Happy Thanksgiving!

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie
Thankful for new candles and the reminder on my Hobby Lobby paper placemats. Oh, and for the champagne. Cheers!

Thanksgiving in School

‘Twas Wednesday the week before Thanksgiving. An English IV student volunteered to read Gwendolyn Brooks 1959 poem…

We Real Cool

THE POOL PLAYERS. 
                   SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

(Courtesy of poets.org)

“What do you notice?” I say.

Crickets.

“What makes this a poem?”

Here they speak of the rhymes, the structure, the alliteration, the repetition of “we.”

“Who is the ‘we’?”

They speculate.

“Why do they think they’re cool?”

They provide examples from the text. 

When there’s not much more to say, we read Andrew Spacey’s article, “Analysis of Poem ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks.” Spacey takes some of our beginning ideas about the poem to the next level with sophisticated sounding words about the enjambment, ambiguity, and monosyllables along with insight on the anti-establishment and a miniature tragedy in eight-lines.

“I would love to see you all write like this,” I say. But on this day, I don’t make them write. Instead, we listen to an audio of Gwendolyn Brooks explaining her inspiration behind this poem and giving a reading. The words from her mouth and rhythms of her speech sound different than how my student had read.

Then we watch a video. Same poem another person’s thoughts. The ending goes straight to my heart. I might have seen students wiping their eyes. Students in a class later that day laughed, a contagious laugh. I’ve learned I can’t control anyone else’s reactions, only my own. 

I move on to another poet for comparison, United States poet laureate Joy Harjo. We read an NPR article: “In ‘An American Sunrise,’ Joy Harjo Speaks With A Timeless Compassion.” The article reviews Harjo’s 2019 poetry collection. Then we read along to Joy Harjo’s audio of “An American Sunrise,” a poem within the collection of the same name.

An American Sunrise

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We

were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.

Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We

made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing

so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin

chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin

will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We

had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz

I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,

forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We

know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

soon.

 

(Courtesy of poetryfoundation.org)

 

We speak of the first Thanksgiving and how the Native Americans were later robbed. The lesson is heavy, but thought-provoking, and the students quite like the two poems side-by-side. I’m posting from my phone today and unable to format this poem as intended. Otherwise, you would clearly see that each line ends with the following words consecutively: We strike straight. We sing Sin We thin gin We Jazz June, We die soon). The students minds are blown.

“Now I want you to create something as a celebration of Thanksgiving—maybe a poem, a song, or art—and give a mini presentation. This is how it works. You entertain me, and I give you a 100. I would be so happy if someone would sing me a song. You have thirty minutes. Go.”

5th period dances to “Beans, Greens, Potatoes, Tomatoes,” also known as the Grandma Thanksgiving Rap.
These images include endangered species. The text says, “To all animals and plants: Thank you for your time spent on this earth. From all humanity: our condolences and apologies for what has been brought upon this earth. May your spirits find a peaceful life after they leave this one. To all humanity: The time has passed to repair for our crimes. Now we are obligated to make the earth comfortable in these times of strife, conflict, loss, and change.
Thanksgiving, a day we spend with family

We eat and munch like an abnormality

We sit around and argue with each other

It never stops, but we love one another.

—1st Period Mariachi

November Gratitude, Or Not

This November, I hoped to focus on gratitude. I’ve done it before. Gratitude is good.

In recent years I’ve kept a journal in celebration of Thanksgiving, listing three reasons to be grateful a day, large or small. But this year—though good things happen every day, though I still admire beauty in this world, though I love so much about this life—I’m on an emotional roller coaster, riding the highs straight into my lows, unable to maintain my attitude of gratitude or my focus on this ride. Of course, I could make myself journal. Sometimes I think I might try. Honestly, that seems painful. And a little fake. So why?

Last year on November 19, COVID-19 found its way to my mother. She suffered alone in her nursing home, closed to visitors due to the pandemic. Ten days later, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, she went to the hospital. Eight days after that she was released to come home, not to the nursing home but to her home since 1976. For hospice. I was there with my sister and brother and dad to welcome her. Mom’s smile lit up the entire room. Her decline was swift. On Christmas Eve, she breathed her last breath. Of course, I’m thankful to have spent those final days with my mother.

