Butterflies and Barbecue

butterfly on red flowers  What a lovely week! If you haven’t made it to the Butterflies Alive! exhibit at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (open through mid-October), you should. It’s magical. Trust me. You should go. You won’t regret it. If you click here: http://www.timesdispatch.com/butterflies-live-cam/ you should be able to see a live cam of the butterflies.

Here are a couple more pictures that do not capture their real beauty or the truly magical quality of being in the butterfly “room” while these creatures fly and land on plants, the floor, your shoulder.  black butterfly And here’s another:

white butterfly

What a delight!  I took my friend Connie to see the butterflies after we got back from five days of glorious writing at The Porches: http://porcheswritingretreat.com –. Both of us finished novel revisions, and I worked on an essay revision and started a new essay.  Best way to begin the summer. The butterflies kept us feeling other-worldly for just  a bit longer.  We finished off the day at Buzz and Ned’s Barbecue, for its own “otherworldly” qualities!  Delicious.

I’m also re-reading Walden in preparation for an upcoming workshop–APPROACHING WALDEN — to be held at the Thoreau Institute in Massachusetts. I leave in two days, and I’m pretty excited to see what the workshop entails.  For teachers, the idea is to help us develop a curriculum based on “place” — and I’m either going to work on my English 11/American Literature curriculum or my nonfiction writing curriculum — I’ll wait to see when I get there.  And, I’ll keep you posted. No matter what, it should be interesting.  I have some thoughts on Thoreau to post later too — it’s rather astounding how relevant his words are still, in 2014.

Tonight, it’s off to see THE COLOR PURPLE — the musical:  http://va-rep.org/show_color_purple.html.  And then — off to New England and the Transcendentalists!

Summer slow down

 

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It’s not officially summer, but since school is out, it’s summer as far as I’m concerned. This particular summer has brought some changes, first and foremost a weight loss program that is long overdue.

For the past several years, I have told myself, not deceptively, that I am — to borrow a phrase from Elden Nelson, aka “Fatty” or “Fat Cyclist” (see his fabulous blog: fatcyclist.com ), “fat fit.”  In other words, though I am overweight, I am “fit,” cardiovascularly speaking.  And that’s true.  I am an avid though amateur cyclist, and in most seasons, I ride with some regularity, usually training for a long-distance event at summer’s end.  And up until very recently, blood work would support my fat/fit theory.  But this past year, at my annual check-up, my bad cholesterol level had inched up to the higher end of normal, closer to the unsafe level than I like.  A few other numbers weren’t as good as they had been either, and to make matters worse, I wasn’t riding, maybe as a result of last year’s training for Pan-Mass Challenge when, at times, I felt resentful of the need to train and wanted just to stay home and read, write, or do anything that wasn’t training.  So I stopped altogether, though from my perspective now, I don’t remember it being a conscious decision — but instead the need for intense training was over, and once fall arrived, school started back up and time became precious again.

 Perhaps even more critically, not only did I ride infrequently (i.e. 3 or 4 times all fall), I stopped working out regularly, too.  Again, not so much a conscious decision but something I let happen.    

Now, to further exacerbate the situation, the school year was a tough one. We had, this year, more than the average number of difficult situations with kids — suicide attempts, hospitalizations, abusive parents, even a cardiac arrest (NOTE: that student is doing well today, thankfully!).  We had difficult situations with teachers — our beloved musical theatre teacher suffered a stroke at age 34 (NOTE: he is making good progress…), a dear friend and English department colleague who shattered her ankle and missed the last two months of school (she is healing well now too). It just seemed that one thing happened after another with no time to process or heal or make sense of it all.  Topping it off, we missed weeks of school in the winter because of bad weather, and while that time should seem like a gift, truthfully, missing so many days makes the in-school time more difficult for a variety of reasons.  All in all, this has been the hardest year I remember in my twenty-nine years of teaching.  

So..instead of exercising, I was more inclined to come home, open a bottle of wine, pour a glass and flop onto the couch.  Day after day after day.  And thus, the inevitable weight gain.  

But now that school is over, I am motivated to do something about it, and I’ve started the Ideal Protein diet (you can read about it here: http://www.idealprotein.com and here: breckenridgechiro.com).  Three weeks in, and I’m down 14 lbs. and over 7 inches.  I’m ecstatic!  

