Saturday, July 17, 2010


Eight years ago, toward the end of a horrible year teaching for a horrible principal, I got a call from former colleague Martha Srisamai (now Martha Hall).

"Kay, come to Upland!  You'll love it here!"

Martha had been an Upland High School grad and had gone on to teach mathematics.  When UHS had a place for her, they called, and she left the high school where we taught together.  She'd been there a year when she called to let me know that administrators needed to hire five new English teachers.  I made a few phone calls, and the next thing I knew I was scheduled for an interview.

Principal Guy Roubian interviewed me (along with the teacher I knew would have to eventually become my BFT--Best Friend Teacher--Kelli Hogan-Flowers).  I've never felt so comfortable in an interview, and by the end of it I began to imagine what it would be like to work for someone who was so laid back and seemed to have a sincere love of teenagers.  Fortunately for me, I had the privilege to find out.  The next fall, I became an Upland Highlander.

I'll never forget the first faculty meeting before school started.  It was unlike anything I'd experienced previously.  At some point, Roubian and several other administrators presented themselves before the faculty dressed as pirates.  (The next year, Roubian would don a full body suit to impersonate Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It was hilarious.)  The point was to inspire the spirit of fun and creativity in teachers, to remind them that yes, teaching is serious business, but we need to include the element of fun as much as we can so that students will be engaged and enthusiastic about learning.  As always, Guy Roubian practiced what he preached.

I had previously taught English and Journalism, and when a Journalism class opened up at UHS, Guy remembered that discussion in our interview.  He asked me to take over the school newspaper, and I did so happily.  The issue we looked forward to the most each year was the April Fool's issue, in which we would include both true and contrived stories, often making outrageous claims about Oprah visiting our campus or teachers moonlighting as rock musicians.  In my second year doing the paper, Walter--a great kid--asked if he could write a story for the April 1 issue claiming that Principal Guy Roubian had been a teletubby while working his way through college.  To fully appreciate Walter's vision, you'd have to have seen Roubian; he's a man of short stature.  Walter's plan was to photoshop Guy's face onto a teletubby body.

"Absolutely not," I told him.  "He's your principal and you need to respect him."
"I do respect him," he argued.  "I respect his sense of humor.  That's what makes him so cool."

We argued for twenty minutes.  Finally Walter pleaded, "If I ask him and he gives his permission, can I do it?"  I relented, sure that Guy would tell him no.  Of course he said yes, allowing the article (which was brilliant) and the photo, and providing quotes from his "acting experience."  It was hilarious.  And Walter was right; this is why kids liked him so much.  He was the principal who never hesitated to jump into the trenches along with them and be involved in their learning and their fun.  In the final pep rally of this past school year, Roubian performed a cheer with the cheerleaders, allowing them to lift him up in a 'tower.'

Alas for all of us, that pep rally was the last for Guy Roubian as a Highlander.  For his own personal reasons, he has taken a job as personnel director for a neighboring school district.  Needless to say, faculty members are devastated.  I can't imagine returning to work next month without him there.  Through all the sadness of this past year, losing my brother, losing my mom, I was grateful for Guy's constant support and encouragement.  His new district is fortunate to have him, but oh what a loss to Upland High School.  Yesterday, when news of his move began to spread, Facebook pages were filled with comments on how much he'd meant to individual staff members.

To say he will be missed is an understatement.  We can only hope that he is happy in his new position, that he enjoys his work, and that we remember the lessons he left behind as our best role model.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Swimming in melted snow

After several days in a row of disappointments, rejection slips and discouraging news, I decided it was time for me to go in search of tall trees, rushing streams, and birdsong. It’s true; where I live, I needn’t go farther than my front porch to find those ingredients in the formula for serenity, but I craved a long walk in a deep canyon as well… and a swim in a mountain pool.

So I drove to the Santa Anita canyon hiking area. I was happy to see few cars in the parking lot, and as I headed down the trail, I could see that most of the hikers were following the path which leads to Sturtevant Falls, a beautiful waterfall at the end of a pleasant walk down. I opted for the small single track trail to Hermit Falls, a much smaller waterfall—really, just a section of stream where the water slides over a tall boulder but splashes into a very deep pool before it continues on its way, running down the mountain.

The narrow trail follows a series of switchbacks down, down, down into a very steep canyon where the tree canopy is so lush, you are always walking in shade, no matter what the time of day. Because it is still early summer, I walked past wildflowers of lavender, pink, yellow and pale blue. I moved slowly along the trail, breathing in the scent of wild sage, remembering lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” poem, the treatise he wrote for his sister about the immutability of Nature. Things change. People change. These “rocks and rills” remain the same for countless generations.

