I’ve always been relatively neutral in the hard copy book versus kindle versions debate. I like the feel and touch of paperbacks or hardcovers, but not having those formats is not necessarily a deal breaker for me. I understand the sentimentality of holding a book in one’s hand, maybe marking cool images or commenting on passages in the margin. And I get the convenience of having five or six or ten novels on my Kindle – easily accessible at any point. The highlight and annotation features on the Kindle are great to use. Regardless of format, it’s the content that stimulates my thinking or moves me emotionally.
This past week, though, when I was visiting a second grade class, I was intrigued by the student’s introduction to dictionary work. She was working with a small group of five students and introduced the task to them.The teacher admitted it was a rough intro; we’ve all been there as veteran teachers. You just slightly underestimate kids’ readiness to tackle the learning.
The target word, pulled from the students’ reading, was “horror.” The teacher distributed five copies of the Scholastic Children’s Dictionary and students dug in. The teacher worked with them on header words at the top of each page. When all the students were on the page with the beautiful picture of the horse, she directed their attention to the different entries until they found “horror.”
At one point, a girl in the group said, “This is hard. So many words!”
And it was at that point that my note taking on the class took a turn. I continued to listen and watch, but my attentiveness shifted to reflection rather than observation. She is so right. So many words on that page. And so many pages!
I went back to my elementary days and the fascination with dictionaries. We had dictionary games in fifth and sixth grade. The teacher would give us a word and we would try to guess the definition. Then the students with dictionaries would find the word, read the definition, and we would laugh if we were far off and cheer when somebody was close to the definition.
In all honesty, during my second grade classroom observation, I got a bit sentimental and nostalgic for those hard copy dictionaries. I watched as kids negotiated their way through the thick book, possibly the thickest book they have held in their hands.
I realized that with Google and with Siri, I can do a search or simply ask for the definition of a word. On my Kindle, I can click a word and see the definition. As can the students in that second grade class. And all of a sudden I felt a bit of sadness for them.
I loved having that dictionary open on my desk in Mrs. Meyer’s sixth grade class. And not just to find the target word of the day or to seek out the definition of the word she called out. I liked reading the word above the target word and the word after it. I liked to flip a few pages and find some random words to explore.
And I remember being introduced to the Oxford English dictionary in Dr. Boni’s class at Colorado State University and having the same reaction as the young second grade scholar: “So many words!”
- Colorado Springs. I have written about places before – different houses we’ve lived in, places I have hiked or fished. Mesa Verde. Lost Creek Wilderness Area. But I have never written about my hometown with any real focus or commitment. I was born and raised here, have seen the changes that time and people have brought to the city, and have observed how things have stayed the same, too. I’ve wondered about the identify of the place – home of Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, NORAD, Focus on the Family (a transplant from California). I’ve pondered Penrose Hospital – the first building to rise up over ten stories, my mother’s employer for 40 years, my birthplace. I’ve thought about the neighborhoods – Wood Avenue, Tejon Street with tree-lined homes of doctors, lawyers, and Colorado College professors. Of Roswell, the homes of blue-collar workers from the assembly line who worked with my dad. How Colorado Springs sits at the base of Pikes Peak, America’s mountain, the Colorado 14er furthest to the east. It’s not a mountain town or a town on the prairie. Military town? College town? Tourist destination? Olympic City (I heard that on the TV)?
- Baseball. America’s pastime. My boyhood passion. I played in little league baseball starting when I was eight years old and played through high school. I was on the Red Sox, the A’s, the Orioles. We played “homerun derby,” 500, wiffle ball at Bonny Park. We mimicked our heroes – Reggie Jackson, Clemente, Bob Gibson. Me mocked our foes – Pete Rose, Yaz, Wilbur Wood. I played epic one-on-one pitch-and-hit battles with my older, southpaw brother. He struck me out way more often than I got hits off of him. I chased him through the fields surrounding our house, me waving the bat above my head. I was never a good loser. Ten summers of organized ball. Family vacations postponed until August and built around little league schedules – Saturday morning games, afternoon practices. Championships were celebrated. Losses were mourned. Friendships made.
- My Mother. I have written relentlessly, filled up reams, about my father. I have only rarely written about my mother. Short bursts of an image of her, a recollection of a conversation, or her devotion to a nursing career. I wrote a poem about her once, “Sestina for the Nuns,” about her work at Penrose Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity. I have down some notes, and I have certainly pondered her life, but I have not written about her with the same sustained energy and focus that I have about my father. Maybe it is the same as poetry; we are motivated by the pain of the human experience to write poetry more than we are motivated from that place of beauty and peace. Maybe it has been easier to write about the dysfunction of my dad than the strength and consistency of my mother. I have not written about our evening conversation at Penrose Hospital, her first bout with lung cancer, when the loudspeaker said “Visiting hours end in 15 minutes” and I stayed another 45. The staff, her colleagues, understood.
