A good-bye, but more importantly, a THANK YOU to WA!

I’ve read a hundred or more books about lives taking abrupt turns, about dramatic endings, about sudden loss. 

I’ve even written a few books on those topics, too, and had readers email me with comments such as, “I hated that. Why did you do that to my favorite characters?”

Right now I feel like I’m living all of those stories simultaneously, and I keep waiting for the books to close and life to go back, pretending that I’m in charge of this plot.

I’m not.

And I know all of you can relate to what I’m feeling.

Today I’m cleaning out my classroom, a task I didn’t plan on doing until June 12. But on that Friday in a few weeks I anticipate moving into my new rental house in Utah–2,700 miles away from where I now sit in Maine.

(For those of you who have read my books, I went through and “patted” everything first just as Mahrree did in Edge at the beginning of Book 5.)

I always expected to be here only three years anyway. I had told my adult children living in Utah we’d return after Dad’s jaunt to the east coast. Only three years. But then we thought we could stretch it out for longer, another year or two. And then everything started going strange, and I wanted nothing more than to be back with my kids. So it turned out to be only three years after all.

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Three very fast, unforgettable years.

I expected sad good-byes this month and next, when school graduation took place June 1, and the rest of the students left by June 10th.

Today, I would have expected still four more weeks of students crowding into my slightly-too-small classroom, leaving the musky, sweaty scent of teenagers in spring that my window fan would struggle to swirl out of there each afternoon.

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I expected to give them all a little farewell speech in June where I thanked them for accepting me, entertaining me, and teaching me for the past three years. Where I told them that I had quickly grown to love them, and that they had become “my kids,” and always would be.

I never expected that Friday, March 13, would be the hurried last day, when I called out to my students who suddenly found out they wouldn’t be coming back on Monday, “Take everything home with you! We might not be back for two full weeks!”

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Unimaginable. Two whole weeks?!

But it was two whole months. And now three.

They never came back.

I had intimations of that when I did lunch duty that day in March, Friday the 13th. I had lunch duty once a week to monitor the doors, and I hated it. I usually write notes about something I needed to do, trying to ignore the noise of Lunch C.

But not on Friday, March 13. I felt God nudge my head up from my notebook and I heard a whisper, “What if today is the very last day? Your last look at the students of this school?”

Being someone who loves to entertain any plot, I played along and watched the kids that day. I tried to name each one in my head, remember their behavior in my class (I’ve had about 75% of the student body in my classes by now), I watched who they interacted with, and I smiled or cringed.

At that point of the day, none of them knew that my husband had messaged me earlier: The admins will be temporarily closing school because of the virus. They’ll announce it in the last period. Keep it quiet for now. 

I took notes, and just now I found them, still on my shelf behind my desk where I dropped them, exactly two months ago today.

My handwriting is difficult to decipher, but some of the lines read,

“What if this is my last lunchtime? I can’t swallow it. I imagined it so different, but also so grateful I got to pull this shift. I usually hate this. Today–I’m grateful for one last look, if it is the last look.”

It was the last look.  None of us would have imagined that.

Ridiculous.

I had a prom dress boutique to put together with the National Honor Society in April. We had junior prom in May, and I was asked to again announce the juniors as they entered. I was planning to have my AP students come to my house to watch “The Great Gatsby” and have a barbecue before the end of school, we had the AP Exam coming . . . (which is starting in just one hour. I’m writing this in my classroom as my kids sit at home trying to write only one essay to pass the test. It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket, then running through a forest and not dropping any . . . )

Ridiculous now to think of any of those past plans while we try to make some new, tentative ones.

I’m sitting in my classroom, one last time right now. I took down the chairs, turned on the lights, and made it seem like a regular Wednesday afternoon. My husband will call me maudlin. I call it therapeutic.

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And just now, as I’m taking pictures and saying good-bye, I’m realizing it more important to say THANK YOU!
This isn’t a time for brooding, but celebrating! 

