Listen to Little Debbie

When I was in high school, I was the shortest kid in my class, and I looked like a twelve year old. Oh yeah, it was great back then. I got to talk to all the guys. They confided in me. Told me all their problems. Whined about their love life. Never once asked anything about me. Yada yada yada. I was a convenient match maker, a relationship counselor, the mediator.

But what I really wanted was someone to listen to me.

Being the cordial, shy young thing I was, I never spoke up, and as time passed I forgot how to speak. When it was other people’s turn to listen, I didn’t have anything to say. Most people eventually wrote me off as shy and didn’t waste time prying information out of me.

I never grew up. I’m still around 5’ or 5’2” or somewhere in between. During the early years of my career, I substituted at a middle school in Murfreesboro and suffered horrendous embarrassment at the hands of the Lunch Ladies. All I did was return my tray, and they screamed. “You’ve been here all year long. You know your tray doesn’t go here.”

Yada yada yada. The Lunch Ladies thought I was just another middle schooler, not a teacher. I tried to explain, but they wouldn’t listen.

I found my first real teaching job at the high school where I went to school. I’m still there. During my first years I blended in with the students quite well. It was kind of cool because I felt like an undercover agent in the halls. I listened and picked up all sort of useful information from their conversations.

But my co-workers were ruthless. The assistant principal gave me the nickname Little Debbie, and it stuck. You know what I’m talking about, right? He said I reminded him of the little munchkin on the outside of oatmeal pie boxes. My fellow teachers put a framed photo of Little Debbie on my desk. How clever. I tried to tell them I was nothing like the cherub-faced little snack cake, but they wouldn’t listen.

I finally started writing, and eventually I was published. I couldn’t believe people were actually reading what I had written. Wow. Finally, someone was listening.

Even today if people read my blog and leave comments, I am so grateful that I just want to hunt them down and give them a big hug. If someone actually talks with me—and not at me, my heart melts. I think one of the greatest gifts you can give a person is your attention. Look me in the eye. Ask me what I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see. Okay—I confess. I stole those lines from Toby Keith’s song, “I Wanna Talk about Me.” But don’t you get what I’m saying?

Published writers, whether you write novels or songs or magazine articles, never take for granted the wonderful gift your readers give you. Even if you have never received a hefty royalty check, just the fact that readers choose you to listen to is pretty special.

Wow. Imagine someone curling up with your words at night. Or how about someone singing the song you’ve written? Pretty special, huh?

I’ve had Keith Urban’s tune “Put You in a Song” rattling around in my head for days. I like it when he sings, “And when they see you on the street, they’ll say ‘Hey, ain’t you the girl in that song?’”

Now there’s a topic for another blog. Oh, wouldn’t l love to be the girl in that song. I’d love to be the girl in any song. How romantic. I get giddy just thinking about it. But with my luck if someone did write a song about me they’d call it “Little Debbie.”

We writers all want to be published. But we can still change people’s hearts, minds, and spirits with our words even we don’t see them in a magazine or in a book. Our writing doesn’t have to be about us. Have you ever received a card, a note, an email, a Facebook message, or an honest-to-goodness handwritten letter that turned your day around?

Words have power. They can bless, or they can curse.

This year the seniors on my newspaper staff made me a very special gift, a scrapbook with their articles and pictures and headlines. They asked every member of the staff to write me a personal letter.

Tonight I sat down and read the letters again. I listened to what each one of them had to say, and I learned something pretty special. Despite the deadline tensions, the red marks, the ad pressures, the computer crashes, the staff drama, etc., my students recalled something special they had gleaned from my class or from me, and they wrote about it in my letter.

Their letters were proof they actually listened to me. What a wonderful gift.

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I’m gonna get me a new job

I may not make it as a novelist, but I can’t imagine not being a writer. So if the novelist thing doesn’t work out, I have a plan. I will apply at Walmart as a technical writer and create an official Walmart code of conduct manual.

For now, I’ll skip all the boring stuff like employee expectations and give you a preview of the good parts, the section dealing with customer conduct during the last two weeks of May.