I’m not one to let the little things get me down. But losing my mother wasn’t a little thing.

I’m typing these words in solidarity with those (who for whatever reason may be) in a similar frame of mind—an acknowledgement of holiday heartbreak. If you happen to relate, I see you.

God bless.

A reminder from me to me. Maybe it’s good for you, too.

Let’s Have Fun with Jane Eyre

I teach high school English. Can I say how much I hate multiple-choice tests over literature? I never took a multiple-choice test in my college English classes. Instead, I wrote.

In a perfect world, I would teach books I love, and the kids would experience the love of story and language. Then again, the world isn’t perfect. Students have obligations and jobs, and I would be naïve to believe they’re all reading. Let me take a stab and say 50% of them, give or take, are not. Most classic pieces of literature have been made into movies. Take for instance, Jane Eyre. How many of my students watched the movie and called  it a day? Should I give up on the classics? Should I give up on reading checks?

I’m locked into this year’s general plan, but I’m rethinking for next year, my how and my what. Meanwhile, I endeavor to pull my students through a novel I love. In my classroom, I have seven table groups of four or five, thirty-two students total in my largest classes. I have a few go-to activities for literature re-cap: reader’s theatre (students act out a chapter or passage with books in hand, narrating and acting out the dialogue) and ShrinkLits (shrinking the literature or a chapter down to a rhyming summary, a concept developed by Maurice Sagoff in a book by the same title). Of course, there are times I assign specific passages to be read (hopefully re-read) closely for discussion and analysis. And of course, there are writing assignments, too. For the activities, I assign table groups  a specific chapter, as a summary (or a preview for those who have fallen behind), and they present to the class. At a performing and visual arts high school, they take their acting seriously. Our reader’s theatre was quite outstanding. However, as with anything, overdoing it loses the magic. This year when I had used all my best tricks for Jane Eyre, I confessed: “I’m out of ideas. I’m going to give your table a chapter, and you can decide how to present it. You have thirty minutes.”  

And so today I’m thankful for white board space and students with ideas. Some students presented in news reporting format, others did interviews, one group played charades, which actually happens in the novel, and my dancers danced to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” for Chapter XVI, where Mr. Rochester tries to make Jane jealous through a feigned relationship with Blanche Ingram. (The lyrics go like this: “Hey, Hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend / No way, no way, I think you need a new one / Hey, hey, you, you, I could be your girlfriend…)

And you know what? Some of my students love Jane Eyre as much as I do. That makes me happy.

Gratitude for My Geometry Teacher

A co-worker told me recently about a teacher who inspired him. He had visited his teacher once years later, and the teacher pulled one of his essays from a file and gave it to him. My friend was shocked and flattered that his teacher had kept his work for all those years. We spoke of sending our past teachers thank you notes and apologies.

I said, “I did that once. I’m sure I owe a few more teachers.”

My high school geometry teacher was elderly and kind. In retrospect, she was probably ten to fifteen years older than I am at present.

Back in my high school days, I took my socializing seriously for an introvert. I maximized my time in the hallway between classes, chatting with friends making eyes (or something like that) with my boyfriend. I would arrive at the classroom threshold as the bell rang. Mrs. Lee always stood there waiting with a patient smile. If I remember correctly, I asked her if I could go to the restroom almost daily as I arrived almost late. She always let me go. At some point in the school year, she just started taking my books for me, never with an ounce of exasperation. When I returned to class, my books waited for me on my desk.

When Mrs. Lee’s husband passed (He was my elementary school counselor who administered standardized testing and told us to bubble our answers “dark and glossy”), I searched for Mrs. Lee’s address. I found it and mailed my condolences, along with an apology from my former self and a note of appreciation from my adult-teacher self. Now I’m the one who allows restroom breaks when they might not be convenient and even when the students try my patience. I told her that, and you know what? She wrote me back, the kindest note in keeping with my memories of her.

In my twenty-first year of teaching, I still remind myself that kids are kids. We learn character, by witnessing character. I did anyway. Although I made A’s in my geometry class that year, I’ll remember what Mrs. Lee taught me about patience and kindness above all. And I’m grateful.

