Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I am Still Alive

In poetry club today, my colleague shared this spoken word performance to remind students of the ways in which they are lucky. Sometimes we all need a reminder not to sweat the small stuff. Students were encouraged to find inspiration in the poem and write their own. Shout out to Ms. Heffner for finding the inspiring poem and leading the club meeting! Remember to look for inspiration in your surroundings and the people around you, and please share if you find a great poetry performance or written piece!

Here is mine, inspired by a line from Rudy Francisco’s poem “Complainers” – I took a line from his poem for my title.

“I am Still Alive”
By Amber Counts

I am still alive.

I didn’t always think I’d make it,
and don’t think my story
is the most tragic –
others have had it much worse –
but things weren’t always easy,
and I often dreamed
of being somewhere else –
sometime else –
someone else –
but I’m still here.
Still present in the now.
Still me.
Sometimes I went without
But eventually,
I found most of them.
They say that
What doesn’t kill you
Makes you stronger.
I’m a freaking Jedi Master.
Wonder Woman.

And I am still alive.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


By Amber Counts
September, 2016

I sit at my grandmother’s vanity,
And her eyes stare back at me.
Well, not her eyes, exactly –
Mine lack that degree of warmth –
Her twinkle of wisdom –
But the knitted eyebrows are there –
Furrows that rise into dramatic peaks
When worried about my family
Or relax into sophisticated arches
When at peace,
Over pools of empathic blue.

I used to open the drawers
And peer inside with the excitement
Only a child can muster at the wonders within –
Lipstick tubes made of metal from long ago,
Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion
And the trial-size gifts with purchase
That accompanied it,
Wrinkle creams that were utterly unnecessary
On the smoothest, kindest face.
Beauty from within belied the years,
As youth was always a state of mind.

My arms rest on the smooth edge
Of the worn, wooden top
Where the paint has eroded away
Under decades of graceful arms resting there –
Arms that wrapped around me
In hugs that enveloped me in love,
And it pains me that those embraces
Live only in my memory.
So I place my arms alongside the ghosts of hers
And wonder:
Will my arms mean as much to the world?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review of Transit, by Anna Seghers

I hesitate to review Transit because I don’t feel that I connected with the book at all. Perhaps this prospect was doomed from the outset. I only read the novel because I felt it would be the responsible thing to do since I’ll be coaching Academic Decathlon, and this is the chosen novel to correlate with the 2016-17 topic of WWII. We never enjoy “assigned” books as much as those we chose for ourselves. The fact that I had recently enjoyed two other novels set during WWII, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, also served to raise my expectations. The further fact that I have studied WWII fairly extensively and have been so deeply moved by such profound writing1 and art2 from the period and its survivors also works against a novel like Transit which I find incredibly dull.

If you’ve read Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, incidentally, was Academic Decathlon’s choice for WWI) or works by some of his fellow expatriates, you will understand the feelings of restlessness and boredom, often experienced simultaneously, as the writers and the characters who represented them struggled to find meaning in their lives. Anna Seghers has written a novel in the same vein; however, it lacks the depth and complexity present in the works of her predecessors.

As I read on – trudged on, honestly – through the novel, I continued to remind myself that Seghers’ work had been translated, and I do believe that it is important not to underestimate the impact this could have had on the syntax and language of the text, its deeper meaning, and, ultimately, my enjoyment of the story. Knowing all of the nuances in the English language as well as the subtle connotations in each available synonym, I can’t help but think about how much power the translator (Margot Bettauer Dembo) held. How many of the words, phrases, and sentences that annoyed me would have annoyed me in the original German text? I wonder.

Yet, those aspects that I found most offensive in the novel could not be blamed on translation. The inane chatter of people worried about trivial things when so many were experiencing such devastation and loss, the narrator’s constant complaints about being bored, or worse – annoyed that the attached woman upon whom he had fixated didn’t fall immediately into his arms despite the fact that he constantly lied to her, and the narrator’s wishy-washy and indifferent approach to life left me wanting him to experience an awakening. I wanted him to learn, to grow, to lose something he truly cared about, to stop whining and do something with his life.

