Language Lessons

My sister Anita writes me from Mexico about her struggle to learn Spanish.  “Sobering to see how much more naturally focused I am on what I say than that of others,” while her husband is much more adept at conversation.  Her conclusion: “…listening, the superior operative.  Learning Spanish with my husband and the reflection is, I’m ready to talk, he’s ready to listen.”  This is a sister-similarity between Anita and me.  You would think that self-awareness and a desire to change would in fact result in some behavioral shift, but, no, I’m still too much a talker.  In one way, Anita’s really lucky.  She cannot speak with the ease I can, at home with my native tongue.

I moved to Cali, Colombia to begin my teaching career, but I was 26, not 64.  Even with  relative youth on my side, I had studied only French and Latin in high school and college, and knew ni una palabra de espanol.  My ignorance, my naiveté emboldened me.  I didn’t know how difficult it would be, how many fumbling, frustrated attempts at communicating were in front of me, how many times I’d sit on a bus, surrounded by native Spanish speakers and imagine that they were discussing me, the green-eyed gringa.  As I told my sister, the word “No” is the same in both languages, something I greatly appreciated.  Granted, I became adept at “Si” as well, but only after time had made what was once a jumble of syllables somewhat discernible.

What this initial language disadvantage spawned was twofold.  First, I became a teacher who believed in active learning!  My second grade students were as ill-prepared for immersion in English instruction as I was in Spanish.  We learned together.  Math, my nemesis, became the one academic subject where we all spoke the same language, at least to a degree.  When tears threatened—on either side of this collaboration—we headed outside for a game of futbol or statues or any other release.  Out in the sunshine, in the basin of mountains, we shed our insecurities and grew together in laughter.  When chaos threatened, we sang…often.  We stood up and acted out verbs.  We talked with each other.  We spent much of our day translating, sorting through confusion.  I remember riding home one Friday afternoon thinking, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.  It’s too hard.”

By the end of the year, however, we had taught each other, and I had decided to do it again.  Granted I flew to Miami and spent the summer taking Spanish classes at Florida International University, putting a foundation beneath what I’d gleaned on the job.  No other year of the four I’d spend in Cali held either the obstacles or the enduring classroom experience than that first.

The second outcome endures as well.  I admire anyone who speaks more than one language, who stumbles to communicate, who faces daily language challenges.  I’d like to think that I’m less of an “ugly American.”  That expression, “Why can’t they just speak English?” smacks of a quality I eschew.  I have experienced language frustration from the other side; I hope it’s made me kinder.  I think about how I felt having lofty ideas, and well-reasoned opinions, but for want of verbiage, they circled inside my mind, trapped.

My sister’s husband gets to the heart of it: communication is about listening—about more than words.

 

Fond Farewell

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“Hey, Ms. Emerson.  It’s Katie J.  A bunch of us are talking want to get together.  What are your plans this weekend?”  This text comes mid-week in a frenetic scramble of days since our house sold.  We are having a get-rid-of-everything sale during the day, that Saturday, and even though I know I’ll be exhausted, the kids, however many a “bunch” represents, are available, so I’ll go.

Katie’s had not been an easy group—some years are like that.  Individually I loved so many of them, but together they could be volatile, unpredictable, so that year was not one of my best.  I used a lot of self-talk to recharge my attitude, to reassert the possibility of turning things around.  They constantly challenged me to bring the best I had to the table…every damn day!

In that eighth grade class a decade ago, Katie and her best friend huddled together writing and talking, lots of talking.  One student wore the same white hoodie almost every day, flipping up the hood as he sprawled on the carpet to find his muse.  One spent most of the year during my class in the bathroom; it became a joke to his peers, but continued to plague me in the years after he graduated.  These kids wrote amazing poetry and drew caricatures that mocked their passionate Language Arts teacher.  One wrote a story about losing his lucky baseball cap at a ticker tape parade for the Yankees that stayed with me (lucky because it was returned, the kindness of strangers).

