Sometimes they listen

I often ask myself, “What the heck am I doing here?” I’m an incredibly sensitive, self-conscious mouse that suffers a complete meltdown in the face of rejection.

I’m a teacher. Every day I face a hundred or so human beings telling me to my face that what I value is irrelevant. Kind of a blow to the old ego.

Every day I have to put on my happy face and smile when I hear, “You teach English? I hated English.” And that’s from the adults.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m a lit freak. I like reading. I like writing. I like tearing down sentences the way some of my students like rebuilding engines. I like exploring stories that are challenging, ones with many levels of meaning. I’m kind of like an Indiana Jones of the written word.

My Motlow college students taunt me. “But Mrs. L., does everything have to have a hidden meaning? Why can’t a writer just write? Why do we have to analyze everything? Can’t we just read for fun?”

Well, yeah, kiddos, of course, you can. But don’t you get chills when you find the hidden gem in a poem? Don’t you dance to the cadence of well-written prose?

Never mind. I know the answers.

But occasionally, one or two students will approach me after class and say, “I get it. This stuff is really cool.” Of course, they wait until everyone else has left the room. It’s just not cool to like what some old dead guy wrote decades ago.

Several years ago, when I was working as a freelance music journalist, I met the Smalltown Poets, an Atlanta-based band, whose members were inspired by their creative writing class.

I guess that’s why I’ve always wanted to teach creative writing. I like being a bridge that links people to their dreams.

I did a little research and found a quote from Michael Johnston, Smalltown Poets band member, who explained how his teacher’s words inspired him.

“Our teacher said, ‘the best writing is honest writing.’ If you’re being vulnerable about who you are and let that come across in your writing, then that’s going to move people.”

Yes! That’s it. I envy Michael’s creative writing teacher. I wish I my words could move people. I wish I could make my students FEEL something when they read.

Yesterday one of my journalism students and I were discussing classic novels. He brought up 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm, which he has yet to read.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “Animal Farm, you have to read that one.”

And then our roles reversed. My student became the teacher.

“Hey, Mrs. L, did you know Pink Floyd’s album Animals was based on Animal Farm?” An avid Pink Floyd fan, my student spouted off a brief history.

Huh? You mean Roger Walters actually paid attention to his English teacher? He “got it”? Wow.

Our conversation inspired me to do a little digging to discover other music, inspired by lessons in literature.

  • Both David Bowie and Warren Zevon were inspired by the works of Lord Byron.
  • The Beatles included an image of Edgar Allan Poe on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and John Lennon referred to Poe in “I Am the Walrus.”
  • Both Tool and Brittany Spears referred to Poe’s “dream within a dream” in their works.
  • Christian ska band Five Iron Frenzy includes several quotes from “The Raven” in “That’s How the Story Ends,” and members of the Christian heavy metal / thrash band Tourniquet wrote “Tell-Tale Heart” as a tribute to Poe.
  • Sheryl Crow’s song “All I Wanna Do” was inspired by the poem “Fun” by Wyn Cooper.
  • “All along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan (and also recorded by Jimi Hendrix) was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The song also makes references to the Book of Isaiah.
  • Guns N Roses recorded the song “Catcher in the Rye,” inspired by J. D. Salinger’s novel by the same title.
  • Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was born from Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

Wayne Kirkpatrick has penned and co-penned numerous songs for artists of many genres—Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Little Big Town, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, and many more, including Eric Clapton, who recorded a Grammy Song of the Year, “Change the World.”

I was talking to Wayne during an interview several years ago. Nay, I was gushing during the interview—I really admire him. I asked Wayne about songs from album The Maple Room, particularly “That’s Not New Age.”

Even today I’m intrigued by the song because, one, it responds to the religious critics who questioned his relationship with Christ just because of his art, and, two, it includes the following line: “This won’t be another Salem/That was inexcusible/You won’t be my Cotton Mather/And I won’t be your crucible.”

Wayne Kirkpatrick, thank you for reminding us we aren’t God and we can’t judge another because we can’t see into anyone else’s heart. Thank you for following your convictions. Thank you for listening to your English teacher. Thank you for appreciating literature.

