Teaching Fun! A Poetry Reading Exercise

I’m teaching a middle school summer session enrichment class. Reading and Writing Workshop. Every year I do something a little different than the year before. This time, summer school began  just after I finished a two day professional development workshop with a visiting Columbia University professor, Sheridan Blau. For two days we talked about reading and writing. I loved it. Professor Blau offered practiced classroom activities. We read poetry and wrote commentaries. We talked about what a commentary is. Conversation wandered into philosophical ends of education. All of this I loved. I want more opportunities like this, to nudge my content knowledge and teaching enthusiasm, and at the end of those two days, I wondered how much ambivalence or discouragement in this profession might be reckoned by a few days of thoughtful, practical PD.

And application. In the middle of the first poetry reading exercise I thought, I’m using this. Here it is:

Read the poem three times
Each time, underline words/ phrases/ parts you don’t know or understand (use different colored pencils, inks or highlighters if you have them)
Make margin notes as needed
At the end of each reading, rate your understanding of the piece (1low – 10high)
At the end of each reading, ask a question or two
After three readings, write the story of your reading

One thing Professor Blau emphasized is the value of rereading. We need to encourage more of that. Students who might not understand much after a first reading will probably understand more after a second and third reading. More yet after writing about their reading. More yet after talking with others about the reading.

I think a lot about time and flow in the classroom. This particular reading exercise requires sustained attention to a single piece of literature. The order and repetition of tasks is a kind of promise that you too can glean something from this poem you’ve never seen before, just by following directions. The process sets the reader up for success. Everyone has something to say about the piece. Everyone has an unanswered question.

The other day I tried this exercise with a small group of middle schoolers. We read “This Is Just To Say” by William Carlos Williams.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I chose this poem because it’s short. It’s a little, nonthreatening vignette. You don’t need to feel super smart to get a picture in your mind. I appreciate how literally accessible imagist poetry is.

We read the poem three times, marking lines and notes. Depending on age group, you might pause after each reading so all students catch up before starting the next reading. First time through, you might say aloud each step. Do this exercise along with your students. Be surprised by your own new reading.

This time, my reading hinged on the line “Forgive me.” A kind of command, softened by lack of punctuation. No period, no exclamation point, but no question mark either. I say prayers like that, with the expectation God forgives. I drop the please. This time I thought why there is no sorry first.

One of the students noticed the language too. When we talked as a group, the question came up, How old is the speaker? A couple of boys pictured a kid because the action, eating fruit meant for later, calling it delicious and sweet, seemed childish to them. But another kid raised the point that the kid doesn’t say sorry. Wouldn’t a kid say sorry? I asked what the relationship might be, between the speaker and to whom he is speaking. Child/ parent. Spouses. And which makes more sense? Spouses. Because of the line “Forgive me” instead of any apology first.

Then one boy said, What if it’s about more? I thought we were done talking about the poem. I was happy we figured out what an ice box was and glad the group talked about voice. I hadn’t been sure what we might find when we read. I asked what he meant. What if he’s sorry for something else he did? Like what? Something he shouldn’t have. A couple of other boys nodded. Why do you think that? Because fruit isn’t that big a deal, we decided.

I extended our discussion by showing a few other poems by Williams Carlos Williams. Just looking at the shape of each piece, what do you notice? They’re all short. We talked about Williams’s career as a doctor, how he wrote poems on prescription pads in his office. I love this detail about Williams’s writing. When I bring it up in classes, I ask students how the shape of their notebook or screen influences how or what they write.

A couple of days later, we returned to this exercise, reading “I Died For Beauty, But Was Scarce” by Emily Dickinson.

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I chose this poem because it isn’t so simple as eating cold, sweet plums your wife was saving for breakfast. This poem challenges a young reader, vocabulary first. Once we sorted out scarce, adjoining, brethren and kinsmen, we had an odd scene to think about. The group was more attentive to the steps of the reading exercise this time and during discussion, we went quickly to the philosophical: are truth and beauty equal? Can an ugly truth be beautiful? How do you die for beauty? And then the image of moss reaching our lips. Why moss? Maybe because it’s gross to say our tongues are eaten by worms and that’s why we can’t talk anymore. But what about truth and beauty being family?

