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Learning on the yellow couch!

I’ve been at the Lucy Calkins Writers Workshop for this past week and have learned more about how to write this week than I have in 42 years, which is concerning because I have been a teacher for 22 of those years, and most of them have included teaching writing!

The through-line of the workshop was to write, which in itself I found surprising. To go to a writing workshop and write! The surprising-ness surprised me too. We always say “practice what you preach”. This has been a week of “practice WHEN you preach” (or at least when you are being preached to!). So, practice I did.

We had session after session and learned, session by session, how to improve our writing. Focus on small things. Stretch the heart. Add dialogue. Use descriptive language. Most of all… write.

Write a lot. Cross things out. Write like you are possessed. Take risks. Use words you haven’t used before. Read it out aloud. Really loud! Shout your story.

So I wrote. And here it is. Enjoy.

SMILING

It’s Thursday morning, the sky is grey and unhappy and I’m smiling to myself.

I’m sitting in a stuffy classroom in Columbia Teachers College, New York City, listening to a how-to-teach-writing expert and an air conditioner.

Simultaneously droning.

I’m thinking about my daughter.

We’re snuggled closely on a slightly worn yellow couch. She’s freshly bathed and smells of the apple bubble bath I bought her last week and she’s playing with her loose tooth. “The third one!” she’s unhesitatingly proud to tell me. She wiggles it with her tongue like the cat flap on our back door.

“That’s going to need a pull soon”, I think to myself. Mum’s job. I don’t do teeth.

She’s just spent two minutes on her hands and knees at the book shelf. The shelf on the bottom. The one with all HER books. HER shelf. “Not this one.” “This one’s boring.” “I don’t like him!” “OK Daddy, this one,” as she bounced onto the couch like Tigger running to Pooh. Big eyes. Legs everywhere. Beaming. I thought I saw a tail.

Snuggled in, we’re on the third page. We’ve read the cover, “Oh, The PLACES You Will Go.” We’ve read the cover page, “Oh! The places YOU will go.” We’ve even read the title page, “Oh the places you WILL go.” Her eagerness to get to the story has us three pages in and I haven’t been listening. She’s been reading each page, at least what she calls reading. She points to a word, sounds it out, “P…L…A…CK… E… S”. “Plackess” she says triumphantly.

“Places”. I correct her.

“Places”, she says and reads on. I’m not listening. I’m far, far away.

I’m wondering if I’ll be able to do this with her children. If she’ll even decide to have children. Where will we all be in however many years between now and her having children? I’m wondering how long this will last. Will we still do this when she’s twelve? Sixteen? And suddenly I find myself listening again.

“Steer”, I correct her.

“Steer”, she says and reads on. And then I’m away again.

Will she remember snuggling up to Daddy on the yellow couch smelling of apples, reading HER books from HER shelf? Will she remember when she couldn’t read and twisted the corner of her pillowslip as her Daddy made the stories come to life? Does she know that I read to her every night as she lay in her crib? Looking up at me with big eyes and wriggly legs? I find myself listening, again.

“And… you… will… know… what… you… know!,” she reads, turning to look up at me because she knows she read the whole line without a mistake. I smile and brush her hair back from her forehead. She falls back into the story and I think to myself, “Yes, you WILL know what you know.” She reads on.

Ding, dong. The doorbell rings. She leaps up, book clattering to the floor, legs everywhere, tail swishing, and races to the door.
I reach to pick up the book. Her Mum calls out, “ Look through the peep hole to make sure you know who it is first.” The door is opened and there is mumbled this and that and Mum goes to find out who’s visiting.

My smell of apples is gone but I’m still warm from the little body that was reading beside me. There’s even a small imprint in the couch where that swishing tail was stilled for a moment by the pages of a book.

And then the visitors have gone and Mum has decided now is a good time to head to bed and I’m suddenly alone downstairs, sitting on a slightly worn yellow couch, holding a book in my hand. I absently turn the first pages, keenly aware of the fading warmth and the bedtime noises upstairs and find myself looking at the first page.

“Congratulations!” it reads. “Today is your day, you’re off to great places! You’re off and away!”

And I’m smiling to myself, again.

By

The singing fish in the cupboard

When my daughter goes to bed I lie beside her and ask her about her day. She tells me about play time, circle time, what she had for lunch and who told her she wasn’t their friend. Oh the trials of a six year old! And then she asks for a story. And generally, I make one up.

I like to lead with a nonsensical sentence. Something like “The small unhappy girl reached into the cupboard and pulled out a green fish. It was singing.” At that point there is usually an interjection. My small daughter, listening with big eyes and distracted fingers says something. Maybe its a, “Daddy, fish can’t sing!” which then leads the story down the singing fish alley. Or its a,”Daddy, fish don’t live in a cupboard!” which leads me down the cupboard-fish story alley. Or maybe it’s, “Daddy, was there another fish?”, at which point, it becomes a story about a school of fish in the cupboard. It generally gets more and more nonsensical (big ups to Dr Seuss!) and ends in a hanging climax. Maybe the fish was about to leap out of the cupboard but the cat walked in… The more insistent the, “Tell me the next bit Daddy!”, the better!

Five and a half years ago, in a small town called Bangkok, we signed a contract to go and work at a school. In Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t actually built at that point, but there were grand visions. It was to become a beacon of educational hope for the country. It was going to offer a coeducational environment for Saudi boys and girls. To a large extent, it was like opening the story with a sentence about a singing fish in a cupboard. And my signature was on the contract!

Well, the story has developed, the opening sentence has turned into a page, and a chapter and a book. The first of many in a series.

And now, I find myself sitting in an airport sky-bar with excess luggage and “between jobs”. That first-book-in-the-series is done, at least where my character figures. The few chapters where my character weaves in and out, hoping that the sub-plot to which I am tied might eventually tie into the central theme of the series so that eventually, when the rights are sold for the big screen release of the story my character is played by Jeff Bridges rather than Steve Buscemi.

And it is only now, now that my character has been temporarily written out of the story and a new actor has been contracted to play my part that I begin to realise that what we leave on the stage has nothing to do with what needed to be done. It’s all about how we did it.

And having now featured in the stories of five schools, I can name a lot of characters whose parts have been rewritten. For many of them I can remember what it is they did. Mostly though, I can remember how they did it. They were funny. They were very serious. They didn’t really care very much. The were passionate. And the list goes on.

For a few of them, I remember how they treated their students, how they treated their colleagues, how they treated themselves. And for a fewer few of them I look forward to costarring at some point in the future.

So while all our stories continue to be written, consider “how” you go about playing your part, because that above all is what is remembered.

Be the singing fish in the cupboard!