Thoughts on Love and Work

I’m sitting at my kitchen table listening to my kids play outside with a group of kids who are African American, Japanese, Indian, and Mormon. I’m thinking about what happened in Orlando and wondering at what point we all stop riding down a dirt hill screaming and laughing together, and instead decide we all hate each other.

Last night, we got to the part in Harry Potter where Harry learns how terrible his father was to Snape. James Potter broke Hadley’s heart.

“So, he’s bad?” Hadley asked.

“Well, I don’t think he’s bad, but I think he did some bad things,” I said.

“He should’ve been in Slytherin,” Hadley said, but Jesse said, “People who are in Slytherin aren’t necessarily bad. They want power, and they’re good at getting it. But they have a choice how to use that power, just like everyone in all the other houses has a choice how to use what they’re good at.”

“Remember when Dumbledore told Harry that he always has a choice?” I said. “He can use what he has for good or for evil? I think that’s how it is with all of us.”

“So James is good? Does he get good?” Hadley asked.

“I think he’s good, Hadley,” I said, “but I think he makes bad decisions. Just like I make bad decisions sometimes.”

“Well, then maybe Voldemort can be good!” Harper chimes in, and she was thrilled to share her contribution. “If James is good, but does bad things, that means Voldemort is bad but might do some good things! We don’t know,” she said, and she jumped and spun around the bedroom. Lately, Harper never stops moving when she talks. She is constantly in motion, and the happier she is, the more she flies. “I’m gonna look for good in Voldemort!” she declares, reaching her hands in the air.

She has her work cut out for her, but I like her style. I’m glad she’s willing to look at someone who is terribly hard to love.

The last essay question I gave my 8th graders went like this:

Here is a quotation from a poet named Rainer Maria Rilke: “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating hearts, they must learn to love.” In three paragraphs, please answer the following questions:

  • Why would it be good to love if it is difficult to do so? How do you think “all other work” is preparation for loving another human being?
  • Who in Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie learned to love? Explain your answer.
  • Think back on your 8th grade year. How have you learned to love this year? Do you agree that this is the most difficult task?

“I think it is good to experience love if it’s not successful,” one student wrote. “It is good to love because you experience the outcome,” another one said. I love these statements. They suggest we love because we are in love, and that standing in and offering ourselves is what the point is, not what we will get out of it. We will be embarrassed. We will get hurt. We will fail. To guard ourselves against these things is not only impossible, it makes for a really boring life.


Here are some things I tried this year:


With my 7th graders, we held a court case for TJ Avery, one of the characters in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.


IMG_3042Everyone was handed an “official court envelope” with documents explaining their assignments and role in the court case.

IMG_3044IMG_3045Each student had to step into character whether it was for or against TJ. For two days, I watched as they tried to find justice in what they knew was a terribly racist case. Some of them had to play the part of the white folk who were actually the guilty ones. Others had to figure out how to defend TJ because it was the law and he had a right to a fair trial, despite the culture of the community. Almost all of us, including me, had to come to terms with how obnoxious and manipulative TJ was throughout the book. Suddenly, we all felt sorry for him even though he’d been terrible to the main characters. We had to examine the difficulty in finding we love someone who is difficult to love.

“This is great practice for when you read To Kill a Mockingbird next year, you guys,” I said, and I wondered whether when they meet Bob or Mayella Ewell if they will feel a slight bit of sympathy for either of them. Will it hurt them to read about her red geraniums? Will they wonder if Bob was ever a decent human being? I haven’t read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman but I know Atticus isn’t the man he is in To Kill a Mockingbird. I also understand that Lee’s father was a different man than he was when she was growing up. I wonder if Harper Lee redeemed her father to the person he once was, and I wonder if it was at the cost of Bob Ewell. I wonder if Harper Lee needed somebody to be put to death so her father could live.

IMG_3046For two weeks, I took the 7th graders outside to observe an object. They were to look at the same thing every day and take notes on it. Then, at the end of two weeks they were to type a one page summary of their observations. After that, they found poems from their summaries using a technique I learned from my friend and poet Stephanie. What you do is box the words you want in your poem, and black the rest out.

IMG_3047IMG_3048I hoped they would find poetry in what they first assumed was something mundane.

IMG_3021The 8th graders and the Kindergarteners worked with each other several times this year. On the last week of school, we visited the Kindergartners and had a Teddy Bear picnic. We read a story about a bear (No Visitors for Bear, thank you Aunt Barb for your immaculate taste in children’s literature!), we wrote stories about our bears, we had gummy bears and Teddy Grahams, and everyone shared their stories.

The day I took these pictures, we were walking down to meet the Kindergartners, and one of my 8th graders, a kid who makes me smile all the time but is a trouble maker with a capitol T, jumped to the ceiling, and knocked one of those sprinkler heads that go off when there’s a fire. I heard it fall with a loud clang and I thought, “Shit. I had plans for you, kid.” I picked up the sprinkler and handed it to him. “You have to go up to the office and tell them what you did.” My heart broke because I wanted him in the classroom. When the 8th graders walked in that day, the Kindergartners gasped and said, “They’re here! They’re here!” and I got tears in my eyes that I had to wipe away quickly. I didn’t want my student to miss hearing that someone is thrilled to see him every single day. I didn’t want him to miss out hearing that he is more than a trouble maker.

