HBD2U, dear Annie

(From left) Annie and Nikki Cardoza celebrate Annie’s 8th birthday at Country Club Lanes in Sacramento with friends Kristie McCleary and Julia Moore.

Look at you, celebrating your first American birthday, you and a gaggle of friends and relatives at a local bowling alley. (Can it get more American than that?) Because you, just turned 8 years old, have developed a love for bowling, of all things.

You sit up tall in your purple wheelchair behind a tall frame with a bowling ball on it. You push, and varoooom! The ball careens down the sloped frame onto the lane and toward its target—those 10 pins arranged in a neat triangle. Blam! The ball hits, pins fall, you laugh.

Yay, Annie!

After you and your friends are finished knocking down the ten pins, your mama distributes cupcakes (“vanilla or chocolate?” she asks each guest) atop long tables festooned with birthday paper plates and napkins. Everyone sings you a rousing “Happy Birthday.” You know this song; you grin and chuckle as you are serenaded by people who did not know you a year ago. But they are family and friends now; you are beloved in your new land.

I hardly recognize you as the thin little girl with the mohawk named Long Xin Zi (Joyful Purple Dragon) your mama and I traveled to retrieve last summer in Changsha, Hunan, China. You were so skinny and so hungry, and we could not get enough food in you. That’s changed—you’re filling out nicely (you have actual cheeks and thighs!), and you’ve grown much taller. Your long hair is today caught up in two ponytails, one on each side of your head. You have new pink goggle-style glasses that have brought your new world into focus. Your new ride is a racy purple wheelchair that fits you much better than your old one. You’re in school where you practice standing and speaking. You ace your spelling tests with sight words and image cards—you can identify the spelling of “mountain.” Mountain!

Your sensational smile has not changed—it beams almost constantly. At your mama, your grandma and grandpa, who are at the bowling alley today, at all these people here who wish you well.

Your mama reads you your cards and opens your gifts, holds each one up so you can see it. Your smile grows even bigger and your arms tense with excitement. Birthdays are so much fun!

No one knows exactly when you were born—just that you were found under an overpass on May 22, 2010, in Changsha, and you were estimated to be a year old. So it was that your life began again then, with new people at Butterfly House hospice caring for you, the people who saved your life and with whom you spent three years before moving to an orphanage across the city. That’s where you spent another three years in the care of more good people before your new mama traveled thousands of miles to get you, and another chapter of your miraculous life began in a new country.

People who hear your story are stunned by the determination and fortitude you’ve apparently had from the beginning, the fact that cerebral palsy has not stopped you from becoming a smart girl, wholly engaged with the world. I am honored to be one of your aunties who loves reading and singing to you, thrilled to be close to you and your equally remarkable mama.

We cannot wait to see what other great things you will accomplish in your life, but you, Annie Cardoza, just as you are now, are perfect. Happy birthday to you! And, as we say here (sing it with me), “And many mooooore!”

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Snowmelt

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Merced River, Clifford’s 65th birthday, May 21, 2017

Turgid—that’s the word for it—
white petticoats of froth atop olive drab river
coursing so fast, so hard, it sounds like ocean
turned up full blast, without the ebb and flow.

Here it’s all flow after hundreds of inches of snow
fell and fell and fell higher up, wrapping Sierra granite
in white sheaths, officially the wettest winter on record,
after too many dry ones. All the water on the planet
seems to be rushing by us now—

and by “us,” I mean me on the cusp of completing
another year on the planet, and you, whom I always
feel outdoors, you, ever present in this energetic river,
in the slender pines on the opposite bank
reaching for a darkening sky,

for it is late on the day you would have turned 65,
and I have come to sit hard by this deafening water,
to spend time with you, to imagine what you’d
look like now, to consider what gift I might give you—

and I remember: this water, right here, a river for you,
the fly fisherman. You loved nothing better than
a good river, though, given the swiftness of current,
the fish in this one must be safe from barbs
wound into fake insects, must let go and float,

allow themselves to be carried downstream
or find the rare eddy in which to rest, to linger
like me, singing happy birthday to you
as the swollen river drowns me out, on its liquid path
to places I can’t see.