Do you have a Mrs. Lee? Someone who made a difference that might not even know?

The Black Cat

To the tune of “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow

Her name is Nora. She is a small cat. 
With a coat of raven black and sharp claws meant for attack.
She would meow loud, stumped by her cat door.
And while she ran the neighborhood,
We would always put out food
Outside of our front door. Then she’d come back for more.
She’d lost her family and now had us
Who could ask for more?

*****

A few short weeks ago, my neighbor Susan told me they were moving into a townhome near downtown. She had three or four indoor cats (including Leonard Bernstein and Victoria) and another outdoor cat, born to a feral mother. Susan had fed the cat since she was a kitten, morning and night for the past five years. Her name was Nora.

Susan was looking for a home for Nora. She asked if I knew of anyone who might be interested. I might be interested. I should discuss this with my husband. Nora didn’t socialize well with the indoor cats, especially not with Vicky. Besides, Nora was accustomed to her freedom.

I told my husband Kody about the situation. With eyebrow raised he said, “So we’re getting a cat?”

“She’ll be an outdoor cat,” I said hopefully.

And so we adopted Nora one week ago, on the Saturday before Halloween. No papers required.

Susan researched the rehoming of an outdoor cat. The suggestion was to keep the cat in one room for a few days until she realized we were her food source. Susan carried Nora to our home across the street in a cat carrier. She brought food and catnip and a cat box and litter and food bowls and flea medicine and a cat tree and toys. Everything Nora might need to be comfortable and everything we might need to care for her.

Nora had a mighty meow. She was mostly content beneath the bed in our guest room. At night, she was restless. She wanted the outdoors. This I knew. We let her check out our home instead and shut her back into her room when we went back to bed that Saturday night and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

By Wednesday, Nora’s meowing escalated to a guttural howl. We unlocked our cat door, formerly used by our seven-year-old cat Sally (RIP August 2017) and our fourteen-year-old chihuahua-terrier Rain (RIP January 2021). We pushed Nora through the door, now meant for her and into our back yard. Our fence has a few places for a small cat to escape, and so Nora was free once more.

In the morning, we set food out for her near the front door. Some one ate it, hopefully Nora, and that evening we set out more. Sweet Nora returned. By choice, she walked through the door all nonchalant and sauntered back to her room. Each evening into the dark hours of the night, she becomes restless. Nora still doesn’t quite comprehend the concept of the cat door. It has only been a few days now. And so we keep pushing her through to the back at night, and she keeps returning to the front on her own time.

Nora is on the prowl this morning. I hoped to keep her indoors for Halloween. But something tells me she can take care of herself. Maybe it’s the claw marks on my arms. I just wanted to hold her. But she’s a wild little minx. We’re still becoming acquainted.

Coffee Shop Thoughts (on Poe and Friendship)

The clouds hung low in the sky yesterday as I drove toward a little coffee shop to meet my friends from school with the intention of communal writing. I couldn’t help thinking, “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens…” I had been teaching Poe and started drawing parallels. Except yesterday—the clouds weren’t oppressive, and the day wasn’t dull, dark, or soundless. Traffic hummed, and the sky beyond said clouds was clear, bright, and blue.

“…I had been passing alone…” this was true… “on horseback…” and by horseback, I mean in my Mazda CX-5… “through a singularly dreary tract of country…” if you consider downtown Houston the country or deary. Perhaps, it was opposite day… “and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on…” I mean, I found myself as the morning sun shone brighter… “within view of the melancholy House of Usher…” at my destination, anyway, a packed parking lot at 1111 E. 11th street, hardly melancholy.

Just inside the front door, A 2nd Cup teemed with the aroma of good coffee, the sound of Indie music, a vibe of creative energy, and three of my friends. I wondered if Poe had friends. I bet not. His House of Usher was melancholy from the first sentence. Mine included coffee, friends, and writing…a purpose. Is it all a matter of perspective? If you dwell on the melancholy is your house destined to fall?

*This post was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and brought to you by A 2nd Cup, a non-profit coffee shop and café that raises awareness of human trafficking issues in Houston and develops resources that help create a second chance for survivors.

Auntie!