IMG_3024IMG_3028IMG_3033IMG_3035“It think we try to love to find our better halves,” one of my students wrote. My guess is he was playing off a phrase he’s heard adults use when referring to their spouses, but what if we try to love because a better part of ourselves is reflected in the smiles we bring to others? Or telling someone, “Me, too.” Or, “I can help.” Or, like the boy who rang our doorbell this evening and asked Hadley and Harper, “Do you want to play?”

My favorite statement was this one:”‘All other work,’ might be preparing us to love others, by using our work. Loving and enjoying the things we do is still love.” So everything we do is preparing us to love somebody. All those algebra equations, all those lab reports and hypotheses, all that slow reading of Romeo and Juliet, it’s all to prepare us so we can look at the broken world and love it still.

The kids are outside playing, though the light is fading. I can hear that the silly laughter and gleeful screaming is turning into nagging and nitpicking. They’re all getting tired. “Time for bed,” I’ll soon say and gather my kids up to walk them inside.

We’ll read some Harry Potter. We’ll search for the good in the story. We have our work cut out for us.

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A Haunted Storyteller – Post on Off the Page

The word “calling” has always bothered me. I suppose it’s because I have a hard time distinguishing between what it is that’s inside me that I should work to bring out, and what it is I feel like doing that day. I love pushing a pen across paper, finding, and waiting for the perfect words to write a story. I would also love to be a Luv-a-Bull. The pull to dance at a Chicago Bulls’ half-time game is as strong as the pull I have to write. You can see why I get confused about calling. Also, I am a Creative Nonfiction writer, which means that the line between what is true and what could be true tends to be blurrier than that Robin Thick song. This is to say I have a great big imagination and it’s not hard for me to believe that if I really want something, I can get it.

Thus begins a rumination on a catch phrase I’m pretty uncomfortable with. Read the rest here.

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Embrace It, and Pass It On

Day Thirteen.

The boys are playing this game where one of them slaps the other, really hard. Like, so hard that I can feel it in my stomach when it happens in my classroom. Then they slap someone else.

“It’s a game, Mrs. Feyen,” they tell me, smiling. “What you do is you slap someone, really hard, then that person slaps someone else.”

“Yeah, Mrs. Feyen, it’s about being a man. You embrace it, and you pass it on.”

I’m not sure what this game has to do with being a man, but I like the phrase this one boy gave me: embrace it, and pass it on. I’d like to think about that for a while, so I write it down on my notebook that sits on my desk. I walk back to where they are and sit down. I’ve split the class into two groups: boys and girls. They are having a competition – which group can write a better poem? Each group came up with requirements for the other team.IMG_2978I figure if they write four lines a day, they should be finished by the last day of school. Today, the girls have about ten lines written. The boys have zero, so I am sitting with them trying to give them ideas. They cannot stop moving. They cannot stop talking. They cannot stop slapping each other. I feel trapped. I look at them and think of the boys I knew in 8th grade. They were silly and ridiculous, too. And they made me laugh. Sometimes, it was the kind of laughing my stomach would ache from, and that’s saying something because I don’t remember even smiling a whole lot in Junior High. I remember listening to Depeche Mode. And The Cure. I remember trying to perfect the green eyeliner around my eyes and wondering whether I was cool.

I’m sitting with these kids, literally at the front of their insanity trying to help them write a poem, and I’m wondering what it is I can embrace about this moment and then pass on because certainly this has to be the reason I teach middle school: the belief that something magnificent is happening right now and it’s my job to capture it, and give it back.

“You guys,” I say, leaning on my elbows. “Listen. You’re so funny. You can come up with a line faster than I can inhale.” I relay a conversation back to them that they had a while back. It was about threatening to beat each other up. “We’ll meet at McDonalds,” one of them said. “OK, great,” the other one said. “But first, I’m gonna order a hamburger.” “Yeah, sounds good,” the other said back. “I could use a hamburger.” “With ketchup?” “Yeah, ketchup, mustard, and a pickle.” “Yeah, and fries, too.” “May as well get fries.” “Then we’ll fight.” “Yeah, then we’ll fight.”

They laugh a big rowdy guffaw remembering that conversation. “Why don’t you turn that into a poem?”

“We could each write a line roasting each other!” one exclaims.

“It’ll be hilarious,” I say.

Class is over, though, and still, no lines have been written.

I drive home and feel horrible. What have I embraced and passed on? Who cares anyway? What does it matter at this point in the school year? Probably, I’ve embraced the wrong things, but I think of those two boys I knew and how they made me laugh and anyway it seems like something to be thankful for. I couldn’t have said, “Thanks for making me laugh,” when I was thirteen and fourteen because how awkward would that have been? But I remember it, and I see it in the students I have now, and I know they’ve caused pain, but I bet that at times they’ve made the girls laugh, too.

