Invite Him to the Storm

imageOne of the things I love most about being Catholic is the ability to practice my faith anywhere, anytime. I’ve attended Mass in nearly every state and country that I’ve visited. Sometimes it has been in a foreign language, and while listening to the homily can be a challenge, I know the parts of the Mass so well I can easily follow along, responding quietly in English. I also always carry my Magnificat with me so I can read the readings and prayers, no matter where I am.

imageWhile visiting a friend in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida, I attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord. The celebrant was Fr. Oliver Toner, an old (his adjective, not mine) Irish priest, whose lilting accent and demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite priests of all times, Msgr. Oliver McGready, another Irish priest I was blessed to have as pastor of my parish church for over ten years.

imageThe Irish are always ready with a good story to make a point, teach a lesson, or simply just to entertain. Fr. Toner was no exception. The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time were from Genesis and Colossians, with the gospel coming from Luke. The church bulletin advised that the day’s readings were to “address the importance of persistent prayer.” It’s no surprise that this message was especially poignant, given the unrest and discord in the upcoming presidential election as well as the recent spate of violence and brutal killings in my home state of Louisiana, in Florida, in Texas, in Germany, and just recently, in France, where an elderly priest was beheaded while celebrating morning Mass.

imageFr. Toner’s homily focused in on a specific type of prayer, not one of asking but of thanking. His advice was to thank God for the negatives in our lives, not just the positives. In his typically-Irish way of using homey, intimate stories, he illustrated this with several examples. One was that of being called out to give last rites to a woman who had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor, a golfing buddy of his, advised him that the prognosis was dire as the heart attack had damaged three-quarters of the woman’s heart. On his way out of the emergency room, he was approached by the woman’s husband who was seeking comfort and solace. Fr. Toner told him to pray, and in his prayer, try thanking God for his wife’s heart attack. The man thought it was crazy to do so but felt he had nothing to lose so he did. Months later, Fr. Toner was visited by the man and his wife, who had indeed recovered from the heart attack.

Fr. Toner told several other stories with similar threads, one including a blocked sewer pipe, which brought a laugh from the congregation. He didn’t just tell stories, however, he backed them up with a powerful passage from scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, thank God for everything, positive and negative.

imageOn the surface, this seems counter to what we have been taught in our prayer life. As a teacher, when I pray with my students, whether it be before a field trip, before a big exam, or before a rehearsal for the school play, I always tell them to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed on them and only then should they ask for what they need or want. Fr. Toner offered a different template for prayer, one which I will bring back to school with me this fall: ACTS. This simple acronym focuses our prayer efforts in four easy steps. “A” is for acknowledge God as our Father and worship Him in adoration. “C” is for confession of our sins which we bring to Him for healing and mercy. “T” is for thanksgiving, but Fr. Toner shared that perhaps we should think of trust instead, putting our trust in Him to help us through our ordeals. It is at this stage of prayer that Fr. Toner suggested we thank God for the negatives in our lives. Finally, “S” is for supplication, where we turn to God with our requests.

imageWhy should we thank Him for the problems in our lives, for the large and small crosses we feel we have been given to bear? Fr. Toner was ready with the answer to this. He wrapped up his homily by telling the congregation that God is waiting for us to give Him control, for choosing obedience over free will, for allowing Him to embrace the evil and transform it. Fr. Toner said simply, “Bring God into the storms of your life. God can surprise you.”

The Sun Came Out This Weekend – Again

CTP Annie posterThe Broadway smash hit musical Annie has a special place in my heart. In the summer of 1987, I met my husband while playing the role of Mrs. Greer in a summer stock production of Annie, working backstage also as assistant director/stage manager. We began dating during that production and after twenty-eight years, it’s safe to say we are “together forever”.

CTP Annie photo

One of the two Annies from the 1987 production

In 2007, exactly twenty years after that summer stock experience, we found out that our daughters’ high school was going to produce Annie as their summer stock musical. Auditions were open to students and adults as well, both professionals and amateurs, so my husband auditioned for (and received) the same role he had in our first production together. We decided to do the show together, along with our high school daughters, to celebrate our first meeting twenty years earlier. It was so much fun to do a play as a family and of course, it added for me yet another special meaning to Annie.

HR Annie ProgramThis past weekend was the culmination of nine weeks of rehearsals and several additional weeks of planning for my middle school’s annual spring musical. Rehearsals from 3:00-5:30 three days a week, wrangling thirty-five 7th and 8th graders into song and dance numbers, training them on the discipline required for a quality production, scrounging for costume pieces at thrift stores and making emergency sewing repairs, all while teaching language arts full time, adds up to one tired human being. However, it is worth every single minute of it, especially when met with the smashing success of the weekend’s three performances.