EVERYBODY knows the last two weeks of May are the most stressful times in a teacher’s life—testing, grading, averaging, sorting, filing, failing, passing, cleaning. It’s nerve racking. For these reasons, Walmart should be especially sensitive to the needs of the stressed-out teacher. Here are a few ideas.

One
Every customer who enters Walmart during the last two weeks of May should be dutifully informed that the store is most likely packed with intense teachers doing their last-minute, end-of-the-year school shopping.

Therefore, every male customer over six feet tall must agree to never, ever run down the aisles motioning and waving both hands in the air—especially when he is running head on into a short blond female teacher who has no clue who he is.

Granted the man may be trying to get the attention of his wife, who is ten feet behind the teacher, but the man’s actions could lead to an awkward confrontation. Should she be confronted by a large waving man, the frazzled teacner may snap and execute a martial arts take down maneuver. Better hope she’s not packing. There are those who do.

Two
Keeping in mind the highly agitated state of these teachers, Walmart shelf stockers should make readily available only the most fattening, high calorie, sugar-laden snack foods, especially chocolate. Under no circumstance should they ever place the 100-calorie snack items within reach of a frazzled teacher because once the teacher sees just how few chips or nuts are in the pre-packaged 100-calorie snack bags, she will immediately resort to her math skills—even if she is an English teacher—and calculate how many hundreds of calories she consumed earlier that morning after receiving one more memo about something else to do.

Of course, there is the possibility of a positive outcome here. Once the teacher makes the realization that she has already consumed her allotted calorie intake for the next two weeks, she may then resort to violence and clear the shelves, making the job easier for the next guy to stock the shelves with the most fattening, high calorie, sugar-laden snack foods.

Three
Keeping with the weight theme…the Walmart greeter should confiscate the cell phone of every frazzled female teacher entering the store so that she does not get a call from home that says, “Hey, the dogs are out of chow. Can you pick up one of those mega-pound bags of dog food, you know, the ones that are literally over half your size?”

If the phone is not confiscated and the teacher receives such a call, she may then attempt to load the dog food into her own cart without any help. In frustration, she may look for the actual weight of the said dog food bag and discover that it is only 15.5 pounds, which ironically is quite close to the number of pounds she would like to lose this summer.

As these events unfold, the teacher will then drift off to a dream world and picture herself with a 15-pound bag of dog food strapped around her belly. She will then fall into a deep funk, which could result in danger to the well-being of the individual(s) who called her and asked her to bring home the dog food in the first place.

Four
During the last two weeks of May, Walmart should hire a special alert team for parking lot patrol. They should be on the look out for any customer with a weird ring tone: laughing cats, singing chickens, rapping babies, rambling auctioneers, and halleluiah choirs.

After hearing the ringtone and then realizing the rapture hasn’t come, the teacher may forget where she is and yank that bad boy cell phone out of the other customer’s hands, pull out her yellow referrall form to write him up, and remind him he can pick up his phone in the office at the end of a day.

It could get ugly.

So…what do you think? Do I have a future with Walmart? Or should I keep on plugging away at my writing dream?

Waiting for this moment to arise

You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.  ~  Mark Twain

I grew up a very creative only kid on a very limited budget, so I had to improvise to have fun.

I lived to play softball, league team, community team, tournament team, etc.  I played on multiple teams at one time. We didn’t have fast-pitch “back in the day,” and we didn’t have hitting facilities. I was one of the smallest kids both in my class and on my team, so I had to find something I could do to make up for my inability to hit homeruns like my superstar teammates.

I learned how to place hit.

Because I wasn’t strong enough or quick enough to hit the ball over the outfielders’ heads, I learned to do the next best thing—place the ball where the players weren’t.

The key to place hitting is having a good eye, good timing, and good position. All of those details require focus.

“Back in the day” my mom had a clothes line to dry our laundry. I rigged up my own hitting helper. I put a softball in an old tube sock and tied a shoe string around the end and then tied the shoestring to the clothes line so that the ball in the sock was about chest level.

I took my bat and practiced standing in different positions, envisioning the different angles where the ball might cross homeplate. I tapped the ball and watched the direction it went. If I put my right foot to the back of the box and turned my body so that my left foot was in front, I could make the ball go toward first base. If pulled my left foot to the edge of the box, I could make it go in the opposite direction.