When I pick my girls up from school, Hadley says, “Mama, I wrote you a note today,” and she hands me a piece of paper. Her handwriting is neat and there is a drawing on it. “I decided that I’m going to write you one note every day until the end of the school year.”

Hmmm, like a gift every day.

“I wrote a poem, and I’m not sure if you’ll like it, but I didn’t know what else to do with what I had, so I wrote a poem.”

IMG_3014IMG_3015“This is great, Hadley,” I say, and carefully place it in my wallet.

“Well,” she says, “those boys are funny, but sometimes I’m not sure what to do with them all the time.”

“I understand,” I say and we start to drive down the hill towards home. “Sometimes I laugh with them,” I add.

“Me, too,” she says, smiling.

“But I think it’s cool you took something from them and made your own thing,” I say, and she looks out the window at the family of ducks swimming in the lake we are crossing. We don’t have to go this way, it’s longer, but I love driving over the lake. Sometimes we see swans. Sometimes we hear frogs. Today, we saw a family of ducks swimming and stopped to take a picture of the mom and dad on either side of their children showing them what to do out in this great, big world. “I bet the mommy and daddy are giving them a tour of the water,” Harper says quietly.

“I bet you’re right,” I say. “So someday, they can do it themselves.”

IMG_2981We drive along, and when we get home, Hadley says, “I’m glad you liked my poem. I was worried you wouldn’t.”

“I love it, Hadley,” I say as we walk into the house. “Sometimes, you have to take inspiration where you can get it, and you did that today.”

Embrace it, and pass it on.

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Day Eight

Last Tuesday, when the girls and I got out of the car from school, Hadley said, “Mom! Get over here and look at this tree!” She sounded freaked out and being the nature lover that I’m not, I was already in over-reacting mode when I pivoted and turned back towards what my daughter wanted me to see.

The tree looked like it was covered in fur, and the fur was moving, and it wasn’t from the wind. Hundreds of thousands of bugs covered its trunk and branches and I thought I was going to pass out from the sight.

“What are they?” Hadley and Harper asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“What are they doing?” Hadley and Harper asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Are they a non-native species?” Hadley asked, to which Harper and I said, “Huh?”

First of all, who cares if they’re non-native? All bugs, whether they’re supposed to be here or not, freak me out. Second of all, anytime you use the word “species” around me, plan for  me to turn the other way running. This is exactly what I did. With the girls, of course. What kind of mother do you think I am?

“Get in the house! Quick!” I said. Then, when Hadley and Harper were safe inside, I did what every normal human would do: I took about a half a dozen pictures with my phone and texted Jesse with captions like these: THESE ARE F*&@ing OUTSIDE OUR HOUSE! WTF ARE THESE THINGS?!?!  WHEN ARE YOU COMING HOME!?!?! I THINK WE ARE BEING ATTACKED!!!!!

For exactly seven days these bugs were on the tree outside of our house. Over the weekend, my parents visited and I showed my mom, in the always calm manner that I do when things freak me out, and within minutes she diagnosed what they were. (She is brave enough to Google things. I never, ever, EVER Google anything. Not even things like, “How to give yourself a french manicure” because I will find a way that I could die. It’s a special talent of mine, finding death.)

“They’re tree lice,” she told me.

“WTF are tree lice?” I screamed. This is not true. I would never, ever use this language around my mother. I wasn’t allowed to say, “I have to pee,” or, “This sucks.” You think she’d tolerate my using the mother of all swear words around her?

“They don’t cause any harm,” she told me. “They feed off the tree, then leave. You can spray them with a hose and they’ll all fly away in a swarm.”

A swarm? I’m sorry. W.T.F.? (My dad is going to look up what this means, and never read anything of mine ever again. I’m sorry, dad.)

I don’t want them to swarm. Flying tree lice sounds terrifying. Besides, they don’t cause any harm to the tree. They just take what they need from it, then leave. I decided to leave them alone.

Yesterday, when the girls and I got in the car and they were gone. No sign at all that they were ever there. The tree outside looked the same as it always did: grayish-white bark, dark brown branches, brand new spring green leaves. You’d never know that less than twenty-four hours ago it was Tolkien inspired.

I can’t say that I miss them, but I wonder where they all went and what they’re doing now. I also wonder about that tree. Is it really OK? I suppose the tree has no choice but to just stand there while bugs take what’s good from it. Still, it’s comforting to me to know that’s one of the things the tree was made for; to provide for something growing. It’s also nice to know that after the bugs left, the tree is still standing beautiful and tall. Perhaps more so because of what it’s been through.

We were in the computer lab again today. Remember those boys throwing the stones? Three of them took a while than the rest to pack up, so I waited. I like to say goodbye and have a good day to all of them if I have the chance. They were talking about basketball as they shoved papers into their backpacks.

“Mrs. Feyen, who do you want to win the finals?” one of them asked.

“Ummm, the Bulls?”

They all laughed.

“I don’t know anything about basketball anymore,” I told them. “I saw Michael Jordan play once, though.”

