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 one 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.

Working in a Gold Mine

This past week I’ve been mining for gold. And by gold, I mean golden nuggets of wisdom. And by mining for wisdom, I mean rereading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a genre-bending novel with elements of magical realism, fantasy, coming-of-age, surrealism, and crime fiction. This week’s classroom reading: The Prologue titled “A Boy Named Crow” and Chapters 1-7. While introducing the book, I said, “Murakami is really good at directly stating themes, and the AP test always asks about character complexity. So as you read, look for those two things: What makes the narrator complex? And theme.”

Together we read the four-page prologue accompanied by audio. The truth is—if I assign the reading and walk away, some students will never read. The audio is my new teaching strategy for making them read. Some only listen. Then I tell them to discuss with their neighbors. Some don’t, so then we discuss as a whole class. Some things are out of my control. Some things are in.

As a theme, students identify the line, “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions” (5). We talk about the sandstorm as a metaphor or a symbol for break-ups and death, illness and accidents. We speak of foreshadowing and a shifting point of view. We discuss how the entire plot is revealed in the prologue: “On my fifteenth birthday I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in the corner of a small library” (6). Finally, they write in blue books for about twelve minutes. We are practicing literary analysis.

For homework this past week and through the weekend, students are reading Chapters 1-7. I am, too. Chapter 1 reveals how the narrator’s mother took his older sister and left ten years earlier. He has no memories of them, only a photo. His father threw the rest away. Just past midnight on his fifteenth birthday, our narrator boards a night bus leaving Tokyo and believes an omen is with him, “like a shadow” (12). For now, this omen is a mystery, foreshadowing an Oedipal curse to be revealed. The book was published in 2002. Most of the story takes place in modern day.

The narrative shifts to another point of view in even chapters. Chapters 2 and 4 include U.S. military intelligence reports and investigations of an incident involving sixteen Japanese school children. The students mysteriously fall unconscious during a field trip on November 7, 1944. This mystery depicts the backstory of Nakata who sustains a coma due to the event and foreshadows an alternating storyline to come.

In Chapter 3, our narrator meets an older girl on the bus and speculates if she could be his sister. In Chapter 5, he tells her his name, Kafka Tamura. Her name is Sakura, not his sister’s name, but he thinks about how names can be easily changed, especially when running away. Kafka, a pseudonym, arrives at his destination Takamatsu, 450 miles away from home, and Sakura gives him her phone number. That day, he kills time at the library. “Some wealthy man from an old family in the suburbs had renovated his personal library into a private library open to the public” (34). At the library, Kafka meets Oshima who works behind the desk. They discuss the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristophanes (scroll to end of page for details). Oshima advises Kafka to take a tour lead by the library curator, the sophisticated Miss Saeki. Kafka thinks how it would “be great if this were [his] mother” (40). His abandonment issues are real. He seems to be on a quest for family while running away from his father. Later that day, Kafka checks himself into a second-rate hotel.

In Chapter 6, we meet Nakata, who cannot read or write since the mysterious coma in his youth, but he can communicate with cats. This is where the novel takes a silly turn. A pet detective of sorts, Nakata searches for lost cats and speaks with them for clues. One cat explains some common knowledge to Nakata—that “cats are creatures of habit…unless something extraordinary happens they generally try to keep to their routine. What might disrupt this is either sex or an accident” (49). The cat explains sex to Nakata and concludes, “There are all kinds of people in the world, and all kinds of cats” (50). Nakata agrees with the cat yet claims to be dumb due to an accident. He tells the cat how the accident made his mother cry and his father angry. He explains how his parents are dead, so his father doesn’t hit him anymore, and his mother doesn’t cry, and he lives on a government “sub city” (51). There’s so much truth in this seemingly absurd conversation. Sex and accidents also disrupt the lives of humans. I would add illness to this statement. Because there are “all kinds of people in the world,” we have varying reactions to situations, especially the ones out of our control. The cat also notices that Nakata’s shadow is faint, a motif that connects back to Kafka’s omen following him like a shadow. The cat says, “You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow” (52). The scene parallels what Oshima tells Kafka in the previous chapter about Aristophanes and how we all search for our other halves.