I spent hours focusing on the ball. When I tried out my new skills at practice, I discovered I could put the ball pretty much wherever I wanted. My ideal placement was down the chalk of the right field line. This type of hit makes it extra hard for the fielders to throw out runners headed for second or third base. Even if they threw me out, I would at least advance the lead runners.

If I happened to hit several right field fouls, I then switched my feet and dropped the ball over the third baseman’s head. Surprise! I always got a kick out of the look on the faces of the opposing coaches after they adjusted their players to the right.

I was a pretty decent pitcher, much better than a hitter. But when you’re an only kid, it’s hard to practice pitching all by yourself.

Again, I came up with a way to practice alone. My little house had a concrete front porch with two posts. If I stood next to the road in my front yard, I could pitch my softball so that it would hit the post on my front porch and then bounce back to me. I had to be accurate. Otherwise, I might break my mom’s window.

After spending sometimes hours a day doing this, I developed a pretty accurate pitch. I could almost always throw the ball over the plate. I also learned a special backspin release that made the ball pop up when batters hit it.

My downfall was that I put such a high arch on the ball that sometimes I threw it too deep behind the plate. I had to find a way to remedy the situation. The only thing I knew to do was to put a glove on the ground and practice pitching the ball over and over so that I could drop it into the glove every time.

It worked.

I didn’t realize back then that I was fine tuning more than my softball skills. I was developing focus.

Focus is everything in life.

Without focus, we risk roaming and never reaching our goals. It’s great to have a goal, but no matter bad badly people want something, they may never achieve it unless that find out how they’re going to get there and what’s holding them back.

I came to this little epiphany when I was practicing my guitar the last week. It took a Beatles song to help me learn where I wanted to go and what’s holding me back. I realized that I could practice for hours and learn nothing unless I was focused on finding my own way to master a technique.

Over the past few months I’ve dealt with a lot of stress and sorrow, and if it weren’t for the music I’d probably be a basket case. As much as I live to write, I became so discouraged that I lost my focus on writing. Sure, I write every day. But I found myself writing in circles, going nowhere.

I finally asked myself again EXACTLY what I wanted from my writing, what I wanted from life. It sounds simplistic, but if I really I need to pinpoint my destination, figure out how I’m going to get there, and figure out what’s holding me back so that I can remedy the situation.

How about you? What is it you want? Where are you going? How are you supposed to get there? What’s holding you back? How can you fix the problem?

Ultimately, we can do all the right things and still find obstacles that are too difficult to overcome. That’s where our faith in and dependence upon God come along. I believe He wants us to grow, to be the best we can be, but I also believe He wants us to rely on Him and to give credit where credit is due.

In less than two weeks I will leave my classroom for a summer break. I have dreams that I want to come true. If there is anything in this world that irks me, it is to hear a person say, “I wish I could do that”—and then do NOTHING to make it happen, be it practicing or pushing beyond the comfort zone or praying.

Doing nothing leads to regret. I’ve already traveled that road one too many times.

It’s time to arise and go…in focus.

For my mom

Mother’s Day will have passed by the time I finish writing this, but I’ve spent all day trying to come up with the right words.

I write a lot about my dad’s side of the family. I know a lot about them, but my mother was an extremely private person who never said much about herself. The week before she died, she hinted that some of her people may have been moonshiners. I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes for a good story. My mom liked a good story.

She was one of nine children, the oldest girl, and spent most of her life taking care of other people. I know she was proud of her siblings. She talked quite a bit about her twin brothers. Being the oldest, she probably had to keep them in line, and from what she said, they were a handful. She said she remembered them riding their tricycles in the house in the middle of the night.

She and her brothers and sisters attended a small one-room school near Shady Grove. The twins tormented the poor teacher by throwing firecrackers in the potbelly stove. Just as the teacher prepared to stoke the fire, the firecrackers exploded and just about scared her to death. They boys escaped punishment by climbing out the window.

