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Assigned Work: Growing Up

May 10, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.

Today’s assignment: What does it mean to grow up?


What does it mean to grow up? Of course, I could joke around about the answer to this question and simply remark, “I never have!”

But I have grown up. Despite wanting to stay child-like in my awe and idealism, I have officially become a grown-up. And I have a few things to say about being a grown-up: we can pinpoint moments of transition, there are things we lose in being a grown-up, and there are things we gain.

First, I can pinpoint moments when I had to transition into grown-up-ness. All of them, unfortunately, circle around times of grief and loss. There was the time I had to go with my mom to tell my grandmother that my grandpa had just passed away. That’s a moment kids are shielded from, ordinarily. Being a part of that moment was the first time I realized I was no longer a kid. I’ve also experienced the loss of my brother, my father, my niece, a friend. All of these losses gave me a different understanding and wisdom about this world that I can only describe as a growing-up.

Growing up also means that there are things from childhood that I lose. Being a kid means getting to jump full-on into play and creativity. As much as I love to create and play, there is now a certain part of me that doesn’t let it happen with reckless abandon. I have one foot planted in joy and fun, and one foot planted in the idea that I’m going to have to stop at some point because I’ve got stuff to do. I also miss the deep feelings and thoughts I had as a kid. Being a kid is really hard sometimes. As a kid, you take a lot of hurt and pain and you have to figure out what to do with it, and there isn’t always someone to tell you how. And I remember how hard that was, and I remember the memories of those feelings, but it isn’t the same as experiencing them in real time. I can empathize, but I no longer feel and experience things in the same way. I can’t completely identify or understand any more, even though I would love to.

Growing up doesn’t mean that you’re all of a sudden better at organizing things, at making friends, or paying attention, or managing difficult feelings, or cleaning your room, or eating better, or doing homework, or staying out of trouble, or that you like doing chores. But it does mean that you’re coming to things with a deeper perspective, a bit more patience, and a LOT more experience (often gotten the hard way). Growing up means giving up some things, but it’s possible to hold on to a strong moral compass, a love of creativity, a sense of awe and wonder. Growing up means forgetting some of the feelings of childhood, but having more wisdom, more compassion, more patience. I don’t think, at this point in my life, that I’d trade any of it back.

Assigned Work: Cat Fiction

May 6, 2021

This May, I’m committing myself to writing student-assigned topics. Some of them might be cut-and-dried, some of them might be bears. And some of them will reveal themselves in the writing.

Today’s assignment: Write a fiction dialogue about cats.

Okay, I’m wondering. Is this a full fiction story about cats INCLUDING dialogue, or a story TOLD through dialogue? Guess I’ll trust myself as a writer! I know I need to work on narration, so I’m going with the first one.


“Hey! Lydia! Quit hogging the climbing post,” snapped Goldie.

“Nah, I’m not feelin’ it,” replied Lydia from inside the carpeted hideaway. “I’ve finally got this spot warm, and I’m not in a mood to move anytime soon.” She yawned, licked her paw and gave her ear a quick smooth-down.

“You KNOW this is my favorite spot, now get off!” Goldie’s hackles began to raise as her ears went back.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” retorted Lydia.

“What on earth does that MEAN?”

“I don’t know. I hear The Weird-Os say it all the time when they fight over stuff. I thought it might work.”

“UGH!” said Goldie, stalking off to her less-than-ideal alternative spot behind the couch. Goldie could have chosen the reclining chair, the spot in the sunshine by the window, or even the nubby blanket on the ottoman.

All of those places are perfectly wonderful for a cat, thought Goldie. But not a smart cat. Not in this household.

Smart cats in certain households know the only way to true happiness is to stay out of the way of certain humans. Smart cats in certain households know it’s better to stay hidden as a rule, and only come out for exceptions: catnip, canned food, feather toys, and humans who actually know how to pet a cat.

Whenever she thought about the Weird-Os, Goldie had to stop herself from growling. Those two humans have no business being in a cat household, she told herself.

Granted, Goldie was more than happy to be IN a home. She and her sister Lydia shared a kennel at the pet store until the Weird-Os’ parents came to an adoption fair, fell head over heels in love, and brought the two of them home.

Home.

Home to comfy blankets.

Home to food that tastes like food.

Home to windows with ample sunshine.

Home to a litter box in a WHOLE OTHER ROOM.

It was bliss.

Lydia and Goldie shared their home with two grown-up humans who had nothing to do but buy cat toys and treats, offer a warm lap for sitting, and keep the catnip coming.

Until.

Until the Weird-Os blew home one May day in a minivan packed to the gills with all kinds of junk. Before they knew it, the house was littered with dirty socks, backpacks, college wear and the undeniably ripe smell of humans in their late teen years.

“You know, the one with the earring and longer hair isn’t so bad, Goldie. He knows the best way to become friends is to stay away until we decide we want something to do with him.”

“Unfortunately,” mused Goldie, “he stinks so badly that nobody in their right mind would want anything to do with him. And the short-haired one with the blue jeans?”

“Don’t get me started!” said Lydia. “She’s a problem. I think she missed that memo about waiting for us to decide when to be friends.”

“I know, right? She’s always dragging us from under the couch or the bed. Like, if I wanted you to pet me, don’t you think I’d be purring in your lap by now?”

“And who’d want her to pet them?” said Lydia. “There’s a reason why our fur goes in a given direction on our bodies.”

“It’s like she’s trying to squeeze a purr out of us.”

“Well she can keep squeezing. I ain’t purring. Not for her.”

“Amen to that,” agreed Goldie.

So Goldie and Lydia kept themselves hidden in the cracks and crevices of their home, only coming out when their older humans had a treat or a lap to offer. They snuck their meals only after determining the coast was clear. When the Weird-Os entered the kitchen, Lydia and Goldie would streak back to the nearest hiding place.

One August morning, there was an uncommon amount of hubbub in the house. The Weird-Os circled the house searching for their stuff. Socks and shoes on the floor gave way to boxes, to suitcases, to backpacks stuffed full to bursting. And just when it seemed every square inch of the floor was taken by STUFF, the human family took it all out and packed their minivan to the gills once again.

They heard the car rumble to a start and move down the street.

The house was quiet once again.

After a time, the older humans came back.

Alone.

“Hey! Lydia! The Weird-Os are gone. Do you think they’re really gone, or is it a trick?”

“I don’t know,” replied Lydia. “The minivan came back without their stuff.”

“Well, I think we should just keep hiding for a little while until we know for sure,” said Goldie.

Sure enough, the house remained quiet and calm. The only humans were the older ones – the ones who knew how to talk to and treat a cat. Lydia and Goldie slowly made their way from the shadows to return to their laps, their recliner chair, their sunny spots by the windows.

Until the next May…


The original Lydia, our cat during and after college.
The original Goldie, our cat when I was a kid

Assigned Work: Video Game Writing

May 5, 2021

So. I committed myself to writing student-assigned topics throughout the month of May. To tell you the truth, I could extend LONG beyond May. The kids had a great time (perhaps TOO good of a time?) coming up with topics they thought I should write, topics they themselves had a tricky time with. Of course, some of them were just having some fun with me.

The topics included the functional: “write a horror story without gore,” “write ten sentences in Shakespearean English,” “write a dialogue-only poem.”

Others invited me to think on an entirely different plane: “what is your view on racism?” “what makes us human?” “how is your vision of yourself different from others’ vision of you?”

There were a couple, of course, that were downright savage: “write a 5-page realistic fiction story.” “write a story while doing push-ups (dictation allowed).”

This, my friends, is just a PARTIAL list from one class section out of four.

Today, I’ll dip my toes into the water with this prompt: “Write about a video game you’ve played – no research allowed.”

Here goes.

I still remember the setup in our back hallway. There was a tiny black-and-white TV plugged in to an Atari game system wedged in the bottom shelf of our linen closet. You’d think it was a terrible place to have it, but that placement was perfect. You see, that closet was all the way at the end of the house, at the end of the hallway with the kids’ bedrooms. My parents’ bedroom was at the opposite of the house. No way could they hear how often we were playing, or how often we fought over the games.

