Diamonds Are Forever

I have Donald Hall on my mind, Donald Hall, the prolific poet and writer inextricably bound to his farm in New Hampshire and the life that grew there, who died on June 24.  When someone dies, someone I’ve known if only secondhand, as is the case with most writers I admire, I’m always surprised that I didn’t feel the loss before I read about it. On learning this, I searched through stacks of books to find The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, published in 2015 and given to me by a friend with a note,” This book is from a publishing house Jomar [her husband] cleared out.  We salvaged what we could.  I thought of you when I came across it.”  Beneath it lay a copy of Old and New Poems. 
Hall joined a raft of luminaries at Duke Farms in 2004, at the Dodge Poetry Festival held in bucolic Hillsborough, New Jersey.  On the day I attended, Christin, my erstwhile colleague and game-for-anything companion, joined me.  She had a wicked cold and had to sit in front of the lodge fire for most of the day.  Were I a better friend, I would have ignored her protest when I suggested, “Let’s just go home, Christin.  You’re sick.”  Instead, I took advantage of her thoughtfulness.  The rain dripped constantly, the ground turned squishy, as the lot of us poetry lovers traveled from tent to tent, muddy pants bottoms speckled proof of our loyalty.
That day poets’ voices filled my head: Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton, Philip Levine and Yosef Komunyakaa.  I heard Billy Collins speak about his current disenchantment with fiction, its tedious plots.  Collins, who later reviewed Hall’s selected poems, 1946-2006  Apples and the Taste of Stone for the Washington Post, would say, “Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet. His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority.”
When I’d had my fill, I trudged my way back to the lodge and gently jostled feverish Christin awake, apologetic but enthralled—the poetry, oh, the poetry.  On our way to the car, we passed a tent with a long line winding its way inside.  “Who are you waiting for?” I couldn’t resist asking someone.  “Donald Hall is here.  He’s reading again tonight, but he’s signing now.”   It’s Donald Hall who wrote that a poetry reading “helps toward understanding…because the poet’s voice and gesture provide entrance to the poetry: a way in, a hand at the elbow…”.
This was Friday, October 1st.  What I knew from reading about Hall is that he was a rabid Red Sox fan.  He would conduct an interview with Noah Adams on npr in the wake of the Red Sox’s epic triumph that ended the “Curse of the Bambino” on October 20th.   He would explain that he’d had to do something to charm the girls after he was cut from the eighth grade baseball team, so he turned to poetry, and Adams would quip,”So you became a poet by default.”  This Red Sox Rejoice celebration yet-to-be would drive me to share Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,” the opening essay from Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball) with my eighth graders as a mentor text, its opening sentence “Like so much else between fathers and sons, playing catch was tender and tense at the same time,” the most enticing invitation ever—baseball player or not.
I looked at Christin, and she at me.  You have to love a friend like her—one like me, not so much.  “I’ll sit over there,” and she pointed to a cluster of chairs under a makeshift shelter.  I didn’t even try to demur; I stood in line.  When I finally reached Hall, clutching my copy of Old and New Poems, maybe not his best, but it held “Ox-Cart Man,” a poem-turned-picture-book that I had shared with my eighth graders, I was dumbstruck.  For some rock stars, for me writers.  Afterward I hugged the newly signed copy to my heart.
In an article for Poetry Magazine, “The Third Thing,”  Hall reveals bedrock relationship wisdom, which only now as I wend my way through retirement couplehood, I can fully appreciate:
“Through bouts of ping-pong and Henry James and the church, we kept to one innovation: with rare exceptions, we remained aware of each other’s feelings. It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane’s guidance that two people could live together and remain kind. When one of us felt grumpy we both shut up until it went away. We did not give in to sarcasm.”
He and his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, shared a life and a love—of poetry and of each other—and this inspired much of his work.
Some day soon, when we’ve found our next house, I’ll unwrap the framed poster I have from this Dodge Festival, the one that hung in our house in New Jersey for 13 years and moved with us across the country.  I’ll give it a new home.  Yes, that one, with Jane Kenyon’s words,
“I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…”
and the memory of Donald Hall.

Trust and Consequences

That summer, 1991, I had finally gotten my resumé in the mail to numerous possible employers.  After getting married, moving from Florida to New Jersey, becoming a new mom, and taking a break from my first “baby”—teaching—I was feeling the pull of the classroom.  I had taken the NJ Teachers Exam, been substituting at every opportunity, and returned to school, because this is what I do: I learn.  And I love school to guide me.  At its best, it affords its participants a place to explore ideas with others similarly interested while someone who knows more, or at the very least is galvanized to discover, leads the way.

That summer, my almost-three-year old son, went to his babysitter while I set out early each weekday morning, headed to Rutgers University in New Brunswick to participate in a National Writing Project Summer Workshop.  Our group of 12, a dozen people who became my Brothers in Arms, with pens and paper at the ends of limbs, were led by Deena Linett, a professor from Montclair State University.  Nothing fuels intimate connection quite like a three-week, five-days-six-hours-or-more-each day, sharing-writing experience.  I was fortunate to have the commute; I needed, at the very least, the hour-plus it granted me to regroup, both arriving and returning.  That immersive and intense experience changed me as a teacher, a writer, and a person.

