Tag Archives: Writing

A Tribute to My Favorite Teacher: The One Who Opened the Door

I had one teacher who I was pretty sure hated me for breathing. I wasn’t one of her pets, one of those good students who got physics the minute the words rolled off her tongue. If you weren’t one of the great students in her class, forget it. Never mind that you made As or Bs most everywhere else. I looked at my final exam, rolled my eyes, scrawled some numbers on it, and walked out. It was my last “screw you” to her. I had already been accepted to college, and I wouldn’t be getting any science degree. She taught me that not every teacher’s agenda includes every student.

Of course, I’m ashamed to say there were teachers on the receiving end of my own crooked attitude. Some I made fun of within earshot. How could my chemistry teacher not see she was the spitting image of Peter Pan in that outfit? It absolutely demanded a high-pitched chorus of “You Can Fly” every time she stood before the room in those tan pants and that green collared shirt. Had I been braver, maybe I would have cut a felt hat for her and left it on her desk. Rude as I was, I had my limits. The truth was, science didn’t fascinate me. Neither did her lectures.

Looking back, I’ve felt some teachers did a disservice to me by not pushing me, by letting me slide by on what I knew I could get by with. They didn’t challenge me. They gave me the A. They never encouraged me to read really great books. They never got to know me. They never asked to see something I wrote or gave me pointers. Some teachers were there to go through the motions and collect their paychecks. And I was there to turn in half-assed work and collect my As and Bs. I always did OK and I was always lost in a crowd of really great kids and troublemakers. If you asked any of my teachers now, I bet they wouldn’t even know me.

But one teacher gave me the push I needed. One teacher told me I was good at something. She was hard and strict and she gave me—a quiet, mousy girl when it came down to it—a chance. She taught journalism and AP English. She helped me get out there and get stories, actually talk to people—upperclassmen and adults. She helped me get in front of a camera for our student news show when I wanted to crawl under a table and hide. She talked about the world outside of our high school and introduced me to Edgar Allan Poe. She gave me a camera and made me get out in the community and see it from behind the lens. I never felt like her pet. But she let me know that I had a little bit of talent and that I would have to believe in myself. And it was all that I needed.

When I graduated, I was so moved by the two years I’d had in her classes that I wrote her a letter. It took all the courage I had to give it to her in person. I’m sure it was cheesy and dramatic, covered in the emotion of leaving home and starting anew. But I do remember that I told her she was the best teacher I had ever had. Without a doubt she was.

She was the teacher who ignited my curiosity and unveiled a layer of confidence I never knew I had. And though that kind of learning will never be complete, she is the one who opened the door.

Here’s to Ms. Purdy, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week.

calculator

We all know I hated math too.

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Filed under Inspiration

Book Review: The Rooms Are Filled

Ever since I found out in October that Jessica Null Vealitzek, author of the blog True Stories, would be releasing a book this April, I couldn’t wait to read it. If the writing on her blog is that good, what could she do with a book? When I got the chance to get an advance reading copy of her novel, The Rooms Are Filled, I jumped at it—and book reviews are not my specialty. Her blog has always inspired me, made me stop and think, and even caused me to grab the tissues, which to me is a sure sign of good writing. I hoped her book would do the same.

It didn’t disappoint.

The Rooms Are Filled begins in Minnesota at the scene of nine-year-old Michael’s suddenly shattered life. As his father lies dying on the ground, Michael thinks the paramedics aren’t careful enough. And he doesn’t want those strangers around his father. And from there, I didn’t want Michael to come to any harm or pain again.vealitzek

When he and his mother, Anne, move to Illinois to make ends meet, Michael struggles to fit in with classmates. There his only friends are Tina, who lives across the street and comes with her own set of problems, and his teacher, Julia Parnell, new to town and trying to fit in by not standing out.

When introduced to Julia for the first time, I immediately fell in love with her too. And how could I not? She drives into the story “gripping the steering wheel as though it kept her from falling out of the car and rolling down the highway.” Struggling with her sexual identity and running away from her past, Julia encounters her own set of bullies.

Vealitzek wrote these characters with such care, you’d swear they were people she knew all her life. I rooted for them and hoped others didn’t get their way. You have to see for yourself whether everything is tied up nicely in the end.

As with all good books I’ve read, I wanted to know the inspiration behind this story. This time I could ask.

