Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Letters, (Part 2)

Earlier this week, I asked my second graders to write their annual Thanksgiving Letters home. I have done this nearly every year for the 32 years I have been a teacher. That’s a lot of thank you notes. I’m thinking between 650 and 700 letters of gratitude. That is also a lot of classroom time devoted to this simple act. Gratitude. There is a lot to be said for gratitude.

There are always common themes. Often what pops into children’s minds are the material things. That was true when I worked with more economically disadvantaged children as well as the middle and upper income families.

To begin this activity every year I ask the students to generate ideas for the kinds of things they might consider as they write their own letters. It’s the tangible stuff that they think of first. Of course it is. It’s what they can feel, see, touch. We had an amazing conversation Monday morning. I wrote “stuff” on the board to placehold the idea of toys, game systems, pets, bikes, etc. When we got to the what else part of the conversation, that was where the real ideas started to flow.

So, we wrote. It was one of those times when the children did not really need a teacher in the room. They were caught up in their thoughts and aside from a few questions to each other about how to spell a word or when to capitalize, there was only the busy sounds of pencils making their ways across lined paper recording deep appreciations…

Thank you for the memories you have given me from the time I was born until now…. I’m thankful for my sister and her sweet self… I am thankful for the earth and flowers and the trees and grass… Sometimes I think of the people who don’t have families like you and don’t have the opportunity to have Thanksgiving. And it just makes me more thankful… Thank you for having my little brother so he can play with me… Thank you for being a good model… Thank you for being so kind to me… I’ll tell you some good times. Here’s one. When we slept in the living room and we made beds on the floor and we watched TV… You raised me good and your heart is pumping blood to always remember me... Thank you for all you’ve done and how you raised me. I think I will be a good mom too… Thank you for caring for me when I am sick and when I am scared in the dark… Thank you for teaching me how to ride with two wheels on my bike… Thank you for inspiring me to be nice to others… Thank you for just loving me back… Thank you for taking me to the beach where waves crash… Thank you for caring for me when I had my tonsils and adenoids out… Thank you for playing in the sprinkler with me…

Even the sign offs were memorable…

I love you Mom and Dad,

I love you very much,

You’re wonderful,

From your son,

OK I will stop,

From your beloved son,

Signing off with love,

I really love you all,

Be careful,

Your only, loveable, kind daughter,

Much love you love,

Thank you,

Remember me always,

And, of course, the simplest of all – but the most powerful word there is.


As I write my own letters to my mom year after year and share my appreciations for the way she raised me, the example she set, the bar she raised, the brothers and sisters she gave me, the memories, the family friends, the lessons and – the stuff, I am sitting with a group of like-minded friends with the same purpose. It is so important to express the feelings and appreciations we have for each other. When we do it in writing we can say things we wouldn’t often say face to face. Through their simple eloquence the little ones in my classroom keep teaching me to write from my heart. And I am so blessed.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Giving Thanks/Pearls

I am reposting a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. I went to the NPR website again and read over Katy's compelling story. I listened again to Sade's "Pearls". These are such strong reminders.

Giving Thanks

I was listening to NPR the other day. It was Tuesday morning, the day before our Thanksgiving holiday break. I was tooling along, planning the menu for the big meal, right? I was looking forward to the break. My folks were coming down, we were just all just going to take it easy. Play some music, share some story, laugh, eat a lot. Family. Fellowship. Thanksgiving.

Riding along, only half listening to the radio, there was a
report from Zimbabwe. Political leaders fighting about power, the U.N. cut its food rations and they are predicting a terrible crisis.

Part of the story focused on one woman and her plight. Her name is Katy. She was searching through the dirt in a recently plowed field for single grains of corn. She hadn’t eaten for three days. Three days. She was 70 something, bending over in the blazing sun, looking for grains of corn to take back to her home and split with her grandson. Three days without food. The last thing she had eaten was a wild root. She was sick to her stomach, foraging for food for her grandson and herself, she said that all she could do was to put her faith in God.

This is one of those classic stories that make you look at the world differently. At least it did for me. You can hear that millions of people in southern Africa are at risk. That millions are hungry. And it does affect you, right? It is sad.

But sometimes it takes one person’s story to make a real difference in how you understand. Katy was literally giving her last strength to help her grandson survive. Looking at her face
(on the NPR website) makes a different, far more powerful impression. Imagine Katy times millions. In that way we can go beyond simply large numbers to looking carefully at the tragedy of real people. People who have the same joys sorrows as us. Looking into the eyes of one person makes the larger picture clearer, more focused somehow.

