Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 22 #sol19

“Are there any questions?” she asked.  Craning my neck from the back, I glanced around the crowded gymnasium.  A few young hands shot up into the air, some perhaps more eager than others.  Visiting author Jo Knowles, award winner and writer of ten published books, had just finished giving her prepared talk to our students. Quietly, she now surveyed her audience of seventh and eighth graders from the front of the gym.  Who had a question?

Jo had told her story, an unlikely story of a girl who had struggled in school but who had also been somehow able to find her voice as a writer.  I had listened raptly from the back, as she wove in small bits of her life that had inspired her across her formative writing years– the strength of her parents’ relationship, the encouragement of a college professor, the happenstance brush with Robert Cormier.  She also described the pain of witnessing her brother, one of her heroes, being tormented as a young man for being gay.  Among other reasons, this dark part of her past had inspired her to write about, as she described, “hard things.”

Pointing to a young woman in the fifth row, Jo stepped forward, moving in closer.  “Yes?” she smiled.  “Did you have a question?”

“Why do you write about ‘hard things’?” came the voice of the inquisitive seventh grader.

I watched as Jo gathered herself, looking down at the gymnasium floor as she did so.  Having read a few of her books, I knew the answer to this question would be important.  My blue Pilot pen and notebook in hand, I leaned in slightly to hear her answer.  “Why do I write about hard things?” she repeated.  “Hmm… I write about hard things because bad things happen to kids.  These things are happening.  Good things are happening, too…but if we don’t tell everyone’s stories, stories of these bad things happening…” She paused for a beat.  “Not writing about them won’t make them not happen.  Telling these stories is how we can begin to make change.  It’s how we can build empathy.  In fact, not telling these stories– I would argue– actually makes things worse. “  Jo went on to describe being a frequent member of the banned books club.  She told stories of librarians who “liked the book, but… well, just couldn’t put it in the school library because… well, the community wouldn’t want kids reading about those sorts of things.”

I left school that day inspired by this writer, this writer who has the courage to write about ‘hard things.’


Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 21 #sol19

Quietly excusing myself from the meeting, I hurried down the deserted hallway to go gather my things.  I wonder if sometimes the lockers chuckle to themselves-  “There he goes again, running late.” Coat donned and bag now over my shoulder, I pulled my reading office door closed and rushed outside the school into the chilly, not-quite-spring air.  Oh right, I parked over there.  I swung an unusual left toward my parked vehicle and began fumbling with my phone.  Just need to double-check that my dentist appointment is today.

Finding the text I’d been sent, I silently confirmed: yep, today’s my cleaning.  I remembered the phone call I’d received in January.  “Oh hi Lanny, since it’s supposed to snow later we are canceling and rescheduling all our appointments.”  When is the next available appointment?  Mid-March?!  Well, okay, I’d said.  See you then.

What I hadn’t calculated was the fact that my children would be on spring break in mid-March, and that going to the dentist would mean my wife would be home with them not only all day but into the evening (since my dentist appointment would last until well after 5 p.m.).  Not many natural dentists exist in my state, so I drive an hour for dental care.  And I didn’t dare cancel; who knows when the next appointment would be available.  Looking down at the floor, my wife had shaken her head.  “Okay,” she’d said.  “I’ll put a pot roast in and we’ll see you for dinner.”

Finally, after 57 minutes of driving, I made the final turn onto the quiet street.  Something wasn’t right.  Peering through my windshield, I wondered why the office looked so dark.  A sinking feeling began to set in as I placed my car in park.  I circled around, approaching the front door.  But I didn’t pull on it.  I didn’t need to.  Through the dusty windows, I saw heaps of trash, boxes, mail.

Shuttered.  My dentist’s office was shuttered.

Quietly returning to my car, conflicting emotions and thoughts began springing into my mind.  Why hadn’t someone called me?  When did this happen?  Those poor people.  So sad.  Turning on my blinker, I pulled back into the road.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 20 #sol19

She answered her phone.  “How are you?” I asked gently.  We hadn’t had a chance to speak until now.  She told me she was doing okay.  It had taken her two weeks, but her mom’s house was finally cleaned out.  Her grandson would help her rent the place, she said.  Which felt so helpful.  The service had gone fine.  “Mom would’ve approved,” she said.  That’s good.  She described a strange mixture of relief and sorrow.  It had been a long road of constant care.  But that didn’t mean she didn’t now miss her mom.  She did, she did and she told me she did.  Of course.  It felt good to talk with her.  She thanked me for calling.

Alone in my car, my silent wondering returned: What are we to do with death?

