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Sparkle

It’s a rather gloomy fall day here in Maryland. I went for an early morning walk with my neighbor, bathed the puppy (she hates it!), shopped a little, and did a few chores. It’s Saturday. I’ve just started a new teaching job (private school and in person), only temporary, but good so far. Actually, I’m enjoying seeing the faces of students after a year away from the classroom, even if it’s only their sparkling eyes peeking out from behind masks. Yes, even in the midst of a pandemic, their eyes do sparkle. 

This is a younger bunch than what I’m used to. Most of my teaching career has been spent in the high school setting, but now I find myself in middle school, sixth grade to be specific.

Back in my own 1976 sixth grade classroom, I had the great privilege of being Ms. Brown’s student.

And in my research for my current teaching post, I found myself scouring old yearbooks. So many faces, my own and those of my young friends, gazing back at me as if no time had passed. I won’t name names, but I remembered these people vividly. One boy smelled constantly of sour milk. Another girl wore a world-weary expression and clothes to match. Decades later I would learn the ugly reason. Imagine the worst sort of childhood, and there you have a glimpse into her brief existence.

There was the popular crew, and the shiny penny of a girl who shook off my friendship like a cobweb, moved on to greener friendship pastures. There was the girl who lived in the country, and I recall her backyard smelling of sulfur. Her grandmother’s barn was massive and loaded with cats, including a yellow one they called Watergate. Forty-four years later, I still remember the name of this girl’s grandmother’s cat. This country girl was the friend who got away, someone I should’ve latched onto, but didn’t. She was earnest and smart and witty. 

In Ms. Brown’s sixth grade class, I discovered myself in important ways. Her classroom was where I learned to really appreciate reading for the first time. It was the place where I worked on my first piece of “serious” writing, an essay that took third prize in some sort of competition, the name of which I’ve long forgotten, though somewhere I still have the wrinkled newspaper clipping.

This was where it started, sixth grade, and I can still picture Ms. Brown sitting at the front of our classroom, a stout, short woman who wore pantsuits and cat-eye glasses, reading aloud to us. Every day after lunch, she squeezed herself into a desk, legs crossed at the ankles, and read. There were many books, but the one that stood out to me was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I was not one of those children who was read to each night before bed. My mother wasn’t one for books, but I can remember wanting to be a dedicated reader, knowing somehow this was the ticket to an important destination.

Ms. Brown gave me this gift. 

In my late twenties, I had the good sense to look up Ms. Brown and send a heartfelt letter to say thank you. I was living far away from my little hometown by then, and it had been many years since I’d last seen her, but by some miracle she wrote back. I was thrilled to find the envelope in my mailbox. Instantly, I recognized her perfect penmanship, though it didn’t take long to realize my former teacher was slipping away. It would be my one and only correspondence with the woman who had given me so much of myself.

The other night while watching the news, there was a story about locals protesting the closure of public schools due to Covid. “Those teachers don’t care about our kids,” some woman said. It was the way she spat “those teachers” that made me stop and stare. I am not unsympathetic to parents trying to work full-time and teach full-time, mind you. This is impossible on nearly every level. But this woman was surely looking in the wrong direction for someone to blame. 

If there is anything I’ll take away and recall some years hence about teaching (and living) in the time of Covid, it’ll be this: the young eyes behind the masks, the eagerness in them, the excitement, the joie de vivre, the sparkle. The months ahead are likely to be trying. We’re all weary and wondering when/if this Covid nightmare will end. Often I find myself longing for 2019 and the fun times last fall. Seems like a distant dream to sit at a lunch table across from a friend and breathe freely.

Oh sad, angry lady on the news, how little you know of teachers! How little you know of their hearts and their constant fretting over students, your very own children—how to reach them, how to break through the many layers and distractions, how to make a difference, and reveal to them the gifts they possess and should offer the world.

Maybe we should all try a bit harder to sparkle behind the mask.

 

 

 

 

One Maryland One Book 2020

It’s chilly and dreary and the dead of winter. Here in Maryland, kids and teachers have probably been sleeping with pajamas inside-out and spoons tucked beneath pillows, to no avail. January is long gone and February is half over, yet no snow.