I’ve noticed, too, some important changes that are accompanying this weight loss journey:

  • Becoming more mindful in general.   Because I have to prepare my food daily, because I can’t just grab something and go, I’m slowing down and becoming more mindful of what I eat and how I am spending my time.  Mindfulness is something I have consciously tried to cultivate in my life, but this year especially, I found myself carried along with the messiness of everyday life — doing, doing, doing but not reflecting, not being conscious at all.  The shift to mindfulness is noticeable and welcome. 
  • More energy!  Part of this diet’s protocol (for the beginning phases at least) requires me to give up alcohol.  Less wine means more energy — but the supplements I’m now taking and the much healthier eating habits are contributing to that, too.  More energy means more time to do the things I love, like writing and reading and working in the garden.  Now of course I knew that flopping on the couch with a glass (or 2 or 3) of wine wasn’t helping my evening energy level, but I’m a creature of habit, and once I established that habit of coming home and having a glass of Zinfandel or Cabernet, I started to look forward to it.  My stress levels told me I needed it when, of course, I didn’t.  So, cutting out the alcohol, as much as I love wine, has been beneficial to me in lots of ways, not the least of which is redirecting my habits and ways of dealing with stress.  

I’m sure I’ll discover more benefits as I continue with the program.  
Now, one potential drawback for this program is that exercise (at least most aerobic exercise) is prohibited too, so for now, I’m not riding.  Like the alcohol prohibition, it’s temporary, and I am definitely looking forward to hopping back on the bike and climbing hills with much less extra weight!  So for the immediate future, there will be no cycling posts.  Instead — many more writing posts, I hope! 

It’s funny how one change can influence so many others.  I didn’t anticipate a general improvement in my days simply because of a decision to lose weight, but of course everything we do is connected.  Being mindful about what I eat and drink helps me to be mindful when I approach my writing.  My friendships. My relationship.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see this play out in my life these days.  And as the summer continues, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.  

Happy summer!  

My Published Writing

I thought, maybe, I should add links to places where my writing has been published. Here’s one:

http://uwpress.wisc.edu/books/4622.htm

Here’s another:

http://www.amazon.com/Tied-Knots-Funny-Stories-Wedding/dp/B000T9OQV6

And then: (though I don’t think you can actually find my short story that was published some years ago): 

http://sotospeakjournal.org

One of my earliest pieces of published writing can be found here:

http://www.amazon.com/One-Teacher-Ten-Lesbian-Educators/dp/1555832636/ref=cm_cmu_pg__header

I’m most excited about my essay soon to appear here:

http://broadstreetonline.org

Check them out!  Let me know what you think. 

Snow Days and Huckleberry Finn…

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Here we are, another snow day — the 2nd one this week, actually. What a crazy winter!  This time, I have no work at home with me, so I’m cherishing these days as writing days.  

On Monday, my 11th graders are scheduled to have an in-class essay test on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I wondered, tongue in cheek, on a Facebook posting, how fantastic the essays might be because of these extra days to prepare… 

Of course I’m kidding.  

I suspect that my students, like me, like most of us probably, see snow days as a chance to lie around, watch back-to-back episodes of Law and Order: SVU, Castle, or NCIS.  Maybe, like me, they read a book just for fun.  Or, not like me, play video games or other computer games.  Maybe they bake stuff they normally don’t have time to bake or maybe they go outside and take a walk in the snow, or build snowmen and snow forts, have a snowball fight.  Maybe they just sleep.  

But however they decide to spend their snow days, in the best light, these days are gifts of extra time, a lull in our otherwise busy lives, maybe even a reminder to slow down.  Here in Virginia, we’ve been forced this winter to slow down a lot. 

I can’t say that I wasn’t thrilled to have temperatures hovering near 70 this past weekend.  Sunday was picture-perfect for the Groundforce IT Snowflake Ride (I guess we encouraged the snowflakes…) when about 300 of us cycled out from the Richmond Bicycle Studio into Ashland to race money for Richmond Cycling Corps, a fabulous organization that takes inner city kids and teaches them to ride bikes and, in some cases, to race.  How glorious the sun felt!  The warmth. But I have to say, these snow days, too, are lovely in their own way, like extra long weekends, terrific excuses to be lazy or self-indulgent.  It’s just that we’ve had so many of them this year!  

