Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's in Your Pocket? -or- An All Points Literary Advisory

Consider today’s post as an All-Points Literary Advisory, with a splash of fashion advise. It’s National Poem in Your Pocket Day, and official organizational literature indicates that the general public should be on the alert for clustered groups of troubadours, bards, and average citizens assembled for readings in parks, libraries, schools, workplaces, and bookstores. I’d hate to think of any of my readers turning up with empty pockets should an impromptu Unfolding break out at your place of business.

I realize that perhaps I’ve failed to get this out to you in time for much advance planning. Perhaps you’re reading this right now at your desk, poemless, sans pockets even, and panicking ever so slightly as you see a small gathering forming at the water cooler. Relax. Let’s work through this together. If you’re fortunate enough to have a favorite poet, go online and print off a poem. If you have no poetry preferences, just google a poet—any one will do: use a name you remember from freshman comp, go back mentally to high school if you must. Frost. Dickinson. Pound. Just pick one, and print off something vaguely pocket sized—don’t worry if you don’t have an actual pocket, I’m sure a purse, wallet, or shoe will do, in the spirit of the thing.

As for me, I’m a William Carlos Williams enthusiast, but a quick online check doesn’t summon my favorite of his works, The Flower, but no matter—that’s a little larger-than-pocket sized anyway. Today I’ll go with:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

--William Carlos Williams

And, see, just like that, I’m prepared. I’ll have Williams at the ready to brandish at will should the need arise. You should get prepared, too--I won’t keep you. And just in case you’re afraid of going through all the trouble of arming yourself with literature only to suffer the disappointment of not stumbling upon a Great Unfolding—fear not. You already have! Let’s see what you’ve got…

Friday, April 24, 2009

All Tied Up And Not Sure Where to Go

“There’s something about a school that just ties up your heart.”

These words, a quote from Generic Middle School’s founder, are displayed on a banner inside the school’s main entrance. From my art teaching days, I already knew the truth behind the sentiment—I understood how teaching puts your heart at risk for serious investment in the lives and successes of the kids we spend so much time with each day.

I always knew that during my internship—completed exactly a week ago—I would grow to care for my new students, and from day one, I understood that my last day would likely be bittersweet. But knowing from the start that my time in this classroom was destined to be brief, I wasn’t sure how attached I’d become to my temporary students.

When I was in high school, I recall having a student teacher in my English class, but matter how hard I try, I can remember only one or two vague and insignificant details about her. I seem to recall that she spoke in a small, mousy voice—no doubt she was scared to death—and that she said “spur-IT-ual” when she meant “spiritual,” which I found a little odd. I think her first name was Kelly. Remembering this at the beginning of my own student teaching experience made me feel a little sad. I was about to invest myself in teaching some kids who were likely destined to forget all about my time with them. However, another thought popped into my head that I decided to embrace as a challenge: be memorable. Form that moment forward, I determined to invest fully in my students and strive to be someone they’d remember for having a positive influence on them, even if it was just for a short time.

I passed out copies of my books like they were worksheets (I didn’t pass out many of those. Worksheets you must grade. I’m adverse to grading). I held a lunch time literature circle; we drank tea and ate cookies, and I discovered stories that I’d written all over again through their eyes. It was fabulous. I implemented a vocabulary voucher system where students earned coupons that they could spend on all kinds of perks: candy, quiz points, custom Crayola crayons. The kids spoke in strictly vocabulary words for an entire week. They wove vocabulary words into journal entries so long that I had to modify and, eventually, phase out the program because I couldn’t keep up with the paperwork (remember my aversion to same?). All day, every day, I made it a point to make the events in our room memorable.

Last week, it all came to an end. There was cake, and gifts—a really classy leather notebook, a hat form my university, and an alumni mug, which I’ve decided to refrain from using until I’ve really earned it in a few weeks. There was also the discovery that now former students are actually afraid that I will forget them. They presented me with a notebook full of notes and cards expressing all of the things they’ll remember about my time with them, with so many of the letters ending with the plea, “please don’t forget us!”

They have nothing to worry about. Those kids will be with me for some time to come. The tears I shed on the drive home served to reinforce the accuracy of the school founder’s statement: you risk losing a piece of your heart every time you step in a classroom. I know this is true—heck, I even love that it’s true. Moments like these make me wish that all I ever wanted was a classroom of my own; that I could find complete professional fulfillment in being a teacher. That I didn’t feel the desperate urge to write, that I didn’t have to swallow down annoyance every time I hear someone refer to me as a teacher (I’m a writer, dang it, a writer!). Life would be so much simpler.