So what’s the take away from this rant?

I can’t make my students like or even appreciate literature. But sometimes they do. It just may take them a while to digest what the writer has to say.

I’m not a famous or important anything, but I am somebody who benefitted from lovers of literature and writing.

Thank you, Charles K. Wolfe, for publishing my first work and inspiring me to write about music.

Thank you, Pat St. Clair, for inspiring my voracious appetite for grammar. Because of you, I’m confident I can write ANYTHING. My college professors told me so.

Thank you, Joyce McCullough, for Friday vocabulary tests that made me fall in love with words and for the little red journal in which I wrote all my thoughts. You wrote back to me. You were the first person to read my thoughts and to make me realize I might have something interesting to say.

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I love YA!

My kids

It’s Valentine’s Day. Who do you love?

(Yeah, I know I’m supposed to use an objective case pronoun there, but Bo Diddley didn’t write it that way.)

It’s my policy to stay away from syrupy sweet romantic anecdotes that make readers say “yuck.” So instead, I’ll talk about another kind of love.

The other day my English students and I were reading from Luke, Chapter 15, the parable of the prodigal son . What? Reading from the Bible in a public school? Our literature book includes the parable, so we analyzed it for its layers of meaning.

I asked my students with whom they identified more. The wayward son who wanted his rewards, squandered them, and then crawled back for redemption? Or the faithful son who never physically strayed but whose heart blackened with jealousy and entitlement.

Only the father had it right—unconditional love. He loved both of his sons despite their flaws. He gave his gifts out of love, not out of obligation.

I love young adults. Whenever I go to conferences and hear speakers talk about the YA culture, I want to scream, “I get it! I live it! Every day! Don’t you understand? I can write. Publish me! Publish me!”

Stories rush through my head like an Ocoee River rapid. But I don’t want to write just any story. I want to write a story that reveals truth and love.

Teenagers don’t understand real love. Heck, a lot of adults don’t understand it.

Like it or not, we’re all selfish. Rarely do we give without expecting anything in return. Young girls, especially, fall prey to their own selfishness. They want acceptance. They want to be loved, so they do whatever it takes to get what they want in return.

I want to tell them, “You don’t need any other human to validate your worth.”

Real love isn’t selfish. Real love isn’t real love unless you give it away, no strings attached.

My students’ responses to the prodigal son question varied.

Some of them have made major mistakes in their lives. They identified with the prodigal.  Some of them have tried their best to follow every rule. They identified with the older brother.

When I asked the class how they would feel if I gave an A to a student who slacked all year while giving a B to the students who worked hard, they protested.

“So,” I said, “you think you’re entitled to an A just because you think you earned it? I’m the teacher. I make the rules. The grades are mine to give. Who are you to say who gets what? You don’t see the big picture.” Or more accurately, the other side of the picture.

I used to be just like the older brother, quick to judge, prideful. But through my bought with pride, God developed my empathy and allowed me to see with His eyes, the other side of the picture.

The students in my class room are like portraits in an art gallery. When the kids come into my room, they see the other portraits, but they don’t see what’s on the other side.

I work with a lot of good kids. I’m blessed to have them in class. But sometimes they can be really hard on the kids who aren’t as smart or well behaved as they are. But then they don’t see the other side of the portrait. The portrait may pretty or horrendous on the one side, but the other side of the picture reveals the truth behind what’s up front.

The other day I had a student come into class with a scowl. She dropped her books on her desk and gave me what I thought was a death stare. I wasn’t exactly having a good day either. My first inclination was to say, “What’s your problem?”

But I resisted the urge to make it about me. Instead I asked, “What’s wrong?” And I listened. I found out she had been in an accident that morning, and she was still scared to death. I’m so glad I wasn’t a jerk.

Good or bad, students may never know their classmate sleeps on a mattress on a concrete floor in a truck stop. They may never know their classmate’s parents were taken to jail the night before. They may never know their classmate was the academic  leader in an elementary school in another state before his parents got divorced. They may never know their classmate cuts herself because her mother tells her she’s fat.