In Chapter 7, Kafka goes to the front desk at his hotel to negotiate the price of his room, explaining how he is a student on a budget, collecting materials from the Komura Memorial Library for his graduation paper. Negotiation is a life skill, and Kafka is now fending for himself. He notices the girl behind the desk is about the same age as his sister. He finds a public gym and works out, then goes to the library like the day before. Each morning, like a cat, Kafka sticks to the same routine, working out at the gym, showering, eating, then feeding his brain. At the library he reads the Burton edition of Arabian Nights. “They’re full of obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes…crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago” (57). I’m curious about these stories. All I know is the Disney version of Aladdin.

I search for more information on Burton’s translation (1885-88) and find that it remains the most complete version of One Thousand and One Nights in English and was also criticized for its use of archaic language and excessive erotic detail (Wikipedia). I also find a PDF from the Trinity College Library, Toronto. I download the first volume and skim. It begins with an Arab proverb: “To the pure all things are pure.” I skim further—erotic detail, page six.

Arabian Nights stands as a solid metaphor for Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Murakami also fills his storyline with obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes and crazy, preposterous stories. As for Kafka, “on the evening of the eighth day—as had to happen sooner or later—[his] simple, centripetal life is blown to bits” (60). I suppose whatever happened is fate. Cliffhanger.

That’s the Week One reading. I look up centripetal. Sir Isaac Newton describes it as “A force by which bodies are drawn or impelled towards a point as to a center” (Wikipedia). As Kafka inwardly searches for his own answers, something happens beyond his control.

I can’t stop reading. In Chapter 9, Kafka wakes up on the ground in thick brush near a shrine he doesn’t recognize. He is covered in blood. His shoulder hurts. Yet another piece to this puzzle.

Okay, I admit—Kafka on the Shore is not for everyone, but it will leave you thinking, and I feel richer for reading.

Prologue Gold:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts….Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away….This storm is you. Something inside you.”

Page 5

Chapter 3 Gold:

“In traveling, a companion, in life, compassion.”

Page 23

Chapter 5 Gold:

“According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in the ancient world of myth there were three types of people….In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female. In other words, each person was made out of the components of two people. Everyone was happy with this arrangement and never really gave it much thought. But then God took a knife and cut everybody in half, right down the middle. So after that the world was divided just into male and female, the upshot being that people spend their time running around trying to locate their missing other half.”

Page 39

“There are many things we only see clearly in retrospect.”

Page 42

February 26

Today is my mother’s birthday. Just thinking those words makes my heart sink. She would’ve been 82.

But just now outside my window, I spied a cardinal hopping through the grass. I remembered hearing about cardinals being symbolic of angels.

I tapped cardinals and angels into the search bar of my phone.

“Cardinals mostly symbolize devotion and determination; it is the visitor from heaven.

‘Cardinals appear when angels are near,’ as Victoria McGovern said, the Cardinals are platonic, a precious message God sends to the world. The Cardinals are the messengers of God for those who hope and seek blessings for their ailing souls.

The Cardinal represents beauty in the dark times, hope in the sorrow, and renewal in the harsh winter. It is said that if you see a cardinal bird, it symbolizes your deceased loved ones are watching out for you.”

kidadl.com

My mother was always an angel. Now she has wings and a halo to prove it. And today I heard from her AND God. Happy Birthday, Dear Mama! I hope you hear me, too.

May your day be blessed.

Help. I’m Hungry.

Each weekday morning, I exit the freeway east of downtown and turn left just after the second light onto a one-way street. It’s 7:15. Under the overpass, a man to my right makes his bed, folding three or four blankets, stacking them neatly on the sidewalk. Sometimes I catch him urinating. I try not to notice. On the opposite side of the street, a person sleeps in a makeshift shelter made of an overturned shopping cart and cardboard boxes. Sunshine or rain. 73 degrees or 32.

