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!

What’s in a Name?

hurricane flossyMichelle Ann Monica Blanchard Ardillo. That’s my full name. In a previous essay I noted my dad’s first suggestion for the name of his first born baby girl was Flossy, after the hurricane in late September of the year I was born. While only a Category 1 hurricane, Flossy caused major beach erosion and flooding in southeast Louisiana, including the overtopping of the eastern seawall of New Orleans, submerging a 2.5 square mile area. His second choice was Candy Denise, which thankfully my mother also vetoed. (It suits my red mica Mazda 5 much better.) She then offered her own suggestion, which my father acceded to easily: Michelle, a French name to go with Blanchard, and Ann, after her sister who was to be my godmother. She also declared that since Michelle Blanchard was long enough, it would be Ann without the “e”.

saint monicaThe name “Monica” is my Confirmation name. In the Catholic faith, adolescents receive the Sacrament of Confirmation where they accept responsibility for their faith, much as in the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony for Jewish adolescents. Part of the faith formation for Confirmation is to study the lives of the saints and to select a saint to emulate, and you are given that name at Confirmation. Since I teach 8th grade, and that is the year the students at my Catholic school receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, I hear a lot of discussions about which saint each student is choosing and why. I am always fascinated by this, perhaps because we have so little say in something that is a significant part of our identity.

800px-Saint_Augustine_and_Saint_MonicaMy own Confirmation name is that of a significant saint in the Catholic Church, not just for her own worthiness, but also that of her son. Monica was born in 331 in North Africa in what is now Algeria. Upon reaching marriage age, her parents married her off to a pagan who had a violent temper. She endured his outbursts with patience. They had three children who survived infancy, the eldest being Augustine, who followed his father in his pagan ways. Monica prayed day and night for her son’s conversion, weeping many tears over him, and he not only became a Christian, he became a Doctor of the Church, the great St. Augustine of Hippo. The beautiful beachfront city, Santa Monica, is said to be named after her, with the nearby springs resembling the tears she wept for her wayward son Augustine. She is the patron saint of married women, motherhood, and widows.

saint veronicaClearly, when studying my faith and preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, I read about Saint Monica in my copy of Lives of the Saints edited by Rev. Hugo Hoever. WRONG. My first choice for a saint’s name was Veronica. When I presented my choice to my mother she said quite firmly, “No.” She went on to explain to me that she knew exactly why I wanted to choose Saint Veronica as my Confirmation name, because of the Archie comic books strewn about my room. She then told me to choose again and to make my choice carefully because it was the saint I wished to emulate. I was absolutely shocked that she made this connection (mostly because it was true) and went off to my room to pout.

confirmation photoSo what is a nine-year old to do when presented with a “no” to Plan A? Naturally, Plan B was to find a saint whose name most closely resembled my first choice, and thus, after studying the table of contents of my Lives of the Saints, I came up with Saint Monica. My mother raised an eyebrow when I presented her with my second choice but allowed it.

Maddieinhospital (2)It wasn’t for years and years that I realized what a fine choice I had made in selecting Monica for my Confirmation name. I wished my whole life to become a mother, and while I made a somewhat late entry into this hallowed club, having my first child just three months before my 34th birthday, and my second child just three months from my 36th birthday, those two days are the highlights of my life. Nothing will ever compare to those first precious moments after their births, with my husband standing at my side, holding those precious little bundles.

wordleChoosing names for my daughters felt like an awesome responsibility. My husband and I had very little discussion about my older daughter’s first name, Margaret, as I had always said I would name my first daughter after my mother. When I was a little girl, my mom said I would line up my dolls on the sofa and tell her to come and meet my “babies”. I would then introduce them to her, “This is my baby Margaret. This is my baby Margaret. This is my baby Margaret.” Still, when I called to tell her the results of the sonogram at twenty weeks with my first pregnancy, and announced to her it was a girl, and that I would name her Margaret, she was surprised.

blank nametagThe discussions for her middle name went on for quite a bit. I was steadfast in my desire to give her something from each of our mothers, and since Margaret was my mother’s name, her middle name had to come from his mother. I had decided that her middle name should be Bellavia, my mother-in-law’s maiden name. I loved the name, it sounded beautiful to me, figuratively and literally, as it means beautiful way in Italian. My husband was not a fan of the maiden name as a middle name plan, but his father told him that since I was giving birth, I should have the final say. It was a done deal, and I know my mother-in-law was very happy.

