100 word memoirs

For the past few years, I’ve used Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s idea of a 100 word memoir as one of the early assignments for my classes. It’s miraculous. Over and over, students engage deeply with this task. They dive into their notebooks for ideas; they draft multiple options; they give each other feedback, laughing and talking in small groups as they tell their stories. Best of all, they revise and revise – actual revision! – to get their word count and their craft just right.

Each time I assign this, I write in front of my students. They see how I generate ideas. They help me choose my topic from my list; they almost always choose ones about dating or embarrassing things I’ve done. They watch me struggle with decisions – how should I start? does this ending work? maybe I should fiddle with this sentence – and see my mini-memoir grow and shrink as I aim for 100 words. Sometimes, I actually get to the end.

Today, teaching online, I shared some of my potential ideas and saw the reaction of the two kids whose cameras were on; no point in taking a vote, experience told me that this topic would win. I fiddled and futzed, changed and rejigged. I started 87 words. I changed the opening. Moved the middle. Added some details, took out others. 100 words! But still not quite right. I moved bits, changed sentence structure… They were writing, I was writing. It’s actually pretty fun. In fact, I kept fiddling with it after class until I got something I liked. Tomorrow, I’ll ask my students for feedback, but you can read it here first.

Kissing J Austin
As soon as my lips touch his cheek, I know this is a mistake. I’m already seriously awkward and Pammy has pushed me forward, so I nearly knock him into a shelf full of beakers. Supposedly every girl in the 7th grade is kissing J. Austin for his birthday, but at this moment I realize he isn’t in on the plan. He rights himself and stares at me…horrified? disgusted? Red-faced, mortified, I retreat from the science supply room. Behind me, the popular girls titter and flit around him. How many girls kissed him that day? I never dared ask.

Craft moves: use of present tense, a hook that drops the reader into the moment, 7th grade POV/diction – all the emotions are giant

In the playroom #SOL21 14/31

This month’s poetry prompts on EthicalELA have blown open my writing brain. I think it’s the combination of the book that Dr. Kimberly Johnson chose for mentor texts – Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s You are no longer in trouble and Kim’s gentle guidance on form (which I find comforting when I’m writing poetry). This, of course, makes me think about what I can take into the classroom: perhaps some of my students will also appreciate some structure, a gentle form to help them corral their wilder thoughts right now. I am inspired to offer that during our writing time this week. Until then, here’s a slice of memory as a pantoum.

In the playroom
for my sister

You no longer need to hide
with me behind the old blue armchair
where we hold each other so tight our memories mix
as the storm blows through.

With me behind the old blue armchair,
our words create worlds where little girls reign
until the storm blows through,
until we can come out and play again.

Our words create worlds where little girls reign,
your emotions are mine, mine yours
until we can come out and play again
I hold your fear.

Your emotions are mine, mine yours.
We hold each other so tight our memories mix.
I hold your fear.
You no longer need to hide.

First Snow #SOL21 12/31

Every month I peek at EthicalELA‘s Open Write prompts. Often, I try one or two. Sometimes I share. Trying my hand at poetry – even when many of my poems end up being only for me – has changed my attitude towards poetry. I liked it before, sure, but now… well, now I think I might be starting to get it.

Today, Dr. Kimberly Johnson chose a mentor text from You are No Longer in Trouble by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell and encouraged writers to share a vivid memory story with words & images, possibly in a prose poem. Well, I’ve never officially written a prose poem before, but I’ve got lots of memories, so I gave it a try. It’s not really a poem, I don’t think, but it’s poem-ish.

Someone – maybe Stacy – whispered the word first: snow. Eyes shifted. Heads swiveled. Then someone cried “Snow!” and old Mrs. Rish’s quavering voice could no longer keep us in our seats. 24 bodies tumbled towards the windows and flattened their fingertips against the frigid glass. But Mrs Rish believed that magic could not co-exist with mathematics: “Children! Sit down! You have all seen it snow before!” Spell-broken, children trudged back towards their desks, but I was frozen in place.

“I haven’t.”

My teacher melted. “Oh yes. That’s right. Everyone but Mandy, back to their seats.”

For one day in fifth grade, fractals were my math and magic.

Pick Me Up #SOL21 8/31

A few days ago, Terje wrote a slice about her name. And then Elisabeth followed suit. And in her book Being the Change, Sarah K. Ahmed suggests having students write the story of their name as an identity activity. AND I’ve been working with my own students on how our identity affects our interpretation of information. So how could I resist? It’s time for a name story.

My name is Amanda. When I was little, it was an unusual name. In fact, I have a fill-in-the-blank journal from 4th grade where I wrote that my name was “old fashioned.” During the middle school name-sticker phase, I had no name stickers. A nurse named Amanda who worked with my father once bought me stickers because she, too, was excited to see our name in a store. (Amanda tchochkes abound these days; the generation behind me has no idea how we older Amandas suffered.)

