Scrabbling for a Win

words in a wordWhen I was a little girl my mother would write a long word on a piece of paper (thanksgiving, disappointment, neighbors, etc.) and challenge me to try to write down as many words as I could by using just the letters from that word. She would do this to pass the time or when we were waiting for a doctor’s appointment. We would race to write down our words and shield our paper from each other. After a certain period of time, we would stop and I would call out my words to her. If she had the word on her list, we both scratched our word out. We would then count up our points (1 point for two letter words, 2 points for three-letter words, etc.). The interesting thing is that she didn’t “let” me win. She beat me a lot of the time. She did, however, give me strategies for getting better. “Start with one letter and make all the words you can by using that letter as the first letter. Then move on to another letter. If the base word has an “s”, list all of your words in the plural form after you write them down in the singular form. Look for other suffixes you can add to your base words.” Today this game, as with many paper and pencil games of the past, can be played online. Interested? Here’s the link:

JumbleAnother of her favorites was the Jumble puzzle that was in the newspaper everyday. She would challenge me to see how many of the words I could do without using a pencil and paper. Again, she never let me win. I date these little games with my mother as the genesis of my love of letters, and perhaps for my very competitive spirit when it comes to board games.

boggleWe went from that to Boggle, a game I dearly love. Boggle was the reverse of Words in a Word, as the letters were there and had to touch one another to be used in the words being created.

Fast forward to an older me asking for a Scrabble board game for Christmas. I received it but no one in my family would play with me. It turns out that my mother only really liked doing the little word game on paper, or playing Boggle, but not fitting the words she created into a crossword pattern on a board. My brothers, younger than me, were outdoorsy types and had no interest in sitting inside playing a board game. So, years went by without me actually playing the game–until I met Tom.

In 1987, my husband and I started dating while we were both in the cast of the local community theatre’s summer production of the musical Annie. We started playing Scrabble then, and he was quite good. He regularly beat me, badly. At the end of that summer, sadly, he had to return to Virginia for his second year of grad school. a love letter to my sweetieOne night, lonely and missing him, I got out my Scrabble board and “wrote” him a love letter of sorts. I mailed him the photo along with newspaper clippings about his beloved New Orleans Saints.

I have to admit, I am not a good sport when it comes to losing. In fact, back then, I wasn’t much of a good sport at winning either. Finally I had found someone who loved Scrabble as much as me, and it was just more evidence that he was “the one”. We played frequently, however, in spite of my poor sportsmanship, so much so that for our wedding reception, I made a “groom’s cake” for my husband, using the letters from my old Scrabble board to decorate it.groom's cake at our wedding

Once we had married and were living in Maryland, we would fly home for Christmas to visit our families, spending half of the trip with my parents, and half of the trip with his parents. After his dad came home from their family business, we would play Scrabble, sometimes just the three of us, sometimes one of Tom’s other brothers would play as well. They were all good Scrabble players, and my skills improved with each game. two letter word listI began to study the two-letter word list, because in my increased attention to strategy, I realized the two-letter word list was the key to being able to maximize points as well as finding a place to play the elusive “bingo”, the seven-letter word.

Initially my husband and I played on the original old Scrabble board that I had received many years ago. Shortly after we were married, a co-worker gave us a new Scrabble board, a much fancier version that had the board covered in a plastic grid that kept the letters from sliding about, with the whole thing sitting atop a lazy Susan. The new board with its advancements made the game much better for us and we played even more. And, that “new board” saw a lot of use, both here in Maryland, as well as in Belgium, where we lived from 2002-2004. The “old board” also made the trip across the pond, however, as we packed it in our suitcase so we would have something to do while waiting for our sea freight to arrive. The old board now resides in my middle school classroom, where I occasionally, on an indoor recess day, challenge a team of my 8th graders to try to beat me (hasn’t happened yet).