When people hurt, they do whatever it takes to make the pain go away. Their portrait shows “the whatever it takes to survive.” But the cause of the pain is hidden on the backside of the frame.

I teach. I see more than most. The good. The bad. The ugly. I see the serious. I see the silly. Today I witnessed a wedding. One of my students performed the ceremony while the flower girl carried a can of Febreeze.

The YA crowd is an anomaly. They live in an adult world, but they still have the heart of a child—hence their moments of random goofiness.

When I write my stories, I want to make my readers laugh, to give them an escape from reality, but I also want to give them unconditional love. I want them to know no matter what there is love waiting for them.

Words are powerful. The greatest gift anyone can give me is honesty. I want to trust what people say. I think young adults want that too.

I want my readers to trust me, but I don’t want to come across as self righteous or condemning. To imply I don’t fail is a lie.

I found a quote by Nathaniel Hawthorne in our literature book today. In case you don’t know, Hawthorne despised the judgmental attitudes of the Puritans, and his works reflect his disdain. Hawthorne said, “Those willing to resist society’s self-righteousness may achieve the humility necessary for genuine fellowship, but they will have trouble making themselves understood.”

I think young adults understand, more so, maybe, than jaded adults. Time hasn’t completely hardened their hearts—yet.

So I wish you a sincere Happy Valentine’s Day. Find someone who needs love and show it. We have the power—with our words—to make or break someone else’s day. May we use it wisely.

Free spirit

Who would have thought students could earn a scholarship for being a free spirit?

I’ve always felt like a free spirit waiting for her wings, but I’ve been too shy to admit it. I guess I thought the term “free spirit” implied something negative—irresponsibility or lack of focus.

Not so, not according to the Journalism Education Association, the Freedom Forum, and the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference program. Their motto is “Dream. Dare. Do.” Okay. Nice start. Nothing irresponsible or flighty about that.

A couple of my free-spirited journalism students asked me to write letters of recommendation for them to attend the conference, and the challenge inspired me to do a little research to find out what makes a free spirit.

The online Merriam-Webster defines a free spirit as a nonconformist. Like Thoreau maybe, who urged all to march to the beat of their own drummer.

Tina, a stay-at-home, work-from-home, homeschooling blogger from Central Valley, California, found her  definition of a free spirit through Wikipedia:

“Free spirits are inclined to explore life and taste new experiences that hold true to the deepest parts of themselves vs. being influenced by what the masses around them are doing. They are often people who think freely and have the courage to hear their own voice and follow their own integrity.”

I am a writer. I strive for the courage to hear my own voice and to follow my own integrity. What the masses say doesn’t mean it’s right. Sometimes I have to go my own way, do my own thing, risk ridicule. I have to be true to me–the way God made me–so I can do what I am called to do, not what someone else thinks I’m supposed to do. Hey, John the Baptist, could be called a free spirit with his camel-hair fashion statement and locust and wild honey diet.

My quest to find information for my students’ letters of recommendation sent me chasing rabbits. One website led to another, and I found myself enthralled by the vast info out there on the subject of free spirits.

Now I know why I often—not always, but often—click with some of my more unconventional students. Without consciously realizing it, we understand each other on a deeper level. The last thing I want to do is to cage their free spirits. I don’t want to change who they are. I know how miserable I am when someone tries to change me.

It’s not heavy reading, but a certain wikiHow site offers some valuable insight into the mind of a free spirit. Judge for yourself the accuracy of this information, but if most of these characteristics fit you, then maybe you’re a free spirit.

  • Free spirits are “fiercely independent” and love “everything out of the ordinary.”
  • Free spirits are creative and follow their whims.
  • Free spirits guard their inner selves.
  • Free spirits are selective about whom they trust; therefore, when they don’t feel trusted, they lose their sense of peace.
  • Free spirits wither when they are confined or controlled.
  • Free spirits challenge ultimatums.
  • Free spirits enjoy being around other free spirits.
  • Free spirits want to be accepted as they are, unconditionally.
  • Free spirits need alone time to think their own thoughts and to immerse themselves in their own creative projects.