Our second pregnancy was so very different in every way from the first I was convinced it was a boy, so convinced that we chose a boy’s name early on, Andrew Roy. Andrew was a nod to my mother’s Scottish heritage, and Roy was a “twofer”. My father’s name was Roy and my husband’s grandfather’s name (and brother’s name as well) was Roy. The fact that baby #2 kicked and moved about day and night, we were sure we had made a sound choice. The twenty-week sonogram was a shock, and at first, neither of us believed the technician that it was indeed a baby girl. When she was born, I still couldn’t believe the doctor’s announcement, “It’s a girl!” Just before the birth, I had been going through some old papers and found a genealogy report from my father’s family tree. blanchard geneologyMy ancestors who emigrated from France were Jean and Madeleine Livoir Blanchard. We both liked Madeline and proceeded to come up with a middle name. When I suggested my grandmother’s maiden name, Breaux, my husband put his foot down. Not another maiden name as middle name he said; it would also mean that both daughters and I would share the same initials, MBA, which he thought was a bit too much. I acquiesced this time and we continued going through names. I finally suggested Grace, which was what I had engraved inside his wedding ring, meant at the time as just a silly little private joke about being clumsy sometimes. Again, afterthought elevates that engraving to the special grace we have been given as a married couple, celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary last summer.

romeo and julietSo, what’s in a name? Shakespeare built an entire tragedy around names, the very mention of Capulet to a Montegut or vice versa was that of a battle cry. A theme in Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief is that names have power. first autographI’ve always loved my name, and I’ve always been thankful that my mother’s good taste and logical thought process prevailed in name selection discussions with my father. I have a special affinity for St. Michael the Archangel, given Michelle is the feminine version of that name, and St. Michael’s feast day is September 29th, not too far from my mid-October birthday. with godparents and fish 2 yearsMy godfather, my beloved Uncle Guy, always called me Michelangelo, and I adored hearing him say it. Even hearing “Michelle Ann” shouted when I was in trouble for something brought me a certain joy at hearing my whole name. While I was unsuccessful in being part of Archie’s gang with my Confirmation name, I am blessed with a strong role model and saint to emulate in that of Saint Monica.

three m'sI can’t imagine my daughters with any other names, and their joint childhood nickname of the “M&M Girls” was always met with smiles by all who knew and loved them as they were growing up. Just today we were having a discussion at lunch about our signatures, and our younger daughter bemoaned how difficult signing her name is because of the middle initial G, a tricky letter to connect to others in cursive. My older daughter and I, sharing the same MBA initials, have had minor tussles over usernames in various apps and programs. In that regard, my husband was right to hold firm on a different middle initial, albeit a tricky one, for daughter #2.

The Adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

speckled bandIt’s halfway through the second quarter of the school year and I’ve finally reached my favorite part of 8th grade literature, the beginning of an extended unit on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First we read his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which serves as a warm-up to third quarter when we take on one of his four full-length novels featuring his glorious masterpiece of a character, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles never fails to intrigue the students, from the moment we find out the true identity of Miss Beryl Stapleton, to Sir Henry Baskerville’s tension-filled “solitary” walk across the moor, Sherlock Holmes’ plan to set a trap with human bait to ensnare the killer.

conan doyle bioSir Arthur Conan Doyle has fascinated me since my first year of teaching when I found “Speckled Band” in the 8th grade literature anthology textbook. I strongly feel that to study a piece of literature one must study the author first. So much can be gleaned from the author’s background, the time period in which he or she lived and wrote, who his or her influences were, and who he or she influenced in return. The two-paragraph bio of Conan Doyle in the textbook wasn’t sufficient for me to use for class so I did some research on him and learned more about his fascinating life, of which Sherlock Holmes was merely a chapter.

scotland vhsBorn and raised in Scotland, like my maternal grandparents, he studied medicine. After finishing medical school, he traveled to Africa in 1885 serving as a ship’s doctor, where he learned firsthand of the atrocities taking place in the Belgian Congo. Upon his return to England, he wrote what he called a long pamphlet on the situation to bring to the public view what he himself had seen there. He dabbled in political writings for a while, as well as writing for medical journals.

