Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Where is Suzi?

Here's a hint -- we were at Dempsey Middle School in Delaware, OH, a very happenin' place. Only insiders, however, can tell where Suzi is in this picture. For more information on Dempsey, follow the link above.

Okay, these were the best prepared students for a visit that ANY author could hope for. Here you can see the student body (and me) congratulating two of the winners of the poetry contest. Raucous applause! The judges for the contest were AP English students at Hayes High School -- how cool is that for peer review?

At a different assembly, tech students presented me with books that they had made where they chose cool graphics to go along with poems that they had written based on my work. They took the first couple lines of one of my poems and developed the poem on their own, kind of like using sour dough bread starter. The responses were creative, honest, thoughtful -- taking my poems to the next -- and more personal -- level. Here's just a sample chosen at random -- all the writings were very cool.


I'd rather starve myself
Or pay a million dollar fine,
or serve a lengthy sentence of the solitary kind.

I'd rather sky dive
or do fifty pages of homework
or get thrown out of Wal-mart
Cause my little sister bit the manager

Than to say I'm wrong


One final idea (also with an assist from the tech teacher) is displayed on the bulletin board in this final picture. Media Specialist Karen Hildebrandt is pictured here beside power point slides that the students created in computer class. Why not combine a poetry lesson with power point instruction? Now, look carefully and you will see Jesus' notebook, from Sheldon ISD outside of Houston now proudly hanging on a bulletin board in Delaware, OH. Poetry does indeed bring folks together, building bridges!

Big big thanks to Karen for all her hard work getting the kids and the staff jazzed in advance. Lots and lots of work. And thanks to all the teachers for seeing that poetry can live outside of language arts class.

But . . . but . . . but . . . where is Suzi?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

St. Thomas Aquinas/St. Phillip School Cleveland

LOVE this photo. The woman who took the picture was disappointed and took a couple more, explaining I wasn't in the first one. But this is the shot. Not only because I don't particularly like looking at myself (which I don't) but because I'm hoping this is a representation of how my poetry impacts kids -- that I am somewhere in the background, a not-quite memory, nudging them on.

Why I like the catholic schools of today: First, they all have great sound systems. They have bingo and family events and they know the importance of mortals making themselves heard to one another. They have VERY committed teachers who work for even less pay than most teachers because they really want to be there. They seem organized somehow. Usually small, they seem more manageable than some. And finally, they are not the crack-your-knuckles-with-a-ruler places made infamous on stage and screen and at dinner tables. In fact, compared to some public schools where the unintelligent-design folks have taken over, these schools seem freer to pursue education free of outside intervention, including the restrictive perils of NCLB.

None of these musings made a bit of difference to these kids, though. They were just having a good time at a poetry assembly, pushing to be in the picture. Thanks to Janie Reinhart for inviting me to meet her students and to Principal Sr. Michelle for sending me the picture below of the eighth grade girls practicing "talk to the hand."

Monday, September 17, 2007

The basecoat

"It was my Granny who taught me to sew"

That's a line out of a poem I wrote on the occasion of my grandfather's 100th birthday. Thinking back on their house, the sweet smell of bacon, whir of the manual lawnmower, rose garden, and the goodie drawer, the memory of Granny was stronger. I think Pappy, Willie Holbrook, was never quite sure what to do with his (at that time) six grandchildren, all girls. He'd raised three boys before we came along. Visits to Akron consisted of good meals followed by the men sitting in the living room discussing politics (no girls allowed) praising the U.S.military (between the four of them, they represented all branches, Pappy having been a Marine) and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company while condemning Franklin D. Roosevelt in the strongest language possible without using profanity. Well, an occasional "damn" might slip out, but only in reference to Roosevelt. They'd talk and then spontaneously jump up and go wash cars. It didn't occur to me until years later that what I perceived as Pappy not having time for his grand kids might really have been him still raising his sons, veterans trying to assimilate into a rapidly changing world. That was back when I thought being grownup meant you had it together. What did I know?

These were the post WWII Eisenhower years, prosperous and full of hope -- as long as one was a white male, which everyone in the living room was. Pappy worked 40+ years at Goodyear, only taking 2 days off -- once to get all his teeth pulled and two half days when his sons came home from war. A veteran of WWI, his life went from ox-carts and a log cabin in Hickory, KY to space shots. After his war, he never picked up a fire arm or committed an act of violence. He did his job, raised his sons, married three times, the last time at 72 when folks said it wouldn't last and was married to Lela for 23 years. Until he died at 103, he still read the newspaper, took no medication and always raged against Roosevelt. He was frugal in a way that is considered un-American these days -- he wasted not, not anything, not ever.

I remember meeting him at the bus after work, placing my leaf of a hand into the powerful mitt he wrapped around a mallet to beat rubber into molds for earth-moving tires for 8 hours that day -- and every other day. It may be the only memory I have that we shared, just the two of us. I know him mostly from the stories he liked to tell and retell until we knew all the words and could sing along. I can't remember why I ever thought that was annoying, but as a teen, I did. He had dropped out of school in the early grades to work in the tobacco fields, later reading his son's textbooks a chapter ahead of them as they went through school so he could help them with their homework. In his growing up days, before life took him from a log cabin to Versailles, wisdom was passed along through stories. He had landed in Akron, OH, blustering with industry, far away from the old homeplace. He knew how to adapt. My father and his brothers all went to school, grew to be accomplished men, fathers, and republicans, never having to labor as Pappy had. Their bank accounts may have been larger, but their hands never grew to the breadth of his.

Pappy owned rental property, part of what carried them through the depression when Goodyear cut its workforce back to one or two days a week. Rather than laying men off, the union made the company keep everyone on at reduced hours, living on oatmeal but not starving. That was back before all the laws were changed to favor shareholder rights and workers still had a say, before the country forgot about Roosevelt and what he stood for, Eleanor going into the coal mines with the workers, and Eisenhower's grim predictions about the military industrial complex. Pappy was a rubber worker but he was also a handyman, wallpaper hanger, painter, whatever it took to keep things running while Granny stirred Fels Naptha into the laundry and had a hot meal waiting after every job. They were cast into those roles in their youth and lived them well and by all appearances, happily, a hard concept for all the female grandchildren to understand as we grew to take our roles in life as moms, a business owner, writer, professor, artist, dentist and activists, and new-dealers (save one), living an egalitarian life even Roosevelt couldn't have envisioned.

When Pappy's rental property changed hands, everyone was pressed into service painting. Gender wasn't an issue. If you could hold a brush or a broom, you were in. It was my Pappy who taught me to paint. Only dip the brush into the can part way, don't scrub at the wall, smooth strokes, paint into where you have just been to reduce brush marks, the first coat is more important than the last, and never try to paint with a dry brush. My first job was to paint a closet. He put me onto the task with a bucket of paint thinned to white wash and a sawed off broom. Latex paint either hadn't been invented yet or was under some kind of cloud of new-fangled suspicion, because we used the old, smelly kind. That first experience resulted in the closest I think I ever came to hearing Granny use profanity, as she later dipped my ponytail into turpentine, yanking the brush through my thick hair and mumbling under her breath. But that was just the first in a series of painting lessons.

This past weekend I painted the basement hallway and stairs a warm ivory, thinking of Pappy as I do each time I pick up a brush. I carefully applied the base coat so that subsequent coats would go on smoothly using oil based primer (which is still the best), meticulously brushing into where I had just been, not counting on the finish coats to cover up mistakes on the base, repeatedly dipping the brush only partway in, trying not to streak with a dry brush.

Just the smell of paint brings Pappy to my mind. I don't think he would have approved of all the disposable products available in the paint department these days, but he probably wouldn't have been too critical of the job I did on the staircase. He had a way of looking over flaws, part of what carried him through 103 years. I think he would have been damned proud of the fact that I found a $5 gallon of paint at Home Depot to do the job.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Back to School in Houston

Today I visited three elementary schools in Sheldon ISD. My thoughts about foreign language skills fresh in my mind, I asked every group, "How many people here can speak two languages?" In every case, the majority could! I let them know how much I admired their skills. I think it's important to let kids know that being multi-lingual is an amazing opportunity, not an embarrassing disability.

I had a great time sharing poetry with a whole lot of help from my friends -- call and response with attitude! In each school I was impressed with how attentive and involved the principals were with what was happening. In each school, kids had prepared questions leading to some fun discussions.

And then there was Jesus. Most students had prepared one question or maybe two. At the end of the assembly there was the usual gathering of kids who had more to say about their own writing or other cool stuff to talk about. Jesus came up with his small notebook and asked me a question. I talked to other students and Jesus stepped forward again -- he had another question and when I responded, he carefully wrote down the answer. More interaction and I noticed, there was Jesus again.
"How many questions do you have?"
"Okay, let's hear 'em." And he seriously asked each, writing down the answer.
One of his questions was, "What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?"
"A reporter," I answered. "You know, for a newspaper."
"Like the Houston Chronicle?" Jesus asked.
"Yeah. Exactly like that."
Jesus wrote that down. I asked to take a picture of Jesus' notebook and he agreed. I had to enhance the photo so that his careful note taking showed clearly in the photo.

A reporter needs to have the tenacity of a pit bull and and an unquenchable curiosity -- the urgent need to get an answer. I never made it as a reporter, but today I think I met a young man who really has the stuff.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Hable Espanol?

Here's something I don't get and it's come up in casual conversation twice in the last two days -- once with a guy buying aspirin for his bad knees in the check-out line at Drug Mart, me holding my soon to be new hangers. "All these people speaking Spanish. They should just learn to speak English." And not a soul around us was speaking anything but English. It was pressing on his mind enough to blurt out his viewpoint to a stranger (me) in line, along with the entire story of his knees, soon to be replaced but not without major fighting with the insurance folks. No, he hadn't seen Sicko, his son is a physician.

Another situation of "what I should have asked."

What's the harm in learning some Spanish? Taking it one step further, what's could possibly be the benefit? Some people (Fox News?) treat English as if it were a religion and any other language as pure blasphemy.

The USA is the ONLY industrialized country that routinely graduates students who are NOT fluent in another language. So, what's the problem with that? Doesn't most of the world speak English? Ah, no, as a matter of fact, they don't. More people speak Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish than speak English as a first language. Add in the second language speakers and English scoots ahead of Spanish and Hindi, but doesn't even begin to approach the over 1 billion people who speak Chinese. In fact, only 5.6 % of the world's total population speaks English.

Doesn't it kind of make sense that if we English speakers are engaging in a global marketplace our future citizens should be able to talk to their business partners? I've seen enough spy movies to know that translators don't always give it to you straight. If the news from abroad is any indication of our ability to make our needs known(China re: toys and dog food, Iraq re: the war to name two) we could benefit from some better communication skills. Where we going to get those? At some school that throws in token hello-how-are-you language courses only at the HS level?

Ten years ago I visited a classroom of second language learners in Stockholm (the Swedes take in a lot of political refugees). In the classroom, the Hindi kids sat here, the Bulgarian kids there, over there the Arabic speakers, and in this corner the Cambodian kids and so on. If the kids had a question on the lesson, they turned to their neighbor for clarification in their mother tongue, to their teacher to whom they spoke in Swedish or to me in English. I was there to teaching the writing of poetry in English -- their THIRD language. The children were in fifth grade. They all wrote poems in English. Nice poems. Funny. Adorable poems.

In this country an ESL school has a stigma -- instead of being seen as a place where students can get some extra language skills along with fractions and phonics, they are seen as second class. What kind of backwards thinking is that? No one ever died an infection of foreign language or was denied a job for diversity of language.

When I was growing up outside of Detroit post WWII many many of my friends had a grandmother in a back bedroom who didn't speak English. DPs they called them. (these women, always made the best cookies, perogies, and pasties btw). The parents might have had a lingering accent, the kids spoke perfect English but were also defensively conversant enough in that other language so that the parents couldn't pull the wool over their eyes. Hamtramack had street signs in Polish, Greektown in Greek, so that the DPs could get around, helping one another out in their selective groups while they assimilated into a new culture and struggled with the language. We all thought we were very cool learning to swear in those languages plus of course yiddish which was the funnest of all. The thing is, we grew up with a hands on, day in, day out awareness that not everybody in the world talked the same and diversity in language and cookies could be a very good thing.

As I visit International Schools I am so impressed with the students' mastery of languages and can't help thinking that they have an edge up over our home grown kids. Do you think the next generation of engineers might have an advantage if they can talk to both the executives and the folks working on the factory floors, no matter where that factory is or what language is being spoken? Yeah. We are not helping our kids by insisting on "English only," we are holding them back. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for hearing an unfamiliar language; we need that kind of reminder in places like Mentor, OH, that there is a whole world of people out there who aren't exactly like us. And that's okay, and they are okay people, and we are all struggling to make ourselves understood.

I want those days in Detroit back. I want to share them with my kids and my grandkids. Do kids need good English language skills to succeed today? Of course they do. NOT developing these skills WILL put a definite cramp on future employability.

But putting self-imposed limitations on language learning is like restricting your snack diet to Oreos. They're okay, but there is so much more out there.