We talked more about how we read the poem, about how much nicer it is to reread and grip the content of a piece and, by the third reading or as you write the story of your reading, form an idea about the piece’s meaning. But better to talk after reading, to compare your understanding with others’ and ask questions, take a thought prompted by literature and talk about what it means to you. Earlier this year I had a conversation with a colleague about the intended social nature of reading, how we add to one another’s understanding because each of us have different perceptions/ associations/ experiences and the whole wandering conversation opens doors in our understanding of literature but also of people.

I love that about reading, teaching literature. Let us go humbly to these conversations.

 

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

Part Six: Three For One: Selling A Car, Disenchantment, Present Tense

All the feelings! This time of year is wild/ unfun/ sad/ exhausting/ promising for international teachers. I wanted to find a way to put all of the following in one coherent piece but I’m tired and decided to just share the whole deal in three parts.

Sometime Two Weeks Ago: Selling The Car

I’ve been fraying. A few weeks ago my friend Pamela looked around the apartment and said it could be emptied in three hours. You’d be surprised, she said. At the end of our first year here, someone in the singles apartment shoved a couch out the window and since then I’ve imagined doing the same, just chucking stuff out the window to watch it smash. My high school art teacher told me that’s what he did when his pottery didn’t fire right. He took the contents of the kiln behind a building and threw the plates, bowls, pots at brick wall. Clay leaving chalk marks on the brick, the fine sift of dust. I don’t need to throw anything out the window, it’s just something that sounds fun that I should have done when I was twenty because now it’d get me in too much trouble. When Grant picks up a loose paving stone on a walk and drops it again and again to see how it lands in the grass or sand or on concrete, I tell him to watch his toes. I’m curious how many drops before it cracks too.

A couple of weeks ago I asked Justin what he needed. I’ve been doing this for months, asking what he needs or what Claire or Grant needs, because I’m so keen on having a good farewell to Kuwait that I don’t want to error as wife or mom, missing a moment or experience or conversation that will best exit us from here and shuttle us on to Seoul. On Saturday I realized this was a reach from the start. I took the kids to the Avenues for a last walk around before Ramadan starts. Claire said it was dumb, why’d we have to go, Seoul will have malls too. And I said to her, But I can look around here and see you and Grant when you were toddlers. I won’t have that in Seoul. She patted my arm, gave me a hug. This is difficult, to pay attention to four people at once. Later that afternoon, after a tremendous cry in my bedroom, after Claire and Grant apologized for not listening the first time, after I assured them it wasn’t that, not really, I did say: We have to figure out how to do this together.

Claire and Grant are big enough to get that we are a family together. They get that Justin and I can only do so much. Claire and Grant need to help us be a family too. Some of this has nothing to do with moving. That’s how being a family works. We have a lot going on. And some of what’s happening – not listening, scrapping in the backseat, me yelling in the kitchen – it would happen if we weren’t moving. We’d still have to figure things out. But since we are moving, each of us has heightened emotional responses. Like dropping a grocery bag and breaking glass jars lands me in my bedroom sobbing. It’s like being a teenager. Or pregnant.

When I asked Justin what he needed he said he needed to sell the car. We’d sold his Pajero, but still had my Kia. He posted the sale online, I called a name another teacher passed along, we stopped at car rental places after school. Our Kia is two years too old, one rental agent said. There are too many cars, he said. We asked what a fair price would be, to ask for our too old Kia, and he suggested we knock about two thousand dollars off our asking price, already down about the same from expected US resale.  He shrugged. No one wanted the car. I thought we might just give it away.

Then we got a call from Sathvik on a Friday afternoon. He showed up with cash in a plastic grocery bag. We sold just below the Kuwait range, on argument that to pass inspection Sathvik may need to replace the pocked hood and chipped windshield. Fair enough. This year when Justin took his car for reregistration, the inspector turned him away for thumb sized scuff on the front passenger door. The guy must not have liked the look of Justin. Sathvik is Indian. A few guys might not like the look of him. In a land that runs on stamps and squiggled signatures, you need a little right place right time luck and a lot of acquiescence. Some nationalities need a little (lot) more luck and acquiescence than we do. I remember years ago asking Adam, a Sudanese man who helps the school with paperwork, how he handled the seeming whim of offices: you go one day and are told to return the next, you return the next and you are told you need an additional stamp, you get the additional stamp and you are told the date on the original document is wrong and now you must begin again. We’d just watched a woman behind the counter shout and fling a file of papers to the floor. Adam said, Sarah, no, when he sensed I was about to stand. We both needed me to be nice. We were next. He has managed nearly two decades of paperwork by letting others be bigger than he is, by saying yes with a smile. Justin painted white out on the scuff and was waved through the next inspection.