If I had to sum myself up, I’d have to say I’m really like nothing of this world. I don’t have a desire to conform to it. Very few things can stop me from following my convictions, even if it means going against the grain and defying tradition.

I guess I’m pretty happy just being me.

Super Bored Sunday

Today I am a social outcast. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and I don’t care.

I’ve tried to like football, or at least tolerate it. But I can’t lie. It’s just not me. I don’t follow college sports. I don’t follow professional sports—except for baseball, America’s favorite pastime. I cheer on my kids when they play. But me? I just don’t get it. And I don’t want to get it.

For a while I tried to pretend that I didn’t understand football. Why are all those men chasing each other just to squat down on that funny-shaped brown ball? I figured if I asked enough stupid questions I’d be banned from viewing.

Feigning ignorance worked for a while. But then I realized I didn’t get it. When I grew up, I liked playing backyard football. I begged my dad to show me how to throw spirals. I can do it—but I still don’t have the right technique. I can catch. But it wasn’t until the women teachers participated in a Powder Puff football game that I realized I really was ignorant.

I don’t like being ignorant.

I tried out for the team, and the coach put me in as a receiver. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that only certain players were allowed to catch the ball. I always figured whoever was open caught the pass. I knew nothing about linemen and skilled players, lining down and blocking.

It didn’t take long for the Powder Puff coach to realize I was a threat—to our team. I could catch, yes. But he used me to send in the plays. Whenever I popped in the huddle, I became so befuddled that I couldn’t remember the sequence of numbers or the special terms. 48 blitz to the right something or another. Ah, just do whatever.

He benched me.

Part of my job is to teach my journalism students how to write about sports. I learned an invaluable lesson. If you don’t know anything about the sport, don’t cover it. It was then I made it my personal goal to learn football. If I were going to teach my writers to cover sports, I had to learn how to do it myself.

So I found myself down on the sidelines with my camera and reporter’s notepad. I learned about stunting and off tackle. I could spot motion in the backfield, illegal blocking, horse collaring, face masking, and other penalties.

But I never could quite get the hang of shooting action shots on the field. My zoom always froze. I should have used a monopod. My hands were too shaky. Interviews with the coaches weren’t a big deal, but I really had to work at learning how to talk football.

I still don’t fully get it. I guess my heart’s just not into it. Oh, I understand the passion players possess. Kenny Chesney’s song “The Boys of Fall” paints a beautiful picture in a literary sort of way.

I thrive on competition. I played softball and wore my Hale’s Angels travel team uniform with pride. I was offered a scholarship to play at a junior college but went with the full-ride academic scholarship I had from MTSU.

When it came down to softball, I would do anything just to be on the field. I’ve played with fevers. I’ve dodged missiles whizzing past my face. I’ve been hit. I’ve been threatened by Amazon women on rival teams. I broke my own teammate’s nose when I was trying to make an out at home. I was dead on. I hurled the ball right to the catcher, and it caught her right between the eyes. I don’t know how she didn’t see it coming.

I get the blood, the sweat, the tears that come with the game. I just don’t get football.

My favorite part of Super Bowl Sunday is the half-time show, and this year it’s Madonna. No offense, Madonna, but I don’t get you either. I want music, not theatrics.

I can’t even enjoy the Super Bowl parties. I’m a dedicated Weight Watcher, and I don’t want to blow my points on chips and dip. Chocolate just doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. I’d rather be healthy. I’d rather not have to pry on my new jeans.

So Super Bowl Sunday, I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I am going to slip off and watch a chick flick while the men in my family watch the last game of the season. I think the Giants and the Patriots are playing. Somebody give me a fist bump. I didn’t even have to Google it to find out.

I don’t follow either team, but if I had to choose, I’d say go Pats. You’re as close as I can get to Boston right now. And for me, Boston means one thing—baseball.

Let’s get this game over with and start singing “Sweet Caroline.”