But I trust that it knows its way through
this granite channel lined by living things
in infinite shades of green—that it is going exactly
where it needs to go.

e2041 jlh clifford.jpg

Leaving a bit of Clifford in Moraine Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2012. (Photos by Dick Schmidt)

 

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Library card

new library card & books

My new library card (bottom) with my older library card and newly checked-out books.

I remember my first library card in its little slipcover, my name emblazoned on it, typed by a manual typewriter: Janis Linn Haag.

Did Mrs. Nelson, the children’s librarian at the Roseville Public Library, type it? I don’t know; I just know that that little buff-colored card gave me access to the world, long before bigger libraries and long before something called the Internet. And my mother, a voracious reader who inhaled books like oxygen, passed along her reading genes to me. So it was she who took my younger sister and me weekly to the old Carnegie library, traveling the 8ish miles from our house on the edge of Folsom Lake State Park. Once there, we’d head into the library basement, Mrs. Nelson’s lair of wonder — at least to me.

I’m thinking about that library, now the Carnegie Museum (www.rosevillehistorical.org/) of the Roseville Historical Society. In the 1980s the building was supposed to be demolished (you can read the story on the website) and the land turned into a parking lot. But a descendant of the McRae family, who had donated the land with the intention of it always being a home to a library, declared that she would expect that the site be returned to her.

“The original deed was verified and the old building was saved,” the historical society’s website says. “But it needed restoration and a purpose. The good citizens of Roseville banded together and formed ‘The Roseville Historical Society’ with the purpose of preserving and protecting the history of Roseville. Together with the city, funds were raised for restoration and the venerable old building was once again a library but with the new focus of educating people about the history of Roseville. In effect, it became the ‘Carnegie Library Museum.’”

So, as I’m making a list of things I want to do during the rest of 2017 — now that I’m about to start a semester’s leave from teaching — the Carnegie Library Museum in Roseville is now on it. (Mom! Field trip!) Another thing on my list I did today: I picked up my new library card from my local branch of the Sacramento Public Library. And! I checked out my first library books in decades.

I still love books, gulp them like water, really. But as I’ve grown older and had my own money, I buy them. And buy them and buy them, as anyone who has seen my house can tell you. I’m awash in books. I give many away each year, typically to the Sacramento Friends of the Library for book sales. But I’m still up to my armpits in volumes and paper in general in my house. One of the things on the While Jan Isn’t Teaching list is to continue to sort through, donate, throw out unneeded paper and things made of paper.

My friend Christine loooooves the library and regularly orders books she wants online, then picks them up, devours them, and returns them. I decided some time ago that I want to follow her example. So I went online a couple of weeks ago and ordered a new library card since my old one (you can see it in the photo) no longer works. There’s a whole new system, as there should be in these modern times. Library cards are still free, though there’s not a Mrs. Nelson at an upright Royal typing your name on it. My name is nowhere on this new card—there’s just a long number and strip on the back that links to information about me in the computer system. But oh, what you can do with it! So much more than in the old days.

I had a sweet moment this afternoon picking up my card from the Clunie Library in McKinley Park, which is about as close as I’ll get to my old Roseville Library. Both buildings are venerable elders. The Clunie Clubhouse, which contains the library, opened in 1936; the Carnegie library in Roseville was built in 1912. Clunie still has its original walnut paneling and Stickley furnishings. My library houses exhibits, and I’m eager to see them and the building. Both libraries are well cared for and beloved in their communities.

I strolled through the small main reading room at Clunie today, drinking in the books on the shelves, noticing people at computers, a few children in the kids’ section, someone on a chair upstairs in the loft area where rows of books run east/west and the late afternoon light streamed in through a high window. I wasn’t planning to check out books, but light reading beckoned. Carol Burnett’s memoir leapt off a shelf into my hands, as did Carrie Fisher’s. And though I haven’t read any Jan Karon books about Father Kavanagh in Mitford in years, I thought of my late friend, Julie, who loved those books. One found its way onto a growing stack in my arms.

