Tag Archives: slice of life

Slice of Life #28: We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

Granna and MeI lost my grandmother this morning. She is one of the most important people to me in the entire world. She represents love to me because her love was absolutely unconditional, and it was something I knew I had with absolute certainty.

I never think about her without thinking about her in her sewing room. I don’t think I realized when I was a child how unique that room was, that most houses didn’t have such a room. She would spend hours back in that room, but we children were always welcome. The tiled floors were pitted and scarred by the wheels of her rolling chair. She had at least three sewing machines set up, along with an ironing board. There was a table covered with fabric. I don’t think I ever saw its surface. She had trays with stray sewing machine feet, pins, bobbins, thimbles, scissors, and stale Freedent gum.

My mom asked me what I wanted, and the only thing I can think of is something from that sewing room. And a clock that chimes obnoxiously because whenever it marks the hour, it reminds me of spending weekends with her. I used to hear that clock late into the night when she let me stay up watching Johnny Carson or Fantasy Island. I had a pallet by her bed, but she often let me cuddle next to her. The next morning, she often took me out for breakfast and let me have a Coke, which Mom would never have done.

I had a chance to visit her in July 2014 when I was going to a digital storytelling conference in Denver. I recorded many of her and my grandfather’s stories and edited them into at least two digital stories. Here is my favorite.

I wish there were some way to capture how soft her cheeks were, like velvet, and how even though her hands shook with some sort of inherited disorder, she could always thread a needle on the first try. If she made something with her hands, it was going to be better than anything you would buy in a store.

When I was in seventh grade, I got it into my head to make her a small shelving unit. I don’t know why. I had taken woodshop the previous year in school, and I thought I could handle it. I did a terrible job. First, I found wood in the garage and didn’t ask if I could use it. I never got in trouble, but who knows what that wood had been set aside for? I couldn’t cut the wood evenly with a saw, so the two edges that would be the top were uneven. I tried to sand them down, but I couldn’t, not with the sandpaper my dad had in the garage. I tried to nail the shelves to the sides, but I couldn’t. I wound up using wood glue. I used different kinds of wood for the shelves and sides. The shelves were wider than the sides. I got a good look at that shelf for the first time in about 30 years when I visited two years ago. Every shelf is crooked. It looks terrible. And yet it has hung in her living room, in pride of place, with her collectible figurines resting in peril on each shelf. I realized that shelving unit is a metaphor for me. She cried when I gave it to her for her birthday. She immediately hung it on the wall. She loved me, with my faults, with perfect love. I doubt if she ever even saw how ugly that shelving unit was, just like she dismissed my own imperfections.

I decided to go to school today, even though my heart is broken, because I thought that I could either lie in bed all day, crying, or I could come to school and keep busy. It hasn’t worked all that well. I was teaching The Odyssey this morning, and it so happened that my students were studying Book 11—the book in which Odysseus travels to the underworld and sees the shade of his mother, not realizing she had died.

Mother, why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!—
so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart. (11.240-243)

Odysseus’s mother replies,

[T]his is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away… flown like a dream. (11.249-253)

Why on this day, of all days, should this passage be the one I must discuss with a room full of ninth graders who know nothing about what I’m feeling? And yet, I also just finished King Lear, and yesterday, after I had spoken with my grandmother for the very last time and shortly before she lost consciousness, my students were conducting a Socratic seminar discussion of the play along with A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and this line in particular stabbed me through the heart:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? (5.3.370-371)

As blessed as I am to have had my grandmother for 45 years, and I know that I am, I can’t help but feel what Lear feels: “Stay a little” (5.3.327). Would there ever have been enough time?

It’s an accident of life that I happen to be teaching these works right now. I planned the curriculum before my grandmother’s final illness took hold.

I know that death is a part of life. But I don’t know life without his remarkable, amazing woman who loved me so much. I don’t know how to talk about her in the past tense. I don’t know how to keep going without knowing she’s there, perhaps 2,000 miles away, but there.