When I moved from small-town, Oklahoma to Denver, Colorado at age nineteen, Auntie mesmerized me. She was Kody’s Aunt MeMe, his mother’s identical twin sister. Her face and mannerisms were amazingly like those of my new mother-in-law. I couldn’t look away. I’m pretty sure we bonded that way. That was thirty-two years ago. I called her by first name, Tana, but she put a stop to that. “I’m your Auntie, Baby,” she said. “Call me, Auntie, Bella.”

Auntie was tough. She told it like it was. But she was magnetic. People loved her. She had connections all over town, and Kody and I were along for the ride—from North Denver to Cherry Creek, El Chapultapec to the York Street Jazz Café. That’s how Kody’s Aunt MeMe became my Auntie. She taught me gratitude and a persevering attitude. I freaking loved her.

 ***

I flew into Denver last Thursday night in the dark. I couldn’t see the mountains. Kody picked me up at the airport. He had flown in days earlier to be with his cousin in the wake of death.

The sun rose on Friday morning, and Kody and I drove toward Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in North Denver. When the Rocky Mountains showed their face, I said to myself, “There’s no Denver without Auntie.” Even as I thought the words, traffic flowed from east to west, north to south. Of course, Denver would move forward. It already had. My heart broke, and I shed a tear all the same, but I felt Auntie’s spirit in the face of those mountains.  

***

We did it the way Auntie would’ve wanted. A celebration of life. A party. Family. Fun. Storytelling. And fierce love.  

Today I Will Write a Little Reflection

The sun rose east of downtown Houston, the horizon glowed orange, and skyscrapers shone in reflection. A pale, full moon hung in the west. I joined teacher friends on the school rooftop—for the happening, camaraderie, and breakfast tacos. This was the first Thursday of autumn, the end of the first five weeks of the semester. I counted my blessings.

The teacher in me is always functioning in one of two ways: first, survival, then, reflecting to teach better. This year, the first year of my brand-new job after a two-year break, I’m teaching some lessons that have worked well in the past and some that are brand new to me.

A few years ago, I tried out this idea, students would read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche” (1924). First, in Spanish. The Chilean poet’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. This is Poem 20 in his collection.

I have enough Spanish speakers in my classes to pull off the reading as intended. Multiple volunteers raise their hands to read aloud, and the rest of us listen to the beauty of the language. This lesson is more about poetry appreciation than analysis. (Click here to listen in Spanish.)

Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.

Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada, 
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.'

El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos. 
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.

Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería. 
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche. 
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.

Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella. 
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.

Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guadarla. 
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.

Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos. 
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca. 
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.

La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles. 
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise. 
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.

De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos. 
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero. 
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.

Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos, 
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.

Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa, 
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.

Then, we read and listen to the audio version in English, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” (Click here.)

Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is shattered,
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

I ask the students who understand both versions which one they like more. “It’s so much better in Spanish,” they say. “So much more passionate, more romantic. I mean, Spanish is a Romance language.”

I ask what makes this poem poetic, and they zero in on the purposeful repetition, the images, and the speaker’s internal conflict. “Her infinite eyes. Now that’s a line,” they say. The students gush a bit. They like Neruda, and this is the point.

For homework, I ask them to write lines of their own. Theirs do not have to be their saddest. They can choose whatever they want—their happiest, their angriest, their most musical or most artistic. This year I’m teaching at a high school for the performing and visual arts. I’m throwing out ideas right and left.  

They could borrow some of Neruda’s language, like “Tonight I can write ______” and stick to his format, mostly two-line stanzas, or not.  

They could write poetry or prose. Either way students would include purposeful repetition (I teach them a word—anaphora), imagery, and an internal conflict.

They could write in a language other than English. This was another spur of the moment decision. Why not? During these first weeks of school, I try hard to know my students by name and need.

And when the students returned to class a week later with completed assignments, I asked for volunteers to share. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, students spoke in Japanese and Russian in our classroom. Other students shared in French and Spanish, Danish and English. And overall, students surprised themselves with a newfound confidence in their self-expression.

Sometimes we make school needlessly hard. I get it. We’re preparing students for college. But many of my students have been learning online for the past year and a half. I want them to leave with some good memories, a newfound love of language, maybe even a respect for humanity.