It’s the advanced class that arrives third period, 32 of them loaded with smarts and spirit! I have my orders: Students should complete their essays on Machu Pichu. I have spent the prep period preceding this group to go over the assignment, the assigned texts, the writing prompt demanding a persuasive piece detailing the reasons why Machu Pichu is a worthwhile travel destination and using the texts to support the three reasons: architecture, culture, and nature.

I know these kids a bit, having substituted before. Seventh grade is a slippery age; they are not to be fooled. As I present what their teacher has left, the groans begin, and frankly, I get it. This is, for the most part, a cut-and-paste project. The students have completed multiple choice questions the day before in a sequence that provides them with all the pieces of the essay. Now they must type their multiple-choice selections into essay form. It begins with an introduction that concludes with a thesis and proceeds from there. In the end, all the essays will read pretty much the same.

Riley raises her hand. “What I don’t get is why we’re doing this. It is exactly the stuff the other classes are doing, but we’re supposed to be advanced. It’s just”—and here she characterizes correctly—”cut-and-paste. We’ve already found the parts and put them in order. It isn’t even our words we’re using.” I begin to explain that they can own the writing, revise to make the lede and close their own. This does not seem to quell the grumblings.

Another voice repeats, “Why are we doing this?” So I do what I usually do, ask them, “Why is your teacher having you do this?” They throw out torture, busywork, the standard responses, and after it gets repetitive, I interrupt.

“If I were your teacher, I would have you do this, so you’d have a template for writing your own persuasion and understand one logical way the parts could fit—not the only way, mind you, because truthfully professional writers undertake this same assignment for legitimate travel magazines and newspapers. They actually convince people to travel to Machu Pichu—for real—and they get paid to do it!” I’ve got their attention, so I finish, “What they do is own it, make it their own. Shakespeare said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ and that was three centuries ago!”

They get to work. I have no idea what sunk in, but they are good kids, and I’ve told them the truth. Riley raises her hand again, and her friend hisses, “Don’t, Riley.”

I go to her, and she’s sort-of working, sort-of chatting, and I say, “How may I help you?”

“I hear you,” she says, “but I don’t believe it,” and she begins typing, the right-answer packet open in her lap.

Yesterday A.J. Juliani, a guru of Genius Hour and project-based learning, featured an excellent blog post about engagement, targeting primarily teachers but creating an epiphany for me regarding students. He open with a graphic showing the way classrooms are managed and writes, “What I found fascinating about his [recently deceased educator Phil Schlechty] levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom working towards compliance instead of engagement.”

I have no answers here; the truth is compliance has been a goal of mine as well. But I will admit, from my perspective as a substitute, I immediately thought of Riley and of her peer’s admonition, “Don’t…. ” Why shouldn’t students question the efficacy of the way their time is being spent? And why shouldn’t we honestly foreground work with our rationale? Thoughts to carry me through Spring Break.

Time Travel


Book cover from Barnes and Noble

I will not let another day escape me, this I vow as I finally turn off the light and turn my back on the world I have inhabited since early morning. The world of Carlos Luis Zafón begs me to stay, even as the clock inches its way toward midnight, but I must go, a Cinderella scurrying down stairs toward necessary sleep.

I am reading the last in Zafón’s cycle of novels set in the Cemetery of Lost Books. I read the first one The Shadow of the Wind shortly after it was published in 2005. Have you ever had the experience of talking with a good friend, and fellow book-lover, after time away to discover that you have both just finished—and loved—the same book. In that moment, parallel lives intersect and it’s magic! I was reeling still from Shadow when I spoke with Maria only to discover that she too was still wandering the corridors of the Cemetery, pondering with Daniel Sempere the symbiotic relationship of literature and life.