So at this Thanksgiving time, let us really understand the tremendous blessings we have. We have been born into a world of food and creature comforts almost unparalleled in the big picture. As we go to bed with full stomachs each night, let us be mindful of those who are hungry. And as we eat our big holiday meals, let that food give us the strength to make the world a better place.

When I was thinking of Katy in Zimbabwe - from my last post. She was picking through a recently plowed field for corn kernels to take back to her grandson. Without her, the child would surely perish. She was going to share these precious grains with him even though she hadn't eaten in three days. After writing that piece I was reminded of a song by Sade called "Pearls". If you have not heard it... you should. It is on an album called "Love Deluxe" from '92. Old school, but oh so wonderful. Smooth. Silky. Fine.

I remember washing the dishes and listening to the words - really listening. You know, sometimes when you get new music you listen first to the feel of it. It isn't until after a while that you listen to the message. Anyway, I was finally listening to the message of this lovely song. I stopped the chores I was doing and sat in front of the speakers with the liner notes in front of me, reading along as Sade sang. I listened again with my eyes closed. Mesmerized. It isn't just the lyrics. It is her voice. Hypnotic, powerful.

I hadn't heard this album in a while but after posting yesterday's piece I was drawn to it again. Once again it moved me. Here are the lyrics. If you get a chance to listen to it sometime, you should [click on one of the links above or to watch a pretty good video, check out the youtube video below]. I can't guarantee that it will make you cry but it WILL make you feel something. The hero in this song is Somalian. She is scraping for pearls on the roadside and not in the freshly plowed field that Katy searched. But they are both searching for pearls. Pearls. In Sade's song our hero is simply human, her actions and feelings universal.

there is a woman in somalia
scraping for pearls on the roadside
there's a force stronger than nature
keeps her will alive
this is how she's dying
she's dying to survive
don't know what she's made of
i would like to be that brave

she cries to the heaven above
there is a stone in my heart
she lives a life she didn't choose
and it hurts like brand-new shoes

hurts like brand-new shoes

there is a woman in somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone
long as afternoon shadows
it's gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl


she cries to the heaven above
there is a stone in my heart
she lives in a world she didn't choose
and it hurts like brand-new shoes
hurts like brand-new shoes

Friday, November 5, 2010

Letters (Part 1)

I love a good letter. Even a card is nice. Usually opening the mailbox is more of a duty these days, an obligation. Almost all correspondence from the mailbox is in the form of advertisements or bills. It is rare to pull out the wad that is in there and find a real letter written by someone’s hand with carefully constructed thoughts and feelings.

I used to look forward to seeing what little time capsules of emotion and ideas made there way through the system to my home. Now, when Heidi is out of town for a few days I don’t even bother to bring in the mail – unless it is near bill paying time.

Writing a letter takes great effort in an age of instant communication, right? I mean there is the cell phone, email, texting, Twitter, Facebook. These are so fast, so immediate that your pocket vibrates to let you know that someone, somewhere – it could be very far away – has just sent a stray thought your way. Compared to leaving an electronic communication in someone’s in-box, writing a letter takes a lot of effort. I can totally relate to what Garrison Keillor has written about the lost art of letter writing.

We shy persons need to write a letter now and then, or else we'll dry up and blow away. It's true. And I speak as one who loves to reach for the phone, dial the number, and talk. I say, "Big Bopper here - what's shakin', babes?" The telephone is to shyness what Hawaii is to February, it's a way out of the woods, and yet: a letter is better.

Such a sweet gift - a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill, sitting in our friend's path when she trudges home from a long day spent among wahoos and savages, a day our words will help repair. They don't need to be immortal, just sincere. She can read them twice and again tomorrow: You're someone I care about, Corrine, and think of often and every time I do you make me smile.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are. They will have only a vague impression of us as A Nice Person, because, frankly, we don't shine at conversation, we lack the confidence to thrust our faces forward and say, "Hi! I'm Heather Hooten; let me tell you about my week." Mostly we say "Uh-huh" and "Oh, really." People smile and look over our shoulder, looking for someone else to meet.

So a shy person sits down and writes a letter. To be known by another person - to meet and talk freely on the page - to be close despite distance. To escape from anonymity and be our own sweet selves and express the music of our souls.

Same thing that moves a giant rock star to sing his heart out in front of 123,000 people moves us to take a ballpoint in hand and write a few lines to our dear Aunt Eleanor. We want to be known. We want her to know that we have fallen in love, that we quit our job, that we're moving to New York, and we want to say a few things that might not get said in casual conversation: Thank you for what you've meant to me, I'm very happy right now.

