Throwback Thursday Edition

From the vault, to you, wherever you happen to be. I wrote this post while I was still a teacher at Grant Sine P.S. in Cobourg. Four and a half years ago seems like a lifetime to me. So much has changed. Grant Sine P.S. is now closed. I am now retired. But, at the time, it was my favourite place in the world. The kids and their families were very special. My colleagues have become forever friends.

There was no school experience quite like the one I had at Grant Sine P.S.; especially, on a Friday.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Thank Goodness It’s Friday….or, Not!!!!

I am not sure if it actually is Friday as you are reading this but, that doesn’t really matter. This post is not about this Friday or, any other Friday, for that matter.  It is more about the symbolic nature of our safe harbours and the fragile nature of the people who seek shelter there.  It is about fearing the blue skies and sunshine of free time. It is about being at school on a Friday afternoon, with the dismissal bell ringing, your teacher ushering you out the door and you, not wanting to leave.  It is about the idea of home.

I am fairly confident that you, like me, view the end of the work day on Fridays as a cause for celebration.  Bring on the weekend!  For most of us, we work because we have to but, it is on our free time that we can relax, re-energize and slip into the comfortable clothes of the life we really love. 

When you think about schools in this regard, the image that springs to mind is of the dismissal bell ringing for summer vacation, the doors of the school bursting open and the kids pouring out, hooting and hollering, throwing their books and papers into the air, heading out to the carefree world of summer vacation!  That image had been my reality as a teacher for the first 17 years of my career.  Everywhere I taught, the kids were as excited for their weekends as their teachers were.  Everyone was happy on Fridays!  Spring Break always rocked!  And, don’t get me started about the giddiness of summer vacation!

But, then I transferred into the school I am presently teaching at and everything changed.  I teach in the middle of a social housing complex, which means that virtually every student at my school comes from a household that relies on some form of financial assistance from the Government in order for them to meet their basic needs of food and shelter.  When I first began working here, I had a vague notion of what poverty meant for me, as their teacher. I thought that everything would be fine as long as they worked hard for me.  I could supplement when necessary with supplies but, an honest work ethic would be enough to help the kids enjoy a successful time in our classroom.  If they were academically low, that was fine.  I work with all manner of students and would happily do so with them.  Basically, I walked into our classroom on the first day of school, totally and completely unprepared for what I was to encounter. Suffice to say, poverty is a bitch!   My time at this school has provided ME with the real education.  I am a changed and better human being for having had this experience. 

It is difficult to accurately describe what living in poverty is like.  For someone like me, who has a full fridge, a warm house with lots of toys and a bank account with my own dollars in it, I have no right to state that I know what it is like to be poor.  But, as witness to the myriad displays of emotion,  drama and humanity that unfold before my eyes, each and every day, in our classroom, schoolyard and hallways, I, most certainly, have knowledge to share.  The best way I know of to even remotely convey the depth of the complex, multi-faceted, nuanced layering of issues at play when it comes to poverty, is to tell you the following true story.  The story is called The Christmas Block and, honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up!  Writing this for you blows my mind, even now.

One of the ways that we, as staff, dealt with the pervausive nature of poverty at our school, was to focus on developing a greater sense of community among the students and, by extension, their families, too.  We tried to show them that you don’t have to be rich to be nice, to do the right things in life, to be helpful, to contribute to the betterment of the classroom/school/community in a positive way. We tried to empower them and to help to boost their self-esteem by making them realize their own self-worth as human beings on our planet.    That is no small task, in an environment where everyone is beaten down and in various stages of defeat.

Among the many initiatives we enacted, was one where we actively sought out opportunites for the students to participate in events outside of the school.  The thinking was, to attempt to change the public’s perecption of our school from being ” a welfare school, filled with bad kids” to being a nice school, with a warm sense of community and an ever growing list of positive accomplishments.  In this light, we jumped at the chance to participate in an event sponsored by our local Public Library.  It was a storywriting competition.  The lure for us was that they had categories of prizes for the top stories but, also, prizes for the best rate of participation, as a percentage of the school’s total population.  Being a rather small school, size wise, we thought that if we could just get each student to simply write a story that met the contest criteria then, we would automatically qualify to the participation prize. This would mean that we would get to go to the awards celebration and get our school’s name in the newspaper.  So, off our little authors went.

