Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Few Good Boys

There are five of us around the table. The four children are seated; I am standing, walking from end to end, looking over their shoulders at their work. Strung along the center of the table are bottles of glue, pairs of scissors, and stacks of magazines. In front of each child is a single piece of white paper. The exercise I’ve given them in this class for young writers is to make a collage representing an object each of them has drawn from a bag. One of the girls has drawn a broken seashell, the other girl a ceramic miniature of an English country church. The two boys have drawn strangely contrasting items – an iron railroad spike and a makeup brush.
I am teaching this class for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I love children, enjoy watching their faces as they struggle to grasp new concepts or think of the right word. They don’t know yet how to mask their emotions or feel the need to equivocate. It is good to hear the truth from the mouth of someone who doesn’t yet know that there is another option. One of them, when I asked what words they would use to describe me, said, "Old." There was a quizzical look on her face when I gasped in mock horror.

I am also teaching this class because I enjoy being a student and I know that whatever I may teach these children about words and writing they are sure to teach me at least as much about life.

There is a time limit and, with five minutes to go, I remind them that they need to start gluing their images to the paper. One of the girls, the youngest in the class, has discovered that each of the bottles has a stopper inside that must be removed before the creamy white glue can be squirted out of the bright orange twist-tops. I didn’t know this. I’ve never seen such a thing. We pause a moment and discuss why the glue makers might have done this. Someone mentions something about getting glue on clothes. There is, obviously, a story behind the comment. Maybe that story will get written down.

Each of the bottles has now been liberated, but one of them, the one being used by the boy with the makeup brush, is still not flowing. It takes me a moment to realize what he is doing to address the dilemma: He has taken the big orange-handled scissors, gripped them in his fist by the shaft of the blades, and begun trying to jam the closed blades into the tiny hole in the glue top.

I burst out laughing. I can’t help myself. They look at me as though I’ve lost my mind. I try to explain: "Look at you! You’re a man! This is exactly what a man does! Something doesn’t work and you grab the biggest tool you can find and start hitting on it!" I am about to lose my breath.

This child is 10 years old. Cute as a button. Smart as a whip. (Did I mention we are working on similes?) He’s got this impish smile that alerts you to the fact that he’s up to something, even if it’s only in his imagination, and makes you want to squeeze his cheeks – which you don’t, of course. He is ten years old and still a little boy and, yet, he’s already approaching problems in a gender-specific (and, maybe, stereotypical) way.

I don’t stop him. I stand close by and make sure that he doesn’t hurt himself, but I allow him to do it his way. He manages to unclog the glue bottle and finish his collage. And I finally stop laughing.

The irony of his choice of objects from the bag is not lost on me. This boy’s boy pulled out a makeup brush, even had to ask me what it was, but he didn’t complain, didn’t ask if he could choose again, simply set about the task at hand. And when a problem arose, he tackled it head on.

He wants to be a writer, but after today it occurs to me that if writing doesn’t work out this boy would make a mighty fine Marine: "Improvise, adapt, and overcome."

Copyright 2012

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Poems and Pellets and Photosynthesis

My very first class at Wesleyan was Survey of American Literature taught by Dr. Leah Strong.  The class met on the second floor of Tate Hall at the end of the second floor  overlooking the library.  The ceilings were tall, the walls plaster and the dark wooden windows so heavy that when they were opened, which was fairly often because there was no air conditioning in Tate at that time, you could hear the chains creaking in the sashes halfway across campus.  It was a beautiful Indian summer day and the sunshine seemed to move in waves with the breeze that ruffled the gingko leaves.  My classmates and I, probably 10 or 12 or us, were sitting in old wooden desks whose tops had been scarred with 50 years of initials and class names carved by the pens and pencils of daydreaming Wesleyannes.

 I was sitting there wondering just how long one was supposed to wait for a professor when a figure came scurrying through the doorway.  It was a short, chubby gray-haired woman wearing grannie glasses, black polyester pants, a Hawaiian print shirt and shoes my father would call brogans.  She was carrying under her arm, not a briefcase or a textbook or a sheaf of lecture notes, but a motorcycle helmet.

 She strode determinedly across the front of the room, set her helmet down in the middle of the desk and then walked around to the front and jumped backward onto the desk, leaving her short legs dangling like those of a marionette.

 She looked around the room at us and said, "The definition of poetry..."  We hurriedly opened our brand new spiral notebooks and poised our pens over the clean white page.

 "The definition of poetry ..." She looked around the room again.  "When I was a child, my father used to bring home packages of paper pellets.  These pellets were the size of BB’s and when you dropped one of these pellets into a glass of water it would slowly begin to unfold and unfurl until, a few minutes later, the pellet had become a beautiful flower.  Each of the pellets was different.  Each one produced a uniquely beautiful flower." 

 She looked around the room a third time.  "The poem is the pellet and you are the glass of water."
 I realized I was staring.  I had not written a single word.   And all I could think was "Oh, my Lord, I’m going to love college."

 With such an introduction, it would be understandable if Leah Strong did not live up to the expectations created that day.  But she did.  She introduced me to the ideas of popular culture and folklore and taught me that the stories my family told, the songs my family sang, the language my family used – MY family, strong and wise and unaffected country people – were things to be valued and preserved.  She trained my ear to the cadence and melody of Southern voices, alerted me to the layered meanings of colloquialisms, made me tender to the weightiness of words like "home" and "place."

 I did not know these things, of course, when I shook her hand for the last time before I left Wesleyan as a student.  I did not know how to articulate them when I saw her years later at a reunion.  It is too late to tell her now.

 I was thinking about Dr. Strong today as I remembered a conversation I had over the weekend with Katherine and Kate.  I’d just returned from a visit with an older friend who is losing some of her independence and I couldn’t find the words to express the feeling of choking grief that had me by the throat.  I started crying.

 "The whole cycle of life thing?"  Katherine asked and I nodded.

 Kate looked at me quizzically.  "You’re crying over photosynthesis?"

 It is difficult to laugh and cry simultaneously.  Hard to tell which one is causing you to lose your breath and which is making your stomach hurt.  And this time, at least, it didn’t matter.

 Just like the poem as pellet, Kate had found the perfect metaphor.  Or something like that.  And in the warm September sun I could see Dr. Strong sitting on the edge of that desk and she was smiling.

Copyright 2012