Lengthy novels cast a different spell than their shorter counterparts, and novels as richly layered as these must be savored…but I want to make headway, too! Generally a fast reader, I can be overwhelmed when at 400 pages in, I haven’t yet hit the halfway point. When yesterday offered the kind of gray, weepy sky that has given the Oregon Coast its reputation, I ignored the clarion call of my swimming routine, walking the dog, baking bread—everything took a back seat to reading my novel. (Notice the proprietary shift? That’s what happens with a book of this stature.)

I did sleep, awakening at about 2:15 am, seriously considered returning to Barcelona, Spain, 1959, but  fortunately denied that impulse. Now it’s a new day; the sky has cleared, the soft-edged half moon shining. Labyrinth of the Spirits sits, marked at page 573, awaiting my return. That’s actually what prompted me to finish this “slice,” one of the criteria I set. I am usually disciplined.

I’m off to the pool as soon as I post this. Maybe I’ll sneak in a chapter or two when I get home, before a scheduled ZOOM get-together with my good friend Maria, East-meets-West. We always have a lot to say after a month away. I wonder what she’s reading…

The Paradox of Aging

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m backing out of the driveway as the TED Radio Hour fills the car midstream, but almost at the beginning of Linda Carstensen’s interview, as I later learn when I re-listen to this segment this morning at home. A professor at Stanford University, she is the founder of the center on longevity there. Her research supports her thesis that as we get older, we get happier. She explains the protocol, how she arrived at this conclusion and what is called “The Paradox of Aging.”

Then she tells the story of two sisters whom she interviewed who were living together in a retirement community and discussing a number of losses—of friends, of significant people in their lives. She replied with her observation that there seemed to be lots of people around with whom they could connect. To which one of the sisters said, “We just don’t have time for those relationships.”

At first Carstensen’s internal reaction was that it seemed their days were filled with time, but as she reflected more deeply she realized, “…she wasn’t talking about time left in the day; she was talking about time left in life , and I realized that, at some point in life we’re never gonna make a new old friend.” THERE ISN’T TIME.

In this blog I have written about some of my important relationships. Just a couple days ago, I wrote about meeting up with a childhood friend. What I didn’t say was that she made time for me in her day, showing up to chat for a few hours later in the afternoon. After she left my husband remarked that it’s funny how well we get along when we’re obviously so very different. She is one of my old friends. She is precious to me and I can’t make another one like her now.

This is certainly true, I realize, about my sisters who number among my old friends. It’s ironic because we had our rocky times in youth, particularly my older sister and me, but now as “our time horizons grow shorter” our friendship means everything to me. I will never share that history with anyone else.

I know we lose people—this is the attrition of mobility and time—but I am comforted by the finding that “Life gets better,” that we accept more, find joy in the right now more easily, feel less pressure from “the burden of the future.” As the segment concludes, Carstensen tells about a young man who approached her following her talk and wanted to know, “How can I get older quicker?” It is, as always, a state of mind, and as the days roll on, that state, that happiness, becomes easier to access—time’s gift.

The Whole Picture

Sometimes a poem grabs me and won’t let go. Would it be different on another day? Is it merely a convergence of mood and date or is it the unimpeachable, unbearable truth it wields? This is such a poem. I read it days ago, reread it this morning. Still the weight of it, its terrible beauty, assail me.


Smelling of sweet resin the Aleppo pines’
shadows grow taller by the hour. Two identical
twin boys chase each other through the shadows,
the one who’s ten minutes older yelling,
I’m gonna kill you while the younger one
laughs, Kill me, kill me if you can!
Day by day these teatime mortars
keep pecking at the blast wall that the boys
have grown so used to they just keep right on playing.
If they weren’t here in front of me, I’d find them
hard to imagine, just as I sometimes find
my own twin brother hard to imagine.
I’m supposed to be doing a story
on soldiers, what they do to keep from
being frightened, but all I can think about
is how Tim would chase me or I’d chase him
and we’d yell, I’m gonna kill you, just like
these brothers do, so alive in their bodies,
just as Tim who is so alive will one day not be:
will it be me or him who first dies?
But I came here to do a story on soldiers
and how they keep watching out for death
and manage to fight and die without going crazy—
the boys squat down to look at ants climbing
through corrugated bark, the wavering antennae
tapping up and down the tree reminding me
of the soldier across the barracks sitting
still inside himself, listening to his nerves
while his eyes peer out at something I can’t see—
when Achilles’ immortal mother came
to her grieving son, knowing he would soon
die, and gave him his armor and kept the worms
from the wounds of his dead friend, Patroclus, she,
a goddess, knew she wouldn’t be allowed
to keep those same worms from her son’s body.