In my class, we had to write a story about any topic we wanted, as long as it was 100 words long.  Sweet!  No problem!  We could do it, even if it took us a couple of weeks!   As the children wrote, their stories were woefully-unimaginative.  This was not surprising due to the lack of literacy in their homes.  It is hard to become a creative and expressive writer when no one has ever read a bedtime story to you in your life.  But, even with the low quality of most of the stories, one stood out as even weaker than the rest.  It was from a boy named Tom* ( I am using my name, for the sake of privacy).  Tom was a unique student for several reasons: one, he had shown an above-average level of ability with Mathematics. This gave him the reputation among his peers, as being one of the smartest kids in the whole school.  Tom was, also, unique, in that he had a tremendous amount of pride and, routinely, refused any of the free food, clothing or school supplies that his classmates so eagerly and consistently grabbed up. So, when it came time to read Tom’s story, I had hoped that it would be one of the few to demonstrate a decent amount of skill.

Tom called his story, “The Christmas Block”. To summarize it, the story read….it was Christmas morning. His only gift was a wooden block.  He liked it.  He put it down to go outside to play. When he returned, the block was gone. Someone had stolen it, he was told. The end.

My initial reaction was one of disappointment.  Who writes a story about a block for Christmas?!  What changed my thinking was when I showed this story to a colleague who had been at this school much longer than I had.  She was far more familair with the inner-workings of the neighbourhood that I was.  As she read it, she said, “I think Tom is trying, in his own cryptic way, to tell you that something bad happened to him at Christmas. If I was to guess, I’d say he is trying to tell you that his parents took his gifts and sold them for food or drugs or cigarettes or whatever.”
To say that I was stunned is an understatement.  

I conferenced with all of the students about their stories. When it came time for Tom’s conference, I was pumped.  I asked him to tell me about his story. He just repeated that it was about a block that he had lost. He was very tight-lipped about it all.   I asked him if he had lost the block in real life.  He said it was just a story.  I asked him if he or anyone he knew, had lost birthday or Christmas toys. He replied, without looking up, that lots of things happen in his neighbourhood. I asked him again, if the story of the Christmas block was a real story. Tom got up, smiled a sheepish smile and, as he began walking away said, thanks for the contest. 

Tom was the sort of student who was never going to admit what had actually happened to him nor, that it had happened before and would, in all liklihood, happen again in the future.  But the more I poked around, trying to uncover the truth, the more convinced I became that, in fact, Tom had had his Christmas gifts taken from him by his parents and so had many other students.  In fact, the systemic looting of children’s possessions to help fuel the addicitions of their caregivers was, as it turned out, quite a normal part of life in my school neighbourhood.  No one was outraged by it.  It was just how the world worked, in the eyes of my students.

As I came to understand this more, I began to recognize the connections between what was happening at home and some of the behaviours I was seeing at school.  For instance, almost all of the kids were, what I would call, hoarders.  Their desks were crammed full of anything and everything that we had done in class.  At first, my Type-A personality was such that Desk Clean-out day was a regular feature of life in our classroom. But, I soon came to realize that everything that was going home was ending up being put straight into the garbage. There were no refrigerator art galleries in these homes.  I began to learn that if the student valued their work then, it needed to be honoured on the walls of the school because, that was their only chance to be recognized as being special.

The story would end here, if not for a bit of luck with the contest.   Our school was awarded the prize for best rate of participation!  That was awesome but, what surprised us all was that, Tom’s story was selected for special recognition.  We had been contacted and asked to nominate someone who was not known as a writer but yet, had produced noteworthy work.  I thought of Tom right away.  I sent an short, explanatory note along with his story. The judges read his story and deemed it worthy. So, Tom and his whole family were invited, along with me, to go to the Gala Awards ceremony at a fancy-schmancy banquet hall downtown.  This was not the sort of place that families from my school normally frequented.  

The awards ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:00 in the morning. Tom and his family were downtown by 8:00am.  I know that because I was running an early morning errand and saw them walking around the banquet hall, trying to find their way inside.   When I arrived, I found them seated in the front row of chairs.  The whole family was there; Tom, his older brother, his mother and father, too.  All of the men had gotten haircuts. They were wearing new dress shirts which came from the Dollar Store, according to Mom, who was very proud of her men.  