- Reluctant Readers. I was a reluctant reader throughout high school. A typical high school boy (some may argue that it doesn’t have to be typical), I was more interested in baseball, backpacking, and eventually beer than in books. I was, still am, a strong reader, but in school I would make my way through the assigned reading and basically call it good. I’d devour Sports Illustrated. Outdoor Life. Field and Stream. It wasn’t until I worked in a factory, White Automotive, after dropping out of college, that I became interested in the written word. And my interest was borne from the impulse to write while working on the assembly line at Whitco. And it wasn’t until I declared myself an English major – due to that interest in writing rather than reading – that I turned the corner as a reader. I was naïve, in fact, when I declared as an English major and came to realize, you know, how much actual reading that academic major required. Add on a minor in history and my nights were spent in Morgan Library on the CSU campus.
- Fatherhood. I was 36 years old when my daughter was born. I have written some things about her – poems, mainly, and occasional observances of her life – but I have not written about my own observations about and experiences as a father. For a long part of that time, I was a single father. Jessica’s mother and I were divorced when Jess was about a year old, so I experienced being a parent with shared custody. When Jess entered middle school, she lived with me for all but her 8th grade year. I haven’t written about the joy of watching her mature. I haven’t written about the conversation in the kitchen that gradually grew heated as it headed to an argument and then, in a memorable moment, turned to provide such a lesson. So here it is: I was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing that night’s dinner dishes. Jessica was leaning against the doorframe between the kitchen and the dining room. I don’t recall the topic of our conversation, but it was escalating. I finally said to her, “Jess, I am learning what it is like to parent a 16-year old.” She looked across the kitchen at me and said “And I’m learning what it’s like to be 16.” But I haven’t written about that.
- Teaching. For nearly 30 years, I have pursued my career in education. The first 15 of those years were in the classroom. I have written a brief article or two about specific strategies or instructional practices, but I have not explored my own philosophies, perspectives, or experiences in the classroom or in my roles outside of the classroom. I haven’t written about the moments that evoked great pride in my students: the student journalists on the Palmer newspaper (The Lever); the scores on the IB exams; the conversations about Song of Solomon, Mary Oliver and Eavan Boland poetry, the narratives we wrote. Mike and Ian emphatically pointing at the book and yelling “Let’s go back to the text! Where’s the evidence?” I haven’t written about those less-than-stellar moments of my teaching – the sarcastic response, the dropped f-bomb, the poorly planned lesson. I haven’t written about the tears shed at the loss of a student due to a heart problem, the ache in my heart hearing about a student suicide, the collective grief over Columbine.
- On Keeping a Notebook. Or this one could be called Regrets. I have had maybe two dozen attempts at keeping some sort of a writer’s notebook for a long, long time. Only in the last 5-7 years, though, have I routinely written in one. I have had some great starts in the past, but I could never really settle on what the notebook should “look like” – what should be written, how should that writing sound. None of that matters. Not the way entries look on the page. Not the way they sound. Dated or undated entries. Should it read like a diary or like Lewis and Clark’s journals? Visuals and drawings like da Vinci? None of that matters. Just get stuff down. Instead, I only have memory and recall to draw from. So I should write about writing … I should write about keeping a writer’s notebook to those who are reluctant to do so or not sure why or what or what it should look like. Just show up. Lined or unlined? College-ruled or narrow? It. Does. Not. Matter. Writing does.
On the drive to the tattoo parlor (do they still call them “parlors”?) I had my usual second- guessing.
- What if it comes out bad? Really bad?
- Are tattoos a “need” or a “want”? (As my mother’s voice echoed in my head in chorus with my own voice when I spoke in the past with my daughter about her budgeting practices.)
- And ultimately, do I really want to do this?
The answers arrived at each stoplight.
If it comes out bad, really bad, I can wear high socks in the summer and long pants in the winter. (I was not clear on the line between a “bad” tattoo and a “really bad” tattoo; I would know it when I see it.) Since I had decided that the placement would be on my right calf, it would not be blatant. With that placement, it would not be obvious to people when we met. It wasn’t like I was getting it on my cheek where it would scream “Here I am! Look at me!” And since I wouldn’t be able to see it myself without some gymnastic contortions, I could pretend it wasn’t there. Disaster in the form of embarrassment and humiliation could be avoided if it turns out really bad.