Here they are on that night, minus one who had had to go home; she’d wrenched her neck and was holding it gingerly in that we do when pain accompanies each motion, but said she didn’t want to miss saying goodbye.  She, too, would be heading west, California though, “‘cuz it’s just too gray in the Pacific Northwest.”  Now these “kids” have jobs, work in the city, are finding their places, telling me stories about those friends who couldn’t make it.  I am nursing a beer a student bought me, disinterested in all but the conversation, their laughter and easy banter forged by life shared in a small community.  We are together again, and time has worked its magic.  As the “bunch” swells and the local outdoor bar becomes impossible—the noise, the crowd, the heat—we move to the end of a dock to snap this photo before heading out and on our separate ways, another memory framed, our futures before us.

 

It Will Be Enough

5:30 a.m. and the familiar whistle of an incoming text message from my husband’s phone disturbs the morning quiet.  I think, “Nothing good happens this early,” and then I remember that for many people we love, it’s 8:30, and they are into their day.  I check the texts though, to reassure myself.  Sure enough, it’s a message from my sister-in-law letting us know that Passover plans are underway.  Despite her missing us and two other “regulars” at our traditional-but-not-so-much seder, the celebration will  proceed—as it should.  She has just completed six-weeks of bone marrow cell replacement for a pernicious type of cancer that was diagnosed while my husband was en route from Jersey to Oregon.

Her message concludes, “So glad you are so happy on the West Coast.”  This is my not-sister-by-blood-but-by-luck in a nutshell.  Yes, she’ll miss us, but most of all, she wants her brother to be happy and being here is a longstanding dream realized.

Here, we’ve invited friends for dinner.  As the sun sets, we’ll be eating brisket and matzoh brie, enjoying salad and pudding with raspberries, no leavening necessary.  Our family, those who mark the beginning of Passover, will call us to wish us well.  That she is doing better, that her prognosis is good, gives added meaning to “dayenu.”

Beyond Bars

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(created in wordclouds.com from The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, excerpted in Longreads )

Daniel Fader had recently gained recognition when I saw him in a university auditorium in Maine in 1970.  The author of Hooked on Books told a story I’ve never forgotten.  He said he’d gone into prisons to bring books to the inmates.  He’d visit regularly, would create libraries, would talk to prisoners about their reading.

At one prison, there was a young man who couldn’t read well, by his own admission, but he’d heard his cellmate talking about a book, a book “about a whore,” and he wanted to read it.  Fader shared how he’d urged the inmate to reconsider his choice, telling him that it wasn’t an easy book to read— for anyone—that he might want to start with something a bit less challenging.  The man remained adamant:  It was The Scarlet Letter…or nothing.

Fader gave him a copy of the novel and expected, as he told us, defeat.  For a period of a couple months, he didn’t see the inmate when he’d visit.  Truthfully, he said, he’d almost forgotten about the entire exchange.  One day, the prisoner was there, in his cell, waiting for Fader.  He proffered the well-worn book, corners creased, cover softened, though the bars and in a soft voice said, “That woman, she weren’t no whore.”

Tears come to my eyes these many years later when I remember Fader’s story.  Already “hooked on books,” and enthralled by the power reading has had in my life, I read Hinton’s excerpt from The Sun Does Shine, and find, once again, inspiration.

A State of Mind

Each segment is better than the last, so when I begin composing this, I lose my focus.  That’s how generally wonderful it is to watch Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Art Beat on a lazy Sunday evening as the sun sets over the ocean.  Our neighbor drops by as the piece about Chris Cole, bike mechanic turned mechanical sculptor, begins, and I urge her to stay, to have some soup, to celebrate how amazing we humans can be.

I also think about how many other states there are, how many other brilliant artists create beauty in a multitude of ways and places.  Here is proof, and Oregon is only one of 50; that gives me hope!  Public Broadcasting gives me hope!  The fact that this country has been divided into regions, into states, seldom registers—except when I read yet another article about clashes between state and federal jurisdiction, or something about gerrymandering.

I know that since moving here, I’ve joked with friends from New Jersey, my former home, about how geographically large the land parcels are the farther west one travels, as if humans became tired of splitting things up, or negotiating boundaries.

