Writing about Writing

Right now, I should be grading. Or writing up my lesson plans, which are due by midnight tonight. I’m reading two books as well for school.  Teachers work after hours. Today is Sunday. These are the things that keep me from doing the things I want—like writing—for pleasure—or reading a book I’ve never read.

I have 180ish students, 140 or so in AP Literature and Composition, about 40 in English IV. Since a week ago Saturday, I’ve graded approximately 92 essays. Not that I’m counting. Okay, I’m counting. And I have approximately 49 to go, give or take. I try to grade 10 a day and complete the task over the course of 2 weeks. Yesterday, I graded none. I brought 27 home for the weekend. This morning I graded 3. Sometimes I obsess over the numbers. I count and recount.

I even took those same 3 essays with me to the coffee shop yesterday for my monthly meetup with my grad school cohort. I met my friends to catch-up and write, but I was at a loss for ideas, so I thought I might grade. If you’ve been reading for a while, you might have noticed my posts shrinking in length since I returned to teaching. I even featured an essay from my grandmother in a guest post recently. I wrote the introduction. 79 words.   

My grandmother has been quite popular on the blog. Her words resonate across years, and people around the globe have embraced her. Grandma would be so incredibly humbled to know. An idea dawned. What if I used the memoirs my grandmother left behind as inspiration for poetry or fiction? I bounced the idea off my friends. They liked it. However, I didn’t have the copies with me, so that idea would wait.

I opened my laptop and the Submittable page that tracks my literary magazine submissions. Last attempt. September 25th. Declined. Eleven submissions since June. Six declined. One in progress. The rest received yet unopened. It was time to try again. On my favorites bar, I clicked the link to Poets & Writers. If I had stayed at home, I would have graded some essays, but now I was on a mission to write.

Poets & Writers has a database of over 1200 alphabetized literary magazines and journals. From June to November, I searched for suitable publication matches, working my way from A to D. Yesterday, I landed on Dead Housekeeping. They accept essays of 250 words or less, “each focused on a task or series of related tasks as executed by people we’ve lost to death but still clearly see living.” I thought of my mother and her love of gardening and the tips she left behind. I said to myself, I can write 250 words.

My Grandmother’s Legacy

Grandma had a ninth or tenth grade education. Even so, she had a gift for words. Sometime in her mid-fifties, she wrote out her memoirs, long hand. Somewhere along the way, my mother made copies of those pages that mean more to me than anything else Grandma left behind. She has been gone for thirty years this December. The 11th. 1991. One month later, I would give birth to a baby girl. My grandmother’s legacy and love would live.

My Legacy by Catherine Savage

“I’ve never really enjoyed anything written in the first person—a primary rule about writing, and one of the few I know. Even in a letter is the abhorrence of the word or letter I. But just how do you begin or end or even put anything in the middle of this title without its use.

Money is such a transient thing, even more than life, that I haven’t considered it of great value. Possibly because I never had much money, I have just had a sour grapes attitude about it.

Love is the greatest commodity, and the giving of it always begets it. The thing I have to leave my children are their own lives. James Edward, Carol Rose, Sharon Sue, Joed Cleve, John Paul, each a lovely and loving person—all made possible by Edward Tony Savage.”

From l-r, my mother Sharon, aunt Carol, grandmother Catherine, uncles, Johnny, Joed, and Jimmy. Photo taken for a Wonder Bread campaign and missing my grandfather Ed, whom I’m sure was hard at work on an Oklahoma oil rig that day.

P—Prayer and My Grandmother’s Pearls

How many times have I put myself together to mask my falling apart? I have a classic move. When circumstances call, I dress to impress, say a prayer, and wear my grandmother’s pearls.

Grandma passed on December 11, 1991, almost nine years after Grandpa. She had been living in a nursing home after having a stroke a few years earlier, but that’s not how I remember her. I never heard a single ugly word pass through her lips. I remember the classiest of ladies who dressed to impress and loved the Lord. I remember her picture perfect two-bedroom home with the masters on the walls. All of it on a shoestring budget. She shopped at consignment stores, possessed an eye for elegance, and lived within her means. I inherited her pearls and her Van Gogh and hopefully her attitude.

And for those times that I need to conjure strength and normalcy and class, I stand up straight and choose my clothes with care. I say a prayer and wear my grandmother’s pearls.

A to Z Challenge

Do you find yourself being extra reflective during this time? These days (and the A-Z blogging challenge) have given me pause to give thanks for so many people and things in my life. I hope you have your own little collection:

A is for Apple and B is for Boozer and C is for Champagne and Chanel No. 5 and D is for Dad and E is for Epiphany and F is for Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope and G is for Great _______ and H is for Hatbox and Honeysuckle and I for an I and J is for Jesus and K is for Kody and L is for the Lovely Lauren and M is for the Marvelous Misti and a Dirty Martini and N is for the Numbers and O is for the Oversized Owl

Rejection Is God’s Protection

Once upon a time, I swallowed the bitter pill of rejection. Okay, probably more than once, but most recently, back in May, I interviewed for a job that seemed ideal. Said interview was a fail.