In 2010 I bought a Kindle, with gift cards I had received for Christmas from my students. It was a tough decision, given my love for the look, smell, and feel of a real book, whether hardback or paperback. Two things, however, swayed me. One was running out of reading material halfway through a vacation regardless of how many books I had crammed into my suitcase. For further enlightenment on this, read my essay published on the Nerdy Book Club website,

scrabble on kindleThe second thing that made me love-love-love my Kindle: the Scrabble app. Boy, did my game improve once I discovered that. Playing against the computer made me a better player and helped me learn many new and obscure words that were of high point value, especially those using the big-letter tiles like “q”, “k”, “j”, and “z”. The Scrabble app for Kindle doesn’t allow for “phonies”, words that are illegal in the game of Scrabble but go unchallenged by your opponent, so by trial and error you are allowed to play words, have them declared illegal, and remove them at no penalty, thus increasing your vocabulary of viable words you can play in future games. The very popular app Words with Friends has different rules and the bonus tiles are in different locations but it is still useful to improve your Scrabble skills. And, I can play it anywhere, anytime, on my phone. I also love that it keeps historical data on my stats. Occasionally, I have to take a break from Words with Friends, however, because as with other things, my competitive streak takes over and I max out on the number of games I have open at a given time. I will be up to all hours of the night trying to catch up on all of my open games.words with friends statswords with friends stats two

Early on we tried to get our daughters interested in the game of Scrabble, without much success. starting youngBoth of them hated to lose, and they didn’t want us to help them with their letters. When they played a word in a spot that opened up a triple word score space for either Tom or me, they were not happy if we played there. If we told them to hold the “x” until they could play it on a double or triple letter space, they didn’t like that either. And, while Tom eased off on his own level of play for them, I didn’t. Maybe it was because of the way my mom played that word game with me, never letting me win. Maybe it is because I am just too competitive. But, I never thought letting them win was going to help them play Scrabble any better, or help them in any other area of life.the four of us

Tom and I continued playing, though, and my game kept improving. The tables turned and good-natured Tom was not a fan of losing to me. He began to keep track of our scores in a series of notebooks that were kept in the Scrabble box. historical dataThe games were dated and occasionally he would do statistical analysis of the results. What percentage of the time did I win if I played first? What percentage of the time did I win if he played first? How many times did I win if we played informally and allowed the use of the Scrabble dictionary during play to check for phonies rather than following the rules and issuing challenges? How often did bingos affect the outcome?Tom's stats

We recently celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. Our daughters gave us the Wood Scrabble Deluxe Classic Edition. It is beautiful! new Scrabble boardWhen I called my older daughter to thank her, she said she had been thinking about getting a Scrabble board of her own. We were going to visit her for her birthday in a few weeks so I offered her our old Scrabble board (previously the “new” board), if she wanted it. So we brought it to her last weekend. I hope she has as much fun with it as we have for the last 25 years.old Scrabble game

We don’t play Scrabble as often as we used to, primarily because since I started teaching eight years ago, I simply have too much school work to do each night. But, now that it is summer, and we have this beautiful new board, we have been playing more frequently. Our younger daughter has been playing with us, and on our inaugural game on our new board, she beat both Tom and me! What can I say, apple and the tree. I couldn’t be more proud.



game one on new Scrabble boardinaugural game on new board


Room at the Inn

Dad and M&MNot only was this Father’s Day weekend, but it was also my older daughter’s birthday weekend. We decided several weeks ago to drive to Pittsburgh to see her for her birthday on June 20th, and then we would all be together to celebrate Father’s Day the next day. We know this drill well. We’ve been visiting Pittsburgh since the fall of 2008 when we moved our older daughter into her freshman dorm at Duquesne University, located in downtown Pittsburgh. She graduated on time, in four years, with a double major. Naturally we were very proud of her, and after graduation, we packed her up and moved her back home to Maryland.