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind so much, except for the need to make up the school days.  Here in VA, we go by “seat hours,” and my school — Appomattox Regional Governor’s School — has a longer school day than most, so we get in a lot of seat hours.  We’ve been told that up until now, we’re OK and won’t need to make up time — though after yesterday and today, I’m no longer certain.  Still, how much inconvenience is two extra days, right?  Well — the inconvenience is much more than that.  Certainly, the theatre department is trying to decide whether or not our spring play – As You Like It – can still open next Friday (they are currently in the midst of tech rehearsals); English SOLs (Standards of Learning, the state-mandated tests) for 11th graders have been disrupted, which means that most likely, classes NEXT week will also be disrupted so students can take those tests.  

Certainly, we are all feeling the loss of classroom time.  We can’t read all the books we normally read — or we do, but we rush through.  We try to still teach the same content, convinced as we are that what we teach matters very much.  I say “we,” but maybe I should speak for myself!  Each year, snow days not withstanding, I struggle deciding which books I’d like to teach, the ones I feel I must teach, all the others I don’t have time for.  There are so many I don’t get to — no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Baldwin, no Morrison. 

And if time is shortened and something has got to go, what will it be?  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where we have our most profound discussions?  Sometimes those discussions are about race and sometimes, as they were this year, they are about the process of learning that, like Huck, what we’ve been taught by the adults in our lives isn’t always right.  We talk about Huck’s moral dilemma — his decision to help Jim escape, a decision he thinks is “wrong” because everything that a young boy is supposed to look up to and learn from, i.e. the “good” adults in his life, his church, his school, his government,  has been telling him that slavery is OK.  And while he never comes to the conclusion that slavery itself is wrong, he does come to the decision that if helping Jim — his friend — is wrong, he’ll “go to hell.”  

And then, a student asks me if I think there are things in our world today that might be similar?  We talk about growing up, how it’s an inevitable process to discover the things we grow up thinking are one way because that’s what we’ve been taught might not, in fact, be that way.  We find ourselves in the position of disagreeing with our parents, our churches, our teachers — and what do we do about it? How do we handle those disagreements, and what does it say about those people?  The student nearly gasps.  “We’ve been having that very conversation!”  she says, pointing to a friend who sits behind her.  It’s the beauty of literature, I tell her and the rest of the class.  We can grapple with those questions. Sure, we can talk about it in the abstract– how Huck comes to his decision to help Jim, why Hester doesn’t reveal Dimmesdale’s identity or more importantly, why Dimmesdale doesn’t confess,  or the way Gatsby insists that we can repeat the past — but ultimately, the hope is that we transfer those thoughts to ourselves and our own lives.  

It’s why we read. And why we write.  

OK — I think my post here took a detour — I think meant to write about the ways that the SOLs (the irony of that acronym…) force us to deal with snow days, the fact that the tests won’t be cancelled or changed in spite of losing so many school days to winter weather.  For teachers whose SOL tests are content-specific — math, history, science– they still have to “fit in” their content somehow.  And I guess I struggle with that enough on my own!  I hate giving up anything.  I hate more, though, that standardized tests don’t / can’t measure what matters most, what kinds of transformations students go through, or the kinds of understandings they come to.

Because in the long run, does it really matter if we have a certain number of days in school?  Will it really matter to these kids years from now, in the grand scheme of their lives, whether or not they missed a week of school?  It won’t.  

I need these snow days to help me remember that! 

 

Snow Days and Portfolios

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In my Fiction classes, students prepare portfolios that count as their exams.  They revise their work, write a “Reflective Cover Letter” that introduces the portfolio and explains their revision process, and they present their portfolio to the class.
These days are among my favorite teaching days.
I love hearing the students speak about their writing process, the deep (mostly) understanding they have of what works and what doesn’t work on the page, the ways in which their busy lives get in the way of their writing, their love of the craft, and their understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses.  While I won’t go on at length about it here (ahem), these portfolio presentations  and the reflective cover letters reveal radically more than any standardized test could possibly reveal about these kids and what they’ve learned.

