There are two museums in my hometown; one that chronicles the lives of all of those who have toiled in the coal mines of Cape Breton and one that chronicles one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. This post touches on both, as well as, one of Englands most notorious murder cases.
I was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. In my hometown, there are two museums of note. The first is called The Miners Museum. It is located at the edge of a tall cliff, with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean pounding below. For a few dollars, you can don the garb of a real coal miner and go under that ocean on a tour of an actual coal mine. My wife and I were married in the Miners Village Restaurant which is the greenish building you can see in the right side of this photo. We were serenaded afterwards by a Gospel Choir in the Museum theatre room. The Miners Museum holds a special place in our hearts. But, having said that, the Miners Museum is not the most famous museum in town.
On the other side of Glace Bay, at a part of town called Table Head, sits the Marconi Museum. This museum is dedicated to celebrating one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements of this past century. For it was at Table Head that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first Trans-Atlantic wireless message in history.
I was thinking a lot about Marconi and about Glace Bay recently because I just finished reading, Thunderstruck, by author Erik Larson. Mr. Larson has written many books; most of which involve the connection between some infamous moment in History and some famous moment, too. In the case of Thunderstruck, Mr. Larson tells a tale of one of England’s most famous murder cases and how Marconi’s invention enabled authorities from Scotland Yard to apprehend the criminal involved.
In our modern times, it seems inconceivable that anyone could move freely about the planet. We are constantly monitored by surveillance cameras and satellites, our purchases tracked on-line and our social media feeds instantly updated to include stories and advertisements tailored to our lifestyles. Everything is immediate. Real privacy or anonymity is hard to come by.
But back in the early 1900s, when Marconi was conducting his experiments, news took time to travel. So, when the mild-mannered Dr. Crippen murdered his over-bearing wife and fled England with the woman he really loved, Dr. Crippen correctly believed that it was possible to travel abroad, incognito, with his lover and avoid detection and capture. But, as Mr. Larson so expertly details in his book, Marconi had invented a means of reducing the time it took for messages to travel across the Ocean to mere seconds. Not only that but, Marconi had fine-tuned the ability of ships to communicate quickly and accurately with receiving and transmitting stations on land. Thus, by the time Crippen and his lover had boarded a ship in Antwerp, Belgium, the Captain had already received a police bulletin from Scotland Yard with photos of the suspects on it. Furthermore, because the Captain was able to confirm the identities of the two criminals, he was able to quickly rely that information to Scotland Yard authorities who, in turn, were able to dispatch officers who sailed on a speedier ship and were able to make the arrest before Crippen’s ship ever made its destination of Quebec City.
I enjoyed reading Thunderstruck because I like reading about Historical events. An added bonus, for me, was that such a large portion of the book was set in Glace Bay. The photo on the right shows the original station that Marconi and his crew erected at Table Head. Much of today’s instantaneous communication can trace its roots back to this rocky spot on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
I think that most of us take for granted the push-button world we live in. We complain if there is a delay of only a few seconds between the time we click our mouse and the arrival of our content. But, back in Marconi’s time, it took him and his team over a decade of trial and error in order to figure out how to do what he did. *That is Marconi sitting cross-legged, as his wireless operator attempts to ascertain whether or not his message has been received in England.
That Marconi’s invention helped catch a notorious criminal certainly captured the world’s attention in a tabloid kind of way. It was the first time in History that a police pursuit was reported on in, what amounted to, real time, a hundred years ago. Millions of people on both sides of the Ocean knew that Crippen and his accomplice were doomed well before the arrest was ever made. In fact, perhaps, the last person to realize the drama that had been unfolding around him as he sailed from Belgium to Canada was, Dr. Crippen, himself. Right up until the end of the voyage, as the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway came into view, Crippen thought he had escaped to a new life; first, in Canada and, eventually, in America. As Larson points out in his book, on the last evening before his arrest, Dr. Crippen stood outside the wireless office on board the ship, watching the electrical arcs colour the sky. He commented to the Captain about how magical this new wireless thing seemed to be. The Captain, to his credit, merely smiled and nodded.
As much as newspaper editors cheered the arrival of wireless communication, one of the real values of it came a few years later, when wireless communication played such a huge role in saving survivors of the Titanic sinking.