The emcee of the ceremony was a local author of some reknown.  He had quite a dramatic flair and proceeded to work his way through the various prize categories by reading snippets of each student’s winning entry.   As he did this, I thought about what might happen when he read Tom’s story about his parents stealing his Christmas gift……with them sitting in the front row!!!    But, as it turned out, I didn’t have much to worry about.  Our emcee turned Tom’s plain-sounding little story, into a melodrama worthy of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials.  As an orator, he had Tom’s words fill up the entire hall.  The story sounded glorious!   Tom’s family were thrilled.  As Tom was called up to receive his award, he kept his head bowed the entire time, even as the applause of the crowd filled the room.

His mother hugged me and thanked me for helping her son to have such a wonderful moment. Tom’s dad shook my hand.  Then, they turned quickly away and melted into the sunshine outside and went back home.

Like I said, I just can’t make this stuff up!

Since working at this school, I have seen how poverty really affects my students.  How it creates environments where the students view parents as people who will protect you with one hand while stealing from you with the other.  Being raised in such an environment means that my students don’t react to material possessions the same way as other children might.  Incentive programmes don’t hold any sway here.  I can’t tell a child that if they complete X-number of tasks they will earn a reward because, they know their possessions will just end up being stolen or broken at home.  The normal mentality of striving to achieve a goal doesn’t work here.  There is a disconnect between the wishes of my students and the reality of their lives.  Nobody writes letters to Santa at my school.   It is a vicious, negative existance, from my point of view but, from the point of view of my students, it is just life.  It is so messed up. But, poverty is messed up, too!

So now, when the dismissal bell rings on a Friday afternoon and the kids don’t really want to leave…I have developed a greater ability to understand why.  I counter this, the only way I really know how, I hug every one of them who seem to need it.  Then, they are wished a good weekend and I stand in the doorway and watch them walk toward home.

Will You be My Neighbour?

When my wife and I bought the house we are currently living in, we were enchanted by the neighbourhood. It was tree-lined, quiet and the neighbours all seemed friendly. It was, in real-estate terms, an established neighbourhood. Many of the homeowners were original to the neighbourhood when it was first built. Their families had grown up and moved away. So, when young newlyweds moved on the street, folks were genuinely happy at the prospect of children, once again, playing outside and riding bicycles up and down the street.

Not surprisingly, within a few years of living here, age began to catch up with our neighbours. One by one, either because of death or illness, several of our neighbours left our street and their homes went up for sale. Just as we did a few years prior, more young families moved in and the trend toward the neighbourhood becoming younger intensified. In fact, the house directly adjacent to us on our south side was sold. The day the new family moved in is where this story begins.

We were puttering around our yard when the new folks pulled into their driveway and began unloading their car. After giving them a few minutes, I went over an introduced myself and welcomed them to the neighbourhood. The man introduced himself as Chris and his wife, as Robin. They had one child; a son slightly older than my eldest daughter, leah so, about nine or ten at the time. They seemed very friendly and went on to be excellent neighbours. We waved to each other whenever one of us was driving by. We helped shovel each other’s driveway in the winter and mowed grass for each other in the summer. Robin was a teacher, like Keri and myself so, we talked shop occasionally. Chris and I talked about yard things; for example, he admired a new shed that I had built and placed in my backyard. They minded their business and we stayed out of theirs. It was all lovely.

But, I discovered just the other day, that our neighbours had been keeping a secret. A fairly big secret, as it turns out. My mind is blown…still! I will share that secret with you now.

Chris and Robin separated a few years ago. That saddened us, as we liked them as a couple and as neighbours. Chris moved into an apartment across town. Robin and their son stayed next door. Because of custody-sharing arrangements, we still saw Chris frequently, coming and going with his son. He still waved and smiled at us. We still waved and smiled back.

When Chris wasn’t around, we noticed that his son was spending most of his time playing the drums. He had a full drum kit in the basement of their house and he played, day and night, for hours at a time. Fortunately for us, he was actually a talented young drummer so, it wasn’t excruciating to hear his beats seeping up out of the foundation of their house. It was almost the same style of drumming that you would associate with the heavy drum solos that rock drummers sometimes perform during concerts. At one point, the son drummed so much that we began to think that, perhaps, he was autistic, and was obsessively drumming for emotional reasons. But, truth be told, Robin and her son never bothered us so, we viewed his drumming as a small price to pay for having reliable neighbours beside us.

Eventually, Robin put the house up for sale. She and her son have moved out of the neighbourhood and we have not seen them nor Chris for several months now.