My mom was never that mischievous although I remember her telling me stories about the Bell Witch. My maiden name is Bell, and those stores were passed down through the other side of my family. My greatest fear was that Old Kate, another name for the Bell Witch, would visit me at night and yank the covers off my bed as she had done to poor Betsy Bell. Old Kate also had a habit of knocking on the walls. My bedroom was on the other side of my parents’, and sometimes after telling me a story about the Bell Witch, my mom would knock on the wall and then giggle. I usually ended up sleeping between them that night.

When she and my dad were dating, my dad’s younger brother went along with them and sat in the backseat. It was my mom’s idea to put him out of the car at the graveyard and make him walk home by himself.

At least I know where my mischief comes from.

My mother was overly cautious and fearful to the point of making me fearful of just about everything. But that was just her way. She knew all about spider bites and worm bites and bee stings and a myriad other things. All of my aunts and uncles on my dad’s side of the family used to call her up for advice about everything. She knew everything. She really did.

Her strongest advice to me ever was, “Actions speak louder than words.” She was right. People may say one thing, but you can always tell a lot about people’s character and true motivations by what they do. Now that I’m older that advice means so much more to me.

My mom was smart. She never went to college, but she could fix anything. She could make anything work. She understood how anything worked.

And she was super neat. After I was born, she never worked outside the home, but she never let up a bit working at keeping her house in top-notch order. She hung every item in the closet perfectly straight with the hangers a uniform distance from each other. Her refrigerator was spotless, and so were her floors.

When she packed my lunches for field trips, she wrapped my sandwiches in wax paper and then wrapped them again in aluminum foil, folded to perfection. The bag was so heavy with goodies—she didn’t want me to go hungry—that it almost overflowed.

Everything she did was to perfection—and beyond.

I guess that’s why I’m a perfectionist. But I’m working on loosening up. (I still like things organized and neat and clean. I get distressed when they’re not.)

Above all, I’ve always wanted to make my mom proud. I think I did. She kept a scrapbook of all my awards and accomplishments from grade school up, my perfect attendance certificates, newspaper clippings from the math contests I attended, my softball pictures and trophies, and all the things I’ve had published, especially my Chicken Soup for the Soul story. I think she liked that one the best. She always supported my writing.

I hope I made her proud.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Jigsaw

The end is drawing near.

The seniors will graduate soon, and they’re starting to get all weepy. We sent the final issue of the newspaper to the printer today. Yesterday I watched the editor proofread the seniors’ Last Wills. She boohooed from A to Z. All I could do was hand her a box of tissues.

Feeling rather nostalgic, I went home and dug up my senior yearbook. I have to admit I teared up too. It’s hard to believe how quickly time passes, how people change, how fickle life is.

When’s the last time you looked at your old yearbook? I’ll bet you’ll see some of these quotes:

“Please always be my friend.”

“Stay the same, and you’ll go far.”

“I’ll never forget you.”

“R.M.A.”

Lies. All of them.

Oh, at the time the writers really meant it. But those kids in the yearbook don’t exist anymore.

Why is it I feel like I’m the only one who hasn’t changed? I’m not talking physically. I’m talking mentally, emotionally. I guess I just haven’t grown up yet.

I never really left my old high school. I still remember where I sat in homeroom, and I still remember where I used to hang out in the mornings. I still remember driving our beloved band director nuts and counting the steps between the yard lines on the football field for our flag routine with the band. (How in the world did I do that? All those people? Crazy.)

I believe if I could push a button and rewind time I wouldn’t have a problem stepping back into yesterday. I could still find my old seat in Mr. Burton’s room. And I meant every word I wrote in those yearbooks. I’m sure of it.

If by some freak of nature one of you is reading this blog, I challenge you to go back to your yearbook. What’s the funniest thing someone wrote? Has anything written stood the test of time? Did I write in your book? If so, what?

Kids at my school have their yearbook day next week. I’ve learned something over the years. I’ll always be Mrs. L. to them, but they won’t always be the charming little cherubs in the second row. Someday they’ll be doctors, business owners, moms, and dads. Now when I teach, I remind myself I’m not just teaching a child, I’m teaching my future colleague, dentist, mechanic, or nursing home attendant. (I always, always try to be nice—if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, I know several who are already plotting their revenge.)

