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. I’ve used this one 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

Slowing Down My Pretty Horses

 

During the spring 2020 semester I’m taking a three-hour, on-line class—WRIT 6342: Writing Workshop Fiction II. One of the course objectives is to articulate how various stylistic choices shape a work of fiction. An assignment last week forced me to slowdown my reading and consider the effectiveness of a single sentence, word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause. When I teach again, I’ll use this assignment. Each week I have two to three assignments due. Once I submit my work online, my classmates read my work, and I read theirs. We discuss by commenting back and forth to each other.

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All the Pretty Horses Homework

From my professor: For this response you need to read All the Pretty Horses and the chapter on language in How Fiction Works. Find one sentence you would classify as baroque (highly ornate and extravagant in style). In 300 or more words, consider what makes the sentence effective. Yes, I’m asking you to write 300 words about one sentence.

“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives” (McCarthy 5).

After his grandfather’s funeral and before we even know our protagonist’s name, John Grady Cole reveals himself as a sentimental dreamer by riding on horseback out to the old Comanche road coming down out of Kiowa country. In this place, he hears the horses and the riders of the past. Narrated in the third-person, each “and” represents an echo of the rhythmic gallop of horses from a time when Indians roamed the land and fought to keep it. Nouns follow the repeated “and” provide more details of the place where Cole grew up, the land he is losing, like the Comanches and Kiowas did, and the unfairness of it all. We hear and see, the horses, their breath, their hooves shod in rawhide, rattling lances carried by the natives for hunting and protection and the drag of travois poles for restraining horses and dragging loads over the land. In this case McCarthy compares the sound of the drag and the image in the sand to “the passing of some enormous serpent.” In Native American cultures, the serpent is a fertility symbol, and others believe the serpent symbolizes the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. Even the word passing makes a hissing sound.

The young boys on wild horses are not much different than John Grady, “jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses.” We later see John Grady confidently break sixteen horses in the course of four days. An audience gathers, he performs, and they are mesmerized by the act. McCarthy likens “all remembrance” to a “grail” and in this case a search for a romanticized life. This highly ornate sentence concludes by setting up John Grady Cole’s secular, transitory, violent quest, leaving his dead grandfather’s land behind to be sold and passing from Texas across the Rio Grande in search of adventure as a cowboy in Mexico.

By the way, I watched the Matt Damon movie with Penelope Cruz before I submitted my assignment on Wednesday. Then I finished the book. What can I say? I was a little distracted last week. 

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren journeyed the six or so miles from her apartment to our house and brought over a box of six puzzles she picked up from Walgreens. We, too, slowed down. We started a 500-piece kite puzzle, revealing the bigger picture, piece by piece, and enjoyed our mother-daughter time—one conversation, one meal, one YouTube video at a time.

This past week reminded me to slow down. I paused long enough to consider puzzles and stories and relationships and priorities. We never know for sure what our weeks will hold, but for this one, I have high hopes as always.

 

Wildly Improbable Goals

Out of the clear blue, this message popped up on Instagram from Monique, my sophomore student eleven years ago. Eleven years ago I didn’t know that she had failed almost all of her freshman year classes in California, and I didn’t know she would only spend one year in Texas. All I knew was that she had an amazing gift in the written word and that we shared a love of English. Now she works as the Head of Community Relations for Get Lit Words Ignite in Los Angeles and empowers young people to use their authentic voices. Monique is a freelance writer and an agent for social change. She teaches writing workshops globally, speaks at conferences, and leads seminars. Her hustle landed her in Houston to close out the March for Our Lives summit.

Maybe you have heard of March for Our Lives?

In Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the site of one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Seventeen students and teachers were killed and seventeen more were injured. In the aftermath, a group of students channeled their sadness, pain, and rage into action, and created one of the largest youth-led movements in history. Monique would be a guest speaker closing the summit. Her topic— “Dealing with Trauma in Healthy Ways.”

In 2018 Monique spoke to the California senate influencing their decision to pass Senate Bill 933, a $50M arts education bill. As her proud former teacher, I just happen to have a YouTube clip. Meet poetry-in-motion Monique Mitchell, or as I like to call her, the next Maya Angelou.

When I met up with Monique in the lobby of the Houston Airport Marriott at George Bush International, she embraced me with an energy of love and light.

The reason I teach.