A new family moved next door. A husband and wife, with two small children. They have been wonderful neighbours, too. We are lucky. The woman, Leslie, is a teacher and happens to work at the same school as my wife, Keri, does. Occasionally, they drive to school and back together. This happened the other day. During the course of the drive, Leslie wondered if we found her children too noisy when they were playing in their backyard. Keri replied that they were fine especially compared to the little drummer boy we just had next door. Leslie replied that she wasn’t surprised that the boy played the drums because, when they first looked at the house when it was up for sale, they noticed that it was filled with rock n’ roll memorabilia. When they asked the sales agent about it, they were told that the memorabilia belonged to a gentleman named Christian Tanna, drummer and co-founding member of Canadian rock supergroup, I Mother Earth.  Leslie was surprised that we didn’t know this already.

What!!!!!??????   My friendly neighbour, Chris…….the smiling, wavy-haired Dad who I watched mow the lawn in grubby shirts….the guy who had shed-envy……..was actually Christian Tanna, drummer for I Mother Earth!!!!!   And he never said a single word about it. Not one. There was nothing about how he looked or how he conducted himself that would had given us any indication that we had a rock star for a neighbour.  Sometimes, you just never know what goes on behind the closed doors of the nice homes on your street.

Christian Tanna or, Chris as I call him, is the third from the left (in the blue tank top) and this is I Mother Earth at the end of one of their shows.  Now it makes sense that his son was such a prodigious drummer and that he had talent, too. I Mother earth were really big in the 90s in Canada. I have to be honest and say that they weren’t my favourite band back then but, being equally honest, Chris is my favourite rock star neighbour!!!!

As I look at this photo, I am still shaking my head. Can’t believe that I didn’t know who was living in the house next door.

Driving Miss Leah

This past weekend, my daughter, Leah and her friend, Emily, travelled with me to The University of Guelph campus for our third annual trek to participate in The Science Behind the Magic of Harry Potter Festival. This festival is put on by the university’s Science department and is a wonderful way to introduce scientific concepts like Biology, Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Astronomy, Physics and much more, to eager young minds, all the while presenting it under the guise of the world of Harry Potter. There are costumes galore, as well as, games, food and contests…..all taken directly from J.K. Rowling’s books.

When Leah and Emily went for the first time two years ago, they were ten and nine years old, respectively. Life was still pretty simple for them. Neither had their own phone. No one they knew was “dating”. Neither had gone to an unsupervised party where there would be boys and girls together.  They were still very much children. Looking back, I realize I should have enjoyed their giddy silliness more during our two and a half hour long drive there and back. Those were innocent times. But, times change.

This weekend, I drove two pre-teens there and back. Those giddy children have evolved into quieter, more introspective young women. Since both knew what to expect when we arrived in Guelph, there was no nervous excitement filling the car on the way down. Emily sketched in a notebook and worked on an original story she was creating. Leah read for awhile and then listened to music on her phone. Neither wore a Harry Potter-inspired costume this time (Leah did wear a Hermione Granger t-shirt but, it stayed hidden under her hoodie).

Both girls enjoyed all of the activities that they participated in, as they have the past two years as well. But, there was one difference this year and it was this:  because I am the only adult accompanying the girls, I have always felt a sense of obligation to my wife, to Emily’s parents, to Leah’s Grandparents and so on, to document all of the super exciting, creative and informative activities the girls are involved in. So, I have always taken lots of photos to share with everyone later, when we are back home. This year, as I was taking photos, the following happened:  during one of the activities, Leah rolled her eyes, looked to the Heavens and said, with a tone of exasperation, “Dad! Will…you…please …stop!”

No one in the room seemed to notice, including Emily, who was busy completing her activity. But, I noticed. And, I stopped taking her picture.  Dad was embarrassing daughter, simply by quietly being Dad. This isn’t the first time this has happened lately. For example, Leah began attending middle school this year. This school has ten times the enrolment of her old school. I offered to go with her on the first day to make sure she got where she was supposed to be going. She refused and said I could go to the crosswalk with her but no further. Being retired, I have time to volunteer to go on class trips with my girls for the first time ever. Leah said, “OMG, Dad!  I’d die if you came on a trip!”  Leah is changing. She will be an official teenager in April.

Like all parents come to realize, there is a time when our children begin to carve out their own identity and create a life that is truly their own. Leah has just left the starting blocks on this journey. It is tough watching her go.