So I love Chris Cole’s work, moving parts, rivets and welding, his scrounging through junk yards for those missing pieces that will be transformed by his vision.  Ben Saunders at the University of Oregon is legitimizing the academic study of comics and says when he retires he only hopes that its efficacy will be so entrenched that no one will question it.  The final segment features “Cardistry,” these young men who are members of an international group of avid card magicians, who oppose that label, saying there’s nothing magic about it; it’s practice, coupled with the joy of joining a like-minded community, and sharing creation.

Sandwiched in-between, third in this night’s line-up, is Ashley Mercereau, a young  woman who has returned to her native community of Cannon Beach.  “Why wouldn’t I want to be here?”   She admits that her work as an artist was a sideline until friends clamored for her designs.  Now she proudly does it all: creates jewelry, photographs her creations, markets them on Etsy, and has garnered clients from around the world.  For her, that connection—someone in Canada, or China, or France is wearing her art —gratifies and satisfies.

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” while honoring nature, says, “…doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?/ Tell me what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”  Thank you, OPB, for celebrating that landscape of natural wildness within.

 

 

More than Music

This music bears no resemblance to the ear-assaulting squeaks of beginner band in sixth grade.  When virtuoso Narek Arutyunian plays his bassett clarinet, the “licorice stick” awakens to his touch.  Before he performed Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K. 622, the humble 25-year-old sat with conductor and artistic director of the Newport Symphony, Adam Flatt, and shared a bit of his life.

He had found music at the age of nine; Mozart, a recording of the concerto that will woo and win us over, first worked its magic on this young boy.  By age 11 he had claimed top prizes in competitions worldwide.  His parents, both musicians, didn’t want him to travel the same difficult and often thankless path.  The bassett clarinet he will play tonight, he tells us, will allow us to hear Mozart as the composer intended.  This version of the clarinet, unlike the b-flat or a instruments typically used in performance, includes the deeper octave— a haunting, resonant register—as he demonstrates.

To say Narek is passionate about music understates the waves of reverence and joy emanating from him.  In recounting an experience where he’d had two of his clarinets stolen while eating dinner in a New York City restaurant, he explained:  “It’s losing part of my soul.  That’s what I tell the police at the station.”  They tell him to “forget about it,” that the instruments are gone.  So, he says, “I go to another police station.”  The audience chuckles.  The upshot?  The instruments are returned to the restaurant, the man and his soul reunited.

Words cannot capture this.  Never has the phrase, “You had to be there,” been so true.  After his concerto, the audience rises to its feet in a singular motion, applause, applause, applause.  Earlier this week, a fellow blogger had written about feeling inadequate in the company of friends who understand art so much better than she, who can discuss with intelligence and insight.  I sympathized.  I am not one who grasps nuances of fine art or classical music.  Last night, however, analysis sat in second chair. Greatness took the stage, and everyone knew it.

The First Gift

“Has your brother ever been called Nicholas?” my husband asks.  This question is one of those waking-up types, more to make sure he’s not dreaming than anything else.

“His real name is ‘William Nicholas’,” I answer.

“Then why does he get called Nick?”

My brother is visiting, completing repairs beyond our capability, and I realize that I’ve never thought about that. When I emerge from the bedroom to ask him, he’s awake and sitting at the table, contemplating next steps.

“Well, I came home on December 25th, so…you figure it out.”  Light dawns.  Born on the 20th, he and his twin sister were tiny and jaundiced and didn’t make it home until Christmas Day.  “Saint Nick,” he adds,” maybe not quite.”  He goes on to add that he’s always thought if he were a “Will” or a “Billy,” his life would have gone an entirely different way.  I think about Marge Piercy’s poem.  “If I had been called Sabrina or Ann” and her rumination about her name “like an oilcan, like a bedroom/ slipper, like a box of baking soda,/ useful, plain…” and Shakespeare’s Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Maybe the truth about names, the first gift given by parents, is somewhere between Nick and Juliet.

One way I had of opening a year with students, whether eighth graders or college freshman, was to ask them to investigate their name, write about it, and share it on the second day of class in a share-circle.  I’d tell them to consider nicknames, both cherished and odious, surnames, first names, almost-named names any possible name-related story.  I’d read Piercy’s poem and “My Name Is Esperanza” by Sandra Cisneros from The House on Mango Street.  Some of them struck gold, and we shared the wealth.