She told me the last time I spoke to her that she would watch over me, and that she would hold me always in her heart.

And I chanced upon this poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites, while I was looking for something, anything, that spoke to how I was feeling (Fr. 428).

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Perhaps you know this poem? It leaped off the page, and it was almost like Miss Emily was offering me the one thing I really needed to read. We grow accustomed to the dark. It is not easy. We will bump into things. We will grope, trying to find our way. But eventually, life steps almost straight. The perfect word in that line is “almost.” We are never quite the same after such a loss. In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever” (Rowling 299). I suppose I draw comfort from the idea that Odysseus, Lear, and even Harry Potter know how I feel right now. They, too, have felt losses not too dissimilar from mine. And they recognize that such losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be filled.

I will always miss my grandmother. In a way, I have been saying goodbye to her since the last time I visited in July 2014. I had a feeling, somehow, that it might be the last time I might see her. She wasn’t ill at the time, but I had no way of knowing when or if I could make the trip back. The sun was setting. I knew the day wouldn’t be lasting much longer. And now, I’ll have to grow accustomed to the dark.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, New York, Penguin Books, 1997.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York, Scholastic, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, New York, Washington Square Press, 2005.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge 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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Slice of Life #27: Organization Journaling

My Journal

I have been trying a new technique to keep myself organized this year. On September 14, on a whim, I divided my journal page for that day down the middle and wrote “Stuff I Did” on the left side and “Stuff to Do” on the right. I hadn’t done it before. In fact, I’d been using the journal mainly to meditate on the day—when I remembered to do it, which was not very often.

Something about making that list of all the things I had accomplished that day made me feel like I had been more productive. What I liked about having the “Stuff to Do” list is that it enabled me to keep things going for long-term projects or for incomplete work. I might have “grade essays” on there for a few days until they’re done, but having to keep writing it again on “Stuff to Do” makes me want to get it moved over to “Stuff I Did.”

I have played with the idea of doing a bullet journal. I’m drawn to the organization. Then again, this weird little system of mine works, so it may be self-defeating to tweak it. I find I enjoy the time I set aside to take stock of the day. Sometimes I write things down as I do them. Sometimes I wait until the end of the day. I do find I am working my way through my to-do lists more quickly, and the “Stuff to Do” list gives me a place to start the next day. I start the day’s list by looking back at the previous few days’ lists to see what needs doing and what I am going to continue to move over to today’s “Stuff to Do” list because it’s not going to happen today.

I also use the journal to take notes in meetings that are likely to involve tasks to do. For example, if I’m in a department chairs’ meeting or meeting with my Dean of Faculty, I will probably have new items to add to my “Stuff to Do” lists.

So that’s your peek into my journal. I have a separate Moleskine cahier notebook for taking notes and writing ideas.

And speaking of writing, I’m trying NaNoWriMo again this year. I didn’t do too badly for the first day. My goal was 1,667 words, and I wrote 1,793.  I have a fun idea, but it was hard to write myself into the story today. I am learning that I have become a much more fluent writer over the years. When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, meeting the word count was hard and often took hours. Now, I can generally do it fairly quickly, especially if I turn off my internal editor and let the ideas flow. I have been blogging for a long time—and I don’t blog as much as I used to—so I’m not sure why I’ve been more fluent the last few years I’ve participated. I can’t chalk it up to blogging, which is one way I’ve traditionally worked on my writing. I’m not handwriting my NaNo novel, but I am handwriting a lot of other things more often. I wonder if that’s it.  I won’t complain in any case. The big task I need to put on my “Stuff to Do” list is picking up one of my previous NaNo novels and revising it so I can do something with it.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge 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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Slice of Life #25: Red Sox Fan

Dylan and Mom
Dylan and I on the commuter rail, headed for the Red Sox game

Yesterday was Marathon Monday in Boston. Three years ago, we were all watching in shock as the Boston Marathon was the center of a terrorist attack that ended three lives and injured many more, irrevocably changing their lives. The Boston Marathon Bombing also irrevocably changed Boston. The moment was unforgettably captured by hometown hero and Red Sox DH, David “Big Papi” Ortiz.