I liked Amanda – though everyone called me Mandy and I like that, too. It was just unusual enough to be mine, but it was still easy to say. And it was certainly better than another choice that lurked in my baby book: Jemima. I used to imagine a whole different life for Jemima-me. I assure you that she wasn’t not doing nearly as well in life as I was. In college, Amanda was written on the door of my freshman dorm & Amanda I became. These days, I go by both.

But that’s not the story.

During my junior year abroad, my friends and I traveled over Spring Break. We left France and headed to Salzburg, Vienna, Prague and Budapest. We were four young women: a tall redhead, a willowy brunette, a blue-eyed blonde and a curly-haired brunette. I’ve seen the pictures; we caught the eye. We can (and will) tell story after story from that trip. For example, in Prague,we followed our guidebook’s dubious suggestion and “found” a room offered by someone who met the train at the quai. We ended up staying in an apartment owned by a fast-talking British (?) guy who decided to go ahead and stay the night with us. (I know, I know. It’s a miracle any child of the 70s or 80s survived.)

We settled in, drank some cheap Russian champagne, and then happily agreed to go dancing with our new friend. Once we arrived at the club, he quickly found friends for each of us to chat with, while he stayed with the willowy brunette. I had a boyfriend in France, thus making me harder to match, but he managed: I soon found myself deep in conversation with an incredibly handsome Swedish man named Torin. He was in Prague to collect art. He spoke French, English and heaven only knows what else. Our conversation ranged from books to art to travel. Soon, he asked me to dance, and there I was, at a club in Prague, dancing with a gorgeous Swedish intellectual who leaned over to me and said, “Amanda. Such a name. Do you know what it means?”

I did. I do. But I still let him tell me.

“Amanda, worthy of love.”

I mean, who derives the Latin root of a name as a pick up line? I was very nearly swept off my feet. But not quite. As he leaned in to kiss me – of course he would, after that little gem – I turned my head. “I still have a boyfriend.” He smiled ruefully, “and your constancy makes it harder to let you go.” (I’m not even kidding – he talked like that.) We danced and talked all evening. We did not exchange information and this was long before the internet. One night was one night.

My French boyfriend, wonderful though he was, did not collect art or speak multiple languages. He had no idea what my name meant in Latin. He was, nevertheless, my first love. We stayed together for a while, and then we broke up. I’ve never been back to Prague, and no one else has ever tried to pick me up with such an urbane pick up line. Sometimes, I still think about Torin and Prague and that carefree trip. After all, while I’m now a middle-aged wife (Honey), mother (Mama or Mom), and teacher (Miss), I remain Amanda, worthy of love.

With gratitude to twowritingteachers.org who host this challenge annually

A nighttime visitor

I was reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It isn’t a properly scary book – not like scary movies, anyway – though I suppose I wouldn’t know since I don’t watch scary movies – but it is vaguely terrifying. It’s about being a child and, well, let’s call it “menacing”: no jump scares; lots of tense terror. Whatever it was, I could not put it down because I was too afraid to stop reading.

Sometime after midnight, I gave myself a stern talking to – I was a grown woman with children for heaven’s sake. I gave myself a little leeway since my husband was away on a trip, leaving me alone in our bed, but my visiting in-laws were asleep in the guest room right next to my room. They would expect me to wake up tomorrow at a normal hour, and I needed to get some sleep.

I turned another page. And another. I could not look away from the darkness that wormed its way out of the book and into my mind. Eventually, my eyes drooped closed. I had just enough consciousness left to reach up and turn off the reading light.

As my mind slipped fretfully towards slumber, the pocket door that led into our bedroom scraped open. My eyes flew open and the rest of my body shut down: I could no more move than scream. A tall, pale figure came slowly into view, almost stumbled – just there! – hovered for a moment, then turned and glided away, scraping the door closed as it left.

My lips had gone numb; so had my fingertips. I remained paralyzed in the bed, listening for some indication that what I had just seen was real, afraid that what I’d just seen was real. After seconds, minutes, hours had passed, I raised a trembling hand to the chain above my head and pulled. The light came on, though it now seemed nearly powerless against the dark. My hand groped towards the bedside table. I found the book and opened it again.

I read all the way to the end. I cannot remember when I was finally able to sleep, when the characters were as safe as they were going to be, when pure exhaustion overtook my fear.

I stumbled down to the kitchen the next morning. Everyone was chipper, everything was bright: Grandpa Jim’s beard practically glowed white; Grandma Shirley hummed and sang while she made breakfast. Hollow-eyed, I watched, wondering if I should say anything about last night’s visitation. Would they believe me? Had I imagined it?

As we settled in to eat, Grandpa Jim started to talk, “A funny thing happened to me last night.” My head snapped up; my sense were wildly alert. Had he seen it, too? “I got up to go to the bathroom, got turned around and walked right into your bedroom before I realized it. I’m just glad I didn’t wake you up.” He returned to his granola and I stared at him for a full minute before I burst into hysterical laughter.

Not a ghost; just a grandpa.

I’ve never forgotten the book. You could do worse than to read The Ocean at the End of Lane as Halloween approaches – or anytime, really.

Many thanks to TwoWritingTeachers.org for hosting this weekly gathering of writers.