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Long Narrative Poem

The story behind this poem and a link to the full piece is below.

Amy And Ali Get Married

Our marriage is not just a piece of paper
Our marriage is many pieces of paper

First, a letter via the US Embassy in Bayan,
by appointment. First, a letter with signatures
and stamps vouching Amy is presently
unmarried so able to marry Ali who is allowed
(but will not take) three more wives
after this first marriage, his to Amy

This letter in hand, Amy takes a number
251
waits under fluorescent light in a big room
before she is redirected to a small room
off to one side, the ladies’ waiting room
which provides women privacy from stares
and which is also mostly ignored. She sits
alone, watching through the doorframe
all the men go to the counters. She calls Ali
to say she doesn’t think anyone will
remember her here. She returns to the big
fluorescent room and the electricity flickers,
the red number counter goes black, the lights
hum back on but no one is counting whose
turn it is

She waits with letter in hand so she can
marry the Lebanese man she didn’t imagine
when she left Illinois five years ago. She waits
among men who shuffle around her to make
their way to a counter where papers are
thumbed. She waits until the red number
counter blinks on and now
1083
she has missed her
turn! She weaves, nudges her way forward,
shows her number
251
smiles winningly
and waits for the man to look at her letter,
reach for a stamp, sign it so she can chase
the next piece of paper. But the man doesn’t
reach for a stamp or pen. He looks up at Amy who
is still smiling and he says, Go to America, get this
stamped, come back
No
and I will stamp
No

Amy leaves the big fluorescent room, walks into
midday winter, calls Ali who arrives in his car, leaves
it running while they sit in the front seat thinking
how to get married now

Read the complete poem: Amy And Ali Get Married Story behind the poem:

One day I sat at the teacher table during lunch and caught the end of Amy’s story about getting married here. The story has a lot of parts. I asked her to retell it. While I listened I thought two things: one, this should be an essay; two, is this mine to tell? But even as Amy was finally standing before a judge and legally marrying Ali, I could see her story in paragraphs and dialogue. I was imagining how many people might love to read the absurdity, not of marrying, but of marrying here, of the many turns you must take to get anything done within this particular bureaucracy. Paperwork snags here. It might be another stamp you need or a particular official who is now traveling or a law that changed two weeks ago. So while many of us haven’t been married in Kuwait, we recognize the wait times, the scavenger hunt, the comic frustration of compiling and re-compiling documents for (seemingly) whim approval. We recognize the exhausted or furious relief at obtaining chased visa or certificate or registration.

I thought about interviewing Amy and Ali, writing their marriage in those blocks of text I saw as Amy spoke. But as I’ve been considering whose story [this] is to tell, I’ve also been thinking about audience and purpose. So when I first thought about writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story, I wondered why their particular paperwork chase appealed to me and why I wanted anyone else to read it and the answer is: I am curious. I like to read and watch and listen to other peoples’ stories because I only get one life. There is a lot of the world I will never see. There are a lot of adventures and routes I won’t take. And the answer is: you are curious too. The purpose of writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story is to show you what it’s like to navigate paperwork. But more. Amy and Ali are a cross-cultural couple who encountered some prejudice as they pursued legal marriage. This is a rich and challenging commitment, choosing to love someone whose family/ religion/ ethnicity/ culture is so different than your own.