In the end, he does, but it’s all so subtle. What works for Hemingway’s iceberg model of writing doesn’t work as well for Seghers. I cared so little for the narrator by the end of the novel, and felt so bored by his boredom, that I barely noticed his character’s growth.

Just as the narrator finds himself in an endless cycle of bureaucracy, I found myself trapped in it with him. In his shoes, I would have an opinion about what I wanted to do, whether to stay or go, and how to treat my friends. I would have a plan to stop dealing with the bureaucracy as soon as possible and continue my journey with the hopes of a destination. The narrator did not. Thus, I found myself trapped with fictional company that I did not like nor respect. I wouldn’t find myself drawn to the company of such a character in life, and didn’t enjoy spending 252 pages with him through the novel.

1 Check out the written reflections of Lawrence Langer and Charlotte Delbo

2 Everyone should see painter Samuel Bak’s work. Here’s a link to a gallery:

Friday, July 29, 2016

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi - Book Review With Minor Spoilers

This review contains a few spoilers, but not many more than you will find by reading the book's cover. This book is about the journey, and I have not ruined that for you here.

When I first finished reading Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing, I immediately registered the feeling of frustration that occurs when the story you’re reading isn’t neatly wrapped up with all loose ends resolved. As I often do when I feel this way, I flipped back a couple of pages and read them again to see if I missed something.  On another level, however, I knew that I hadn’t missed a thing. I got what really mattered because, of course, Gyasi engineered it that way. The motifs of fire and water meet on native soil. Light skin and dark are reunited. Two paths that diverged – one through slavery and post-Civil War inequity in America and the other through the tribal tribulations and colonialism of Africa – cross again.

However, I wanted a moment when Maame’s descendants, from Effia’s and Esi’s branches, realized that matching necklaces had been passed down each family line. Since they were studying and discussing their ancestry, I wanted a moment when they realized that they were, in fact, related. But that moment never came. I know I can be hard to please. If things are tied up too neatly, I roll my eyes and think it’s uninspired. Still, I can’t help but feel just a bit disappointed. Imagine The Parent Trap if the twin sisters hadn’t figured out they were twins at camp! Well, there wouldn’t be a “parent trap,” for starters, but essentially, that’s what this ending felt like to me.

Okay, so I’m intellectually resolved to the ending, but some part of my heart wanted more.

Gyasi’s writing is strongest when she delves into the familial relationships between her characters, but due to the chapter structures, this never lasts long enough. As soon as I found myself starting to care about a specific character, I would turn the page to a new character of the next generation in another country. I worked to keep the family ties straight in my mind, to make connections between the characters’ experiences and human truths, but I found the cohesiveness of the narrative somewhat lacking. Now, I know that the argument could be made that cohesiveness is a luxury that was not afforded to these families – especially those destroyed by slavery and tribal war, but storytelling and respect for ancestors was extremely valued by such peoples, and I didn’t feel this adequately reflected in the book. While the fragmented structure mirrors the fragmented lives depicted in this historical novel, it also has a jolting affect on the reader and prevents any real depth of character development or concern for those characters.

I do still recommend this book as a worthwhile read, especially to my students who are mature enough to handle the content and might learn some historical realities that escaped them in history class. The text also deals with issues that are still highly relevant today. Consider this segment that refers to race-based police brutality in the 1960s, and compare it with recent news:

“Only weeks before, the NYPD had shot down a fifteen-year-old black boy, a student, for next to nothing. The shooting had started the riots, pitting young black men and some black women against the police force. The news made it sound like the fault lay with the blacks of Harlem. The violent, the crazy, the monstrous back people who had the gall to demand that their children not be gunned down in the streets. Sonny clutched his mother’s money tight as he walked back that day, hoping he wouldn’t run into any white people looking to prove a point, because he knew in his body, even if he hadn’t yet put it together in his mind, that in America the worst thing you could be was a black man. Worse than dead, you were a dead man walking.”