And just like that, I was back in the Roseville Library with my mother, selecting books to borrow, books that had to be read with clean hands and returned in two weeks (now you get to keep them three weeks, and you can renew them online, if no one else wants them!). A nice young man made my new card right there and grinned when I came back to him later with books to check out. He slid my new card through a reader and pointed one of those laser guns at each book’s spine. “Welcome to your library,” he said, making me grin even more as I thanked him.

I walked across McKinley Park to my car, books in arms, smiling, remembering that feeling of “Ooooo! New books!” as if I didn’t order them online or buy them from independent bookstores… both of which I regularly do.

When I was a child, Mrs. Nelson pointed the way to authors she thought I might like, encouraged me to read biographies, even the adult ones upstairs. No one ever restricted my access to books (thank you, grownups!) or questioned what I read. And those grownups fostered a reader who became a writer and a teacher, who still drinks thirstily from the pages of books, who has written a few of her own, who continues to revere books and writers.

And as I slipped my new library card into my wallet, I thought, Let this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the library I have supported with donations of books and money for years. Let this become a well-used card. Let me bring home library books as temporary housemates. Let the stories become longtime friends.

Thank you, Mrs. Nelson and all the librarians and library staff, including the young man today, who have helped me over the years in libraries and archives. Thank you, Mom, for all the trips to the library. I’m baaaaack!

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Wishing for spring

nikki-and-annie-2-26-17

I got to take a wonderfully restorative 3-mile walk last Sunday with these two lovelies under a bright blue sky through gorgeous, park-like green spaces in our capital city. It was not unlike the first walks we made with Annie in China last June, except that it was a brisk 50-something degrees, not 90 degrees with what felt like 100 percent humidity, which feels like a lifetime ago.

Nikki said that as we walked, then added, “Or it feels like it just happened.” And we laughed.

I know the feeling. Was it really eight months ago that we brought this child in a wheelchair on a jet for a 13-hour flight to San Francisco to then take her to her forever home in Sacramento? So much has happened in those eight months, including a summer and a fall and a Northern California winter that brought a definitive end to five years of drought (whether the state water people say so officially or not). We have had so much rain, so much snow in our Sierra Nevada mountains, that we NorCal folks are waterlogged. Our rivers are running swift and high. Our flooded Yolo Causeway built to take the overflow from the Sacramento River is a virtual sea. In satellite photos it looks like a thick brown artery running vertically down the state.

So we are wishing for spring, and we got a taste of it Sunday on our walk not far from that overfull river, through green spaces and parks where some trees are already bursting into flower, as they do here in February—others bearing hopeful buds, harbingers, as they say, of leaves and warmth to come.

And as Nikki and I talked, and Annie (resplendent in pink with her new pink spectacles) rode along in her bright green jogger, I thought again of miracles… this mom and this child coming together eight months ago in China, their incredible journey home, and the great joy they find in each other as their lives unfold together in Sacramento.

Annie has grown five inches, has gained probably 10 pounds, is still learning English, still loves music and all things pink. She can see so much better with her glasses. She’s enjoying her new school that has so many more opportunities for physical and occupational therapy… not to mention speech therapy. Her school has a contraption that holds Annie while she sits on the potty, and she goes pee and poop once she’s on there. Her teachers tell Nikki that Annie is very smart (we knew that!), and they are looking into ways of helping her communicate, even if she has little speech.

See? Miracles!

We walked through a small tunnel where Nikki paused and called out, “Annie!” so we could hear the echo. Annie grinned, turned her head to look up at us and laughed.

Nikki is a wonderful mother. She has biceps that look like a bodybuilder’s from her daily Annie lifting. Nikki is busy with her own job as well as taking Annie to appointments and getting services for her. There has been so much progress; there is so much more to come. They both lift my heart and spirit.

As we walked, I was so grateful to be in their presence and let my silent prayer float up to those new buds, those happy flowers, full of promise: thankyouthankyouthankyou.

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Answering the call

dream-traveler

from Dream Art by Anna Horan

The ancestors have charged you,
dream traveler, to journey again
along the flowing river
into the ancient forest,
to walk the stone circle of life
curving toward the center
where you must stand tall and be opened,
where you must acquire eagle medicine
to heal what needs healing.