On the morning that Deena failed to arrive on time, her characteristic, wide-open smile absent as we trickled into the meeting room from the outside world, we took it in our stride, at this point conversing easily, particularly with our writing trios, waiting.  When she walked in, however, her expression, her posture, the way she settled her things and herself into her usual seat, suggested that this morning was different.  In a few moments she spoke,”Why is it that people think if you’re nice, you’re stupid?  I am kind; I treat people with respect.  It is such a deep disappointment that some confuse that with stupidity.”  I’ll be honest, these words may not be exact; it’s been over 20 years after all, but her sadness and her question, the disillusionment I will never forget.

She went on to briefly recount her encounter with a mechanic before class, how his treatment of her signaled his lack of understanding about how she operates in the world: trust exists among good people; most of us are good people.  But she had been taken advantage of, and vulnerability equates with stupidity.  I am sure that it hadn’t been the first time she’d experienced this; what remains is that she shared it with us.  Implicit in my understanding of it now, is the truth that, despite any previously similar occasions, she had not altered the way she walks in the world.

Deena’s disillusionment, devoid of artifice, remains with me as I engage with Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray’s book, Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms, and their online discussion.  Last week’s conversation focused on shaming and its toxic effect on inviting and building trust.  One reflection asked:

“How might you have been vulnerable with your students in the past?  How do you think this approach might have helped you build trust and connection?”

Almost immediately I remembered Deena and that arguably tiny moment in the weeks of wonderful and uniquely edifying ones that the Workshop provided.  She was sincere. Vulnerable. Human. And she linked compassion and kindness as a default operating system with one of its inherent risks: others may label it stupid, naive, just plain duh-mb.  She shared that with us, her students, not part of a scripted lesson plan, but indelible all the same.

Writers are risk-takers, but that is true for all of us making our way in this fraught world.  We do not know how our kindness will be received, whether it will be reciprocated, if we will be deemed “stupid.” We do know that it is a choice, not without its consequences.

Here I am, once again, sending out my resumé, preparing to reenter the classroom, and realizing that Deena’s greatest lesson is one that sprung organically from her choice of coming at the world with an open heart, understanding that in being misread, the loss is the reader’s, not the text’s.  We write our story day-by-day; vulnerability is a worthy theme.

This Bears Repeating

Today Jenn Gonzalez posted a guest blog written by Sherri Spelic—Sherri also acknowledges the role that the Slice of Life blogging community fostered and shepherded by Two Writing Teachers plays, important to developing as a writer within any community—entitled “Noticing the Good Stuff.”  The writing is clear and specific and provides terrific ideas for honoring the positive in any classroom and school culture.  Having been retired for almost a full year now, I can say without qualification, that what Sherri advises is 100% true!

It also strikes me that very few educators will actually heed her advice or incorporate her ideas into classroom practice because, well, we are not a very kind-to-ourselves population.  The opening chapter of Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray starts with self-compassion as well.  Now that I have an excess of time, I work on this idea, but I know that when I was in the classroom, I did too little of it, as if the practice of noticing joy in the everyday was self-indulgent.

I hope anyone reading this, will read Sherri’s post, and think about how many of her suggestions are grounded in sound pedagogy.  If real learning is about relationships, as much research supports, then the “silver bullet” has been fired.  For example:

  • “When a student gives you a compliment, listen carefully. Which compliments do you hear from students most often? What do your students love about you?”

The idea of assessing patterns and analyzing metadata may be as simple as this.  If a teacher values and invites meta-cognitive practice, self-reflection among students, then looking for what works with students by their admission is a terrific place to start.  Their criticisms are also worth noticing, particularly in the aggregate, but compliments are where the gold is buried.

  • “When you examine student work, notice evidence of growth. List all the things, large and small, that you accomplished, helped along, kept in check, turned around, made happen in the process….”

To feel that you have created something improved is sometimes all it takes to keep going.  No matter what remains to be conquered, writing is always evolving, as are most skills, so celebrate the growth.  This suggestion honors both the writer and the writing mentor.  (Man, I wish I had done more of this!  It is only the best young writers who can slog ahead when all they receive is deficit feedback.  I think about how many times I tried to “fix” writing rather than reveling in the attempt of a writer to challenge herself.)  Writing more for myself now, I thoroughly realize the truth of this.  Someone commenting specifically on a turn of phrase or observation in a blog post makes my day, inspires me to work toward that effect again.  And my appreciation is contagious, I’m thinking, building confidence and engagement in my audience.  Kathleen Bomer, author of Hidden Gems, led a passionate session at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) heralding the same.  I didn’t listen hard enough then, but I wish I had.

When I return to the classroom, this is the one practice I will cultivate.  Perhaps our trying to do too much is at the heart of teaching; there is always so much to do.  But honoring the growth, the good we all are doing as learners together, seems like the foundation of it all.

**I’m adding this today, Tuesday, the actual day for SOL, because I have just completed HACK #4 in Stockman and Gray’s most thought-provoking book  .  Bill Ferriter, author of the blog The Tempered Radical, is quoted in this chapter focusing on equity, our “response ability.”   “‘When I start the day deliberately naming the strengths of my students, their weaknesses don’t leave me frustrated….I’m far more tolerant when the wheels fall off the bus during the course of the day'” (64).