I know I’m not his father, he’s not my son,
but he looks so young, young enough to be
my son—sitting on his bunk, watching out for death,
trying to fight and die without going crazy, he
reaches for his rifle, breaks it down,
dust cover, spring, bolt carrier with piston,
wiping it all down with a rag and oil,
cleaning it for the second time this hour
as shadows shifting through the pines
bury him and the little boys and Tim
and me in non-metaphorical, real life darkness
where I’m supposed to be doing a story.

Copyright © 2019 by Tom Sleigh. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 16, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.

My siblings and I used to run in the untamed woods that bordered our neighborhood when we were young playing war. Even though I remember the shadow of nuclear war that loomed in real life, the confrontation with Khrushchev, his raised shoe at the United Nations and his words, “We will bury you.” Sometimes hatred needs no translation; it stands alone.

Yet the twins play, these actors depicted here play and watch and worry. The reports come back to us, the sad photos, the devastation, and the two boys, someone’s sons—Are their parents alive?—become the imagined sons of one whose job it is to bear witness.

I remember the day the New York Times included VR glasses with its edition of the Sunday paper for subscribers. The paper was launching its 360 virtual reality platform, nytvr, with a feature about the youngest victims of war, “The Displaced.” I assembled the foldout glasses and watched in stunning clarity as the faces before me roamed wreckage and recounted their stories of war.

My son and his girlfriend had joined us for a rare visit that Sunday when the novelty that would become the new normal arrived. When they came downstairs, I told them what to do to make it work, and went to get bagels. I came home to them sitting at the table, quiet. My son lifted his eyes from the banquet of news spread before him and said, “Mom, if you’re planning to share this with your students, you’d better warn them. This new way of viewing may make some of them sick.”


Finding Happy

I’m driving home from the pool and notice a man walking on the sidewalk, facing me. He’s tall, with a black and white bandana on his head, and moves calmly but purposefully. And he’s smiling, a gentle smile, a truly happy smile. This is not what the sidewalks of my small Oregon town usually hold. There are many who push shopping carts piled high with…I’m not exactly sure. There are others who camp on street corners holding cardboard signs asking for gas money or for work. “I’ll work,” is the gist, “just give me a chance.”

This man is not one of them, or he doesn’t strike me like that nor is his smile manic, laced with disorientation. He makes me happy just to see him. I wonder what he’s thinking, what is causing that smile. I recall times when I’ve thought something that has brought what I think that smile is to my own face. I was driving away from a teaching job one afternoon and saw two kids, maybe 10 or so, a girl and a boy, stop and give each other a hug, before separating and turning down their own streets.  When little kids do something so genuine like gazing at a full moon we take for granted with sheer wonder.

I pull into the grocery store parking lot and go inside. There I run into a childhood friend. When I say “childhood,” I mean early childhood when as 5 year-olds we shared neighborhood wading pools and beach days. She’s visiting from the city for a couple days, planned to call me when she got home from shopping and like magic, there we are, wide grins on our faces —what happens whenever we meet.

In fact, now as I watch from the living room window, the Coast Guard members, who occupy a significant place in my community’s heart, for their ever-ready stance and harrowing rescues, are practicing drills in turbulent seas. Their commitment, the boats bobbing like surfers preparing to catch the next wave, makes me happy. Because it’s Beach Clean-Up Day, people and their dogs clamber over the beginning-to-build dunes.


