Driving Down Memory Lane–Literally

After four years of retirement, I began to realize that I have more time available than I need for my many critical pursuits:  travel, reading, writing, home projects, gardening, napping, and beer drinking.  So, it was almost inevitable that I began to think more about volunteer work.  I already volunteer occasionally for a local environmental non-profit that specializes in teaching the basics of composting and other sustainability projects.  I also substitute teach at my former high school which is tantamount to volunteering given the amount of money one is not paid for working as a professional teacher.
So when I was ready to make a regular commitment to an organization, I had no hesitation to select San Diego’s Mama’s Kitchen.  Besides having been a regular donor for years, a close friend of mine is the head chef and my wife and I have attended many of their events and fundraisers.  Mama’s Kitchen provides 7 days worth of food, every week of the year, for nearly 600 San Diego residents who are affected by HIV/AIDS or cancer.  They have a cadre of drivers who spread out over the county delivering both hot and cold dishes three times a week and are always in need of more.

After my orientation, I selected the route that was closest to my house, west of where I live now but directly south and east of where I grew up and all around where I went to elementary school.  And there will be another post where I talk about what it is like to work with my clients, how I am slowly getting to know their needs and quirks, and how I have started to worry about them at times, but that is not what this is about. Instead, I discovered that my route unexpectedly took me back to people and memories and experiences that stretched back to my childhood.

I have to mention that I would never complete the route on any given day without the help of Siri.  Left to my own devices and sense of direction, people would starve.  Siri and I have become so close that I actually pay little attention to the street names or the how I am getting from client to client.

So, as I’m blindly following Siri’s friendly but imperious demands to “continue on Federal Blvd for 1 mile and then turn right on 61st St.”, suddenly I’m seeing street signs and buildings that have been hugely significant to my development as a person.  Honestly, I was stunned at how this route would string together memories spanning nearly every decade and every important stage in my life.

The first street sign that brought me up short was La Corta Dr. where my first girlfriend lived.  We were in the first grade.  Having a girlfriend at that early age just meant that you had admitted that you liked her, she happened to like you back, and it was ESSENTIAL that NO ONE should ever know or find out.  Our mom’s drove us back and forth to “play dates” that I have almost no memory of, but I do remember that she was a petite little blonde girl, and I thought she was absolutely beautiful.

And a single block further down was where, Mike, one of my buddies from high school lived on Madera St.  One night when I was sleeping over, I discovered that he lived next to someone who allowed Sandy and the Classics, the pre-eminent cover band for all big high school dances, to practice in their garage.  Hanging outside on a warm summer evening, listening to them working on all of our favorite songs while we dreamed of all the fantastic girls we were never going to meet in the coming year at the dances in our steamy, stinking gym, was like getting to be backstage at a free show. It was about as good as life gets for a ninth grader.

Next thing I know, I’m cruising past Morse High School, the site of my very first teaching experience. Back in 1975 I was assigned to Morse as a student teacher to teach one sophomore English class for one semester.  I had a wonderfully patient master teacher who forgave me all of my inadequacies and spent endless hours talking to me about teaching, life, and personal development.

I so owe those sweet kids an apology.  I was woefully unprepared to teach them anything about reading and writing and simply did not know how to plan thoughtful, cohesive units.  What they got was my energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humor which helped to paper over some of my shortcomings.  The class was a wonderful mix of Anglo, Mexican, Samoan, Guamanian, Native-American and African-American kids. Day after day when my lesson, planned for the 55-minute period, expired after 40 minutes, instead of giving up and giving them “free time” I’d go from student to student and check in with them, badger them about missing homework, find out what they were up to outside of class, encouraging them to keep trying hard.

It was not unusual to see those same students that same afternoon helping out their moms with the grocery shopping at the market, located just a short distance from the school,  where I was a grocery clerk.  It must have been weird for them to see me as their English teacher at 10 o’clock in the morning and as the guy bagging up the family groceries just hours later.

I cruise past the latest iteration of my old grocery store, still anchoring a crumbling strip mall as I’m rounding a corner on my way to my very last client.  But before I make that turn, I pass by Darby St.  Halfway down Darby sits the first house my wife and I owned, our starter house, purchased back in 1977 on the day that Elvis died.  I remember hearing the news as we were in the midst of signing away our lives.

