Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hang a Shining Star upon the Highest Bough

“Through the years we all will be together / if the fates allow / hang a shining star upon the highest bow.”

These song lyrics are bittersweet to me. I hear them every year from late October through the New Year – in supermarkets, shopping malls, and on the car radio. In some renditions, singers focus on singing technically well. They sound bright. Hopeful. Festive. Ready to deck the halls with boughs of holly. In other recordings, you can hear the skillful and subtle touch of melancholy in these words – melancholy that echoes the pain, remembrance, and ultimately, healing that these lyrics represent in my life.

I did not get to see my dad often when I was young. He lived in California while I lived in Texas, and my mom actively worked to keep us apart. As I entered 5th grade, my parents reached a compromise. If we would move to California and grant my dad visitation, he would pay our rent and bills. It was an offer my mom couldn’t refuse. Not only did we have a quaint apartment in an old Victorian building, but I was also enrolled in an amazing private school where students were grouped by ability, not by age. Synergy School was housed in a Victorian house around the corner from the famous “painted ladies” at Alamo Square Park in San Francisco. We kept pet rabbits, went on frequent field trips to interesting museums, and spent an hour each day at the park for lunch. I could expound the virtues of that school at length, but I will save that for another post.

My dad often picked me up from school, took me to even more museums (I really love museums), taught me about the city’s history and architecture, and patiently listened to my pubescent rants. We really bonded in a short period of time, and I looked forward to spending as much time as possible with him.

And that’s when everything changed. There were several reasons why my mom felt it necessary to move back to Texas, but the fact that she worried that I relied on my dad more than her was paramount among them. Her decision was made. An intense confrontation ensued that I will never forget. We packed everything we owned (my stuff only filled a suitcase) and moved back overnight. It was Christmas Eve. I didn’t get to say “goodbye.”

When my dad entered our abandoned apartment, he found miscellaneous clutter left behind. You know, the sort of stuff that doesn’t seem important during a hasty escape. Among these items, a star remained on top of the tree. I had crafted the star with materials I had available: aluminum foil and a toilet paper roll.

Years later, my dad told me how he took that star home and placed it on his tree each year, hoping that he would soon see me again. During one happy Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house, reunited, he told me this story as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” played in the background. He called the lyrics to my attention and told me how they always reminded him of that star and the years we spent apart. Once a painful reminder, now “the fates” allowed us to be together.

Sadly, my dad passed away a few years later. There are only 3 items I wish I could have retrieved from his home, and that star was one of them. Unfortunately, it was thrown out by well-meaning friends sorting through items.

I told this story to a small group of students one October with whom we were supposed to share pivotal moments in our lives. That Christmas, a boy named Jesus gave me a foil star to replace the one lost all those years ago. That small act of kindness meant more than that student will ever know, and helped me in the healing process. I spent years feeling almost Grinch-like about Christmas because of the painful memories associated with it, but that gesture reminded me of the compassion that my dad epitomized. Now, I greet Christmas with the goal of spending as much time as possible with those I love. I feel hopeful. Festive. Ready to deck the halls with boughs of holly. Well, I'm getter closer anyway...

The foil star that Jesus gave me, Dec. 2012

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Allowing Students to Inspire Your Lessons is a GREAT Thing.

One of my favorite feelings in the world occurs when I learn something from my students. Not only do I enjoy learning, but it shows that they are thinking, making connections between my course and their lives, and that they feel comfortable sharing their knowledge.
Recently, my students read “A Dog for Rock,” a short story by Mauro Senesi. As we discussed the story and its themes in class, one of my students mentioned that the story reminded her of a Simon and Garfunkel song titled “I am a Rock.” The word “rock” aside, I asked Katie how the story and song connected in her mind, and she proceeded to share her insight about the song’s meaning. It didn’t take long for her to inspire me to listen to the song as soon as possible. Though I had been a fan of the album that featured the song for decades, that particular song had escaped my attention until Katie brought it into my life. During my conference period, I pulled up the song on YouTube and listened to the singer-songwriters croon about isolation and pain. Katie was right; the song not only aligned with many of the ideas we were discussing from the short story, but it was poetry – just after I had been telling the students that poetry isn’t some foreign thing only to be picked apart in English class, but it is all around them – in the music they enjoy. I immediately changed the next day’s lesson plan.
When students arrived the following day, they picked up a copy of the lyrics to “I am a Rock,” glued it into their Reader/Writer Notebooks, and listened to the song. After some discussion, I asked them to use the lyrics/poetry as both model and inspiration for their own piece. Students were allowed to stay as close to or stray from the original form as much as they desired. I wrote along with them under the document camera.
In true workshop practice, they saw me struggle to find the exact words I was looking for, cross out lines I didn’t like to replace them with new ones, and allow myself to be vulnerable by sharing past experiences and emotions.
When everyone finished writing, I read my poem to help reinforce the safe atmosphere. Then I asked for volunteers to read from the Author’s Chair. Slowly but surely, students began to share their versions of “I am a Rock.” Some kept the refrain, while others changed it completely, but in each case, students shared a personal piece that meant something to them. In doing so, they touched others. They felt ownership in their learning and writing, and I felt overjoyed and proud of what they had accomplished – all because I listened to a student with wisdom to share.
Below are both the original lyrics to “I am a Rock” and my poem. I feel a disclaimer of sorts is necessary, for my poem seems depressing and somewhat juvenile. I explained to students that when reading the song lyrics for inspiration, I remembered a time when I felt that level of loneliness and despair, and that I immediately recalled the summer before my 8th grade year, when I was alone in my room almost 24 hours per day for 3 months. We laughed about all the ways that middle school can be difficult, and I reassured them that I am happy now, so they needn’t worry. Originally, mine followed the form very closely. Each stanza ended with the refrain, “I am a rock/ I am an island.” As happened with many of my students, I found that those lines didn’t fit my writing style and, thus, changed them. So, with that in mind, here’s a poem from my inner-eighth-grader:
 “I am a Rock” by Paul Simon

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window
To the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I am a rock
I am an island

I've built walls
A fortress steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain,

I am a rock
I am an island

Don't talk of love
Well I've heard the word before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried

I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one, and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

My modelled piece (untitled):

A summer’s day
On a hot and humid afternoon
I am alone
Sitting in my room
Imprisoned by four walls
In this, the sanctuary from the desert of my life
I am melting, though I am too little in the sun.

I decorate the walls
That keep the people out and the feelings in
With posters of Marilyn, River Phoenix, and The Cure
With drawings that depict how I see the world.
I have no need of friends, siblings, or my mom
Relationships cause pain
It’s cliques and duplicitous people I disdain
I am art, imitating life, imitating art.

Cries of pain escape through my pencil
Graphite tears
Don’t ignore my smudges of saline, heartache, and lead
And tell me that you love me.
Your words play in my mind, on repeat,
Like my favorite songs on the radio
But they won’t change the fact that you abandoned me
When I needed you most.
So I’ll stay sheltered from your tempestuous care
After all, I can’t miss what I’ve never had
I am an orphan whose mother is in the next room.

I have my alternative music, my existential poetry, and my drawings
(carefully rendered with a cheap #2 pencil)
To protect me.
I am shielded by these friends
Hiding in my room
Safe within my tomb
Yet in plain sight for anyone who’s looking.
John Donne was wrong;
I am an island.

Alone, yes.
But I rise, strong, from a sea of tears,
And I watch the sun rise on the horizon.


Students: note the picture below. I continued to tinker in my notebook after class to find the words I was looking for. This is a natural and necessary process in writing, and I hope some of you will share your beautiful poems on your blogs!

You can see some of the many edits I made in my writing notebook.