BACKSTORY:

Having taken the initiative to seek out the English department chair at a well-reputed high school three and a half miles from home, I introduced myself as a potential colleague via e-mail. After several pre-interview e-mails back and forth, I had established a rapport and had one foot through the door. I thought. The next thing I knew, I had a date for an interview. An opportunity arose to quit the job I had, so I did, effective at the end of the school year. I felt confident the new job belonged to me. Maybe I should say overconfident.

On the day of the interview, May 9, I taught. Actually, that’s not true. I monitored students. It was a standardized testing day for public schools across Texas. On this particular day, freshmen tested in my classroom, so my sophomore classes took place in an alternate location. At the time, my students were reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Instead of carrying a class set of books from my room to another, I planned a day of film clips and discussion, but the best laid plans often go awry. The technology in my room-for-the-day flopped, plus a number of students were absent due to re-testing (the Texas Education Agency says students must pass these tests to graduate), so I gave the remaining students a free-day, and I babysat. By the end of the day, I sort-of felt like I had been run over by a train.

After babysitting, I drove to my post Hurricane Harvey La Quinta home where the elevator was out of order, trudged up the three flights to room 310 where Rain greeted me with her waggity tail, hooked my dog to her leash and jogged back down the stairs and outside in the 90 ̊ sunshine for necessary doggy business, then plodded up the stairs once more to leave Rain and freshen up.  There I realized that I was feeling low and thirsty. The only beverage in my mini-fridge was an apple cider, and I may or may not have downed a cold one. I definitely tried to think positive thoughts and relax from my day, not to mention my nine months of life in a hotel. I brushed my teeth and hair then took the stairs for the fifth time that day to depart for my interview.

Other than looking presentable, I had totally neglected to prepare—no pre-thought to potential questions or answers, no extra copies of my resume, and worst of all, not even a note-pad or a pen. I thought of these things after checking in with the receptionist, and I knew going in I had made a grave mistake.

At four o’clock on the dot, the principal himself walked through the door, greeted me, shook my hand, and led me into a room with a hiring committee of nine people. Nine. Never had I interviewed with so many people at once. They started with introductions, which I abruptly forgot, and then the first question: “Tell us about yourself.”

I froze. My words conveyed little, or possibly they spoke volumes. If the interview could’ve gone worse from there, it did. At some point, maybe after, “Tell us your strategy for teaching vocabulary,” or “Tell us how you would motivate an at-risk student,” I gave up trying to impress them at all. By the way, this past year, I had over one-hundred students labeled at-risk of dropping out, and I concluded that I couldn’t reach them all. On this particular day, my attitude was like a volcanic eruption, and once the lava flow started, I couldn’t contain it. I spewed pessimism, the type of negativity that will take a person nowhere in life, and I know better.

I didn’t receive an offer, and I wasn’t surprised, but the rejection still stung.
Rejection is God_s Protection

Pamela, one of my bestest, wisest friends, offered her empathy. “I heard this one recently,” she said over the phone. “Rejection is God’s protection.” Surprised I hadn’t heard the saying before, I chose to believe. Pamela’s words reminded me of what my mother would have said, “Everything happens for a reason.” It took forty plus years, but over recent months, I had started to understand the reason. Our struggles strengthen us.

everything happens for a reason

FAST FORWARD:

All summer long, I have applied for new jobs, and I have waited. I’ve declined an interview or two based on the school’s reputation or location. Houston is huge and traffic is fierce.

Last week I landed an interview that seemed promising. The dean on the other end of the line said, “We need you to bring copies of your resume, your cover letter, and a lesson plan that you would teach for either AP Lit or AP Lang.” Clear direction from the administration. I love that. I can do this. And so I prepared—like no other interview in my life.

I looked back over ancillary materials from past Advanced Placement workshops attended. Even though I had never taught this lesson, I knew the one I wanted. It was an introduction to poetry analysis and tone, a comparison of Nina Simone’s 1965 “Feeling Good” with Michael Bublé’s 2010 version. If students misinterpret the tone of literature, they risk misinterpreting the meaning. The lesson involved student collaboration and a presentation. It was perfect. Thank you, Sandra Effinger (mseffie.com)!!

While researching the school, I discovered it to be a small 9-12 public high school, housed within a community college less than five miles from my home. Students who attend this school have to apply for the program. They want to be here. Again, I prayed for the right fit.

FAST FORWARD:

I wore my grandmother’s pearls to a very comfortable interview with a panel of four, and I heard Pamela’s words once more, “Rejection is God’s protection.” By the end of the day, after reference checks, I received a call for a second interview with the principal.