But, as tough as it is for me to observe it all, it must be far tougher to be a young girl growing up in today’s society. Both Emily and Leah are finding their lives changing in real time. On the drive back home, they sat in the back seat and started talking to each other about it. I was wise enough to keep my mouth closed and just drive the car.  We passed a mall on the way out of Guelph. This started a conversation about book stores (which both girls adore) and then, back-to-school shopping trips. This transformed into a talk by Leah to Emily about being at the newer, bigger school (Emily will go there next year) and then, on to the topic of shopping for clothes.

Both girls lamented the lack of clothing options they felt were available to them. Both complained about the pressure they felt to wear clothes that were too tight and body hugging, too short and revealing or else, too full of holes (such as in ripped jeans). Both girls lamented the seeming inability to find clothes that were soft, roomy and comfortable. Without saying it, Leah and Emily are beginning to realize the trap that society has prepared for young girls and that is the trap of sexualizing their bodies. Leah and Emily are bright, intelligent, caring and creative young women. They have much to offer our world. They are definitely more than the sum of their body parts. But, as we drove through the rush hour traffic at the top of Toronto, they both talked about how much they dislike the way fashion choices seem to force them into a role that they don’t want to accept; especially, in the eyes of boys that they labelled, without hesitation, as being very immature and annoying. It was quite a conversation.

There is power in the ability to make your own decisions. Right now, Leah is beginning to  experience what it is to make her own choices; the first major life choice being, pulling away from her parents. Whether it be spending countless hours in her room with the door closed and headphones on or else, finding it excruciatingly embarrassing to be seen in public with her Mom or Dad, Leah is coming to realize that the trail she must blaze is one that must be done on her own. It won’t be a pain-free process but through it all, I will be there for her if she needs me. But, for now, I will step back as she steps away and through it all, I have to trust and hope that she will grow and become the person she is meant to be and be happy and proud of who that person turns out to be.

In the meantime, I will shut my mouth and keep driving the car.

Rose Blanche

In Canada, on November 11, we pause and reflect upon those whose lives have been affected by War. We call this day, Remembrance Day. In schools all over the country, children will learn about how wars come about and how they are resolved. They will learn about famous battles and about the soldiers who fought and died in them. They will, also, learn about symbols of war, such as the poppy, that we wear over our hearts.

In my career as a teacher, I always welcomed the opportunity to explore the serious topic of conflict with my students. Coming as it does on the heels of Halloween, Remembrance Day serves to vividly highlight the distinction between dress up costumes from the world of monsters and a soldier’s military dress, from the world of war. My experience was that the kids were usually quite respectful during our Remembrance Day activities and that they wanted to do their best work and that they wanted to learn more about what War was really like. That’s where having access to good books helped a lot.

One of my first goals in my Remembrance Day Units was to impress upon the kids that War is not like a video game or a movie. It is not play time. It was very real and serious for those involved. However, it is important to remember that small children do not often have any personal experiences to draw upon during these initial discussions so, it was important for me to present battle scenes in ways that they could relate to.  So, I showed them battle scene photos; especially of the trench warfare from Passchendale or Ypres; all mud and obliterated landscapes and I asked them simple questions like, “What do you think the soldiers did when they got hungry?”….there were no recess breaks during the battles where the soldiers could all have a snack. “Where did they go to the bathroom?”….there were no toilets or toilet paper. “Where did they sleep at night?”…..there were no beds or blankets, only cold, wet mud.  It didn’t take many discussions like this for the kids to realize that they would not like to be in those conditions of battle at all. They quickly came to the conclusion that many soldiers were tired and hungry and cold and wished that they were anywhere else than where they were. In other words, the students started to develop a sense of empathy.
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Once those discussions were had, I wanted to take their thoughts to the next level by talking about, not just the brave soldiers who fought in the battles but, those also affected by War…..the civilians. We would talk about what would happen to our school, our houses and our neighbourhoods if wartime battles took place there. This is when I would reach for one of the most important and valuable books I had in my personal library, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti.

What a potent and powerful story this is!  The main character, Rose Blanche, is a young German girl. The story is told from her perspective and unfolds over the course of the entire Second World War. As you know from History, Germany was quite successful in the first half of World War II. So, in the beginning of this book, Rose’s town is decorated with flags, it is clean, the buildings are sturdy and bright, the soldiers passing through are all well-dressed in clean uniforms, their tanks and other equipment are all shiny and new.

But, one day, while coming from school, Rose witnesses something that changes her life. She sees a young boy, her age, taken by police and put in the back of a closed truck that was filled with other people. She doesn’t understand why the boy was taken away and decides to follow the truck as it heads out of town. At this point, I always stopped and asked the kids why they thought the boy was taken away. Every class said that he must have been bad and broken a law or done something wrong. No one ever said that it was because he was Jewish.

