Thursday, December 31, 2009

Twenty Six

This is a song I have been working on. It was inspired by the Fred Rogers quote I posted earlier. It’s not quite finished. It needs a bridge but it works OK as a poem.

It’s called “Twenty Six”

Aa Bb Cc

Dd Ee Ff

Gg Hh Ii

Jj Kk Ll

Mm Nn Oo

Pp Qq Rr

Ss Tt Uu

Vv Ww Xx



Ink and paper

Truth and lies

Twenty-six letters

Make you laugh and cry

Twenty-six letters

All rearranged

Black and white

Joy and pain

History lessons

The power of the pen

Will we ever learn

Or just do it all again?

Twenty-six letters

In all the Holy Books

Will we turn away

Or take another look?

Twenty-six letters

In all we write

Declarations, constitutions

Civil rights

The same letters used

By the KKK

Give us promises to keep

And blessed words to pray

The twenty-six letters

In our vows of course

Are the very same used

When we file for divorce

The same twenty-six

In different combinations

Can declare a massive war

Or peace between nations

Words of redemption

The birth of a nation

Words of hatred

And condemnation

Obituaries, eulogies

Those twenty-six are used

To clarify, distill

Obfuscate, confuse

To grant restitution

To write a bald-faced lie

To describe a brilliant sunrise

Or a baby’s first cry

Only twenty-six letters

In all we write and read

Describe any situation

All we want and need

Texting, emails

In the dirt with sticks

It all comes down to

The same twenty-six

Those twenty-six are used

Day after day

To write a love letter

A lullaby, a play

To write a love letter

A Dear John or Joan

No looking in the eye

No talking on the phone

To create a wanted poster

To announce a baby’s birth

In a last will and testament

To calculate one’s worth

Some four-letter words

Carry massive weight


Also LOVE and HATE

Words can hurt you

Just like stones and sticks

And they’re all put together

With the same twenty-six

Twenty-six symbols

Used in different ways

Give us everything we write

And everything we say

Ink and paper

Truth and lies

Twenty-six letters

Make you laugh and cry

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stand Tall

I’m reading this really good book called Stand Tall. I got it on the bargain table at Books-A-Million. I think it cost $2.95. It’s about this kid called Tree. He’s a seventh grader, six-foot-three and his parents have just been divorced. They have joint custody and he goes back and forth between them. The writer, Joan Bauer, lets us into his head as he struggles to find himself in a world made for shorter people, as he awkwardly makes his way into his first relationship with a girl, and as he helps out his grandfather who has just recently had a leg amputated from an old Vietnam War wound. Tree’s grandfather, Leo, is my favorite character. He is tough, resourceful, wise and loving. He is just the teacher Tree needs because his parents are so self-absorbed.

Stand Tall

There is this scene when Tree, Leo and some of his kooky vet friends go to a children’s hospital. Leo is Santa. He has been for years and he isn’t going to let the fact that he has just has his leg amputated stop him. You don’t need much setting up for this scene. In fact, as a short story, it stands well all by itself. It is not a book about Christmas per se, but it fit so nicely with the season that I thought I’d include it here.

“The thing about Christmas,” the Trash King said, driving his truck to the children’s hospital, “is how I didn’t understand what it was about until I got to Vietnam. You remember Christmas in Nam, Leo?”

Grandpa sighed. “I was in the hospital.”

“That’s right, you didn’t get to see the show.” King turned the corner. They brought in a big show from the States with singers and dancers. There were hundreds of us out there watching. A couple guys had made a Christmas tree out of bamboo and painted it green. I was feeling sorry for myself because I wasn’t home.

“And then we started singing. Just singing the songs. ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ ‘Hark Those Herald Angels Sing.’ And I could have sworn – and a few guys in the signal corps would back me up on this – that there was a star in the sky a little brighter over where we were. And I thought, we get these holidays all wrong. We think it’s what we get and how we feel and how warm and cozy we are, but Christmas came to all us slobs that night and most of those guys weren’t expecting it. Some of us hadn’t even washed. Now, I’ll tell you how this helps me in trash…”

King pulled up to the hospital parking lot. Grandpa groaned. “Save it, King, for the ride home. We’ve got a job to do.”

Tree got the wheelchair from the back, placed a red throw blanket over it. Carefully eased Grandpa out of the truck and into the chair.

“Santa has landed,” said the King.

“You bet your boots, Elf Man.”

Grandpa adjusted his beard, waved them forward like a lieutenant leading a platoon into battle. “Let’s take this hill.”