As with so much in our world, things are never simply black and white. Wireless communication started our world down a path where silence rarely exists anymore. Amid the noise comes wonderful things like tsunami warnings that save countless lives and astronauts who walk on the Moon and tell us about the giant leaps they are taking. There is wonder in all of that. But, lack of privacy is a very real concern and there are no easy answers to that. For a genius once sat on a windswept part of my hometown and let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, with a few bits of morse code that transformed into electrical waves that sailed across the Ocean faster than any ship, obliterating national boundaries, making us all, simultaneously, citizens of the world. There is no such thing as a personal identity anymore. Thanks to Marconi, we are now all stitched together in a social-media fabric held together, not with wires and batteries but, with binary codes. Our world has become digitized.
And, that process began in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. A town that has two museums; one that probably means more to those of us who were born there and one that we share with the world.
NHL legend, Leonard “Red” Kelly, passed away at age 91. A champion in life, Mr. Kelly, also, played a central role in helping my wife prove her love for me during the early days of our relationship. Thanks, Red! Rest in Peace, sir.
National Hockey League Hall of Famer, Leonard “Red” Kelly passed away yesterday at aged 91. Kelly was a member of eight Stanley Cup Championship teams over the course of his illustrious career; four with the Detroit Red Wings and four with my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Upon the completion of his playing career, Kelly served several terms as a member of Canada’s Parliament. He, then, returned to the NHL, holding several coaching positions before finally retiring for good while in his late 60s. I never met Mr. Kelly in person but, he came to be the central figure in one of my most cherished moments in life. This is the story of that moment and why Red Kelly’s passing holds such a special place in my heart.
If you look past the surface of most cliches, you will often find a grain of truth. For me, a Canadian boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s on Cape Breton Island, that cliched truth was that I loved hockey.
I loved playing road hockey with the guys who lived on my small street. Sticks with spear-like curved blades, taped just like our NHL heroes did. Playing on that street, I scored more goals than Gretzky ever did. So did everyone else, too. We shot! We scored! Tennis balls for pucks. We would play for hours on end, stopping only when our Moms would call us in for dinner.
I loved watching hockey on TV. Back in those days, we only had three tv channels; CBC English, CBC French and CTV. Hockey was only broadcast on CBC on Saturday nights. At 8:00pm, in living rooms all over town, the anthem of my youth….the opening theme to Hockey Night in Canada….would play. We would all be transported; one week, to the Forum in Montreal, where we would listen to the dulcet tones on Cape Breton’s own, play-by-play man, Danny Gallivan, as he described the exploits of the Flying Frenchman who wore the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadians. The next week, we would find ourselves listening to Bill Hewitt, “live from the Gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens”. I loved the Leafs. Being just a small boy, I am not sure if my attraction to the Leafs was more of a cultural one because, after all, I was English and the Leafs represented English-speaking Canada. But, never-the-less, the Leafs were my team and those Saturday nights, watching with my dad when they were shown on TV, were among my favourite childhood memories.
But, there were lots of days in the week that hockey wasn’t being shown on TV and that the boys weren’t gathering to play road hockey. On those days, I got my hockey “fix” from my hockey card collection. I was a big hockey card collector as a boy. Opee-Chee hockey cards, to be precise. They were sold, eight cards to a pack plus, one stick of hard, hard pink bubble gum, for ten cents a pack. I used to get $1.00 per week as an allowance, which was a King’s ransom in those days, and blow the whole dollar at Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store, buying ten packs of cards at a time. Without any exaggeration, the moments when I would start opening those packs were as exciting a few minutes as I had as a boy. Every pack contained the stories of my heroes. I opened each pack, hoping against hope, that I would find Toronto Maple Leaf players inside. Sometimes I was lucky and added to my collection. Sometimes, I just found cards I already had…or traders, as we all called them because, those would be the ones I would take to school the next day and trade with my friends or else, sacrifice while flicking them against the school wall….closest card to wall collected everyone’s cards. One time, for a couple of bucks, I sent away for a hockey card locker, as advertised on the Opee-Chee wrapper and kept all of my cards in that. The locker was cardboard and had storage slots for each team. I wore that cardboard locker out, to the point where the doors would fall off simply from being opened and shut so often.