Rose’s journey leads her to a prison camp. The sickly looking people on the other side of the barbed wire all have yellow stars on their clothes. Rose doesn’t understand why they are imprisoned but she knows they are starving so she starts smuggling food out of her own home and bringing it to the prisoners.

The illustrations in the second half of the story start to reflect the tide of the War as it turned against the Germans. Now, the buildings Rose walks past are damaged, the landscape is turning grey, soldiers are coming in the opposite direction from when we first saw them and they are injured and weary-looking. Without saying it in words, the illustrations show that the front lines of the War are approaching Rose’s town.

IMG_2743The book concludes with Rose walking, again, to the prison camp. But, this time, a battle is raging in the forest by the camp and in the chaos of that battle a shot rings out and Rose is killed. The final page of the book shows the battle field has regenerated and a poppy is growing where Rose had stood that fateful day. The first line on this page reads, “Rose Blanche’s mother wanted a long time for her little girl.” It is an emotional punch in the gut. The kids are usually all very sombre at this point so I would always pause slightly and then, in hushed tones, ask about their Mom waiting for them to come home that day and how she would feel if they didn’t come home as expected.

No one thinks War is fun or cool after this.

Rose Blanche is a serious book. But, there is a place in a classroom for serious books. The key to being able to successfully address serious topics in a classroom is having established a safe, trusting environment during those opening weeks of the school year. This is not a book to read on the first day of school. But, it is a book to read once you, as a teacher, reach the point when you can say to a class that we are safe in this space, we can talk about anything in this space and we can move forward together in this space. Books like Rose Blanche expedite this bonding process exponentially.

Rose Blanche is the sort of book that kids would look at thoughtfully and quietly on their own or with a trusted friend during our Reading time. I always kept the book out on display throughout our Remembrance Day Unit and then put it away afterwards. However, before putting it away, I always made sure to promise the kids that if they ever wanted to read it again then, I would happily share the book with them. That’s what you do with good books….you share them with your friends, as I am now with you.

Are there any “serious” books that you remember from school or from home that made a lasting impact on your life? If so, I would love to hear about it in the comments. Thanks, as always, for reading my words.

Compliments As Currency

For as long as I have can remember, people have told me that I am a good writer.  I have been advised to “get that published” more times than I can count. Right from my first original story written for a writing assignment in Grade Three, all the way through High School, into my professional role as a classroom teacher and now, in the golden glow of my retirement years, people have been very kind in their reactions to the words I write. Believe me, I am most appreciative of the positive feedback. If compliments were currency, you and I, Dear Reader, would be enjoying a wonderful meal at a fine restaurant, right now.

As I approached my retirement, one of the goals that I had set for myself was to give my writing a chance to grow into something more than social media posts and commentary. I wanted to rekindle my love of writing and of being creative. To do so meant devoting consistent periods of time each week to my craft. Being retired has been a wonderful tonic in that regard. The posts I have created for this blog have helped remind me of how it feels to be a writer. These posts have, also, caused me to have a more creative world view. Now, for example, when I am out for a stroll or mowing the lawn, my thoughts are not on the weeds in the grass but more, on how the shadows are being cast by the tree in my yard or the sound of the waves crashing on the shores of Lake Ontario. I used to think about work-related things, mere months ago. Now, I find myself thinking more like a writer would and that pleases me.

My last blog post was two and half weeks ago. Let me briefly explain my absence. I have not been idle.  After I published my last post, I began renovations on the sunroom that sits at the back of our house. For any of you who have done your own renovations, you know there is no getting around the fact that you have to work hard. Demolition takes times, as does prepping for the rebuild. Nails have to be nailed, word sawed to measure, paint applied in colours, floors laid. The work time used to complete the renovations came out of the quiet time I had been setting aside in the mornings for writing.

However, while working on my own in the sunroom, I had time to think. My thoughts manifested themselves in the form of an idea for a story. An original story that, in my mind, I saw as a Picture Book. So, as the paint was drying on the sunroom walls, I sat down and spent several days fleshing the story out and coming up with a rough copy or first draft.  I finished the story toward the middle of last week. At that point, I had some decisions to make.