Her time back home with us was short-lived, however. Over that summer, she accepted a graduate assistantship in Duquesne’s Office of Residence Life, giving her the opportunity to earn a master’s degree, tuition free, while working on campus. She knew the inner workings of ORL quite well. As a junior she had been a desk aid in her dorm, and as a senior a RA in another dorm. For the grad assistantship, she was assigned to the office itself, supporting the Director of Residence Life and her staff. Because her grad assistantship was in ORL, she also received free housing, which meant two more years living on campus in a dorm.Outside of chapel

In the spring of 2014 she graduated with her master’s degree and subsequently accepted a full-time position as a RD (resident director). And, so began her seventh year living on campus in a dorm at Duquesne, albeit this time in a one bedroom, fully furnished apartment on the ground floor of her dorm, across the hall from her office.

Her apartment has a small extra room which she has furnished as a guest room. When we travel to see her, our younger daughter always stays with her. We have always stayed at one of Pittsburgh’s three Marriott hotels, accumulating points and using the points for future visits. marriottThe nearby Courtyard is our favorite, but when there are not rooms available we will stay at one of the other two full-service Marriott locations in the downtown area.

This weekend, however, there were no rooms available. Mick Jagger was in town for a concert, and Pittsburgh was holding a jazz festival in the center of the city. Father’s Day probably contributed to the room shortage as well. Our daughter suggested we stay with her in her dorm. I thought she meant all four of us in her one-bedroom apartment, which I suppose we could have managed with someone on the sofa and someone on an air mattress. But, what she meant was really stay in her dorm, as in a dorm room upstairs. And, so, this is exactly what happened. Last night, Saturday, June 20, 2015, I slept in a dormitory room for the first time in 37 years.

SLUI lived in a dorm all four years of college at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. I loved dorm life. I’ve always been a night owl and no matter how late you stay up, you can always find someone else who is still up as well. The laundry rooms are normally free in the wee hours of the morning, and for a procrastinator like me, that meant doing your laundry while hanging out with another night owl. I wasn’t blessed with any sisters, so living in a dorm full of girls was thrilling for me.

friendship oakMy freshman year I lived with other freshmen girls in a dorm with a house-mother. There were lots of rules and a very strict curfew. My aunt and uncle, who lived in nearby Baton Rouge, gave me a ticket to an Elton John concert for my birthday in October of my freshman year. My uncle drove to Hammond to pick me up, brought me and his daughter to the concert at LSU, waited for us in the parking lot, and then drove me back to my dorm after the concert. He had to escort me in and wait for the house-mother to come and unlock the front doors of the dorm to sign me back in.

My last two years I lived in the sorority dorm. Each wing of the dorm was assigned to one of the four sororities on campus, Tri Sigma, Alpha Sigma Tau, Alpha Omicron Pi, and my own sorority, Phi Mu. The dorm was composed of suites, four double occupancy rooms per suite. I lived with the same group of girls both of those years. I have such great memories of those days, and thanks to Facebook, I am able to be in touch with some of those girls still to this day.

My daughter’s dorm, Vickroy, is an upperclassman dorm and unoccupied for this summer. VickroyIt is far nicer than the dorms of my college days. Still, it was somewhat surreal being in an absolutely empty dorm, sleeping in a dorm room with my husband. My daughter had made up the beds with her own linens, put fresh flowers and water bottles on the desk, and added a basket of toiletries and towels from her apartment for the ensuite bathroom. That combined with dorm-wide free Wi-Fi; well, it wasn’t far off from life at the Courtyard Marriott! It whelicopter stillas lovely, and we slept well.

We slept well, however, until bright and early this morning, when we were awakened by the thunderous sound of a helicopter airlifting a HVAC unit to the rooftop of the dorm next door. My daughter had mentioned this but she assured us that we were on the other side of the building from where the work would be taking place. However, this was not the case, and I jumped out of the bed at the first sounds of the pulsing, repetitive thumping coming from outside our window. It was interesting to watch as it hovered above the neighboring dorm, towering above us, until the unit was in place before releasing it, and darting off to retrieve another unit.