The homeless weigh on my mind throughout the day. After work on my drive home, I meet others with cardboard signs. “Houston, help. I’m hungry.”

Sometimes I have a few dollars. Sometimes I mouth, “I’m sorry.” My “Sorry” is often met with a wave and a sad smile. People seem to appreciate being seen either way.

I don’t have the solution. I wish I could say I’m doing more. I know people scam, but I witness people who don’t. I’ve heard the advice: “Don’t give on the street. Give to the shelter.”

I ask myself: “What would Jesus do?”

Courtesy of cdnquotesgram.com

Should I? Shouldn’t I?

…Should I? Shouldn’t I?

For the last however-many months, these thoughts were mine.

My last time was November 2019. The following January, I started school as a student again. I paid my tuition and embraced frugality. Then suddenly, COVID and months later COVID hair. This is my chance, I thought, to be unapologetically me. My hair grew wild—the silver ones shone.

Society sells at every turn, targets women to buy, and preys on our looks, the ones ever-so-solidly attached to our egos. Why don’t men run to the salons in throngs to cover their aging hairs? A man’s silver is distinguished. The societal discrepancy drives me nuts. I’m distinguished, too! I wanted to scream. See my silver hairs! I’ve earned them. Every. Single. One.

Finally, I graduated and earned an income once more. Suddenly, I confronted my masked face each day in the teachers’ restroom mirror and concluded the upper half of my face works best in tandem with the rest. While masked, I zeroed in on my eyes—one brow drooped, both had bags—fine lines etched my forehead…the mousy brown hairs dulled my prized silver.

Should I? Shouldn’t I? Should I? Shouldn’t I?

It was the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day when I had a dental appointment and a day off from teaching. With some extra time on my hands, I caved, dialed a stylist, and made my appointment.

I sat in a swivel chair before a large mirror and consulted with José. After some back and forth, he said, “I’m excited,” and left to mix my color. His enthusiasm contagious, I had a good feeling. Then, row by row, he brushed in highlights and lowlights and wrapped my hair in foil. There was no turning back.

And you know what? I left the salon feeling fantastic. I think that’s okay.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Self-love anyone?

Olden Times

My grandmother had a gift, and she left it behind.

“Each generation asks Grandparents about Olden Times and I’m sure we all think—My Olden Times weren’t so long ago—but to them it has been ages. Mine were the twenties—roaring they were called—To me they were very quiet—learning years—the old songs, to play casino, dominoes, and solitaire. The common man just was beginning to have a car or a Tin Lizzie. Everyone took part in the driving. Once when I was asked, ‘Is there a car coming?’ I replied—’No only a Ford,’ which seemed to be a joke worth repeating. Short dresses seemed a scandal. I had not seen anything else. The first short hair cuts were being worn. I remember Grandmother saying, ‘How can those women stand those short sleeves in this weather?’ Fashion was stealing in on practicality.”

my Grandmother Catherine Savage
My Grandmother’s Words. Priceless.

My Olden Times were the seventies. Dad loved cars, still does. The one I remember most (before the Silver Anniversary Corvette) was his Volkswagen bug, green, I think. Mom had a series of Cadillacs, and the family would road trip in style. Dad at the wheel. My mother riding shotgun. Johnny Cash and Creedence Clearwater Revival on eight-track. Liz, Scott, and me in the backseat. So many miles to pester each other, especially me and my brother. Eventually we would see the entire lower forty-eight, even if we just hopped out at the state line for the photo opp. And, the big wheel would keep on turnin’.

Persiflage?

It was mid-January. I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, phone scrolling, when a piece of art caught my eye. The irony. I lay in bed contemplating the Spitzweg painting of The Poor Poet, who was also in bed contemplating.

The Poor Poet, by Carl Spitzweg, 1839

My friend from Berlin wrote, “Who Is Carl Spitzweg?” (Click the link if you’re curious.) She proceeded to tell me and juxtaposed Spitzweg’s poet with a contemporary painting of a bear. How great are these two when compared? Zoom in on the painting behind the headboard below.