As I left childhood and entered adulthood, my love of hockey stayed true. But now, there were mid-week hockey games to watch on TV. I joined organized hockey pools and placed small wagers on the outcome of games and of the scoring prowess of my favourite players. In my early twenties, I moved to Toronto and even got to see a few games at Maple Leaf Gardens. If hockey was my religion then, Maple Leaf Gardens was my church. Being there felt like history coming alive. My only regret about watching my Leafs play in person was that I was unable to share that experience with my father, who had passed away when I was eleven years old. He would have liked to have been there, I’m sure. In his memory, on the occasion of my first visit, I walked up and placed one hand upon the old building and thought about all of those evenings at home, sitting with dad in his Lazy-Boy chair, cigarette smoke curling skyward. The Leafs actually won that night. I credit my dad with having offered some Heavenly intervention on behalf of my team. The thought of it still makes me smile.
But, in my thirties, something happened that changed everything. In my thirties, I met my wife, Keri. She is my soul-mate and I knew that right from our very first dates. Everything was different with her. I recognized that right away and felt enriched beyond measure by her love for me. Love is a funny thing, though. It is the tsunami of emotions. It rolled through my life and obliterated all that had previously seemed so important….including hockey. I no longer hung on the plus/minus stats of certain players or what my position was in the pool. What I cared about was being with Keri and, believe it or not, I happily traded hockey for her and felt the better for it when it happened.
That brings to mind the opening stanzas to the song, Fireworks by Canadian band, The Tragically Hip.
“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, It was back in ol’ 72 We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger And all I remember is sitting beside you. You said you didn’t give a f*ck about hockey And I never saw someone say that before You held my hand and we walked home the long way You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.”
Keri didn’t give a hoot about hockey. Still doesn’t. But, she gave a hoot about me and, still does. Love works both ways; sometimes it is all about you adapting to the person you are with and, at other times, it is all about how your partner adapts to you. For Keri, falling in love with me meant falling in love with someone who loved hockey, even if my love for hockey was not as obsessive and all-encompassing as it had once been. She was hitching her wagon to a man who wore Toronto Maple Leaf socks and sweatpants and who, to this very day, wears a Toronto Maple Leaf ball cap. She knew I bled blue but, she loved me anyway. And love makes you do things you could never have imagined yourself doing.
For our first Christmas, we decided to set a small limit of $10-20 on our gift(s) for each other. I have no idea what I ended up getting her for Christmas but, from her, I got a gift that proved her love for me better than any words could do. For Christmas that year, Keri got me a hockey card.
In the Fall of that year, Keri had noticed an ad in our local newspaper that indicated that “Toronto Maple Leaf Hall of Fame legend, Leonard “Red” Kelly” was coming to a mall not far from our house and would be autographing hockey cards for a buck a piece. Keri did not have a clue who Red Kelly was nor did she care that he was a key member of the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. No, all that Keri knew was that I loved the Leafs and this man was a Leaf. She rolled the dice and gambled that I would appreciate who this man was and that her gesture would bring about the desired result which was, that she would have been able to make me happy.
I did know who Red Kelly was. But, more than having an autographed card, her gift had meaning because of what she did to get it for me. My Love, who didn’t give a hoot about hockey, stood in a line for 45 minutes in a skanky little mall, surrounded by dozens of hockey nerds (like I used to be), all because she loved me and sought to make me happy. Her efforts resonated in my heart then and now, with Mr. Kelly’s passing, those pangs of love surface once again. I received this hockey card eighteen years ago. I have not felt the need to buy another since. My autographed Red Kelly card is the last hockey card I have needed.
Mr. Kelly’s passing is timely because it happened during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The dream of every hockey player is to win the Stanley Cup. Red Kelly did that eight times, which is an amazing number. Most players are lucky to win it once. Red Kelly is, indeed, a legend in the game of ice hockey and has more than earned his eternal rest. For a man who never crossed my path, Red Kelly sure left his mark on my life. For sometimes love takes the form of diamonds, roses or hearts and flowers. But, for me and my wife, love took the form of a hockey card. Thank you, Red Kelly. Rest in peace.
We all have a song that we sing with our hearts, as much as we do, our mouths and lungs. This post is about those songs and the singers who sing them.
I just finished reading The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gold Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. What an excellent book. Not only a chronological look at the career of, arguably, Canada’s top rock band ever, this book also, dedicated several chapters to individual topics such as the kinship and camaraderie that existed between The Hip and many other bands in Canada and the U.S., the way certain Hip songs were crafted and came to be as we know them and, if you know the story of Gold Downie, you will not be surprised that there was a chapter dedicated to death. Not the death of Gold Downie per se but more, an examination of how various creative people handled the news of their own impending death. Reading about the final months of Johnny Cash, Prince, David Bowie, Warren Zevon and many more, offered a fascinating look into how mortality can fuel creativity but, also, how it can strengthen the bonds of Love with those closest to you.
