Friday, July 29, 2011


Fifteen years or so ago I taught my first English 1A class at Chaffey Community College. In that class was a young man by the name of Martin Lastrapes. Martin was nearly fresh out of high school, unsure of what he wanted to do in life, a quiet, soft-spoken, dark-eyed young man who said little in class but made up for it in his essays.

My job was to teach them the fundamentals of writing, so that my students would go on to express themselves successfully for the duration of their college years and perhaps beyond. But I also wanted them to become engaged in the writing, to understand it as a vehicle of self-expression at least, an artistic creation at best. So I assigned such topics as “Describe the last time you cried” and “What is the most frightening experience you’ve ever had?”

I had 36 students in that first class. That’s a lot of essays to grade on a Sunday afternoon. And back then, I was a pretty slow grader. It’s a grueling process, working one’s way through a stack of papers that represent, for the most part, a half-hearted effort to complete an assignment which is seen as merely another hoop to jump through in the circus performance of getting a college degree. Marking the myriad of errors was tedious, to say the least.

Early on in the semester I learned to put Martin’s essays on the bottom of the pile—so that I would have something to look forward to as I slogged through the rest of the batch. He wrote with a quirky, personable style that I really enjoyed, part comedic, part earnest sincerity that was simply endearing. And I don’t think he was really trying to accomplish this; it was coming from his own innate artistic expression. To encourage him, I wrote small comments in the margins of his paper: “This made me laugh!” and “Love the way you express this!” and finally “You could be a writer, Martin.” It was the same thing my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, had told me, the one statement that sent me on my way to being the writer I am today.

The semester ended, and quiet Martin went on his way. Five years later I received an email from him. It said, in part:


There is an awfully good chance that you won’t remember me… I went into your class without much direction and you encouraged me to be a writer. Believe it or not, your encouragement was extremely influential. Nobody had ever isolated my writing as something worth exploring before you. Since then I graduated from Chaffey and recently got my B.A. in English. I’m going to start my journey toward a master’s in English Composition this Fall…. As far as writing goes, I worked as a fiction editor for the Pacific Review and I was invited to read one of my short stories at the Cal Poly Writers Conference in March of 2003. I write all of the time, and I cannot imagine a life without it.
All of this is preface to the announcement that Martin—my stellar student of fifteen years ago, that kid who sat quietly on one side of the classroom wondering where life would take him—has just published his first novel, Inside the Outside. “Proud of him” isn’t adequate to describe my feelings about this recent accomplishment. Martin has been teaching college for some years, but having read an advance copy of his new book, I can see that his future truly lies in written expression.

And of course, this is yet another reminder to me of what teachers must always remember: Even the most casual comment—whether positive or negative—can have a lasting effect on a student.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ordinary miracles

My chariot awaits (to take me to dreamland)!
(Note trusty cat companion in left foreground.  Sugie loves the swing, too.)

I saw a fish yesterday. A speckled trout, to be precise. No, it wasn’t online or in a fish tank. He was a wild fish. Well, I guess I mean, he was swimming “in the wild.” He looked rather placid, a happy guy, if you want to know the truth, floating languidly at the bottom of a marshy pond, his tail fins slowly oscillating, much like my cat’s tail. To see him was to see a miracle.
There is no lake in Mt. Baldy where I live. The mountain is filled with aquifers, though, and during the winter, it stores up snow and ice, then spends the spring and summer leaking as all that frozen water melts. We have waterfalls and rivulets, tiny streams and larger creeks (nothing big enough to be called a river).

When I first moved to the mountain four years ago, we’d been plagued by years of drought in Southern California. The mountain streams were no more than trickles. There were no fish to speak of. But in the past several years we’ve had a few good winters, and now we have water aplenty. And fish! It’s a miracle!

Mr. Speckled Trout was just one of several miracles I’ve seen lately. I understand they may not be classified as “miracles” to everyone. Call them blessings, then.

Out for my morning walk several days ago, I saw two deer just down the road, camouflaged in a small oak grove near the firehouse. Word on the street is that they’ve been hanging around Bob and Jean Walker’s cabin. (I would, too; there’s a great wild-life-loving aura there.) We rarely get deer in this area, so it was nice to see them.

In the backyard a few days ago, getting a drink from the small dish of water I leave out for whoever wants it, I had a lazuli bunting. I’ve got a hanging feeder, so I get chickadees, nuthatches, black-headed grosbeaks (all dressed up for Halloween), acorn woodpeckers, one lone titmouse and our ever-present Stellar’s jays. But in four years, I’ve never had a lazuli bunting. If you click on the link, you will see a gorgeous photo by photographer Larry Thompson. These birds are a beautiful shade of blue, much like the lapis lazuli that is found in only two places in the U.S.—Colorado and here in Mt. Baldy. Another miracle! Mr. Bunting didn’t stay long, but he did come back the next day for a drink, so I’ve got my eye out for him.

My days lately have been spent alternately working on the dog book and watching the Tour de France before dawn, then taking long walks in the forest mid-morning, then coming home to my beloved porch swing, where I read, write or simply curl up and sleep, my face on one side nestled against the soft cotton blanket, on the other warmed by sunrays filtering through the branches overhead. Yesterday’s walk took me down into San Antonio Canyon, along a trail that follows old, washed out Mt. Baldy Road. It’s a great hike, with steep canyon walls to the east, the stream gushing along beside them, and an oak lined path… which eventually led to the marsh where I sat among the cattails watching the fish and the tiny rufous hummingbirds (which periodically employed strafing missions to try to get me to leave their nesting area). They are feisty and beautiful and yes, to my mind, miraculous.

All of this walking made me quite sleepy, of course, so upon my return, I had to spend some moments dozing on the swing. The only sound outside for hours was birdsong. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I found myself picking out the individual calls, matching song with bird, sheltered above by the green canopy of oak leaves, crystal blue sky beyond. As one bird call became more and more persistent, I slowly drifted back up to wakefulness, realizing it was the red-shafted flicker. Mr. Flicker is extremely reclusive. A type of woodpecker, he stays high in the treetops, dressed in his polka-dot pajamas, and I rarely get a glimpse of him. In fact, it took me two years to match call to bird when I first moved to the cabin. But yesterday I heard him clearly, shouting away for some reason. And when I did eventually wake fully and open my eyes, there he was, sitting in the branches directly above me. Call it what you will. I’m calling it a miracle.