Sound of Music

Me (far right) as Frau Schmidt

In the spring of 1987 I was asked by the director to be assistant director/stage manager for a production of Annie. I initially said no. I knew the show would be very popular and little girls would come skipping out of the wood-works to audition to be Annie or at least an orphan in the production. The previous summer I had been heavily involved in a production of The Sound of Music, onstage as Frau Schmidt and offstage as producer, where all seven of the Von Trapp children had been double cast. This meant fourteen children backstage at all times, and in the theatre, fourteen sets of stage parents. It also meant fourteen sets of costumes, because God forbid any one pair of children cast in the same role could actually fit in the same costume.

billboard for SoM

Thank God my phone number wasn’t on the billboard!

The show was ridiculously popular, and somehow, my home phone number had been put on publicity posters and flyers as the contact number for tickets. My phone rang off the hook for weeks, and once all eight performances were sold out, things got really nasty. Grandparents, godparents, neighbors, aunts and uncles, and friends of those fourteen children wanted tickets but there were none left.

 

Daigle_Steven_crop-250x332I tried to explain this to my friend, Steven Daigle, now an accomplished director and professor at the renown Eastman School of Music. What I really wanted was to be Miss Hannigan. I had been secretly rehearsing a startling and shocking (for me, at least) rendition of “It’s Raining Men” for my audition piece. He begged and flattered me, saying he really needed me backstage with all those orphans, etc., and finally a deal was struck, one that sealed my fate, so to speak. I would audition for Miss Hannigan, but if I didn’t get the part, I would take a smaller part in the servants’ ensemble and be Chief Orphan Wrangler.

I didn’t get the part.

school flowers and tshirt

Flowers from the principal and an Annie Jr. t-shirt

Just before my audition, my accompanist could see that I was beyond nervous and he was worried that I would blow it so he talked me into taking a small nip from his flask just before going onstage. Did I mention that he was auditioning for the role of Rooster? (He was perfect for the part.) So, I went out there, slightly tipsy from a guzzle of straight Jack Daniels and sang my heart out.

I didn’t get the part.

scharmal schrockScharmal Schrock, a university music professor who was the music director for the production, gave me her blunt response to my audition: “Well, you’ve got guts, I’ll give you that.” Later she called me aside and told me the hard and cold truth, “You just don’t have a strong enough voice for this role. So, take a small role and help Steve with the orphans.” She then added, “Everyone knows Kay is going to be Miss Hannigan. It’s perfect for her.”

Okay, I see. Sure, I’ll be Mrs. Greer, “Blue’s her color, no green, I think.” That’s it, that was my one line.

I have two dream roles that I would give anything to play, one being Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and the other, well, let’s just say I don’t think I’m ever gonna be on Easy Street.

800px-Frances_Perkins_cph.3a04983For the rest of the Annie auditions, I manned a clipboard and helped Steve and Scharmal bring up the droves of actors and actresses up for their moment on stage. This is where my lack of a proper education in American history let me down. I announced to the packed auditorium that all men auditioning for the role of Frances Perkins should come up to the stage. I heard someone say, “Uh, excuse me, you would want the women who are auditioning for that part, since Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member.”

I was mortified and quickly called up women as I had been duly corrected. I had just been “schooled” by my future husband, a history buff of first order. Needless to say, we didn’t start dating right away. I had already tried to catch his attention the previous summer, unsuccessfully, even to the extent of joining the church choir he sang in to try to get to know him. This public history lesson did not endear him to me that particular night.

roses from Annie

Roses from a cast member after closing night

But as the weeks of rehearsals went on, I softened (truth be told, I still had a massive crush on him) and offered to type a grad school paper for him on my office computer. I learned a great deal about what Hungary was doing the day I was born. To pay me back he offered to take me to dinner, and the rest, as they say, is history.

HSM programWhen our high school daughters, who thankfully got their father’s strong singing voice and not mine, initially heard that their dad was going to be in Annie at their school on their home stage, they were not so sure how that would fly. When I told them that I planned on applying for a backstage tech position so we could be in it together, to mark our twenty years together, I could tell by their expressions that they were worried that we would be horning in on their conversations with their friends or trying to hang out with them. We assured them both that we both knew how to act around their friends and would not embarrass them in any way; we were doing this to relive our first summer together. They soon got on board and in the end both had tech positions as well. It was the Ardillo Family Summer of Musical Theatre. We had such a great time, we all auditioned for and were cast in the summer stock production the next summer, High School Musical, where I mightily tried my damnedest to get the role of Ms. Darbus, unsuccessfully, and had to settle for Ms. Stellar, the science teacher.

HR Annie JrAnd, so, this third time doing Annie, this time the MTI Broadway Junior version, was wonderful and new and different, made even more special by the very talented members of our cast and crew. It’s all over now, after a matinee performance for the whole school on Friday, opening night to a packed house on Friday night, and closing night to another full house on Saturday night. Today I loaded up my car with all my personal belongings that found their way on the set, and cleaned up my classroom which had been turned upside down at the end of strike with everything being dropped off hurriedly in the hallway and doorway so everyone could get to the cast party.