Of course tattoos are “a want” and not “a need.” It’s a luxury item. It’s an adornment. It’s a statement, I guess, of some value, belief, some passion or interest that a person has. We can make statements in other ways. Write a blog. Post a FB rant or pic. Buy a t-shirt. Tweet or Snap it. Those expressions are fleeting, though, and the statement would have to be made repeatedly to “stick.”
“Well,” I said to myself at the stoplight at Forge Road and Garden of the Gods Road. “No need to worry about if this statement ‘will stick’; it’s what you would call permanent.”
A need or a want? I was in a place where I could financially afford it. And to answer my mother’s voice rattling around in there, I may have even said out loud in my car: “I’m 59 years old. And she’s not alive to witness it.” [I remember when I got my ear pierced and went over to her apartment. When she noticed the ear ring, she said “Vincent! I told you if you ever got a piercing or a tattoo, you were not welcome in my house!” (She was joking to make a point, sort of, about that.) I looked at her and said “Mom, I’m 35.”] Today, in this day of less stigma about and much greater acceptance of body art, I think she would say something like “you know, some of them come out very beautiful” and she might pause and then add “but some come out bad. Really bad.”
My second-guessing about “a want” was answered by the time I reached 30th Street.
The second-guessing question that remained, “do I really want this,” moved back and forth from the back of my mind to the front of my mind for the whole trip. The other questions were actually easier, so as they pushed their way to the front of my mind, I answered them. I had about seven minutes until I reached Redemption Tattoo Shop on west Colorado Avenue.
I had debated on whether I “really want to do this” for several years. My daughter, Jessica, who got her first ink on the day she turned 18, was now in a place where she rolled her eyes whenever I showed her a sketch of a tattoo idea or even mentioned it. She had heard it for years. Jannetta was the same way. If Jessica and Jannetta were in the same room and I mentioned my ideas or even my desire to get a tattoo, they would roll their eyes in perfect synchronization. They didn’t know why I had any hesitation; they attributed it to the anticipated pain of the needle. They attributed my lack of conviction to the whole idea of body art in any form. I didn’t even know why. Fears of really bad tattoos. Fears of not being able to go to my deceased mother’s apartment.
I had cried wolf before. Told them of my plans. I posted status updates on Facebook seeking recommendations for artists and parlors (or shops). People responded with names and locations but I never took that step of actually, you know, going to the shop.
For months, ok — years, I sketched out designs. I had random images that I had roughed out in my mind and on paper. I had images from the internet that I thought would be cool. I reached the decision that I would get a tattoo inspired by my passion for fly fishing. Yeah, that would be it. Some of the fly fishing guides that I hung out with had some cool fish and river and nature designs. I started to sketch out some ideas. I considered using a line from Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” or the line from Emmylou Harris, “I am standing by the river; I’ll be standing here forever.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. Jannetta gave me a look and asked me to pass the chicken.
To make matters worse, I started to see people’s tattoos of a simple yet sophisticated punctuation mark: the semicolon. I always have liked the semicolon. I didn’t know so many others shared my passion for it! Then I read about Project ;
Project Semicolon’s vision is to increase awareness and initiate honest conversation about suicide, mental health, and addiction. I sought out more information. And the need for this conversation is not lost on me. I have been in recovery from my own addictions for a little over 30 years. When I was 19, and again when I was 26 and only hours before I entered my own period of recovery, I had what they would call suicidal ideation. The recovery rooms have seats filled with those who have battled similar suicidal thoughts and fought wars with their own self-harm. If those battles aren’t tough enough, we usually fight them in silence and in isolation. We feel alone.
I have had very close friends, and friends of family members, and former high school students who have committed suicide. I have loved ones who, through some periods of their lives, battle the thought everyday. I won’t share their story here out of respect for the families and friends; it is their story to tell, in so many ways, and it is for them to decide the time to initiate any public conversations about their experiences.
I have come to hate it when people in recovery rooms say “I was going to suicide but I didn’t have the guts for it. I was too chicken.” We need to change the language. “I was going to suicide but for some reason, I still held onto an inkling of hope, a spark, something or some Higher Power kept me moving forward. I had enough courage to go on.”
So I decided on Monday morning, August 15, to get the semicolon tattoo. Tuesday morning, I messaged my friend (who also came highly recommended), Josh Heney, at Redemption Tattoo Company my idea for the image. He responded a little later, and I tweaked the design.
