a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Stories

My favorite part of summer is the time I am able to spend reading.  I love reading as soon as I wake up even more than reading right before I fall asleep.  Summer affords me the time to do so.  However, floating on a raft in the lake is by far the best place for summer reading. 

Today I am reading The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney.  As an 8th grade language arts teacher, I am often focused on reading the latest teen titles.  Over the past few years, I feel like they have gotten edgier and edgier.  It is so difficult to find books for 8th graders that contain appropriate content and still push my students’ thinking forward.  I have grown tired of spending money on books only to find I can’t justify placing them on my classroom library shelves.  So, this summer, I decided to take a break from the edgy and dig for gold amongst books that may seem “young” for my students, but just may be thought provoking enough to be worthwhile. 

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs is not disappointing me.  It is a quaint reminder that everyone has a story; there are stories hiding all over the place just waiting to be uncovered.

Needless to say, the book got me to thinking…

Here I am at my father’s house on Bass Lake in Knox, Indiana, a small town filled with characters like those of Betty G. Birney’s Sassafras Springs, Missouri.  In fact, I am even in the same house as some potential characters.  What stories do the people around me have to tell? 

Well for starters, the true life story of Jane, my dad’s life partner, is a story just itching to be written.  She was sent on a plane to the United States from Cuba to escape the rule of Fidel Castro.  Her mom was given the opportunity to send her to freedom, and she risked it.  She was told that she could put her daughter on one of two airplanes.  One airplane would end up in the United States, and one would end up in Russia.  However, she wouldn’t know which was which.  She took the risk to do what she thought was best for her daughter, and Jane ended up living in an orphanage run by nuns for several years in the United States.  Eventually, she was reunited with her mother. 

My father is also filled with stories.  As a young boy, he was locked in the closet when he misbehaved.  When I first heard this, I was shocked at the cruelty of my grandmother.  However, I had to giggle when my dad explained that he finally learned to hide toys in the back of the closet to keep him entertained, and ultimately to foil my grandmother’s plans of punishment. 

Everywhere I look in my dad’s house I find objects that take me back to my own childhood.  I guess that is an advantage of having a father who just can’t get rid of things: there is always something to trigger a memory. 

 I am thinking that The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs is likely to inspire many readers to search for stories in their own worlds.  Now I just have to learn to be okay with the collecting of stories like these and to be patient about allowing them to sit as dormant seed ideas until I am ready to make one bloom. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

My Grandpa Had a Writer’s Notebook

This past week, I opened up a box of papers my mother and I had gathered from my grandpa’s house after he passed away.  I hadn’t returned to the box since my mother and I initially browsed through its contents in my grandpa’s attic a couple of years ago.  I knew it held cards, letters, certificates, newspaper articles, and some things my grandpa had written.  I just didn’t know exactly how much writing he had done and how much it would mean to me. 
Sifting through my grandpa’s words was like an archeological dig into my own writing history.  And I’ve only just begun to uncover it. 

Some things contained in the box were special because they were gifts of writing my grandpa had given my grandma.  One was a valentine’s telegram and another was a New Year’s Eve note.  My husband and I got engaged on New Year’s Eve and I’ve always wanted to capture the magic and romance of that time.  This note, which my grandmother opened on December 31, 1938, does just that. 

The other message to my grandma was sent in the form of a telegram.  Isn’t a telegram just one of the most romantic notions there is?  Maybe it’s because it reminds me of one of my favorite books of all time, The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, which is a coming of age story about a young boy who delivers telegrams in the United States during World War II.  Maybe it’s because telegrams evoke images of simpler times.  Maybe it’s just because my grandpa didn’t strike me as such a romantic, but this moves me.

Another thing that interested me was the paperwork from a correspondence course in writing that my grandpa took in the 1960s.  It is from the Newspaper Institute of America and was meant to teach him to write well enough to be published in newspapers and magazines.  The paperwork includes the assignments (which generally consist of newsworthy scenarios to write articles about), the writing he did in response to the assignments, and the feedback he received from the course instructor.  He received scores in the following categories:  English, Accuracy, Style, Imagination, and Sense of Dramatic Values.  I am not sure what to make of that, but I am just fascinated by it. 