I sit and listen, often in awe.  So far this year, I have listened to one Fiction class–a group of eight young women, all sophomores in high school, young women who have delighted me and frustrated me — as all students can (teachers, you can back me up on this!).  I have wondered how to help them go beyond their scenes-called-stories, how to push them to read literary fiction that they normally might not choose, how to understand what makes a story a story, how to use all the separate elements that constitute a good piece of fiction — all while retaining their love of writing.

This, people, is my dilemma.  It isn’t entirely new, because I struggle, too, with the same basic notion in my English classes — how NOT to turn English class into an I-hate-reading class.  I’m afraid that too often, kids come to us with a love of reading, and sadly, English class can ruin that love.  I don’t want my writing classes to do the same, but as one student wrote in her cover letter — and read out loud to the class: “…it makes me really sad that something I used to love to do has turned into homework…”  OUCH.  That broke my heart.

But isn’t it inevitable?  I told her I understood, and I didn’t want her writing to feel like “homework” either (although maybe it’s the way she considers homework; we didn’t have that conversation).  I asked the girls for suggestions — because they know and I know that they need deadlines.  And the teacher in me can’t let go of the idea that they need some structure too.  They understand that the prompts I give them are highlighting a certain aspect of writing — i.e. using setting to reveal emotion, or effectively writing flashbacks or dialogue.  And, I always say, if the prompts don’t speak to you, ignore them and write what you want — though I do insist that they try to highlight the skill I’m after.

This same girl wrote in her cover letter: “The most important thing I’ve learned in fiction over the past semester if that you can’t write fiction like it is real life…fiction has to exaggerate events. I think before I realized this, I was scared of […] inflating things too much, but since then, I’ve had a sort of epiphany and understand that there isn’t a story if you don’t.  […] In my opinion, my most successful piece so far is XXX [leaving out title for anonymity's sake -- PS]. I think that solely through dialogue, it has tension […]. I think readers are more inclined to like it because it lets them feel smart by being in on the scheme and figuring out the plot.”

Here are some more gems from these young writers:

“One of the most difficult things with writing fiction for me is believing in the story I am telling…”  WOW — how do you get this kind of insight at such a young age?  She goes on: “I try to write with feelings that I have had and I think those feelings are at the core of fiction.  Maybe we have never been forced to live in the coat closet of our aunt’s home or sailed down the Mississippi, but we have all felt neglected or known distrust.  Capturing those feelings, though, and weaving a story around them is hard.  I guess with practice and becoming more aware of who I am as a person and learn my feelings I’ll be able to apply them more in my writing…”  OK, done. This girl doesn’t need me.

Another: “I think one of the most difficult things about writing fiction for me has been trying to complete a full plot arc within a story. I often have trouble creating the sort of plot that can be confined to a short piece that still carries the appropriate amount of tension.”[SIDE NOTE: I think this particular girl is a born novelist!]. She continues: “One of the most helpful things I’ve learned is how important tension and realistic dialogue are to the integrity of a story.”

And one more: “The most influential story that we read this year was probably “The Things They Carried”  I had no personal connection to the story, yet I did.  I felt like I was there through all of it.  I felt the heartache and strife, and I want to make my readers feel that connection in my work.”

So how to continue pushing these creative thinkers beyond what they’re comfortable with?  I should admit that I also test them on the concepts covered in our text Writing Fiction:A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.  Again, the teacher in me wants to hold them accountable for what I assign as reading (same reason I give reading quizzes, too, on the short stories I assign).  And, I think there are students who, while they understand the concepts, can’t yet apply them in their own writing, and I want to give them credit for that.  And, finally, I also think students who have taken a Fiction I class should be able to definite and discuss with some ease things like plot, setting, scene and summary.  I think they should know how to write effective dialogue–what it can and can’t (or shouldn’t) do, what constitutes point of view.

And yet I’m also reminded of the Q & A my Fiction II students and I participated in with Ramona Ausubel (ramonausubel.com) at the VCU Cabell First Novelist Festival http://novelist.library.vcu.edu).  We were discussing her award-winning novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and the first person omniscient narrator, asking her if she worried about her particular choice of point of view, how she could explain that her first person narrator knew things that were happening far away from her — and she told us that she didn’t think about those things at all; she just wrote.