Gyasi’s novel offers insight into race relations in America as well as a real look at how the slave trade worked along the Gold Coast, and as we are still dealing with the fallout of the Civil War and an unfulfilled Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., I found the subject matter timely and important.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Teaching in a Heated Political Climate

In May, 2016, as I walked around my classroom to listen to the discourse among my students and provide inspiration, clarification, and feedback where necessary, one of my students caught me off guard by asking perhaps the scariest question a teacher can hear: “Can I ask you a personal question?”
As a proponent of a strong, safe classroom community, I share a good portion of my personal story with my students so that they feel empowered and safe to share theirs, but I always reserve the right to know when not to share. There are some areas of our lives that are sacred and not up for discussion with students. As such, I responded that she might ask, but I had the right not to answer. I always smile when I say this because, generally, the questions are innocuous, and I end up answering anyway.
But not this time.
“Who are you voting for for president?”
Without hesitation, I answered with one of my mantras: “It is my job to teach you how to think – not what to think.”
My students know that I want them to analyze rhetoric, obtain news from multiple and varied sources, and most importantly to know why they think what they think. I want them to understand media and political biases and also to understand their own. I want them to realize when they are being manipulated (because face it, we’re always being manipulated on some level) and if they’re voting for party X because their parents are or if it’s because candidate X aligns with their own values. This belief is so integrated in my classroom that I challenge students to disagree with me if anything I say doesn’t correlate with their beliefs. All I ask of my students is that they can back up what they claim with evidence and critical analysis. Basically, I want them not only to use text evidence in their writing but also in their lives.
As I walked away, I heard mumbling about how my response “wasn’t a real answer” and that if [the student] was a teacher, she “would just answer the question.” Here’s the thing about setting up a classroom in which you truly value students’ questions and opinions: you have to be ready to engage in discussions in which they might disagree with you or with each other, and you have to be ready to model how to civilly disagree. So instead of acting like I didn’t hear the comment (when will they learn that I hear everything?), I walked back to the student and asked her why she was frustrated with my response.
She didn’t understand why it was a “big deal” simply to state who I would vote for, but I disagree. At best, we would have the same political opinions, and we could join together against all of those “others” of the opposing political parties. But that’s actually the “at worst” scenario, too. To align myself with one side would mean to alienate students who disagree and to create a divisive atmosphere in my classroom. I perceive my role as one of facilitator, as mediator, and quite often as devil’s advocate as a means for evoking thoughtful dialogue, debate, and quest for mutual respect and understanding. How can I satisfy any of those roles if I am working toward a specific political agenda? How many parents want their kids’ teachers telling them which candidate they should vote for?
In 2013, one very astute, politically-minded student stated that my approach to free-thinking already represented a specific political agenda, and maybe he had a point, but until a political party comes forward to admit that it’s against fact-checking, critical thinking, listening to compelling arguments from the other side, and analyzing rhetoric, I will continue to be as non-biased as I can be as my students form their own sets of morals and values.
              I know that I do hope to shape those core values to some degree; I cannot deny this. I choose literary pieces that reflect human struggles stemming from a wide range of issues: social class, race, gender, war, etc., and one of my primary goals is to encourage empathy for others. I aim to teach students to be the best readers, writers, and thinkers that they can be. As teachers of the humanities, I believe that many of us share similar goals. However, I also believe that we should not use our positions to assert specific political ideologies. If we empower our students to think critically, we must trust that they will go out there, apply what they’ve learned, and become informed voters and citizens. If we do our jobs well, they won't need anyone to tell them what to think or who to vote for.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Deaths of Dallas Malls Reflect Suburban Sprawl and Social Isolation

Recently, I saw a post about a photographer who traveled the country – specifically, the “rust belt,” in order to capture images of derelict shopping malls. I could not find the original article, but another that contains similar photographs can be found here:

The haunting images stayed with me not just because of the macabre nature of abandoned places but also because of what malls once meant. They were more than mere concentrated areas in which to spend money, although in the 1980s, the focus on shopping and materialism was fairly intense. They were also places to socialize. We met our friends at the mall, made new friends at the mall, people-watched at the mall, had deep conversations at the mall, and through all of this, we learned about ourselves at the mall.