Picture by Papafox on Pixabay

My friend wanted to know, “At the end of the day, art and kitsch are in the eye of the beholder. What I truly can call kitsch is artwork like this with the bear. Now wait, or is it persiflage?”

Persiflage? I had to look up the word. Light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter.

I continued reading. “Please ladies and gentlemen help me out! Is this art or kitsch?”

Kitsch? Another word I’ve learned. Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.

I responded.

Hmm. Favorite word? “I like juxtapose, rhymes with morose,” I said, scoffing at my bad joke, the eye rhyme, not an ear rhyme.

My Berlin friend and I went back and forth for a couple of days. I don’t think I truly have a favorite word. I reserve the right to change my mind each day. The next day I liked “gaga.”

She liked “mushroomed.”

We decided to collaborate.

A good-words post.

Five words each?

I fear I’ve commandeered the idea. (Commandeered, a nice word, right?)

On my laptop, I found a list started years ago. In a file called Creative Writing, from a class I once taught, is a document called “I Love Words,” untouched since January 2016. I started an ABC list of words I like while watching Wes Anderson’s quirky (good word #1) directorial-debut Bottle Rocket. It’s about three “amigos” (good word #2) planning to pull off a 75-year plan of “helter skelter” (#3) heists. The movie bombed at the box office, not everybody’s “cuppa,” (#4) but, oh, the banter. Now wait, or was it “persiflage” (#5)? Writing is just words, hopefully the best words, in the best order. I’ve added a few to my list along the way.

As for my Berlin friend, German’s have some of the best words. The funniest words. Do you know any Germans? Or their words? If not, click here.

And here she is—my friend who writes at Be Kitschig. From here she takes over this post. Her choice of art and words. Enjoy.

Oh, Wes Anderson has a cornucopia (Be Kitschig lovely word #1) of ideas. Thinking about it, I am not sure if I used that word 100% correct in the past. It’s always a bit awkward (good word #2) when people use words wrong. Like, not every thought you ever had is an epiphany, dude, but I digress (#3). One word I always liked was flabbergasted (#4). Since there are so many amazing words in the English language, five might just not be enough. So, for today, let’s finish the banter.

Cool?

Peachy (#5)!

And you know what would be uber cool and peachy? Add your favorite words in the comments. Better yet, link your own post below.

The Power of Suggestion

After the holidays, I caught up with my cousin Angie. Across the state line, she was on my mind, and I texted her out of the blue. Come to find out, I was on her mind, too, so I dialed her number.

“I don’t know where to start,” she said. “Guess what I’m doing?”

I asked what.

“The purge,” she said with a laugh that sounded like Grandma and warmed my heart.

The last time I talked to Angie, sometime last February, I was on a decluttering challenge—donating, recycling, throwing things away—and I told her about it. On February 1st, I got rid of one thing. On the 2nd, two things. On the 3rd, three, and so on for thirty days. I stuck the donations in bags in the closet and dropped them off on weekends. If my math was right, week one’s purge added up to 28 items, and the grand total was 465 fewer things at my house. Angie joined me.

There’s something about the power of suggestion. After our recent conversation, I texted her: “I think I’ll start the decluttering Feb. 1.” I needed time to wrap my brain around the task, and February worked for me last year.

This past week was the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and I was home from school. A text from my best friend Denise popped up. “I’m going to go all Marie Kondo around my house,” she said. I noted the suggestion and sat on my couch feeling like I should be doing something. I flipped to Netflix and watched Gilmore Girls instead.

The next day, I found myself with an extra day off, something about COVID spiking. I started on my closet and my unworn clothes, counting the things and dragging the bags to the entryway. Kody was working from home and watched me. The next thing I knew, he joined me. I didn’t even ask. He purged his closet and drawers. It was January 18, a fourteen-day head start.

It felt good to silently count those numbers: “101, 102, 103.” Then, I loaded the bags into my car and drove down the street to Goodwill.

Photo by Max Rottersman on Pexels.com

And last night’s message from Angie said, “I just found $300 decluttering.”

Bonus!