I have never been into sports much. There was a time when I was in my late teens and early twenties when I followed tennis a bit, but even then, I didn’t follow it closely really. Sports brought back some painful memories of trying to get my body to do things I couldn’t figure out how to do. PE was always a challenge for me. I could run, and I actually had pretty good endurance. I might have made a good cross country runner. I will never know. The one year I finally decided to try out for cross country, my school declared there was no interest in a team, and we didn’t have one. I had gone to the athletics physical before the start of the year and everything. In those days, I didn’t advocate for myself much, so I let it go.

Perhaps you need to know that my history with sports is one of disappointment, frustration, and even some regret. I grew up in Aurora, Colorado, and the Broncos were everything to my classmates. John Elway was quarterback in those days. I moved to St. Louis for a short time, and I saw my first major league baseball game—Cardinals versus the Dodgers at Busch Stadium. I don’t remember much about it. Mom had obtained the tickets through work, and though none of us were baseball fans, it seemed like a fun opportunity. I got to see Fernando Valenzuela pitch. The Cardinals lost.

Though my high school had been state football champs the fall before I started going there, and though my college was a big SEC school, I never could get into football, either, and I don’t really think I will. As a member of the marching band, football was more often the cause of resentment for me than anything else, and once I was in college, my dorm was right next to the stadium. On weekends, tailgaters trashed the alley by my dorm  and the whole place stank of beer. This careless disregard for my home did not do a lot to change my disposition toward sports and their fans.

I don’t think I immediately registered exactly what that moment meant when Big Papi took to the field to claim Boston back from those who would want to make us afraid. Now when I watch it, I get goosebumps. He gave that speech three years ago tomorrow. We watched it on the news. Some time after that, my husband started watching games on TV. He had been a baseball fan in his youth. Then, incredibly, the Red Sox were in the running for the pennant. And then they were in the World Series. And then they won the World Series!

My mom had become an Atlanta Braves fan after my family moved to Georgia. She used to watch their games on TV. Because of her, I knew the names of the players, and I even watched a little if it was on TV when I visited. But I couldn’t get into the Braves. There was something magic about watching the Red Sox play, though. They had heart. The players were such characters. It was that year that they all grew beards for good luck. Incredibly, I was a fan for the first time in my life.

I watched the disappointing 2014 and 2015 seasons. It didn’t matter that the Red Sox didn’t repeat. Well, I would have preferred it if they had, but it was through the adversity of those two season that I realized I really was a fan, and not just when the team was winning. I was sad to see some of my favorite players traded. That’s part of the game; I get it. It’s early days this season, but I like watching the current lineup play as well.

For Christmas, I bought my husband tickets to see the Red Sox play the Blue Jays on April 16, which also happened to be my son’s 13th birthday. We had a great time. The Sox beat the Blue Jays 4-1. Unfortunately, they lost the next two games, splitting the series 2-2. The game on Marathon Monday was particularly heartbreaking. The Sox had it in the bag as Clay Buchholz pitched a really good game. The Sox defense made five double plays. There was no reason for the Sox to have lost, but the relief pitchers gave away some runs, and the game ended with the Blue Jays winning 4-3.

If anything, going to a real Red Sox game at Fenway Park, which is just an incredible place to see, made me a bigger fan. We had a nice view from the grandstand, looking out across third plate. I was able to see David Ortiz play. Xander Bogaerts hit a homerun. My favorite player, Dustin Pedroia, hit a single. David Price pitched a great game. Koji Uehara, the hero closer of the 2013 World Series, pitched one inning. Craig Kimbrel was throwing fire in the 9th. We all had a great time at the game. It was a memory I’ll carry with me, and it was wonderful to share it with my family on my son’s birthday.

