"I'm a Writer?!" May the Force Be With Me. . .
I remember a kind of Rockwell painting of teaching. When my grandmother, a former teacher in New York City, frowned at me for expressing this preference of profession, I honestly could not understand why. But in all fairness, as a child I also didn’t understand why my mother told me to never tell my grandmother I wanted to be a doctor for about six months when I was nine. In short, these divides in profession would not be something I was meant to understand until long after those very positive experiences, especially in elementary school, propelled me into teaching. Long before I identified with Anne Shirley as a teacher or when wanting more, I clung to Margaret Haley doubting the institution of education as a construct, I was that whimsical and clever learner. I fit, exactly, in school. A bit bossy or pretentious maybe, but I belonged.
I was small, not yet three and the signs whipped by so fast, just as quickly and unintelligibly as the ones I would attempt to read in Hebrew thirty years later, tall and straight and blue above jammed Tel Aviv highways. The girl with the wide eyes possessed a larger English vocabulary to aid her, than the thirty something woman would in Hebrew, but the principle and the process are still the same. Still, I began with no reading, or no decoding, skills at least. I wanted to read those signs. I remember this. “Let’s begin now. . .” each book began. At the bottom of each page, R2D2 informed me when the words ran out. The Star Wars tapes I memorized word for word were not the goal. They were an afterthought, an effect of an interest. But those signs. What did they say? The task required more than robotic repetition.
We, my mother and I, never quite had an even teaching and learning relationship. It would be unlikely for her to label it easy or natural. I would get frustrated with myself, and she would get disappointed in my frustration. I would turn off to spite myself and then turn on to spite her. It is something I would repeat, I remember, with my 5th grade teacher quite frequently the year after my mother died. I must have craved it, sensed an absence of a certain teaching and learning interaction. While I fell into this same pattern during her time spent with me explicitly teaching me how to read. I wanted it, to be a reader and I was good at it. She laid the groundwork with countless library visits and bedtime stories, both live and recorded. I’m not sure level of expertise would have even mattered in my reading teacher. I don’t remember the words in those wafer thin books like I remember the Star Wars readers. They did not have the colorful movie images nor any audio accompaniment. They were books as books are defined, pages, covers and words, but they were not really stories, not of the kind that my mother diligently checked out of the library for me time after time, not the elevated picture book art form that she taped herself reading to me with a tonal beep in her remaining Bronx accent so that my brother and I knew to turn the page. I can feel them in my hands today as real as her own smooth palms and fingers. I say “them” because it was a slim, and rectangular shaped series. While not favorites, these books were well worn. I can see the soft, cotton like fray of the fiber. I can see the staples pulling out, sliding through one or two pages. What a marvel is emotion’s print as memory.
I recall two sets of eyes when I learned to read. In the first, I looked at scramble and saw nothing. I squinted and teared, and the inner tantrum began to boil. “Just try. This sound. It’s like your name.” I imagine this voice, because I know it’s what I said to countless children and adults throughout my teaching life. It is a true, while not chronological, addition. My head throbs, perhaps a bit like Luke Skywalker with the blast shield down on his helmet. I think that the house might spin or fall, and I slouch on the couch. I sit forward and spread my fingers across the book on the leather brown table. I trace the stain from the coaster, a permanent print of steam. I give up. The first set of eyes closes. End scene. In the second, the letters come together and all make sense. I read. I read smoothly and easily. I don’t pause. The dots come together all connected. It is obvious there is in fact something there between the lines. There are images, pasts and futures. These days in my memory are just one and then another in a simple chain, like Monday to Tuesday, 3:00 p.m. to 4:00. One set of eyes looked and saw darkness; the next set opened and saw the world. I could feel the force around me, tingling, the connections, the letters between myself and the pages and the signs and. . . EVERYTHING.
Reading, it’s just that easy. It came so easy. Why not teach? Why not teach books? These beautiful, wonderful pages, from the library from her lips and all to my ears, so beautiful, so easy, “like pearls on a string” says Anne Shirley, “like poetry”. My mother was the teacher with positive experiences as a learner and an educated professional while not being a “trained” teacher in the content. “I would have never thought of it,” says my father, in reference to the read alouds, the library visits, even less the voice recordings. “Stories”, as they were, losing her so young, made those words some of the only teachings I was allowed to keep or share. While still a tender apprentice, I archived my Master’s teaching, minimal that they were, and put them on repeat like the Star Wars readers caught on tape, like her recorded voice beeping at me to turn the page. Tape your own voice. Make your own books. Feel the words, of course I did, each one was a look, a caress, a scrape, each one burned as if by lightsaber into my own fingers that turned the pages. Determined to keep my path and use this power, this force for “good”, I spent a lifetime in literacy. I became a teacher so adorn my classroom in books. I built a library to fill the homes of others with books. Mostly, I craved unlocking the stories that so many others hold within themselves. These stories are, in fact, a force with which to be reckoned.
Over thirty years later, I am thousands of miles south of Wisconsin in the Guatemalan highlands, my hands ice cold in a cement block classroom with a variety of rickety wooden desks. Each has a child in it, and most look as if a dog has chewed the corner, but I suspect it is a combination of age and scissor scrapes. Green and orange paint chip and curl from underneath creased, square notebooks. I sit in a chair pulled up to the teacher’s desk. The teacher stands so that I can sit, and the first activity that comes to mind when you have little to no materials at all is the stapled book, the ones I read seemingly overnight, and the ones I wrote with my mother together, about me, about what I like, about my family. Just use stick figures and simple sentences and the children will love them the same. Write books together and you will have a library. My students always read our additions to the classroom library as often or more than the “real” ones. As every Jedi knows, a story, vision or future, only becomes as true as you believe you can manipulate its ending. “Always in motion,” in fact, Yoda describes. And so it is, because the next twist in my tale, I never saw coming.
I anticipated the release of every film, the re release of the originals in which I could relive my own past, the prequels in which I could contemplate the author’s process of sketching in details Lucas always knew but didn’t choose to initially share. I made circles of paper to count days, kept tallies in a notebook, and for Revenge of the Sith, I rode three hours in a chicken bus over twisting Guatemalan highways to the capital in order to participate one last time, I believed, in this saga. After which, I couldn’t sleep, either from the scratchy, flea bitten sheets in the “hotel” or from the ocean of feeling upon which I could not find rest. In December 2016, I was home, in Wisconsin, with a multiplicity of theaters and showings at my beck and call. And yet, when Episode VII appeared on the big screen, somewhere within me this sage became a part not only of my reading story, but my writing story as well. At first “I was two busy.” That seemed a reasonable statement since I was working two jobs and preparing for my family’s visit at Christmas. Then, “I have to wait.” How noble of me to step aside and spend time with my sister in law while my brother enjoyed a moment with our father at the movies. I wrapped candy with silly notes to place under the tree to enhance the experience. The New Year came and went. My family went home, and still I balked at my dad’s request to take me to the movies. Finally I had to stop and sit and be honest.
Once in print, like my own writing, the story is real, sometimes felt and always permanent. Somehow as part of the empowerment felt by a renewed sense of agency in my author’s pen, Star Wars resurfaced. In the two hours it took to watch the film, I would regress to a time when I let others finish my story for me, believed in the ending they chose, and denied myself the right to MY ending. I wish the movies the very best, and their fans. I won’t be in the audience. I’m done sitting and listening. I’m writing. In such a journey, the words ring ever truer, “May the force by with you.” I suppose it’s time to share with everyone the fact that I’m not only a reader, I’m a writer too. “May the force be with me.”