28 February 2011

Non-teachers often ask me about the state of writing and reading in schools today. I think they expect me to toss out stories about cell phones and video games and television and computers destroying teens’ attention spans. While there may be some truth to this, the state of the written word is alive and well if Writers Week at our school is any indication. Each year, we invite about a dozen writers from across the country to our campus to share their work. Students and teachers do the same. I’d thought I’d use this forum to offer a few highlights each day. I’ll list lines here and there that may not be verbatim, but I tried. If the lines don’t make sense, it’s me, my memory, my poor transcription skills. Or My-Bad for not offering enough context. (“My bad” is not something I usually say, but I’ve always wanted to. I probably didn’t use it quite correctly. Sorry.)

Day 1 Monday

Poet and freelance writer and neo-Futurist (look it up; it’s pretty cool) Mary Fons kicked the week off for us, as she’s done many times. She brings an energy at 7:30 a.m. that is unmatched. Everyone loves her. Her work holds up on the page, and she comes alive on stage.

“Poems are like jewels I keep in an imaginary box.” 

“You can make a living as a writer. Writing can put you in shoes.” (She wore some high-kicking ones.)

“If you’re low on money, give a poem (for a wedding present). If you really care about someone, poems and quilts mean something.”

“Writing helps you figure things out about your own life—and about the world.”

She’ll perform at the Green Mill in Chicago on March 13th, if you want to check out her work.

Next up was Julie Halpern, author of the novel, Get Well Soon, about a teen in a mental hospital. She recently received an award from the National Alliance of Mental Illness, so her work rings true not only to teens but to professionals. Julie came to WW last year too. She’s personable and honest and self-deprecating. You can imagine being her friend. When someone asks her what she does, she rarely answers, “I’m a writer,” afraid of sounding pretentious. I know exactly what she means. I usually tell people I teach. I couldn’t be more proud of being a writer, but it’s such an exalted title for me (and apparently for Julie too) that I don’t know if I live up to it, which sounds pretentious again. Let me try this: “Writer” is a label to which I’ve always aspired. It’s a label that, to me, signifies a looking ahead. Writers can’t rest on what they’ve written. On the other hand, I believe that anyone who writes, is a writer. I feel like I’m speaking in circles. If some writer out there wants to chime in, now would be the time.

Good Halpern line: “If you’re [a teen] in a mental hospital with fifteen teens, love blooms.”

“Find how you write best. If you type fast, type. To me, it (words typed) all looks the same. When I write by hand, I can underline...”

We also had about 25 students read today. Topics ranged from a cousin’s suicide, a brother’s death, to a hilarious persuasive argument decrying the use of the school’s pulper, or garbage compacter. I feel uncomfortable listing student names here, so I’ll list some favorite lines. If you are the student and want to claim the line, please do.

In a “letter” written to a girl, a composite actually: “You’re always right, no matter how wrong you are.”

On happiness: “We have the damn right to pursue it.” I’m not doing this justice. The lead-up to the line was developed and the delivery was rousing.

A dialogue. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. I just want to be...We’re all part of this great museum.”

Same student, on skin color: “A teardrop from you must taste the same.”

“I felt so fragile and breakable until I realized you were fragile and breakable.”

“Hope is hard to hold.”

From a young man whose family had emigrated from Ethiopia, about a recent trip back, speaking about a boy he met: “I gave him my shoes, my socks. I took the shirt off my back.” His mother cried and said something in her native tongue: “You have become a true Ethiopian.” Quite touching.

All in all, students played with sound, rhythm, metaphor, symbolism, pacing, plotting, argument, narrative, and more. At least in my small world, I don’t worry about the demise of the art of language.

20 February 2011

Because he will be at our school in ten days, I’m trying to read three Jonathan Eig books at the same time. Not physically at the same time, of course, though wouldn’t that be handy? If you’ve ever seen Rain Man, the story is based on a man who possessed some of the remarkable skills portrayed in the movie. That man was born without a corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres. As a result, he was able to read opposite pages of a book at the same time because his two brains operated independently. I’m not envious, but I am fascinated, and I wonder about other limitations we have that we’re wholly unaware of.