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 19 #sol19

“No, Papa, I don’t want to go.  It’s going to be cold.”  Looking over my oldest daughter’s shoulder through the sliding glass door behind her, I watched as sunlight beamed over a still somewhat snowy ground outside.

“Oh come on, honey,” I gently rebuffed.  “It’s a beautiful day!  It’s almost spring, and besides you’ll end up having fun. Don’t worry!”  I chirped.

About a mile from our house is a boardwalk built around the edge of a small body of water.  Earlier that morning, while brainstorming possible activities for the day, my wife and I had decided that it might do everyone some good to take in a little fresh air.  Maybe a walk on the boardwalk would be just the ticket to lift everyone’s spirits?

Arriving at the trailhead optimistically wearing a sweatshirt, jeans, sneakers, and my green Red Sox baseball hat, I climbed out of my Honda to help my three daughters out of the car.  As I did so, a frigid gust of wind immediately hit me.   Brrr.  After putting our three year-old in a stroller, all of us started down a half snowy, half muddy trail toward the boardwalk.  Immediately I wished I’d worn my boots.  My oldest reminded me that it was my idea we all wear sneakers.

Closer to the boardwalk, the ground became a virtual ice rink, with all of us straining to maintain our balance.  And the wind.  I felt my cheeks beginning to freeze.  I watched as my oldest daughter, dutifully it seemed, silently trudged forward, looking straight ahead.

Finally we arrived at the boardwalk.  Pushing the stroller up onto the raised path, I thought about the gloves I had left behind.  Frivolously, I tried tucking my hands into my sweatshirt.  I noticed my wife had covered the baby’s head with a sweatshirt, since neither of us had packed a hat for her.  Suddenly, another icy wind bathed all of us in a reminder: it was not yet spring.

By the end of our boardwalk stroll, I could barely feel my fingers, and the ice formations in the water had become far less interesting.  Shoes now muddy and bodies now shivering, my three girls, wife and I finally arrived back at the car.  The baby cried loudly, as I started the engine.  No one spoke on the ride home, as we all listened to my three year-old sob from her carseat.

Walking in the front door, I heard the muttering of my oldest, “No one listens to me.”

I did apologize later.

Slice of Life Story Challenge, Day 18 #sol19

I felt my heart skip a beat as I looked around the room.  Faces of eager but nervous seventh graders, all holding notecards, gazed back at me, now all gathered at the center of the library.  Behind them, a group of adults, holding clipboards and pencils.  The time to commence had arrived, and all eyes now rested on me to set things in motion.  I began,  “Welcome to our Global Issues Symposium, everyone! We are honored by your presence today. This morning is an opportunity for many things: if you’re a student writer, today is a chance for you to present your views on a topic that really matters to you. If you are here as a guest, let me explain a little about today.”

At that point, I explained that some of the topics that would be addressed by our student writers might make some feel uncomfortable.  Some may not agree with the views presented, I said. But, I explained, we know that in a civil society, a free exchange of ideas is foundational.  I respectfully requested that any feedback adults chose to give be respectful and diplomatic. I reminded them that our student writers worked from a different level of world knowledge than adults.  “But they’ve studied the topic,” I continued, “weighed the evidence, and today they will present a considered argument. We request all audience members feel free to ask a few questions at the end of each student’s talk. And if you’re willing, provide a little written feedback.”

My colleague Shannon then joined me at the front as we projected a seating assignment, followed by the bustling movement of 34 seventh graders proceeding to their assigned area in the library.  Students had been organized into panels of 3-6, broadly grouped by topic.  Issues ranged from the value of college education to medical marijuana, from school uniforms to gun control.  I grabbed my clipboard and made my way to a low table located near the checkout counter.  Six faces were already there, awaiting my cue.  “Good morning everyone,” I greeted them excitedly. “Who’d like to go first?”

What took place that morning (and later in the afternoon) was nothing short of impressive.  Broadly speaking, students came well-prepared: Across the library, they presented claims, reasons, and evidence that widely impressed the adults who had gathered to listen.  Although not many students invited listeners from outside our school community, some did.  A state representative had joined to listen to a student argue about the minimum wage.  The president of a local animal shelter came to listen to a student discuss her views on the treatment of animals.  A few parents came to support their students by listening to presentations.  And many colleagues from my school joined to bear witness to student writers as they presented their positions.

As the students filed out of the library at the end of the symposium, one of the teachers approached me.  “I’m so proud of them,” she said.  “They really stepped up their game.”  I nodded in agreement, thinking to myself about the importance that authentic audience plays in the writing process.