He later traveled to Vienna for additional medical training and became an eye doctor. After setting up shop with another doctor, and later a private practice, he found himself bored while waiting in between appointments for patients. He had written some fiction before, but with the extra time on his hands he began to write more and more. One idea he had for a protagonist was based on a professor he had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose uncanny powers of deductive reasoning gave him the ability to sometimes diagnose patients from a cursory glance rather than an extended physical examination. deerstalker hatConan Doyle transferred these nearly-super powers to his character Sherlock Holmes, making him a private detective, albeit a slovenly and disorganized one, which brought to Conan Doyle more fame and fortune than his floundering medical practice ever would.

Conan Doyle later wrote to Dr. Joseph Bell and thanked him for serving as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; however, scholars have long thought that Conan Doyle may have also been influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who appeared in three of Poe’s short stories. The first appearance, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, is considered by many to be the first example of the sub-genre of detective fiction, one of my favorite for my own leisure reading.

the reigate squiresSherlock Holmes’ first appearance in published work was the novel, A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and Holmes’ career as a private detective continued until 1927, just three years before Conan Doyle’s death at the age of 71. In total, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the great detective and his side-kick, Dr. Watson. Writing story after story about Sherlock Holmes, however, became boring to him, so in 1893 he chose to end it with Holmes plunging to his death in the story “The Final Problem”. Public outcry stormed down upon him until he relented and brought him back to life in his grand novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

columboThe creation of Sherlock Holmes sparked the captivation of many, a captivation that grips audiences to this day. Conan Doyle also managed to influence many creative minds with the conception of characters bearing Holmes’ extraordinary powers of deduction, many of whom grace the small screen on a daily basis: body of proofHercule Poirot (created by another literary genius, Agatha Christie), Perry Mason, Lieutenant Columbo, Adrian Monk, Sean Spencer from Psych, Dr. House, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, bonesand many others.  While not as apparent as the others, both medical and police dramas offer glimmers of Sherlock Holmes: Rizzoli and Isles, The Mysteries of Laura, Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Law & Order, and Body of Proof, to mention only a few. Even the great Walt Disney chose to honor Sherlock Holmes with his 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective.the great mouse detective

In 2010 while taking an undergraduate summer course on world literature that I needed to complete course work for my certification as an English teacher, the assignment for the final project was a presentation on any piece of literature or author studied during the course. One of the things we had been assigned to read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was not a fan, to say the least, but it did make me revisit the research I had once done on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time spent as ship’s doctor traveling to Africa. I chose to do a presentation on the similarities between the two authors based upon this small connection. After my power point and presentation about the two authors and the subject of the Belgian Congo, I served my professor and classmates a traditional British cream tea, complete with freshly made scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as piping hot tea made from my electric kettle right there in the classroom. It was a success, and while I don’t think I passed on to any of those community college students (all of whom were young enough to be my very own children) my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, it did make my reading and study of Heart of Darkness much more enjoyable.

social-class-and-values-in-the-victorian-era-1-728Teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works to my 8th graders is something I look forward to each year. It gives me a chance to introduce them to the Victorian Era and the many ways in which Queen Victoria’s reign impacted the entire world. During the third quarter, they research and write a paper on a topic of their choice, from anything having to do with the Victorian Era. Over the years I have assigned this project, I’ve had many interesting papers on very creative topics from that period: Victorian mourning clothing, prisons and jails during the Victorian Era, child labor, Victorian entertainment, and of course, Victorian literature.

In a day and time when etiquette, social graces, and standards of proper attire have all but vanished from society, it is important for these teenagers to realize that, with all the advancements in science, medicine, technology, education, women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, and so much more, we seemed to have lost much in the process. While I am not advocating for the rigid social class system or the many limitations placed on women and minorities of the Victorian Era, we are not amusedI would be in favor of a return of some modicum of manners and social graces in today’s society, including the recognition that clothing choices for the day should be based upon the activity of the day, not just whatever pair of sweatpants or leggings (which are not technically pants, see The Harsh Reality of Truth for my thoughts on this) are clean enough to wear. Until that happens, I will escape the trials and tribulations of 21st century life by reading a Sherlock Holmes’ story and having a nice cup of tea.