Let’s look at some movies from the 1980s-1990s set at least partially at a shopping mall to gauge its social importance. These are just a few I could easily recall; I didn’t even touch on Valley Girl or many other films that also feature settings in a mall:
  • Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Phoebe Cates starred in the 1982 cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High ( in which we see another side of the importance of malls in teen life: for many teenagers, the mall represented the first foray into the workforce. They worked in arcades, food courts, shops, and movie theaters. The teens in this film dreamed of moving on to bigger and better things, but for now, Orange Julius matched their level of experience.
  • In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1985) ( we witness how Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Jesse James and Joan of Arc react to the Modern era through encounters at the mall. Genghis Khan finds new armor and weapons in a sporting goods store while Joan of Arc takes over an aerobic workout session, Beethoven plays the keyboards in a music store, and Napoleon falls in love with ice cream. Malls truly had something for everyone – even time-traveling celebrities.
  • Also in 1985, audiences watched as Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) met Doc Brown at the Twin Pines Mall (later the Lone Pine mall) to witness the beginnings of time travel in the special DeLorean equipped with the flux capacitor in Back to the Future. Doc reflects nostalgically on a time when the mall area was open farmland.
  • In the 1987 teen hit Can’t Buy Me Love ( Patrick Dempsey’s pre-McDreamy-era nerdy character visits the mall to buy a telescope. He has been mowing lawns and saving money for quite some time, but when he sees a popular cheerleader in distress in a nearby clothing store, he concocts a plan to trade her that money for dates and, by extension, popularity. The mall brings two teens who would never speak in a school setting together.
  • The 1991 film Scenes from a Mall follows Bette Midler and Woody Allen through the mall as they celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary and look for the perfect gifts for each other. However, one revelation after another about feelings, infidelities, and resentments threaten to make this their last anniversary. Sure, it’s dramatic. It was written by Woody Allen, but deep conversations did often happen at the mall. Though malls represent the most public of places, there was a certain amount of anonymity as well as each person blended in to the sea of shoppers.
  • Mallrats (1995) – written and directed by Kevin Smith, features teens who seek refuge at the mall. Ultimately, a lot of social commentary lurks behind the teen angst, and the mall provides the setting in which characters played by Shannen Doherty and Ben Affleck attempt to work through their melodrama. There’s plenty of humor there, too, and even a cameo by Stan Lee.

Some malls continue to thrive: the Dallas Galleria and Frisco’s Stonebriar Mall remain busy. However, even busy malls don’t have the same feel as they used to. People walk around with cell phones out, less likely to strike up conversations with strangers. The ice rink at the Galleria has shrunk (I’ll never understand the logic behind making it smaller), and several of the low- to mid-priced restaurants like Bennigan’s are gone in favor of higher priced cuisine. Fun, affordable shops like the Bonsai store and a discount bookstore have been replaced by yet more trendy clothing stores that look exactly like all the others and feature items that only the Dallas elite and the visiting wealthy can afford. Those in on the secret used to be able to access a track running around the perimeter of the mall’s glass tile roof by taking the Westin’s elevator to the 4th floor, but that access no longer exists for mall-goers in the know. People still shop in packs, but they don’t interact with each other the same way, and that’s just a sign of our time. Why watch people and talk to people when you can view the world via a tiny screen? Stonebriar is relatively new and therefore unchanged. Its target clientele are suburbanites with vast resources of disposable income, and the mall is doing just fine.

Meanwhile, malls like Golden Triangle and Vista Ridge are dying. More and more vacant storefronts, fewer people in the malls, and even fewer with bags in their hands mark the beginning of the end. It seems like yesterday that Vista Ridge was the jewel of the Lewisville area with its blue lights and surrounding fields from which Independence Day fireworks were once set off. Now, my students laugh about its imminent demise. Even those who work there.