As for whether this is my story to tell, I spoke with Amy shortly after that lunch. I rethought my essay approach. Instead, I chose to draft a narrative poem. I chose poetry for the flexibility offered to form and language. I drafted just enough to know the piece could work and then spoke with Amy. I asked permission to write their marriage story. I decided the final piece would be to her and Ali, a wedding gift of sorts. Knowing that helped me choose which details to include. I took some liberty with narrative voice. I had direction too, to trace Amy and Ali’s love over each step. Early in the drafting, I returned to Amy to get a better sequence of events. I spoke with her about using some of my own images in the piece, pulling from my own experience of waiting rooms or government offices here. I did not speak with Ali before or during drafting, relying instead on one version of the story to tell the whole, but I also trusted my intent to honor Amy and Ali with this work. At the end of drafting, I shared the whole piece with Amy, fact-checked and revised a few things and waited for her to read the final version with Ali before sharing here. Ali corrected a piece of information which I included in the poem with an asterisk.

This poem is to Amy and Ali but it is for all of us to read. Both are fine with me sharing this work with you. As I continue to play with this piece, I will share its revisions with Amy and Ali. When/ if the piece it published in some form, it is first to the two of them, with my hope for their good marriage.

The New Normal: Tales From International School Teachers

The New Normal: Tales From International School Teachers

This book supports Children of Haiti Project! Curated by Matt Minor and Kevin A. Duncan and featuring

Stories from 24 countries including: Colombia,​ Costa Rica,  Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, USA, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Vietnam

Please visit the book’s (fantastic!) student created site to learn more. I love the collaborative effort of this finished work.

You can purchase a copy at Amazon or Createspace to support COHP.

Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

Part Five: Cubic Meters Of Stuff

When I was in college I read about pioneer women. My family teases me about this because for two or three years I was obsessed. I read books about the trails heading west of Missouri, fascinated by the risks men and women took to stake a claim or meet a spouse or carve a house into dirt when the chance of finding gold or growing a crop was about as good as dying of cholera or going crazy on the prairie. I loved the women. I read their diaries while huddled in a dark booth at the back of the campus coffeehouse, scratching notes in my composition book and flagging pages. I color-coded entries. Like red for illness and death, blue for family or marriage, green for wagon trains. One of my writing professors encouraged my idea to write poetry and narrative based on these women’s experiences so I spent a semester putting together a portfolio Chasing The Sun.

I romanticized the freedom I imagined pioneer women must have sensed, cutting ties to a familiar place. That was very much what I wanted when Justin and I moved abroad. I remember envying pioneer women: they had no Skype.

Now I better appreciate invisible tethers to home. I feel pulls to Wisconsin, Colombia and occasionally Italy, where I was born. But I also feel pulls to places I’ve been only briefly, like Vienna or Budapest, Nairobi, Wadi Rum in Jordan, and imagine this is being a pioneer woman. The belly stir of guessing where we might settle next, connections we rope around the world.

But here is something else I read about the pioneer woman, that when she left a homestead she might first sweep or dust, closing the door to a tidy room, or she might climb up the wagon wheel to join her husband on the buckboard, leaving behind crumbs and a burned skillet on the sawhorse table.

Our last spring in Colombia I came home one afternoon to see a spare apartment. No pictures or mirrors left on the walls, no candles or cloths on end tables, no knick knacks or postcards on the kitchen counter. I found our “us clutter” in a suitcase, breakables wrapped in newspaper or dish towels. I put everything back in its place. We were only in Colombia for two years and clearing the walls and tabletops of stuff took a couple of hours. We’ve been in Kuwait nearly eight years. I might leave a skillet on the table when I go.

We bought our dining table at the end of our first year. I was proud of its sturdiness and shine. I liked sitting our family at one end for dinner or having friends fill the chairs for weekend breakfast. We spend a lot of time at this table. One spring break we turned the table into an art studio, leaving paints and brushes and papers out all week, drifting to and from the watercolor and India ink. Justin and kids construct Lego scenes on the table, each of them working on a different part until the restaurant, bank and pet shop line up. I write at this table sometimes, at night, under the shadow of bad overhead lighting. Justin spends the weekend typing work for his masters classes. During Christmas, this table fills with cookies cooling, icing setting. Lately, we play Uno, crazy eights or Qwirkle with the kids before bed.

I have pounded my fists on the dining table too and sat slumped over its cool shine. Justin and I argue across from each other. We get up and leave, go to another room. The kids refuse to eat what I fix at this table. I sat at this table one morning, holding Grant to my breast, and asked Justin to please not go to school today, the sky outside just lightening to another long short day. This is the table I drop my bags on, when I come in. I leave my jacket hanging over a chair.