We didn’t think of the house as a wreck, but in fact, it was by every measure a major fixer-upper.  In three years, we painted or wallpapered every square inch of the place inside and out, ripped up the avocado green indoor-outdoor carpet that greeted us as we walked in and re-did all of the flooring.  It was just getting comfortable when we were finally driven to sell after battling constantly with a noisy garage band across the street.  Sandy and the Classics they were not.

I sit in my car across the street from our old house now and I can barely recognize any remnant of the work that we had done.  As far as I can tell, the garage band is long gone.

I rouse myself and get back on the road to make my last delivery to a nice guy who has two very active dogs in a small house that most would call run down.  I suspect his wife is the patient.  He is chatty and fun to talk to.  We say goodbye, and I take the short cut back home where I sit in my driveway, steeped in the snapshots of so many unexpected memories.

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High School All Over Again

Maybe because I lived more than half of my life in a high school environment, it occurred to me that this daily writing group is starting to feel like a high school party, like the high school party that I would never have been invited to back in the day because I wasn’t cool enough.

But this time I was cool enough to get invited because a friend of mine was looking out for me and thought (I think) that I might have a good time doing this. But after getting the invitation, I sulked around for a bit worrying about fitting in, trying to decide if I really wanted to go to this party, trying to talk myself out of it even though I knew I desperately wanted to go and hang out with the cool kids.

So, finally I decided to go, and after reading a few pieces realized that these really were the cool kids. There were some great writers—some were so funny, others so real and honest, some so creative. Man, how was I going to fit in?

Because I could see right away that the cliques had already begun to form. Some people were always “liking” each other and “commenting “ to each other, all the time, and right in front of everyone else! And for some reason there were mostly women at the party, and everyone seemed to be talking about yoga.  It made me want to curl up into Child’s Pose and try to hide.

But, god, I was there–I had to at least try. So, I pushed out of few observations and tried to be social, reading some other people’s work and “liking” the ones I liked and making a comment here and there. And before I knew it, I started to get some responses. People were reading my work, and some people seemed to stop by and “like” me all the time, so I started to read their stuff and “like” them back. Sometimes we even began having little conversations. I was making friends! I was so proud of myself.

I mean, there are lulls in the party at times. Suddenly, no one seems to “like” me and believe me, I am checking ALL of the time. That’s right. I’ll admit it. I live for the “likes.” I mean how can a piece be “seen” by 35 people and only liked by 8? Were the other 27 people just stopping by because they felt sorry for me, sitting alone in the corner there for a while? That’s when the insecurity creeps in, just like when I’m roaming around at the party and suddenly I don’t have anyone to talk to.

Just when I’m ready to bolt and slip out the door, hoping nobody notices, Kirk drops by and “likes” a couple of my recent pieces. Oh, man. Kirk, who’s like the captain of the football team walks by me and says, “S, up, dude?” on his way to the back to grab a beer. He calls me “dude” because he doesn’t actually know my name, which is perfectly OK right now because the big dawg noticed me. I mean it’s his party after all, and one of the cool girls invited me, and maybe, maybe, I’ll just hang out a little longer and see what happens.

 

 

I Don’t Hate Poetry

poetry

I really don’t.  But I don’t love it either.

As a retired English teacher this is practically heretical.  Through most of my 36 years of teaching, I used poetry sparingly, but during the last 10, when I began teaching Advanced Placement English for seniors, it needed to become a central part of my curriculum in order to prepare kids for the AP Literature and Composition Exam.

Early on, I went to every AP Lit workshop I could find and tried to glean an approach, a unit, a set list of poems or literary terms that would lead me to a greater comfort level, and I discovered many wonderful plans created by lit teachers much smarter than me.  But none of them were a fit for me and my understanding of how 17-year-olds think.  Some of the literary terms were so obscure that even if I could force a kid to memorize the definitions, the chances of the student actually recognizing the technique or being able to comment on its relevance seemed iffy at best.  When it came to teaching meter (the metric rhythm of a poem), which some of my colleagues would spend hours on with great relish, I was a total failure.  Beyond iambic pentameter, I couldn’t recognize a line that was trochaic, spondaic, or anapestic if you held a gun to my head.