This will not be easy, but you knew that,
have known since you landed here,
dreaming the dreams, waking and sleeping,
that need dreaming.

One day you will leave the center
of the stone circle, retrace your steps,
calling on the ancestors to help you
walk the path, the forest looking
very different now.

Without quite knowing how,
you have answered the call,
opened your medicine bag,
helped remake the world,
gathered your tribe to share
what you have learned.

All parts of the journey
have beauty and grace.
Your roots go deep.
The spirits are with you.

Unfold into this great mystery.
Feel the wings you’ve grown, lifting. *
Soar.

(* A line borrowed from Rumi, the great Sufi poet who lived in the 1200s)

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Infinite flame

2408-silent-night-candlecr

Christmas Eve service, Wai’oli Hui’ia Church, Hanalei, Kauai, 2015

Christmas on the same
day as Hanukkah
is as challenging for
my friend the Jewish poet
as it is for me.

How, she asks, does one
freshly tell the ancient story
of lamps lit for eight days
with one day’s worth of oil?

How, I wonder, to explain
again the brilliance of the star
that led three wise men to
the babe in swaddling clothes?

The gift, in this darkest
time of year, lies in the light—
the miracle that binds us all,
those of all faiths and none,

in the star overhead,
in the candle that passes
its warmth one to another
and another and another,
the infinite flame
dancing against the
threatening blackness,

reminding us that love
and light are the same,
that they are forever,
that they are, indeed,
us.

Jan Haag
Hanukkah/Christmas 2016

 

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My awesome students

final-volunteering-papers

Though I am also an English professor, I spend much of my time at Sacramento City College teaching journalism and advising journalism students on campus publications. I helped create the college’s literary journal, Susurrus, in the early ’90s and spent 17 years advising that publication. I’ve advised the campus newspaper, the Express, on and off since 1993, when I became a full-time professor, and I have for some time advised Mainline magazine, a once-a-semester journalistic magazine that reminds me of my old days when I was the editor of Sacramento magazine. That was my last full-time job in journalism, which I left in 1992.

This is all to say that I have now spent more years teaching journalism (and English composition and creative writing) than I did working as a journalist. I knew that would happen, if I was lucky—and I have been very lucky.

One of the things that reminds me of that luck is the time I spend in my office at the end of a semester, reading through my students’ final papers. By now I’m tired and often fighting the cold that’s been threatening to overtake me throughout the semester, so I sit in my office and sniffle as I read—though not always because of the bug in my system. This week I’m reading 36 final writing projects by my English Writing 302 students. They make me smile and get a little teary—not because they are perfectly written/spelled/punctuated pieces (though a few drafts have improved most of them) but because of what the students have done.

I require an unusual final project in this class: The students must go out into the community and volunteer for an organization or individuals they don’t know well, if at all, and write about their experience as a piece of creative nonfiction. They get to star in their piece of persuasive writing (the dreaded first person most English teachers hate), but they also have to interview people, gather background about the organization or cause, capture dialogue and description, and write in scenes. It’s a challenging writing assignment, even more than a traditional research paper, I find. And, best of all, it can’t be plagiarized. I get to hear their actual voices on the page and see what they learn from donating time and energy to others.

You should see their faces when I unveil this final project on the first day of class. Before I even know their names, I can tell which students are going to resist the idea. One student this semester asked, “Can’t we just write a regular research paper?”

“Nope,” I said. “Well, you can in another section of English 302, just not in this one.” I didn’t say, “Good luck trying to find another open section of English 302.”

More than a few frowns and furrowed brows around the room.

“It’s great,” I enthused. “No matter what grade you get on the final paper, you get an extra credit A for volunteering. And you get to choose where and when you volunteer—you just need to check with me first. I approve most people’s ideas.”

Silence from the furrowed brows.

“And students tell me at the end of the semester that they really enjoyed the project, including the volunteering,” I continued, ignoring the silent “oh, yeahs” wafting through the room like smoke.