So I wonder.  Am I asking too much of my students?  Should I simply ask them to “just write?”  Because I’m too afraid that if I do, I won’t be teaching them anything, won’t be shortening their learning curve any.  I’m afraid that they will write what they’ve always written and they won’t stretch beyond their current capabilities.  I’m afraid that if I don’t, they won’t experience “epiphanies” about fiction vs. reality; they won’t ever pick up “The Things They Carried;” they won’t learn to see that tension is important to the integrity of a story.  But I don’t want them to feel as though writing is homework either.

On the Power of Art and other Christmas Musings

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Two nights ago, along with most everyone we knew in Richmond, VA, Cindy, Jonathan, Danielle, and I attended SPARC’s event, LIVE ART: Tree of Life at Richmond’s Landmark Theatre.  This was the second year of LIVE ART and last year, somehow, we weren’t in the loop and didn’t know it was happening. Boy, will we be sure never to make that mistake again! Here’s a description taken directly from the LIVE ART program to describe what LIVE ART is. “In 2012, SPARC (School for the Performing Arts in Richmond Community) piloted LIVE ART, an innovative new program inclusive of students with and without disabilities…Now in its second year, LIVE ART is a multi-disciplinary, inclusive, educational program.  For 11 months, students with a range of developmental disabilities (autism, Williams syndrome, Down syndrome), hearing and vision impairment have been working in performing arts classes alongside typically developing students.  Together they train in multiple disciplines of arts education: singing, painting, spoken poetry, technological visualizations, musical instrumentation, acting, and more. Tonight, you get to witness the culminating event of the program.  Over 160 students will perform alongside nationally-recognized, award-winning musicians who have donated their time to showcase the students and give them their moment in the spotlight…”

The nationally-recognized, award-winning musicians?  k.d. lang, Jason Mraz, Christina Perri, Robbin Thompson, Steve Bassett, René Marie, Josh Small,  Raining Jane, Daniel Clarke, Jesse Harper, Susan Greenbaum, Samson Trinh and The Upper East Side Big Band and narrator Richard Jenkins. 

And sure, part of the draw for those of us who didn’t have children performing were these big names — but the bonus once we got there, the big bonus we might not have even realized — the kids.  OK, picture this: the Landmark Theatre, newly renovated, with seating capacity for 3565 people — sold out.  Young people playing lively jazz as we enter.  (skipping the part about the fire alarm going off, delaying the start of the show…minor inconvenience) — and then — spotlight on a young boy at the piano.  He wears a dark suit.  An adult crouches nearby — his father maybe, or piano teacher, grinning, encouraging. The boy plays with heart; we’re with him, every note; we’re smiling, too, for his triumph, he’s still young this piano player.  We feel each note, feel the passion beneath the playing, and there’s a moment in the music when the echo of a note lingers, when the player pauses and the song might be over, and he rocks on the bench, he rocks through the audience’s beginning applause but then he picks up again, a strong note, louder, louder, he plays on to the rousing finish and we burst now into full-fledged applause and the boy, unable to contain his delight, jumps from his piano bench and runs circles in the middle of the stage and then leaps into the man’s arms.  We all, I’m sure of it, start our crying then.  

The entire night is one of triumphs.  I can’t take my eyes off the kids.  Yes, René Marie is singing, whom I’ve loved for years, her jazz vocals lifting all our spirits, we’re toe-tapping now, but it’s the kids — they’re dancing, some of them catching on every third or fourth or fifth step, but they’re all in this performance, they’re all creating art on this stage together and it’s beautiful and lovely.  There are the kids who sing in sign language — gorgeous and lyrical — the Ukulele Choir and the stunning “Dancing Fingers” ensemble, kids who, in pairs, “blindfold each other and work as a team to create a piece of visual art” — all to music.  There is the young boy playing a mean guitar who sings solo on Neil Young’s “Old Man” — we can’t get enough, his voice deep and throaty. There is k.d. lang singing “Hallelujah,” her voice filling the entire theatre, rising beyond us in the balcony, filling every corner, every space, and again (as I was most of the night), I’m crying; the emotion is overwhelming, this combination of music and dance and spoken word. I keep thinking what it must be like to see your child on that stage, what this performance means to them.  I keep thinking: why isn’t every educator seeing this?  Every member of the Department of Ed? Every politician who thinks he knows what is best for education? Every person who thinks that standardized testing is the way to go?  Every person who does not believe that inclusion works in schools?  Every Board of Ed who thinks that cutting the arts makes sense, that arts are a frivolous extra?