I had put the fly fishing idea and moved ahead with the semicolon project. I didn’t tell anybody I was going on Friday afternoon. I texted Jessica and Jannetta the mock-up of the art work that I designed myself. They expressed enthusiasm for the image, and I am sure they rolled their eyes that I would ever get it done.
As I turned right from 31st Street on to Colorado Avenue and saw the shop’s sign, I was confident in my decision. Josh showed me his design and then put the pattern on my right calf. I studied it in the mirror and we were ready to roll.
For the next 75 minutes or so, I lay face down, motionless, and speechless. I was not going to move and I did not want to talk to the artist at work. It’s my first tattoo — do not distract him with some sort of idle chit-chat! At one point, his fellow artist walked through, stopped and observed. “That’s cool. A different approach to the semicolon design.” I felt inspired.
When I drew up the design, I started with the semicolon. That’s the whole point. And then I thought of my own passion for and interest in writing. In fact, when I was 19 and battling my own depressive and suicidal thoughts, I would go home at midnight from the factory where I worked and I would write –poems, short stories, one-act plays. The writing, as far as writing goes, sucked. But it allowed me to get my story down, to get my story out, to begin to create a voice.
As I shifted to lean on my forearms, I thought of my own friends, family, and former students who have been impacted by suicide, mental health issues, and addiction. I thought of those who have not yet found a solution that they either don’t know exists or don’t believe they deserve.
And to them, I say, you are the writer, your life is your story.
Your story is not over; _________________.
I’ve written six 500-word (or so) memoirs this past month and a half. That’s due, in part, because of my love of the genre, but primarily these memoirs were composed as part of the instructional process as I guided two classes of high school sophomores (their triptych memoir as discussed in the Kirby’s article “Contemporary Memoir: A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens”) and four classes of seniors through the process of composing their own memoirs.
Modeling is a powerful practice in the writing classroom — if not in all classrooms. I wanted students to hear my thinking processes as I grappled with the same assignment in front of them. My modeling moved from the initial brainstorming to uncover potential memoir topics (I used a couple of different strategies — “Stones in the River” and “Map My Neighborhood” — to approach the assignment) to drafting and revising the essay, and cleaning it up with some editing strategies. We did Peter Elbow’s “looping” strategy to get to the heart of the reflection of the memoir — why is this memory even significant? At each step of the way, using the document camera, my students listened as I thought through my own writing.
As an aside, one of the examples of instructional modeling I have experienced as a student was on the South Platte River with my friend and fishing guide, Steve. As he taught me the techniques for putting a dry fly on the water so that it floated naturally to entice fish, he modeled the casting motion, watched as I attempted the same, and guided my “revision” process standing there side-by-side. He didn’t “tell me” how to cast. He showed me. He didn’t demonstrate and walk away. He demonstrated then responded to my attempts with guidance, praise, and (because he’s my friend) some good natured kidding.
One discovery I made in this instructional practice is that I need to be careful as I talk through my process. I want students to maintain ownership over their own papers, so I want them to mimic the thinking and decision-making process. I model the thinking so they can follow a similar process to make decisions about their own writing. One of my favorite questions I pose to myself and, later, pose to my students begins “What if…?”
- “What if I develop this potential topic with some details and see what I discover; is it meaty enough to pursue?”
- “What if I craft these two sentences into one?”
- “What if I break this paragraph into a couple of paragraphs to change the pace and emphasis? (Yes, that would mean that I may have a one-sentence paragraph.)”
So I wrote one in each of my classes. Why? Why didn’t I just fudge it and show subsequent classes the brainstormings and drafts that I did in the earlier class periods? Simple. The product at the end of the brainstorming session is only as valuable as the process to develop it. I liken it to downloading a PDF of a powerpoint from the Internet rather than actually being at the presentation where the powerpoint was used. Sure, I have a product — but I don’t hear the nuance, hear the thinking behind the slides, the inflection of voice, the speaker’s laugh or the asides.
Students benefit from hearing the thinking behind the arrows moving their eyes around the brainstorming; they need the reasons why things are scratched out and written over in the draft; they need to hear how the ideas originally in the last paragraph end up being presented earlier and throughout the essay instead of lumped together at the end. They need to hear me grapple with a decision, struggle with a revision, rethink where I was going as I head where the memoir needs to go.
While none of this may seem particularly new or groundbreaking, as I worked through the process with students, it became clear how powerful modeling is to give guidance, to stimulate thinking, and, ultimately, to release responsibility for their own work.