I know what they’re thinking: I don’t have time for this. She wants us to do what? I don’t want to go talk to strangers, much less volunteer for them.

It amazes me that they stay in the class and persist with this nutty teacher who tells them that they will also do this as a persuasive piece of writing (the class centers around the idea of the argumentative essay) showing why this volunteer experience was important and/or fulfilling. Along the way I teach them interviewing skills (they practice on a family member and write essays about that, too), how to structure an argument (writing an opinions piece with good sources that might run in a publication), and they read a lot of creative nonfiction/reportage, which involves writing in scenes that puts a reader on the shoulder of the narrator.

I love watching them drop into their projects once they land on an idea, see their excitement when they begin to volunteer, watch them grow more confident when I give them feedback on the first pages of their papers, and listen to them encourage each other through their first full drafts.

This semester Selena volunteered for CAFFE, which I’d never heard of—Clothing and Food for Everyone—which donates, yes, clothing and food to homeless and hungry people in Sacramento. Brianna accompanied high school students at her church as they gave snacks and cocoa to homeless people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. Luis distributed food to hungry students on our campus through the RISE program. Charlotte volunteered for Happy Tails, Daniel for Meals on Wheels, and Armando for Loaves and Fishes.

Uli went back to his high school and helped coach the football team he’d once played for, and Jose returned to his hometown and volunteered as a coach for his former soccer team. Fernanda, Erin and KashAni each went to different blood donation centers and gave out snacks to donors. Avnett spent time at her church preparing for a Sikh wedding. Terry, Juan and Perla served as volunteer tutors for high school students. Estefani helped kids with their catechism class at Holy Cross Parish.

Bryce and Kate worked hard on two different small farms, helping with chores and harvesting produce. Nora volunteered in the costume shop of the B Street Theatre. Naomi donated time to a Halloween event at her church, and Tracy worked in the kitchen making food at her church’s Asian cultural event.

Some of their projects touched me deeply: Alex and a friend put out the word for old blankets and towels and gathered a small truckload of them to donate to an animal shelter—the largest single donation the shelter ever had. Julio accompanied a hospice volunteer to see an older veteran, making a nice connection since Julio, too, is a veteran. Roseann got donations of magazines for a collage project at Maryhouse, a women’s day shelter in Sacramento. She continues to donate her time to lead art projects there. Blong volunteered for a mayoral campaign in Elk Grove that elected the state’s first Hmong mayor. Cristian cleaned the attic and cut the hair of an elderly neighbor who years ago taught Cristian how to tie his necktie for his senior prom. And Alyssa decided to share her room with a friend of a friend who needed a place to live for a month.

I often hear people, including my colleagues, bemoaning the skills and dedication of college students. “They’re just not good writers. They don’t read. They don’t improve.” I can say, unequivocally, that every one of my English 302 students this semester not only improved, but they also wrote their hearts out about their volunteer projects and what they learned from them. Most of all, they gave to others while discovering things about themselves.

“I know for sure that I want to be a nurse more than anything,” wrote Pang, who is a long-term volunteer at the UCD Medical Center.

“I’ve learned what it’s like to be old and lonely,” wrote Cuc, who called out bingo numbers and visited with residents at an assisted living center. “And it doesn’t take much to brighten someone’s day.”

Chris, an Iraq War veteran, did lots and lots of dishes at a VFW on a Sunday morning after the weekly fundraising breakfast. “I talked to vets of all ages, shapes and sizes,” he reported. “And I learned again what I already knew: We are more alike than we’re different.”

“I dug ditches for water lines in what will be the back yard of someone’s house today,” wrote Chelsea, who got her hands dirty for Habitat for Humanity.

And Hyejin, an international student from Korea, who learned to fear and despise homeless people in her native land, met dozens of them at the Union Gospel Mission. “I learned that they are people, too, no matter what people think of them,” she said.

I am so proud of my awesome students. I praised them mightily in class as they drafted their papers and the day they turned them in. I thanked them for volunteering so much of themselves and putting that on the page.

