Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

          I'm taking a few moments out today to think about and thank all of those men and women who are deployed overseas or at home defending our freedom and making the world safer.  And some special thoughts go out to my father [1920-2007] who was a veteran of WWII,  was deployed overseas, and helped liberate Dachau with the 82nd Airborne. His unit was scheduled to invade Italy before the bomb was dropped. 
          Thanks to all of you for your sacrifices--in the past and the present--on this day set aside to remember.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Brave New World of Connections

In 1968 I began my teaching career in a small basement classroom of Monmouth High School in the tiny town of Monmouth, Illinois.  We had no xerox machines, 16-mm projectors, and opaque projectors that were so heavy I could hardly lift them.  Before I retired, of course, we were using computers and smart boards; the latter were "the latest thing." When I say times have changed, boy, have they changed!  I know that technology is in use in much bigger and wealthier schools all over the country, but in our little economically distressed school in west central Illinois,  we struggle. "Extras" that cost money are hard to finance.

Today I sat in that same room with high school students and watched and interacted with twenty-four schools all over the country as we heard--via live streaming--an eco-activist in Toronto, Canada, talk about ways young people can become activists to save the planet.  I am not kidding when I say that every high school students' eyes were fixed on that screen and listening intently to the talk.  Just before it ended, one of the students in our classroom could directly ask a question of Emily Hunter.

Emily Hunter is an activist who is only 20 years old and she uses film and public speaking to address environmental problems, including climate change, the destruction of rain forests, and the plight of endangered species.  Her parents were involved in Greenpeace and her father founded that organization. Now she is also an active participant in the Sea Shepherd group.  She sees film and public speaking as tools for changing peoples' minds and getting them to help.

During the hour we saw a video of the rain forests in Borneo, the damage that construction machinery is doing there, and why it is important to keep these rain forests intact.  A second video clip was about the day the world came together to fight climate change.  The groups in the demonstrations--which took place on October 10, 2010, protested all over the world about the importance of making a difference in climate change.  On that day there were over 700 events in 188 countries.  Hunter showed photos of other high school students who were activists in their countries and the emphasis was on making a difference in the world even if you are young.

Her message to students was five-fold:  Find your passion;  learn, because knowledge IS power; take action using your own talent; do one step at a time; and work with others.  These steps could be applied to any type of activism.

Of the twenty-four schools watching the live feed, ten were chosen to ask questions.  Some of the questions they asked were:  If you could make one thing happen, what would it be?  Is being young helpful to your message or does it work against you?  What are ways to make our own school more environmentally friendly?  Since the captain of the Sea Shepherd's ship was arrested recently, how will that change the mission of that group?  The last question was asked by a Monmouth-Roseville student.  Ms. Hunter answered each question in turn and the other schools could see our classroom when it was our turn to ask a question.

Monmouth-Roseville High School students profit by using these presentations because the teacher in the classroom, Melissa, works with a company called Front Row.  They make audio systems for classrooms and can, in presentations like these, connect classrooms with experts in various fields.  So a small high school in a town of 10,000 people can be connected to experts with experience and information that teaches and inspires young people who would not otherwise have had this opportunity.

I guess the difference between 1968 and 2012 could be described as going from unplugged to plugged in.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shared History: Comfortable, Easy, and Reassuring

In order to make sure my author social platforms are up to date, this week I set up, revised, added to, and changed social media sites--my webpage, blog, Pinterest page, GoodReads page, and Facebook--(whew) and I'm already tired but not done.  While my brain was so occupied, I also meditated in some other side of my brain about shared history.

And, in the thinking, I remembered something my Aunt Ruby once said that now makes sense.

What do I mean by "shared history?"  Shared history is composed of those markers you share with a particular group of people who have known and experienced the same family life or generational life or schooling life as you.  Examples?

Two years ago The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks) launched, and I heard from a great many former students and colleagues who had lived through and shared a building known then as Monmouth High School.  Many of their comments touched on their pleasure in reading the book because it brought back so many memories of events they had shared with those who walked beside them down those halls.

This week I had lunch with a group of ladies who graduated with me from high school back in...well, somewhere in the last century.  While most of them either live in Galesburg, Illinois, or were visiting from other places, I drove only about twelve miles to join them.  Evidently these monthly forays to various wine places and restaurants have been going on for some time, but I either missed the fact or was simply ignorant.  We had a great time catching up and finding out about each other's lives and asking about those who were absent.

As I looked around the table it occurred to me that we were all exactly the same age, give or take a few months.  We are in the same place in life--retired or working part time still--and we have experienced marriages, children, grandchildren, divorces, and the deaths of parents or siblings. We lived through the repressive 1950s, experienced the Viet Nam War and the divisive politics of the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, and all of the other events that mark the lives of the oldest baby boomers.  It felt, well, reassuring.  No one had to explain something because, unlike my college students who were born in 1994, all of us had lived through it.  We understood.

