Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MSU Reading Series

I so appreciated the opportunity to share some of my writing as one of three readers at the Soul of a Poet series at The Library Center last night. I shared three pieces that I had written along with my senior students in response to assignments I had them do.

The first narrative I shared was one I wrote when I asked my seniors to write about some moment from their education so far. Some wrote persuasive pieces, others wrote tributes to notable teachers and many wrote narratives about a memory from school as I did.

Bad Girl
I highly doubt Jonathon Holtzman ever thinks about me, but my mind still goes back occasionally to the fourth grade and the enormous, unrequited crush I had on the class “bad boy.” Jonathon’s mother was a teacher in our elementary school, but he was the kind of kid who broke the rules, didn’t do his work and had, basically, a general distaste for school. I don’t know if it was his aloof disinterest in life that allured me so (if I could make him care about me, I’d feel really special?) or the non-chalant way he tucked his foot under Leslie Fletcher’s chair as she tipped back away from her desk, sending her to the floor and later to the hospital to get stitches. She was, and remained throughout our years in school, my unspoken enemy for any number of reasons. Or maybe I was taken in by the feathered business-in-the-front and curly party-in-the-back mullet Jonathon sported then. I just remember that he paid me no attention.
I was a good girl then—I did what the teacher said, I raised my hand to answer questions I knew, and my apple was always on the tree hanging in the back of Mrs. Swafford’s classroom celebrating Super Spellers. The only living dangerously I did was copying down, on a dare from the girl sitting next to me, the definition of “sex” out of the dictionary onto a piece of notebook paper with the oversized Arkansas Razorbacks pencil I had gotten on vacation that summer. The illicit information ended up getting inadvertently shuffled in with the rest of my school papers, and my mother found it. She asked me about it, but knowing I still had little to no idea what the word really meant, she wasn’t overly alarmed, I guess.
Jonathon never noticed my skinny, too short jeans, long sweatshirts, Rainbow Brite leg-warmers or phone cord belt. He never noticed when I had cool snacks, like Fruit Roll-ups (a novelty at the time) or that I had copied down a naughty word when I was supposed to be working on my multiplication tables. I would have to come up with some attention-getter, some way to show him I was as “bad” as he was, kind of like when Olivia Newton John shows up at the school carnival dressed all slutty and John Travolta’s jaw drops in Grease. My plan: casually blurt out a cuss word in front of him during recess. That’d show him I broke rules, that I was his kind of girl…
My moment came as Mandie Schroeder spun me round and round on the tire swing on the Little Structure (dwarfed by the SUPER Structure jungle gym nearby) adjacent to the little blue playhouse where most of the other girls were playing. On an especially powerful whirl of the tire, with more than a little hesitation, I let out an alarmed, “SH--!” knowing Jonathon would hear me and get a kick out of it and ask me to “go with” him right then and there. He did not. Mr. Greg Turner, our P.E. coach and a friend of my father, however, did. He seemed surprised and disappointed and marched me down to the office of another of my father’s friends, Mrs. Marty Dunham, our school principal.
I had never been to the principal’s office before, except maybe to get a free pizza certificate for reading a billion books over the summer or something, and in fact, was only sent to the office one other time in my school career after that for failing to “be a leader” and stop the meanest, biggest girl in the eighth grade from pulling the pin on one of the fire extinguishers near my locker. That principal suggested I should have done something to keep Kim Moore, who for a while played on the football team, from unleashing the white powder of the extinguisher and causing a major scene. I didn’t feel any guilt then, but that day in Mrs. Dunham’s office, I was horribly ashamed and embarrassed. She asked if I thought we should walk across campus to the high school and tell my dad what I had said. I said, no, I didn’t think we should. Mercifully, she never to my knowledge told my parents, and I never have either. I still walked away feeling like a criminal, though, and even when I was in high school, I wouldn’t look Mrs. Dunham in the eye if I saw her around school or at a ball game. I figured from then on, she thought I was a bad seed.
Jonathon never did find out I had such a wild side, never asked me to go with him, never noticed my lace Madonna headband or even spoke to me that I recall. He dropped out of school before we graduated. My friend told me just the other day that he still lives in our hometown, has a wife and family and works as a welder. Twenty years after the fact, in a passing conversation at our ten year class reunion, I lightheartedly revealed to him that I had a huge crush on him in fourth grade. He seemed mildly amused, but unimpressed—much the way he probably would have felt about my semi-rebellious outburst all those years ago. I was certainly no Olivia Newton John.