The Children’s Literature market is a thriving segment of the Book Publishing Industry in North America. In my previous roles as a Teacher-Librarian or as a classroom educator, I have interacted with this market as a consumer. I have become familiar with publishing companies, with authors and with the process of marketing books. It is a big business; one that does not suffer fools lightly. Consequently, in order to be competitive with the tens of thousands of other authors seeking “to be published”, I knew that I had to treat this new story differently than I do for my blog posts, for instance.

I am in control of my blog posts. When I finish typing these words, I will not consult editors or illustrators or finance and marketing experts. Instead, I will simply click on the “Publish” button at the top of my screen and my words will be made available you in your home on your screen of choice.  It costs me, as the author and you, as the reader, nothing but time to be involved in this creative transaction.

That is not the case in the real world of book publishing. Books don’t appear in book stores and at on-line retailers by magic. They are produced, marketed, distributed and promoted by people who all need to be paid for their services. For any publishing company to agree to publish my story, they would have to consider, not only the literary merits of my work but, also, the probability of my book being a revenue-producing investment for the owner and/or shareholders of the company.  I get that. I understand and appreciate the business side of publishing my work. I cannot divorce the financial reality from wish to have my story see the light of day.

So, that having been said, I have decided to go ahead and initiate the publication process anyway and honour my original, pre-retirement goal of giving my writing a chance. Late last week, I sent a copy of my rough draft to two friends; one with experience in the world of kidlit and one with more experience in the craft of writing and creating memorable characters and scenes. I asked them both for feedback. I chose my two friends carefully because I knew that they would give targeted feedback that would help me polish the story for submission purposes. When I have received both critiques, I intend to let my eldest daughter, Leah, read my story. While slightly older than my intended audience, she will be a good judge as to the quality and reasonableness of my dialogue, for example. It is not easy having my writing critiqued because my story is my baby and, like most writers, I am very protective of it. But, to be the best story possible, I acknowledge the need for constructive advice. I feel fortunate to be part of a supportive community of writers. I know “my baby” is in good hands.

I will keep you all abreast of developments as they occur. I am happy that you are coming along for this part of my journey and invite you to see it through with me to fruition. Your support and encouragement is what has gotten me to this point in my writing career. Thanks for everything you do, in terms of reading my posts, sharing them with your friends, offering comments and so on. It all means the world to me.

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Gotta love the New Yorker Magazine. Hopefully, my story won’t lay an egg!

Come on!  You know you were thinking it, too. 🙂

Nature Nurture

A boy was born today.

The hospital played, “Ode to Joy” to announce his arrival.

For a moment,

Staff paused their treatments,

Patients forgot their pain.

Hope filled their hearts

…..for a moment.

33-word micro-fiction post about the whole Boys Will Be Boys debate going on in our society. Thanks to my pal, Emily, for the word nurture as a story prompt.

Museum of Memories: a Lifetime of Reading to my Daughter.

You never know what a day is going to bring. Yesterday, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet from an American teacher. She tweeted about her Grade 5 class receiving a “Mystery Box” as part of a literacy programme sponsored by a blog called @BreakoutEDU. She showed photos of her students using clues that came with the box to crack secret codes which, in the end, opened to reveal a book called, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Ballet.  The teacher’s original tweet was aimed at the author, letting her know how excited her students were to begin reading Chasing Vermeer.

Being the supportive fellow that I am, I tweeted back to this teacher and told her that Leah and I had read this book aloud together a few years ago, along with the other two books in this trilogy and enjoyed them immensely. I went on to say that, in fact, Leah enjoyed the books so much that she had a framed print of the Vermeer art work mentioned in the story hanging in her bedroom as I typed.

Within a few minutes, I received a reply from the author, Blue Balliett, herself. Like all authors, she expressed her gratitude to me for informing her that her work had made a difference in some reader’s life. IMG_2720In turn, I sent her a photo Leah’s bedroom so she could see the print for herself. ***You can see the print on the right side of Leah’s bookcase, in the middle of the column of three framed works. The painting is called, Lady Writing.  Blue Balliett replied that Leah’s room was “the bedroom her dreams”.

This got me thinking.

Leah and I have read together from the day she was born.  As a result, we have read thousands of books together. That time we shared was very precious and has helped create many warm memories for us, both, of the books we read, the characters we came to care about, the conversations that occurred, the warmth of our snuggles and much, much more.  Reading with your children is always about more than the words on the page. It is a bonding experience that is quite loving and profound. In time, as you read an author’s words, you start to feel the books in your hearts and minds.