“That’s courageous,” I said. “Not everyone does what you’ve just done. And you got the added benefit of feeling good about your volunteer work because you did something for someone you didn’t know who didn’t expect your help. You were kind and caring, and that’s everything.”

This is my secret mission: to spread more kindness in the world to people we don’t know and whom we may never see again. And, while we’re at it, to spread that kindness around our immediate circles, too. Because, despite our differences, I want my students to know that we really are in this together, this great soup of humanity, and oh, how much better it is when we lend a hand, share a smile and give of ourselves to others.

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Dear Santa, a form letter

dear-santa_2-001

What I want for Christmas:

(Check all boxes that apply, even if you’re Jewish, or you stopped believing years ago;
use exclamation points for things that warrant them)

√ Happiness                √ Hired help                        •Success

√ Wisdom                   √ Health                                •Puppy

[ewww!] Fruitcake    • Wealth                                ! Superb regift

• Garden gnome         ! Freedom from guilt        √ No regrets

• Self acceptance       • Wad of cash                     •Personal growth

! Perspective               ! Parking karma                • Brand new car

! A clue                          ! Therapy  (massage)       • One of everything

And don’t forget:

Not to slight you, Santa, but I don’t see “a visit from a companion spirit” on the form, which is what I really want. (Three !!! for that one.) Oh, I know they’re around. I often feel him riding shotgun or hear the little redheaded one in my head cheering me on. But my father doesn’t make himself known, and I never see any of them. Is that because becoming embodied after the bodies are gone is just too difficult, or is it simply unnecessary?

Here’s what I want, Santa:

My angels dancing, not on the head of a pin, but out in the yard where I can see them. They beckon to me as the last of the crunchy sycamore leaves decorates the greening lawn. And I hear their music, not heavenly chorales, but a bouncy bopping tune that even I, the klutz with two left feet, can follow as I make my way to them, to him, the tall, bearded one who married me 33 years ago today, on a cold, clear morning just like this one, my hands as icy then as now. On the right one I wear a ring inscribed with his name, and he takes my chilly hands in his, warming them instantly, and we dance and dance and dance.

Thank you,

Jan

ecp-jlh-wedding-cake

Cliff Polland and Jan Haag, December 17, 1983

 

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Teachin’

I’ve been teaching writing to college students for three decades now, and I well know how the ends of semesters go: lots of last-minute assignments and make-up tests, students coming to my office with pleas for leniency or concerns about grades, and, often, notes from some students about my performance as a teacher.

I offer all my students at the end of the semester a chance to write me a note about what they enjoyed about the class, what they found challenging, and, most important, what I might do in the future to improve the class. They take me up on it, too, especially once they learn they don’t have to sign the letters and that I won’t look at them until I prepare for the next version of that class, which in some cases might be a year or more down the road.

I am fortunate that I get plenty of comments that all teachers like to hear:

  • “You changed how I think about myself as a writer. I’ve learned that I’m not bad and even pretty good.”
  • “I learned more about grammar and journalistic style than I ever thought I would; I also learned how to correctly use a semi-colon!”
  • “I now read the newspaper, and I never used to. I realize that being well informed is an important thing, and I’m going to make sure I am from here on out.”

But today I got a visit in my office from a student—let’s call her Olivia—who furrowed her brow in every class session and clearly wasn’t understanding what I was trying to teach her, namely grammar and journalistic style.

Olivia is not dumb; in fact, she might be one of my smartest students this semester. But I was not reaching her. I knew my explanations of what I thought were simple concepts about usage and punctuation were not landing well with her. She hated the grammar textbook, she told me. It made no sense to her. I talked too fast. (She’s right; I do.) And even when she came to my office and asked me, with a great deal of exasperation, to explain the concepts again, she left frustrated and clearly annoyed. I was more amused than irritated by her straightforwardness, rather pleased that she was not intimidated by a professor, especially one who, in her opinion, was not doing a very good job.

I have to say that I think I’m a pretty good teacher, that most students seem to learn things and feel more empowered as writers. I hear that a lot. But I knew I was failing Olivia. She knew it, too. And that bugged me. A lot.