In writing a letter you must A) Gather the necessary ingredients. And they might be spread out a ways in your home. Paper (I prefer plane white), the proper pen, an envelope, a stamp, an address book. And B) Have some private time to think, muse, ponder, wonder and contemplate. This may be more of a challenge to come up with than all of the physical ingredients. Time among us busy humans is scarce. Finally C) Have the energy and commitment to gather all of A), apply B) and take the completed product to the mailbox. I will often get A) and B) completed and not get all the way to C) meaning I’ll have to repeat A) and B).

Writing an email could be nearly as effective but there is the actual handwriting on the sheet of paper that brings the whole thing to a higher level. So much is said through a person’s handwriting. Every person’s is unique and special. My dad’s was this crazy blend of squiggles and old-fashioned cursive that it was almost illegible. My mom’s is very tidy, she was, after all a schoolteacher for many years. My brother Pat’s is just the same as it was when we were kids. I’d know it anywhere. I’d recognize his scrawl if it was mixed in with a hundred other writing samples. A thousand. It is just so him. That’s one reason why the actual pen or pencil marks applied to paper, uniquely our own, make receiving a letter so special. It is like giving someone a lock of hair along with your correspondence, your DNA.

When Heidi and I were dating, just friends really, we wrote letters during the first summer we were apart. I had this overwhelming crush, not yet reciprocated, so they were precious. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college. I was SOOOooo in love. I was working in the steel mills in NW Indiana and long distance phone calls were still a luxury so we wrote letters. Hers were chatty, flirty, and newsy with big loopy feminine cursive. We wrote so often that we were answering old questions and completing thoughts out of sequence. But it didn’t matter. They were treasures. Over the years I have misplaced that bundle of letters, but what I wouldn’t give to read those simple earnest lines of friendship written all those years ago.

My mom is the best letter writer I know, although she and I are now much more likely to email. I have saved her letters, which also date back to my college days. Often they are filled with news of the natural world, what the squirrels are doing, which leaves have changed, how the air feels first thing in the morning. Many of my mom’s letters are written late at night for she is often awake when most are asleep. She speaks of life and love and the past and fears and dreams and sadness, regrets and hopes. They are capsules of who she was and who she has become. I don’t have them all, but a good many. They are among my most prize possessions.

I receive an occasional love letter from my young friends. Heidi has nothing to do worry about – they are from my second graders. Little ones, probably because they do not yet have access to the more modern forms of instant communication, have a sense for what is important in old school letter writing. I found one the other day on my messy table in the classroom. Who knows how long it had been there? It took a lot of time to pull together. It was on a green piece of construction paper, cut from a much larger piece. It was folded like a card. On the front there are purple pastel hearts in the corners with a large black peace sign meticulously drawn in the center. The inner part (the dove’s foot) was carefully rendered in ballpoint pen and is a half an inch wide. That took a LOT of pen strokes. The rim is black marker. The inside of the peace sign is filled in, stained glass style, in the same purple pastel. At the top is says simply, You are… Then you open it and it continues …My Teacher - yay I love you! To, Mr,O,Keefe Another big purple heart. Considering that there are only 11 words, it had a big impact on me. I mean yay. I love you. With an exclamation point! This little girl was thinking of me, in her off time, and took the effort to draw and write this message and just left it on my desk for me to find one day. I was so moved.

Another one I received the other day has a marker drawing of a little girl and me at the bottom of the page. I am wearing big glasses that make my eyes look huge and have flowers drawn on my shirt. She has this stylized pink triangle dress (I have never seen her wear a dress). Her message is written in her own invented spelling and in 6 different colors…


I love you, because you are nise, kind, loves animals, read relly good storys to us. I also love you becase: you play o’ball, feed the anamles in the llife take [live tank] and call me Babe wen you read Babe. I love how you are nise to the class. I also idmier your glassis. You are such a nise man becase (agan) you set with me at lunch. Love…

Here are a few other pieces of gold from this year…

You are the bast techer ever…

I geninuinly thak you for Being nies!

I like you all reddy!

And you and me like… ANAMles!

The thrip to the zoo was fun And when we saw the pingwins I saw one danse!

You are the best jokr

You are nice and funny and sweet.

You are a vary good gutarest.

