Sunday, August 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Atticus Finch is not a real person. He is a character in a novel. While he may be multifaceted and dynamic as a character, he is that and only that—a character, comprised of the requisite parts given him by Harper Lee when she wrote the consummate American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird and also when she wrote the first draft of that novel, which is now known as Go Set a Watchman.

For in fact, that is exactly what Go Set a Watchman is—a first draft, the initial disorganized and somewhat plotless musings of a slightly younger Harper Lee than the one who wrote Mockingbird. Miss Lee's publisher, HarperCollins, has done the business of promoting Watchman as if it were an entirely separate novel—because that is what their identity is; they are a business. As much as we would like to think of publishing houses as being run by noble, educated persons who are nearly super-heroes in their defense of great literature, the truth is, HarperCollins is a business organized for the purpose of making money. Lots and lots of money.

And so it seems they have done with Watchman. (It is currently number one in literature/classics on Amazon.) But while they touted this book as 'a new novel by Harper Lee,' those good folks know exactly what this is; it is the first pages of a novel written by a young college student who thought she might like to write about the South, her hometown, and her father. In Watchman, she characterizes Atticus as having caved to the agenda of the racists of his town. In Mockingbird, he stands against such folk. Which Atticus best reflects Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper's real-life father? Who can say, and we will never know, as our beloved Miss Lee, always reticent to give interviews, is now beyond the point of discussing either novel.

When I wrote Tainted Legacy, a book about my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, who is now vilified as a serial killer, I wrote the original draft to fit the current True Crime genre. After long discussions with a publisher who read that original draft, however, I decided to rewrite the book as a memoir. Now it is a book that I am quite proud of, as it reflects a wider scope of Bertha's story (which is also my grandmother's story and my mother's and mine as well). In the same way, I believe Harper Lee had similar discussions about her first go at a novel, and she came away with some ideas about how she wanted to change her portrayal of this character, Atticus Finch, and the town of Maycomb... and herself. Thus she produced the much beloved work we know today as Mockingbird. If only she'd had the presence of mind to toss that first manuscript in the incinerator... as I have done with my first attempt.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

I posted this particular piece one year ago, but since so many of my friends will kick off the school year in new teaching positions. Best wishes to those who have the courage to stand boldly before their students and endeavor to guide with patience and love.

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they wrote to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that are heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a Petsmart parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

If you teach a girl to fish....

In a recent phone conversation with my buddy Doug, I whined to him about all the projects I still want to tackle before school starts again, one of which being the repair of one of the “rainbirds” in my sprinkler system. His directions for fixing it went something like this:

     “Uhhhmmm, I think ya gotta yank that sucker outa the ground, then take it to Home Depot and tell ‘em ya need one just like it, then come back and slap the new sucker in.”

It may not be glaringly obvious from his articulate instruction, but Doug is an engineer. He teaches that subject plus photography at the same high school where I teach. What he was getting at, though, was that it wouldn’t make sense to try to repair the mechanism. Replacing the entire sprinkler head was required.

Sigh. This is a job I’ve never done before, and I’ve never watched anyone do it (which is how I learned to change a tire, replace a kitchen faucet and swap out a toilet, all of which I have done by myself). But with a return to work looming in the near future, I decided today to simply see how far I could get on the project before really screwing it up.

Before I began, I left water from the hose trickling around the sprinkler head while I ate breakfast so it would be a bit easier to dig out the sod and so the job would be a bit less dusty. Lord knows my poor lawn could use an extra drink of water.

Then I began. It took less than five minutes to dig down around the sprinkler. I thought I might have to dig a pretty deep hole in order to spin the thing around to unscrew it, but the blessed saint who installed the system had put an elbow joint there, so as I began to rotate the head, the joint pulled up to a ninety degree angle, and removing the broken part was easy peasy.

Not long after moving into this house, it was with great good fortune that I had found, in the side yard, three perfectly good sprinkler heads. I left them there for a rainy day. Wait—wrong metaphor. All that is to say, I skipped Doug’s middle step of heading off to Home Depot because I already had the replacement part (times 3).

I rinsed mud and debris off the connecting joint, screwed the new sprinkler head back on, secured Purrl in the house because she’d been outside helping me as she always does, and turned the system on to see if it worked.

I stood for a moment, savoring my monumental triumph. (I would have whooped and cheered loudly, but it would have set my neighbor’s dog into fits of barking, and they have a new baby, so I kept it to a whispered “Yes!!!

Positioning the sprinkler in the hole, pushing the soil back in and replacing the sod took about two minutes. To be honest, the entire project could have been accomplished in about ten minutes had I not stopped to take photos, thus documenting the process for Doug.

Who, by the way, was very proud of me—but never doubted that I could do it. And just let me say here how much I appreciate guy friends who teach me life skills instead of simply offering to do the job for me. Doug’s a nice guy. Had I asked him, he would have come over in a heartbeat and done it for me. He assumed I would want to do it myself unless I absolutely couldn’t. As a badass independent woman, I have to say I like that in a man.

Moral of the story: Teach a girl to fish, and ever after she’ll not only keep herself busy when you take her fishing, but you can sit back, have a beer, and let her go at it. Ok, maybe that moral doesn’t exactly apply to this story, but I do like to imagine the scenario. It’s kinda romantic.