But maybe it isn’t as complicated as I seem to make it. I remember one my first newspaper assignments, when I interviewed a regionally prominent glass artist. Before her success as an artist, my subject worked as a real estate agent. But real estate, she explained, “wasn’t enough.” This I understood, the refusal to “settle” for a standard career when the obsession, the passion to create was so intense. She didn’t work with glass because she wanted to: she created art because she needed to. What I found fascinating, though, was that even after building a durable career working in a fragile medium, my artist didn’t let go of the real estate. Glass alone wasn’t enough, either. Without either one—the glass or the real estate--she claimed she wouldn’t be complete.

I, too, am learning to embrace this concept of dual-identity, that you don’t have to be identified in singular terms; that you can be wholly artist and wholly real estate agent, or teacher, or writer, just like you can be wholly wife without losing ground as a mom. Perhaps, then, life has a little more “give” than I expected. Maybe it can expand to hold more roles than I thought. It could be that I don’t need to get so hung up on whether I’m a writer who teacher or a teacher who writes. Figuring out how it all plays out is likely for another day, a different post. Maybe for now it is enough to know that really digging school life doesn’t have to diminish my prospects as a writer.

I went back to visit my students yesterday. I breezed in, gave so many hugs my arms nearly hurt, and then it was time to go. It felt good to be in the classroom again, but today is all about the writing. I will always write because I have to—I teach when I can because my heart got a little tied up somewhere along the way. And it’s all pretty good.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Apparently I Am an Avid Reader Again

Currently in vogue: the world of print. I've been reading voraciously, and have added the Corner Shelf feature to the left to share my picks while the trend continues. Think of it as a virtual lending library, of sorts. Except that you'll have to track the books down yourself.

Here's today's literary snapshot:

In My Hands:
The Truth About Forever-Sarah Dessen

In My Car CD Player:
The Friday Night Knitting Club- Kate Jacobs

On My Coffee Table:
Adventure Travel, April/May 09
National Geographic Traveler Nov/Dec 08

Recommended Read for April:
A Thousand Splendid Suns- Khalad Hosseini

Worth a Look:
Holy Discontent-Bill Hybels

I'm even thinking about tackling another classic via My Daily Lit Care to join me?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Art Day

It’s 7:55 one morning late last week and I’m perched atop a wheeled step ladder in the middle of an inclined hallway taping mixed media self portraits to the upper reaches of the walls. Not exactly a routine day in my rotation at Generic Middle School. For me, it was Art Day.

With my student teaching experience all but complete, I was loaned out to the art department for the day, a turn of events not nearly as random as it may sound. Weeks ago, I let it slip that I actually might not be interested in teaching English; that I’ve been plodding along the whole time with a double agenda. See, I chose to pursue English certification, well, for the English credentials associated with having a master’s degree in the field. Basically, I wanted to be able to teach an occasional freshman comp course at the local Community College with a view toward boosting my stock as a writer. Just check out the dust jackets of any best sellers you happen to have kicking around your house. I’m willing to wager that, to a book, all that literature has been penned by an author who--as the jacket blurb will attest-- moonlights at some university or other. Feel free to test me on the theory. As I write this, I’m reaching for a New York Times best seller I picked up at the library mere hours ago. Knowing absolutely nothing about the author and never having read a word of her work, I’m confidently cracking the spine and—lo and behold—I’m about to read a Booklist top pick written by a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who now teaches creative writing at said alma mater. See, that’s how it works. But I digress.

With my attention solidly focused on becoming a Serious Author with a Standing University Gig, say, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the state teaching licensure that comes with my masters program. It’s not that I’m adverse to middle schoolers—rather the opposite, actually—it’s just that I find the job I’ve been performing for the past 10 weeks to be a little, um, overwhelming. From morning attendance to afternoon dismissal, papers are flying across my desk in all directions-- all needed to be graded and logged; hands are shooting in the air, invariably attached to someone needing a complete lesson review, medical attention, or counseling; and—most alarming of all—there’s the perpetual stream of state-mandated assessments, assessment “predictors,” or post assessment assessments requiring immediate administration. It’s an environment frankly not conducive to creativity.

But on Art Day? The minute I stepped through the door beside the faux stained glass window, I was Home. Flooded with natural light from a bank of well placed windows, the studio was a showcase of color and life. Color wheels! Plants! Large reproductions of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Colorful masks. A kiln firing in the back of the room. Students gasping in wonder at an optical illusion. This—this I could do all day, in any school, anywhere—and still have the mental fortitude to craft prose.