The second piece I shared was an informal poem I wrote when I asked my kids to emulate the style of Katy Barber's "Photograph 1969" about one of their own photographs.
Photograph 1989
This is two girls
still green to the ways of the world—
divorce, step-children,
motherhood, marriages,
million dollar mortgages,

This is about
big hair and blue eyeliner
and preparing for the
8th grade track meet,
or at least the boys we’d meet there.

This is uninhibited
routines to Paula Abdul
on my front porch where
high school boys driving by
could see, pacts to be
Best Friends Forever,
calls to plan outfits for the next day,
identical or at least similar—
jean skirts and oversized tees,
overalls and side ponytails.

This is a girl who knew me
flat-chested, inexperienced,
eyebrows unwaxed,
hair unwashed for a couple of days
to preserve an especially
fortuitous cascade of the bangs.

A girl who knows me now
but still remembers me when.

The last piece I shared was about the word "home," which I had my students do some writing about when we were brainstorming narrative topics. I had them do some thinking about specific memories they associated with a house they lived in, and this is something I shared with them and then did some revision on recently.
It’s been at least seven years since my parents moved away from my hometown of Cassville, Missouri, a small and friendly town of about 2,000 in the corner of southwest Missouri, known mostly for its fine rainbow trout fishing at scenic Roaring River State Park, and more recently for a pretty decent football team. There my family had lived in a few houses over the years, ending up in an old, renovated farmhouse outside of town on 20 acres of rolling fields with a barn and a pond and woods along two sides of the property. I’m a bonafide city girl now and can’t imagine living in a place that shuts down by 9 p.m. at the latest most of the time, but I still sometimes long for those days in the country, where bushes and weeds and wildflowers grow unmanicured (unlike the perfect lawns of my subdivision) and where without the glow of manmade lights, from the wooden swing in our yard I could usually see all the stars in the sky.
In 2001, my mom and dad got the opportunity to live in a house built by the summer camp they had been running for a number of years in Rogers, Arkansas, and they took it. This meant my mom could quit her job as a principal’s secretary and stay home through the school year, and that my dad could give up some of his coaching and bus driving responsibilities and just teach a regular school day, so I was happy for them, and pleased that my parents are open to change, that they aren’t those people who cling to only that which is familiar. Despite that, though, I did a little grappling at the time with the notion that I wouldn’t often be going back to my hometown, where I’d lived contentedly since I was 8, that the house and 20 acres I’d grown up in would belong to someone else, that I would forget so many of the bits and pieces of my formative years I was reminded of every time I pulled on to that country road as an adult. That the girl I was back then would be forgotten, too.
My husband and I, still newlyweds then, made the hour drive from our home in Springfield to help with the most intensive day of my parents’ moving process, one that involved a lot of cleaning and sorting in my old room and closet, as well as the barn and outbuildings. Anticipating making a clean start with this relocation, my dad had rented a probably 15 to 20 foot dumpster and placed it about halfway up one of the two driveways that led up to the house, the one I always parked in when I was living at home, the one that ended right in front of my old bedroom window. We filled the dumpster to overflowing with cast-offs from our life as a family in that place, and you know, a lot of it was definitely junk no one needs to be weighed down by. I kept two or three Rubbermaid tubs filled with trophies and yearbooks and stuffed animals and boxes of notes written to me by my old friends and boyfriends as far back as third grade. But a majority of what I had left behind there when I went off to Drury and marriage and adulthood didn’t make the cut. I watched my dad toss my Pink Panther bike, with its banana seat and somewhat tattered wicker basket, up and over the edge of the rapidly filling receptacle. And I to this day have an image of backing away to leave that night and seeing a lone stuffed animal, a sad little bent out of shape ET that had belonged to my youngest sister, flopped on the peak of discarded household items poking out of the top of the dumpster, the would-be king of my family’s mountain of tangible things we could live without.
I knew my family would be different after that day. Not bad different, but not the way I remembered it. Ryan drove slowly so I could glance back at my old home and then sped up a bit down our road and past a row of tall pine trees that immediately took me back to one of those days growing up I was afraid I’d forget.
Tonya Slinkard and I had become BFFs our eighth grade year and her father Nick had picked us up from track practice that day in the tow truck he hauled vehicles with after wrecks around town or if someone had car trouble. Some would end up out in the fields of the salvage yard he set up on a once picturesque stretch of land very near my house. A few years later, it would be Nick who arrived to tow away the car I totaled one morning just a few hundred yards from my house a week to the day after I turned 16. It would be Nick who comforted me (I walked away without a scratch from what could have been something much worse) and my shaken parents as we all stood along our country road watching my battered Honda with a crushed roof and shattered windshield being eased onto the back of the truck. Ncik would flick the ashes off his cigarette and say both kindly and matter-of-factly in his gruff, teddy bear voice, “Cars are replaceable. Kids ain’t.”
