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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.

 

 

 

 

A Pair of Us

Gratitude is a word I have neglected these past few weeks. Not entirely. That’s not my nature, but I haven’t felt much like being mindfully grateful. Police brutality, racial injustice, and a nasty virus that won’t go away have given all of us good reasons to feel sour. That’s putting it mildly.

But this morning, I woke up. I walked my new puppy, Birdie. I unrolled my yoga mat and did some stretches. In a bit my oldest daughter will drop by and we’ll go for a hike. I had breakfast. I’ll have lunch and dinner, too. I will not insult you with platitudes here. I’m so sick of hearing We’re all in this together I could scream. We are not together! I want to shout at the television. We are apart, and that’s the problem. This is coming from an introvert, no less. A true INFJ if you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality test.

The truth is I miss people. I miss sitting around a table with friends and eating chicken salad sandwiches. I miss the good feeling of coming home to my quiet, relatively calm (pre-puppy at least) house after being someplace noisy. There is no transition, you see, no clear distinction between one day and the next. It’s an issue of balance, I suppose.

Lately, I’ve been reciting Emily Dickinson poems in my head, specifically, the poem I’m Nobody! (260).

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise — you know!
How dreary — to be Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

There is something about the line “Then there’s a pair of us!” that feels like a meeting of minds, a kindred spirit, a partner in crime. “A pair of us” means we’re not alone. Why is Emily coming to me now? Why is she the resident poet in my head these days?

My seemingly incongruous thoughts usually correlate in some way if I bother to sit down and write about them. We’re all in this together is a paradox for Covid and quarantine and social distancing perhaps, but it’s quite literal when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement: We are all in this together.

Some will march and protest and stand at the head of the line, holding the lantern and leading our way. Others will go along, albeit begrudgingly, and a few will be dragged, kicking and screaming (and probably not wearing masks), but maybe they will get there, too. Maybe. Change is coming, however. Change is inevitable.

What difference can a White woman in her fifties make in the Black Lives Matter movement? And who cares what I have to say about these struggles anyway? As I type, I question this myself. All I can tell you is silence on the issue of Black Lives Matter feels cowardly and dastardly. Not to speak is to condone violence. Yes, that means you, nice White lady. It means me. It means all of us White ladies and girls and women have to speak up. Why? Because our silence and “politeness” and “good girlness” are part of the problem. We have to examine our own biases. We have to look at systemic racism and consider our complicity in its ugliness. We must educate ourselves, and then instead of feeling smug and holier than thou, we have to go out and have difficult conversations with difficult White people. And when Black people post their stories or write about their experiences or call us out on things that make us uncomfortable, we must listen with a growth mindset. 

 

To brush aside the anguish of our fellow Americans, Americans who truly made this country what it is today, is its own brand of violence, and it is particularly cruel. Have I been guilty of just wanting everyone to get along? Yes. Have I felt too tired to listen to protests or watch horrific images on the news? Yep. Have I naively thought none of it had anything much to do with me? Lord help me, but yes.

Posting a black square on Instagram was too small an effort on my part. Reposting the thoughtful messages of others borders on plagiarism. I must use my own voice, too. If you’re unfriending/unfollowing/snoozing, then maybe you especially need to hear this message. I am writing this post because I need to hear this message.

Black Lives Matter.

Beyond this, I’m giving myself some reading assignments. After listening to Professor Brittney Cooper’s (pictured below) recent talk on Instagram, I ordered a few books, and I’m going to read said books. 

In the coming weeks, I’m committing myself to difficult conversations and personal reflection. I’m going to do better. I’m going to show up. I’m going to listen. I’m going to learn. I’ve attached Dr. Cooper’s Instagram link if you’d like to check out her account. https://www.instagram.com/professor_crunk/?hl=en

Maybe Emily managed to get her message through to me loud and clear, after all. There’s a pair of us, you know. If you’ve read this far, it means we’re in this together (I swear that’s the last time I’ll ever use that catchphrase). Even if we’re White women in our fifties or sixties or seventies or eighties, we must do our part to understand and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Finally, I strongly encourage you to listen to Dr. Cooper’s talk on Instagram (the link is below). I’ve also posted her book recommendations and highlighted the ones I’ve already ordered.

https://www.instagram.com/elizabeth_gilbert_writer/?hl=enhttps://www.instagram.com/professor_crunk/?hl=en

 

  1. Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper
  2. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  3. Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister
  4. Sula by Toni Morrison
  5. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
  6. Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom
  7. So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  8. Dressed in Dreams by Tanisha C. Ford
  9. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  10. The End of White Politics by Zerlina Maxwell

And if you’re feeling weary as a White person, know this. You are not as weary as the Black people in this country. It’s time for us to help carry this burden. It’s time for White people to do better. No excuses, nice White ladies.