My brother Mike and I could play video games on that black-and-white TV absolutely any time we wanted to. And we did. There was the Grand Prix car race played on the paddle controls, there was Asteroids, and there was Pong, an early version of lots of Breakout games.

But the real star of the show? Without question, it was Space Invaders.

Space Invaders was a game where you had your rocketship-shooter on the ground that you could move from left to right. Up above you would be rows of UFOs that would march down left…right…down…down…and you’d have to shoot them all before they landed on you.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick went the UFOs as they marched. As they got fewer and fewer, closer and closer, they’d speed their march, coming towards the rocketship.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick you’d race back and forth shooting at the UFOs. Level by level you’d shoot them down. As you gained levels the UFOs would go faster, would start shooting back at your rocket ship.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick if you were lucky you’d score high enough (a whopping score of 9,999) you’d TURN THE GAME OVER! which was cause for celebrations and high-fives, and maybe a bit of resentment that *someone* was hogging the video game.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick I’d wait my turn patiently, patiently until my brother lost a game – unless he lost too early in the game and then he’d say that round didn’t count. And the rounds that DID count took forever because he turned the game over who KNOWS how many times.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick went the UFOs, faster and faster. I’d keep my fingers crossed that my brother would finally lose, because I knew he wouldn’t willingly give the game to me, knew I couldn’t tattle on him for being a game hog, knew my parents would just take the game away because we were fighting.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick I waited my turn to get control of that joystick, that Atari, that black-and-white TV in the linen closet.

chickchickchickchickchickchickchick….

May Writing Challenge

May 4, 2021

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

My students are brave and inspiring and amazing – in writing AND in life.

So I’m dedicating May to them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much it takes for them to write, without complaint, WHATEVER it is we throw their way. Every genre, every challenge, every topic.

Yes, I do realize that we have things to teach them, and many of those things are important skills as a writer. Still. How does it feel when most of the writing we do isn’t actually of our choice?

That led me to think.

How would I do with assigned topics?

I’ve solicited my students for writing topics. I’ve asked them about the topics and assignments that were the most difficult, the most trying, the most frustrating.

And I’m going to write them, too.

Understand, this isn’t a knock on any of my colleagues. We have a job to do when it comes to writing instruction. Besides, several of the suggestions were assignments I had given them. I suppose I’m not always sparking joy, if I’m being honest with myself.

What it would be like if I truly walked the walk? If I made myself write whatever topic they threw my way, without complaint? How would I evolve as a writer? As a teacher of writing? As a human?

So, for the month of May, I’ll be picking up writing topics at the suggestion (direction!) of my students. It might be fun, it might be educational, it might be gray hair-inducing.

This month is for the loveys. Let’s go!

This post is for the Slice of Life Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Check ’em out!

Poetry Month Day 30: Winding Down

April 30, 2021

All of the tasks about me are stacking up
I’ve made and abandoned my to-lists
there is email waiting, work to grade
and please don’t ask about laundry
or the comments and the posts
Oh, to inhale poem
And exhale relief
All I need are
the right words
but first –
sleep

Y’all, it’s been a long month. It’s been trying. I’ve been tested in ways new and old over the past weeks. I’ve been in the wrestling ring going different rounds with my idealism, my cynicism, with perfectionism and imposter syndrome. I’m glad and grateful I’ve given myself permission to write every day, to love what I write sometimes, and NOT love what I write sometimes.

Tomorrow, I’m making a shift from poetry. You’ll see verse, of course – I can’t escape my favorite genre for long. And I’ll still do my Sunday Sit-downs on race. But I *do* have a trick up my sleeve, and I’m excited to share it with you!

Stay tuned…

Poetry Month Day 29: Signs

April 29, 2021

This evening
I saw
out the doors of my gym
a sun shower
and after showing
a six year-old how
wonderful the smell of rain is

I dodged the drops
to my car
all the time looking
at the contrasting steel gray sky

Knowing this was the
perfect time and place
for rainbows.

