On Sisters, Words, and Writing

Last Friday, my big sister flew to see me. From the airport, we drove thirty-eight miles to the beach, checked into a historic hotel, exchanged our street clothes for swimsuits, dashed out to the pool, and lingered, cool beverages in hand. Freedom persisted. Our feet hit the sand. The tides rolled in with the ocean breeze. Seashells appeared to be found. Fish tacos beckoned, and we answered the call. It was a weekend of sisterhood, a salve for my soul, a respite by the sea, one last hoorah before the inevitable back-to-school.

As I unloaded my deepest, darkest secrets, I heard my speech sprinkled with words like—actually, honestly, literally, ironically, hopefully…. When had I picked up this nasty adverb habit? An overuse of basically unnecessary words? (I meant to do that). When I say honestly, does that mean I’m not being honest the rest of the time? And if something is literally happening, isn’t it happening either way? And who knows if whatever seemed to me ironic was actually ironic? Even my computer (as I typed the last sentence) says: More concise language would be clearer for your reader.

Even at the beach, Steven King’s words echoed across time and place:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

By the way, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a worthwhile read. Apparently, it didn’t break me of my verbal adverb compulsion. But you know what they say—the first step is admitting you have a problem. Obviously, I have teaching on my mind.

A summer ago in my last Creative Writing class, my professor said words that resonate still. I wrote them down:

“Stories are made from words. Your story is only as good as you have command of the language.”

Dr. James Boyleston

I love words, and I love the beach. Where better place to study? These words I found online:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

Mark Twain

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Marianne Moore

Now, I can’t read without seeing how the author uses adjectives. I hope my students will see the same. This year when we read poetry in class, we’ll test Marianne Moore’s theory about the nouns and verbs. Mark Twain, I see your adverb, and I think anything in moderation works fine.

These words I found in a book about writing called, Sin and Syntax:

“A dependence on is and its family screams ‘rough draft.'”

Constance Hale

The key word is dependence. My past students have counted be verbs “am, is, are, was, were, be, been being” in their writing and reduced the number through revisions. Constance Hale suggests an 8:1 ratio of action verbs to be verbs. I think I’ll have my students test this idea with the stories we read.

And these words I found in my all-time favorite book about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Francine Prose

The word-studying English teacher in me notices a few adverbs above, but also the parallelism of the adverb/adjective pairs: “seemingly obvious” and “oddly underappreciated.” I also see a number of those “be” verbs, “is” and its family, and that’s okay. Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points. Other times our writing advances with action.

And these words I found in a comment on my blog:

We wouldn’t teach piano without having the student listen to Chopin or teach painting without looking at great art. Too often, English teachers give assignments without enough models of the form first.

Evelyn Krieger

I’m betting Evelyn Krieger has read Francine Prose, but as I head back to school, I appreciate her reminder.

My big sister headed home Sunday. Goodbyes are hard. I can’t help thinking my mother conspired from on high to make the trip possible and see her girls together, beachside.

As the days of summer dwindle, part of me is grateful for a new school year beginning, and part of me is sad for the vacation ending. Such is life. For everything there is a season. The waves come and go, the moments come and go, the feelings come and go. Everything is temporary.

On the Last Day of School

I had one last duty—lunch duty on the patio, probably my most favorite duty in twenty-one years of teaching. Outside, in the shade, with a breeze, I guarded the gate from student escapes prior to the state-mandated dismissal time. Even though the students had taken their last exams, they had to stick around for lunch by law, so I took my chicken sandwich outside and sat alone at a long table—to monitor the gate with my eyes and presence.

Students trickled through the glass doors from the building at 12:05. Two boys sat three tables over and behind me and played video games on hand-held devices. A girl sat one table over to my right and waited for her friends. We made eye contact. I didn’t know her, but I knew she would be my student one day, so I said, “You did it. How do you feel?”  

“It’s bittersweet,” she said.

I nodded my head in a knowing way. My students graduated the week before. Their finals and last classes the week before that. So, speaking of bittersweet, I had been doing a whole lot of nothing. Thumb twiddling. Some planning. Some online trainings. Not to mention those days I had COVID. School without students is not necessarily fun. I would rather teach any day, and now my students are off to do amazing things at amazing places. Next year will be another fresh start. New students. Some different literature. Another chance to do things better. Truth—year after year.