Annie poster HR parents

Souvenir from cast and crew

This is my eleventh year directing middle school plays, nine at my current school. I’ve learned a lot about both adolescents and theatre during that time. I’ve had time to reflect today on the experience of doing Annie a third time: once with adults, once with high school students, and this time with middle school students. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • You can get 8th grade boys to help you with just about anything if you flatter them by calling them “big” and “strong” in front of the other students. My team of “big boys” moved set pieces, costume racks bulging with clothes, and more every single day of tech week, with no complaints.
  • Something magical happens when you put a costume on a teenager. Even the shyest person comes alive when they are sufficiently masked by a period piece costume or at a minimum, a bright red boa.
  • hyacinths from cast

    From the cast!

    Middle school girls put the “drama” in “drama club”. Enough said.

  • Middle school girls will scream with fear over just about anything:
    • a live wasp that stung someone else,
    • a dead wasp that can no longer sting anyone,
    • the soundtrack being played too loudly,
    • a backstage area, which was fine ten minutes ago, is suddenly “too dark and scary” to enter.
  • When an 8th grade boy is very happy and proud of his performance on stage and wants to say something to you about that, asking if he can have a “fist bump” is as good as a thirty-minute speech of thanks.
  • back page of HR program

    Inside back cover of the program, so sweet!

    Even when they are being normal middle school teenagers and driving you crazy, they somehow manage to poke a hole in your heart and squeeze themselves into it.

  • Just when you think you can’t possibly do this another single year, you find yourself looking at potential musicals for next year.
  • And, finally – and those who know me will know I don’t say this lightly – only nine weeks of rehearsals, a grueling tech week, three performances, and lots of late nights mending of costumes and hot-gluing of butterflies back on hats, can make you feel like teaching language arts full-time is easy work compared to doing it while also directing a school play!

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Curtain!

A Salute to Intangible Rewards

saluteOn Friday, I was driving my normal route home from school, and as I turned on to this one particular neighborhood street, I slowed down, as usual, on the lookout for the group of boys who sometimes are throwing a football from one yard to another, in some form of ultimate street football, as they throw the ball across this somewhat busy street. Once as I was coming down that same street, one of them unexpectedly darted out in front of me to retrieve the ball, and while I was not that close to hitting him, it still un-rattled me, and ever since, I take it nice and slow down that street. On Friday, however, there was no football. All four of them were standing on the edge of the street, in a perfectly straight line, and as I approached, slowly, all four of them saluted me. I laughed, saluted them back, and proceeded on my way home.

yearbooksThis brought back a flood of memories of two of my favorite former students, who, while being quite different from one another, were even more different from everyone else in my homeroom class that year. They were rocket smart, good writers, and very well-rounded in their base of knowledge. They were being raised in households where reading was important, and they had been avid readers since they were old enough to hold a book. One particular shared interest was military history, and they took it upon themselves to declare me, their homeroom teacher, their commanding officer. As a result, every morning, they would be waiting in the hall when I approached my classroom, and they both stood at full attention and saluted me. I would salute them and say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” The other students would just shake their heads.

One day I was out of school for a field trip with a different class and upon my return I found a note on my desk from my substitute teacher, “I caught these two boys cheating on their vocab test, so I took their tests away from them. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it so I didn’t send them to the office.” I looked at the two tests, and I immediately knew what had happened. It was my two 8th grade soldiers. First of all, they would never cheat, too much honor in them to ever do that. Secondly, they sat across the room from each other, and there was no way they could have seen each other’s papers. Thirdly, and most importantly, as they were the two smartest boys in the entire 8th grade, who in the world would they cheat off of if not each other? When the boys came in that day, they both looked at me sheepishly, and rushed up to my desk to explain. Before they could say anything, I handed them their tests and said, “Go and finish your vocab test. I know you weren’t cheating, but next time be more careful when there is a substitute teacher.”

taking testsYou see, what they were in the habit of doing was to race while taking the vocab tests. Because the students used file folders to shield their work while taking tests, they could not possibly see each other’s work, but they would listen for the other to turn the page to the next part of the test. They would actually peer up over the top of their file folders to make eye contact with each other as if to say, “I finished page one, going to page two, I’m ahead of you,” and so on. They always finished first and second, and it was a mad dash up to my desk to turn them in, which I also had to tamper down because it made some of the other students anxious with them finishing so quickly. And, they never got a single question wrong, perfect 30/30 each and every vocab test the entire year.