Once a young woman shared how her dad had carried a pink bootie with him throughout his wife’s pregnancy, so hoping he was to have a daughter to follow his son.  One eighth grader told how when she was three, she, obsessed by The Wizard of Oz decided she was going to be called Dorothy.  Rather than fight it, her mom bought her the gingham dress, and ruby slippers, and she had a Bassett Hound that she renamed Toto for the three months before her passion waned.  When I think of Heather, I still think “Dorothy.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was our second day of school.  Before they came to me, the eighth grade students had just left social studies class where they’d witnessed the first plane crash into the World Trade Center.  Not knowing what they were seeing, the teacher let the live footage run.  Then the second plane hit.  When the students stumbled into my class, they were shocked, undone.  One of the boys had had to leave; his dad worked in the Trade Center.  Others had family in New York City.  All was uncertain.

When they entered, the chairs were arranged in the circle, and on auto-pilot they found seats.  “What are we going to do now, Ms. Emerson?”  What are we going to do now?  I told them we were going ahead with our stories—because we really had no alternative.  This was what we could do now.  So we shared our writing, our lives, and bonded as a community with what we knew for sure, what we have in common: our names.

 

Power to Enlighten

TED: Technology, Entertainment, Design—Ideas Worth Spreading!  If you are interested in the history of TED, Wikipedia provides a decent overview.  The staggering cost of attending a TED conference, now at $8500, becomes less significant  when we, the general public,  can access the presentations of some of the most innovative thinkers of our time for free.  I am a TED lover, so today when an article in my inbox from eSchool News, “8 TED-Ed Lessons to engage even the most uninterested students” is featured I decide I’ll talk about my favorites, ones that have inspired my students and me.  TED-x presentations, ones that are sanctioned by TED but conducted outside of the annual conference, also provide satisfying food for thought.

Every Thanksgiving I watch Louis Schwartzberg’s “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.”  We need reminding, and he does it in such a humble way.  Students have surreptitiously wiped tears and sat mesmerized even after the class has ended to watch its conclusion.  They cite the old man’s reflections and Schwartzberg’s explanation of the phrase, “Oh, my God.”

Candy Chang’s tender, moving “Before I Die” generates its match in writing from my kids.  “Before I die, I want to be somebody’s cavalry,” is one of the lines we’ve discussed for its sheer magic.

Ludwick Marshane and his talk about an invention that came from a day at the beach with his friends has galvanized students to think about small things that might make a huge difference.

Matt Cutts’ “Try Something New for 30 Days” has prompted students to become vegetarians, eschew cell phones or a type of social media, use only reusable grocery bags.  I now give up added sugar for one month each year, usually October, and find myself into November without a sweet treat.  Halloween enticements just don’t hold the same allure after Cutts’ inspiration.

For social justice discussions, nothing inspires like Bryan Stevenson and “Let’s Talk about an Injustice”.  To be honest, I have excerpted it at times, using Edpuzzle.  When I do, invariably kids come in the next day and say they watched the whole speech at home:  “Ms. Emerson, why don’t you show the whole thing?  There’s so much more to think about!”  Particularly notable in this talk is his discussion of Germany’s decision about capital punishment in light of their history and our history with lynching.

For my students who for the most part are economically blessed, Mia Birdsong’s The Story We Tell about Poverty Isn’t True has inspired discussion about stereotypes and preconceptions.

National Poetry Month approaches, so in its honor, and because no single TED Talk has touched my students as dramatically as this one, I end here with Sarah Kay.  (All 18 minutes are precious!  That replay arrow will be spinning.)  My list barely scratches the surface.   Video moves us to read, write, and reflect!  Thank you, TED.

Water Baby

He’d throw newcomers in the pool, and I’d happened to be the unwitting first that day.  Jack Pobochenko, the swim instructor at our local athletic facility, wasted no time.  I bobbed to the surface; he swept me up and to the side with one burly arm and looked to the deck where my younger brother and sister quaked.  Surprise only works once.  The two of them scampered away, into the locker room, seeking the safety of our mother.  But I began my love affair with the water on that day despite a tempestuous beginning.  I did rise to the surface after all, and that has formed the basis of our relationship.