We sat down in the hotel restaurant, perused the menu, and ordered a drink. “It’s been so long. Tell me. What’s going on with you?” she asked.

If you happen to have me in an intimate one-on-one setting and ask me how things are, I will tell you without the gloss. It just so happened when Monique said, “Tell me. What’s going on with you?” I laid out my truth—the current shit show of my life, Acts I-V with the grand finale of me quitting my job the week before. (That blog post remains unpublished and password protected).

And you know what? I believe in God’s perfect timing to bring people into your life when you need them. Monique counseled me with her radiant joy and the insight of a licensed professional, and she made me feel like the thousands of students I’ve taught over twenty years stood behind me cheering me on. “What are your Wildly Improbable Goals?” she asked.

Most people my age stop talking about goals, not that I don’t have any. I just keep them to myself, you know, in case I fall on my face. “Well,” I hesitated, “I have been accepted into graduate school. It’s an MFA program in Creative Writing. I have to figure out the money part. I don’t like the idea of student debt at my age, and the university is private.”

“That’s awesome! Don’t let the money stop you. You’ll find a way. So what will you do when you graduate?”

“Well, I hope to publish at least one book.”

“No,” she cut me off, shaking her head back and forth. “Don’t use those limiting words. Instead of ‘at least one,’ you should say ‘the first of many.’” The student had become the teacher. “And where do you see yourself ten years from now?”

 “Well, with my masters, I could teach Creative Writing at the college level. Before we moved to Houston, I taught Creative Writing at my last high school, and those were my favorite classes ever.”

Monique sat for a moment processing all the words that had passed between us. “Tomorrow is the new moon,” she said. “A new moon represents the ending of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. For a while I’ve been writing out my intentions on each new moon. You can google the dates. I had been wanting to move to Africa and spend time writing a book, and I wrote down my goal on a new moon, and a path opened up for employment in Ghana.”

I stared at her halfway disbelieving, simultaneously knowing of her upcoming move and contemplating all of her success stories. “Are you serious? That’s amazing!”

She searched my eyes and found the connection. “When you set your new moon intentions tomorrow, open your journal entry with ‘I now declare all of this or something greater for my highest good and the highest good of all involved.’  Speak in the affirmative like ‘I now receive’ or ‘I am thriving in my master’s program.’”

And through my transformational reunion with Monique, I became acquainted with Martha Beck’s article “Dream Big: Why You Need Wildly Improbable Goals” from the September 2002 issue of O. The Oprah Magazine.

Before we parted ways that July day, Monique hugged me one more time and said, “We are blessed to be here. The world needs your voice. I love you!”

And oh my gosh, I love that girl, too. On 12/12 she heads off on her next most excellent adventure to Ghana, which reminds me of a wildly inspirational memoir I just finished—The Heart of a Woman, by the wildly talented Maya Angelou, who had one wildly improbable goal after another. Her story begins in 1957 Los Angeles, hosting Billie Holiday in her home, and ends in 1962 Accra, Ghana. Coincidence? I’m telling you, Monique Mitchell is the next Maya Angelou.

And as for me, I received a little scholarship, applied for financial aid, and found my way. I’m now officially registered at Houston Baptist University for classes that begin with a retreat to Galveston on January 5, in the new year, the new decade, seven days after my 50th birthday. How wildly improbable!

Speaking of wildly improbable, you’ve reached the end of my 75th post. Thanks so much for reading, supporting me, and sharing in my formula: Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope

(If you have another few minutes, I happen to have one more short film produced by Lexus for the holidays starring the wildly talented Monique Mitchell. Grab a box of tissues.)

How’s Your Day?

It’s Monday again, and this past week I just couldn’t shake last Monday’s lunch conversation. As I sat down with my leftovers, a young and adorable first-year teacher asked me and another twenty-something in his fifth year, “How’s your day?”

“Good,” I said, nodding my head up and down, no details to offer.

“Great!” said our other co-worker at the table. “Monday’s my jam. It’s my second favorite day of the week.”

Young and adorable laughed out loud, and so did I. “Why?” she asked.

“Well, Friday is my favorite obviously, and the weekends don’t count. Monday is a brand new beginning.”

“I love that. I’ve never thought of it that way before,” she said.

“Right? So many people hate Mondays,” I chimed in.

“Thursday is the pre-Friday,” he continued justifying the goodness of the other days. “And Wednesday, you’re halfway there. The only one I have a beef with is Tuesday.”