We all have a song. A song that we sing as much with our hearts as we do with our mouths and our lungs. A song that, from its opening notes, instantly transports the whole of our being back in time to a transformational memory such as a first kiss, the achieving of a desired life goal or a shared moment with a loved one. Many people will say that The Tragically Hip songs take them back to that, most Canadian, of memories, which is sitting around camp fires, drinking beer and singing Hip songs by a Lake. Whatever the case, we all have a song.
For Keri and I, our song is not a Tragically Hip song. It is a Spirit of the West song called Home for a Rest. When we were planning our wedding, we were asked to make a myriad of decisions: about the date and location of the ceremony, what food would be served for supper, who would play or DJ our reception and so on. Our decisions were no different that those made by thousands of other newlywed couples. Being relatively well-organized individuals, we were fairly good at staying on top of the process of planning our wedding. There was only one thing that caused us any trepidation and that was what song would we choose for our “first dance” and how would we even do that first dance. You see, neither Keri nor I are, what I would dub, good dancers. Even while we were dating, we never really went out dancing because we are more awkward on the dance floor than graceful or cool. So, the thought of a hundred plus people watching us twirling in a circle for five minutes seemed almost unbearable to us. The whole topic became a source of stress and anxiety, as we auditioned several ballads in our living room, wearing a hole in the floor, clumsy as we were, endlessly circling on the same spot, round and round and round again.
Part of the problem for us was that we never wanted our wedding to be all about us. Instead, right from the very beginning of our planning, we wanted our wedding to be a shared experience between us and the ones we loved. So, for example, our idea for supper was never to have a fancy ball room, with slip covered chairs and ice sculptures and a ten-tier high wedding cake. That may be some couple’s dream but, it wasn’t ours. For us, we wanted to share a tasty meal with our family and friends and, oh yes, while we are at, let’s get married, too. The whole thing was always meant to be homey and low-key. Eventually, we solved our “first dance” anxiety by reminding ourselves that we could make this moment a shared moment, too, by inviting our guests to join us in the dance. Once we thought of that idea, we realized that by having everybody moving and grooving along with us, it would mean that they wouldn’t be staring at our sad selves as we spun slowly like a top. We, instantly, relaxed and tasked ourselves with finding a fun, upbeat song. That’s how we came to have Home for a Rest as our first dance song.
When we first told our DJs that Home for a Rest was our choice, they tried to talk us out of it. But, we reassured them that this is what we wanted and that we trusted our friends enough to know that most would join in and that our reception would get off to a flying start. If you don’t know the song, I will play it for you. As you listen to it and watch the video, pay attention to the lead singer, John Mann. At the time that this song was being released, John Mann was regarded as a wonderfully charismatic front man, second only to Gord Downie when it came to having a powerful stage presence. After watching the video, I think that you will agree with that assessment. What a singer! What a band! What a song!
Songs like this are a funny thing, sometime. Their role in the soundtrack of our lives often causes the song to become, somewhat, frozen in time, along with the band. The musicians remain ever young, ever vibrant, ever strong and forceful personalities, always ready at our beck and call, to play to our hearts when our hearts need our song. But musicians, like us, are mortal, too. They are real people. They experience the good and the bad in life, as we all do. It’s just that sometimes we, the audience, forget that our heroes are real. We expect them to be immortal. Thus, when news broke that someone like Gord Downie had cancer, it shook us to our core as a country. This couldn’t be real. Gord and The Hip were supposed to be around forever. And now, just like that, they weren’t. It is over. Gord is gone to walk among the stars, as it were.
As noted above, Gord Downie was not the only famous musician to be stricken by disease and taken from us too soon. Prince, Bowie, Cash……and, John Mann, too. The singer of “our” song, stricken, as well. For most of his career, John Mann and his band, Spirit of the West, existed in the shadow of The Tragically Hip. The parallels between Mann and Downie, The Hip and Spirit of the West, are numerous. Both Mann and Downie commanded every stage they played upon. Both Mann and Downie wrote songs about Canada and toured extensively from Sea to Sea to Sea, playing venues intimate as well as, cavernous. Both bands kept their lineups intact through their careers and fostered a family-like atmosphere during recording sessions, as well as, during tours. Finally, both Mann and Downie railed against the diseases that wracked their bodies by having one, final tour each. During both tours, both men failed, at times, but, both were surrounded by love in the form of band mates who were like family and who helped support their friend when support was needed most.