It seems my grandpa had been interested in being published since he was young because I also found this little article he had sent in as part of a contest.  He won, his article was published, and he was paid a dollar.  That was only the beginning of his article submissions.  The box also contained a copy of an article he submitted about winning the dollar.  He had hoped to win the dollar in the contest to get a new tire for his bicycle during the Depression.  However, when the dollar came in the mail, his mom marched him straight to the bank to deposit it into a savings account.  However, when the banks failed, he lost his money.  He said it was not as big a loss as others suffered, though, because his parents did end up buying him a new bicycle tire.  As an adult, he ended up writing a column in a local paper about local news events, but he never gave up writing and submitting his words for wider audiences.

I saved the best for last.  The one thing in the box that excited me the most was this envelope.  The envelope is one from the Newspaper Institute of America, but it did not contain papers from the correspondence course.  Instead, my grandpa had written in ink on the outside of the envelope “New Story Ideas.”  It is my grandpa’s version of a writer’s notebook!  The contents of the envelope include funny newspaper clippings, like one about a man who kept trying to start his car, to no avail, but when he walked away the car took off at top speed on its own.    There are also lists of story ideas, beginnings of stories and complete drafts (including evidence of his editing and revising).  

These papers are rich with fodder for writing mini-lessons and having them is like having my own personal muse from the past.  My writing world is that much richer.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Great Bat Spin Challenge of 2011

This year, the company who made yearbooks for our middle school included an “All About Me” fill-in-the-blank page.  The page includes a box with the prompt: My favorite teacher is ___________. 

Since I was feeling especially crabby on our school’s field day (school would be wonderful if I didn’t have work with other grown-up people), I worked to counteract my crabbies with playfulness.  So, every time a student gave me a yearbook to sign, I turned to that page and harassed them about leaving that spot blank.  I would say something like, “Hey, what’s this business?  What’s going on with this?  Don’t you have ANYthing to write in this spot?”  All the while gesturing wildly toward myself. 

My first supervision post was the Bat Spin station.  This is the station where one hold a bat upright on the ground, places his palm over the end of the bat, places his forehead on the back of his hand, twirls around rapidly in the bent over position, then takes off running in a dizzy, stumbling stupor.  Usually, two people compete in a dizzy, stumbling stupor race to a nearby finish line.

I had deliberately signed up for this spot knowing that another adult in the building wants the bat spin banned because it mimics the behavior of one who is drunk and it is “dangerous.”  I scoffed at the danger of the bat spin.  One man’s “danger” is another man’s amusement. 

So, as I harassed students and signed yearbooks, one student started to egg me into racing her.  I kept coming up with clever replies, such as “It is against the rules for my to do it.  I am supposed to be supervising; I can’t spin AND supervise.” 

Then she threw down the ultimate challenge.

 “Ms. Rush, I will not write your name down as my FAVORITE teacher unless you do the bat spin.”

The air stood still.  Everyone ceased breathing. 

“Give me a bat.”  I snarled slowly.

As I stood on the starting line, bat in hand, I saw another student look at me with large, round, desperate eyes.  “What if you fall?”  she cried out. 

“Then you all laugh, and I get up.  Life goes on.”  I was confident I could handle the challenge.

As I spun, I thought encouraging, powerful thoughts: I got this.  I am not even getting dizzy.  I’ll show that student who her favorite teacher is.  This is even kind of fun. 

As soon as I heard someone call out, “Go!” I lifted my head and began running.  Sideways. 
Those encouraging, powerful thoughts quickly turned into: Just make it to the grass before you fall!

It turned out I did not make it to the grass like I had hoped.  I fell right there on the black rubber track.  Okay, so I didn’t fall so much as I bit it.   

I rolled over and tried to get up, but gravity had me glued to that track.  It was karma at its best.  I was forced to lie on my back, officially turtled, staring at all the laughing faces. 

Luckily I was laughing too.  If I hadn’t been laughing so hard, I may have realized that I had ended up with a burning scrape on my ankle, a large bruise on my hip, and severely bruised hand (not to mention the bits of rubber track stuck to my clothing).

The cries of, “You are not even my teacher and I am putting you down as my favorite!” made it all worthwhile.

However the best part was at the end of the day.  I looked up to see the band director at the starting line, bat in hand.  I called out my warning, my plea to him to back out while he still could.  He swatted me away as if to say, “You may have fallen, weakling, but I’ve got this!”  Needless to say, he didn’t have it.