He grabbed the chair’s wheels with his strong arms and pushed through the emergency doors that swung open at the miraculous power of Christmas.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Grandpa bellowed to young and old who looked up excitedly.

“The big guy’s here!” the Trash King shouted. “We’re gonna party tonight!”

Tree laughed and waved and shook all the hands of the kids who came up to him. Down the hall they went with the ho-ho-hos booming. Kids in wheelchairs were following them. Tree handed out candy canes; King had a bag of toys over his shoulder. They turned the corner, saw three vets dressed like reindeer. Luger marched forward dressed like a toy drummer, beating a snare drum with his good hand.

Rat tat tat.

Rat tat tat.

Rat a tat. Rat a tat.

Tat tat.

A doctor took them into the rooms of the children who were too sick to come out.

One little girl had an IV in her arm and looked gray. Her mother was sitting in a chair by her bed. When Grandpa rolled in, that child lit up like a Christmas star.

“Santa,” she whispered.

“You’ve got it kid.”

“You’re in a wheelchair.”

“Life isn’t perfect, is it?”

King pulled a stuffed bear out of his bag, gave it to her. She hugged it, smiled at Tree.

“Santa, would you tell me a story?”


“Would you tell me ‘The Night Before Christmas’?”

“Sure. Where’s the book?”

She looked concerned. “Don’t you know it?”

Grandpa looked at Tree and they both looked at the Trash King, who sniffed and said, “He knows it.”

Grandpa desperately tried to remember the poem. The little girl hugged the bear and smiled.

“Okay, here goes… ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” He stopped dead.

“The stockings,” the little girl said.

“Were hung by the chimney with care,” said King.

Grandpa grinned. “In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.”


Tree whispered about the kerchief, the cap, and the nap.

They got through it, helped by the little girl and her mother, and they had to call in two nurses to get the names of the eight reindeer right. King insisted the front reindeer were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Nixon.

Vixen!” shouted the older nurse.

“Jeez, They named a reindeer that??

They didn’t miss a room that night. Didn’t miss a child.

Dozens of children lined up to see Santa. First in line, a boy in a big leg brace. He looked at Grandpa’s half leg. “What happened to you?”

“I had an operation.”

“Does it hurt?”


“Mine hurts too. I wouldn’t want anyone to sit on it.”

So he stood next to the wheelchair and told Santa how he wanted a complete model train set, not like the one he got last year, like the one Billy Buckley got with the cool engine and the miles and miles of track.

Grandpa motioned to King. “Write that down.”

“I didn’t bring any paper.”

“Elves,” Santa said, shaking his head.

They had a party in the cafeteria for the kids who could get there; everyone sang Christmas songs. Only a few stalwart believers sat on Santa’s knee, and he managed. Then a little girl climbed up on Tree’s knee and told him she wanted her lung to get better for Christmas.

Tree didn’t know what to say.

Then she whispered, “I know you really can’t give me that. I just wanted to tell you.”

And she hugged him like he was the genuine article.

It made Tree feel about a foot taller, which was really saying something.

That's it. Now I'm hooked. I'm going to have to find the rest of Joan Bauer's books. They'll probably cost more than $2.95. This one has so much real life in it. There is a scene where Leo takes Tree to The Wall in D. C. The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. After finding names of Leo's friends and leaving artifacts Grandpa reflects...

"We hear about the casualties on the news - 114 dead. Two murdered. Over three thousand killed. Numbers don't tell the story. You can't measure the loss of a human life. It's all the things a person was, all their dreams, all the people who loved them, all they hoped to be and could give back to the world. A million moments in a life cut short because of war."

Thanks, Joan Bauer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The World That He Sees

The other day I was in Kmart doing some errands and some late season shopping. It is a little challenging finding things my family needs. We want for nothing. We certainly aren’t rich by some American standards. I am a public school teacher and Heidi is a university professor, but we have a beautiful home in the woods. Our cars are 7 and 11 years old, but they still run well.

I have been to Rwanda in central Africa. By the standards there and in many places in the world I am a very rich man. I know it. I appreciate it. We are so blessed.

A small town Kmart is an interesting place. Everyone in Lexington goes there from time to time. If you stayed there long enough you’d probably see just about every citizen of our fair town. It was pretty busy on Friday. There were lots of people doing last minute Christmas shopping. Most folks were good-natured and there were plenty of people working, so there were no long lines. When I was near the music area looking through some CDs I saw this little encounter. There was a tall, very blond, 40ish woman in expensive clothes (certainly not purchased in Kmart) and another woman of about the same age with a little girl in tow. The mom was Hispanic and she and her little one were wearing very modest clothes. The tall blond woman had on heels, lots of make up and had a huge diamond wedding ring that must have cost thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands?