Duquesne ChapelAfter the free show was over, we showeredand packed up, and headed back downstairs to my daughter’s apartment for coffee before Mass. What had initially begun as a problem of fully booked hotels, turned out to be a very economical trip to visit our daughter so that we could celebrate her birthday as well as Father’s Day. And, who can say that they had an entire dorm to themselves for the night!M&M girls and me

Sing It, Alice Cooper!

Alice Cooper's "School's Out for Summer"In the inimitable words of Alice Cooper, “School’s out for summer!” The end of the school year is a glorious thing for students. The countdown begins somewhere mid-4th quarter. Teachers are ready, too, and many post the countdown on their white boards, both as encouragement for their students to hang in there and finish strong, as well as to join in the excitement. However, as any teacher will tell you, the end of the school year is not an easy coast to the finish line. It means making, proctoring, and grading final exams. It means preparing report cards. It means collecting textbooks and class novels. It means completing book orders, class lists for next year, maintenance request orders, and classroom inventories. It means cleaning out and organizing nine months of files and materials. It means packing up what was once a bright, vibrant, and engaging classroom and stripping it down to a dull and boring room with naked bulletin boards, upturned desks, and stacked chairs.

My classroom, end of school year

My classroom, end of school year

I love teaching. I just finished my eighth year of teaching (second career) and I can still unabashedly say I love teaching. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone could do this job if they didn’t love it. It is a lot of work, and I am pretty sure the entire world knows that the pay is not great. I work 7:30 to 7:30 most days, and I spend five to ten hours each weekend on school work. But, there is something about that exchange of ideas, the transfer of knowledge, the unpredictable nature of each day; that I completely love.

For me, teaching literature is like doing a one-man show each and every day in front of a full house, albeit, a captive audience. When that bell rings and my students file in, I close my door, and six times a day it’s show time! Whether it is starting new material, reviewing for a test or quiz, learning new vocabulary, unlocking the vagaries of the comma, doing group work, or rotating through stations for peer teaching, it is all exciting to me and each school day flies by.

7B Literature, "fishing" for vocab words about medieval times

7B Literature, “fishing” for vocab words about medieval times

So you can see that I never look forward to this process of undoing my classroom at the end of the year. Once the last bell rings and the kids are gone for the summer the school changes. It is quiet, too quiet. It is almost as though there has been a death in the family. Hallways are empty and barren. Teachers are on permanent dress-down, coming in to clean and sort in what my mother would have called “car-washing clothes”, which meant any outfit she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing in public. Without the spirit and energy of the students, a school building is just a building, nothing more.

It’s hard for me to get motivated for these tasks as I don’t feel any sense of urgency. Some teachers fly through this work in a day or less, anxious to get started on their summer vacation. The really diligent ones don’t stop to chat or linger in the hallways. They don’t go out for an extended lunch at a neighborhood eatery. They hole themselves up in their rooms and get the work done as quickly as possible. I am not one of those.

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Students listening to medieval music as part of literature unit on middle ages, reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

As classroom doors close one by one and final goodbyes are shouted by those who have officially signed out, I find myself getting less productive and more distracted. I decide to clean out a desk drawer and find things in it that need to be filed so I open my file cabinet, and once in there, I find things in the file drawer to sort and organize. An hour later, the desk drawer is still agape, with no progress being made there whatsoever, and not much progress has been made in the file drawer either. The busier I am, the more I get done. But, when I am not busy or under some sort of deadline, I can procrastinate with the best of them.

