The Box



Things found in a box under my parents’ bed: 

1. Booklet: Cardiac Resynchronization Therapy: A Patient’s Guide. 
2. Three booklets, in Italian, on St. Gabrielle. 
3. AARP Magazine, with Robert Redford on cover. 
4. Medicare receipts. Bank receipts. 
5. Expensive looking mass card to heal the sick, to my mom. 
6. 8x10 photo of my sister with her ex-husband at their wedding. 
7. Oggi Magazine 
8. St. Anthony calendar, in Italian. 
9. Birthday card for my dad’s 80th. 
10. Another cardiac booklet. 
11. Copies of wills. 
12. Booklet on Madonna di Canneto. 
13. AARP member benefits handbook.
                  And at the bottom of the box…

14. My two books. 

Here’s how I inscribed to them When the World Was Young:  Mama and Papa, Vorrei ringraziarvi per avermi datto l’opportunita di essere venuti qui in America, per la possibilita’ di andare ala universita, e per tutti i sacrafici che avete fatto per tutti noi.  Love, Tonino 

Rough translation: Thanks for coming to America and for all the sacrifices you made for us. 

Each item is still infused with the sweet fragrance of their house. But what I keep coming back to of course are the books. Why the heck were they buried? After finding them there, I hoped this was a box of treasures they wanted to preserve, but the contents attest otherwise. It’s tempting to search for metaphor or symbolism in their placement, but I can’t find any that resonate for me. The reason doesn’t run deep, I’m sure. They were probably just looking for a secure spot. 

A few certainties emerge though. My parents and I occupied different worlds. Theirs was forged by strong and nimble hands, the results tangible and solid, while I have lived in a world of ideas. They lived in the moment, rarely reflecting. I live in my head. They valued the corporal pleasures of eating and staying warm and sleeping, as we all must, but this was paramount to them, while I’d maintain that my needs are more varied. When I teach Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the one typically accompanied by a pyramid visual aid, I always add my parents’ rendition, where the bottom two levels representing physiological and safety crowd out everything else. Forget belongingness and self-esteem and self-actualization. As long as there was food on the table and a roof over your head (or a hat covering your ears or long underwear keeping you warm), the world was a fine place. 

I do wish we had had more in common, that they would have wanted to take in a show or a concert now and then. But they were content to eat and walk and watch a little television. Maybe there’s a lesson in this for me.

The air is festive in the week before spring break. But there’s also a letdown—in studying, in attention, in students’ concerns over their quarter grades. Teachers avoid giving their final tests of the quarter on Friday because attendance is an issue (it’s a week, people, not a week and a day), so students end up taking 19 tests on Thursday. Sorry to pile on. I was impressed that not a single student was absent in one of my morning classes on Friday, though I was missing about half in another. 

A Beatles song comes to mind: I used to get mad at my school / The teachers who taught me weren’t cool / You’re holding me down / Turning me round / Filling me up with your rules / (But spring break arrives and) / It’s getting better all the time. 

Thursday tests worked out for some students who went to the midnight show of Hunger Games. They could sleepwalk through an easy Friday, they probably thought, though none appeared tired. 

Friday before break is often a throwaway, but I decided we’d have an ordinary class and discuss birth order. Here’s the general consensus from each group. Firstborns said they were burdened with expectations and urged to be role models for their younger siblings. They also claimed they were better looking. Only children were content. They had close ties with their parents and got along well with adults. Youngest admitted they were spoiled and used tactics to get their way that oldest children could never use. Middle children? We almost forgot about them. They liked that they were able to hide in plain sight and they agreed that they were good negotiators. 

And now begins our well deserved break.

As my father used to say, without a trace of sarcasm in his voice, "Your mother, they no make like her no more." 

She was one tough woman, always moving, indestructible we thought. Still hard to believe she has passed from this life. 

We tried to get her to pause a few times, to jot down a recipe or two, but that proved impossible. My daughters even planned a cooking day, where they could watch her hands measure and pour. But it was like trying to slow down Michelangelo so you could recreate one of his paintings. Even when we did capture the precise ingredients and did follow the exact steps, our finished meal turned out like child's play. It's like she had magic pots or an enchanted oven. She gave us the ingredients, but she'd forgotten to teach us the spell maybe. Best choice was to sit back and enjoy the meal. And we did plenty of that.

The same magic happened in her backyard garden, where beanstalks soared toward the sky and cucumbers grew crisp and hearty. Like they were trying to make her proud. And the flowers! Neighbors would stop to admire the tall dahlias and the many rose beds of pink and red and yellow. She offered to dig and replant a dahlia in my own yard, but I knew this was futile too because I didn't have magic dirt. 