A few weeks ago she came to me with a book she’d found at our college library, a fairly simple grammar and usage book that can be bought online for less than $13 (I looked it up), far cheaper than the expensive text I require.

“THIS is what you’re trying to tell me!” she said, pointing to a basic explanation of a noun. She turned the pages to adjectives and then verbs. I hadn’t realized that she couldn’t distinguish the parts of speech.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I didn’t realize that you don’t know nouns from verbs.”

“I didn’t either,” she said. “I thought I did. But you confused me.” She raised a critical eyebrow.

Again, I apologized, and she left with her borrowed book held close to her chest.

I give a 100-question grammar and style test, which students must pass to successfully complete the class. I was concerned about how Olivia would do. I give students three chances to pass the test, each time taking a slightly different version of the exam with the same kinds of challenges but using different sentences. Olivia, as I feared, failed the first two tests. She took it the third time this week, and she passed it with a B.

She came to my office, her grammar book in hand, to look at her third test and ask me questions. I praised her and told her how impressed I was with her progress. In her usual, direct way, Olivia let me know that she’d passed the test without my help and, in fact, taught herself what she needed to learn.

“You really should use this book,” she said, wagging it at me.

I explained again that the class was designed for people who had more knowledge of grammar and usage, that people who struggled with basic concepts usually dropped the class because it was too tough for them, even when I offered to help them. But, I added, I had ordered her grammar book and planned to keep it in my office.

“Well, then,” Olivia said, nodding in satisfaction, “you’ve learned something.”

I smiled at her. “Yes, I have.”

I should add that I’ve tried not to become defensive and have overlooked what to some might be a cheeky attitude because I’ve wondered if Olivia might be somewhere, as they say, “on the spectrum.” She is so bright, but she learns in a very specific way. She told me that she is typically very critical of teachers who don’t teach “in a way I can understand,” and that some teachers have suggested that she drop their classes. I understand those teachers, I thought, but I didn’t say so.

Instead, I said, “I appreciate that you told me that I wasn’t reaching you, that you stuck with the class, and that you found a way to learn this material despite everything.”

Olivia’s face softened for a moment. “Thank you,” she said.

I held out my hand, which she shook. I wouldn’t have dared offered her a hug.

Out of this came the hope that I, who have been at this for a long time, never become a teacher who can’t learn from a student, who can’t go back to beginner’s mind and summon a memory of not knowing, who will find a way to reach a student who sticks with it and tries with all her heart. I want to applaud courage and determination, even when it arrives sounding like criticism.

I want to remember always, as Richard Bach wrote years ago in his book, “Illusions,” that we teach best what we most need to learn.

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Living at the edge of a new leaf

img_7779I am living at the edge of a new leaf.
—Arthur Sze, “The Shape of Leaves”

The day after Thanksgiving I grabbed a plastic Target bag, its red chevrons dancing as I walked down my street to the best tree on the block. I had watched the gingko for weeks, doing its annual morph from green to yellow, knowing that by Thanksgiving, most of that gold in the branches would lie on the ground.

And this year there was no one to go out each morning and rake the leavings into the gutter for the weekly pickup. I would not drive by and see a little old man bent to his task, determined to clean up around that grand tree. His wife no longer worked in the kitchen. Their children were long gone.

Byron Patterson died two years ago. His wife Ellen died last November. And for much of this year contractors have swarmed over the little house at 816 Santa Ynez Way, fixing it up, replacing the old windows, giving it a new front door with a bit of stained glass at the top, painting the whole thing, of course. I could only imagine what they were doing inside—probably sanding and restaining the old oak floors that, like mine, had weathered under the feet of who knows how many people and animals.

I hoped that it was being renovated because a family member wanted to live there. But when the for sale sign went up on the lawn under the still-green gingko, I knew all that snazzy-ing up was to get the little house ready for new owners in our highly desirable, crazily overpriced neighborhood.

I haven’t looked on the realtor’s website to see what they want for it. Somehow I can’t bear to know. But I did look up his obituary again, and I was reminded that Byron Patterson taught English at American River College for 30 years and, according to his obit, “never met a faulty pronoun reference he couldn’t give an F to.” The obit also says, “He earned the ire of the Los Rios [Community] College District management when he helped organize the teachers’ union there.”