star trekThese two boys were also Trekkies, and we would talk sometimes at lunch about various Star Trek episodes and discuss the different Star Trek series and the many iterations of that franchise. The other kids in the class had no clue what we were talking about, and while I sometimes worried that our Trekkie conversations and the whole saluting business served to further set them apart, I decided that they were not bothered by it, and in fact, so confident in their own personalities that they didn’t seem to care what the others thought anyway.

standardized test answer sheetAfter nine years of teaching middle school language arts, teaching roughly 80-100 students a year, I frequently see someone or meet someone who reminds me of one of my past or present students. On Saturday, I proctored the ACT at a local Catholic high school. There were 23 high school students in my room, and as I checked their photo ID’s and admission tickets, I was supposed to assign them seats, which I did. There were quite a few standing at my door when it was time to start admitting them and they seemed very anxious to get in and get started. One young man in particular seemed to be somewhat agitated that he was not first in line and nearly breathing down the neck of the girl standing in front of him. He ended up in the desk directly across from my desk so I had the opportunity to watch him throughout the nearly four-hour standardized test.

be-preparedThis guy was obviously an athlete, judging from his stature and build. He was clean-cut and casually, but neatly, dressed in a lacrosse sweatshirt and nice jeans. As soon as he sat down, he took out of a small string bag (Washington Nationals) not one but two calculators, placing one on his desk and one on the floor under his desk. He also had a water bottle which he placed next to the calculator on the floor, and then next to the water bottle, he placed one cough drop. On the top of his desk, he lined up six #2 pencils, all brand new and freshly sharpened, with unused erasers. Next to them in the little pencil well across the top of his desk, he lined up four AAA batteries. His final item in his arsenal: a wristwatch which he synchronized with the clock on the wall over the whiteboard. I had to bite the side of my mouth to keep from smiling at him as he readied himself for battle against the ACT.

raise handI’ve had several students just like this young man, in fact, I have one right now. He is always prepared, always ready. He works incredibly hard every single day. As soon as I ask a question in class, his hand shoots up. Often when I call on him, he is not really ready with an answer, which is somewhat frustrating for me, but he is so eager to participate in classroom discussions and so eager to always be first, that enthusiasm sometimes wins out over actual knowledge. I can just imagine him three years down the road, showing up to take the ACT somewhere, and unloading his own arsenal, which no doubt will have been checked and double checked to ensure he is completely and totally prepared to do his very best on that test.

Saturday night I went to see a musical at another of the local Catholic high schools. Two of my former students had lead roles, and there were several others in the backstage crew. The two onstage had been very involved in our drama club when they were at my school, and both had significant roles in the plays I directed their 7th and 8th grade years. It was wonderful watching them, because as good as they were in my plays, they have grown and matured so much over the course of their high school years. At one point, I teared up, which my husband noticed right away, and he asked me about it today.

NunsenseI’m not sure what made me cry; it wasn’t the song they were singing, as this was Nunsense the Musical, which is an irreverent and hilarious parody of nuns and the Catholic Church. I think it was the fact that I felt like I had a small part in how those girls ended up on that stage with lead roles. I realize that I had nothing to do with their vocal talent or acting skills; that is a result of God’s blessings and perhaps genetics. But, at least for one of the girls, I do feel that she developed a love for singing while being in her first play with me.

away in a mangerWe weren’t even doing a musical, but there was a somewhat awkward transition from one scene to the next, and I was looking for a way to smooth it out and blend the two scenes together. She was playing the role of a young mother, out Christmas shopping with her mother-in-law, pushing her baby in a stroller. While waiting for the mother-in-law to come back into the scene, I asked her if she could perhaps gently push the stroller back and forth, which she did, and I asked her if she could sing a little something softly to the baby. She said, “Sure, like what?” Since the play was set at Christmas time, I asked her if she knew any Christmas carols. She said, “Away in a Manger?”, so I told her to go ahead and try that. And, out of her mouth came the sweetest rendition of “Away in a Manger”, perfectly in tune, that I’ve ever heard. I think she was a little shocked at how surprised I was. I asked her if she had been in choir or had taken voice lessons, and she said, “No, but I like to sing in the shower.” Later that school year, she auditioned for our school’s musical, and it was pretty clear to everyone that she would be Belle in our Beauty and the Beast.

I’ve lost touch with my two soldier boys because one was an only child and the other’s younger sibling transferred to a different school. I’d love to know how they are doing right now, what they are majoring in. If everything is going to plan, they should be college juniors this year. I wish we could have a little reunion and talk about what they think about Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.

The budding actress with the great voice whom I “discovered” in a small middle school Christmas play, is currently a high school junior going on college tours and mapping out her future. Her mother shared with me that she is interested in physical therapy, with an eye toward minoring in music. I couldn’t be more proud. These are the intangible rewards of teaching, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.