“Maria! So good to see you!” she gushed. “This must be your daughter. Oh, she is SO cute!” She reached out to touch the little one’s face. To pinch her cheek? The little girl sought refuge behind her mama’s leg.

“It’s nice to see you too. Yes, this is my little Anna.”

“And how old are you, Anna?” Anna hid her face behind her mom’s leg.

“She is three, almost four,” said Maria.

"Well, she’s a doll! I can’t believe it! She’s just as cute as she can be.” I couldn’t figure out what was unbelievable. “She could be a child model,” the tall, blond woman went on.

“Thank you,” said Maria shyly.

“Have you been a good little girl this year Anna?” She knelt down to look Anna in the eye. “Is Santa going to bring you lots and lots of nice toys?” The little one peeked around her mama’s leg and nodded. Maria gripped the handle of her shopping cart a little harder. She was obviously not a woman of great means. Her clothes were plane, her black tennis shoes were worn and her wedding ring was a plain band. No diamond.

“Anna has been very good. And Santa will probably bring her some new clothes. Santa knows how fast she is outgrowing her old ones.”

“Oh, I think Santa will have some nice toys for such a pretty little girl.” Maria seemed uncomfortable. The tall blond woman was oblivious.

“Yes, Santa will probably bring a toy as well.”

“Well, it was so nice to visit with you, Maria. I’ll see you next week. Wednesday, right? We’re having a big Christmas Eve party for Roger’s work people.”

“Yes, maam. I will see you Wednesday.”

“Fine.” Then she looked down at Anna who was reappearing from behind her mama. “And you! You are just too cute. You could be a model,” she repeated. She walked away pushing a cart of electronic equipment. Maria watched her walk away. I couldn’t read her expression.

“Mama, who was that?”

“She is someone I work for,” Maria said.



“Hold me?” Anna raised her arms. Maria picked up her little daughter and Anna wrapped her small arms and legs around her mother in a tight loving embrace. Anna pulled away and kissed her mama’s cheek.

I don’t know what Anna is getting for Christmas. Something modest. But she is one lucky little girl. The love that passed between those two in that moment, in that hug was priceless.

I was fortunate to have been there for that little time. It made me think about what’s really important. You certainly can’t measure happiness by your clothes, your jewelry or your toys. Quite simply, it comes down to love. Love.

Christmas isn’t about getting stuff. To me it isn’t even about the giving. I do think it is about sharing time and fellowship and imagining a better world and then trying to live into that world. Heidi gave me a CD as an early Christmas present. It is called The Christmas Attic by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. There is this beautiful song, “The World That He Sees”, that spoke to me. I hope it does to you. Merry Christmas!

Music & Lyrics: Paul O'Neill, Jon Oliva

There was a cold winter night

Where the dark went on forever

And the world seemed like a

Dream gone astray

And somehow there on this night

As the world huddled together

There a child slept at the end of

The day

And he dreamed of another world

In another time

And another place

Where no man

Has to wear a sign

Saying where he's from

Saying what's his race

And he wants us to believe

This world that he sees

What is the dream of this night

Why does it echo forever

Here in the cold at the end of

This year

And with all our different lives

Why do we dream it together

When at the first sign of snow it


When he dreamed of another world

In another time

And another place

Where no man

Has to wear a sign

Saying where he's from

Saying what's his race

And he wants us to believe

This world that he sees

When he dreamed of another world

In another time

And another place

Where no man

Has to wear a sign

Saying where he's from

Saying what's his race

And he wants us to believe

This world that he sees













Tuesday, December 15, 2009

At the Airport

Those of you who have been hanging with me on this blog might be getting tired of these repeats. Sorry - a few new friends have been reading lately and there are some of my older posts which I'd like to have out there again. This one is from October of 2008.

At the Airport

See full size image

I usually don’t talk to people at airports. I keep to myself. I do look up at the marvelous crowds passing by. Airports are, by the nature of their being, emotional places. The long, sometimes tearful goodbyes. The hugs, the holding of hands, the deep looks of longing. The lovers who will literally count the hours until catching up to their dear ones. The fathers and sons who clap each other on the back and act tough but who secretly want to say, “I love you,” and “I love you too, Son.” The reunions. The joy of returning, of becoming reacquainted. Of looking deep into the eyes of another - into the soul. Sadness, longing, joy, love, relief, indifference. Perhaps I’m kidding myself but I think I can see it all.