“In real life?” they asked, holding the door for me as we all walked outside.

“In real life,” I said. Then, “Thank you for holding the door for me.”

I don’t think those bugs take everything and leave nothing behind. I bet there’s something inside that tree that’ll be forever different because of this spring interaction. I’m going to believe that she took whatever invisible things they left and used it to grow. Forever changed, forever stronger because of what she’s been through.

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Fifteen Gifts – Day Seven

I am standing at the copier when a woman comes in smiling. She’s so friendly and even though I’m not in the mood to talk, I smile and say hello. How’s the writing going, she asks me. I say fine because I don’t want to talk about how my writing is going. It’s going terrible. I am behind on so many projects and my thoughts are a three ring circus. She’s so sweet though, and I can’t tell her the writing is going terribly. If it were a graduate school friend, I could say something. I would tell him or her I don’t think I can do it anymore. I think it’s turned into navel gazing and I think it’s turned trite. We’d talk about this over beers in Port Townsend or iced coffee in the Tea House in Sante Fe, but I can’t talk about my writing while standing at the copier at school. I tell her it’s going fine and turn to the three hundred thousand copies I was hoping to make on Friday afternoon. Just once this school year, I wanted to go home on a Friday with no school work to do, but things went pretty wrong on Friday and so here I am on Monday scrambling to get my lessons set up for my students.

She nods and holds a book out towards me. It has a dachshund and a pig on it. “I have a story,” she tells me and I can’t see her face because the book with the dog and the pig on the cover is in front of her. “It’s creative nonfiction,” she tells me and the plastic protective covering crinkles as she presses her fingers on the book. I love that sound.

“So this pig has no family,” she tells me, turning the pages, “and this dog takes the pig as her own baby!” She’s showing me photographs of the pig playing with its dog brothers and and sisters. “This is true! She really did this for the pig!” Her eyes are sparkling as she shows me the last picture and here is the full grown pig next to its mama. The dog is about 100 sizes smaller than the pig.

“That’s a great story,” I say, and I mean it. I’m not an animal person, but I like this instinct we feel at times to help care for something that isn’t ours. “Well,” she says putting the book at her side, the plastic crinkling again. If shimmering had a sound, I think it would be the crinkle of the plastic covering of books. “You have a great day.” She walks out of the copy room and I am left listening to the whiff of papers shooting out of the copier. It’s a monotonous sound, an exhausting sound.

It was spring my Freshman year of college, and my friends and I were walking to our dorm. Spring makes me rowdy. I think it has something to do with the weather. You know, it should be flowers and sunshine and flip flops but it’s not. It’s rainy and gloomy and there are miles to go before we sleep. Or get a tan. Anyway, my friends must’ve felt the same way because we were not acting like Calvin students who were offering their hearts promptly and sincerely to the Lord. I can remember exactly the conversation we were having and perhaps if I were writing in the third person I’d recreate the story for you.

So we’re walking along, taking up the entire sidewalk and then some, yelling and guffawing and probably trying to trip each other when this elderly couple shuffles up to us in the other direction. The woman keeps her head low, but the man puts up his hand in an attempt to stop us. At first, I think he’s going to scold us for being in appropriate, but then I think, “Nah, he can’t hear us.” We stop and he grabs one of our hands and starts to shake it.

“Thank you,” he says shaking the hand he’s holding. “Thank you so much for taking time to learn and grow and develop yourselves so you can go back into the world.”

I think it was Alison, the most articulate and mature of our group, who said, “You’re welcome,” while the rest of us swallowed laughter. The man and woman shuffled along, stepping on the grass surrounding the sidewalk because we were on it. He hooked his arm with his wife’s so they’d be steady on the dirt with its lumps and divots.

What he said was not a turning point in my college career. I was never what you’d call an academic. The summer before I left for Calvin there were Luv-a-Bull auditions going on, and I remember wondering if I could convince my mom and dad to let me go to Junior College so I could try out and dance in the United Center during half-time. Still, I remember how excited he was to talk to us and his eyes sparkled as he spoke like he really wanted us to know how proud he was of what we were doing. For a second he made me consider thinking about what it was I might figure out about myself and the world beyond boys and Drill Team.

The paper burns a little as I lift the three ton stack from the tray and walk it to my classroom. I have to turn the handle of my classroom door with my hip because of all this paper.

“No more worksheets,” I mumble as I dump the stack on a desk. “No more grading. No more figuring out if they ‘get it.'” I turn on Miles Davis’ “So What” album.

Just shimmering, crinkling stories that stop them in their tracks and shakes them up a bit.



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Fifteen Gifts – Day Six

For an explanation of this project, click here.

Plants in glass vases sit on sills on one side of the Computer Lab. I think they’re real, but they’re the kind that don’t seem to need much water. Pebbles fill about a third of the vase and the green shoots out from there. I don’t know anything about plants or flowers or gardening. Maybe these plants don’t need any water to keep growing. Maybe all they need are those pebbles. If they’re real, that is.