The White Hills of Rockville

Author’s Note: Some of my more liberal-minded readers might not agree with my positions in this essay, and that’s okay. Read or don’t read, the choice is yours, these views are mine. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur: “Last, but by no means least, courage-moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It’s the age-old struggle-the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”

backyardIt’s a bright and sunny Sunday morning, and temperatures have reached their projected high for today of 30º. My family just “attended” Mass via the television, where we streamed a taped broadcast of this Sunday’s Mass from the television ministry of the Passionists order of priests. We are snowed in, thanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #blizzard2016, so no trip out to attend Mass at our parish, the Shrine of St. Jude here in Rockville. As I look out my windows I see white everywhere; something in excess of twenty inches of snow has fallen in the last 36 hours. My yard and the surrounding landscape is a series of white, sloping mounds of snow, sparkling in the sunlight.

sideyardWe’ve already received word, via multiple social media sources, that school has been canceled for tomorrow and Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine that we will have school on Wednesday at this point, and some of my teacher friends are saying the clean-up from this blizzard is so monumental we might be out all week. We were kept home on Friday, when I was slated to start The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders. I start my Hemingway unit with a short story that is found in their 7th grade literature textbook, “A Day’s Wait”, a short, innocent yet poignant coming of age tale of a young boy who thinks he is dying because his temperature is 102º and he has confused Fahrenheit with Celsius.

EH 7018P

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. 

When we begin covering Hemingway I give them a brief bio to read and explain to them the significance of his winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel. We discuss his beginnings as a writer, working as a journalist overseas, serving during WWI as an ambulance driver, coming home from the war wounded in action, recuperating and healing through his writing and eventual success as a novelist. We discuss his life story: his four marriages, his adventurous and athletic nature, and his eventual suicide at the young age of 62. We talk about the political incorrectness of two of his passions: bullfighting and big game hunting. Mostly, however, we focus on his writing style in preparation for 8th grade when I use a unit on John Steinbeck to compare the writing styles of the two great American authors.

hemingwayWhile I do teach at a Catholic school, I don’t talk about one of Hemingway’s early short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants”, published just a year after Hemingway’s 1926 break-through novel The Sun Also Rises, which established him as a major literary force.

“Hills Like White Elephants” came to mind today, as I reflected on the events of the last few days. Winter storm Jonas made his appearance to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area on the same day as the annual March for Life, where hundreds of thousands of Christians descend upon the US capital to protest the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion. Our 8th graders attend the March for Life Youth Rally and Mass each year, as a religion field trip, in support of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception until natural death. This year’s field trip to the event was canceled, as was school for the day.

rod serling march for life imageA good friend of mine, a devout Catholic, posted on her Facebook page a link to a news story entitled: “CBS News Ignores March for Life, Attacks Pro-Life Presidential Candidate Instead”. It was accompanied by a meme of Rod Serling, creator of the sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone, who started each episode with a monologue, “Imagine if you will …”

snow altarIn spite of Jonas bearing down on the nation’s capital, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims did make the journey, some becoming stranded on the interstates on their return trip home. One high school group from Iowa created a snow altar and with the help of a priest from another stranded bus of Catholic school students, attended Mass on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was captured by photographer Chris Coleman and publicized widely on social media.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is the story of a couple traveling by train. In true Hemingway style, the background details are as sparse as the word count itself. The male character is unnamed and only referred to as “the American”, while the female character is called “Jig”. Even a cursory reading of this story gives the reader the niggling sensation that this is not an entry from a travelogue. It is much, much more. In casual, yet purposefully encrypted, conversation, the couple discusses “an awfully simple operation”. It becomes quite clear that the man is in favor of this operation and Jig is struggling with it. He goes as far as to say that it is all perfectly natural, “just to let the air in”, and then everything will be alright, back to normal, back to the way things were before.

Much like the media’s avoidance of the coverage of the March for Life, now in its 43rd year, the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” goes to great lengths to avoid directly confronting the decision to have an abortion. The baby is never mentioned, the medical procedure, which at the time and place of the setting of this story, Spain in 1927, was illegal and highly dangerous, is discounted to being absolutely nothing to worry about. The man goes on to say that he has “known lots of people that have done it” … “it’s perfectly simple”.

It is interesting to consider the writer’s voice in analyzing this piece of fiction. Hemingway is careful not to tip his hand, offering not so much as an adjective or adverb describing how the bullet-like sentences are delivered or their underlying subtexts. We can, however, look to his own life for his views on marriage, family, and religion.

At the time of the writing and publication of “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway was in the process of exiting his first marriage to wife Hadley Richardson, with whom he had his first child, Jack, and after their divorce, he converted to Catholicism, in order to marry his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who was a devout Catholic with whom he had two more sons. In spite of a divorce from Pfeiffer and two more marriages, history documents that Hemingway remained Catholic, donating thousands of dollars to churches and making frequent pilgrimages to religious sites. He spent much time in countries of predominantly Catholic status: Cuba, Italy, France, and Spain. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea can be studied from the viewpoint of an allegory of the Passion of Christ. Was “Hills Like White Elephants” some sort of statement on abortion or was it just a writing exercise on the dynamics of this one relationship?