When I approach the gate in Charlotte, there are only a few empty seats. I find one with an empty chair on my left and with two old carry-on bags on the right. Next to the luggage is an old woman. Very old. Her snow white hair is thin. I can see her shiny scalp underneath. It is freckled. She is a face of wrinkles. They strike me as happy wrinkles. Her blue eyes are filmy but she smiles at me as our eyes meet. She smiles.
Airport Crowd - Blured Royalty Free Stock Photos

I sit and watch the people stream by. Big man, sweating, puffing, jogging, bouncing, hurrying to catch a flight. Business people with high tech phones wrapped around their ears. Pilots, swaggering, laughing, flirting, in no hurry. They do this for a living. High heels, fingernail polish, real fur coats. Tailored suits, jeans, tight skirts. Whining children being dragged along. Happy little ones amazed by the sights, the crowds, gawking, taking in the bustle, the newness. Teenagers, alone with their music, closing out the rest. Soldiers, homemakers, executives. Tattoos, beards, wheelchairs, baby carriages, boarding announcements, coffee. Ponytails, buns, streaks, braids, hair spray, diamonds, clay beads, leather, silk, cotton, polyester, chinos, khakis, cutoff shorts. Sensible shoes, running shoes, stiletto heels, sandals. You see everything at an airport. But mostly I don’t talk to people. Mostly I watch.

Then this old man shuffles up to the old woman. He carries one cardboard cup of coffee. They will share it. “So expensive!” he almost shouts. Very old. Bald, liver spots, shaking hands. He is wearing a rumpled suit. With a tie. It is stained. His belt is cracked. His shoes are old fashioned - wing tips - and worn out. His socks don’t quite match. One is gray. One is black. He wears his pants very high. His eyes sparkle at the old woman. His eyes, they shine.

He takes the small worn suitcases from the seat between the old woman and me. He places them gently on the floor. The zipper is broken on one. Two safety pins hold it closed. I wonder if it will make the trip without breaking. I wonder if the old couple will.
He turns slowly. Sits down carefully. His knees pop loudly. He winces in pain. Doesn’t say anything about it. He’s used to it, I think. He settles back and puts his right arm on the armrest. The old woman puts her left hand on top of his right. She laces her thin fingers through his. She’s done this a thousand times. A million. They sit, holding hands. Satisfied in each other’s company. There is love. I can feel it. They sigh identical sighs.

There is an announcement. The man cups his ear. “I couldn’t hear,” he shouts.

“We board in ten minutes,” she says.

“We need you a wheelchair.” He gets up slowly. This man knows pain, I think. He puts his hands on his hips. The hands are arthritic, gnarled, large knuckled. He straightens up slowly. He shuffles to the gate.

The woman looks at me. Her old eyes smile. “He takes care of me.” She winks. She grins. Her wrinkles show me that she always smiles.

The old man returns with some kind of attendant and a wheelchair. The attendant is young, soft, balding, sweating. The old man goes to the aid of his old woman. He helps her up then down into the wheelchair. The old man bends slowly and puts the footrests down. The attendant watches. The old man picks up her swollen feet by the ankles. He places them gently in position. Then, slowly he stands and retrieves their bags. He can’t straighten his fingers. She must have been the one to pin the bag shut. He turns towards the gate. They get to board first. The attendant rolls her slowly. She says to him, “Y’all have been so good to us. So good.” The attendant is bored. If he hears her he doesn’t show it.

Then she turns to me. “We are so blessed, aren’t we?” I am not sure if she is talking to me. “So blessed. The Lord has been so very good to us,” she answers herself. Her hazy blue eyes are surrounded by a web of wrinkles. An inner light shines. Something no camera could ever capture. She turns her face forward. They show their tickets. I last see them as they roll and shamble down the hallway to the plane.

“Yes,” I finally answer her. “You are blessed. And so am I.”