Some of the 8th grade boys sit next to the plants. I take attendance and watch as one of them sticks his hand in the vase, grabs some pebbles, and chucks them at his buddy.

“Seriously?” I say. “You’re going to stick your hand in a vase and throw rocks? Really?”

“I didn’t do it,” the 8th grade boy tells me. “Also, he hacked my email.”

“You’re not supposed to be on email. You’re supposed to be writing.”

“I’m not on email.”

Trying to have a rational conversation with some of the 8th grade boys is like walking into a black hole. I don’t have time for it today. Actually, I don’t have time for it ever. Probably, they think I’m stupid, but I’m ignoring it. Every single person in this room has about five pieces of Creative Nonfiction that are jaw dropping fabulous, including these boys playing with the plants, and I’d rather help them with something that matters than have this conversation.

So I move on. They laugh when I turn and walk away. I take a deep breath, let my feelings be hurt for three-two-one and then I kneel down to another student. “Listen,” I tell him, “I think this is a poem. I don’t think it’s an essay. Watch me,” I take out a pen and I show him where I think a few line breaks could be. “Do you see that? Look how that reads. I think you should try to make this a poem.”

“Are you kidding me with this one?” I tell another student. “Do not change a thing.” She wrote a poem that harkens to Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” Instead of the stairs, she uses embers as a metaphor for growing up and keep on keeping on when times get hard. It’s stunning.

“I think your story starts here,” I suggest to another student, pointing a third of the way down his paper. “You’re clearing your throat in these sentences. Also, I want you to omit the word “grace” in this piece.”

“But I’m writing about grace,” he tells me, annoyed.

“How would you tell me what grace means if you couldn’t use that word?” I walk away.

Another girl shows me about eight memories from Kindergarten to 8th grade. She’s frustrated because she doesn’t know what to do with them. “What about writing a collage essay?” I explain that she can think of these as snapshots – photographs – that show a vivid image of a specific time period in her life. “It doesn’t have to have a beginning, middle, and end,” I tell her. I pick up my pen and show her how to make line breaks, how to design her story so the reader understands this is a montage of memories. “This part right here?” I say and point to a line she wrote. “Where you were lost and then your dad found you? That’s really good.” She was frustrated before, but she is smiling now and her fingers fly over the keys.

The boys are giggling and throwing rocks again. I walk over to where they are.

“He wrote inappropriate words on my essay,” one tells me.

“He put rocks down my shirt,” another one says.

Yesterday, Harper kicked Hadley in the head. Hadley spit in Harper’s face. Both were crying. “I don’t know what to do,” I told them. “Are you guys OK?”

It’s what I say to the boys now. “I don’t know what to do.” I am smiling when I say it because I’m going to miss them and I don’t know what to do and this is all ridiculous. “Are you guys OK? I mean, you’re both smiling. You seem OK.”

Class is over. For 90 minutes I did the best I could to bring out some truth and beauty in these kids’ writing. As they’re cleaning up, I walk over to the 8th grade boys and say, “Listen, can you just put the pebbles back? Just make sure they get back in those vases?”

They nod, dig out what’s in their pockets, and pour it into the vases.

“Thank you,” I say.

I don’t know if those plants are real. If they are though, I want them to have what they need to grow. Just in case.

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Fifteen Gifts – Day Five

For an explanation of this project, click here.

When Harper was a baby, Jesse and I would drop her off at the church nursery and say something like this: “She’s OK playing by herself, but she might realize we aren’t there if you start talking to her.” We knew she was shy, and talking to strangers, albeit friendly strangers, was overwhelming. It’s hard to feel those feelings as a 40 year old; I can’t imagine they’re smaller when a one year old feels them.

Neither Jesse or I want Harper to be defined by her shyness. We don’t want her to think she can’t do something because she’s shy. On the other hand, we want others to know she doesn’t need a lot of noise and stimulus to make her feel comfortable and happy. She’s quite content exploring the world with her best friend, imagination.

This is not to say she doesn’t want friends, or is unfriendly (though it may come across that way at first). It’s complicated, and as people who are still figuring ourselves out, Jesse and I, I suppose, were both eager to explain and protect Harper.

After a while, Jesse and I stopped offering apologetics for her and dropped Harper off to play with blocks and baby dolls. One Sunday though, a woman I didn’t know but who knew my name (one of my many flaws), greeted me with a grin when I went to pick Harper up. She told me what a delight Harper was; that she was impressed with how well Harper played, humming and making quiet conversations with the baby dolls as she pushed them in the stroller.

I imagine any parent adores hearing that another human being had fun with their kid as they are, and this was true for me. I have never forgotten this woman’s words to me. Every time I saw her in church I was thankful that she told me my kid is not only OK, but she had  fun with Harper. The conversation she and I had wasn’t really even a conversation. Perhaps ten words were spoken between the two of us, and that was all. What she said resonated, though. She let me feel that Harper is not strange, or too shy, or too emotional; that she is wonderfully and fearfully made.

These days I am overwhelmed with all there is to do, and all that is coming my way. I am tired, and my creativity feels low. Yesterday morning, instead of working, I sat down to check my email and learned that this woman, who said such kind things about my baby girl, died.