In the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since the writing of “Hills Like White Elephants”, a lot has changed in America. Abortion is legal and “safe”, if the taking of a life can be considered safe. Political campaigns and elections are polarized by the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Hashtags, the bumper stickers of today, are created and disseminated, both for and against abortion. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the research and development of contraception and fertility. Millions of dollars are spent each year on abortions and the repercussions of those which were less successful. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the legal battle of overturning vs. preserving Roe vs. Wade. Millions of prayers are offered each day for the end of abortion. its a child not a choiceFeminists want the message to be that women should have total control over what happens to their bodies. Their message is that women should have the choice of when to be pregnant, when to have a baby, when not to have a baby. When it is all said and done, they are right: it is a choice. It always has been, even in 1926 Spain. Except in the cases of domestic violence, rape, and incest, it is a choice before, during, and after. It is a choice. Choose carefully.

Color My World

Feb issue of Writer's DigestRecently I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine when I came across an interview with Drew Daywalt, who was featured on the cover. I had not yet heard of him (sorry, Mr. Daywalt) but the image of his two children’s books on the first page of the article caught my eye so I read on. Intrigued, I did a bit of research on him and found that he was also featured on one of my favorite websites, Nerdy Book Club. It didn’t take me long to get the 4-1-1 on Drew Daywalt.

By all accounts, Drew Daywalt has had quite a varied career, even at the current age of only 46. He graduated from Emerson College with a double major in screenwriting and children’s lit, leaving the door wide-open as to future plans. He headed to Hollywood with a friend after graduation, using his screenwriting degree to work for the likes of Disney, Universal, Quinton Tarantino, and Jerry Bruckheimer, a charmed life for sure. In 2003, with his wife pregnant with their first child, he sat down at his desk to write a children’s book. His goal was to write something that his kids could read some day, because his work so far had been in horror films, certainly not bedtime-reading material, even in Hollywood.

As he surveyed his desktop of the grown-up tools of a writer, he spotted a box of crayons, which he dumped out on his desk. His creative wheels started to turn and from that box of well-used crayons came the 2013 book The Day the Crayons Quit, illustrated by celebrated artist and Emmy winner Oliver Jeffers. Daywalt’s first venture in children’s literature remained on the New York Times bestseller for two years, and was followed by the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home, published in August of 2015 to critical acclaim as well.

Drew Daywalt interviewI haven’t read Daywalt’s books, although they are currently on order from Amazon, but from reading about them, I am intrigued. The first book is a series of letters from the individual crayons to an unseen little boy named Duncan. Apparently, each crayon has a beef with its owner. It’s this use of personification that interests me, that each crayon has written the boy with complaints about his use (or non-use) of them.

markers and colored pencilsI also have boxes of crayons, markers, and colored pencils at my disposal. In 7th and 8th grade language arts, we normally express ourselves in essays about the literature we are reading. However, after studying Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I realized the value in allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in a more artistic way, with the creation of posters or brochures to accompany oral presentations.

box of crayonsIt was only a small step from thinking of the crayons as individuals quitting their job for a variety of different reasons to considering my middle school students as a box of crayons. John Mayer said once in an interview that he considered himself a box of 64-crayons, although a few were missing. I’m not 100% clear on what he meant by this but I like the visual image his quote calls to mind. We are all individuals, each one of us unique and one-of-a-kind, yet we have many of the same facets of others mixed in to our unique blend. And, to extend the metaphor a bit more, we do all have to live together in one box, like it or not.

box of chocolatesIn the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, says “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes I think of my classroom full of students as a box of chocolates, the assorted ones that come without the labels on the lid of the box to tell you what is inside of each one.

As the school year begins, you have no idea what is inside each chocolate, but slowly, through class discussions, graded work, creative writing, field trips, and after-school activities, you get to know each student as an individual. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Some have well-developed senses of humor and a firm handle on irony and sarcasm while others are more literal and sensitive. Some feel more at home in a math or science classroom and can’t match my enthusiasm for reading or writing about literature. A few students each year remind me of myself at that age, a book at the ready in case there is any down time in the school day or the opportunity to escape back into the story they are half-way through. Some are fledgling writers while others have already found their voice and are well on their way to being able to write coherent and pertinent analytical essays. word cloud of favorite subjectMany list “recess” as their favorite subject, followed by PE as a close second. My school is very sports-oriented and as a result I have had to step up my game and learn some sports lingo to better communicate with them. I now have, with the help of my husband, some sports analogies that help with grammar rules as well as classroom discussions about characterization and plot. While talking about sports is not my strong suit, I am okay with them knowing that they have the upper hand in this area. It evens the playing field a bit.