Vealitzek said the book is loosely based on a childhood experience of her father, who moved from a Minnesota farm to working-class Franklin Park, Illinois, in the early 1950s. Neighborhood kids and classmates teased him for his slight lisp and said he sounded like a “hick.” His teacher was a rumored lesbian and the kids made fun of her too. She helped Vealitzek’s father build confidence by encouraging him to read aloud. It worked.

I love it when a good story and good writing come together. The two don’t always come hand in hand, but Vealitzek weaves a heartfelt story with imagery and characters that stayed with me long after I read the last page.

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When a Writer Is Born

I see my daughter close her diary, then run down to the kitchen to put the keys back in their hiding place. She can’t have her brother getting a peek again. After school, when homework is done, she wants computer time to type up stories about finding shells on vacations or blurbs about how much she loves her family.

She writes letters to family with run-on sentences about the owl in the backyard or the possum she sees at night. Who cares if she may be taking some creative license? Thank-you notes gush with love for an item, the color, the memory it evokes. Papers at school that require only a paragraph or two end up with pages and pages of her conversational tone, explaining in-depth our trip to Maine this summer or why bananas ripened in our kitchen.

Some mornings when it’s time for school, she shouts, “One more minute!” from her great-grandmother’s roll-top desk as she finishes up a letter, a story, a thought.

I both love and hate that she does that, has this need for writing. All my life when I’ve had an urge to communicate, it’s spilled out easily into words on a page. Flowed so fast my hand wasn’t able to keep up, the scratchy writing sometimes hard to decipher when I went back to read it again. My brain always moved too fast for my hands but there has always been a connection there, brain to hand.

The connection between my brain and my mouth is a different story. Words don’t flow from my mouth as easily. I am often quiet. Things come out all wrong or not at all. I am stumped for answers, for something touching when I need to be. Or words come out too quickly. I can’t take a moment to pause, speak, and go back and try again. Once I put spoken words out there, inappropriate as they are, they’re out there, unfiltered. But with paper or screen, words flow. Thoughts come. There’s no deleting, looking for the perfect word when you speak.

I remember as a child wishing I wasn’t the way that I was. I knew it had to do with writing. I felt like I sensed things differently, maybe I didn’t. I knew that I didn’t have to be famous or published to be a writer. I just was, in my heart, always. It was the way I had expressed every thing of my life.

I love that my daughter has that in her, that passion, that need. But I also hate it for her, that curse. That feeling that you just have to get it out. That you can’t go to sleep at night or leave the house or finish a conversation until you relieve yourself of the burden. Scrawl on scraps of paper or in a notebook in the car a thought, a story, an observation, a poem, a pain. Those words, those feelings. Those things you can’t say to anyone but your paper.

I was that girl. I still am. Before bed I scrawl a thought on a scrap of paper, sometimes never giving it another thought. Sometimes it’s the perfect ending I’ve been waiting for, for months, and it came to me while washing my face. I’ve poured my heart into journals. I’ve breathed life into dramatic teenage poems that I’d die if anyone saw. And I’ve shouted, “One more minute!” so I could finish a thought that just had to be written on paper instead of whispered in someone’s ear.

I’ve always thought that writing is a lonely life.

I hope she finds the courage to share hers long before I did.

keyboard

These days, most of my writing is done via keyboard.

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Filed under About Mom

A Bedtime Story for the Ill-Behaved: Mad Toys

Many of you liked the story ideas I had in Bedtime Books I Wish I Could Read to My Kids. Here, I took my favorite idea and fleshed it out. Hope you enjoy. (Just know I’m not responsible for what happens if you do read this story to your kids, unless it’s good.)

Sunlight spread across the floor like spilled paint. Molly started to stretch. She smacked her lips as if her mouth were full of bits of sticky cotton. She tried to roll over and felt her scalp being tugged violently back. She tried to soothe her burning head, but her arms wouldn’t move. She tested each limb but it bounced back like a yo-yo.

Molly opened her eyes and saw the bizarre crime scene she was starring in.

Her feet were tied to her bed with hair elastics and they were turning blue. She tried to lift her head to make out the shadowy figure moving near them, but her hair felt tightly wound. Twisted braids formed knotted ropes to her headboard. Her wrists were bound with something, tiny pants? Doll clothes!

Getting ready to carry out an evil plan

Getting ready to carry out an evil plan

“Mom,” whispered Molly through the dryness of her mouth. “MOOOOOOOOM!”

“Oh good,” a voice answered. “She’s awake.”