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Long Pause, Planning & Please Let This Work

I have two projects I wanted to work on throughout the school year and now it’s April. I have been thinking about these two projects while doing nothing. Usually I say count daydreaming as drafting. Perhaps I can. One of the projects is to write about the bathroom ladies. In Kuwait, there are bathroom ladies who keep the bathrooms cleaned and stocked, who sit on plastic stools when they aren’t wiping down sinks and faucets, who accept leftovers from The Cheesecake Factory as a tip, who stay inside a bathroom longer than my working day.  I just think, what an interesting life. Maybe it’s great employment given prospects in their home country. Maybe it’s degrading. Maybe it’s weird to accept someone else’s leftover pasta as a thank you for wiping an already clean toilet seat. Or maybe the pasta is really good. Sometimes I wonder why people come to Kuwait. Some workers here are promised one kind of job and arrive to another. So I wonder, what did these women expect? What have they found? What do they enjoy? What do they wish? I wonder what workers here left behind and if they think this day is worth that loss.

These aren’t new thoughts for me. I know a few of the bathroom ladies I see regularly. And now I want to tell their stories. Even then, there are barriers. Language. Purpose. I started to wonder how one-sided this project might feel. I want to interview these women about why they chose to leave their homes and the minute I form that question with her face in my mind, I also see my face and wonder why I’m asking. Over the year I’ve wondered about my intent. I think speaking with bathroom ladies, telling their stories, gives voice to a microcosm of Kuwait. There is this idea of examining something small to tell a bigger story. The thing is, I don’t like the bigger story I see when I zoom out. There are a lot of unchecked labor practices in the region. Part of me wanted to examine recruitment, contracts and visas, the unfulfilled promises given these workers. Part of me wanted to hold these women up as martyrs of a kind, paid nearly nothing to send money home to children they see once every two or three or four years. And I do think that’s a story worth telling. This region can be difficult to document. So much about poor treatment of laborers, maids and nannies is hearsay and anecdotal but that doesn’t imply a story isn’t there to tell. Just that as I thought about my intent – writing about bathroom ladies – I had to reckon my reflex to tell a flat story of a poor bathroom lady against an oil rich backdrop. I don’t have the desire or resources to write a sweeping vilification of labor practices in a country dependent on migrant workers. More, I do not believe that honors the women I want to write about.

My first thought about the bathroom ladies was only to know more who they are. Several years ago I met a woman who likes to draw once her bathroom is tidy. I saw a few of her sketches. There is one woman I see who reads her tiny Bible in a corner. A couple of ladies watch an Indian soap opera on the tiny screen of a phone. So I am returning to that first thought, shaping an essay that tells more who these women are.

Last month I asked one woman if she’d sit with me and talk, tell me a little about her life. She agreed. I’ll speak with her soon. This week I will ask two others to speak with me, but the challenge is language. I remember the first time one woman, newly arrived from Nepal, said hello to me in English and I just thought how lazy I am that I live abroad so easily, assuming everyone everywhere knows a little English. The two women I want to include in the essay do not speak much English. We’ve communicated with facial expression and gesture. I have to figure this part out. I may check my church for translators.

My vision for the bathroom ladies piece is to write a lyric essay. There are so many beautiful and startling images to include and I believe the strength of this piece will be its pauses. What I want is for the essay to show who these three women are.

Perhaps I have been working on this piece all year. I’ve talked about it with a couple of friends. I’ve thought the best way to go about it. For a while I was unsure how much I wanted to appear in the essay. My complicated feelings about entitlement, shame and pity. My alternate apathy and anger at my fortune and others’ (perceived) misfortune. My mess of self-righteousness and prayer for humility. My wrestle with how much blessing Christ really bestows on the poor. I feel like a lot of this comes up for me when I think of my relationship to and with bathroom ladies in Kuwait because for years I’ve asked my perception to shift to see these women as women, not any way lesser for their poverty, not to be pitied, only as equal in worth and counted better than myself. One day I might find a way to say this, what is to love the poor and the rich when I might be called either in this country. But right now, with the months I have left here, my writing work is to listen first.