Happiness…. Thank you, man-I-don’t-know, you’ve set this day on a joyful course.


Made to Order

Another bright, warm Mexico City morning dawns. From the terrace of our top-floor apartment—an airbnb rental with panoramic views—I can see the Starbucks on the corner…and I want some coffee. Neither of my sisters is awake yet, and I can stave off my caffeine deficit with some warm water. I’ll be ahead of the game when I actually get the coffee after all since I’ve adopted my new cup-for-cup rule.

About an hour later they emerge, tousle-headed but rested. We’ve been walking the city (as one tour guide describes it “the city that never ends”) and riding the Metro for days, with a couple of really early mornings thrown in for good measure. We need sleep! By now, I’m settled in, have almost completed journal writing and city gazing. My older sister Mary offers to make the Starbucks run.

Disclaimer here: I make my own coffee at home every day. I am not someone who hits Starbucks—or Dunkin’ Donuts when I lived back East. This rental has some amenities, but it also has its gaps, a coffee maker being one of them. There are bidets in every bathroom but no coffeemaker, priorities I guess.

“I’ve pretty much got yours, Trish. I can order the Café Americano, no problem, but I’m going to need some help with yours, Anita.” It turns out that, despite its bragging rights as one of the largest and highest capital cities with stellar museums and architecture combining the historic and the modern, English is not as ubiquitous as we had anticipated. Among us— “Las Tres Hermanas”— I have the most Spanish, so I write my younger sister’s order on an envelope scrap and hand it to Mary. She rehearses a few times, steeling herself for the unfamiliar. She is nothing if not an intrepid world traveler.


That scrap, my memory in artifact, is what falls from the pages of my journal as I rifle through, looking for the next blank page. And this is the slice it evoked.


LeGuin’s Gold


The Worlds of Ursula K. LeGuin, a 6:30 screening of Arwen Curry’s documentary, draws a standing-room-only crowd to the downstairs meeting room at the public library. Oregon has embraced LeGuin as its own for she lived, worked, and died on January 22, 2018 at her home in Portland. She and her husband had settled there early in her career, but she was born and raised in Berkeley, California and spent summers in her beloved family farmhouse in the Napa Valley.

I was not a fantasy reader, still am not, so my knowledge of LeGuin, my interest in her is recent. The Oregon Council of Teachers of English will devote its fall journal to her, and my husband is a longtime fan. Just recently he brought home a collection of essays about her writing, Words Are My Matter. The title, the topics covered, speak volumes. Early in Curry’s film, LeGuin says she can create worlds out of ink and paper. The words are the stuff of worlds—and that is true for writers. Poof! Something exists that was not there before. She just happens to be better at the creation that most.

Curry spent a decade creating the film, and as she says in an enlightening interview, that she was learning a new language, the language of film, because words are her “matter,” too. She features many contemporary writers who lend their heartfelt and glowing commentary about LeGuin to the film: Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and Michael Chabon among others.

Many revelations come to me as I watch, and when I watch it again as I must, I know there will be others. In one particularly poignant scene Jeff Becker, a Berkeley High School teacher, is discussing her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Of all her work, this is what I know best. I have read it with my college freshmen. The singular reflections of the students represent the breadth of possible response to this creation of a complex utopia, perfect in every way, except for its deep, dark secret: there is a child held in a dungeon in the bowels of the city—when residents come of age they learn this—who is denied any and all humanity. As Curry says, “Of course the student who owns that he would stay, forget the child who pays for the perfection he and the people enjoy,  and continue to live his life…well, there are people who pay for the life we live now.”

The second unforgettable moment occurs when Michael Chabon says, “She talked to me when I was 10 and still when I am 40.” Isn’t that at the heart of great writing, the essence of Rosenblatt’s transaction. No matter when you and the words meet, the magic happens, the alchemy of paper, ink, and reader: Gold!