Embrace Your Squeak

Random weekday.
School.
7:30 am.

To my classroom 
from the elevator 
in an otherwise 
quiet corridor, 
my most 
comfy 
shoes 
squeak.

Squeak. Squeak. 
Squeak. Squeak.
Each 
irksome
footfall 
makes me feel 
meek. 

How many times 
have I met
a student's eyes?
Felt compelled 
to apologize? 

Something like: 
“Good morning. 
(insert name),
I’m wearing 
my squeaky shoes 
today.”

Finally, one said, 
“Mrs. B.,
that was me 
yesterday. 
Just embrace it.” 

My smile 
spread wide 
from cheek
to cheek. 

And when 
my most 
comfy
shoes
inevitably 
squeak, 
I stand 
a little taller, 
embrace it, 
and squeak on 
and on and on...  

Embracing!

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Not long ago I caught up with my cousin Patti by phone, an overdue catch-up. We talked for over an hour, and somewhere in the conversation I said, “I know I’m sensitive.” I’m not even sure why I said it or what we were talking about.

A day or two later, she texted me. “Love talking to you. Grandma felt that she was too sensitive. Think about that. She was loved unconditionally by all because she allowed herself to be sensitive, she understood. Be kind to you. Love you, Dear Crystal.”

And so I have been thinking about that. I didn’t realize this about my grandma. In my own fifty plus years, I have come to see my sensitivity as a strength, even if it’s sometimes painful.

April 30 is Grandma’s birthday. She would’ve been 103. Hard to believe she’s been gone for thirty years and funny how I feel closer to her now than ever before. When I talk to my cousins, I feel her presence, like glue, holding her family together. Of her five children, only one remains. I’m quite sure Grandma prayed for her grandchildren to carry on the importance of family—and loving each other unconditionally.  

I grew up in small town Oklahoma, a five-hour drive from where my parents grew up and my grandparents remained. Our visits were limited to weekends mostly. My family would spend Friday night with Granny and Gramps and part of Saturday, then Saturday night with Grandma and Grandpa. On Sunday after church, my grandparents’ house would fill with my aunts and uncles and cousins and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then Mom and Dad, my sister and brother would hop back in the car and drive the five hours home. I didn’t have much one-on-one time with my grandma, not like my cousins who lived nearby, and so I treasure my connections with those who really knew her. And the words Grandma left behind. Golden, priceless, handwritten words about being raised by her grandmother. And these about her birthday:

“There is no doubt that Grandma spoiled her “stubborn-as-a-mule” granddaughter. She would make a party of my birthday—a three-layer cake on my third birthday, four-layer cake on the fourth, five-layer cake on my fifth and that was the year Grandpa died. We would go, with the birthday cake, egg salad sandwiches with fresh lettuce out of the garden, and find the picnic spot, a natural rock table with rock chairs set just right where the best party I ever attended would be. We had such good times.”

Catherine Savage

My grandmother never had a mean thing to say. Her laugh twinkled like the brightest stars. She was the epitome of good. And today I believe she’s celebrating on high with her grandma, my grandpa and my mom, Aunt Carol, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Joed, my much too young cousin Logan, a cake stacked 103 layers tall, and the best party ever. Love You, all of you, and Happy Birthday, Grandma!

A classy lady, my grandmother.

Free Writing Conference

I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I like words. I’m an English teacher, so my grammar is decent. But artistry? Can that be taught?

The year was 2013. I landed an opportunity to launch Creative Writing as an elective at my high school. I adopted a philosophy. Writers must be readers. And. Writers must write. Every. Day. I felt like a hypocrite. So, I practiced. I read more. I wrote more. I studied good writing. I learned some tricks. I attended the occasional writing workshop and conference. I learned more tricks.

Speaking of writing conferences, the year was 2019. I opened an e-mail at school for a local writing conference at Houston Baptist University, just down the street from my house. They were offering continuing education credits for teachers on my favorite topic—writing. So, I signed up. There I learned about a new Creative Writing MFA program. Intrigued, I applied. In the year 2020, I found myself back in school. This time as a student.

Flash forward, post-graduation to the year 2022. I opened a text message from one of my professors. “Would you want to do a talk at this year’s writing conference? On Zoom?”

Would I?

That’s how I landed an opportunity to teach at the 2022 HBU Virtual Writers Conference. My session centers on “Modeling the Masters” subtitled “Finding Your Voice.” The conference is free and seriously not too good to be true. April 30. And, besides me, the lineup of guest speakers is impressive. For more information, click here. May I suggest a session with Bret Lott, author of Oprah’s Book Club pick Jewel? I’ve taken classes with him, and the guy can teach writing.

I would love to see you there.

Writing Better

I sat down at my computer to write with nothing particular on my mind. Just an exercise in making the words appear. There was an open Word document, my unpublished memoir titled Help in the Time of Schizophrenia, 248-pages needing revision and a publishing house. Honestly, I’m not sure how to go about that—the publishing. I know about developmental editors. I have a couple of contacts. Have I reached out? No. Publication remains a mystery. Maybe I’ll crack the code on my upcoming summer vacation.

When I finished my MFA last spring, one of my professors advised me to put my manuscript in a drawer and step away and read more and write more. That’s exactly what I’ve done until now. So instead of writing something meaningless today, I sat and reread and tweaked my words for what seems like the millionth time. I stopped on page twelve. 236 pages to go.