So, I shortened and simplified my list of lit terms, focusing on ones that kids could actually remember and that seemed most often applicable to the kinds of poems that showed up on the test.  I abandoned meter entirely with nary a feeling of guilt, and I created Poetry Day.

I decided that I needed to provide opportunities for kids to sit together, look at dozens of poems, struggle through them, and come to some kind of meaning. I wanted them to become a poetry salon, one day a week, and to begin to look to each other for understanding with as little help from me as possible.

Poetry Day was a risk for me, and I firmly expected it to be a failure. My idea was that once a week, four students would sign up ahead of time and be tasked with the responsibility of choosing a poem from our anthology for discussion. The class would form a circle and each of the chosen students would be the discussion leader for the poem that he or she had selected.  My role (I hoped) would simply be to sit in back and keep track of participation and try to keep my mouth shut.

The discussion leaders’ job was simply to read the poem, maybe take a minute to tell why they had chosen it, and then direct the traffic of the hoped-for participation that would then follow.  The shock to me was that the participation came.   The kids seemed to like the new approach–the freedom to explore, no teacher to tell them the “right” answer, how the more they looked at the poem, the more that they began to see.  What excited me the most was seeing how the students would throw out an assertion, listen to the response of their classmates, and then reconsider and revise their thinking. On an exceptional day, I might say nothing more during the entire hour than, “Good job.  Let’s move on to the next poem.” Those days felt like great successes to me.  I had created an opportunity where kids were learning, questioning, thinking, cooperating with the gentlest bit of direction from me.  Those days felt like good teaching.

Not every Poetry Day went that well.  The ebb and flow of the semester, the ebb and flow student enthusiasm, the absence of caffeine, the approach of more important things like prom, all made for good and bad days.  My role evolved also.  I found that it helped to ask clarifying questions and force students to refine their thinking when they were oh-so-close to a gem of an idea, but might be missing a critical element.  Then there were the times when, despite their best efforts, they simply missed the meaning entirely, and I’d have to force them, as a class, to go back to the poem, look more closely, think again.  We jokingly established a part of the classroom that we labeled as “left field” where we figuratively sent students whose interpretations had flown so far off track that I had to call them on it.  In fact, it became part of our lexicon.  Students would sometimes begin their explanation of a difficult passage with, “This may be out in left field, but I think…”  I absolutely loved them for that.

My most memorable Poetry Day moment came when one of my student’s had chosen Deborah Pope’s agonizingly painful and beautiful poem, “Getting Through.”

Like a car stuck in gear,

a chicken too stupid to tell

its head is gone,

or sound ratcheting on

long after the film

has jumped the reel,

or a phone

ringing and ringing

in the house they have all

moved away from,

through rooms where dust

is a deepening skin,

and the locks unneeded,

so I go on loving you,

my heart blundering on,

a muscle spilling out

what is no longer wanted

and my words hurtling past,

like a train off its track

toward a boarded-up station,

closed for years,

like some last speaker

of a beautiful language

no one else can hear.

I remember the discussion leader reading the poem aloud and nearly 40 kids staring at the text with no idea of what to say.  I suggested the leader read it aloud once more, which we did quite often when confronted with a challenging poem.

The silence continued until suddenly Sarah, a thoughtful and sensitive young woman, gasped as she internalized the sadness and the pain of the poem.  In that one moment, she had grasped the whole poem with it’s string of vivid similes, each becoming more detailed, that described the speaker’s devastating sense of loss and hopelessness.  Once she gave the class the key, the images suddenly made sense, and the class piled on with an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the universality of the experience of loss.

I truly loved poetry on that particular day.  Sarah’s gasp, her identification with the pain of the speaker, spoke to everything that I find to be important about poetry.  The poet that can distill the human experience, can craft the perfect metaphor, provides a human connection that helps us to defy loneliness and isolation.  They are magicians. They create the connection that tells us that, even in our worst moments, we are not alone.