Like all relationships, we’ve ebbed and flowed.  My constancy was complete through elementary school.  Almost every day found me swimming, and before truly effective goggles, my post-pool evenings filled with rings around every light bulb, red-eyed misty attention on homework at the dining room table.  I competed on the swim team, but I was slow.  Stamina I had, speed not so much.  In high school after one more 6 a.m. practice where I fell way behind my fish-like peers, I voiced my intention to quit.  “No, Trish, don’t quit.  You’re the only one I can beat.”  Funny, right?!

I am not a quitter though, so I switched my focus to springboard diving and soon learned that water can be unforgiving, its surface unyielding when confronted head on. Throwing somersaults with that half added to wow the judges caused me brutal face and back slaps, repeatedly.  I’d watch the swimmers, their near-naked bodies sliding through water gracefully, while we divers donned sweatshirts in hopes of some protection, and second-guessed my defection.

I returned to the back of the pack in college, and comfortable in my almost-mascot role,  I swam through paper-writing, mid-terms, and finals.  Water comforted me, and competition existed less as motivation, more as an afterthought.  I just wanted to keep water in my life.

As Oliver Sacks writes in his essay, “Water Babies Why I love to Swim”:  “There is an essential rightness about swimming…the wonder of buoyancy…One can move in water, play with it…explore its dynamics…its flow.”  He says that his father called it “‘the elixir of life.'”  There’s magic in this medium.  Once I was asked to babysit my niece’s six-month old daughter while she and her husband attended a wedding.  She promised me they’d return early.  Baby Stella was nursing; no bottle would do.  About two hours in, she began to wail, unceasing, bereft.  Desperate, I took her into the bathroom, ran water in the sink, and sat her on its edge, firmly held.  She splashed and chortled, waving chubby arms and legs with abandon.  This is where her mom found us.

The amazing aquatic and recreation facility, newly-built nearby, and open for lap swimming almost all day contributed to the decision to remain in this seaside town, the pull of the waves a part of it to be sure.  Just yesterday I completed my mile, the water and me in perfect harmony.  Granted, there are mornings when we’re out of sorts, when our rhythms jar.   We’ve formed a bond though, and its worth preserving, ’til death do us part.

One Word

I am curious. Have you ever used this writing prompt? Create an “I Am” statement; fill in the blank with an adjective; then defend that choice in a paragraph or series of paragraphs.   Jim Burke frames this writing invitation in The English Teacher’s Companion as a way to begin argument and understand the purpose of a basic topic sentence and/or a thesis.  I have used it many times just to get something down.  If you’re contrary, you might write, I am not _____________.  I find that the trickier of the two, and today I’m not capable of anything tricky.

Yesterday afternoon I attended a webinar, “3 Cool Tools for Persuasion,” offered by the Source for Learning, their Teachers First website an almost-overwhelming resource aggregator, and their OK2Ask trainings impressive.  Why do I find myself attending multiple online professional development opportunities each month when I am no longer practicing my profession?  I am curious.  If I’m honest, while I’m not ready to undertake teaching again…yet, I do intend to at some point.  I want to know what is going on in the field that has shaped my life.  I don’t want to miss anything!

Tomorrow School Library Journal will be featuring the latest in graphic texts for young adults.  That is the theme of Shelf Life, my vlog, this month, so I can’t miss that, either.  I read a lot, and fast, which has helped me in my efforts to remain current, but it’s work —I don’t get paid, but I learn a ton…payment of a different sort, a bit like teaching.  When I sit down to write my script or record the fifth take, I imagine how it will turn out.  I had not known what it would be like to collaborate with my husband on a project, or how involved iMovie could be; now I wonder what else we can try.

The Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) is having its Spring Conference next month in Ashland, home to the renown annual Shakespeare Festival.  Within the first two weeks of relocating here, I joined the organization and have signed up for the Conference.  My husband will be able to reconnect with a friend from high school that he hasn’t seen in forty years while I learn more about Shakespeare —former students have performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with enthusiasm—and “deepen [my] teaching practice.”  It does not matter that I don’t have a classroom of my own.  I am all for deepening; I’m curious.

As a retirement gift, my best friends from work paid for the tattoo I had spoken about getting when I’d left the middle school classroom at long last.  One word, both noun and verb:

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