But, after twelve pages and a year, I felt better, much better. Through this break, I’m finding my authentic voice. I’m asking myself, “Would I say that?” I’m tightening the language. I’m adding details.

As for blogging, it’s more about writing practice—making myself do it vs. perfection. As for writing better, it’s more about the revision—root word vision—prefix again. Now I’m literally seeing the words and the story in a new light, letting go of what I once thought grand, finding holes in my storytelling. And maybe, just maybe, I’m inching my way to the goal.

The Unspoken Promise vs. The Spoken One

Back in January, as other people made resolutions, I told myself I would write one blog post per week, an unspoken promise of sorts. I never told anyone until now or recorded that thought anywhere. It was just one of the many conversations I have with myself.

Instead, I issued myself a proclamation in a single word—GRACE. Sometimes life comes at you in heavy ways. Not everything must be written or even discussed. Some problems take time. The intensity of other difficulties interferes with the inevitable daily good. And while I’ve shed some recent tears, I remind myself that flowers don’t bloom every day. I remind myself of the ancient wisdom: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Good, right?

Somehow, I’ve pulled off that weekly post. Sometimes, it’s about sitting at your computer and just doing it. Sometimes, it’s about having enough GRACE for yourself to move forward differently than planned.

Chagall’s The Ukrainian Family, circa WWII, Prayers for Ukraine and Peace.

Vote for Douglas

Gentle readers,

This semester has been a busy one for my students. I’ve attended performances of Dreamgirls, the All-School Black History Production, the spring dance concert, and senior shows of all sorts: recitals—vocal and piano, art exhibitions, creative writing performances featuring film and spoken word and my student the Houston Youth Poet Laureate. So many shows. I only wish I could attend them all. When I receive a personal invite, I’m there. The kids consistently blow me away.

Inside the classroom, students brought their talents and presented their understanding of Macbeth. They acted, danced, sang, performed original scripts and songs and parodies, made videos, designed sets, created visual art, poems, letters, modernized texts, and alternate endings. They connected it all to the tragedy. These kids rise to the challenge over and over.

Then there’s Douglas. He has become a national phenomenon. When American Idol saved his audition for the end of their two-hour show a week ago Sunday, I knew they had saved the best for last. Sure enough. He gripped my heart with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and then squeezed. My tears were unstoppable, his performance iconic. I texted with my mother-in-law and my daughter. I wasn’t the only one. They felt what I felt.   

Tonight kicks off Hollywood Week on American Idol (ABC), 8 Eastern / 7 Central. When the time comes, if you’re inclined to watch the show, vote for Douglas.

With love,

His English Teacher

for Douglas

The Time I Entered a Pie Eating Contest

Around the corner, I heard voices,  pleading: “But, you’re our favorite teacher.” The kids couldn’t see me. I should’ve realized the potential ambush. Why hadn’t I walked in the opposite direction? Maybe I was curious to see the favorite teacher.

So, I rounded said corner where said kids had congregated around another teacher, who stood there shaking her head and saying, “No way!” Emphatically. That was final. She walked away as I arrived.

The kids spun on me. “Mrs. Byers!” Their little voices jingled like bells. A leader for the group, one of my favorite seniors, said, “We were just talking about you.”

Right, I thought. I eyed her suspicious, smiling face, along with four or five others, all great kids. I knew this meant trouble.

“We need a favor,” she said, eyebrows raised. She paused for dramatic effect. The girl has moxie. “Would you be in the pie eating contest? It would be so great!”

“Pie eating contest?” I said. Their little faces shone with hope.

Favorite student continued, “You can choose your own entrance song.” Her energy was contagious.

“I can choose my own entrance song?” I said. I’m quite sure my eyes blazed at the thought of a grand entrance!

Another voice piped in. “That sounds like a yes.”

“What kind of pie?”

“Fudge pie!”

I busted out laughing and shook my head. I rolled my eyes and fake-pondered for a few more seconds. “Okay,” I said, giving in moments-too-soon.

A tiny voice in my head echoed, “Sucker!”

And that’s how I came to be in this year’s Teacher Pie Eating Contest. The absurdity slayed me, and I snickered all the way home while considering entrance songs.

Not the actual pie.

Fast forward to the day, and I’ll leave the details to your imagination. With grand steps and a gesture or two, I made my entrance, and the kids went concert wild. Their energy overtook my body, and I danced like no was watching. Except the whole school was there, and then I competed in pie eating. The pies were chocolate and vanilla pudding. It wasn’t the first rodeo for some of my opponents who came prepared with goggles. We couldn’t use our hands. Thank the Lord someone else stepped up for the win. Still, I won street cred with the kids, and that was enough for me.

Sometimes that’s what teachers do.

Twenty-five years ago or so, during my first few years of teaching, I volunteered to throw a backflip on a trampoline during a middle school assembly. In front of about 500 kids and school staff. And you know what? I fell on my face (click link for story). So—I stood up and did it again. This time I landed it. I don’t know if the kids took anything away from that experience, but I did. Sometimes, you don’t have any choice but to try again and save face.

Another time, I participated in the teacher spelling bee. My ego hurt when I went out before my time, but maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. Maybe it isn’t all about me. Unless, of course, I have my own entrance song.

The first fifteen seconds or so. My entrance song.