Still crossing my fingers for snow.

On a happier note, I was asked to serve on the One Maryland One Book selection committee (how’s that for a non sequitur?). This year’s theme? Friendship.

Since I came a bit late to the committee, I didn’t submit suggestions; however, I was privileged to participate in the Top Ten selection process and the January meeting. January is when the Top Ten list gets whittled down to the Top Three. And what a fun way to spend a day! Librarians and writers and teachers and professors and other humanities folks—my favorite sort of people—talking about books. Like, seriously talking about them, but in a respectful and thoughtful manner. 

Top Ten 2020

The committee meets in a lovely building downtown, a sunlit space that is filled with astoundingly beautiful plants in the large windows and a massive table in the center of the room. Gathered around are smart people who love good books. Yep, it’s my idea of heaven. The fearless leader of this literary endeavor is Ms. Andrea Lewis. Man, is she ever organized! Start to finish, it’s a finely tuned machine, thanks to Andrea. She kept us on track and made the day fun.

Andrea Lewis, program officer, Maryland Center for the Book

If you’re looking for a way to conquer the winter blues, head to your library or bookstore or one of those other places I’ll refrain from mentioning here, and check out the books on this list. You don’t have to be from Maryland to read them, obviously.

OMOB Top Three!

The Top Choice for One Maryland One Book will be announced the second week of March, and Andrea has promised she’ll answer a few questions for that blog post. I’m attaching the link here in case you’d like to know more about One Maryland One Book. You can learn more about the selection process and browse the list of past winners. 

https://www.mdhumanities.org/programs/one-maryland-one-book/

 

New Year, New Books!

So many books, but not nearly enough time! Every year I set big goals for reading, and every year I fall short of said goal. In 2019, I read 38 books, and it’s very tempting to fudge here and say I read 40. There are two nearly finished books in my queue (City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson). There’s also a collection of poetry I’ve been savoring one poem at a time (A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires). Over the summer I read a large stack of books on frogs, but I’m too lazy to find that list.  

                                 Current book on my bedside table❤️

I’m not ranking or rating or ranting about any of these works. I’m simply listing them. Some I liked. A few I didn’t. At least two books on this list changed me in significant and hopefully lasting ways. One book made me laugh out loud. A lot. That same book also made me cry. It was the best work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in fact. There are weird books on this list and smart books and sweet books, too.

       The to-be-read pile. Every year I’m determined to read them all. 🤩

Books keep me afloat when I’m sinking. They make me feel less strange or maybe more so for liking them. Books nearly always help me feel less alone on this life path. So, instead of ranking or rating or ranting, I’ll just say thank you to all the writers for showing up and getting the words on the page and to all the unsung heroes in publishing who helped these books find the light.

                                               Books in my office
Books on the shelf. The mallet is for folks who borrow my books and don’t return them. 😜
                                            Books in the basement
                                     Books in kids’ rooms
                                                  Old books with yellowed pages ❤️
                                   Books in the living room, too!

Here’s to another year of reading, folks. My 2019 list is in the order read.

  1. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  2. Greener Pastures by Charlotte Locklear
  3. What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
  4. In Pieces by Sally Field
  5. Calypso by David Sedaris
  6. Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
  7. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
  8. Because of Winn Dixie (again) by Kate DiCamillo
  9. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
  10. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
  11. The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
  12. Maid by Stephanie Land
  13. Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
  14. Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
  15. South and West by Joan Didion
  16. Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key
  17. Blubber (again) by Judy Blume
  18. Eleanor Oliphant Gail Honeyman
  19. Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
  20. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  21. Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
  22. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  23. Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
  24. Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
  25. Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
  26. Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
  27. Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
  28. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson
  29. The Snail Darter and the Dam by Zygmunt Plater
  30. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  31. Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo
  32. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  33. Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo
  34. Enough About You, Let’s Talk About Me by Les Carter
  35. Don’t You Know Who I Am? by Ramani Durvasula
  36. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
  37. Boots on the Ground by Elizabeth Partridge
  38. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout