Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

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Writing and writing

I have been writing A LOT for the past two weeks. For reasons that are both complicated and idiotic, I have to take three English courses in order to be allowed to take two courses which will officially make me “fully qualified” for the job I’ve been doing for seven years. Short explanation: don’t move countries mid-career.

At any rate, with some (ok, a lot of) cajoling and support from my (wonderful) colleagues and husband, I finally decided to get this credential issue out of the way this summer. I had it all planned out, but… someone made an honest (and costly to me) mistake, and I ended up registered for three on-line undergraduate composition courses in August. (Side note: The reason Comp 101 is not on my transcript is because I effectively tested out of it – when I was 17.)

I’m not going to lie, I spent more time than was healthy feeling sorry for myself. Then I spent a fair amount of time doing the whole 1990s “rage against the machine” thing – just another version of feeling sorry for myself, really. My friends and family practically achieved sainthood merely by listening to me explain how dumb this all is. Finally – finally – I got down to work. I’ve been writing A LOT.

It’s been fascinating.

Not unexpectedly, first year university composition classes have little to do with five paragraph essays. I love that I’ll be able to go back to teaching high school with this knowledge firmly in hand. I’ve written descriptive paragraphs, a summary of debate, a personal essay with research and an argumentative essay. Next up? A rhetorical analysis (which I’ve been putting off). Second year comp includes an expository essay, an argumentative essay, a persuasive essay, and a research essay. Creative non-fiction is making me write about place and culture.

I resent some of the assignments. I don’t want to write a rhetorical analysis of Frank McCourt. I have no desire to write a persuasive essay about heroes. “Who cares about this?” I grumble. Still, I mold and shape the topics, find the ideas, search for the words. I write.

It has been a long time since I wrote essays. Suddenly, I am in my students’ shoes – and not just in my memory or via my (sometimes dwindling) empathy. Writing essays day after day reminds me what a complex a task this really is. I read models, try to discern the teacher’s expectation, choose a topic from among those offered, and then I almost always pause. Sometimes I need research; always I need to brainstorm. Some days I walk around the house or the neighborhood to get my ideas in order. Good essays require good thinking.

When I started, one of my colleagues said, “They’re a bunch of 1000-word essays. You can write that in an hour or two.” But I can’t. I have to pare my thoughts down, write my “shitty first draft” (oh, how Anne Lamott’s words comfort and guide me). I have to observe and consider. I have to rewrite and then reread and rewrite again. I have to be a writer.

I’ve written eight essays so far. I have seven to go. I have drafts for four. I have ideas for all of them. I have three weeks until school starts, and one week with the kids off of camp. Can I get it all done? I don’t know. But I am going to be a much better writer for trying. That’s not an outcome I expected from this exercise.

Wish me luck. That rhetorical analysis awaits.

 

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On scars and being a woman

I was on a new-to-me big kids’ bike with skinny wheels, a slender blue frame and even gears. I wobbled a little every time I started, but no matter: the bike was mine.

That day, riding home from Saundra’s, a hot breeze blew my unkempt hair across my sun-browned face. I knew I should have combed it that morning, and could almost hear my mother scolding, “Mandy, if you’re going to have long hair you need to brush it and tie it back.” But who had time for combs when Saundra swore there was a real live black widow spider right in her bathroom and I needed to come over now before it got away?

The bike veered sideways as my dirty hand pawed my hair from my eyes. My legs splayed out and I nearly crashed, but – miracle! – caught myself just in time. As I  stuttered to a stop, I felt a stinging pain and looked down to see a furrow carved into my left shin. I watched the blood well up and drip down my leg, eventually pooling at the edge of my bobby sock. Then I started to cry.

It was only another few minutes to my house, and I biked the whole way: teary, bloody, determined. By the time I got there, my shin was splattered dark red and my face was shiny wet. In the kitchen, my father cleaned my leg with a damp paper towel while I dried my eyes on his shirt. Now that we could see it, the cut wasn’t much, really: a narrow inch and a half of pain. Daddy got the Band-aids and some Neosporin and set about doctoring me up.

When he finished, he patted my hair and said, “Well, that’ll leave a scar. There goes your shot at Miss America.” He grinned conspiratorially and walked away. But I was eight, and I didn’t get the joke. Was I supposed to be Miss America? Was I supposed to want to be? My father had already returned to his gardening, but I sat in the kitchen staring at the dark stain I could just make out through the pink of the bandage and thought of the beautiful women on TV. Where were their scars? Did they ride bikes? Maybe they were better at biking.

I don’t know when I realized that my father had never wanted me to be Miss America. I don’t know when I understood the jest he had offered to his scruffy, sturdy eight-year-old daughter. But that was the summer I recognized that, someday, I was going to have to deal with hair and dirt and scars and beauty. By the time 4th grade started, I played mostly with girls, combed my hair more regularly, and faked disgust at spiders.

It’s almost invisible now, the scar that introduced me to womanhood, but if I look hard, I can still see it.

 

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This post is part of the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, a weekly invitation to share a snapshot of life through writing. To read more or participate, click here.

When friendship lasts

As we pulled into a parking spot, we saw a blond boy waiting on his porch, looking longingly up and down the street. For a fraction of a second, before he recognized us, I saw how tall he was and, maybe, how lonely. Then his eyes widened and a smile filled his face. While he was visibly excited, he descended the steps and came towards us slowly.

In the van, Eric said, “What’s he doing waiting on the porch?”
“I think he’s waiting for you,” I explained.
“Oh,” Eric was hesitant, “ok.”

He opened the van door and walked towards his old friend. Looking at the ground, their feet in constant motion, the boys exchanged diffident “hi”s. Then, without warning or explanation, they started talking and, just like that, resumed their friendship from three years ago when they were six. Hours later, after the park, the corner store, the house; after basketball and jungle gyms and ice cream; after talking and laughing and wrestling, they parted reluctantly, already asking when they could see each other again.

Oscar’s family just finished a three-year assignment overseas. Our boys were inseparable before they left, but they’ve only seen each other in person once since then, so they barely know each other now. After all, they’ve spent one-third of their lives on different continents. No matter, they seemed to say, friends are friends.

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Learning to bike together at age 3

I believe this. Every summer we travel to South Carolina to see family and one of our stops is at my friend Malia’s house. She and I become friends as new moms in Ottawa, long before her husband’s job landed her an hour and a half from my father’s house in SC. As much as I love seeing her, our children’s friendship is a real driver of our annual visits. You see, our oldest kids were constantly together for their first year and a half. Sometimes I think they got encoded in each other’s DNA. Despite being separated when they were 18 months old and not meeting again until they were, I think, eight, despite visits of only a few days once a year, the boys magnet together every summer and still count each other among their closest friends.

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Left out of their mother’s conversation – escape attempt in progress
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These days, their enthusiasm is overwhelming.

And really, I should understand. After all, my husband still spends at least one weekend a year with friends he’s known since daycare. As for me, last month my childhood best friend and I had a slumber party (ok, ok, a “visit” because we are adults now, but really, it was a sleepover) for two glorious days. We met at her parents’ house for dinner. They made salmon, grilled on the backyard barbecue, creamed corn leftover from a reception, and homemade broccoli salad. After dinner, her father made us peach ice cream by blending real peaches into vanilla ice cream. He added a dollop of whipped cream and we settled onto the new patio until the mosquitos chased us indoors. This dinner, served in a place I know so well by people I love so deeply, nearly overwhelmed me.

After almost 40 years of friendship, the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for at least two years didn’t change a thing. We started chattering the moment I walked in, talking as though we had just picked up the thread of the conversation we started sometime in 5th grade. Sometimes I think that, if you counted only the times when we were physically together, Jamie and I haven’t stopped talking since we were ten. Nevermind that we are now very different people who likely wouldn’t have much in common if we were to meet today. That’s not how friendship works.

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The picture’s a little blurry, but we’re still laughing after all these years.

Even as I write, my toes are still painted from the pedicure we got the next morning. Just seeing them makes me smile. There’s something about these friendships, the unlikely pairings that last well beyond the convenience of time and place, something that nourishes us through their mysterious inexplicability.

Parker and Thomas have been talking online. Jamie and I just tag each other in social media posts. Oscar and Eric already have plans to play together again. It makes me grin. I’m glad they’re back from their posting – may the friendships continue.

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Driving Greens

For most of the past two days, I’ve been in a minivan with a tween and a “nearly nine” year old. We’ve been through 8 states, covered nearly 1,000 miles, stayed in one impressively crummy motel and listened to 1.5 books by Erin Hunter. The kids have been great, and Erin Hunter’s books are surprisingly good. It’s still a lot of miles for one mom to drive.

Thankfully, last week, Brian Rozinky over at Cast of Characters mentioned Rob Walker’s deceptively simple strategy to help us counteract some of technology’s pull: “Report 10 metaphor-free observations about the world this week.” (From The Art of Noticing)

I needed to do something to stay focused as I drove, so with the drama of animals on the African savannah swirling in my ears, and semi- regular commentary from the peanut gallery in the backseat, I decided to intentionally observe my surroundings. Once I got going on really observing, I found myself longing to take pictures. Of course a) I was driving and b) that kind of undoes Walker’s idea that we should “look closely without technology’s mediation.” So no pictures, just words.

There are a lot of trucks, and they are mostly white. Amazon trucks sporting their “Prime” logo were out in droves. We only passed one truck transporting horses. We all wondered how the horses felt about that.

Somewhere in Virginia there is a water tower that is painted like an apple basket, and near Lancaster, PA (I think) there was a factory with great big beautiful arched windows that gave onto the metal inner workings of the plant.

There are a lot of red and white barns in view of the highway. Grain silos are often white. I don’t know why barns are red, and I don’t know the names of lots of parts of farms once they have more than a house, a barn and a silo.

We passed by one lake that appeared to have worn down tree trunks poking up from the water near the banks. They flickered into my attention and then away. Moments later I wondered if these might be cypress knees. Then I realized I don’t know if cypress grow this far north.

Once I started this exercise in focusing, I found my lack of knowledge startling. For example, birds. Once, in five minutes, I saw four distinctly different types of birds. I have no idea what any of them were. (No robins or red-winged blackbirds, which comprise virtually all of my bird-identification skills.) One was a raptor of some sort; the others? No idea.

In South Carolina, my home state, I easily recognized the quick-growing kudzu that strangles the trees, but what was the vine further north? And what trees did the vines cover? I couldn’t even count of all the different species, much less name them. What amazing variety.

Observing was fun, but remembering was exhausting, and we were on the road for a long time. Eventually I just let the images wash over me. I looked and looked, wondering about the lives of the people in the houses we passed, noticing the billboards, taking in the skyscape. By the end of both days, one impression flooded my senses: green.

Green and green and green… pale white-green on the tips of the grasses at the side of the road; yellower green covering vast cornfields; bright greens and shade-darkened blue greens as the sun played through the leaves of trees on the side of the road; brown-greens of some grasses, gray-greens of others; greens so dark they were almost black; sudden, golden greens where sunlight hit a hillside covered in much deeper green; green fading to nearly blue in the hills further away; bluish-white green of a some of the fir trees; orange-tinted green in the tops of some of the trees; deep greens of still lakes; clear greens in a fast-moving river. All the greens of our world and no way for me to adequately describe them. So much beauty.

Not so much, mind you, that I wasn’t grateful to arrive at the grandparents’ place tonight. But enough that I don’t quite dread the final leg of our journey (7+ more hours on Thursday).

“Report 10 metaphor-free observations about the world this week.” I think I need to do this again.

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Hot cars and good Samaritans

My sister and I were finishing up a quick grocery run towards the end of this year’s week-long family gathering at a beach in South Carolina. As she grabbed a bag from the cart, she laughed and said, “Well, we haven’t been arrested yet, so the kids must be ok.”  I hefted the other bag and exchanged a rueful glance with a woman nearby – a mother, I assumed – who had smiled at the comment. “We left them reading in the car,” I explained. She chuckled and we walked into the thick, warm southern air.

Frankly, I thought the boys were crazy to stay in the minivan because South Carolina’s humidity can be oppressive, but we’d just been to the bookstore and all four of them had new books. They’d been reading since the minute their seatbelts were on, and they had zero interest in abandoning their stories to watch their moms get salad fixings and fish. My oldest has already had a babysitting job, and all four of them walk to and from school every day, so my sister and I had left the windows down, reminded them to be nice to each other, and told them we’d be back in ten.

We probably took closer to fifteen minutes (we ended up with chicken instead of fish, so there was a little negotiating), but we were still shocked to see all four of our boys out of the car and heading reluctantly towards the store accompanied by several adults just as we stepped into the parking lot. It turns out that two women had seen the boys reading in the car and decided they were in danger. One of the women was already on the phone with “someone” before either of them said anything to the boys. My oldest immediately asked if they were calling the police, and the other woman said no, but it’s hard to imagine what else was going on when the boys overheard “yes, four young boys in a car in the Publix parking lot.”

The way the boys tell the story, the women were annoying, overbearing, nosy, horrible people. But I’m not sure I trust the outraged tweens. Still, it’s clear that one of the women asked where they were from and freaked them out by answering her own question. (She read our license plate.) And they all agree that when the boys said they were fine because the windows were open, one of the women said, “Would you leave a million dollars sitting in your car? You all are more precious than that.” (At which point a real miracle occurred: my more outspoken child thought, “Well, actually it *is* pretty different because a million dollars can’t walk away if something happens, and my mom would definitely not leave the windows down if there was money in the car” but he kept his mouth shut.) And we know that the good Samaritans declined the boys’ repeated attempts to have them call us – “We know their cell phone numbers. They’re just in the store.” – in favour of having the boys to get out of the car and come with them to the store.

That’s when we came out, groceries in hand.

When they saw us coming, the two women skedaddled. My sister and I didn’t immediately know what was going on, so we weren’t quick enough to stop them or even to make eye contact. They were gone. The boys got back into the car, we sorted out the story, calmed them down, and headed off on one more errand. That time, I stayed in the car with them while they read. The temperature was identical. No one looked at us.