John Mann survived colorectal cancer in his forties, only to find his brain attacked by early onset Alzheimers as he turned fifty. Alzheimers is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain and is most famous for robbing its victims of their memories, even the memories of being loved by those closest to them. It is a tragic disease and there is no known cure. But, the human brain is a mysterious thing. As much as neurologists are coming to understand the effects of Alzheimers, it is still not fully understood why music seems to be one of the last aspects of recognition to go. In John Mann’s case, the vibrant, powerful, manic stage presence that you saw in the Home for a Rest video disappeared. He became dis-oriented, confused and helpless on stage. He required assistance to know what song was coming next, when he should start singing and what the lyrics were. But, he never lost his voice. John Mann could still sing, right up until his last performance. The clarity and range of his voice stayed with him, even when all else failed him at the end.
As Spirit of the West set out on their final tour, Mann’s bandmates transformed from being his musical equals to being his caretakers on stage and off-stage, too. Their hearts ached because their friend was suffering so greatly but, also, because he was fighting back with so much energy and vigour. He now read the lyrics to his songs from an iPad tablet secured to his microphone stand. He stayed rooted to his spot of the stage, lest he become lost and dis-oriented on the very stages that he pranced around like a whirling dervish. All that used to be was no more. All that remained was that voice and the love of his musical family.
For their closing number during each of their final shows, Spirit of the West, chose to cover an Australian song by a group called Hunters and Collectors, called Throw Your Arms Around Me. This is a lovely song that has been covered by numerous musicians and bands over the years, Now, it became John Mann’s song to sing. The video you will see is of Mann’s final performance on his final tour. The deterioration in his being is incredible but, instead of this being a sad moment captured, it is, actually, wonderfully-beautiful. Take note of how he relies on his bandmates; especially Geoffrey Kelly on flute, to know when to sing and when to stop. As well, note how Kelly watches over Mann as they assemble to take their bows and then, as they leave the stage. They are more than bandmates, they are family and the affection between them all is very real. I am sure that final performance of Throw Your Arms Around Me will become “that song” for many who were there to watch it or to be part of it on stage.
I can remember watching The Tragically Hip’s final show in Victoria Park, here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. There were several hundred of us gathered in front of the bandshell. We watched the three hour concert on an inflatable screen used to air summertime movies for children and their families. There was beer and warm summer breezes. And, during those times that Gord Downie faltered on stage, we threw our arms around him and sang aloud to fill the void, just as his bandmates did on stage in Kingston. Because, after all, that’s what you do when you are family and the music becomes your song.
The power of books to transform lives. Read about my favourite experience in my teaching career and the book that inspired it.
Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂
Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.
That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.
Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.
As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.
As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂
My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.
My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.
And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.
Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.
That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.
Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her own initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.
So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.
The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.
Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.
About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.”
I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.
That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.
So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as much to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.
So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.
I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.
A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.
I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.
Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.
Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
Gotta love the New Yorker Magazine. Hopefully, my story won’t lay an egg!
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 Balliet. 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. In 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 of 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.
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, 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.
I want to start off by thanking everyone for providing me with such a great list of word prompts. I have plenty of inspiration to draw from in the days and weeks to come. I promise to use every word, at some point, in the next few weeks. So, if you don’t see your story right away, not to worry, it is bubbling away in the cauldron of my imagination and will be ready soon.
I was challenged this very day by one of my writing mentors, Jo-Anne Teal, to create a 33-word post that revolves around the word, “change”. She said that she was going to play along by publishing her own post tonight. So, I found some quiet moments this evening and cobbled together the following piece of writing. i hope that you like it.
The Other Side of the Fence
Once I was entrusted with the lives of young children. Now, my fingerprints are all that separate me from the predators. What a change being on the other side of the school fence.
If anyone wants to know the story behind this story, I will tell you in the comments. Feel free to ask. Thanks, as always, for spending some time in my world.