Koji Uehara
Koji Uehara pitching in the 8th inning

I can’t wait to go see another game at Fenway, but I’ll be watching from my couch tonight as the Sox begin a series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge 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 Last Slice

writing photo

Today is the last day of the Slice of Life March blogging challenge. I was able to write a post every single day this month. I made it!

For my last post, I’m literally just going to talk about my day. We started with a faculty meeting and English department meeting that included a great discussion of how to make integration work better between departments. My colleagues have some great ideas.

I taught three classes: my two sections of American literature and an independent study in British literature. My student in British literature had a scheduling issue, and the only way we could resolve it was to set her up in a class by herself. She read Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” over break, and we started “The Miller’s Tale” today. She was a little surprised, even though I warned her. She found some helpful videos online to help her understand the stories a little better. Her father is one of my colleagues, and we had an impromptu conference this morning when he stopped by another colleague’s office to ask a question. I share my classroom with another teacher, and when he’s teaching, I tend to camp out in my colleague’s office. Dad said she is enjoying the independent study, but she misses the interaction with other kids. That makes sense. We really do learn more from each other.

My American literature classes are starting The Great Gatsby. I book-talked The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien before we took ten minutes to read. Interesting and true story: my two international students from Vietnam both want to read this book. On the one hand, I see why. Both of them have expressed a lot of interest in books set in their home country. As veterans go, O’Brien bears no particular ill will toward the Vietnamese, so I think they will be okay reading it. Naturally, they are curious about this war that ravaged their country before they were born. I wouldn’t want to shield them from it. It’s true, it happened, and it likely directly affected their families. But I’m still thinking about it and hoping they will be okay reading it. They both seemed very eager to look at it. One bought the e-book right there in class. The other borrowed my copy. Both of them also read Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, which is set after the Fall of Saigon, when the main character Ha’s family flee to America. These two boys write most beautifully when they write about their homes. I taught both of them last year as well.

I had a quick meeting after school. I came home to a box from Stitch Fix (just keeping two items, neither of which are school clothes: a boho top and some denim capris). We drove up to Five Guys for burgers for dinner. Then we went to the thrift store, and this is my book haul.

Thrift Store Books

Hidden from view in the image—Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Not a bad haul. They had a pretty good selection of books. I could easily have bought a few more.

Now I’m curled up on the couch, getting ready to go over my lesson plans for tomorrow before I go to bed. A good day. And tomorrow is Friday. 😎

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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You Can Do the Thing!

Last night when I was looking around on Twitter, I came across this tweet by the illustrious Geoffrey Chaucer:

Yes, I know this is a (sort of) parody account, and it’s not even a serious tweet, but I was actually nervous about something I had to do today, and believe it or not, this tweet actually helped a little.

I was reading yesterday that people actually fear the unknown more than they fear situations about which they know the outcome, even if the outcome is bad. Because I have anxiety, I am probably worse than most people. Oh, I can gin up a ton of horrific scenarios! I can tell myself rationally that things are unlikely to happen that way, but the fact is that if you put together anxiety with OCD (and my type tends towards obsessions rather than compulsions), well, let’s just say I can worry like nobody’s business.

I have really tried to get a handle on the worrying in the past. For example, I have read the Bible verse in which Jesus says not to worry, which is beautiful and worth quoting in its entirety (I’m partial to the NKJV, though I love that the New American Standard Bible calls this passage “The Cure for Anxiety”):

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 Matthew 6:25-34

I totally understand the point, and rationally, I agree with it. Worrying doesn’t do me any good. But knowing worrying is harmful doesn’t help me stop worrying. And then I feel bad for having “little faith.” Something else to worry about! I worry I don’t trust enough in myself, in the goodness of others, or, if you like, in God that everything will work out.