I craned my neck
as I walked,
then drove,
scouring,
searching,
wondering
how there could
NOT
be one anywhere

And then it hit me
that there are some times
we want signs
we pray for them
and search for them
but that won’t make them appear

Until
I drove north
and was doubly rewarded
so I’m not sure if it’s a sign
to be guarded in my sign-seeking
or if it’s a sign
that maybe I shouldn’t
ever doubt
in the magic of signs

Poetry Month Day 28: There Are Worse Things

April 28, 2021

than the obvious sources of joy:

a box that arrives
out of the blue
with an armful of books
and a brainfull of ideas

or a pupper who plays,
overjoyed
with absolutely
every
single toy she can find
(especially when they squeak)

the smell of lilacs
coming to me
in odd waves
as I step out of the car
or turn the corner around the block

and some bits of joy less plain:

the kid
who originally gets the answer wrong
but makes you realize that yes,
masks can be wonderful
because they are scary
because some people have fun
in the scaring

or the teenage son
telling me I’m like cheese
or potato salad in human form
and knowing it comes
from love

because joy must be accepted
as a gift,
with both hands,
however it is dressed
or wrapped
or bagged
or handed over
or slopped on a plate

Joy,
even in its
least flattering forms,
is still joy.

Poetry Month Day 27: Once Upon A Time

April 27, 2021

Of the ohsomany
soapboxes I yell from,
there’s one that lies
at the bottom
the one upon which
all others stand

It’s the one I first uncovered
in the dimly-lit museum
at the base of the Gateway Arch
as I listened
rapt
to the storyteller

and I couldn’t even tell you
who it was
and I couldn’t even tell you
what they told
just
that I wanted to be
up THERE
doing THAT

And it was this soapbox
that got me my first teaching job
after the interview was over
when the principal came back into the room
and said
you said you were a storyteller
tell us a story
and so i did

And it is this soapbox
I get to dust off every so often
when I visit a classroom
and share in the magic

And it’s no surprise to me
the way they listen
the way the rowdiest
the goofiest
the trickiest of all to reach
the squiggliest cans of worms
stop to listen
rapt
(I knew they would)

And it’s no surprise when
the struggling readerwriter
stands on that soapbox and
flies
shines
thrives
when it’s their turn
to speak what’s in their bones
(I knew they would)

Poetry Month Day 26: Bouquet, Interrupted

April 26, 2021

A single dandelion
is just a weed,
poking its spiky leaves
right where it has
no business being

and yet

a field of them
is a wonder to behold,
I thought as I gazed at the
carpet of yellow and green
on my way in from
today’s fire drill.

And then I saw her,
her kindergarten fingers
clutched clumsily
around the stems
she picked
and held while she was in line
and wanted to carry inside
I didn’t see her go in

but

I found these where she had stood.

Did she get bored?
Was she told to leave the outside, outside?
Did someone tease her?
Was she startled when someone said boo?
Was there a grown-up too preoccupied
To see and recognize her gifts?

Perhaps one of those things.
Perhaps any of those things.
We will never know what she intended,
only what she left behind:

glimpses of beauty
yellow, fragrant, withering
along the sidewalk

Sunday Sit-Down #14:

April 25, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

I remember in college
having room in my schedule
for a couple of extra classes
so I signed up for
multi-culti studies

which is where I first learned

about white apologizing
and also what-about-ism
masked as curiosity

and I remember
how hard I worked
to understand criticism of
dominant culture

and I remember I tried so hard
with my Nation of Islam paper
to understand how people could
hate my people
so very much
that I almost explained it away,
rationalized the caricatures
in the Final Call comic strips

but Professor McCarthy said
no
sometimes prejudice is what it is,
regardless of
whether it comes from the disempowered
and I thought

huh

well I guess that’s something new.

And I remember trying to make sure
my student teaching experience
brought questions of diversity past
FOODFOLKSFUN
so we had a debate about immigration
which was actually pretty eye-opening
(as a matter of fact,
so were the swastika doodles
one of my loveys drew in his notebook)

and I also realized
that for most of my kids
the question was not about color of skin
but the freeness of their lunch

(and something tells me
much of that is still the case,
and that if people really figured out
that the shaft is given
to people across the racial rainbow
some folks would
really be in trouble)

so sometimes what they needed was
to keep making their
New Year’s Dragons, their
Kente cloths, their
tissue paper flowers

as long as the love poured free
and so did the morning snacks.