  • Thank you, WA and students, for reminding me that I love teenagers.
  • Thank you for accepting me so readily.
  • Thank you for asking me to chaperone dances, to advise groups, to take pictures, to come to your activities, to write you letters of recommendation. It was fun. Truly, deeply, amazingly FUN!
  • Thanks for letting me dance at those dances and pep rallies, and for even playing my music and not laughing at me.
  • Thank you for such growth! For such trials! (Don’t make me name names–you know who you are, and there are several of you.)
  • Thank you for pushing me to my very limits–mentally, emotionally, and even intellectually. I didn’t know I could go that far and still survive. And then come back the next day and do it all over again. (But you have to come back, just to see if you can do it again.)
  • Thank you for your patience, for your willingness to try new things, for laughing at my lame jokes, for letting me roast you in front of the whole class. But you asked for it, because you tried to roast me first. But I never, never lose a roasting. You know that now.
  • Thank you for such life, such activity, for teaching me about “Bubs” and trucks and hunting and lobster fishing and cheering and even the darker elements of your lives. You have enriched me and sobered me.
  • Thank you for your inspiration, for showing me true resilience, patience, endurance, and determination. Many of you live difficult lives, and I wept for you and prayed for you. I will continue to do so until the end of time.
  • And thank you for letting me come back some day, because I know I will. I’ll come looking for you. And that’s when I’ll get to hug you again. And we’ll laugh and remember together.
  • Until then . . .

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I love you.

Thank you for these past three unforgettable years.

AP Literature, gardening, and marshmallow fluff

Only two weeks into the new semester and I’ve created anxiety in my AP English Literature classes.* I’ve told them that I’m going to be ruthless, and I’m keeping my promise by deleting words, phrases, and even sentences from their essays. “Cut the fluff,” I tell them, “and give me substance.”

Delineating between the two, however, is the challenge. They send me emails of angst, unsure of what is marshmallow and what is meat. They confuse the two, and I delete and rewrite to show them what’s what. Some sweetly email me thanks for my editing. Others greet me in the morning with a crusty glare and the words, “I thought it was good, but apparently not . . .”

I love these kids. I love their anxiety, their frantic messages, their pleas for help, their apologies for mistakes, their worry that they won’t be ready for the AP Exam or college, which I tell them I’m prepping them for.

I love them because they’re demonstrating desire to improve. They want to be better, they want to do the right (write) thing, they want me to highlight their sentences and share them on the board with everyone else as a good example.

And when one of them says something insightful about a poem or a character, and I write it on the board and say, “Ooh, I hadn’t considered that,” they beam: they got it right. They surprised the teacher.

Already more than once I’ve been able to say honestly to the classes, “Oh, good job, guys–you’re getting it! You’re so smart, I love it.”

And oh, how they glow.

Then I grade their essays and show them how half their words could be deleted to make the paper twice as effective. And the glow fades a little, but I’m not worried.

It really is all about gardening: they dig deep and plant new ideas, and weed and water–and a fair amount of manure is involved–and they worry and fret that nothing may come from all of their effort.

But already I see budding that they don’t yet recognize–my cruel pruning has its purpose–and in a few months these teenagers will bloom. Oh, how they’ll bloom.

I love spring.

Zweedy words

From Book 4, The Falcon in the Barn, available in paperback and Kindle.

*And why I haven’t had time to post here. There’s a lot of prep–I’m putting all my lessons on a website for when kids are absent or need reminders–and it’s a lot of grading. Whatever I make them do, I have to grade. (Who came up with this system?! It’s a punishing cycle for all of us.)

Hoarding your praise doesn’t make it more valuable

When I was asked to be a “responder” for a writers and artists fest our school district hosts each year at the university, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My daughter had participated when she was in middle school, spending five agonizing minutes reading her writing in front of two “responders,” several peers, and some of their parents.

Thirty people might as well be thirty thousand when you’re thirteen.

Knowing the fragile natures of both writers and middle schoolers—combining the two is Mentos and Diet Coke–I anxiously drove up to the campus this morning, praying that I’d say the right things to these young writers.

The purpose of the fest is to encourage budding artists and writers, to give them a forum to perform, and to receive feedback from professionals such as authors and teachers. Encouragement, not criticism, is the point, because heaven knows sixth, seventh, and eighth graders don’t need any hits to their very delicate egos.

Even love taps can shatter them.

The co-responder in my room had done this for a few years, and gave me excellent pointers as to what to say when the child was finished stammering nervously through their work. Karen Clegg pulled the most wonderful words out of the air, and bestowed them lovingly upon the trembling tweens.

I hoped I could do half so well.

I took notes as the kids read, told them what I liked, read back to them their triumphs (knowing how thrilling it is to hear someone else read your words out loud, in an appreciative way), and thanked them for their time.