The absolute worst thing for me is not knowing how something will work out so that I can worry about all the possible horrible outcomes until the event transpires—and it’s rarely as horrible as I imagined. In fact, I’m not even sure I can think of a single time it was as bad as I imagined. I just hate having anything hang over me long enough for my imagination to get to work on it.

And the thing that I was worried I couldn’t do, or that might go wrong, actually went fine. It went really well, in fact. Geoffrey Chaucer was right. I can totally do the thing. So can you. We should all listen to him more often.

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 Computer is Fixed!

computer coffee photo

Thanks to those of you who expressed concern about my computer issues. It’s been fixed! It appears to have been an issue with operating system, as the technician thought it might be. All of my files are okay. In fact, even the one I made the same day before my computer froze was there. My bookmarks in Firefox looked like they might be lost until I remembered that I had used Firefox Sync, so I logged in and boom! They were all back.

I do appear to be missing some applications, and I need to reinstall a few others. Plus I was on El Capitan, and the new install is Yosemite. But I’m back in business, and none the worse for wear. We have a very good Apple technician. We are so lucky! A lot of people commented that I was awfully calm about the computer issue, but the thing is, I have worked with this guy for nearly four years, and he’s amazing. I had absolute confidence he would be able to fix it. I was impressed with how fast he fixed it, though. I expected to be out a computer for a few days at least, just because of the volume of work he has to do. I guess I was lucky because it was after break, and perhaps he didn’t have a ton of computers to fix as a result.

The summer before last, I had a big issue with my computer and tried to fix it myself. I have a bit of pride, as a former tech integrator, and I do know how to fix a lot of things. However, what I wound up doing on that previous occasion was completely erasing my hard drive. I have learned my lesson, and now I take things I can’t fix to the tech office.

Today was the first day of classes after break. My AP students had read The Hours by Michael Cunningham over the break, so we discussed it just a little bit before we started viewing the film, which is a fine adaptation of the novel. Students will write a paper after we finish. My American literature students began a narrative writing assignment today using a brainstorming technique one of my colleagues likes to use with students. First, I timed the students, giving them two minutes to brainstorm as many incidents as they could think of when they had a chance to stand up for themselves or someone else and either did or did not do so. Then I asked them to pick one and gave them seven minutes to sketch out the incident. Now they are to turn the sketch into a longer narrative to be workshopped next week.

It was good to see the students again. They had good breaks. Some of them traveled. Some stayed around town. They seemed rested and happy to be back. They are also counting down the days until the end of the school year, though. I learned from them today that we have 33 school days left.

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 Computer’s Broken

broken photo

Today my computer broke. We are issued MacBook Pro computers at work. Each teacher and student receives the same device, with the exception of sixth graders, who are participating in an iPad pilot program this year. I have had my computer about eight months. We are issued replacements every three years. I hadn’t had any problems with it until today.

I closed my laptop to walk across campus, and when I opened it to take some notes, all my apps were unresponsive. I couldn’t even get to a point where I could force-quit them. So I shut the computer down using the power button—a last resort. When I tried to boot it up again, the progress bar got about halfway and then quit. It happened again. When I tried to boot it up in safe mode, same deal. Twice. So I decided not to try to troubleshoot it anymore. Last time I did that, I lost all the data on my hard drive. I took it to our tech office. My own most recent backup was a bit too long ago to try to restore from, and to be honest, I’m not sure how to do it when the computer won’t even boot up.

Sure enough, our technician had the same results trying to start my computer. He believes there is something wrong with the operating system, so he is backing up my data and doing a clean OS install. I borrowed the computer I’m currently using to make this post, but I don’t have access to any of my documents or other files. Our technician is very good at fixing these types of problems, so it’s not likely I’ll lose anything, but I’m still frustrated.