Maybe it is sentimental, maybe it is trite to cling to a hiccup of a conversation that happened between strangers, but what she told me made a difference and so when I spent time with my 8th graders, I imagined what I would say to their parents, who trust me to attend to them for 90 minutes every other day.

I believe there are infinite ways to say we are wonderfully and fearfully made. Today, I will attempt to say it 21 times:

Your child noticed that the only words in ee cummings’ poem today was, “You,” and “God.” When I asked if she had a reason why that is, she wondered if it was because he wanted readers to notice what’s important. “What’s really important,” she said.

Your child was the first to raise his hand when I asked what a metaphor is. “Taking two things that are different and making a connection.” Then, he wrote about high school – it’s an octopus, and all those legs are choices, different paths to go down, different decisions to make, and he doesn’t want to get too coiled up in all those paths and decisions.

Your child saw me in the hallway this morning and quietly said, “Mrs. Feyen, do we need Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie today? Because I have it. I have it!” “Yes,” I told him, “we will start that story today.” “Great!” he exclaimed. “Because I have it!” Today in class he drew a picture of a boat with searchlights and white capped waves. “In high school,” he wrote, “I will search for hope, and that is why my ship is called S.S. Hope.”

Your child told me today he can make the following: pasta, pizza, cookies, eggs, and something else but I forgot. He said it like that wasn’t a lot, and I told him, “That’s great!” He smiled and told me a recipe for penne.

Your child turned in the most beautiful poem today. Here’s a bit of it: “I’m from books, From the way the words float off the page, I’m from the characters who become like friends, I’m from the first page and the last.”

I read part of Sleeping Freshman Never Lie with the class today, but we had to move on to something else. Your child never put the book down. He read it for the next twenty minutes, not even trying to hide that he was reading it when we were doing something else. I’m so proud of him. I wonder if he’s found himself in a story. I hope so.

Your child makes the best and funniest facial expressions. It’s impossible for me to keep a straight face when he makes them. He helps me take myself less seriously. I’m thankful for that.

Your child has the best smile and best sense of humor, but it’s a quiet and quick sense of humor, and sometimes I wonder if part of the joke is how fast he can say the punchline. He  always has a punchline, and it’s always funny.

I’ve been trying to write an essay about pointe shoes and have been stuck for a few days. Your child wrote a poem about them and I read it today. “I’d rather be a used, old pointe shoe, hand-sewn, ribbons unraveling, smelling like death, stinging like life. To have been broken through the layer of silk, To be exposed to the rough, tangled wood, is to live.”

Your child is the first to say, “I don’t get it,” and one of the greatest artists in the class. “I’d rather be an old pair of cleats,” she writes in a poem, “memories, stories, within the shoe, old, been through the mud and grass. I’d rather be broken into.”

Your child writes about baseball in a way that almost makes me not afraid to play it.

Your child is always the first to volunteer to read her writing, especially poetry. When she begins, her voice is shaky but by the end I can tell she’s found a piece of herself in “doing it scared.”*

Your child is well-read, articulate, and a quiet leader in this class. Her classmates admire her, and so do I.

Your child brought me a donut one day. “I’m sorry for the way I acted last class,” he told me, handing me a vanilla frosted one with sprinkles. “I brought donuts for my birthday, and would you like one?” (He and Harper share a birthday.)

Your child once told me that every time she sits down to write she finds something new out about herself.

Your child sits quietly in class, and at the beginning of the school year it was a sorrowful, scared sort of quiet. Today, he is still quiet but he is happy. He has some buddies that make him smile. He writes about the same subject, and I’m proud of him for turning it over and over and wading through it again and again.

Your child has the most gorgeous handwriting. It is script, and it expresses a beautiful, complicated mind in the making.

Your child quietly walks up to me and tells me she doesn’t think she got it right, but she tried, and could I look at it? She always finds something I hadn’t thought of, or seen. Yes, I tell her, she got it right.

Your child writes about water, the ocean and surfing, and I feel as though I’m in the deep, blue sea when I read her stories.

Your child is witty, mostly with his friends in class, and every once in a while I get to hear what he’s said. I chuckle without him knowing I overhead.

Your child tells me she wants to write because she believes it will please God. I tell her that her writing already has.

We studied “Flower in the Crannied Wall”  by Alfred Lord Tennyson yesterday:

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies,

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand.

Little flower – but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

Thank you, Mrs. Holtrop, for holding my little flower for a moment, and telling me about it. I hope I can pass the favor on again and again.

*”doing it scared” is a phrase from my friend Jill Reid’s daughter, and I think it’s one of the best phrases out there.



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Fifteen Gifts – Day Four

On the drive to school this morning, I heard a story on NPR about a recipe for chicken that’s made in the South and is known to be “a punishment and a joy at the same time.” I had to pull out my notebook and write those words down because I knew that anything considered a punishment and a joy had to have a good story to it. Plus, the woman who said those words was Southern, and Southerners, God bless ’em, they know how to tell a story. I’ve never met someone from the South who can’t deliver the you-know-what out of a line.