After the first session, a mom came up to us during the break and said, “Are you watching the faces of those kids when you talk about their work?”

“No,” I confessed. “I try to avoid that.”

I’m not sure why or how, but quite often I get too much from someone, especially their eyes. While they tell me a few innocuous words, I perceive an onslaught of emotions, stories, experiences, and history. Hopes, fears, frustrations, and joy hit me in the face like a frozen snowball, often when someone’s only telling me something mundane. I’m one of those people who rarely look folks in the eyes, because I’m never sure when that deluge of data may suddenly hit me. It’s easier to just listen than look.

“Watch them,” this mother insisted. “Most of these kids don’t hear such words from adults they don’t know. They devour what you say. Watch them.” 

So when round two arrived, with a new batch of fresh, pimply faces, I tried to concentrate on their expressions, and for the most part it was painful.

Have you ever had the experience of reading your work in public?

Try taking your heart, placing it on a plate, then setting it in front of hungry wolves. The emotion is roughly the same.

One of the readers that round was a tiny boy who puberty has decided it’ll visit later, maybe when he’s 17. He was the scrawny kind of thing that others sit on and don’t even realize it. He could barely look over the podium to see us responders at the table in front of him. Shuffling his pages, he wore a hesitant grin of expectancy, and dove in.

Karen and I were taking turns responding, and Tiny Man was mine. He read with great feeling the beginning of a sci-fi book he was crafting at the tender age of twelve, and later my cohort told me she was relieved he wasn’t hers, because she didn’t know anything about sci-fi. But I’m a nerd.

When he finished in his five minutes, I said, “So I’m sensing themes of steampunk in your writing.” And I looked at him.

His eyes were so bright and enthusiastic that I was startled, and I realized that I was probably the first adult he’d met there who knew what steampunk was. He nodded enthusiastically.

“How much more of your story have you written?”

“I’ve got 80 more pages!” he announced proudly.

“Wow. Took me until I was 40 to get 80 pages. So where does the story go from here?”

I’m sure I went over time with him, as he happily told me the rest of the plot, forgetting about the audience in front of him and the other kids waiting their turn. The boy positively glowed with delight to tell a stranger about his book. 

I could barely look at him, he so hurt my eyes.

For my next turn, a girl stood up, the very picture of thirteen-year-old gangliness. She, too, had been neglected by the Puberty Fairy, and trembled behind the podium, her straight brown hair framing her freckled face, and she began to read. It was essentially two pages of an ode to a special young man who had rescued her from some difficulties in her life, and there I sat, knowing that in a few minutes I’d have to deliver an encouraging critique of her description of a modern-day Thor turned mortal.

When she concluded, and the audience finished applauding, she looked to me with terrified eyes.

I couldn’t look at her for long, but I did manage, “What you’ve written is essentially a thorough character analysis. Most teens wouldn’t be able to see as deeply as you have. Heck, most adults can’t either—” and that’s when I was shocked by her response.

She had teal-tinted braces. How do I know that? Because her face split into such a wide grin that I could see every last tooth.

I wasn’t expecting that reaction, especially considering how somberly she had read her piece.

Unable to watch her anymore, I looked down at my copy of her words and did as I had with the others: read the lines I liked the best, explained what was working well, and what traits as a writer I felt she was demonstrating. I glanced up a couple of times, and nearly choked up.

Have you ever seen a tween grin out of pure joy? It’ll break your heart.

The same thing happened, again and again, and while I tried to make an effort to look at the kids, as my partner did so well, I found it much easier to sift through their pages finding more examples to praise.

At the end of each session, we stood at the front and handed back our notes to their work as they filed out, the kids giving me shy smiles as I thanked them for sharing their writing.

I was nearly in tears at the end. The fact that one of the last writers wrote a poem about her mom who died last year didn’t help much. Nor did parents coming back in to thank us for our words, to tell us that a son never gets such praise from anyone outside the family, or that a daughter is terrified to speak in front of others, and would be happy for the rest of the week.

All I did was listen, intently.

All I did was give 60 seconds of approval.

All I did was make an effort—and occasionally, it really was an effort—to find something to compliment. But there was always something to appreciate.

All I did was pray, “Dear Lord, tell me what this child needs to hear,” then I said those words which came to my mind, and the child nearly exploded in glee and relief.