What’s It Like Being the Mother of the Pied Piper

After graduation, I decided to stay in the town where I had lived and attended college for four years. I started working for a Kelly Girls temp agency and eventually landed a full-time position as a receptionist at a busy downtown law firm. At the end of the summer, my younger brother, Tommy, moved into his freshman dorm on the same campus where I had lived and thrived and flourished for four years. I knew nearly everyone on campus, both in the faculty as well as the student body. I was a member of a popular sorority, had run (unsuccessfully) for student government president, and was active in several on-campus clubs. I belonged to a service organization and attended weekly Mass in the on-campus chapel. Yet, within a few short weeks of the start of the new school year, I was being asked, “Are you Tommy Blanchard’s sister?” In a very short span of time, he cut a wide swath through the campus and made a lot of friends. He pledged a popular fraternity and it seemed that everywhere I went, people already knew him, and loved him.

Maddie and Mom first day of subbing Oct 16Fast forward nearly forty years, and I am experiencing this same sweet but still disconcerting situation. On October 16, 2015, my younger daughter, 23-years old and one year out of college, started substitute teaching at my school, the school where I began my own teaching career in the fall of 2007. She had completed the paperwork and background check only the week before she got the first call for a job: PE, not one of the strongest subjects for the Ardillo girls (myself included). Maddie teaching PENonetheless, she rode into school with me and we posed for a picture of our first day teaching together, both in the requisite dress code of the day, “Jersey Day”. When my homeroom came in at the end of 5th period to drop off their bags to go out to recess, they were all shouting at once, “Your daughter is the BEST!” I’m pretty sure she had never gotten that experience out of a PE class where she was the student!

A week later, she was called in to sub for social studies, much more in her bailiwick. The next day, when my 7th grade classes came in for literature, my own lesson plan was diverted for several minutes while they told me how great my daughter is and how much fun social studies was with her. Another day, another subject, she subbed for the other language arts teacher, her real strong suit, where she got to read and discuss passages from a Neil Gaiman book. On to 7th and 8th grade religion classes on another day and 6th-8th grade science on yet another. She received thumbs up from every single student who talked to me about her; even students who are quiet and passive in my own classroom were enthusiastic about their experience with her.

My birthday 2015Although she wasn’t crazy about babysitting when she was a teenager, she occasionally did take jobs to help out my friends and sometimes to cover for her sister when she had overlapping social activities. The response was always the same when I spoke to the families after, the kids all loved Maddie.

Leading retreat Nov 2014Last November, my principal hired her to lead the annual 8th grade overnight retreat. She took the assignment very seriously, writing up her talks and finding just the right music to play while students journaled after each talk. She developed bios and reflections about three saints and created prayer cards of the three saints for each of the 8th graders. In her own unique way, she was able to bring together a gaggle of rowdy teens to sit quietly and listen to spiritual reflections and talks about living your faith as a teenager and young adult. For days after the retreat, the 8th graders continued to talk about her and the impact she made on them in just a little over 24 hours.

Maddieinhospital (2)

Maddie being tenderly held by her big sister, with Grandma Margaret and Dad close at hand

A few weeks ago, at our annual fall parent/teacher conferences, one mom began the conference saying how much her daughter talked about Ms. Ardillo and what a great teacher she was. The mom, confused, said that this student’s older sister had had me for two years already so they were all familiar with Ms. Ardillo. Her daughter then said, “No, Mom, not Mrs. Ardillo, MS. ARDILLO, her daughter.” We had a good laugh about it, and I pondered at the likelihood that this parent/teacher conference was more about her daughter as my daughter’s student instead of her daughter as my student!

Maddie on guitarMaddie really is the good-natured and compassionate version of the Pied Piper. Instead of a magic pipe flute, she is a self-taught guitar and piano player, singer, and songwriter, and whenever she begins to play, people flock about her. Having written the music and lyrics for a musical while still in high school, she workshopped it at my school’s annual arts festival one year. It was a huge success and one of the students involved is now a high school senior, still acting and singing on stage. I saw him recently in a production of Les Misérables. After the show I was congratulating his mother on his performance and she said his real love of musical theatre all began with that arts festival workshop with Maddie.