Here's the secret though. There were no spells, no incantations, no special waving of the hands—oh, those hands, those magnificent hands that could pull a hot tray from the oven without mitts. What she had was patience, a kind of religious patience that rewarded her each year with celestial abundance. She knew that if she nurtured these beans in this bowl—and this was a particular kind of bowl too that she intuitively knew would work best—and if she kept them in a cool, dry place over winter, those same beans would be bountiful in the hot days of July. 

These two great pursuits of hers, cooking and gardening, which seemed flurried and manic when viewed from a distance, were actually deliberate and measured and fueled by great faith and love. 

Now what? We have one small bag of her cavatelli in the freezer, which has become sacred. We found faded scraps of recipes in her kitchen, blotched with oil and smeared with flour, which have also become sacred. I'm not sure how these scraps will help us because even with her direct instruction, we couldn't recreate the meals. But my family is devoted to trying. We will decipher these found scraps, try to recapture what we can: the savor of her crunchy taralli or the texture of her cavatelli, the moistness of her stuffing maybe, though that seems impossible. 

Again, the effort is futile. I know this. We don't possess her steadfast patience, her unremitting faith. But it's a noble pursuit, I think. And one day we, with mitts, will pull from the oven a perfect tray of taralli, taking in the full aroma of fennel in those glorious circles of baked dough, though we won't quite know how we did it. But we will chew slowly and call back sweet memories, imagining the abundance of her table that we thought would never end. We will realize with each bite that we were right. And we will smile. Nothing would have pleased my mom more.
We spent the week discussing the many fascinating and quirky ideas of Sigmund Freud, some of them simply outlandish. When I first began student-teaching over three decades ago, Freud was my initiation, my first unit. And when you’re young and diligent and scared shitless, you over-prepare. Which has served me well in my career because while the youth has vanished, the other two have remained fairly constant—okay maybe I’m not quite scared shitless anymore, but I do still worry about walking into a class unprepared, which is why I never do. 

Because Freud was my first, and you never forget your first, I always feel a degree of comfort when teaching him. While the material hasn’t changed, I still find ways to keep the material fresh, probably for my own sake so that I don’t go mad. For example, when talking about his psychosexual stages, I show pictures of me as a kid at each stage, which gives me a chance to show off my cuteness, which peaked at about age seven. 

Because some of his ideas are so ridiculous and extreme, I do marvel that they gained traction. No one else was willing to write about sexuality so openly during his Victorian time, so there is that. And he was prodigious; sometimes we pay attention to sheer volume. But I do wonder if there was some obscure Viennese psychologist working on a street just behind Freud’s who outlined his own theories of personality that no one else will ever read because he came on the heels of Freud or because he was too polite or too shy or not ambitious enough. When we examine the past, it’s tempting to view one event after another as inevitable. But it’s illusion, I think. Freud could have been the obscure one, and we could have played out our Oedipal conflicts in our unconscious, where they belong. Right, Sigmund?

We returned to the classroom after a week in the auditorium for Writers Week. You’d think returning to what had been routine for 25 weeks would be easy, but the long faces made it clear that this Monday would seem longer than usual. 

We finished our unit on stress. And we discussed the usual steps one needs to follow to better deal with stress, all of them obvious but hard to follow: sleep well, eat right, exercise. I could have added my father’s warning: Everything too much no good. I asked if they had any peculiar and particular symptoms that arose after prolonged stress: the twitch at the corner of the eye (my left eye twitched as we talked about this; it’s twitching now); the irregular heartbeat (recently that lasted about a week for me); unusual aches, especially in the back and neck (how I’ve avoided this astounds me); the shakes, similar to what happens when you haven’t eaten in a while (I’ve avoided this for the most part; incidentally, in the past nine stressful weeks, I don’t think I’ve missed a meal. Hurried them, yes, but never skipped. My parents would be pleased.) 

I showed two short TED talks, one by Shawn Achor that I’ll provide here. It’s about ten minutes, and I guarantee you’ll laugh and learn something.

Shawn Achor Ted Talk

WW letters to presenters started pouring in, several of them addressed to me. Here are some of my favorite lines from those letters. Please forgive me, colleagues, for omitting quotation marks. (By the way, during my own presentation, I performed a song I wrote, along with
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, which inspired my song. Also, to honor me for being named Illinois Author of the Year, my good friends in the English department hosted a tribute during one of the periods.) 

Top 20 excerpts:

There are always unique and unforgettable performances [at WW] which might teach me about life in general or coincide with something I’m going through. 

WW is without a doubt one of my favorite weeks of the year and I will miss it. 