Days later, I keep running through the whole incident in my mind. I am not even remotely sorry about leaving the kids in the car. They are not babies or toddlers or even early elementary children. They know when they are hot, they know how to open a car door, and they know how to find us in a store that is mere yards away. I was actually pleased that they wanted to read, and I’ve done my research (because I care about things like this), so I also know that more children die or are injured in parking lots than in parked cars. No one would have glanced twice if I were in the car alone, reading; my children were also safe.

I’m not mad at the women for worrying, either. To be fair, I think they were wrong, but I’d much rather live in a world where communities of people look out for children than in one where children are neglected. They were worried and they acted on their worry. This is what I told our kids.

That said, I found the whole situation unsettling. In a society where parental actions are regularly judged and where mothers, in particular, must walk a terribly narrow path in order to meet other people’s expectations (here we had to choose between being overly protective and too blasé), concern for children’s well-being should spring from a sense of community and kindness rather than from a performative sense of what “should” be done.

In this case, I think what upsets me is that the women left without talking to us. Granted, they didn’t do what many people do: call 911 but do nothing about the children they have deemed to be at risk; there is a lot to suggest that they were genuinely concerned about the children. They did go too far, in my opinion, by asking the kids questions about where they were from (all four informed us indignantly that they won’t even tell people that online) and especially by getting the kids out of the car. I don’t want my children to ever follow a stranger out of a space I’ve determined is safe. I think I would feel better about the whole thing if they had spoken to us, the mothers, once they saw us. But as I judge the actions of these good Samaritans, I entrap them in the same snare I resent so strongly. Were they overprotective? Do I have any more right to say that than they do to suggest that I was negligent?

I want to believe that these women were actually watching out for my children not just performing goodness. I want to keep firm hold of my conviction that my own judgment was correct and that there was no need for their intervention. But I’m finding both of these beliefs to be slippery. One way or another, I keep repeating what we told the kids: “let’s be grateful there are people in the world who are looking out for children who might need help.” I have a feeling I’m going to have to say that a few more times before I’m done thinking about this.

 

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Overwhelm, sliced into snippets

Day 1 of a three-day Kittle & Gallagher workshop

  • I head to the workshop as excited as a child on her way to her first day of school. My mother-in-law has loaned me a backpack, and I love its compartments and the way it hangs from my shoulders. I follow the map, nervously checking that I don’t make any wrong turns. I even take my own picture. When I arrive, I look for my friends. We hug. I laugh and think that I really am like a schoolgirl. They have saved me a seat.

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    Look at that backpack!
  • I don’t know everyone at my table equally well. I am nervous. I talk too much. I wish I had talked less, but there it is. You can’t take the words back.
  • I love the information that Kittle and Gallagher share. I love their philosophy. These are my teaching heroes. I sit half-twisted towards them on my conference-room chair, and I hover between listening and writing. I want to drink it in and to remember everything.
  • 180 teacher participants open their notebooks and write. If you listen, you can hear the pens move against the paper. I love being in a room of writers. I love the first quickwrite topic, too. We write again. I’m not as good at this one. I start to feel doubtful. “This is how your students feel,” I tell myself sternly. Inside my head schoolgirl me retorts, “Well, I don’t like it.” We revise. We write again. Better. We revise again. I’ve got this.
  • When we share ideas at our table, I can hear myself sounding confident. “I’ve tried this,” I say. “This works,” I say. “Have you considered this,” I say. Then suddenly, I am not confident; I’m worried. I need to be more questioning. I need to talk more about my weaknesses. I am talking too much. I’m not listening enough. I should be more critical of my teaching practice. Except that I *am* critical of my teaching. Wait, I’m too critical. My head spins. Lunch is announced. I heave a sigh of relief. Food will help.
  • The workshop slides include lists. So many lists. So many things to question. So many things I need to do better. So many things to consider. I feel like I’m just keeping up when, suddenly, Penny is sharing books her students love. I read all the time. I read so so much. I have not read most of these books. How will I ever read them? I write down all the titles but a part of me begins to despair. I need to read these books. I need to do better at writer’s notebooks. I need to keep a beautiful words log. I need to write every day. I don’t know if I can do this.
  • The day is over. The seven of us from our school board stay around our table, talking about the things we’ve just learned. Our voices overlap with ideas and questions. We are full of self-doubt and a sense of wonder and hope. The colleague I know least well offers me a ride home. I accept gratefully. No exhausted walk home from the first day of school for this school child. I need all of my brain power to process the day.
  • My mother-in-law has dinner for me. Afterwards, we take her beautiful golden impulsive Standard Poodle for a walk along the waterfront. University students still crowd the beach. Small children dart away from their parents. Mothers push strollers while toddlers trail behind. A tandem bike startles us. A family cleans up the ends of a picnic. The temperature is perfect and the low evening sunlight promises a beautiful evening.

 

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