MaddieatKennedyCenter (2)So, what makes her so special? I have given this a lot of thought, and as I explained to the mom at the parent/teacher conference, I truly believe it all boils down to one personality trait: her complete and total acceptance of a person at face value. She does not judge, she does not criticize, she does not compare. She takes each new friend as they are, and looks for the best of them, and that is what she reacts to. And, after all, isn’t this what people really want? To be accepted as they are? To be given a chance? To have their negative traits and personal flaws overlooked in lieu of their goodness and strengths? And, that is what Maddie does with each and every new person she encounters. This is certainly a special gift and grace from God, because I know that it is not one of my strengths. Her father and I try to be good people and we try to be the best we can be, but Maddie did not fully inherit this from our genes.

Maddie and dogShe has always looked out for the underdog. In second grade she came home and told me she had received a recess detention, and had to spend part of recess indoors with her teacher. The next morning at drop-off, I went in to the school to find out what had happened, as I couldn’t get a clear story from my eight-year-old daughter. The teacher just laughed and said it had all been handled, not to worry. I pressed on and she eventually told me that she “had” to give Maddie a recess detention because she had been involved in a playground altercation, but I hadn’t been called because she was trying to do the right thing. Her friend was being bullied by a boy, so she pushed him down and sat on him until he apologized. He ran inside crying to tell the teacher what Maddie had done. The bullying stopped, her friend recovered, and Maddie had a brief time-out with the teacher straightening the bookshelves, a job she surely must have loved, given her love of books even at that young age.

After a long day of teaching Nov 6We worried when she went off to college, living on her own four and half hours away, that she would be taken advantage of because of her good-hearted nature and accepting personality. We needn’t have worried; however, she survived her four years just fine, making friends left and right, not only on her own campus, but also on her sister’s campus ten blocks away and all over downtown Pittsburgh.

Maddie birthday 2015In a few months, Maddie is planning to move to California, to put her screenwriting degree to work and to pursue her dream job of writing for film and television. We will worry again, and we will miss her greatly. We enjoyed her return home to live with us after college (empty nesting is not all what it is cracked up to be), and we enjoy cooking together and watching our favorite TV shows. But, for as much as she is known for her very special people skills, she is a very talented writer who deserves to see her words on the big screen or on our television sets at home. pied piperAs she leaves all that is familiar to her, and heads off to the land of perpetual sunshine, I don’t worry about her being lonely or homesick for long. All she will need to do is don her Pied Piper persona and she will once again find herself the loved and cherished friend of many. Play on, Pied Piper, play on!

Love Never Fails

It’s midday Sunday and I am just sitting down to write this week’s essay. It’s been a busy weekend. Friday night was the wedding rehearsal and rehearsal dinner for one of my colleagues, a third grade teacher at my school. Months ago, after announcing her engagement, she stopped me as I was coming in to school one morning and asked me to do one of the readings of scripture at her wedding. I am still surprised at how emotional I became when she asked me, immediately choking up and fighting back tears. I hugged her and said yes, of course, and thanked her for making me a part of her special day. Yesterday was the wedding and reception, and much of this morning was spent looking at wedding photos on Facebook posted by some of those in attendance.

I moved to the DC area from my home state of Louisiana in 1988, so by all accounts this should be my home now. But, with no extended family here, and not having grown up here or gone to school here, in a lot of ways I don’t feel “at home”. One of the times when this is most evident to me is when hearing about weddings. If we lived in Louisiana, we would be invited to weddings much more frequently than we are here in Maryland. We are friends with a lot of people, but often not close enough to get invited to weddings. It is understandable, with the high costs associated with even a modest wedding in this day and time, but nonetheless, when we are invited to a wedding, it is indeed a special occasion for us.

Our own wedding, June 10, 1989, was very small, mostly just family, a few of our own friends who mostly were involved in the wedding in some way, and a few friends of our parents. our rehearsal dinnerThe rehearsal dinner was at Tom’s family restaurant, Ardillo’s in Amite, Louisiana, founded by his grandfather Roy S. Ardillo, in 1947. My father-in-law continued to run it after the death of his siblings, until it closed in May of 2012.