For most of Leah’s early life, the books we shared were simpler in nature because her intellect was not mature enough for weighty concepts. But, with each book or book series read, her mind grew stronger and her inventory of literary experiences swelled. Soon she was ready for longer, more complex stories. The first series we read that made an emotional impact on us was The Little House on the Prairie books. We read all eight books consecutively. When it came time for Pa Ingalls to help Laura into Almanzo’s wagon and then, watch them ride off together, as husband and wife to their new home, I choked up with emotion. Leah and I both knew that scene was as much about us and how we will one day feel in that situation, as it ever was about Laura and her Pa.

IMG_2710We finished the final book in late Fall. Because of the emotional impact of the series, I decided to try and find something that I could give to Leah for Christmas that would serve to remind her of our time reading Little House together. My search took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder website. There, for sale, was the china shepherdess doll that Pa had given to Ma Ingalls in their early days together. The same doll that had accompanied them across America. This doll was my gift to Leah that Christmas and has sat on a shelf in her bedroom ever since.

The commemoration of a shared experience with a story or series started with the china shepherdess doll and became a tradition that we continued with each subsequent  book series.   The Vermeer print was the piece chosen to remember the Chasing Vermeer trilogy. What follows are snapshots of other memorials to books that Leah and I shared.

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A pencil drawing entitled, Lucy at the Lamp Post, hangs on Leah’s wall by her window. It says, “A Fairy Tale begins…” on it and serves as a reminder of our joy at reading The Chronicles of Narnia and how every epic adventure begins with a fateful decision and a leap of faith.

IMG_2709  We read the entire How To Train Your Dragon series. This framed print was the first time I paired a quote from the series with art work. The quote was uttered by the main character, Hiccup and goes like this:

Because: Love never dies. What is within is more important than what is without. The Best is not always the most obvious. And, once you’ve loved truly, Thor, then you know the way.

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One of my favourite book series was Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books. There are those who claim that this is the series that most influenced J.K. Rowling when she was writing Harry Potter.  In any case, the quest that 11 year old Will is on to collect six “signs” and help the forces of Light in their battle with the forces of Darkness, is summed up in this important poem from the books.

When the DARK comes rising, six shall turn it back;

three from the circle, three from the track.

Wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone,

Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday. Bronze carried long.

Wood from the burning. Stone out of song.

Fire from the candle-ring. Water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle and Grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold,

played to wake the sleepers; oldest of the old.

Power of the Greenwitch, lost beneath the sea.

All shall find the light at last; silver on the tree.

Leah can quote this from memory.

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Our memory from The Hunger Games trilogy was “Rue’s Lullaby”, as written in the book. If you have read the books or seen the movies then, you will know how poignant this scene was.

Deep in the grass, under the willow,

a bed of grass, a soft green pillow,

lay down your head and close your eyes

When again they open, the sun will rise.

Here it’s safe and here it’s warm,

Here the daisies guard you from every harm.

Here your dreams are sweet,

Tomorrow brings them true,

Here’s the place where I love you.

Deep in the meadow, hidden far away,

A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam’s ray,

Forget your woe and let your troubles lay,

When it’s morning, they’ll wash away.

And here….is the place…where I love you.

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From author Lois Lowry came The Giver trilogy.  From that set of books, we opted for the following quote:

   It is better, I think, to climb out in search of something instead of hating what you are leaving behind.

IMG_2718Finally, Leah and I are big fans of Phillip Pullman and His Dark Materials trilogy. I maintain that the final scene in the final book is one of the best scenes in Children’s Literature. From it, a speech of Love that spans the entirety of Space and Time.

I will love you forever, whatever happens.

Til I die and after I die.

And when I find my way out of the Land of the Dead, I’ll drift about forever, all atoms, til I find you again.

I’ll be looking for you, every moment…every, single moment.

And when we do find each other, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart.

Every atom of me and every atom of you…

We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams.

When they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one

They’ll have to take two; one of me and one of you.

Leah spends a lot of time on her own in her room now that she is becoming a teenager. But, as she does, I am still there; an inseparable part of who she is and who she is becoming. Her room is a museum. A museum of memories from a lifetime of reading wonderful books while surrounded by Love.

If you care to know more about how to read with your child so that they come to love books as Leah has, please pop over to my friend, Jackie Currie’s blog, Happy Hooligans. I guest-posted for her a while back. In that post, I told the story of Leah and I and the whole list of books we read together. The post is called,  75 of the Very Best Chapter Books for Girls between 5 – 13.