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.

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

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.  

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

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?

Year 21

I’m from wide open spaces, endless horizons, and Oklahoma skies. I grew up dancing in studios on Main Street and dreaming of city lights and bigger audiences. A performing arts high school was beyond my wildest possibilities. There was no such thing in the rectangular strip of Oklahoma called The Panhandle, but never mind all that.

This coming fall I begin a new chapter, post grad school, and an exciting upcoming job. 1) I’ll be teaching seniors at a performing and visual arts high school downtown. 2) In twenty years of teaching, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach whatever I want. Until now.

Back in May, I received an e-mail from my new department chair. He asked me for my book list. The PTO would be ordering the following week. I had no time to lose. I scrambled to put my list together. I chose some texts that have worked for me in the past and some I haven’t taught before but LOVE. In my experience, if I love it, the majority won’t hate it. I’m determined to make readers out of non-readers this year. Some of my choices are edgy. I’ll need to prepare for alternatives. We’ll see how it goes.

During July, I must go about deciding exactly how I will go about teaching my anchor texts, and so here I brainstorm. With my AP Literature and Composition classes, we’ll begin with a mix of short stories and poetry before they tackle Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel will pair well with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” probably William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ll have to think more on poetry, but Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” should work along with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Jane Eyre is gothic, while  contemporary and feminist. As for Jane herself, she was orphaned and outcast her whole young life. Despite it all, she makes her way in the world and finds love. Granted, the love she finds has major issues, and so Jane picks herself up and moves on. There are some big plot twists here that make this novel oh, so worthy of reading and, of course, a classic.

My English IV students will also begin with short stories and poetry that transition to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. I see opportunities for more Dunbar, more Angelou, some Langston Hughes, maybe “Theme for English B,” Alice Walker’s “The Flowers,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” That should work. I need a calendar.

Both classes will end the fall semester with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel begins with the story of Kya, a young girl whose mother walks out on the family, leaving the children to fend for themselves at home in the North Carolina marshes with an alcoholic father. Kya’s siblings flee, her father is mostly absent. He eventually never returns. Kya must learn to care for herself. With gorgeous prose, a dual timeline, and the suspense of a murder mystery, Kya’s story is one of resilience. The same could be said of the stories of Jane Eyre and Maya Angelou. I may have stumbled onto a theme for first semester. Resilience. I know I’ll need some beginning a brand-new job, and I know my seniors will, too, as they prepare for their lives post high school.      

After the winter break, both classes will read Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. In medieval Scotland, three witches appear to Macbeth and prophesy that he will be king, except there is already a king. Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill the king, and this murder causes Macbeth some post-traumatic stress. The witches return with another prophecy—Macbeth has a friend named Banquo, and Banquo’s son will become king. To keep his title, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son, but the son escapes. At this point Macbeth goes mad. Macbeth returns to the witches one more time. Their third prophecy is more bad news for Macbeth. Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” works well here.

I’m thinking this semester will be loosely connected to avoiding traps. I have some related short stories. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates is dedicated to Bob Dylan and influenced by his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Hopefully, I can squeeze them in along with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

After Macbeth, my AP Lit students will read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Did I mention edgy? I’ll probably need a Plan B here. This seems like a good time for a movie—Oedipus the King. Maybe my Plan B is the Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles. (That just sounds mean. This is supposed to be a brainstorm.) In the novel, fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. (We should probably discuss the real Kafka). Anyway, our protagonist travels incognito. Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally. Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound. In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life. I’m thinking my English IV classes will read a book of choice during this time, which gives me the opportunity to recommend a plethora.

Both of my classes will end the year with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2018, it’s the story of a failed failing novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging, loneliness, creativity, grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy.  

These are the books I’ve chosen to reread with students, and they have been ordered. Of course, I’m nervous about how the ones I haven’t taught before will resonate. Now what’s left is my mission to make Year 21 the best one ever—for me and my fellow creatives. I’m guided by this thought: The kids won’t care what I know until they know I care, and I do. That usually takes care of the rest. 

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.

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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