Molly’s favorite Barbie doll took quick, tiny steps toward her. Molly knew she must have been dreaming. She would have pinched herself if she could get her hands to her face.

Her toys had gone nuts. The 200 inch-high Tiny Tots she owned marched toward her with straight pins. Robots aimed slingshots of Legos at her face. And her closet door rattled as if something were trying to escape. Where had she left Suzie Walks-a-Lot? Where? In the playroom like usual? No. Think, think. In a feeble attempt to clean, she threw her in her closet last night. Dear God. If that three-foot doll got loose, she would for sure be a King Kong monster that Molly couldn’t fight off.

Barbie waltzed toward her. “I see you’ve taken in the situation, Molly.” She couldn’t get over the snip in Barbie’s voice and the sneer on her face. She was all business even though she wasn’t Professional Barbie. Surprising. “Barbie, haven’t I always treated you well?” Molly thought.

“I can read minds, Molly. And no, your other toys and I, we don’t think you’ve treated us well,” she said. She sat on Molly’s waist, long, rubbery legs extended over her side. “You leave us out on your floor for days. When you run into your room, you step on our faces with your hard shoes. Some of us are missing pieces. Sure, you hug us from time to time. But we want to be with our families at night, in our warm cases, our beds. It’s cold out there half naked on the carpet. Your brother laughs at us, Molly.”

Molly understood. Dolls would get cold. But Legos? Robots? They’re just plastic and metal.

“Legos want to be built with, Molly. When they’re strewn all over your floor, they feel as if they’re drifting in the ocean and they’ll never get each other back. Don’t you kids see that?”

Molly nodded. She kind of did. She guessed she was the shark in their ocean some days.

“And robots, well, they don’t have brains,” Barbie whispered, “but they just feel left out if we don’t include them. Mmmkay?”

Barbie got up. Molly waited to be untied but Barbie just smiled and waved her hand, a signal and the army of toys moved in. Molly screamed. She fought against the restraints.

Mom came running in. “I’m sorry! I’ll keep my room clean!” Molly cried.

When Mom saw the mess, she didn’t seem surprised. “When it’s gone this far,” Mom said, “the only way to stop it is to get rid of everything.”

For once Molly didn’t argue. Mom untied her and they quickly stuffed Barbie and her entourage of Tiny Tots, robots, Legos, fairies, and more into pillowcases. No toy went down without a fight and they had pinprick and Lego block battle wounds to prove it.

It took both of them to wrestle Suzie Walks-a-Lot to the ground. They tied her up with doll clothes and hair ribbon.

“If you can keep your room clean for a month, maybe you can get some new toys,” Mom finally said, wiping her brow with Barbie’s dress.

Molly thought about it. “I think I’ll stick with books.” They were far less dangerous.

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A Thank-You to My Readers for a Great First Year

One year ago today I published my first blog post (it took me about a year after I thought of starting a blog!). I take my time thinking things through, what can I say? One thing I didn’t have to think long about was thanking my readers for being loyal, for commenting, for liking, and for coming back. If you have a blog, you know how scary it is to write that first post. You know how exciting it is to get your first subscriber, your first comment, and to suddenly start feeling like you have a sense of community.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started blogging, but I wanted to write all the thoughts that flow through my head as I shower each day or drive down the road. I had put writing on the back burner for a long time to deal with two young kids who always needed a snack, something from the top shelf, or something wiped. I desperately wanted to write again and for some reason, I wanted to do it publicly. I think I thought blogging would force me to write every week and work at it. It has, and it has never felt like work.

I’ve pushed myself in ways I didn’t think I would. I’ve been inspired by other bloggers I’ve met along the way. I’m thrilled to have all of you here. I just wanted to stop between posts and say thanks for reading every week. Thanks for giving me an audience.

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Filed under About Mom

Fancy Nancy: An Author Reading I Couldn’t Miss

When I learned Jane O’Connor, author of the Fancy Nancy picture books, planned a book reading at our local bookstore, I was ecstatic, elated, overjoyed. For those of you not familiar with her books, that’s a fancy way of saying I was pretty excited and you can bet I planned to be there.

But my daughter had a soccer game at the same time and she didn’t want to miss it. Her grandfather could see her play for once. That was special. I was heartbroken, deflated, forlorn. Pretty much, I was bummed.

I have loved Fancy Nancy since the first time I read it to her, choking over the last lines about love and its simplicity between mother and child. And one hundred times later, I still do.