When I reached the falls, I was only mildly disappointed to find that a group of young people had arrived before me. I had barely arrived when a young couple approached and asked me to take their picture. I obliged, playing the role of serious photographer for a moment, then moved as far away from their group—and the wafting pot smoke—as I could, nestling down onto a smooth boulder next to the emerald water of the deep pool.

I hadn’t hiked alone in this canyon for many, many years. Usually, I go at least once each summer, always taking a male friend… just in case. But yesterday I was alone… because I needed to be. For a few moments, I sat on the rock, venting my feelings in the words that poured into my journal. The sun was hot as it reflected off the surrounding rocks, and it didn’t take long before the lure of the water drew me in. I stood up, removed my shoes and socks, remembered my truck keys in my pocket and placed them safely in my backpack, then stepped ankle-deep into the water.

The first ten years I hiked to this spot, I never swam in the pool. The water cascades down from the San Gabriel mountaintops, and it is comprised primarily of snowmelt. It’s freezing cold. When I first started hiking in the canyon, I would go in spring or fall, because it can be perilously hot hiking out on scorching summer days. But finally, some years ago, I took a friend along, and he patiently waited with me until I mustered the courage to jump in. (I told him he had to be there in case I had a heart attack—so he could let my kids know I died doing something I loved.)

Yesterday, as I stood on the rock feeling my ankles go numb from the cold, I contemplated not going in. I just didn’t want to feel that first immersion into the aching cold. Yet I knew if I didn’t go, I’d be angry with myself all the way back up the trail. And I would feel defeated. If I needed anything at that moment, it was to feel victorious over something, anything in my life. I crouched over… and slipped in.

The first shock is never pleasant, but the joy of having it over with, of being free to swim in clear water with nothing but a blue sky above, is delicious. I swam several laps of the pool, then floated on my back for a few tranquil moments. Finally I pulled myself out, shorts and tank top dripping. The warmth of the rock spread through my bones as I leaned back comfortably to dry out and eat some lovely cheese and a few crackers. As I finished, another group of young people arrived, challenging each other to jump into the pool from the rocks above, and I knew it was time for me to head back up the trail.

Yes, at times, life sucks. I have no idea what changes will occur in my life in the following year. But one thing remains constant, and that is the beauty of that deep mountain pool. If the forces of the universe are willing, I will return to it again next year and somehow find the courage to dive into the icy waters… to taste that wild freedom once again.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The business of writing

The hardest part of my role as writer is marketing my work because doing so involves contacting a complete stranger and somehow convincing her or him, in a few brief sentences, that (1) I am a pretty decent writer and (2) that other folks want to read what I’ve just written. Having to do so is tantamount to torture. I can sit for hours at the keyboard—when I was working on Tainted Legacy, I would sometimes do five-hour stints without food or potty breaks, and I could do that because I loved the work. But composing a query letter that somehow makes me shine above all the other thousands of writers out there trying to get books published? Please… don’t… make… me… do… that….

I can remember being in my early twenties, attending my first writers conferences, watching people get up and prattle on about their books. I knew I could never do that part of it. “Read me! I’m great!” is just far too embarrassing for me.

It’s not that I’m shy; I taught Lamaze classes for years before I began teaching English and Journalism. I love to speak to writers groups. In fact, I’m passionate about doing so. But shameless self-promotion is another beast entirely. At the signing for TL last spring at Border’s, the reason I had so many people approach my table had to do with friend and comic Tim Chizmar standing near the front door shouting, “S Kay Murphy! Right there at that table! Her great grandmother might have been a serial killer!” I sold 24 books that day. (Thanks, Tim.)

My reticence to promote myself has to do, I think, with having a particularly introverted, reserved personality. I simply don’t assert myself. The same was true back in the days when I was singing a lot. It all started because someone at church told someone else they’d heard me sing. Next thing I know, I’m up in front of a couple hundred people at Harvest in Riverside, singing and playing guitar. Then someone asked me to sing in a wedding, then someone else, and the next thing you know, I’m singing the National Anthem a cappella in front of 2,000 baseball fans at our local Quakes stadium.

Wait. Maybe I’ve discovered the key here. Perhaps instead of sending “Read me! I’m great!” letters out to strangers, I should fly to New York, stand on Broadway, and simply read from my next book (which, by the way, is a memoir about the dogs who’ve owned me—Hope you get a chance to Read it! It’s great!). If only….

I’ve gotta get back to work on this query letter, but don’t be surprised if you see me later in downtown Upland, standing in the gazebo, manuscript pages in hand….

[Just for practice at SSP (shameless self-promotion), I've attached an Amazon link to TL.  Forgive me.]