And I’m also thinking that this is Christmas right here.  The spirit of love and light, because, after all, that is what Christmas is about–isn’t it?  Letting in the light.  If putting up a tree with some decorations helps you let in the light, do it. If putting a wreath on the door helps you let in the light, do it.  If making cookies and singing songs brings the light to your heart, do it. Or wrapping presents.  Or believing in the story of a baby as a metaphor for hope.

But above all else, the way we let the light shine in these dark winter days and always is through love.  As Ebeneezer Scrooge famously said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” These artists, these kids in LIVE ART showed us how.  More than any church service could, this one evening revealed a truth that many of us probably already knew deep down. The trappings of Christmas aren’t important.  The gifts aren’t important.  None if it is important (don’t we learn that lesson in How The Grinch Stole Christmas?  That in spite of the Grinch’s best efforts, Christmas comes anyway, whether we want it to  — or are ready –or not?).  This performance demonstrated to me once again the power of art – and the deeper power of love and compassion.  Without love, there is no art (topic of another blog?).  The overwhelmingly positive power of the human spirit.So, as I sit here in my study, conflicted about how to celebrate Christmas, how much to give in to the season–loving the lights, the tree, even some of the traditions (I’m listening to The Messiah as I write this)–but not loving the stress, the expectations, the “shoulds”– I’m coming around to a slow understanding that Christmas, too, is a metaphor, a reminder for us to let in the light, to slow down and remember what is truly important.  Let in the light and the love.  Merry Christmas everybody!   

 

VCU English Department Graduation Speech — December 14, 2013

Here’s the text of the speech I gave yesterday at VCU’s English Department December graduation:

 

Thank you to Kathy Bassard and the VCU English Department for inviting me to speak at this graduation ceremony.  I’m honored to be here.  And, as have many speakers before me, I suspect–especially those, like me, who aren’t wildly famous–I wondered what I might be able to talk about, what I might be able to say that could inspire.  My first thoughts hovered around a discussion of the much-maligned humanities, a strident defense of the liberal arts, in which I am a firm believer.  But as a writer, I toil in specifics and not in generalities, and I’m not sure I have what it takes to engage you in that philosophical discussion–a fact for which I think you are already grateful. 

I’m all about story. So, , I’m going to tell you a story titled My Literary Life— or Why All That Time You Just Spent in Hibbs Will Turn Out To Be One of The Greatest Decisions Of Your Life.  

Once upon a time…when I started school, my mother bought me one of those personalized keepsake books, the kind with a plastic spiral binding and pockets for report cards and school memorabilia, “Patty’s School Years” it was called.  For each section, there was a place to paste the school picture, list teachers, classes, and new friends, and for the elementary years, what you wanted to be when you grew up.  In my book, from first grade on, the box next to “school teacher” is checked (I had a momentary lapse in kindergarten when I thought I might want to be a nurse).   From my vantage point now, I can tell you that I always wanted to be an English teacher specifically, though when I played school at home with a two-sided portable chalkboard, for some reason I drew math problems on the board. Not sentences or words, not phrases or quotes — math problems.  

I’m not sure why. 

Except math has clear answers and the problems could be written simply.  I didn’t know how to write on the board the kinds of investigations I was most interested in, or how to phrase the essential questions that engaged me in school, even from that very young age.  And I think maybe that when I was playing at teaching–my stuffed animals sitting dutifully in rows on my bed–I thought that teaching meant knowing all the answers and the answers I was sure of came in the form of math problems.

In real school English classes, there were small epiphanies: In 10th grade, the revelation that we could “read” movies the same way we could read a book, a lesson learned watching On The Waterfront with our teacher’s careful guidance.  In 11th grade, the word “ephemeral” and my teacher’s obvious disappointment that none of us had looked up the word, integral as it was to our understanding of a text; And in 12th grade, the realization that setting, too, could be a character, a discovery made with Hardy’s Return of The Native.  There were, of course, all the human characters: George and Lennie, Scout and Jem, Holden Caufield, Pip and Miss Havisham, the unlikely friendship of Reuvan Malter and Daniel Saunders in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.  I was drawn to literature and to stories and those glimpses into the human condition that I couldn’t have explained back then. But I was also drawn to language, and a recent perusal of that School Days memory book revealed early successes with writing–a short story award in junior high, a couple of stories I wrote in a creative writing elective in 11th grade.  Still, I never imagined I might become a writer; I didn’t see that as a choice I might be able to make.  Teaching was a clear choice, and through my subsequent years of teaching, I wrote–sometimes during free periods, sometimes before or after school.  Often, I took workshops in summers.