After, we went to the luncheon where hundreds of middle-schoolers were collecting their food and talking about their experiences, that cute kid over there, and the author Tyler Whitesides, of the Janitor series, who had addressed them.

As I made my way through the noise and gaggle, I knew instantly which kids in the crowd had been “mine.” They waved timidly, offered me careful and happy smiles, and I’d wink back or grin, as if we shared some secret. We were friends.

I admit I shed a couple of tears as I left.

I’d never before realized how just a few words could mean so much, and I worry that I’ve been too stingy with my compliments in the past, as if hoarding my praise somehow makes it more valuable.

I realized that I paid out mere pennies of compliments, but what was received were pounds of gold that those tender teens will carry with them, hopefully for the rest of their very costly teenage years. They’ll need every ounce of encouragement to make it through.

And I’ll try to keep giving them more so that they never run out. Encouragement doesn’t cost me a thing.

“Mrs. Shin’s the only teacher who actually teaches. She’s also the only one who listens.”

~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

Book 5 Teaser–the manly art of swearing

For seventeen years I taught writing to college freshmen and high school seniors. Watching who thought swearing was mature, or cool, or the way of the world, was always fascinating.

Without fail, those who swore were the most insecure and desperate to prove something.

One semester I was asked to teach the automotive repair students at a local community college. It was an experiment to see if the very low opinion of those students might not be elevated somehow if they knew how to write a complete sentence. For some reason, the administration thought I was up to that task.

Their profanity began the first day, the moment they saw that a “girl” was teaching them (I was a mother of six children at the time—that’s how “girly” I was). Maybe each of those “boys” secretly wanted to be in the navy, judging by their level of poor language.

But in time we forged a friendship, and they related to me how everyone “dissed” them and disrespected them.

“That’s because you talk like 7th grade wusses,” I told them, hoping “wusses” was a word they could relate to. “Real grownups don’t use language like you see in the movies. Listen to people. Really listen to them. You’ll notice you’re the only ones cussing so heavily. Also watch people. Really watch them. You’ll see them wincing every time you drop the F-bomb.”

“Like you wince?”

“Yep.”

To my surprise, they were apologetic. Turns out I was the only college instructor who ever listened to them, who actually talked with them.

I told them that was hard for me to do, because while I liked them and found them entertaining (some were very funny), I felt as if they didn’t respect me because of the words they threw at me. Literally every sentence had at least one swear word in it, if it fit or not.

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To my further surprise, they became quiet, and one of them said, “But you’re the only teacher we do respect. You’re the only one who seems to care.”

So I issued a challenge. I told them that I cared so much that I wanted them to earn the respect they desperately wanted. To do so, they had to cut back on their swearing, to four words the entire class. I wrote their names on the board, and kept tally marks as if it were 6th grade. They were also allowed only one F-bomb, and if they exceeded their limits, their peers could mete out fitting punishment.

They elected that a punch to the shoulder—one per word over the limit—was a memorable deterrent.

By the end of the first day, several boys were severely bruised.

But by the end of the semester, six weeks later, these young men reported back that something was changing in the garages where they interned. They had been listening, and watching, and learning.

They noticed that their managers weren’t as profane as they were, and saved the juiciest words for only when they dropped a car hood on their hands. And their managers never, ever, swore in front of clients.

Taking those cues, my students curtailed their swearing in the shop.

The fact that I taught them some new “swear” words also helped.

I told them that when I’m frustrated or angry, I say something random, like “fire engines!” It’s the way you say something, not necessarily what you say. My swear word always make me feel better, primarily because it sounds ridiculous in whatever context I utter it. I also know a man who said “hammer!” each time he was angry, and I suggested to these young men that they find new “swear” words.

They did. While I don’t remember all of them now, I do recall that one guy loved to shout “cheese and potatoes!” in the shop. It always elicited chuckles, and he’d find himself smiling too, alleviating his anger and allowing him to fix a carburetor without beating it first with a wrench.

Eventually my students noticed that they had more patience with themselves and their work when they didn’t swear.

I know this, because for their final paper I asked them to reflect on our experiment.

They reported that they were thinking clearer, and acting kinder, and developing self control, something they didn’t think was possible.

As a result, they were respecting other people, and wanted to demonstrate that with their language.

And best of all, they were receiving respect, for the first time in their lives.

Not a single one of them improved the sentences they wrote, but looking back, that really wasn’t the goal of the class.