The story goes that this recipe that calls for loads of cayenne, hot sauce, vinegar, pickle juice and whatever else to make a thick red sauce you slather on the chicken, originated out of a wife’s frustration over her philandering husband. The recipe’s so spicy sweat pops from your forehead and I think your throat’s at risk for closing up shop. Turns out, the cheater loved it, and the recipe, which I think is over 60 years old, took off. I don’t know if he stuck around, and stopped being a donkey. All I know is the punishment was equally brutal and wonderful.

“It’s a craving worse than anything,” one gentleman drawled.

I wish I knew what happened with that woman and her butthead husband. Did the spicy deliciousness bring him to his knees so that he apologized and never said, “I”ll be home late tonight,” again? Did she break off a chicken leg and hit him on the head with it then say, “This is the last meal you’ll ever have in this house I hope you die a little every time you’re eating McDonald’s chicken nuggets”?

I think that’s my problem – I hope for change but it’s likely I’ll ever know if that recipe was good enough to change a jerk and save a marriage. All I know is that I’ve been thinking about this chicken all day and when I see Jesse I’m going to tell him about it. He’s going to try to re-create it, and both of us will be equally terrified and giddy about eating it. We’ll lick our fingers, open another beer, and not think for a second about the change a joyous punishment might bring.

I understand a thing that’s a punishment and a joy. It’s like dwelling in possibility, like a small bird called Hope that sings without words and never stops, and never asks anything of me. “There’s nothing you can do,” Hope says, “I’m perched in your soul, and I come and go as a please.”

These poems of Emily Dickinson’s  I’m harkening back to are what we read in class today. I don’t think the students got them and I’m sure it’s because I didn’t explain them well. I tried to. I tried to talk about the cedars in the second stanza, and how they might be a type of tree, so Possibility might a place to grow. Or maybe since the cedars are referred to frequently in the Bible, Dickinson is suggesting poetry is as holy as scripture. How great, I thought as I prepped my notes. Which one will they dwell in? Or, will they come up with another interpretation?

Some fell asleep. Others threw paper. One went to the nurse and I swear nothing was wrong but I can’t do anything to prove it.

It’s miserable when I can’t connect with them. Still, Hope perches in my soul and it won’t fly away. I don’t think I accept that it won’t ask anything of me, though. How can that be? What is wrong with my belief system that I insist it is all up to me and the work I do and how well I do it that will make Hope stay? How is it that Hope dwells in this house, makes it feel beautiful and capable and full of possibility and never asks for a thing? What kind of love is this where you understand the punishment but refuse to stop because there’s simply to much joy to eat?

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Fifteen Gifts – Day Three

For an explanation of this project, click here.

Today we worked on character, and character for Creative Nonfiction can be a tricky thing because, like all things CNF, you have to work with what’s there. You can’t make someone funny or kind if they’re not. If a person is scared or obnoxious for example, you have to write them that way.

“Don’t write the word obnoxious,” I told the students. I pulled a Mark Twain and told the students to take that old lady out and make her scream. Or, in this case, take her out and make her give you unwanted advice.

I passed out worksheets with about a billion adjectives for personalities on it: eager, quiet, compassionate. I had the students choose one minor character in one of the CNF essays we are studying and circle adjectives for that person.

“Now write that story from this character’s point of view. Given what you understand about their personality, how would this character tell the story?”

At the Festival of Faith and Writing, I went to a seminar about Young Adult Fiction, and I believe it was Bryan Bliss who said that, “love is the realization that someone is real.” I want my 8th graders to write great characters. However,  studying a real person with all their flaws and sins, then writing that person in a way that the reader can relate, understand, or even love that person is the concept I want them to take away from my class.

Writing Creative Nonfiction is an act of faith for me. Don’t get me wrong, I rarely pray. I never witness. I swear quite a bit and I’m a bit of a gossip. But when I sit down to write, I imagine God asking this: LOOK! (and yes, I think he says this in all caps) HERE’S WHAT I GAVE YOU. WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO WITH IT?” It seems that, to name something about a person is a bit like writing them off. “She’s smart.” He’s reliable.” “He’s boisterous.” “She’s manipulative.” It’s been my experience that when I can’t use those words and I have to instead write about a time when someone was that way, I see more to the story. I see more to that person. So I write, and I say to God, (not in all caps because I’m shy), “Here’s what You gave me. Here’s what I did with it. What do you think?” I suppose trying to teach the 8th graders CNF is a little like sharing my faith with them.

After our break, we worked on poetry. “Barbara Frietchie” was the poem we looked at.

“That’s a man named Barbara!” one of the students said, looking at the poet’s picture.

“What?” another student said. “Why would any parents name their boy Barbara?”

“HE HAS A BEARD!” one student exclaimed, tapping the textbook.

“Well, he didn’t have a beard when he was a baby,” another one reasoned.

“Who cares? You don’t name a baby boy Barbara!”

“‘Barbara Frietchie’ is the title of the poem,” I told the class. “The author is John Greenleaf Whittier.”