Which brings me to my double agenda. I’ve known all along that after you secure state certification of any kind, it’s a relatively simple matter to tack on an additional endorsement area to your license, provided you know the subject and can answer a hundred or so questions on a standardized test. Which is why I was sent to spend a day in the art room—to see if I still feel like returning to my pre-masters program role in which I thrived, part-time for 6 years.

Which means that my new, post-grad school life would ideally look a lot like my former, pre-grad school life. A healthy dose of art, spilling seamlessly from the canvas to the printed page. Except with better pay and more opportunities. And that might even sound better to me than that University Gig, no matter how it reads on a dust jacket.

Which was all well and good until a couple of my English students found me in the art hall and threatened to take my duct tape, bind me to the wheeled step ladder and deposit me back in the English room.

Interesting as that might be, I fear it might be an exercise in futility.

I sense a renaissance coming on.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Peeking in My Classroom Door, Part II

If you happened past my classroom at Generic Middle School around 2:30 a couple Fridays back, you would have heard me concluding a lesson on “signal words”—you know, verbiage like, "on the other hand," "first," or "finally," which serve as structural tip-offs about, say, the comparative or sequential nature of a given text.

“So,” I said, by way of a lesson wrap-up, “who knows a signal word that might come in handy the next time you encounter an unfamiliar passage?”

A hand shot up at the back of the room. I was pleased to see that it belonged to a student who wasn’t a typical responder and I took his enthusiastic spirit of volunteerism as a sign that I was on my “A” game.

At least until he sincerely and confidently offered his three-letter response: “SOS.”

Monday, April 13, 2009

Out to Lunch

"What do you mean, New York?” my daughter said as she slumped into a pathetic little heap on top of her duffel bag and other assorted travel items. “I thought we were going to a birthday party!”

I explained that we were celebrating my grandmother’s birthday at Little Venice, a restaurant with which my daughter is well acquainted from my childhood lore and a single visit of her own over five years ago. My daughter listened in disbelief. “So we’re driving over twenty one hours this weekend--for lunch?” she asked, weakly.

In a nutshell, yes. Yes, we spent nearly half of a 48-hour period in the car with the sole purpose of gathering around a table with thirteen family members—most of whom had traveled over 2 and a half hours themselves—to enjoy some traditional Italian fare.

But oh, it was worth it! I’ve sucked down slices of piping-hot pizza in Rome, eaten pasta in Padova, and indulged in gelato and tiramisu in tiny out-of-the-way Italian eateries, but I’ve never tasted sauce equal to what they’ve kept simmering in a little kitchen in New York’s southern tier for my entire lifetime. The unmistakable aroma! The tangy tomatoes! According to restaurant literature (OK, so what if it’s just the place mats?) only 6 people have ever known the recipe and just 3 remain today. Three! In light of Coke’s current Two Guys commercial in which their secret formula is shared by a pair of guys in lab coats who fall ominously prone, I’m frankly concerned, despite the fact that sauce today tastes the same as it did when I was ten.

The faithful and consistent reproduction of this Very Special Sauce affords me the opportunity to travel, in a single bite, to the days when my grandfather would summon our family over the Ham radio and tell us to get dressed for dinner. We’d pile into his Lincoln and a half hour later the table would be laden with bread and pasta, a meal that was never complete until it was topped off with a crème de menthe parfait.

But about that pasta? Let’s talk manicotti. Outside of Little Venice’s thin, homemade crepes overstuffed with light, fluffy ricotta smothered in said sauce, that baked pasta dish simply does not exist. There is no equivalent, no close approximation. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that you’ve likely never had manicotti, and if that is, indeed, the sad state in which you find yourself, please run, don’t walk to the phone. Make some reservations. Plan a culinary weekend road trip of your own.

As I explained to my daughter—citing a group of people I remember from my days at Philadelphia’s Eastern University who used to drive to Chicago for pizza as evidence—it’s not without precedent to drive all weekend for a single meal, anyway.

Maybe Italian isn’t your thing, but I hope that there’s a meal out there somewhere that you’d drive all weekend for. Better yet, I hope that memories of enjoying that meal in the company of family and friends make the flavors all the sweeter and that your experience is shared with people with whom you will savor new memories for at least as long as you crave the flavors.

If you’re lucky enough to have a 700 mile meal, I hope you’ll share it in a comment—even if you haven’t actually logged the miles to order it. I’d love to hear what you’d be willing to drive for if given the opportunity.


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