Wednesday, June 22, 2016

More on The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford

Bertha Gifford's first husband was Henry Graham (which would make him my great-grandfather) Recently I met a cousin with whom I am related through the Graham family. (Thank you, thank you, Before we met, she had already learned of Henry's infamous wife and had read the new, independently published version of my book, The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford.

When we met for lunch, Laurie didn't know anything about me other than what she'd read on my blog and that we shared great-great-grandparents. As we chatted about the book, though, I was struck by how similar our perspective on it was. She kept going back to the so-called "confession," the statement Bertha gave to Sheriff Georg regarding her personal use of arsenic as a medication and how she had administered it while acting as a volunteer nurse. Laurie's thought was this: If her intent had been murder, why would she readily volunteer this information? Wouldn't she instead try to deny it?

I come back to that point frequently myself, and I'm also quite sure that what Sheriff Georg asked her to sign was a statement summarizing what she'd said. Not until the statement was given to the press was it characterized as a "confession." Yep, we've all seen those true crime shows—48 Hours, Dateline, Cold Case Files—in which the perpetrator sits for hours in a small interrogation room being questioned repeatedly, and we all hope to see the moment in which the guilty individual will finally cave and come clean. This was not the case with Bertha. Sheriff Georg put her in a room alone and simply left her there for hours. I'm guessing by the time he finally returned and asked her for a statement about her use of arsenic, she was anxious to comply so that she could get back home to the farm and her husband, her son and her granddaughter (my mother). She never expected to be arrested based on the contents of that document.

Let me repeat what I've said countless times before: I make no attempt to exonerate her. I just want people to think through all of the known facts before making a judgment about her.

Friday, June 10, 2016

+1 Wherein I return without delay to my previous occupation after a thirty-year absence (of sorts)

I wasn't supposed to be a teacher. I knew from a young age that I had been gifted with the ability to write (a gift I do not take lightly), and I also knew that I was a damn fine horse trainer, patient as the day is long and able to get along better with most horses than I did with people. So my career goal in high school centered around those two endeavors. I thought if I could find the right partner in life, I could settle in to a routine which included working horses in the morning hours and writing in the afternoons. For a tiny space of time, I reached that goal—but then was thrust clean out of the end zone by life's capriciousness (if you'll forgive a football metaphor in a writer/horsewoman post).

When I found myself single at thirty with four kids and no child support from their daddy (the guy who said, "Let's have six!"), I knew I needed to do something quick, so I went back to school to get my teaching credential as teaching would afford me the most amount of time—winter break, spring break, summer break—with my children. When I took off my stay-at-home mom/writer hat and donned the mortarboard of academia, I'd already published one book (at the age of twenty-three) and was smack dab in the middle of writing a second. (That second book, which I abandoned during my divorce, would have been a good one... but was never finished.)

In all fairness, I can't say I haven't been writing in the past thirty years. I have. I've had three more books published, and I've seen my work in national periodicals such as The Writer and the Christian Science Monitor, in addition to the Los Angeles Times.  (Yay me!) But one of those books was written in the short span of a ten-week summer break. Another, the YA novel, was written in just thirty days during NaNoWriMo. So the writing has been on the back burner while teaching has been my day job.

Yesterday, I carefully removed all the remaining bobby pins from my mortarboard and wrapped it up in metaphorical plastic to be stored forever as a memento of the job I came to love so much it stopped being a "job" years ago.

And today I woke at 4:00 (old habits die hard), crawled out of bed (carefully, as Purrl will sink her claws into my leg to keep me in bed like a sleepy teen slamming the snooze button), pulled on a comfortable old pair of cargo pants and a t-shirt, and set my writer's hat jovially, insouciantly, enthusiastically and passionately upon my head. Hallelujah! It still fits!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

1. And Done.

I carried my cell phone in the back pocket of my jeans today--like the kids--in order to live tweet through my last day of work. Until I realized it wasn't. So I just used it to note all the things I'm not going to miss about teaching high school:

I'll never sit at the light at Euclid and 11th street--whether on my bike or in the truck--at 7:10a.m. watching mothers on their cell phones, waiting for the light to change, oblivious to the kids and skateboards and bikes around them, oblivious to the horrible example they're setting for the teen they're taking to school who will be driving soon.

I'll never endure another Back-to-School night.

I'll never again sit in my room alone after school grading essays during finals week while all my colleagues and friends in the art and voc ed department run off gleefully to have lunch together.

I'll never have to try to carefully compose a "professional" response to a parent's rude and accusatory email.

The list goes on.

People have been telling me for days that I can now "sleep in!" but the truth is, I'm an early riser and will continue to be so in retirement (just not at 4:00a.m., which has been the case for the past fifteen years).

I realized this morning that really, this isn't my last day of "work." That day happened a long, long time ago, and I'll never be able to put my finger on which one it was, but after years of teaching, it just ceased to feel like work. The campus was a place I went to every week day to hang out with teenagers, share some insights into literature, provide guidance and support where needed, and do some paperwork. In exchange for that, I received a paycheck once a month, and I never stopped being amazed and grateful when I did.