Part Four: Bucket List

A lot of my current writing centers on leaving Kuwait, what this place and moment are for me, and I’m just going with it, writing what sits in my head. I also have two nonfiction (Kuwait related) projects I want to finish by the end of May. I think I’m writing as much of this country as I can in one sitting.


kites17

In the courtyard a week ago, Tim asked about my bucket list. I don’t think I have one, I said. Sure you do, he said, You just don’t know it yet. A small circle of us talked about what to do before leaving Kuwait, what others had done before leaving Kuwait. We joked about ordering delivery breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Or pulling up to a bakala, rolling down the window and asking for a pack of gum, blocking traffic while we wait for a hundred fils change. We tried to remember how others had left Kuwait. What essential last things had they done?

The next morning we went for breakfast at Early Bird, then for a walk in Fahaheel. It was National Day weekend and a group of men played cricket on the beach, giant rocks as bases. Other families were out for picnics. The kids ran through the sand. From Fahaheel we headed to a spot in the desert for the Al Farsi kite festival. We’d gone a few years ago and had talked about going again but hadn’t. Tim was right I had a bucket list and didn’t know it. That Saturday morning I thought of the kites and realized this was a day I wanted again before it was gone, before we couldn’t drive past oil refineries that look like an imaginary machine of pipes bending and jutting, stacks like lit birthday candles. Before we couldn’t drive past all the tents that pop up in the desert during winter, televisions and fridges inside powered by generators; before we couldn’t drive past a herd of camel again, before we couldn’t drive another road cut through sand sand sand.

So we drove out to the kite festival. Years ago, staring at kites mattered to me. Sometimes we get a day we didn’t know we needed. Then and last weekend, my face turned up to the sky to marvel at the giant billows and flaps of color, I got what I needed. And when I looked around me, I got what I needed. I will miss these people: the stair step children dressed identically as Kuwaiti flags, the woman whose hijab and abaya sparkles with Swarovski crystals, the man in a winter dishdasha and wrapped gutra, the fat adolescent in sweatpants, the young woman with sunglasses and a bag that cost my month’s salary. I’ll miss the nannies in their uniform pajamas and rubber sandals, the men who pick up what gets left at a table or dropped on the ground, the cluster of workers at a restaurant booth making change as fast as they can.

Knowing this would be our last year in Kuwait, I returned in August saying goodbye. I ordered as much shwarma in three months as I’d eaten the previous three years. Every other week, I bought a half dozen pistachio maamoul. I returned to almond stuffed and coconut rolled dates. We ordered bigger spreads of Lebanese food, stopped off for falafels and hummus on the way home. It isn’t sustainable, eating my way through goodbye. I want to miss pistachio maamoul, not be bored of the treat.

When the weather cooled, I put the kids’ bikes in the car for afterschool rides. We’re usually out on the weekends once or twice but this was it, next year no Gulf, so we added midweek walks. I found myself missing my old routine, writing in a café on the way home from school, so I did that a couple of times but it was different because I sat at the end of a long day thinking what to make for dinner when I got home instead of having drifty thoughts or lines of poetry or stories come together over coffee.

I am trying to notice things. Like the stretch along the thirty that was only light poles and sand when we arrived is now giant villas side by side. Or the spot Justin remembers blooming with tiny yellow flowers one spring that hasn’t bloomed like that since. The rain that leaves dust pocks on our cars. The smell of gas in Fahaheel. The stink of dumpsters on a hot day. Even Hussein’s morning call to prayer. I have a bucket list like some people write their to-do list after chores and errands: I know what is on my list right in the middle of seeing a father hand his infant to his wife in the front seat, right in the middle of a Filipino wait staff shout singing happy birthday to a surprised and embarrassed man, right in the middle of crossing the campus courtyard and looking up at small leafed trees. My Kuwait is small, built of routine. Even so, there are many things I will do and think, this is it here, and I might be a little sad or I might feel pleased in the moment, full up with joy. I don’t know how this goes.

Tomorrow we’re out for another walk. This one to Marina with the bikes. We’ll have a fatayer picnic after. The kids will want ice cream because it’s getting warm enough for that again and I’ll send them with a KD to a little stand. We’ll stay on a patch of grass through the afternoon because we won’t get many more of these, the sun tiring me even though I only sit and read or talk or watch. We’ll come home to our concrete courtyard and the kids will have energy enough to run around before bed, before another early start to another week. I won’t miss all of this. But I don’t want to miss what I will.