at our receptionThe reception was at my parents’ house, with a table set up in the living room for the wedding cake made by a friend of my mom’s, the groom’s cake made by me, and finger foods that were made by my mom, some of her Sodality friends, and relatives. food at our receptionIt was in our minds, the perfect balance. We placed our focus on the wedding Mass, where we received the Sacrament of Matrimony. We had attended pre-Cana preparation at our then parish, St. Ann’s in Washington, DC, where we were both active in parish life while we dated and were engaged, Tom singing in the choir and me teaching religious education on Sunday mornings. planning our MassWe spent time picking out our readings, asking friends and family members to participate, and picking out music for the Mass. My good friend Ann was my maid of honor and Tom’s brother Jay was his best man. Our godparents brought up the gifts. My cousin, Penny, played the organ for the processional and recessional. our musiciansA mutual friend, Steve, who was instrumental in our spending time together early on, played guitar and sang, along with another friend, Kay, who cantored the Mass. Steve even wrote a song just for us and sang it after Communion. In every single way, to us, it was perfect.

This weekend’s wedding festivities were quite different by contrast. The bride has a large extended family, representing several different cultures. Both the bride and groom grew up here so they had many friends and family members to invite. The wedding Mass was held at the church parish of the school where we teach so there we all felt “at home”. children with coupleThe bride had invited her current 3rd grade class to the wedding, and they attended in full force, along with many of their parents, all smiles as they watched every move of their teacher on the altar. There was a certain energy to the wedding Mass that was almost palpable, brightly colored dresses and the sounds of young children filling the large church. The reception was equally lively, with a steel drum band playing during the cocktail hour and a DJ spinning popular hits in dance music after dinner. dancing the night awayFlower girls and junior bridesmaids danced the night away side by side with older relatives and middle-aged couples, ourselves included. The featured libation was chosen by the newly married couple, a rum punch, which was delicious and as colorful as every other detail of the two days of festivities. It was a beautiful celebration of the love of these two young people.

Knowing the bride stemmed from a large family, I was truly honored to take part in the ceremony. I was given the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I know it well, having heard it many times at other weddings and as part of the readings in weekly Mass. I began practicing it as soon as she gave me a copy. Even though I serve as a Lector in my parish, Shrine of St. Jude’s in Rockville, as well as a Lector at some of our school Masses, I fully appreciated the significance of being asked to read at their wedding and wanted to perform this duty to the best of my ability. taking the reading to papal massOn September 23rd when I was getting ready for the Papal Mass, I folded it up and tucked it into my purse. I told the bride I would be taking her and her fiancé with me to the Papal Mass and then I would bring the Pope to their wedding Mass via the same piece of paper, which I did.

This reading from Corinthians is very powerful, and its power comes from the poetry of the words themselves. Studying and analyzing words is what I do for a living, teaching literature to middle school students, showing them how to break down passages of literature for its deeper meaning. Reading is one of the great joys of my life, and the more I focus on my own writing, the more I appreciate the beauty of words and the power that exists in truly well written prose. This piece of scripture is a fine example.

A reading from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (12:31–13:8a)

Brothers and sisters:
Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.
But I shall show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, 
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
The word of the Lord.

Even though St. Paul was not talking to a young couple about to embark on a lifetime together, this popular New Testament reading is still listed as a choice for Catholic wedding Masses. The detailed “laundry list” of what love is, as well as what love is not, can be applied to the Christian community of Corinth, who had fallen away from the teachings of the Gospel, as easily as to a young man and a young woman trying to live a life of faith in today’s fast-paced world. It is difficult to find time for peace and quiet reflection in a world of instant communication via many different types of social media, evidenced by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram images of this weekend’s wedding being posted while the events were still taking place. I myself fell victim to this increasingly more popular trend, holding handstaking a quick photo when the couple took their seats for the first reading. The way the groom so sweetly was holding the bride’s hand was so reminiscent of my favorite photo of our own wedding, a now-yellowed photo taken by a relative as we exited the church after the wedding, my new husband not only giving me his arm to walk me down the aisle but taking my hand as well.us leaving the wedding

In the end, this young couple needs only the excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth and the closing words of the priest’s homily at their wedding to help them navigate the joys and strife of their new life together. It isn’t about the beautiful wedding attire or the delicious food and drink at spectacular venues. It isn’t about the Pinterest ideas or the ubiquitous iPhone cameras in the hands of nearly all of the guests. It isn’t about the rain and dark clouds that dampened the two days’ activities. It isn’t about the dress or the cake or the flowers. It is about love. And, love never fails.

“New Testament Readings.” For Your Marriage. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.