That Mesmerizing Screen

That mesmerizing screen
It steals away the time
Young children watching endlessly
Never learning how to climb
Not talking with their neighbors
Not playing in the sunshine
No baseball or jump rope
No writing down a rhyme

TV graph.jpg

Screen's on in the kitchen
Even at mealtime
Screen's on in the car
Never any downtime
No time for reading
That's not a real big time
No time for adventures
That would be like work time
Not much time for the real world
That can only be part time
Can't develop real relationships
And it really is a crime
Because of that mesmerizing screen

"American children and adolescents spend 22 to 28 hours per week viewing television, more than any other activity except sleeping. By the age of 70 they will have spent 7 to 10 years of their lives watching TV."
-- The Kaiser Family Foundation

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Big Toe

Last week on Friday a little boy in my class hurt his toe at recess. I’m not exactly sure how he did it. We were playing this great playground game developed by my class a few years ago. It is called O-Ball. I think it is the blend of “OH BOY!”, dodge ball, and O’Keefe, but the origin of the name is uncertain.

According to my die-hard O-ballians, it is the greatest playground game ever invented. It is a blend of dodge ball, bombardment and capture the flag. Some of the regulars think it should be the next Olympic sport. I concur.

Anyway, Adam came up to me limping mid-game. We were dodging left and right and had to call a serious time-out for ourselves or else risk being brained by a ball. He was limping badly and, while he wasn’t crying, he had that near crying look on his face that read real pain.

“I hurt my toe,” he said between clenched teeth.

“What happened?”

“I’m not sure. I was running from base and bashed it on a root or something.”

“I’m sorry, buddy. Do you think you want to go to the nurse?”

“I’ll wait,” he grimaced, and played on.

He limped all the way back to class. When we got inside, he took off his shoe and sock on that foot and sure enough, he had bent back his big toenail pretty far. He wasn’t going to loose it or anything, but some blood vessels had broken near the end and it was getting a little purple. “Ouch!” I sympathized. “Those kinds of injuries are pretty painful. And they feel sore for a long time. Why don’t you get some ice?” He walked barefoot on his heel all the way to the office and back. When he came back he had a bag of ice on his naked toe and nursed it for the rest of the afternoon.

That was Friday. The students had a long weekend since teachers were in staff development on Monday. Tuesday morning, Adam came bounding in with a big old grin on his face. I had sort of forgotten about the injury.

“You know what?” he asked while I was sorting through homework assignments and taking care of the usual morning routine.

“Great to see you. What’s up?”

“My foot feels fine.”

“Oh?” I asked, not remembering last Friday’s injury. He could tell I didn’t know what he was referring to.

“My foot. It feels fine.”

“That’s nice, Adam,” was my curt reply. I still didn’t get it.

“Actually, I think the only thing that would hurt it would be if I kicked a steel wall with all my strength! Other than that, nothing would really hurt it.”

“Ah,” now I remembered the big toe injury. “I bet I could think of some things that might hurt it… What if I brought in my sledgehammer? I know it’s no steel wall, but…”

We laughed, trying to outdo each other with big-toe-injury-possibilities for a couple of minutes. A few others joined in. “How about dropping a bowling ball on it?” “What if a big school bus ran over it?”…

I know it’s silly, but it’s times like these that I appreciate the kind of community we have created together. It’s not taught in your education methods classes, it’s not in the long list of educational standards, and it's definitely not on the high stakes tests the children must take in the spring, but the ability to make one another laugh just comes with the territory, a little benefit that comes from living and learning together as friends.

Let’s call it an important life skill and leave it at that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Basic Skills - A Teacher's Story

This post is a rerun. I posted it over a year ago. It's another long one, so if you have read it, pass on by. I have other ideas spooled up and I am almost finished with another longish/short story about trying to talk someone out of something foolish. All in due time.

I was preparing for a presentation about teaching a few weeks ago and I ran across some old student work from when Heidi and I first moved to the South, back in 1986. While I was taking classes at USC, these kids were my real teachers that year. I know of a few new people to my blog so I thought I'd give this one another shot...

In 1986 I moved to Columbia, SC from southern Indiana. I admit there was a bit of a culture shock. I had never really traveled south of Indiana before except a day trip to Kentucky and flying in to Florida for a spring break once while in college. I flew down to Columbia, SC to interview, flew back home, then drove down with all our stuff to live here. Since this is a teaching story, I feel compelled to say that it was NOT all goodness and light in Indiana. I worked with a principal who had lost track of what was important. My last year there I team-taught with a teacher who really seemed to hate teaching. There were some rough spots in my first job in SC. But, like all things related to teaching, it is the children who make teaching what it is. Not the administrators, not the teachers down the hall... the children. This is a story I wrote last year in remembrance of my first year here.

Part of being a non-fiction writer is like being a photographer. If it works, it is often because of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment. Being a teacher makes me blessed. I am always at the right place to witness and share in the wonder and drama of living and learning with a bunch of wonderful people.