Prestonwood Mall Clock
My husband and I share some regret that we didn’t visit Prestonwood Mall before its destruction, one last time, to reminisce and take pictures. Neither of us have pictures of that mall in which we spent so many hours, both before and after we met, because few of us carried around cameras back then. We lived in the moment rather than focusing on chronicling the appearance of the moment. Plus, film and its development were too expensive for most teens. With no cell phones to coordinate meeting, plans were made ahead of time. At Prestonwood, I often met friends under the giant clock, in the food court, or at the arcade. The clock featured giant chimes that rang out each hour and provided the perfect means by which to tell if friends were running late. The food court provided a prime vantage point from which to look down on the ice rink, and it was the first place that my cousin Katie and I ice-skated. I bought my first music tape with my own money at that mall on the last day of 8th grade. I learned to give out a fake phone number at the arcade, Tilt, when boys harassed me, and since they couldn’t check the number right away, that delay tactic worked to keep them at bay long enough for me to run out of lives on Ms. Pac Man. I grew up a lot at that mall. On one of my first dates with my boyfriend who later became my husband, his car 
Prestonwood Mall
broke down at Prestonwood. Luckily, I always had spare change and knew the number for taxi service by heart. At the age of 14, I used a mall pay phone to call us a cab. About 3 months later, I bought his first Christmas gift – white chocolate – from the See’s Candies there. Two years after that, I helped him pick out his tie for a school dance in a tie shop. There were many other purchases along the way, but what I remember most are the conversations we had during “window shopping.” We talked about what things we would buy when we could afford them, but, more importantly, we also talked about what type of life we envisioned. It never occurred to me that the future of the mall was in jeopardy. For a summary of the economic shifts that led to the demise of Prestonwood, you can read here:

Valley View Mall
Entrance, 2016
Empty Fountain, 2016
Not wanting to make the same mistake as we did with Prestonwood and miss out on seeing the mall one more time, my husband and I recently headed to Valley View Mall. The deterioration of the parking lot and general infrastructure provided a preview for what we would find inside, but I still wasn’t mentally prepared to see the spaces I once knew and loved vacant, crumbling, and lifeless. Some storefronts are currently rented out as art galleries, but the only real traffic was for the AMC theater now located on a section of 3rd floor that didn’t even exist when I frequented the mall. The fountain in which I threw many pennies, wishing for true love, is now empty. I wonder where the pennies and wishes went. Though my wish for love came true, I’m still awaiting the riches I sought. I ran up the down escalator for old time’s sake (after taking about 3 minutes to work up the courage – at 12, the possibility of falling never occurred to me; at 42, falling seems a very real prospect). It was a good thing, for it doesn’t show well in this photo, but the up escalator featured some broken steps. In the bottom right corner of the photo, you can just see part of one of the step plates stuck in the grate. The ceiling is marred by water damage, the long, empty corridors smell musty, and the food court – once the heart of the mall – is almost empty. 
Few Escalators Function in 2016

Ceiling, 2016
Most of the tables and chairs are gone. At its peak, so many stores were full that temporary rooms sprung up throughout the mall to house jewelry stores and knick-knacks. Now, only the bleak facades of stores remain, and I struggled to place some of the shops that had once seemed so fascinating. The pet store where I bought my snake, Adriel, the Spencer’s Gifts that both horrified and intrigued me as a middle-schooler due to its “novelty” section, and the cigar shop where my husband and I purchased several Pocket Dragons through layaway to have signed by Real Musgrave himself only exist in our memories.

Valley View Mall in Better Days, 1978

There are big plans for the future of Valley View as a pedestrian-friendly condo-complex with shops and restaurants. Some interesting details about the further development to what was once Valley View can be found here: 

Are the mall-deaths a tragedy? No, I guess not. Change is inevitable. Super-malls like the Galleria and Stonebriar have moved a lot of the shopping away from the smaller malls of the 1960s-90s. Online shopping has claimed a percentage of sales, as did the recession that still affects the middle and lower classes. I guess what I long for, besides the nostalgia of youth, is a communal place where the young and old came together and interacted without the obvious signs of technological divide. I miss watching people do something other than stare at their cell phones. I miss the mall as the heart of a community. Now, even in a mall full of people, that sense of community just isn’t there.