Friends joined the girl. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. They posed for selfies and cussed a bit and cracked each other up and hugged one another hard. Some ate lunch. No one tried to escape. They were happy for the upcoming summer and to be among friends. Aren’t we all?

This year has been wild, not as in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail wild, but as in surviving my first-year teaching seniors at a performing arts high school wild. Today it’s over for now, my last day of year twenty-one, reading a book and taking selfies, a bittersweet but happy start to summer.

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,
her name is Emma,
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!

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.

Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.  

‘Twas the Day Before Winter Break

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com
‘Twas the day before winter break
And all through the school,
Students and staff awaited 
the upcoming Yule.
 
The seniors were all 
just a bit brain dead.
I gifted them some time 
to get ahead.
 
A Holiday Happening,
a lunchtime talent show.
The kids and their gifts,
My mind did blow.
 
Singers and dancers,
A drumline, too.
A public prom proposal
and subsequent “I do.”
 
A Hallmark start  
to the two-week break
feeling thankful indeed—
make no mistake. 
 
Yet at the final bell, 
I ran for my car with a shout,
"Happy Holidays to All!
Mrs. Byers is out."

 
So sad I missed the school orchestra concert last night, but I woke up to Dvořák, and the world seemed alright. Peace.

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.

A Day in the Classroom

Back in the fall, I had the privilege to spend twelve weeks as a long-term sub for a good friend and former teaching peer while she took her maternity leave. In English II, our students studied culture, exploring their own backgrounds and heritage before reading Robert Lake’s essay, “An Indian Father’s Plea.” It’s not a piece that students love, but it serves as a study of persuasive writing and a segue into some important conversations about cultural conflicts.

Lake, AKA Medicine Grizzlybear and Bobby Lake-Thom, is a member of the Seneca, Karuk, and Cherokee Indian tribes. He is a native healer and university professor who writes his son’s kindergarten teacher a compelling letter about the systemic racism his five-year-old son Wind-Wolf has faced during his short time in public school. The teacher wants to call Lake’s son Wind, insisting that Wolf must be his middle name, and the other students laugh at him. The teacher also labels him a “slow learner,” yet in Wind-Wolf’s home experience he is learning several Indian languages.

Wind Wolf does make a new friend at school, but when he invites the child to his house, the friend’s mother responds, “It is OK if you have to play with him at school, but we don’t allow those kind of people in our house!” Another little white girl who is his friend at school always tells him, “I like you, Wind-Wolf, because you are a good Indian.”

This is a non-fiction piece. Wind-Wolf is five, and he doesn’t want to go to school. His father advocates on his behalf. Sometimes we all need advocates in our corner.

After reading the essay together and jumping through the hoops of the curriculum, I asked students to put their heads on their desks and close their eyes and answer a yes or no question by raising their hands. The question, I borrowed from Ms. Ranmal, my Canadian/South Asian/Muslim/first-year-teacher/friend next door: Does white privilege exist? I tallied the results.

Two of my three sophomore classes were equally divided by race. In those classes, the black and brown students voted yes, and most white students voted no. The students wanted their voices heard, and they went on to have eloquent, civil dialogue to support their opinions based on their own life experiences. My last sophomore class had a white majority. The one-sided conversation fell flat. Instead we watched Bryan Stevenson’s Ted Talk, “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.”

Overall, the student discourse on the topic of race was the best I had witnessed in my twenty years of classroom teaching (Thank you, Ms. Ranmal!), and students left feeling empowered that day. Do I need to say this makes me sad? Sad, not only to hear so many stories of discrimination, but also because of my own missed opportunities to intentionally structure these conversations into lesson plans for the past twenty years. The interchange is imperative from K-12. Our educational system can do better.

img_3812

In the days ahead, I’ll be featuring voices other than mine here on the blog. Thank you for listening and learning along with me.

Ode to Gatsby

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.

sand
Sands to Remember

Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.

That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.

crystal-beach
Destin, FL, USA

Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try, one I’ve used before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”

The Great Gatsby