One of the amazing things about writing to me is that is helps one to recall. When I started this story, I didn't know how much would come back. It happened over 20 years ago, after all. During the process of writing this piece, Antwan and Bridget and Mr. Litton and others all came swimming back to me. I can recall Antwan's shining eyes like I saw them just yesterday. Bridget's radiant, crooked-toothed smile and her pony tail bouncing as she jumped as I turned the rope at recess - it's like these 20 years have vanished and I am there with them. They would be 33 or 34 years old now. I don't know if I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street or in line at the grocery store. But those 11 year old faces? I would recognize them in a heartbeat.

For my first year teaching in South Carolina I was a Basic Skills Instructor. I worked with small groups of kids in two different schools. These were children who tested in the bottom quartile on the Basic Skills exam. These were typically kids who didn’t get their homework done, didn’t finish class work, often spent their recess time “on the hill” trying to complete workbook pages and handouts. These were the kids who never caught up. Often they were discipline problems. They were the ones sent to the office for behavior referrals. School for these children was a constant mountain of unfinished papers, tests they couldn’t do well with, teachers they didn’t get along with, work that was too hard. They were the unmotivated, the outcasts, the disruptive, the students other teachers didn’t want to teach. It was my job to pull these kids out of the classroom and put them together in small groups for short periods each day. These were the Basic Skills kids and these were my students for the year.

I worked with groups of four to six kids for a half an hour at a time. Of course I had to get them to and from their classes so we only had about 25 minutes to work together each day.

At first the children came with workbook pages they hadn’t finished in class. The teachers wanted me to be sure the work was finished. They wanted me to be their enforcer.

I tried this for a week or so, nagging the kids to do the kind of work I disagreed with. The kids were pretty harsh with me in return. They saw me as an extension of their own classrooms where many were already failing. They saw me as another authority figure trying to make them do work which they saw as worthless, work they hated. They saw me as the enemy.

I resented the role as well. I was used to writing curriculum and lessons with kids. I wanted our time together to be interesting and worthwhile. I wanted the Basic Skills time to be important. I couldn’t take being the “workbook dragon” day after day, insisting that kids fill in blanks on workbook pages or drawing lines from questions to correct answers. The system wasn’t working for them. It seemed like a waste of time for the students and for me.

I went to John Litton, my new principal to see what could be done. When I entered his smoke filled office (this was in 1986 – before smoking was banned from public buildings). I told him about my problem. I didn’t think I was serving the students very well by making them do worksheets and workbook pages. I said that my time would be used more appropriately if the students were doing real reading and writing and math projects. He listened carefully to my lengthy complaint and philosophy of education. When I was finished with my monologue he smiled broadly, his white beard yellowed from years of cigarette smoking. He smushed out his cigarette in a butt-filled ashtray and said, “Sure. No problem. Whatever. Only YOU get to tell the teachers about your new role.”

I took the coward’s way out. When the kids came to me with workbooks I sent them back with the same unfinished work. I never told the teachers directly but soon they got the message that the Basic Skills kids were going to learn different kinds of basic skills. They didn’t know what yet, but the 3rd, 4th and 5th grade teachers at R. Earle Davis Elementary became accustomed to not sending worksheets. They would have to trust me for my little half hour, three times a week.

It took a while for the other teachers to get used to what we were doing. For one thing it wasn’t what you would called joyful school. It was dark in almost every sense of the word. The walls were dark. The carpets were filthy. It always smelled of cigarettes smoked by the office staff and the cigars smoked by the head custodian, Mr. Steverson. The windows were dirty, grudgingly allowing in dim and dusty daylight.

Many teachers hollered constantly… “How many times do I have to tell you?… I said SIT DOWN!... What on earth is WRONG WITH YOU?” I do not fault them. It was just their way. It was how they grew up as teachers, as though the only way to get through to kids was to bring the volume up, to speak sarcastically and to threaten the students into doing their work. It may never have occurred to them that perhaps the kids weren’t working very hard because they saw no real reason for it.

For most of the children, writing was a series of exercises: drawing lines from questions to answers, filling in a blank with a word from a word bank or answering comprehension questions about a story they could barely read.

When they passed by our door the teachers would hear us laughing (sometimes hysterically), writing and acting out plays, reading and writing responses to pen pal letters, listening to chapter books, videotaping plays we had written, etc.

Ours was a motley crew. While these children were considered to be “low end” academically, they were actually quite bright. Most had never gotten along well in a pencil and paper system. Some were still struggling to read and do basic math but many demonstrated great ability in other areas. One student, Antwan, was a child with an amazing sense of humor and a sunny disposition.