“My dad always said, ‘You can choose your attitude.’ I believe you’re onto something, Mr. B. I’m going to spread the word.”

Anyway, that’s it—I’m spreading the word. Monday, any day, life. It’s all a matter of perspective, and I’m thankful for my co-workers and their good energy. How’s your day?

The First Time I Fell in Love

The first time I fell in love, I was five—and I fell in love with a monster. The Monster at the End of This Book starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover. The illustrated Grover would read the title page, and when I turned the page, he would freak out in all caps:

“WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the first page what did that say? Did that say there will be a Monster at the end of this book??? IT DID? Oh, I am so scared of Monsters!!!”

Overcome with fear, Grover would muster the strength to politely ask me not to turn the page, which of course, I did. I knew Grover’s words by heart, and in my five-year-old mind, my impersonation of his Sesame Street voice was spot-on. I flipped pages as he tied them together with rope, nailed one page to the next, built a brick wall, and BEGGED me to stop turning pages. In the end Grover finds himself at the end of the book. He. Is. The Monster. And this Little Golden Book taught me some important life lessons.

Lessons from Grover: Labels lead to misunderstandings, and even monsters can be furry and lovable. Fear can be crippling, and more often than not, outcomes don’t turn out as bad as the build-up in your head.

Photo courtesy of listal.com, The Monster at the End of This Book was written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin.

I suppose my love of a good story started here with Grover, and I suppose that same love compelled me back to school to become an English teacher. I suppose this love is why I’ve spent the last twenty years in the classroom, and I suppose it compels me now to write stories of my own. And most of all, I suppose I owe the lovable, furry old Grover a huge debt of gratitude for forever changing my life.

Jay Z and a Little Psychology

Today started with Jay Z.

I wrote his words on the white board stuck to my classroom door. I typed them into my power point agenda right above today’s plan—Timed Write (2 x Minor) and projected it on to my screen. From there I said, “Did you guys know that after today I will only see all of you together three more times before your AP Literature test? That’s including today. And that’s why I want you to remember what Jay Z said, ‘The genius thing we did was, we didn’t give up.’” I pointed to the quote on the screen. “Some of you guys might know that I’ve been boxing and kickboxing since January.” I noted a couple of raised eyebrows. “When I started, I committed to going three times a week for three months, and I did it until about Spring Break, and then I went out of town, and after that I had some company, but I’m still there twice a week at least. And you know what? I can punch a lot harder than I could in January. And what difference does that make?  Well, none, except that I’m sticking with it and hopefully I can defend myself if I ever need to. But my point is—if you spend two to three hours a week practicing anything, you’ll see results, and that’s what we’re still doing today. We’re practicing, and we’re improving, and we’re not giving up.” I forged on. Certain times of the year call for psychology. “I know that the last thing you want to do is write back-to-back essays.”

I know this because yesterday juniors all took the SAT, a four-and-a-half hour timed test, and I proctored. At the end of the exam, I said, “You guys are welcome to move around and talk to each other until they release us.” As if I had spoken Greek, blank stares and a few blinks met my gaze. On top of yesterday, today and tomorrow my AP Lit juniors are all taking their U. S. History final exam.

Also, I know that after today we only have two more days, and so I passed out a packet of three essays prompts—a poetry analysis, a prose analysis, and a theme prompt based on a major literary work from this year—as I continued my pep talk. “And I only share my boxing because first of all, do I look like a boxer?”

I actually heard a “yes” or two, which is hilarious.

“Most days I don’t want to go, and often I think to myself, ‘I want to quit.’ You know how you hear your own voice in your head?”

I saw nods and their eyes. They were with me.

“Well, you can’t believe everything you think. And sometimes, you have to get back into your head and tell yourself the opposite. ‘I can do this…I can do anything for an hour…’ Guys, boxing is hard and kickboxing—” I just stood there shaking my head back and forth. “But I can do anything for an hour, and I’m getting better.”

AFTERWORD

Next class period students will self-score using rubrics and sample essays and spend time comparing these essays to past teacher-scored essays in their writing portfolios. After that, all that’s left is extra psychology, some last-minute tips, a healthy dose of prayer, and maybe some Shane Koyczan.

“We grew up cheering on the underdog because we see ourselves in them”

That’s My Middle West

“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.”

Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.

In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.

The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:

Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.

That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…  

(You understand where this is going.)

As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.