The stuff that you teach us is very good and cool

Not many people, in their daily grind, receive such wonderful compensation as this. Within a month of us becoming a class this year, I had gotten over missing my old kids who have moved on to 4th grade and was able to move into a good feel with this class of young second graders. Nothing has helped me to make the transition more than the sweet words of children. They are too young to have forgotten how important it is to write the word love often - and mean it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can a Man Really Change?

Gramma said when you come on something good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out where no telling it will go. Which is right.

I am a reader. I am not all that well read, but I am persistent. I am always reading a chapter book to my 2nd graders, almost always have a book on CD or tape going for my commute and a book on the night stand that I am reading. There are always a few in the cue under the night stand, recommendations of friends, something I have picked up at the book store, a book from the bargain rack that I may read on the chance that it might be gold and I can pass it on to a friend. I have read books from the Dollar Store that have made me seek out other books by the same author (and I pay dearly for these – far more than the dollar I shelled out for the first book).

I am not a particularly fast reader. Depending on the book and how into it I am, it may take me a month to finish. If I am obsessed and it is summer, it might take a week. I am jealous of folks who can down a book in a day or two. My brother John is like that. He probably averages two books a week. Once, years ago, my brother Dan was driving in downtown Chicago and he saw John walking down the street on his lunch break reading. His nose in a book, walking in the Loop in downtown Chicago, not looking where he was going, oblivious to any and everything around him. It’s a wonder he didn’t get hit by a car.

I am not a particularly good book critic. There are some best selling authors I can’t stand, some obscure authors I absolutely love. Why couldn’t I like Catcher in the Rye? Everybody else does? Whoever heard of Robert Helenga (Blues Lessons – my Dollar Store purchase in hardback – The Fall of a Sparrow, and The 16 Pleasures – around $15 a pop in paperback)?

There are books that I am passionate about; books I will read again and again. One, by Immaculee Ilibagiza called Left to Tell I read twice in a row – after getting over my tears from the first reading. Of course there are To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and a few other classics. I have read I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb four times and it is a “big fat chapter book” as my students would say.

There is no book I like more than The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. I have read it no less than 8 times. And every time I read it I am so taken by it. I have had 28 student teachers and interns and I think I have given it to every one. When I ask my teacher friends if they have read it – if they say no, I give it to them. I gave a copy away this week to my good teaching buddy Chris who had not read it – yet.

When I go to the bookstore to get the book, which I do every year, I usually order two or three copies. Two for the intern/student teachers who pass through my life and one to replace my copy which I have inevitably given away since the last time I bought copies. Heidi called me the other day when I was in the bookstore and when I told her that I was picking up Little Tree she smirked. I don’t blame her. I am predictable that way. If you know me well, and you haven’t read this book, I will give it to you. Weird but true.

So, years ago when I asked my friend Alan Weider if he had read it, he was astonished that I had. “You don’t know about Asa Carter, do you?” he queried. Well, no I didn’t. “He’s a racist. He used to write speeches for George Wallace.”

No way. This book is just too good. It is the strongest anti-racist book I have ever read.

“Google him,” was Alan’s reply. You’ll see.

I did. It isn’t pretty.

Easter Procession In Segovia,

Prior to Little Tree, Carter was an opponent to the civil rights movement and helped to found a KKK group. He was known for his anti-Black and anti-Jewish views. He actually ran for police commissioner against Bull Connor. Connor was the guy who turned police dogs and fire hoses on Civil Rights activists in Birmingham. Known associates of Carters were convicted of extreme brutality against African Americans.

In the 1960’s Carter wrote speeches for George Wallace and is partially credited for Wallace’s slogan, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” He was a bad man. Plane and simple. He spent the last part of his life with a different name, running from his past.

George Wallace

But the book Little Tree is too inspiring to have been written by someone impersonating a good man. The beauty of the lessons and the sympathy you feel for the characters are too clear and true to have been created by a man who hates people of color.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that people make a living by acting. Mel Gibson directed “The Passion of the Christ” but think of what a creep he is. But Carter wrote an enduring story of such beauty and brilliance about the dignity and worth of Native Americans that he had to have had some kind of transformation. At some part of his core, he became good. Even if it was just for a little while, Asa Carter became Forrest Carter, a writer who was able to outgrow his own racism and hatred and create these timeless, enchanting, admirable characters – more real than some real people I know.

All I can think is that something happened to change him. I haven’t been able to find out what. His biographical information is filled with his hatred, his cunning, his terrible deeds. But there has to be something missing from the record. There has to be more to him.

Because he left us with Little Tree.