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

8th graders working with their kindergarten buddies on a writing assignment

Packing everything away–posters, bulletin board strips, knickknacks, religious items from my classroom prayer center, my computers and other tech equipment–always reminds me of putting away leftovers after Thanksgiving dinner. All of that food came out of the refrigerator before it was cooked. Once cooked and half-eaten, it seems as though it just isn’t going to go back in there. Without emptying the closets and reorganizing everything, it seems impossible to stick all of the tech equipment and classroom decorations back in there. But, emptying two closets and starting over takes forever, and soon distraction creeps in and a project that should have taken a few hours expands to fill the whole day. Near the end of the second day, you can guess what happens…pushing and shoving things in wherever they will fit just to get it done and over with. “I’ll sort and organize it in the fall when we come back,” is the inevitable thought process here.

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

7th graders studying the foods of the middle ages, from the familiar (meat roasted on an open fire) to the unusual (boiled eel)

Don’t get me wrong: I can’t wait for the end of the school year. As much as anyone else, I look forward to a break from the endless grading required of the middle school language arts teacher. There’s also turning off the alarm clock, a particular favorite of mine. There’s the freedom of deciding at lunchtime what to eat, not having to eat whatever it is that you brought to school with you that day. There’s the luxury of reading for pleasure, not reading educational articles or new novels you are contemplating adding to your curriculum.

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

My classroom library, sorted by genre to entice the reluctant reader

Being home for summer break means finally getting to clean and organize at home. You teachers know what I mean. There’s that spot where everything gets dumped week after week as you are just barely finishing your lesson plans and grading before falling into bed on Sunday night, and when you spot that area, you think, “Once school ends, I will take care of that.” There are also doctors’ appointments to catch up on and household repairs to schedule. Even if I don’t have big vacation plans for the summer, I still enjoy having lunch out with friends from the corporate world, friends from my past work life that I haven’t seen in a while. I also love spending the day in my kitchen trying out some new recipes. I frequent my local public library and spend hours browsing the stacks, indulging in “beach reads” as well as catching up on the classics. Last summer I taught myself to decoupage and successfully completed several projects. This summer I want to do some sewing and also try my hand at mosaics, an art form that has always fascinated me.

Of course, there will be time for writing, continuing my journey on becoming a writer. This essay on school being out fulfills this week’s requirement in my goal of writing and publishing an essay a week for one year. So far, so good. This is week 24 of the year 2015, and counting this one, I’ve published 26 essays. I am also going to redouble my efforts on a novel that I have been working on intermittently for several years, and I will continue my efforts to get something published.

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

My 8th grade girls having lunch in my classroom, earlier in the year

So, tomorrow officially begins my summer break from school. Well, almost. I am taking an online class that I need for renewing my certification so I will be doing school work, but it is only from June 22 to July 2. The rest of July and part of August stretch before me like an endless stream of possibilities. Most importantly, it will be a time to recharge my batteries so I can return to school in the fall full of energy, new ideas, and excitement to begin my ninth year of teaching! School’s out for summer!

A Rose by Any Other Name . . .

My beloved 2001 silver Mazda MPV

My beloved 2001 silver Mazda MPV

After nearly eleven years of faithful service, my 2001 silver Mazda MPV finally succumbed, or should I say, we finally succumbed to the recent spate of repairs to keep it running. It was such a great car, bought used in 2004. It took us on college tours, back and forth to Pittsburgh for six plus years, countless errands, and back and forth to work five days a week. We were hoping it would make it until the end of my school year, so we could shop for a gently used car and make a rational decision rather than a rash decision to purchase a brand-spanking new car. Being a Catholic school teacher, who everyone knows is paid less than our public school cohorts, it is a bit unsettling to roll into school tomorrow morning in a 2015 bright and shiny new car. But, after a week of hitching rides to and from school (thanks, Danielle), which my beloved silver minivan spent sitting dormant in the school parking lot, my husband said on Saturday that we must go car shopping.

no-shoppingI don’t like shopping. Never have. I didn’t inherit the shopping gene from my mother; apparently it skips a generation, landing squarely on my older daughter, who coincidentally was named after my mother. I would not be sad if I never stepped foot in a mall again. If I can’t get Amazon to send it to me, I really don’t want it that badly to go and find it in person. With the exception of bookstores, I just don’t get excited about the retail experience. And, even then, I would much prefer to spend my time in a library, where all the books are FREE.