Graphic Novels & Zen Pencils

 

The seniors are reading graphic novels. We started with Pride Of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Niko Henrichon, an allegory at the open of the Iraq war in 2003, told from the perspective of lions just freed from the Baghdad zoo.

prideofbaghdad

Pride Of Baghdad reveals a little more story with each reading. I like that the characters, setting and plot quickly engage the reader. You want to know what happens as the pride navigates a city under attack. But second and third readings add dimension. There’s the allegory to explore, sure. And since this is an introduction to graphic novels for some students, I like that the rich illustrations tell as much of the story as the text. This is great book to discover the craft of graphic novels.

Now we are reading Persepolis: The Story Of A Childhood by Marjane Satrapi. From the opening page:

persepolisveil

What I enjoy about both Pride Of Baghdad and Persepolis are their regional relevance to my students. Last year we read V For Vendetta whose strong (albeit complicated) story and theme was lost on some readers, due in part to its so-so illustrations. So this year we swapped in Persepolis, a book typically taught at lower grades. Some of my students read the book previously but still reread the whole book. And a few students are now interested in Persepolis 2. What I enjoy is the conversation generated by literature that feels familiar. I like that a few seniors discussing Pride pointed out Arabic translations of speech or signs in the book, things I miss as an American English reader, like the meaning of the name Fajer (the moment at the edge of dawn), which open to different questions or interpretations.

Persepolis challenges a lot of ideas about the role of religion and government in a society. At points in the story I’m sensitive to its danger. Particularly the protests and persecution portrayed – we live in a country where speech isn’t totally free. We don’t often address that in class. Another grade twelve teacher pointed out how much influence the Islamic Revolution had on all countries in the region, perhaps most visually in the veil many women now wear. My classes haven’t discussed the book as a whole yet and I’m not sure what connections they’ll make between early 1980s Iran and their own country but but in the several years I’ve been teaching here, gender inequality comes up regularly as a regional issue.

persepolis

One more graphic arts recommendation is Zen Pencils, a weekly comic (is that the right word?) by Gavin Aung Than. This is such a neat site. Than illustrates quotes and literary excerpts, showcasing a range of styles. One of my reader/ writer loves is to look at an author’s collection of work to see his or her development as a writer. Zen Pencils is a tidy record of Than’s creative experimentation and growth. A couple of entries I like are 162. Sir Ken Robinson, 161. Shonda Rhimes and 103. C.S. Lewis. And one of Than’s favorites, 128. Bill Watterson. I also appreciated this introduction to the artist:

 

Part Three: Now We Know Where

We are moving to

Korea!

But wow how that came about.

One week ago, I opened an email from my brother’s school in Kenya, read the salutation and the first line, thought it was an interview request. Justin’s character references were contacted the previous week but mine weren’t so we thought what it’d look like for me to stay home a year, commit to publishing, help at one of the myriad charitable/ missions programs in Nairobi. Just the salutation and I imagined nieces and nephews in my kitchen, knowing which is the cup cupboard, helping Joie and me carry weekend lunch to the patio.

Then I read the email and my body went tight, like my blood and breath paused. It was the start of last period, my prep, and I took three flights of stairs to Justin’s room, knocked at the door. He stepped into the hall. Did you check email? I asked. I could hear his students. He looked happy. I said, Nevermind. You have class. No one died.

What? he asked.

My voice was a whisper. I said the name of the school. I said the position was filled. We looked at each other for a moment, I touched his arm, said I was sorry. He returned to his freshman Geometry students and I to my classroom where I locked the door, drew the curtains closed, unrolled my yoga mat, found a box of tissue and got to the business of crying.

What a gift, to cry. I don’t remember words, only the hidden work of crying. I don’t resist a cry and my heart mind spirit body knows which form to take: quiet tears cheek to chin or dry, shaking sobs or open-mouthed thick-throated moans or infant whimpers. At the end, I rolled my yoga mat, opened the curtains, unlocked the door.