He served as a member of the Sacramento Central Labor Council and, the obit says, “a high point in his life was walking with Cesar Chavez.”

By the time he died, after 63 married years to Ellen, Byron Patterson had lost two sons to death. Only their daughter Susan remains, so she must be selling the house. Part of me wants to call her and say I want that house, though it will probably sell for a fortune. I suspect someone also wants it and is already dreaming of living there.

Still, the for sale sign’s been on the lawn for a good month now. I was rather relieved that the house remained unoccupied as I took my gingko leaf-filled bag up on the porch to peer in the windows. The house looks brand new inside, staged within an inch of its life. The floors are perfect, as is the paint, and it looks as if they opened up the kitchen from its formerly dark, enclosed space so it flows into the small dining room on the driveway side of the house.

I unlatched the gate to see a new deck off the back, new French doors into the small master bedroom at the rear. The lone tree in the back yard stood bare.

I used to stop by from time to time with brownies, just to be neighborly. Six years ago I wrote a poem about the Pattersons’ gingko that I gave to Mr. Patterson one day while he was out in the yard, before I knew that he’d been an English teacher. I think I told him that I taught writing at City College, and from under his English driving cap, I saw his eyes crinkle and his lips curl under a bushy mustache. He did not reveal his past life.

I wish now that I’d stopped and talked to him, see if he’d engage in a little shop talk. Given that line about the faulty pronoun reference in his obituary, was he a tough-guy English teacher who’d fail students for minor infractions?  God knows I’ve wanted to fail students for dumb mistakes, for doing things that I’ve told them over and over in a composition class are just flat-out wrong, or for misspelling names in a news story. But I can’t teach from that place. It doesn’t work. I tried it early in my career. It just shuts people down, makes them feel like failures instead of beginners who could learn from their mistakes.

Instead, I purple their pages with my ballpoint and make them do it over again. The ones who are serious about journalism in particular or writing in general seem to get it. Some never do. But, with luck, I hope I’ve helped them become better and more confident writers.

I think Mr. Patterson and I would have had a lot to chat about, if I’d taken the time in inquire. What if I’d lingered, ankle deep in those fallen gingko leaves, and engaged him in conversation? Maybe Ellen would’ve invited me inside for some tea to go with the brownies and sit in the front room with its old oak floors, relax on the sofa. I could’ve asked about her life, asked him about his teaching and activist days.

“Thank you for helping to start the teachers’ union in the district,” I’d say. “Tell me about that. And what was it like to march with Cesar Chavez?”

But I didn’t know those things about him then. I learned them from his obituary. Why didn’t I reach out to that man with the bushy mustache?

Instead, I left him with a poem and brownies. I waved at Ellen when I saw her in the front window of 816 Santa Ynez Way, then trotted down the street to my house.

And now I wonder who will come to live in that house and, I hope, care for that gingko—not cut it down because it drops those golden fans all over the yard. When they fall, they flutter as if they were held in the hands of young Asian women. The magical fans carpet the grass under the gingko; they spill onto the street and into the gutter, a big swath of leafy sunshine that makes me smile on these cloudy, foggy, rainy days.

Winter is coming, the gingko reminds me. And after that, spring.

——

Here is the poem I wrote in 2010 and gave to the Pattersons about their magnificent tree:

Gingko

Look—
thousands of little yellow fans
artfully arranged on crewcut grass
just before Thanksgiving.
For twenty-three seasons, I have
watched this neighbor’s tree
leaf greenly each spring,
weather the furnace of Sacramento
summers, then shudder itself
into its bright yellow sweater
come fall.

Now the gingko relaxes into
what is coming, lets go,
sends each fan waltzing its way
groundward like so many pieces
of scallop-edged origami.

As families turn to the table
fat with turkey and stuffing,
I come to the gingko every year
with plastic bag in hand
to retrieve those last spots
of sunshine, bound for glass bowls
spread around my house,
enough to last me
through winter.

 

 

 

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