Since my school is a traditional co-ed K-8 Catholic school, I also observe daily the many differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls, not the least of which is the differences in their maturity levels. It is interesting to see how even when we end up in the same place, with the same answer as to the dominant theme of this work or that, the approach the boys and girls take is quite different. I have girls who are quiet and reticent to participate in class discussions but I also have girls who are strong and confident, not concerned with what the boys may think about their comments in the class discussions. The same goes for the boys, a fair mixture of those who avoid contact when I am looking for an answer as well as those ready to debate anything and everything at the drop of a hat.

crayonsWhether I use the box of crayons or the box of chocolates as my metaphor, my days are segmented into 40-minute periods with a revolving door of unique individuals coming and going. It is my job to find out what is inside each one, much like the assorted chocolates, peel back the wrapper a bit and figure out how best to reach and teach that individual. With 18-23 in each of my six classes, that seems next to impossible. But, to the contrary, I am energized by it and, even now, in my ninth year of teaching, I can honestly say I absolutely love teaching. school bellAt the end of each school day, I am most often content with my work for the day, even if it meant I was successful with making a substantial connection with only a few that day. Each day starts anew, and at 8:20 each morning, I start with a clean slate and a new lesson plan, albeit the same goal: to share with them my love of literature and the importance of reading and writing well.

 

More Questions than Answers

deadline countdownI did it. I really did it. This essay marks the finish line, the accomplishment of a goal, the completion of a commitment I made one year ago on New Year’s Eve, 2014, when I, with the help of my two tech-savvy and very creative daughters, developed a website on Word Press—Cajun Girl in a Kilt—and published my first essay, “License to Carry”, about my dog Puccini. A week later, during one of my planning periods at school, I posted another essay, entitled “What Makes a Writer a Writer?” That second essay was to affirm my commitment to this project I had cooked up—to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and to establish the guidelines for my yearlong project to becoming a writer.

acropolis
Aunt Helen, walking the ruins of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 1973

I know myself all too well. Many times in my life I’ve started something with the best of intentions and for various reasons did not follow through, so the accomplishment of this goal is significant for me. A perfect example of this is taking on new hobbies, which I inherited genetically from my dad’s sister, Helen Blanchard Songy. My dear Aunt Helen loved learning new things; she loved the excitement of gathering all of the materials and equipment, the very best of everything, required for her new hobby. She would then bring in an expert, someone accomplished in that area to teach her this new thing. She would invite friends and family members over, including my mom, serve food and drink, and in the confines of a party atmosphere, she would learn her new hobby. Over the years, she tried just about everything, hand-painted porcelain, oil painting, quilting, tatting, smocking, knitting, and many others. She was very talented and had a high degree of artistic skills. She took such an interest in ceramics that she had my Uncle Guy purchase a kiln for her and install it in a vacant rental house he owned. She lined the walls of that little house with molds, ceramic tools, and jugs of slip, the liquid used to create ceramic pieces.

Queen Nefertiti
Nefertiti bust, made by Aunt Helen (undated)

I am lucky enough to have several pieces she made for me, before her interest in ceramics waned and she moved on to the next new thing on the horizon. Some may have seen her lack of completion of some projects as a failure to follow through on a commitment, but I don’t believe that was it at all. For her, the finishing of a project was not the goal; it was the learning of a new skill or the developing of a new talent. She didn’t want to become a ceramic artist; she just wanted to learn how to do it. Martha Stewart has built an entire empire on that very notion; it’s a good thing.

Breakfast in London
Aunt Helen at breakfast on the first day of our European tour, London, 1973

In a previous essay, “Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner”, I talked about what I accomplished over my summer break from teaching. I taught myself how to make jam. I haven’t made any jam since the new school year started but now I have all the necessary equipment and I am confident in my jam-making abilities. There’s a good bit of Aunt Helen in me, and my self-identification as a lifelong learner comes from her. She loved to travel and to see new things, taste new foods, meet new people. She chaperoned both my high school trip to Europe and my senior class trip to the Bahamas.

Aboard the Flavia with the Wine Steward
Aunt Helen aboard The Flavia with the wine steward, sailing to the Bahamas, 1974

Around young people, she knew how to strike the perfect balance, that of a fun and interesting adult who also, when needed, knew how to establish authority at the drop of a hat. As a middle school teacher, I try every day to strike that balance with my students, to give them a love for learning in fun and interesting ways, while also recognizing that as adolescents they need and want, if unknowingly, an authority figure.