So, imagine how I feel about car shopping. Now, double that, and you will be in the ball park of how I felt on Saturday morning. It’s the end of the school year, end of fourth quarter, with final exams to grade. I just didn’t have time to spend hours in a car dealership. But, there was no escaping the fact that the time had come to get myself a reliable car.

The decision was made somewhat easier by the fact that I knew I wanted a Mazda, and I really wanted a newer version of my old silver minivan. I love the sliding doors. I love the fact that I sit a little higher and have better visibility than in a sedan. I love that I can put the back seats down and fill it with props and costumes for my theatre productions. So we targeted a dealership with several new and used current models of my old minivan, the slightly smaller Mazda 5. I wanted a silver car (change is hard for me, as you can see) but the new Mazda 5 in silver only comes with black interior. Not feeling the Johnny Cash, sorry. The much prettier “sand” interior only comes in the white model and the red model. Uh, no to the white, I told the salesman, because it gets so dirty, especially here in the northeast with the snow-mud-salt-dirtiness of our winters.

Roxanne_-_The_Police_(Original_UK_Release)As for the red, I always said I would never have a red car. I’ve just associated a red car with hookers (sorry for all of you out there with a red car, no offense).  I guess it all started with Sting and his song, “Roxanne”. “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light, those days are over, you don’t have to sell your body to the night.” But, the red Mazda 5, sitting there glistening in the sun, was actually growing on me.

In the words of Sheldon Cooper, it was “zazzy”. So we took it on a test drive. It was very comfortable, and it handled nicely. It had everything I wanted, sliding doors, front seat warmers, Bluetooth, second and third rows that fold nearly flat for hauling theatre stuff, and a sun roof. So, I texted a photo of it to my two daughters and to my good friend, Danielle. All agreed. GET THE RED CAR, MICHELLE.Sheldon-cooper-hes-so-zazzy-ca-lKRi

I know it is popular to name your car. I have lots of friends who have done so, but I’ve never named a car ever. My new red mica Mazda 5 is my 8th car (and my 5th Mazda, my husband has had two of them himself) and none of them have had names. Until now. Standing there in the parking lot of the dealership, I decided to name that bright red car.

hurricane flossyRight before I was born, my mother asked my father what he thought they should call the new baby if it was a girl. My dad immediately said “Flossy”, after the hurricane which passed over the mouth of the Mississippi River near my hometown on September 24, 1956, just three weeks before I was born. My mother, thank God, vetoed Flossy (not a saint’s name, reason enough). My dad then offered up as a second choice what he said was his “favorite” name for a girl; wait for it, Candy Denise. My mother’s reply: “Absolutely not!” She put her little size 5 foot down and said that I should have a French name to go with my French surname of Blanchard, and she thought Michelle would be nice, as it was French and the female version of St. Michael the Archangel, so very Catholic indeed. Ann would be my middle name, in honor of my godmother’s middle name, with no E at the end since my first and last names were long enough michael the archangel

Years ago, when I first heard this story, I thought to myself that “Candy Denise” sounded like a hooker’s “professional” name. I’m sure my dad did not have that in mind, but he could never tell me what in the world made him come up with that for a name for his first child. I am forever grateful that my mother prevailed, however, because I do love my name, albeit hearing “Michelle, ma belle” screamed at me in middle school did grow a bit tiresome.

Me and Candy Denise

Me and Candy Denise

So, on Saturday, as we were waiting for my brand-spanking new 2015 Mica Red Mazda 5 to be driven to the front parking of the dealership, I decided to name my car “Candy Denise”, a “zazzy” name for a “zazzy” red car. It just seemed the right thing to do. And, I’m sure my mom and dad are having a good laugh about this up in heaven!