If you’re like me, perhaps your life is on your device, too. I know where everything is on my laptop. Navigating this temporary computer is a bit like the learning curve I’m experiencing learning to drive my new car. This morning, for instance, I learned I had been driving my car in S-mode, which is really more used for slippery conditions. Oh well. Wish me luck with the computer. I would hate to lose my data.

Aside from that issue, it was a good first day back after break. The students will return tomorrow. I’ll be glad to see them.

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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Spring Break Recap

spring photo

I’m feeling spring. I changed my browser theme to cherry blossoms, which are my favorite harbinger of spring after living near Macon, GA, for so many years. Washington, DC gets a lot of press for their cherry blossoms, but Macon has its own Cherry Blossom Festival and a number of gorgeous Yoshino cherry trees as well.

Tomorrow I go back to school after a two-week spring break. We didn’t do any traveling. We usually don’t, as my children’s spring break doesn’t coincide with my own, but that’s okay. I read three books and finished one I had been working on before the break. You can read my reviews on my book blog if you like:

I was lazy. I kept up with this writing challenge. I bought a new car—the first time I’ve bought a car in, oh, I forget how many years, but it’s got to be nearly ten if not more than ten, and the first new car I’ve owned since the Saturn I bought in 1999 (I think—or 1998).

My new car

It has been a lot of fun having a zippy, brand new car. I’ve got 98 miles on it now, in case you are interested.

Today was, of course, Easter. When my sister and I were little, my mom used to make beautiful, elaborate Easter baskets for us. She loves making Easter baskets. We probably got baskets each year until we moved out. I am not going to lie; I always saw creating Easter baskets as a huge, expensive burden. I have not kept up the tradition, at least not the last couple of years, and my kids seem okay with that. They are probably the least acquisitive kids you’d ever meet. I’m lucky.

My sister and I also dyed and hunted Easter eggs, though I’m sure we stopped doing that before we got too old. My own children haven’t wanted to hide eggs in years, and we haven’t dyed them in a while.

When we were little girls, especially, my grandmother used to make us Easter dresses every year. It was more a tradition than a necessity. We rarely had occasion to dress up much, but I think it made my grandmother happy to make us pretty dresses. I hunted through my pictures today to see if I could find one of my sister and me in our new Easter dresses, but I must not have any.

I had a terrific, relaxing break with a little bit of excitement. I was able to do some much needed unplugging from work. I had a lovely little taste of summer. I’m really excited to see what we can do this summer now that we can travel a little. I really looking forward to the summer.

I will be happy to see my students again and hear about their break adventures.

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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On Storytelling

writing photo
Photo by Damian Gadal

I am reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s been on my to-read list for a very long time, and I picked it up on a whim last night. These passages out of “Spin” caught my attention this afternoon:

You take your material where you can find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That’s the real obsession. All those stories. 34-35

Later in the same chapter/story, O’Brien writes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (38)

These passages really resonated with me because I consider myself a bit of an ambassador for storytelling. I am the family historian. I captured some of the stories of my grandparents and their own grandparents as told to them. I’ve tried to capture a few of my own stories, too. I don’t have anything like serving in the Vietnam War in my background, like Tim O’Brien does, but I do have stories. All of us do, and even though O’Brien is writing stories about the war, I have the sense he’d agree with me.

I find accepting the idea that all of us have stories is one of the biggest hurdles to writing. Many students—and for that matter, many adults—think they don’t have anything interesting worth sharing.  I think we have a skewed idea of what constitutes interesting. In many cases, if we’ve lived it, we can’t see the potential it might have to intrigue someone else. And then we might be daunted by what we perceive as our inability to tell the story.

Tell it anyway. That is what revision is for. The important thing is to get it down, record it, get it out there. And then share it. The important thing is just to tell your stories. There are lots of ways to do it. If you are more of a writer, write them down. If you’re more of an oral storyteller, record yourself. Video editing software, podcasting software, and services like StoryCorps with their storytelling apps make it easy to capture your stories or those of others. Lest anyone ever in a million years think they don’t have a story, they should listen to the beautiful and wonderful story of Danny and Annie, one of the most popular stories of all time on StoryCorps:

Since I’m thinking of Tim O’Brien, now seems like a good time to share this video I created when I interviewed my grandfather about his war experiences.