It is the story of a five-year-old boy whose parents die and he ends up living with his elderly Native American grandparents deep in the Appalachian Mountains. While he lives with them, they teach him “the way”. It is not a code or a bunch of tricks of how to live like an Indian. It is a way of living in the world, of being a part of nature. In searching through the book for a passage or two to share, my mind keeps going back to “A Dangerous Adventure” in which Little Tree and Granpa are fishing for catfish and cross paths with a formidable creature…

This day Granpa was laying on the bank and had already pulled a catfish out of the water. I couldn’t find a fish hole, so I went a ways down the bank. I lay down and eased my hands into the water, feeling for a fish hole. I heard a sound right by me. It was a dry rustle that started slow and got faster until it made a whirring noise.

I turned my head toward the sound. It was a rattlesnake. He was coiled to strike, his head in the air, and looking down on me, not six inches from my face. I froze stiff and couldn’t move. He was bigger around than my leg and I could see ripples moving around under his dry skin. He was mad. Me and the snake stared at each other. He was flicking out his tongue-nearly in my face-and his eyes was slitted-red and mean… I knew he was about to strike me but I couldn’t move.

A shadow fell on the ground over me and the snake. I hadn’t heard him coming atall but I knew it was Grampa. Soft and easy, like he was remarking about the weather, Granpa said, “Don’t turn yer head. Don’t move, Little Tree. Don’t blink yer eyes.” Which I didn’t…

Then, of a sudden, Granpa’s big hand came between my face and the snake’s head. The hand stayed there. The rattler drew up higher. He begun to hiss and rattled a solid whirring sound. If Granpa had moved his hand… or flinched, the snake would have hit me square in the face. I knew it too.

But he didn’t…

Granpa took the snakebite that was meant for Little Tree. When the snake had his fangs deep into Granpa’s hand, Granpa squeezed it to death with his other. After they heard the crack of the snake’s backbone, Granpa pulled out his knife and cut himself where the snake had bitten him…

“Thankee, Granpa.” Granpa looked at me and grinned. He had blood smeared over his mouth and face.

“Helldamnfire!” Granpa said. “We showed that son of a bitch, didn’t we?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, feeling better about the whole thing. “We showed that son of a bitch.” Though I couldn’t recall as having much to do with the showing…

Granpa’s hand started to swell and he commented on how hot the weather was getting, “fer this time of year.” His face looked funny. Now his arm was turning blue.

“I’m going for Granma,” I said. I started off. Granpa looked after me and his eyes stared off, faraway.

“Reckin I’ll rest a spell,” he said, calm as syrup. “I’ll be along directly.”

Little Tree ran to get his Granma. When she got there she saved Granpa by capturing quail and using their splayed open bodies to draw out the venom. While it seemed as though Granpa might die, she and Little Tree lay naked next to him all night long to keep his body warm.

…I told her how it all happened, and that I reckined it was my fault for not watching. Granma said it wasn’t anybody’s fault, not even the rattlesnake’s. She said we wasn’t to place fault ner gain on anything that just happened. Which made me feel some better, but not much.

In this book, Carter deals with the very best of society and the very worst. Ignorance, intolerance, predjudice, pride, racism and materialsm, are all taken on as evils, yet these are the very characteristics with which Carter himself is described in the short biographies I have read about him. It might just be true that Little Tree can be appreciated all by itself despite the biography of Carter. I found this little blurb on Wikipedia.

Richard Friedenberg wrote and directed the 1997 film adaptation. He has defended the book, but not the author:

Mr. Friedenberg said what appealed to him about the book was that "the characters and milieu they were in represented everything that was good about America and everything that was bad." On the one hand, he said, the book dealt with the strength of the family and not necessarily with traditional families. On the other hand, he said, it dealt with ignorance and prejudice. Mr. Friedenberg said he found it perplexing and almost impossible to understand Mr. Carter's motives and literary ambitions.

Others cannot forgive Carter’s past. Oprah Winfry, who in 1994 endorsed Little Tree, subsequently removed it from her list of recommended book titles:

"I no longer—even though I had been moved by the story—felt the same about this book," Winfrey said in 1994. "There's a part of me that said, 'Well, OK, if a person has two sides of them and can write this wonderful story and also write the segregation forever speech, maybe that's OK.' But I couldn't—I couldn't live with that."

It could be that I am just a hypocrite. Maybe I’m blind. How can I hate prejudice so much and still embrace this work? I have to believe that, while Asa Carter never said he was sorry for his role in the segregationist movement, Forrest Carter's apology might just be in The Education of Little Tree. I like to think so. I would like to believe that a man can change.