He and his best friend Bridget usually came in giggling over some private joke. Eventually they warmed up to me. They got my jokes, shared my love of story and, although neither was a tremendous reader, they loved it when I read aloud. They were expressive and energetic kids. They invented unusual names for me including “O’Theif”, “O’Boy”, “O’Man” and “O’Teeth”.

Antwan was hard for me to get to know at first. He wouldn’t look me in the eye when he spoke to me. He was a nice kid but I felt like I didn’t know him well. Once on the playground I was turning the jump rope for Bridget and others. “What’s up with Antwan?” I asked her.

‘What you mean?” she answered.

“Why do you think he doesn’t like me?”

“It’s not that, O’Teeth. He just doesn’t trust you is all.”


“You don’t know much about Antwan, do you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don’t know what happened to his family?

“Why don’t you fill me in?” I said.

She motioned for me to follow her away from the others. “He stays with his grandparents, right?” I answered that I had heard that. It wasn’t uncommon for many of my students to live with family members other than their parents. “Do you know why he stays with them?” Her beautiful black eyes never left mine.

“No, why?”

“His daddy’s in jail. His mamma’s dead. His daddy killed her.” I paused, not really knowing what to say. “It don’t mean nothin’ now. You just need to know is all.”

We went on with our routine and eventually Antwan began to open up to me as a friend and not just his teacher.

Pen pal letters were the favorite project of all of the groups. My wife is an instructor at USC. At the time she was teaching undergraduates, mostly young women, how to teach reading and writing to elementary children. It was the perfect match. Heidi’s undergraduates exchanged letters with my Basic Skills kids once each week. The kids learned the real purpose of writing. And they were getting to know some neat people through their letters. The USC students were coming to understand writing development for third through fifth grade students. They were also forming bonds with young people most of whom had never written a letter to anyone in their lives. It was what my wife called “Curricular Heaven”.

Because our time was so short, I had the letters on the tables as the kids came in. The computers were on for kids who wanted to compose their letters at the keyboard. This was our busiest and most fulfilling time together. The kids were unbelievably focused. They tore into their envelopes, helped each other to read, shared funny parts, laughed and wrote. These were the days when my job was easy and gratifying. All I had to do was to put out the letters and writing supplies and get out of the way.

By January we were in a comfortable routine. Wednesday was pen pal day and the Basic Skills kids were in their second set of USC friends for the year. We had only exchanged a couple of letters with the new group when Bridget’s group came in one cold day without Antwan. Bridget took me aside to let me know what was going on. There was no smile in those bright eyes. I had never seen them so solemn, so sad.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Antwan?”

“He’s at home. So’s his sister. Their grandpa died yesterday.”

“They were close, weren’t they?”

“He loved his grandpa so hard, Mr. O. His grandparents took care of him, you know?”

“I remember,” I said lamely.

“When his mama died, his grandparents took Antwan and his sister to live with them,” she reminded me. “They was the ones raisin’ them. They was really old. Now he’s only got his grandma left.”

“I’m so sorry, Bridget.” I knew Antwan and Bridget were best friends – not boyfriend and girlfriend – just best friends. They had been since they were little kids. In some ways they were closer than boyfriend/girlfriend. They were life friends. I knew that she was hurting too. “What can we do?”

“How 'bout we just save the pen pal letters for him when he gets back?”

That’s just what we did. The day of the funeral the Basic Skills kids listened to me read a short story and we discussed it. Bridget was with her best friend in his time of sorrow and need. The group was subdued. There was no kidding around, little teasing and laughter. It wasn’t the same without Antwan and Bridget. We had friends who were hurting and we were feeling some of their pain.

The next day Antwan and Bridget came in with the rest of the group. I remember it like it was yesterday. In some ways it was a day that changed me as a teacher.

Antwan had on his parka with the hood zipped up all the way. I couldn’t see his face. It was a cold day outside but rather warm in the room. I wanted to comfort Antwan, to tell him that I was sorry for his loss. He wouldn’t look at me as he plopped himself into the usual chair. His arms were crossed. His head was down.

Bridget looked at me expectantly. I told everyone that we saved the pen pal letters for today so Antwan and Bridget could be here. We all were a little jumpy and tense but gradually busy noise filled the room. The usual kids chose to work at computers while the others plucked pens or pencils from the can in the center of the table. Antwan and Bridget sat side by side at the computer work stations. Bridget kept looking over at Antwan. He hadn’t budged. Just over a week ago Antwan tore into his letter with delight. He had received a photo of his pen pal, Monique, and she was a beauty. He had delighted in the ribbing he received from the others. Now his letter lay unopened on the table next to him.