At bell, Justin came to my room. I don’t remember what we said. Probably something about understanding why it made sense from the school’s perspective. (Because it does make sense. Finding the right combination of teachers to staff openings is tough for any school). The director ended the note cheerily, that he would love to see us join their school in the future. Later, looking up rents in Budapest, I’d think an unemployed interim year might make the director’s wish possible. But then, sitting across the table from Justin, my voice was low. I might have been saying, Don’t move. Be calm. There’s a grizzly over there.

My head was full and blank. I took the kids for a walk along the Gulf. I called Mom when we got home. She was sad with me. She reminded me nothing is wasted.

This is something I’m thinking about now, even after the week yielded a wild, perfect turn that takes us to Seoul next year. I know nothing is wasted. I know God works and reworks. But yesterday and today, even having the gift of a new home, I wondered why I spent a year longing for the wrong next place. Justin and I talked about the mercy of no. The no we got on Monday meant sleeplessness. The no brought me to prayer, repetition of what I know and need to know: You withhold no good thing. The no allowed us to be open in a revived way, waiting to see what God would work.

Tired, sad but still at peace. On Tuesday, I lay down thinking of how babies sleep wrapped, secure.

Wednesday we got an email from two former colleagues now in Seoul. Would Justin be interested in joining the EdTech team? I reread the email. I opened the job description. I thought of being near my friend Erin again. Justin and I texted back and forth. This was possible. This was a reach. We wanted to know more. Thursday we talked with Daniel and Paul and learned what the school was like, what the position entailed, why they thought Justin might be a good fit.

Starting anything new is intimidating. Justin has a lot to learn. But as he and I talked the next couple of days we came back to the fun he could have repurposing his strengths. He’s a great classroom teacher who aspires to make math applicable to his students. He’s interested in the relevance of what we learn, making connections between the text and other knowledge, the world we live in. As Daniel and Paul talked with Justin I saw my husband in a new way. Justin takes initiative, they said. I thought of all the shelves and tables he’s put together in our foyer, economical with scrap wood and near empty paint cans. I remembered coming home one day, annoyed he’d bolted another cabinet to my kitchen wall. I can list the places we’ve gone because Justin booked tickets when I waffled. Or the times we’d be just home from travel and he’d unzip the suitcases, make piles on the dining table. Everything organized. His projects usually turn out. He puzzles through.

And now we have a kid-size rainbow picnic table in the courtyard. And that cabinet is full of platters, serving bowls and glasses. And we’ve seen the Taj Mahal. And suitcases empty faster than if I’m in charge.

We had a good interview. Comfortable, wandering conversation brought back to thoughtful questions that helped all of us figure out if we’d do well in Seoul, how our family might add to the school community. From the open of Daniel’s first email and our subsequent conversation with him and Paul and then the interview, Justin and I were surprised to realize this might work. And what grace to open that email only after no woke openness to

Anything.

In the space of those few days I prayed as I’d been praying. I asked for the right door to open. When we started this process two years ago, knowing this would be our last in Kuwait, I started asking God to move people who need to move to make space for us. I prayed for the men or women we’d replace. I prayed for the men or women who’d replace us. I asked for new friends. Claire asked for snow.

Yesterday Claire and I googled pictures of Seoul. The cherry blossoms, autumn leaves and the snow. We scrolled through pictures of the city softened by snow, footprints on snowy paths, snow sculptures. Claire grinned. She said, Oh my gosh, my eyes are filling with water I’m so happy.


Take  a look at our new school!

2017 Writing Goals

I don’t think I actually set 2016 writing goals unless they’re listed in a buried notebook. I did challenge myself to revise work and while I had a tantrum and didn’t manage to knock out the one-a-week revision edition, I did steadily  practice revision all year, sometimes playing for the sake of playing (like with poetry), sometimes finishing a story because it was time, and twice revising to publish (here and hopeful). A year ago I also started exploring creative nonfiction through an online course. That class woke up an interest in telling true stories and showed me the time involved in telling a story well. Meaning that while 2016 is the year I decided I can be a teacher and writer, 2016 is also the year I realized there are some stories/ projects I need time to commit to doing well.

But this post promised my 2017 writing goals. So, here they are:

  1. One notebook a month
  2. FINISH Canyon Edge story
  3. Practice looooonger essays/ expansion as revision
  4. Write a sonnet composed of found comments on a single article/ issue/ video
  5. Submit five pieces for publication to at least three different magazines/ sites

I can do that.