Two days later, I met with a lovely soft-spoken woman, the principal, and it was like having coffee with an old friend. She started with, “I’m sure that they bragged about our school on Monday…” She listed off the accolades, and we continued to have a conversation about teaching philosophy and what to expect in my classroom. As the interview officially concluded, she wrapped it up like a gift. “Our students are amazing. It really is teacher heaven.”

“That is so good to hear,” I said, “and I really hope you have a spot for me. Before our relocation, I came from teacher heaven, and I prayed to God I would find it again.”

She replied, “Every year I pray to God for teachers to show up for graduation.“

“I can be there,” I smiled. We shook hands. I felt at peace. Later that day, I received an offer I couldn’t refuse, and next week I will have a fresh start—year 20 in the classroom, this time in teacher heaven. It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life, and I’m feeling good. Thank you, God!!

Our struggles strengthen us.

I Feel the Urge to Purge

For two months shy of a year, I called a hotel home. The experience forced me to evaluate my space, examine my priorities, and submit to a crash course in minimalism. And now—upon reuniting with my reconstructed home and bringing my remaining belongings out of storage, I’m remembering our downsize two years ago when we moved from Dallas to Houston. I’m remembering how we sold our former home before we bought our new home. I’m remembering how movers packed our last house and stored our things while we lived in a furnished apartment courtesy of Kody’s company for a few months. I’m now remembering how we were at the beginning of about seven months of renovation phase one when the movers arrived for the unload…how so many things did not have a place inside the house during the remodel as walls were coming down and new floors were being laid…how the garage had stored unopened boxes from floor to ceiling, wall to wall at the time of the flood that washed away much.

And now—I’m opening boxes of surviving personal possessions, some of which I haven’t seen for TWO YEARS—things I have not missed. And now—I recall an article I once read on the topic of decluttering and purging. At the time, three fool-proof rules seemed simple enough to remember forever.

  1. Do you love it?
  2. Do you use it?
  3. I can’t remember, but I found a replacement via Google. Would you buy it again today?

Now the problem with the third rule lies in the so-many-things that I didn’t buy—gifts and memorabilia collected over the course of a middle-aged lifetime. What’s a person to do with boxes and boxes of stuff? Do I keep things because of the contentment…the joy…the nostalgia they bring, or do these things represent obligation…guilt? What about giving these things a new life in a new home? What can be recycled…what is trash? As I survey the big picture, I find myself thinking, If I were gone, who would deal with all of my shit? As I open each cardboard box and each plastic storage bin, I look at each item and ask myself, Do I love it? Do I use it?

Packed away somewhere, I have copies of handwritten memoirs from my grandmother, my dad, and my mom. Upon reflection, these are important…beyond price…they embody the family who has shaped me…they lessen the pain of loss. Am I a little sad about the loss of my grandmother’s flooded Van Gogh print—A Vase of Roses?  (A rhetorical question). On the back, the $2.00 John A. Brown price tag still stuck. In the days after the hurricane, I had tried to save the sopping piece of art, as if I were saving my grandmother. The masterpiece dried out on the driveway in the Houston sunshine and outlasted round one of the post-flood purge. Ten months later when pulled from the POD, I found the frame a survivor, the print severely warped and water-stained. The time had come to let go of Van Gogh, and there was freedom in the act of tossing A Vase of Roses high into the air, watching it spin over the 8’ walls of the rented dumpster in the driveway, hearing the gentle whoosh of the cradled landing amid tree clippings and cardboard boxes. I will remember the image always, and no longer having this relic doesn’t lessen my memories or my love for my sweet grandmother.

Van Gogh Roses

Van Gogh’s A Vase of Roses. I saw the original in NYC at the Met, an experience I’ll never forget.

As far as other things go, I have too many that don’t adhere to rules #1 and 2, and because someone else might love them or use them more than I, I find myself frequenting the Salvation Army donation center, where I’ve made a friend named Ontario. We are on a first name basis. Each time I drop off a donation, he smiles a big smile and says with a booming voice something along the lines of, “Well, if it isn’t the lovely Crystal. How are you today?”

“I’m great,” I say, “three more bags in the car. How are you?”

“Oh, you know, always finding a little razzle dazzle in my day.”

I smile in response, exhaling a three-syllable chuckle, and why wouldn’t I keep taking donations to the Salvation Army?

“Do you need a receipt?” he says.

“No, I’ll just add these things to the last one. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”

As I leave, his farewell is always similar, “Oh, and FYI…” He always pauses with a little drama, waiting for eye contact, and when our eyes lock, he continues, “Have an OUTSTANDING day!”

“I will, Ontario. YOU, too!” And I can’t help the smile that creeps across my face, the one I notice in the presence of people who feel like sunshine. If I can only keep up the pace of my purge, I just might soon and for the first time ever have a clutter-free home.

people who feel like sunshine
“Oh, and FYI…Have an OUTSTANDING day!”