The cool thing about being a writer and an English teacher is that I love novels. I love talking about novels (and writing them). A novel is ALWAYS present tense even if it’s written in past tense. Why? Because each time a reader opens the cover, it’s happening—now. Again and again and again.

There’s comfort in knowing some things will never change, like the details in a book. But that’s not the case with the yearbook. Sure we can open it and relive our glory days, but only for a moment.

As I looked back on mine tonight, I was able to see random pieces of the puzzle that make up the writer I am today.

I guess in some ways it’s the story of what made me, me.

 

I am canvas

 

 

 

“People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” ~ Author unknown

I am canvas. Every person I encounter becomes the charcoal, the pastel, the acrylic that colors my creativity, my writing, my life.

I’m not alone. I believe most writers find the templates for their characters from people who color their canvases.

Here are a few I Googled tonight:

Naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming, for example, received the assignment to trail a spy named Dusko Povo during the war. The guy was good, both with the women and with the secret services. Thus, Fleming found the perfect model for his character James Bond.

George Lucas based Indiana Jones on Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a 19th century archeologist.

Edgar Allan Poe based his famous poem on a raven named Grip, a pet that belonged to Charles Dickens. Most critics would agree that the women in his life who died of consumption (his mother and his wife, particularly) were the molds for the beautiful dead women in his works.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose works often make references to Puritans and witches, found his inspiration through a relative who was a judge during the notorious Salem Witch Trials.

Robert Bloch, author of the book Psycho, found inspiration for his Norman Bates character from the real- life serial killer Ed Gein.

And the Southern rockers of Lynyrd Skynyrd based the band name on their gym teacher, Leonard Skinner.

I am addicted to people watching. I caught myself at a red light today, scrutinizing all the drivers in the turn lane as they drove past me. Who were they? Where were they going? What were they leaving? I couldn’t resist.

I’m fortunate. As a teacher, I’m surrounded by characters all day. They all intrigue me, but the colorful ones capture my attention. Oh, beige is a nice color, but beige rarely stands out. When I teach, I like having a few kids in class who “make things interesting.” These are the “characters” who color my canvas and who just might show up in a book someday:

I’ll never forget my “Couch Crew,” my rowdy students who often dished out the drama and confessed their problems to avoid talking about English. I told them all they needed for their therapy sessions was a couch—so they brought one in and set up in the classroom when I was “called” to the office in the middle of class. The assistant principal was in on the deal and thought it was funny. I adored him too. He was a “character.”

Then there was the Terrible Two, who made a habit of taking my magnetic hall pass and sticking it to the metal walls of my classroom far beyond my reach. They built me a stock when we studied Hawthorne and the witch trials, and just for fun, they stuck one of their buddies in it and wouldn’t let him out.

I’ll never forget my sixth period class of country boys and girls who tried to talk to me into “skipping” with them so they could teach me how to fish. I had to go to the office one day before class, and I was late getting into the room. Guess what was waiting on me when I finally made it to the room. A note with two words—Gone Fishing. I finally found all twenty-something hoodlums hiding behind the lockers, but it was funny.

And finally, etched into my memory is the tough guy who stood up in the middle of class and threatened to sweep the floor with the face of the kid who interrupted my class one too many times. (It’s nice to know a “character” who’s got your back.)

Oh, how I love these bold and beautiful characters each day.

We’re surrounded by characters all day—especially the one-dimensional , stereotypical stock characters who provide themes and backdrops for our stories.

But you know what’s really a treasure? Crossing paths with that special multi-faceted character who’s worth getting to know. This is the character who shapes our stories and perhaps changes our lives. One-dimensional characters can be fun, but they’re always predictable.

Unfortunately, we often lump people, and characters, into categories and assign a label to them without taking time to get to know them. As I’ve said before, I believe people’s paths often cross for a reason. Sometimes it’s due to a divine appointment—or detour, as my friend’s blog suggests.

Whatever the case, we writers, we human beings, should take time to listen to the characters in our lives. Let them speak. Sometimes the right character can change our stories, our hearts, and our lives.