One summer, I was lucky enough to study writing with Grace Paley at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. And as it happens in a lot of summer writing workshops, a few of us were teachers.  One teacher got to complaining about her students and how lazy they were.  “Oh no,” Grace said, emphatically.  “They’re not lazy.” She shook that famous head of wild, white hair, her dark eyes serious. “They’re not lazy,” she said again. “They don’t yet know how great they can be.”

Fast forward some years when life circumstances were right for me to head south to VCU, to enter the MFA program where I could finally learn what I needed to know to become a writer. I was considerably older than most of my MFA peers, coming to this dream late in life. How I cherished my time in the program, but three years flew by all too quickly.  Somewhere in the back of my mind lingered those words from Grace Paley–they don’t yet know how great they can be.  It’s a difficult thing, chasing a dream. And maybe because I came to this point in my life with so many years of teaching already behind me, I had a tough time shedding my identity as a teacher.  I always saw–and still see–myself as a teacher first and then a writer.  Still, my writing dream was nourished deeply here with Bill Tester, Marita Golden, Elizabeth Hodges, Tom DeHaven.

At VCU, after completing my MFA and while teaching full-time in the English department, I answered an email request to help admit students into the Literary Arts Department at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology in Petersburg.  What fun, I thought, and when I walked through the door, I had that feeling that this was the high school I always wished I had gone to. What if, I kept telling myself, I had known all those years ago that becoming a writer was possible?  What if, alongside the box for “school teacher,” there had been another one marked “writer?”  What if, in my imagination, I had been able to see a clear pathway that might lead me to Writer-hood?   And what if, now, I could help other kids find that path much sooner than I found it? And maybe, I told myself, I could lurch forward on that very same path along with them.  Maybe, I thought perhaps a bit too hopefully, teaching and writing wouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

 I told the Department Chair—a fellow VCU MFA alum—“If you ever have any openings, give me a call.”  She did, and I have been there for seven years.

Now before you despair, before you think: great, the whole point of this story is that teaching is what I can do with an English degree don’t worry, it’s not–though clearly I can imagine no other life for myself. I am one of those people who, when parents ask: “What can she do with a major in English?” answers –anything at all.  And here I’m going to quote writer Verlyn Klinkenborg from his op ed piece in the New York Times, “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.”  He writes: “What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.”

What drew me to reading and writing all those years ago, what draws me still is that a life spent reading and writing is a life spent wide awake.  I don’t mean that in the literal not-asleep-in-a-bed-sense, but in the fully engaged with what is around me sense.  We think of these activities as solitary–and they are—but writing requires a clarity of vision that only comes when you are awake to your own existence. Even in her solitary life, no one was more fully alive than Emily Dickinson, a fact revealed through her poetry and the deep focus with which she regards both the life around her and inside her own head.  Reading, I argue with my students now, requires engagement.  You can’t be a passive reader the same way you can be, for example, a passive television watcher.  Reading forces you to grapple at least with the words on the page.  It’s how we make meaning from texts. I despair less when I know young people are readers. 

A literary life–whether teaching, or writing, or continuing a lifelong engagement with literature– is a life worth living. And here in Richmond, VA, if you choose to stay in this area, it’s easy to live a rich literary life. The offerings are many: The James River Writers, VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, the VCU Visiting Writers Series, the U of R Reading Series — all right here, all free and open to the public.

And as for me — I’m still writing—nonfiction, some short fiction, still trying to get a novel out into the world.  I hope I’m helping my students see themselves as writers. I hope I’m giving them the opportunity to envision themselves and their future in ways I could not conceive at their age. May you all realize sooner rather than later how great you can be. Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg asserts, “is much more than a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.” Developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you. I don’t know what could be better than that.