So there was no big sigh of relief when the final bell rang today, no celebratory shout of "Woo hooooo!" emanating from my portable classroom. In fact, my room was so instantly flooded with kids coming by to wish me well, it hardly seemed like an end to anything. Just more of the same good stuff I've been privileged to experience for the last twenty-seven years.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


In the midst of giving a final, grading yesterday's finals, continuing to pack up my room and writing letters of recommendation for students applying to summer programs in advance of their senior year, I was visited today by several favorites--Nico (please vote for him for Upland school board and city council), Allison, Crissy (aka "Scottie" as she is also the school mascot in the giant scottie dog costume), Mariah (who brought me not one but two red velvet cupcakes, oh my buddha!) and most poignantly, Desiree Dragna, teacher of freshmen and my replacement for next year.

Desiree came looking for "wisdom," as she put it, and I had to laugh. My joke with the Honors kids is that they were unfortunate enough to get me and not a "real" teacher. As the year progresses, some of them come to appreciate the fact that I am unconventional in my teaching. Not all, of course.

As I'm sure I've mentioned, this is my 27th year of teaching. OK, full disclosure: It's actually going to be 26.5. My first paid teaching assignment began after winter break at a tiny middle school in San Bernardino called Richardson Prep High. (Yes, it is a middle school.) In all my years of teaching, I've never met anyone else who has taught there. Until today. And there was Desiree, young and thin and pretty with long, brown hair. Wow. Except for the "pretty," that was me a few decades ago. Best of all, she is down to earth, unpretentious, and the minute she begins to talk about teaching, it's clear that she loves her job, loves the kids and, as she put it, feels Upland High School is her "home." She is absolutely perfect to take up where I left off with the Honors program and with my sweathogs as well. I had a lot of happy moments today (especially when eating those cupcakes), but this just absolutely made me feel at peace in leaving.

People have told me in recent weeks (when I've said I will miss the new crop of freshmen coming in) that it's ok; those kids don't know me, so they don't know what they're missing. I don't know about all that, but I have wondered who will be there to love them as I do. Desiree. Desiree already loves them and she hasn't even met them yet.

And we decided, Desiree and I, that while she may be the new kid now, she's going to hang in there and stay at Upland for a couple of decades, until everyone else with seniority over her retires or leaves the planet, at which point she'll be the one calling the shots. I wish her all the best. She's gonna be fantastic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


It was my intention to count down the last five days of work, a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 celebration of all the good things that came along with teaching. But who had time to write? I've been busy teaching, creating finals, grading essays and make-up work, to say nothing of cleaning out my classroom. (Where do I put all this memorabilia? I want to keep forever the notes, cards, drawings and goofy things for my desk kids have made for me over the years. I still have the tiny clay giraffe Diego Salas made for me a dozen years ago.)

So the days have gotten away from me. But then this happened today, which really spurred me on to document some of the wonderfulness:

As part of our regular celebration of poets and poetry, my Honors classes and I watched Dead Poets Society whenever we had a spare twenty minutes here and there. It took the entire year to finish it, but we did.

So today, at the end of Period One, when I collected all their finals and told them they had completed all work for the class (except for those who will still turn in re-writes tomorrow or the next day), there elapsed a second or two of silence. Then Steve got out of his seat, stood upon his desk and said, "O captain, my captain." Another second clicked off, then other students slowly got out of their desks and stood upon them, saying the same thing. By the third "O captain, my captain," I was nearly overwhelmed with emotion.

Pretty sure they have no idea how much I love them. They are amazing and wonderful.

And on Saturday, we had the Journalism banquet. Every year, after we've distributed the final newspaper for the school year, we all gather at a restaurant and share a meal and laugh over the highlights (and lowlights) of the past ten months. We had a particularly wonderful staff this year, with some funny, quirky new kids and of course, the seasoned veterans who make the paper great. Often, I feel like I'm herding cats or standing in a circus ring with a whip and a chair, trying to get the wild beasts to get their stories done. I scolded them a lot this year.

And what did they do in return? They gave me gifts.

They gave me two beautiful bouquets of flowers and a box of chocolates and a Starbucks gift card and an adorable stuffed giraffe—and a picture of me with the entire class that they had just taken two days before. It was mounted in a frame and around the matting they had all written personal notes. The only reason I didn't break down crying was that they'd had me laughing all evening. These, too, are amazing and wonderful kids.

One of the chores I had to do today was to return 36 copies of the freshman literature textbook to the library. They've been in my classroom for a decade. Two of my freshman favorites, Rosa and Denny, just happened to stop by my room after school. When I asked Rosa to help, she and Denny took over the job, pushing a cart over from the library, loading it up, then navigating the unwieldy vessel all the way back to the library.

More amazing and wonderful kids.

What will tomorrow bring?