The three Eig books are about Al Capone, Jackie Robinson, and Lou Gehrig, respectively. All three are fascinating and beautifully written (on that count I am envious, but it’s the kind of envy that pushes me to my desk to write, so thank you, Jonathan). At first glance, I thought Capone would be the most interesting story of the three, and while his exploits pull me along, I’m mostly repelled by his brutality and arrogance. I keep my distance, nix his charisma. And when I think of Gehrig, I can’t help thinking of Gary Cooper’s portrayal, but as it turns out, Yankee fans weren’t all that enamored of Gehrig because he was unassuming. I’m not as far along in his story, but I’m anxious to read more. The book I pick up most often is the one about Jackie Robinson. His brother competed in the 1930s Olympics, came in second to Jesse Owens, and returned home to sweep streets. Robinson himself played football, baseball, basketball, tennis, and ran track, yet he couldn’t rent a hotel in cities in which his teams played. The book is a fascinating tale about his resilience and about American’s stubborn small-mindedness, which still plagues us today. But I know what draws me back to the book. I’m for the little guy. I don’t mean this literally, even though admittedly I am never the tallest person in the room. (Only when I visit my parents do I feel giant-like.) I’m for the underdog, is what I mean, the one with great odds against him, who persists and prevails, with emphasis on the former because we only hear about the ones who succeed.

I should have ended this February 20th entry with that last sentence, maybe adding a line about persistence being the reward in itself, but I’m tired of that measly response. Instead, I will end on a tangent. Coupled with my rooting for the underdog is my dogged sense of fairness (maybe this ain’t such a tangent after all). For example (and now the tangent), I’m tired of animated movies employing the voices of famous actors and actresses. I know these people are talented and known and more likely to bring in revenue, but there are hordes of talented people with trained voices who could use a break and who would bring to these movies the same intensity and proficiency. Why do the big jobs keep going to the same people? It’s a closed, stifling circuit. The world should operate more like t-ball, where everyone gets a chance. If you want a more cogent, thorough argument about these ideas, read Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in The New Yorker on college rankings, another preposterous, self-generating system that rewards those who have already succeeded and leaves no wiggle for the little guy to stretch up and peek around and get noticed.
15 February 2011

I just got back from a pleasant visit at the Arlington Heights Library. We talked about the creative process, memories, immigration, and finally made our way to food, which was appropriate since I was reading from my book, If You Eat, You Never Die.

Why do Italians value food so highly? someone asked. As I’ve learned after many years of teaching, “their” answers are usually better than anything I can come up with, so I held back and let them bounce around ideas: to create community, to show love, to feel, to connect with sustenance in a direct and healthy way. I added a few things, but I forgot to mention that for many Italians (and this is not exclusive to us), cooking is a creative act: blending and sifting and stirring, hands touching canvases of many sorts. And then we get to eat the creation!

I’m left with a couple of other thoughts after reading. Always this: I feel when I read my work aloud that I’m reconnecting with old friends. I’m not psychotic, I’m not delusional in any way (though if I were, I might not quite know), but the illusion is still potent.

The other thought: what a spectacular library. When I was a kid, I never stepped foot in a library. Most of my reading was done on my front stoop, and this image evokes many pleasant memories. But when my oldest daughter was young, we lived within walking distance of a library. She’d reach up with her little hand, and we’d amble several blocks, pass the sucker store (7-11), and march to the library, taking in its sharp fragrances and long stacks. It was a place to escape but also find yourself.

I want to go back. 
10 February 2011

For years I’ve avoided reading Dave Cullen’s book, Columbine, because I knew it would be a hard read. I work in a school, I have kids, I become immersed when I read. I didn’t want to feel such loss, even from the safety and distance of my armchair. I’d read about the book and about the shootings, enough to keep me informed and on alert as a responsible teacher and parent. But Cullen is coming to our school in a few weeks to speak, and I feel an obligation to him and to the many students who will hear him. We do our utmost to prepare audiences for our annual Writers Week, and I needed to do my homework.

The book is carefully structured and meticulously researched. Cullen’s main objective as a reporter is to set the record straight, and he achieves this with compassion and insight, leading the reader down every dark corner. I found my rage shifting from the two young killers to their parents to law enforcement officials who ignored not only signs but direct threats—but ultimately back to the killers. I’m uncomfortable with that rage but won’t deny it. The marvel of the book is that Cullen provides lessons, puts the reader’s rage in perspective. This kind of tragedy doesn’t have to happen again.

The most fascinating parts for me are the psychological aspects: why we were so eager to believe in the myths that cropped up within hours of the massacre (to make us feel safe); why we believed that the killers were targeting particular groups or people (they weren’t); how psychopaths operate and why they’re so successful at manipulating others (they’re not like everyone else, and finding new ways to understand and help them is vital—and the help doesn’t have to derive from compassion or forgiveness; a yearning to keep kids safe is sufficient).

It’s a sad, sad book. Hard to get through but harder to put down. I think it should be required reading. Even though it haunts.