That crisp afternoon several Aprils before, though, Tonya and I sat on a curb near the stadium, both wearing the bright gold, school-issued sweatsuits that most Cassville Middle School tracksters referred to as our “banana suits.” I don’t remember any of us having a suit that actually fit—most of them swallowed our still pre-pubescent bodies but certainly kept us toasty at track meets on those spring evenings that could get a little chilly. The mud-splattered truck’s diesel engine idled loudly when he pulled up to us and slammed the rig into park. We tossed our duffel bags in and climbed the steps up into the cab. Nick lit another cigarette and held it out the cracked window and we rolled away from another productive middle school day.
Those were the days I had little responsibility other than to do well in school and play organized sports, both of which I enjoyed immensely most of the time. No job or other pressing matters, nowhere in particular to be after a day of classes and training laps. And looking back, I can’t really remember how I spent my time after school if I wasn’t at practice, or why Tonya and I ended up out at her dad’s junkyard that afternoon. But I do remember Nick pulling up to the shop and showing us a truckbed full of tiny pine saplings and telling us that if we would plant as many as we could along the fencelines of the property before dinnertime, he would let us drive the old Datsun out to our planting sites and take turns cruising the beat up vehicle around the acreage. Nick had either been required by law or asked by neighbors to put up a fence or plant a thick row of trees to hide the rows of junk cars that would eventually cover the entire property. I’m glad he chose the greener version, rather than those garish aluminum panels I’ve seen tacked up haphazardly around many other salvage yards.
Now that I’ve been driving for almost half my lifetime, I could really give or take the opportunity to steer a car and don’t take much joy in getting from place to place via four wheels. But as pre-teens, wheels, even diminutive ones rubbed almost bare on a teeny 70s Datsun, meant freedom and maturity and a taste of our glamorous, independent, licensed days to come. Nick had let us drive around the salvage yard a few times before, and our vehicle of choice was usually a half-wrecked 80s Ford Maverick. Tonya’s brother Chris and his friend Cody, both just a year ahead of us in school, would drive a gigantic, black, Batmobilesque Cadillac around after us, tormenting us with impromptu games of chicken and what I now see was flirting. During one of those vehicular face-offs, the enormous hood of the Cadillac came unlatched and flew up, blocking the windshield briefly and then blowing over the top of the car to bounce end over end across the pasture behind it. The boys never slowed down.
So Tonya, already adept at both working a stick-shift and being a defensive driver, took the wheel of the Datsun that spring day and maneuvered us calmly and sensibly over the bumps and lumps of the grassy field out to the back corner of the salvage yard. We tuned in staticy country music on the AM/FM radio, the kind where you actually had to turn the knob back and forth to line up the pointer in the general area of the station numbers in hopes of grabbing a signal out of the endless blue sky and through the dusty, busted speakers of the old truck. It was probably the voice of Kenny Rogers or Crystal Gale or someone, and while we would have preferred Madonna or New Kids on the Block, I remember that feeling of utter coolness we both had tuning in the radio, our arms rested on rolled-down or maybe broken-out windows, the country breeze flipping around our over-sprayed but wilted hair as we bounced off to work like big girls in that little Datsun truck.
Once at the fencerow, we were rather indifferent employees, barely digging holes six inches deep with our fingers, hastily rooting the baby trees into the rocky soil and sprinkling them with a little water, getting more satisfaction out of driving the pickup to the next planting site than in the labor for nature and neighbors we had agreed to. But, remarkably, several of those little saplings took, and as I passed them years later, I was reminded of that day and my friend and my youth by the nine and ten foot pines that had endured.
I hope those trees will still be there years from now, when maybe the farmhouse I lived in is not, so I can show them to my grandkids and say, “I put those there—after track practice one spring afternoon—yeah, your old granny used to run really fast. I had long blonde hair and none of these wrinkles. I rode my bike all up and down this road. See that ditch up there? That’s where I totaled my first car a week after I got my license and where my sister hit a cow with hers. Yeah, this is where your old granny grew up. This is where she came from. This was her home.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Three OWP Teachers to Read at "Soul of a Poet" Tuesday

Hi, All,

Tuesday, November 18, Missouri State University and Springfield/Greene County Libraries will host The Soul of a Poet reading series. Genesis Bewley(SI'08), Hayley Fraser(SI'07), and Joshua Rowlett(SI'08) will highlight their writing starting at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium at the Library Center on South Campbell.

Please come and support our Teacher Writers!!

Hope to see all of you there!