I approached cautiously. The Antwan I knew as a happy little cut up, who laughed easily and who teased me mercilessly was not there. The joking, smiling, laughing Antwan I knew was somewhere deep inside that parka. As I scooted my chair up to him tears fell from his hood. I slowly put my arm around his shoulders, something I had never done before. “I’m so sorry about your grandpa, Antwan.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. His life had just changed in the saddest way imaginable. I couldn’t begin to understand his pain.

“Yeah,” he muttered, still not letting me see his face. “He was a good guy.” More tears fell.

There was an awkward silence as I thought of what to say, what to do for my sad little friend. “Do you want to write to Monique about it? I think she’d like to know what’s going on with you and your family.”

He didn’t answer but instead picked up Monique’s letter, tore it open and began to read. I moved on to the other kids. I didn’t want to make Antwan any more self-conscious by hovering over him.

I looked over from time to time. He was slowly composing his note, one letter at a time with his right index finger, his left hand in his lap except to capitalize. While I couldn’t see his face (his parka hood was still up) tears leaked out and dripped into the keys of the computer.

The children worked steadily for about 15 minutes. Antwan had barely shown his face all morning. He was hidden deep within his coat, deep within himself. When the period was over the kids handed me their letters on their way back to their classroom. Antwan printed his letter out on the old dot matrix printer and handed it to me without a word. Before he walked back to his classroom I reached out and touched him on the shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss, Antwan.” He pulled his hood off and our eyes met. His were red and puffy; his cheeks wet with tears. “My grandmamma said that it was just his time, that he lived a good long life. He's with God now." He paused, and then, "He was a real good man, O’Keefe. Real good. Nothin's gonna be the same without him.”

That moment is etched in my mind. The others were out the door. Antwan and I stood there, both of us so sad. He because he would never look into the loving eyes of his grandpa; his protector, his guardian, his provider and friend. I was sad because Antwan was being forced to grow up too fast. He already had a life filled with too much violence, too much sadness. Now, at 11 years old, he would be the man of his little family.

I asked him if I could copy his letter for his file. He said OK and turned away without another word.

I had the next period free for planning. Antwan’s letter was left on the computer monitor. As I read his simple and sincere note; my tears joined his as they fell into the keyboard.

Dear Monique,
It was nice to get your letter. Did you have a nice time in Atlanta? I hope you feel better. I will dream about you. In my family my grandpa died. He took care of me. He was my best friend. Now I will not have no one to hug. No one to kiss. No one to TELL THINGS TO. No one to love and give things to. I will still go to see him but I will not dig him up because I am not that kind of guy.


Your friend,


He had never met Monique before. They had only exchanged letters a few times. They had barely established their friendship before this tragedy hit Antwan’s family. Antwan bravely poured out his emotions to Monique although they were really only acquaintances. He used writing to explain feelings that spoken words could not. I had never truly realized the power and potential of writing. I knew that the pen pal correspondence was an important part of our time together. I knew it was a real reason to write. At the same time, it was not much more than a great project or activity. I knew that it was important to write to communicate to someone but I didn’t understand the true significance; the true potential.

Antwan told Monique something he had never told me. That single, most powerful word was love. Writing allowed him to cross the barrier, to express himself in important clear ways, to be open and honest. It freed him from the boundaries of face to face communication. Through writing, Antwan was able to explain his complicated emotions; to let out some of the saddest feelings he had ever had. He connected to Monique in his letter. I am still awed by his frankness, inspired by his honesty.

Later that semester, after exchanging at least 15 letters the USC pen pals came to Davis Elementary to meet the Basic Skills kids. Like most of the others, Antwan was shy when he met Monique. His words were few and quiet. But his letters were always friendly, newsy and personal. He and Bridget and most of the other Basic Skills kids were dressed in their Sunday clothes. Antwan had on an ill fitting suit and Bridget wore uncomfortable shoes and a pretty, if worn pink dress. Bridget's hair, always in a loose pony tail, was braided into tight cornrows. She told me they hurt. But those two shined bright that day. All the kids did.

I have long since lost track of Antwan but his face stays with me along with his humor and feisty spirit. His shining black eyes look back at me through all of these years. In my mind he will always be eleven. In my mind he will always be that fragile little boy - my friend and one of my greatest teachers.