I’d love to know what you think. What changes have you noticed in the way we interact at the mall? Do you have any old photos of mall life? What mall memories do you have? I invite you to comment below.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review of Kristin Hannah's The Nightengale - very few spoilers

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:
in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” 

I can’t believe it, but shortly after starting this novel, I put it down in favor of reading A Game of Thrones (Book I). I liked the writing in The Nightingale; Kristin Hannah turns quite an exquisite phrase, but I guess it just didn’t grab my attention, or it wasn’t the right timing. When I picked it back up, it didn’t take me long to wonder why I had ever been less than intrigued with the novel in the first place. I want to make it clear: I highly recommend this book.

Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters who find themselves in the midst of Nazi-occupied France, initially react very differently to the occupation. Isabelle is a rebellious teen who joins the resistance without a second thought. Estranged from her father and alienated from her sister, she uses pure strength of character, determination, and hatred of Nazi ideology and actions as motivation to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. People underestimate her, and she uses this to her advantage and to the advantage of those whose lives she saves. Meanwhile, Vianne has a daughter to care for while her husband, Antoine, languishes in a P.O.W. camp. As two very different German soldiers billet with her family in turn, she complies at first, but ultimately risks not just her own life, but the lives of her children as well, as she adopts the son of a Jewish friend to save him from certain death. Vianne manages to save the lives of several other Jewish children during the war, too. Imagine what we could accomplish – in or out of war – if every one of us did our part to help our neighbors.

I have shared a few plot points, but I promise that they are not enough to ruin the really amazing moments in the novel (of which there are many). I have not explored what happens with Isabelle’s first love, Gäetan, or who narrates the novel. That’s right! Hannah doesn’t reveal which character the narrator is until the final moments of the book. This could become an annoying gimmick in less-skilled hands, but Hannah pulls it off brilliantly.

Here’s the thing: this book made me cry. It is touching. It is powerful. It is important, for most war stories do focus primarily on the actions of the men involved, but what of the other half of the population? Women did what they could. What they had to do. In the narrator’s words, “Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” 

This beautifully woven tale reflects the ways in which so many women persevered in the face of unimaginable horrors and how those who survived, “the lucky ones,” tried to return to “normal” after the war.

For a more official review, you can check out Goodreads:

To further whet your appetite, I have listed more of my favorite quotes from the novel here (all from The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah):
  • “But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.” 
  • “Wounds heal. Love lasts. We remain.” 
  • “Love. It was the beginning and end of everything, the foundation and the ceiling and the air in between.” 
  • “Some stories don’t have happy endings. Even love stories. Maybe especially love stories.”
  • “Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.” 
  • “I know that grief, like regret, settles into our DNA and remains forever a part of us.” 
  • “I am a mother and mothers don’t have the luxury of falling apart in front of their children, even when they are afraid, even when their children are adults.” 
  • “You’re not alone, and you’re not the one in charge,” Mother said gently. “Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can. I think that is how we serve God—and each other and ourselves—in times as dark as these.” 
  • “It is not biology that determines fatherhood. It is love.” 
  • “Tante Isabelle says it’s better to be bold than meek. She says if you jump off a cliff at least you’ll fly before you fall.” 
  • “I belong to a generation that didn't expect to be protected from every danger. We knew the risks and took them anyway.” 
  • “It is easy to disappear when no one is looking at you.” 
  • “You are my sunlight in the dark and the ground beneath my feet.” 
  • “She wanted to bottle how safe she felt in this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.” 
  • “She was so tired of being strong.” 
  • “A girl’s love for her father. Immutable. Unbearable but unbreakable.” 
  • “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.”