I thought of it as an example of those circles in which we live and breathe and have our being.  When my mother died it was one link taken away from the circle of our family rituals, traditions, and history. Other deaths followed so that now my older brother and I are left to share the memories that no one else owns. Only us.  (And I'm sure that--unlike his memory--mine is correct when I say that the argument resulting in the two-story fall of my teddy bear was his fault.)  

It reminds me of my mother's sister, my Aunt Ruby, who passed away well into her nineties, the last person from a family of nine who had experienced the Depression, World War II, and the aftermath leading to the birth of my generation.  When her eighth sibling died a few years earlier, she told me that her true sadness was that she had no one with whom to speak that shared their family history.  Now I understand what she meant.

I believe that teaching college students well into my sixties has kept my brain active and my thoughts young, and I definitely recommend bonding with those generations younger and older than you.  But there is something about being with those people who share your history that is familiar, easy, and reassuring.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Celebrate National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day

When my children were growing up, the most popular cookie in our household was the chocolate chip cookie. If I had a dime for every batch I have baked over the years I'd be rich.  These cookies have been part of our historic family events including major birthdays and holidays.  As I stirred them up I'd give page numbers to my older son and he would learn numbers by finding the corresponding pages in my cookbook.  With all three children I had to guard the dough because it would mysteriously disappear in the days when raw eggs were still safe.  When the same children left for college these cookies became part of the care packages from home.

Today I occasionally bake several dozen for my children and grandchildren and I know they bring back or create memories of comfort, sweetness, and special events as they were and are growing up.  Even now I bake chocolate chip cookies and take them to the college library--where folks have been exceedingly kind to me--or the Warren County Public Library (for the same reason), or to my colleagues in places where I worked.

In fact, over half the cookies baked in homes in the United States are chocolate chip cookies.  They seem to be quite a favorite and so they get their very own national day today.

The first known cookies were made in Persia (modern day Iran) in the 7th century A.D.  By the 14th century the idea of a cookie had spread to Europe and Parisians could buy "little wafers" in street shops.  A couple of centuries later, cookie recipes began appearing in Renaissance cookbooks for the first time.

Over many times and places cookies have found a way into our vocabulary as well as our stomachs.  In Holland they are called koekje or little cakes.  Spain has its galletas, Germany its kels, England its biscuits, and Italy its biscotti.  But no matter what word is used to describe these sweet confections, Americans call them "cookies."

In the United States cookies began to change dramatically with the invention of the intercontinental railroad.  Now ingredients could be found in faraway places and brought back for the purpose of cooking.  Coconut could be found in the South and oranges in the West.  The various kinds of cookies with so-called "exotic" ingredients grew dramatically.

So today we celebrate the most wonderful, sweet, delicious, scrumptious, ambrosial, succulent, pleasurable, exquisite, fragrant, luscious, tempting, morsels of food known to mankind--chocolate chip cookies.  Can't you smell them baking already? Bakers, start preheating your ovens!  It's National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Teacher Appreciation Week

This week I'd like to borrow some information on a post from the U.S. Department of Education on their blog site called "Homeroom."  They have some interesting statistics that most of us "old teachers" already know:

"Great teachers build nations.  They inspire, awaken and raise our children's expectations.  They coax imaginations and lead students to discovery.  Teachers shape the next generation of decision-makers.

While this work is deeply rewarding, teaching is also incredibly hard--as intellectually rigorous as it is emotionally draining.  Over the next five to ten years, at least one million teachers will be eligible for retirement, roughly one third of the work force.  Schools are finding it increasingly difficult to draw talented folks into a profession that, in many cases offers:

  • the 50-50 chance they won't last through their first four years,
  • the likelihood of underwhelming support and development,
  • a lifetime of low and moderate pay, and
  • the strong likelihood that they'll reach a point where continuing to teach poses substantial financial hardship."

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.  While I can't triple the salaries of teachers all over this country, I can make a modest suggestion, a suggestion I always make when I speak to audiences of college students:

If you had a teacher, teachers, coach, or principal who made a difference in your life, drop them a note or an email.  Tell them what they did.  I promise you it will give them the fuel to make it through the rest of the school year and beyond.

It will not pay them back what they deserve in poor salaries for the degrees they hold, but it will honor their work.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Silent Place to Die [Introducing Grace Kimball]

I considered writing a post about old friends because the book I am currently writing, A Silent Place to Die, involves a number of characters who are old friends of Grace Kimball, the main character.  But I believe it would be wise to talk about Grace first.  Other posts will follow about her friends.

Let's look at one of Grace's conflicts and the former students she sees as she lives in the tiny town of Endurance. Then let's listen in on one of the conversations she has with her friends.  Ah, an introduction to Grace!

Grace is a widow and her husband Roger died years ago, leaving her with three children to raise on her own.  After Roger's untimely heart attack, his sister, Lettisha, moved in for a number of years to help Grace with the children.  Grace also was aided by three friends whom she met during those early years, and even now they are highly involved in her life and will be knee-deep in the murders that take place during the course of the book.