“OH!!!!! HAHAHAHAHA! WE thought that man’s name was Barbara! HAHAHAHAHA!”

We read the poem and discuss rhythm and rhyming patterns. We talk about iambic tetrameter and I reminded the class that Romeo and Juliet is written in iambic pentameter. We talked a bit about what this woman did and how she must’ve been pretty brave.

I am fascinated by authors’ ability to write evocative stories in a specific form, but I didn’t share that observation with the class. My writing has felt tired lately, and a friend suggested I try writing an essay in form: lyric, or braided, for example. I’ve been paying attention and wondering about telling a story in form, and today was one of those instances when my writing habits got too close to my students and I wasn’t bold enough or sure enough to tell them sometimes, especially now, I am afraid to write.

Instead, I handed them a photocopied page of one of the CNF essays they’ve read. I explained that they need to create a Black Out Poem. This is a fun poem to make. What you do is find a set of words throughout the page that create poetry, then black out the rest.

“What’s the meter?” one student asked.

“No meter,” I said.

“Does it have to rhyme?” another one wondered.

“Nope. You can’t add words, and the poem must start at the top and read down the page,” I told them.

They lifted their pencils. They pressed their faces close to the paper. Some smiled. Some rolled their eyes. Some talked to their friends. Others shot baskets with empty (and full) water bottles. Some lifted their poems from their desk and reached them toward me. “Is this right?” they asked. “What do you think?”

I walked around the room watching what they would do with what they’ve been given. What else could they find on that page? What is it they can make real that we will love?

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Fifteen Gifts – Day Two

(For an explanation of this project, click here.)

Turns out, that nut I was referring to last time is the Brazilian nut. Also, it takes anywhere from 10 to 30 years to produce a crop. Could be year eleven, fifteen, could be year twenty-eight when that thing is ripe for the picking. (Picking? Do you pick a Brazilian nut?) Once you pick it, it’s fourteen months before you can eat it. That’s a lot of time – a lot of uncertainty – providing for a thing, giving it what it needs to grow. Seems to me you have to have a lot of faith that something you’re doing is right and something good will happen at some point in time (though you may never know).

My new friend told me this about the Brazilian nut. She handed me a beautiful white box filled with chocolates and mixed nuts just before I went to class. “Did you know,” she told me, “that their shell is nuclear?” I told her I did not know this and she said, “Yes, and they aren’t allowed into Germany with their shells.”

“Interesting,” I told her, holding the box she gave me and thinking about the sort of damage that is caused when we hold on to what is inside of us because we are afraid to give it away.

“But you know,” she continued, “what’s inside provides a lot of nutrients. There’s a lot of good stuff inside.”

“You have to break the shell,” I said.

“You have to break the shell,” she smiled.

I gave her a hug. I don’t hug people. I’m not a hugger, and I’d prefer not to do it ever, but I hugged her.

Today in class I passed back everything they’ve written so far in the quarter. We are studying Creative Nonfiction and today marked the beginning of a huge project I’m going to walk the 8th graders through. They are to create a Creative Nonfiction scrapbook with 10 samples of writing. Hundreds of papers were passed back today (they’ve done a lot of writing), but one kid, a worried look on his face says, “Mrs. Feyen, I’ve lost everything.” He has papers everywhere: on his desk, on the floor, strewn over his backpack. I kneel down next to his desk, and every time I do this in class I wonder a little bit about washing feet on Maundy Thursday. I pick up a stack of papers. I show him what he hasn’t lost. “You have a lot of good writing here,” I tell him. He smiles and I can see his face relax. Not too much has been lost.

Another boy, one who is maybe three feet taller than me and who does a perfect impression of Chewbacca at the most inconvenient times (but really, when is it a good time to sound like Chewbacca in English class?), wrote a persuasive argument about social media and video games. It is articulate and thoughtful and I’m proud of him. I tell him that when I hand him the paper. I have to sort of yell it because it’s so loud in my classroom, but he hears me and nods. It’s a shocked, sort of, are you sure you’re talking about me nod. He looks closely at his paper and I wonder if he’s making sure he’s the one who wrote it. He is.

When the papers are all passed back and I’ve explained the project, I have them take out a piece of notebook paper. “Before you begin to revise what you’ve written,” I tell them, “I want you to write one more piece for me.”

I tell them that Creative Nonfiction is about handling the truth, and sometimes that means wondering about the truth. Today, I want them to wonder about the truth, and I have them write a letter to their future selves. Specifically, April 2017, when they’re almost finished with their Freshman year.

“What do you want to tell yourself? What do you hope? What do you wonder about? What do you want to accomplish?” I tell them I will mail them the letter a year from now. It’s what my 8th grade English teacher did for me, and reading it my Freshman year was weird and sweet and sort of like being haunted by a friendly, scared ghost. A ghost with no shell, just a whisper of what she wanted to become when she walked into that great, big school not sure if she was ready to do more of the work of figuring herself out.

They write and they are so quiet wondering about the truth of the future. I sit down at my desk and wait.

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