Go tell your stories.

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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I Didn’t Even Open My Pencil Case

“I didn’t even open my pencil case,” she said waving it at me a little bit at the end of class. It was an indictment. I can’t really remember what we did in class that day anymore. I just remember her response. Clearly, class time was not used well if she didn’t have to write down something at least once. She was tough. She used to watch me in class, and her eyes seemed to say, “Go on, then.” It was a challenge. She was skeptical that I would meet it. After all, her experiences in school had been very different until she came to America to study. She was from Vietnam.

She was one of a larger number of international students at my school. They are brave students. They come to America, many thousands of miles away from home, live on campus and study in a second language. This girl in particular was one grade above most of the students in my English class. The year before, she had been in our English language learner classes, and her teachers thought she would benefit from a full year in World Literature II rather than going directly into American Studies in Literature, which eleventh graders typically took. She wasn’t very happy about being in my class. Not at first.

It’s funny how a few years on, some of the details are so fuzzy, but I remember she found an assignment particularly challenging, and for some reason or other, she didn’t do as well as she wanted to do on it. I can’t remember why anymore, but I didn’t want her to re-do it or revise it. She was pretty upset. There were a few tears. But after that happened, she started visiting me in my workspace. Sometimes she came to work in the library, which is where my workspace was at the time. Sometimes, though, she wasn’t there to work in the library. She would sit down at the table next to me and work on homework. Sometimes she asked questions. Sometimes she just worked in silence. Sometimes she asked me questions about Americans. She was completely flummoxed by capitalism, and we talked about it quite a bit.

Her favorite book that year was Things Fall Apart. It wasn’t a typical favorite. Most students enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye most of the books we studied. But she was thoughtful, and she saw interesting things in that book that the other students didn’t see. Her classmates will never forget during a Socratic seminar discussion of Ikemefuna’s death, that she connected the issue to a problem she said is a fairly substantial one in her home country—that if you hit a pedestrian with your car, you are responsible for their medical bills, which can stretch to a life-long responsibility. She has heard horror stories of drivers backing up and hitting the pedestrian again to ensure they are dead to avoid the responsibility. However, this story appears to be mainly urban legend, and it’s likely something that she heard from family and friends who wanted her to be watchful and safe when she was out walking in Hanoi. Still, it left an impression on the other students in class, as you might imagine.

Towards the end of the year, we were friends. She had worked very hard in my class, and I recommended that she try to take an AP English class for her senior year. She did take the class, and she excelled. She used to visit me to run her practice SAT essays by me. She had a real gift for attacking those types of prompts. I remember one essay was about following your dreams versus practicality, or a similar subject, and she wrote eloquently about her dream of becoming a chef, even though her family didn’t see it as a practical occupation. I said, “I didn’t know you wanted to be a chef.” I was very surprised to learn of her passion for cooking. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t. I just wrote about it for the essay.” Her ability to bluff her way through those SAT prompts with fake personal examples was unlike anything I’ve seen. She could thoroughly convince a reader of her passion for just about anything.I have to confess, it made me wonder what she really thought about, well, anything.

As she was preparing to graduate, she brought me a gift. “From my country,” she said.

Dana in Traditional Vietnamese HatMy dad was in Vietnam when I was born. He missed about the first six months of my life while he was stationed in Cam Ranh Bay.

She and I might have been unlikely friends, but I think we were friends, despite her ability to bluff her way through SAT prompts (and perhaps a lot of other things). She might not have had to open up her pencil case in my class as often as she thought she should, but eventually, after a little while, I think she opened up her mind and her heart.

We all have students we will never forget for one reason or another. She’s one of mine.

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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