Conflict.  Grace is a recently retired English teacher in Endurance, Illinois, who taught for twenty-five years after Roger's death, and she is having a few problems with her retirement.  What to do?  Here are some of her thoughts:

Two weeks earlier she had cleared out her file cabinets, erased the whiteboards for the last time, piled up the textbooks in neat rows, emptied her desk drawers, and carted home only a few precious mementoes from a lifetime of teaching high school English.  That hadn't been so hard really. The bad part was turning in her room keys, keys that had jingled in her pockets for twenty-five years.  That was when she realized she was done.  Now she would gather her thoughts and settle into her big house, empty since her children had left.*
While Grace contemplates the next part of her life, she keeps running into former students in the little town of 15,000.  As she recognizes them, we read some of her thoughts:
Another one she remembered.  Lacey Lancing.  Probably about twenty-three.  Has two kids and is married to a guy who works for IDOT.  Terrible speller.  Did her research paper on whether the Loch Ness Monster--spelled 'Lock Nest Monstir'--could be related to Big Foot.*  
Jimmy Dolan.  He must be in his forties by now.  I remember he gave a speech on the history of condoms, hoping to shock me.  I think he has six kids.  What does that say for the old axiom that knowledge is power? *
Finally, let's sit in on a conversation with her three friends--Deb, Jill and TJ--who are having lunch at the Cafe on the Square downtown in early June:

     "I don't know where all that will end," murmured Deb, and then it was quiet.  Within seconds the calm was shattered by Grace's cell phone playing the theme from Jaws.
     "Ah, that's Lettie," announced Grace, touching the "answer" button.
     Deb glanced at Jill and whispered, "Her sister-in-law gets the theme from Jaws?"
     "Ours is not to question why--"
     "What? Who called?"  Then there was silence again.  "Sure. Be right home." Grace broke the connection.
     "An emergency?"  TJ questioned.
     "Oh, that was Lettie.  She's puttering around my kitchen making a pie.  She declared it was an emergency because a man called me and wants me to call him back."
     Deb, TJ, and Jill eyed each other.
     "And this is a problem because--"
     "When was the last time I had a male caller?"
     TJ responded, "How long have I been alive?  Did she get the name by any chance?"
     "Of course not. This is Lettie we're talking about."
     "Could be interesting.  I'll have to check back with you later this afternoon," Deb surmised.  "And then I'll call Jill."
     "And then you'll call me," TJ nodded to Jill, as she scraped her chair on the cement and dropped a few bills on the table.*

Shortly after this conversation, Grace will become involved in multiple murders in her quiet, little town.  People she knows have secrets they must hide. Because Grace has the curiosity of a cat, her own life will be threatened and she will discover that all is not what it seems in the picture-perfect town of Endurance.

*copyright, Brakelight, LLC, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Importance of Symbols

If a hammer and nails are a carpenter's bread of life, symbols are the same for a literature teacher or writer. How often I have heard students say, "I don't believe all this symbol stuff.  Do you really think writers purposely use symbols?"  And my answers are "Too bad" and "Yes."

We experience symbols throughout our lives and occasionally live in the moment, recognizing those symbols with an emotional reaction: repeating wedding vows as a commitment of love revisited, planning an event on a special occasion that we want to remember, recognizing objects or photos of those we have loved and perhaps lost.

Symbols are part of our lives and sometimes elicit an overwhelming emotion.  In my own experience I find some church hymns emotionally connect me to my faith and remind me of songs I shared years ago with my parents and grandparents.  Lots of emotional reaction there!

Writers use symbols, especially Christian ones in the Western world, to connect to readers in an emotional way.  Some symbols are more obvious than others, such as the scarlet letter in the book of the same title.  Others are more subtle--think of the amazing multitude of symbols in the Harry Potter books.

I wasn't thinking about symbols as I watched NBC Nightly News yesterday.  Recently a huge symbol--the One World Trade Center building--is rising over the other skyscrapers of New York City. It just overtook the top of the Empire State Building to become the tallest building in New York and the third tallest in the western hemisphere. Some of the workers and visitors were there on 9/11, a date fraught with symbolism for us all, but particularly for those who lost loved ones.

The amazing vista from the top--and a person has to climb stairs on the outside of the building to reach the current top, over 1,000 feet high--is vast and imposing, a panorama of modern urban life in the 21st century.

photo from
As one of the workers interviewed stated:  "There is a lot of emotion in this building."  That is particularly true since the iron workers are raising beams each day that have peoples' names scrawled on them by hand, naming the names of those who died on 9/11 and leaving messages about them.  These will become a part of this building of iron and concrete, in itself a symbol of strength and endurance.

photo from

But what brought my emotional reaction were the words of Harry Smith who said that when the building is finished it will be 1776 feet tall, a number that has symbolic meaning to all of us who call ourselves "Americans."