My commitment to this writing project has been very fulfilling in many ways. My goal was to become a writer. Am I a writer now, 52 weeks later? I still haven’t sold anything and some people say being paid to write makes a person a writer. Others say just being published makes a person a writer. I’ve published 53 essays on my website, and I’ve written guest posts for three other websites. I’ve had many articles published in a regional newspaper. I had an essay published in a print anthology of ultra-short memoirs. Still, I wonder, am I a writer yet?

Persian Cat
Ceramic Persian cat, made by Aunt Helen (undated)

Another goal of my project was to strengthen my writing skills. I am fortunate to have a family of beta readers, my husband and two grown daughters, all three being intelligent, well-educated, and brilliant writers themselves. They read my essays before I publish them, give me their thoughts, make line edits, and sometimes, push me to worker harder on a particular piece. I know I am a stronger writer for their efforts.

Southern Belle
Southern Belle, made by my mom in Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1987

Two side benefits of this project were both unexpected and gratifying. One is that I’ve received a lot of positive feedback, some on my website and more on Facebook, from friends and family members who have enjoyed my essays. Reading their comments encouraged me to keep writing and to keep sharing my work on my website and on Facebook. As the finish line for my project was coming into sight, several people have asked me, “What next?” and “Don’t stop, keep going!” I’ve also received some good feedback from people outside my circle of family and friends, via Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and my website. Word Press allows website owners to check their stats, to observe the number of visits to the website and number of views of each particular post. The stats are also identified by country of origin of the viewer, and that has been fascinating to watch as well, to see people from many different foreign countries reading my work.

Piano Baby
Piano Baby, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1989

Another benefit has been the creative process itself. At the start of this process, I thought it might be tough to come up with an idea of what to write about. Yes, some weeks have been tougher than others, but if I cleared my mind and sat quietly, often staring at my bookshelves, an idea would come to me. I would sit down at my laptop to write and sometimes the essay would tumble out, much as I had planned in my head. Other weeks, I would come up with an idea, sit down to write it, and find myself a thousand words later with a completely different essay than what I had imagined. It’s also been interesting to find my childhood memories creeping into my work, often when I had not planned on that week’s essay being particularly memoir-driven. One close friend remarked to me that she feels as though she knows me so much better after having read all of my essays. While unintended, this has been a positive result of this project.

So, where to next? Do I continue with my essay a week schedule? Do I switch gears and try something new? One friend has suggested that I publish a different recipe each week, and she also proposed a title for the new project, “Fifty-Two Weeks of Fabulous Food”. My younger daughter says that my writing is much stronger when I write about food like in my essay “Preserving Old Traditions”; she says that is where my voice really comes alive. I’m not sure, though, because one of the great things about this project was the freedom to just write about anything, and not be tied to a theme or be limited to a particular part of my life. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy being able to write about my many different interests.

Originally, I thought that when the year was over, I would close out the project with a final essay and then move on to fiction. I have this story in my head—about a missing suitcase, loosely based upon a real-life event of a friend of mine. black rolling suitcaseMy protagonist from this story has changed and developed over the several years that I have been mulling over this story line, and I like who she has become. Before starting “an essay a week for one year”, I had tried several times to get this story out of my head and onto paper but I felt stuck, as though in quicksand, unable to find my voice for fiction. After a solid year of consistently writing, revising, editing, and publishing creative non-fiction, will I have better luck at fiction now? Will this character and that damn suitcase finally find a place in print?

Popular author, blogger, and public speaker Michael Hyatt wrote an essay on how long it takes to make a habit stick. The popular thought was that three weeks, just 21 days of doing something, was enough to make it a habit. In his essay “How to Make a New Habit Stick: Why It’s Harder than You Thought—and What to Do about It”, he documents studies that say it is much longer than three weeks, that it is more like 66 days, and for some, closer to 250 days. As of New Year’s Eve 2015, I will be at 365 days for this project, an essay a week. I can definitely say that I feel a difference in my own thoughts about writing. The pattern for me has been established. I have a sense for how long it will take me to get an essay written once I have an idea in mind. I know about how long it will take to revise and edit it until it is where I want it, the point where I push “publish” on my website. And, I’ve been able to do this without fail, for a whole year, not just during summer break when I have very few limitations on my time, but also while teaching full time, grading papers, and making lesson plans. I’ve followed through in the darkest of times, writing several essays from my father’s computer while he was in the nursing home or in hospice care at my brother’s home, and writing several over the weeks surrounding his funeral.

santa vase
Ceramic Santa vase, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1999

Somehow I think that at the end of next week, I will subconsciously be thinking about an essay topic, and out of habit, will return to that genre, and if that is the case, then this isn’t my final essay. If you would like to offer up your opinion on what I should do next, whether it’s one of the options I’ve presented herein or some ideas of your own, you can share those thoughts in the little survey I put together for this final essay. I look forward to seeing your responses, as well as your comments on my completion of my yearlong project! Stand by; let’s see where Cajun Girl in a Kilt goes from here!