Of all of the books that my daughter will one day outgrow, none of the Fancy Nancy picture books will ever be parted with. Tucked within the pages lay too many memories of our heads on her pillow, laughing at Nancy’s dramatics, aching over her schoolgirl troubles, and relating all too well to a little girl who in so many ways is just like the little girl lying beside me and also the little girl I once was.

I love the books because my daughter can play in pink cowboy boots and a tutu while hunting for bugs or riding her bike. She loves dress-up as much as she loves Star Wars. Her scraped knees and purple bruises accent her accessories: wrists full of mismatched bracelets, striped leg warmers, and don’t forget those high-heel shoes.

So when the opportunity came to hear the author of these books speak, I was tickled pink. Her writing makes me laugh, smile, and choke back tears. And it will always make me think of my daughter and some quiet times together.

When Jane O’Connor revealed who inspired the character of Fancy Nancy, I had a feeling I knew. Not her kids, she had sons. Not her grandchildren, she doesn’t have any yet. It was her. She showed a picture of a daintily dressed young Jane with a bandage on her knee and said her legs always displayed cuts and bruises. It’s no wonder she knows Fancy Nancy so well.

Jane O'Connor with a childhood photo

Jane O’Connor displays a childhood photo, her inspiration for Fancy Nancy.

I stood alone in a packed crowd and watched with all the giddy admiration of a starry-eyed six-year-old. I waited patiently in line for an hour for Jane O’Connor to sign my daughter’s books, which she quickly signed in bright pink marker.

When my daughter said she was going to her soccer game, it was OK. I knew seeing Jane O’Connor’s book reading meant more to me. For my six-year-old, it didn’t matter. Mom brings the books to life at night.

For me, Jane O’Connor is the woman responsible. She brings to life the memories, the connection between character, my little girl, and my own childhood.

To her I say thank you. And there just isn’t a better way to say that.

My 30 seconds with Jane O’Connor. The photographer really could have waited for her to look up. But there we are!

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The Lost Note

For three years a note hung on the mirror in my room, bringing a smile to my face every time I saw it. My son wrote the words “I lave you! Mommy,” cut it into the shape of a heart, folded it, and tucked it into my hand one day when I came into his kindergarten class. Now it’s lost. My kids have given me a lot of little notes, but only a few hold special places in my heart. This was the first one I remember getting from my son that choked me up a little. Simple words. But a mom notices the effort put forth to cut it out. At school no less. In kindergarten. When I missed him achingly every single day.

I volunteered in his classroom every week, and when I came in, looking forward to seeing my little boy, he gave me not so much as a nod, a glance, any sort of acknowledgement. It’s a far cry from the tactics I use to remove my daughter from my leg every week in her class and the twenty kisses I must give her before I shuffle out the door. So when he tucked that tiny folded note in my hand that day and I opened it, not only did the words mean a lot, the action spoke volumes.

A small act that meant a lot to this mom.

I came home and promptly displayed the note, where it has been until recently, when I decided to write a blog post about my kids’ writing. I took it down to take a picture. That picture is all I have left. I can’t find the note anywhere. I’ve searched in every stack of papers all over the house—and there are many. I’m afraid it’s gone for good.

I have other notes. My kids’ first writings and first thoughts mean a lot to me. I keep notes and schoolwork from my children tucked away because I love the primitive spelling and the crooked writing and the things they felt important enough to put to paper.

Nothing so perfectly captures the innocence or the way a child speaks than the way she first spells her own thoughts. When I read my daughter’s words, I can hear her talking in that same sweet way.

“My brudr likes pink.” I laugh because my daughter must have felt feisty to write that on her schoolwork, knowing how her brother despises the color. While cleaning my kids’ rooms one day, I came across this neatly spelled note that my son wrote to my daughter: “Would you like to watch Star Wars with me? Love, Han Solo.” I loved that he wouldn’t sign his own name.

A sign on my daughter’s door reads “Club Howse.” An old list of months on her walls says, “Januwiwy, Febuwiwy…” I can’t help but chuckle when I read it.

There will come a time when my children outgrow that cuteness, and as much as I appreciate it now, I look forward to reading what comes from the heart when they’re older. I won’t want it riddled with misspellings then.

But for now, I keep a drawer stuffed with scraps of paper that say “I love you” (a mom can never have enough) and schoolwork containing funny sentences, things they write that mark this moment and this time. And I’m going to keep looking for that heart, even though my son offered to make a new one for me.

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Filed under Boy Stories, Everyday Life, I Love Those Darn Kids