assumed I should, because many of the world language teachers I knew taught both languages, and I just didn’t have any interest in teaching Spanish.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when I decided to teach English. My middle school English teachers were good. I loved reading and writing in their classes, and I have fond memories of projects I did. That changed once I was in high school. I started out in Honors English classes, which were fine, but not all that interesting. I found the ideas shared by the other students intriguing, but I felt they were smarter than me. I understand now that they were just faster and more extroverted. I took regular-level English classes the rest of high school. My tenth grade English teacher was probably one of the worst teachers I ever had. I learned so little in her class, and it was incredibly boring. All I really remember was doing exercises out of Warriner’s grammar books at my desk.

I had a decent first semester eleventh grade teacher, but I remember feeling desperate at that stage that I was missing something. I asked her for a reading list, and she brought me a box of books. I don’t think anyone had ever asked for such a thing from her before. At any rate, I wasn’t in her class long before I moved, and my new English teacher in Georgia was my favorite. The class quickly became my favorite class. I absolutely loved her. I still do, as a matter of fact, because we have remained friends. I was lucky enough to be in her class again senior year, too, though not for first semester. I had a miserable experience in that class with a teacher who did not reward my hard and honest work on a research paper and gave my then boyfriend a good grade on a paper on which he had made up sources and which didn’t meet the assignment requirements. It was so unfair. It still rankles. I am not saying my paper was amazing. It probably wasn’t. But it was the honest work of weeks spent in the library reading Robert Frost’s poems and conducting research.

If not for my second semester junior/senior English teacher, it’s tough to say if I would be teaching English. In some ways, I learned what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be from the other teachers. It is a shame when a kid who loved to read and write as much as I did couldn’t enjoy high school English classes, though. I have tried to do better with my own teaching. I believe I have.

In some ways, I think the fact that I decided to teach long before I decided on who and what to teach contributed to the way I teach. I could easily have taken a different path in terms of subject matter or age group. As a matter of fact, I have taught pre-K and every grade from 6-12. In my role as a tech integrator, I’ve also taught adults. As a result, I don’t have ideas that work of literature X simply must be read at a certain age, but I do believe we should scaffold and build skills in reading and writing.

I was always going to be a teacher, even if I didn’t know the particulars in first grade when decided on that path. There was a period of time about four years into my career when I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching. It lasted a few months before I was back in a classroom again. Being a teacher is such a part of my identity that I can’t imagine doing something else.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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In my classes this week I tried out two ways of distilling the text. The first is what’s known as a Literary 3X3, which is a technique I hadn’t heard of until a few weeks ago. The Literary 3X3 asks students to write three sentences of three words each that capture the essence of a text. There are rules. Students should try to use abstract nouns, no proper nouns, no “to be” verbs, no articles, no repeated words, no pronouns, no cliches.

We wrote one about Septimus Warren Smith’s story in Mrs. Dalloway.

Septimus Warren Smith 3X3

Isn’t it great? They wrote the second line first, then the last line. I suggested they back up and write about what came before the other two lines and write a first line. They were so happy with their first line they clapped after they were finished.

One student said, “It’s like a poem!” Another added, “Yeah, like a haiku, but… not.” Man, my students make me laugh.

Another way we distilled a text this week was an adaptation of a Text Rendering Protocol.  We had read Margaret Atwood’s poem “Half-Hanged Mary” after finishing The Crucible. Students shared the line that they felt captured something essential about the poem. Then I asked each student to give me one word from the poem that captured something essential. As they shared, I typed their responses into Wordle. Here is what my D period American Lit came up with:

Half-Hanged MaryThe students said “Woah!” I asked, “What do you think? Does this capture what the poem is about?” They agreed that it did.

Here is what my F period American Lit class (smaller group) came up with:

Half-Hanged Mary

What I love about these activities is that it’s actually quite hard to reduce a text down to three sentences or down to a single word, and yet, the results were great.

As my D period students were filing out the door, one of them asked me about the Wordle: “Did you PLAN that?”

I loved that question. I had to admit truthfully that they could have said different words, but that yes, the idea is that these sorts of activities will yield results like this. Still, I love it that he has an idea I’m totally messing with their minds.

Spring break starts.
Exhausted teacher relaxes.
June watches nearby.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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