When I first began using a blog as a means of expressing myself in writing and getting my words before an audience, I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with a writing website called Trifecta. Each week, the folks at Trifecta issued two writing challenges; a short piece of writing that was only 33 words long and a longer piece which, if I remember correctly, was one hundred words. Each challenge was based upon a single word that was given to us. Our task was to take that word and create a whole world around it.
One of the great benefits that I derived from writing for Trifecta was having the opportunity to meet so many incredibly talented and generous writers from all over the world. These fine folks would post the most amazing works of fiction and would invite newbies, like me, to offer our thoughts and critiques. They, in turn,would do likewise for the work I submitted. Everyone was so kind. After a while, I felt like I actually belonged in the company of these artists and was beginning to be considered a peer. Those were heady times.
Unfortunately, the Trifecta writing group disbanded a few years ago and the regular contributors have scattered, once more, to their corners of the world. I am lucky to have made friendships that have survived the end of Trifecta and that continue, via social media, to this day. I will list some of my favourite writers and their blogs at the end of this post.
But, for now, I want to ask for your help. Since resurrecting my blog, I have not posted any creative writing. Not a single work of fiction. No one poem. Nothing. That needs to change. I want to get my Trifecta-style writing muscles back into shape so, I have a request. Once you have finished reading this post and are ready to comment, please leave me a one-word writing prompt. I will, in turn, take your word and create a 33-word story or a 100-word story….you decide. In order to give you a flavour of what to expect, I am going to share with you two pieces of writing that received warm consideration from the Trifecta community back in the day; one is 33 words long and the other, 100 words long.
Throwback Post #1
This is a 33-word post. The word prompt was Devil. (It was near Halloween). We were instructed to use a photo or a video and build our story around it. I chose a video of when the Rolling Stones first appeared on American TV. Unlike The Beatles, the Stones were viewed as satanic from the get-go. So, my story went, as follows:
Watching Dad’s Cigarette Burn
Dad stares. His cigarette burning down.
Mick, seemingly possessed, writhes on the stage.
The song ends.
Dad turns the TV off.
Silence fills the room but, the Devil remains.
I actually was awarded “First Place” for this piece. It was my one and only “triumph”, as it were.
Throwback Post #2:
This is a 100-word story. The word prompt was Hollow. My inspiration for this story were some of the kids I had as students in my classroom at school and the lives I knew they lived.
Waving at Stars
I hate the Super Bowl and the World Series and any other night that gives my Dad a reason to drink
If his teams wins, he drinks to celebrate.
If his teams loses, he gets angry and drinks to feel better.
When my Dad drinks, my Mom gets hit…..a lot.
No matter who wins the game, my Mom always loses.
I hate my Dad.
He never really hits me that much.
Before he gets to me, he’s usually used up his anger hitting Mom.
After he hits her, he always feels bad and says, “I love you” to her.
But, his words are hollow and won’t fix her heart.
I love my Mom.
Her heart is strong, though.
It must be to hold all the Love that she says she has for me.
Some nights, while Dad watches the game on TV, my Mom and me lay on blankets in the backyard.
We stare up at the night sky and look at the stars.
There are stars everywhere!
Some stars are small and others are big but, they all twinkle.
Like diamonds in our sky.
Mom says that on some stars, there might be a Mommy and her special boy on blankets in their yard.
Maybe that little space boy is waving at us right now.
We’d better wave back, just in case.
So, we wave at the stars, Mommy and me.
“Goddamn, fuckin’ refs!” Dad screams from the living room. A glass breaks.
Mom kisses my forehead.
She brushes the hair away from my eyes.
She asks me to look at the stars that twinkle and shine so bright.
To count them and keep on counting until I run out of numbers
or the sky out of stars.
She hugs me tight and holds me close.
I can feel her heart beating fast and strong.
“Promise me you’ll keep counting until I come back.”
She gets up and goes inside.
I wave at the stars and start to count.
So, now you have a flavour for what you will get in return if you leave a one-word prompt for me. You can choose whether you want a 33-word story or a 100-word story but, one way or the other, a story is what you will see on the pages on this blog.
Here are some of the wonderfully talented writers I met over at Trifecta. If you think I am a good writer then, you’ll really like these folks. They are my role-models. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Start with these four fine folks. If you like what you read on their blogs then, let me know and I will include more links in future posts. For now, thanks for reading. As always, I appreciate the fact that, out of all the things you could be doing with your time, you chose to spend these past few moments with me. Thank you.