I don’t think you will ever realize how important WW is to the thousands of kids at Fremd. 

I know this week inspires many to pick up a pen and write.

Another WW, poof, flash, zoom, gone. Without a doubt, the shortest but best week of the year…I thought I might be getting to sleep at a reasonable hour tonight, but my pen had different ideas. See what WW has done to me. 

The greatest challenge for me to write has always been having the courage to be truthful and meaningful in my writing. 

If you were to receive a grade on your life I would give you an A+. 

I didn’t know you were such a big deal here at Fremd! (I also have a big following in Turkey.) 

Your ability to do something different and overcome your anxiety is something I will always admire. 

I even preferred your song over Johnny Cash’s. (!) 

You are by far the best Johnny Cash impersonator. (Double !) 

(Before beginning my song, I apologized to all the guitarists and singers in the audience.) I am also not a good singer so I feel for you… I can’t believe anyone could be at this school for 18 years. I am already tired of it and I have only been here one and a half. 

(Before singing, I mentioned I’d be trying out for Italian-American idol.) Your song…got stuck in my head for the rest of the day and it made me fee really optimistic about the rest of the week. I hope you make it on that show you were auditioning for. 

I know you probably don’t have much free time, since you’re a teacher and all, and I want to express my thanks… 

I never knew teachers could have talents speaking honestly but you changed my point of view. 

You used the old fashioned Italian way of explaining things to show people what they can do to be successful in life while having fun along the way. 

I am inspired by your inspiration. 

I was…inspired by how well you were able to keep your composure throughout the presentation, as well as in the classroom, with the recent news of your father. I know many students, myself included, read your blog on a constant basis and we are very sorry to hear about it. (“Many” comes as a surprise, so here’s a shout-out to you if you’re reading: HEY!  Did you hear that?  In my head, the HEY came out in my low voice, so that’s how you should hear it, too. Thanks for reading.) 

Le scrivo questa lettera per congratularmi con lei per la sua notevole performance a Writers Week. (I have an Italian exchange student who speaks and write English very well. She thought I’d get a kick out of an entire letter in Italian. I did. I’m still translating it. But I decided I want to learn Italian. Really learn. So this is a good start. She said that WW made the school seem more like a family.) 

(And one of the letters was signed by a student with the same name as one of my characters. A little eerie.)

When we try to explain Writers Week to people outside our school, words don’t suffice, which is a little ironic. In fact, Gary Anderson and I, along with Jodi Moeller and Douglas Jameson from our adopted sister school near St. Louis, presented a session at a national teachers conference last fall describing Writers Week. Many teachers were excited, some of them spurred to action, but to understand the power of the week, you need to be there. In fact, one teacher who was at the fall session visited one day last week and left shaking his head in awe. He kept saying, “It’s so simple.” He was referring to the format: a microphone, a talented tech crew, a supportive audience, over 100 students who risk sharing their work before 550 of their peers, faculty presenters, and talented writers from around the country. 

We didn’t measure the results of the week with any test scores or exit slips, but the many hugs, smiles, and tears we saw each day were probably sufficient markers. Or maybe I could mention the throng of students that surrounded writers afterward to ask another question or to get a book signed. Or I could add that many students continue their conversations with writers through email or Twitter. One of our favorite presenters, Mary Fons, reported that one student, after hearing Fons last year, started writing; another said she finally addressed some pressing personal issues that were hurting her. 

Not sure video can capture the week well either, but our tech department worked their own magic and streamed the entire week live to the world. You can catch clips here: 

If you’d rather rely on words to understand WW, you won’t do any better than from my good pal, Gary Anderson. Check out his blog: 

Another colleague and another Anderson, Russ, will probably weigh in too: 

Yet another colleague, Jaclyn DeRose, has embarked on her own blog, which I highly recommend: 

You can also visit our Website: 

Or visit Twitter: #ww18 

My highlights:

1) Students baring their souls. Writing tributes to moms, dads, nieces, teachers, and friends. Sharing joy, grief, tribulations, and funny stories. Making sense of the world through their words, through their point of view, which we adults sometimes stifle or obscure or minimize or simply don’t take the time to understand. Their courage is inspiring.  

2) Generous faculty members braving it out, revealing sides of them that usually remain private. Thunderous applause greeted each one, which doesn’t happen in class, though this would be welcome, albeit, distracting.  

3) Wildly talented guest writers, some of whom should be household names. Many of them never forgot what it’s like to be young and fearless and ridden with anxiety about the future and in love for the first time. 

4) A selfish highlight. The best English department in the world honored me with a lovely presentation, full of joy and camaraderie and love. My gratitude is boundless. I am a lucky man.