Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Queen of the Setting Sun

That's the third line from my high school anthem, where Maya goes now. I went to Back-to-School night there last night, and though I experienced much trepidation when visiting her/our middle school, I felt energized on the high school campus. I do have very fond memories from the place. I didn't exactly realize that until the class reunions, and now, spending a fair amount of time on campus and reliving it through Maya.

All of Maya's teachers are great, but I'll make special mention of her honors English teacher who is young and smart and funny and puts literature on a golden pedestal. I almost begged to audit his class for the year. I wanted to hear every discussion about the books they'd read. Of course, this is Maya's time to sort out and discuss and fall in love with it all, which will certainly happen in this class. She and I are going to read some of her assigned books together so we can talk about them. I say it's to discuss together, but really rereading these classics has been so joyful for me. I told you how I felt about recently rereading To Kill A Mockingbird. Now I'm reading The Great Gatsby and man, it's so good. Why was it not this good before? Oh, it was? My mind just hadn't busted through its young fog yet? Maya's teacher is a leading authority of Steinbeck's work; he gives lectures across the country so, whoa, cool. He's going to be great for her, just like my high school literature teacher was for me.

Did I tell you Maya made the freshman basketball team? That experience has been pretty magical in itself. I don't think you can beat the whole budding-into-adulthood-team-bonding experience. Maya's thrilled about it all and so far, the girls have been great. Maya's jockeying for the JV team already, which I heard from the head coach. He said that Maya told him straight up she wanted to be on JV. And I threw my head back and laughed. I told him, "Good for her." He nodded, "Yea, I liked that." The JV coach told Maya, "Someone's gonna be a leader of my team pretty soon." And Maya said, "Oh yes I will be." Haha, man, I love hearing about the bravery of my girls from other people.

The high school football games have already been seriously dramatic for Maya. She attended the first game of the year, her first game ever, and she was jazzed by the whole experience of rooting with her friends. Tragically, during the game one of our players was seriously hurt. His neck was accordioned in a tackle and he lay motionless on the field for 30 minutes as the paramedics took their time getting him carefully onto a gurney and rushed to the hospital. It's been three weeks now since it happened. He's still in ICU, his breathing tube just recently removed, and they aren't saying much about the long-term effects. That does not sound good, but we can only wish him the best of thoughts. The whole school rallies for him; this is obviously very impactful on the students. The USC football team and Pete Carroll have called him, encouraging him. Last week, Maya went to the football game again. It was a close one against a long-time rival, and right after the game, outside the stadium as kids filed out, a non-student was stabbed by another non-student. Cops were already there monitoring the exit of crowds and the kid was immediately arrested; the stabbed boy will make a full recovery. It was gang related, apparently. The two towns, ours and the opposing football teams', have always had a latin gang history. The cops and the school acted perfectly. Their presence already there during the incident, but still, another big-life/near-death incident for these kids to ponder and secretly stress about.

* * *

During Back-to-School night last night, the parents had to file into the auditorium to hear, I'm not sure what, because I jetted - ditched the entire meeting -- when after looking at the night's program I realized that my favorite teacher of all time, my literature teacher, still taught at the high school. By the light of my cell phone, I saw his name in the program and I ran out to find his class as the choir was singing a lovely rendition of the national anthem. When I found his class, I knew he'd be alone because all the good parents were in the auditorium still.

I remember him as a little hemmed up, soft-spoken but with a dry, tight humor. His neck was potmarked and his mouth smaller than most people's, so were his eyes actually, but he laughed easily. He was probably in his early 30's when he taught me and he wore brown corduroys and brown oxford shoes and buttoned-up plaid shirts and horn-rimmed glasses. His age was only revealed in his hair, which displayed a youthful wave. He probably was unaware of the good bounce to his hair. Most importantly, he loved literature and he displayed a thoughtful and kind examination of it that unlocked my own unique and thoughtful examination. He read things similarly to me, obviously on a more advanced, less foggy level, and he held out his hand to me to pull me deep into the full and meaningful view of literature; not always the straight-on perspective. I had him every year for English because I picked his classes as electives too, which included Mythology and Folk as Lit and Bible as Lit. He also ran a lunchtime ping pong club that I frequented. This ping pong club also ran a few games of pickup basketball in the park. I never missed those. He still runs the Ballroom Dance Club at the high school. See? He's perfect.

Last night, when I found his class, I spied into his room from the hall. He was standing over his podium, reviewing papers, and I felt a sudden crash of sadness. His hair was gone, shaved to a too-close buzz cut. And I was sad because he was older and I didn't want time to pass for him. I wanted him vibrant and perfect still. I said his name walking into the room. I was wearing my glasses which is an instant disguise for me. Hardly anyone recognizes me with glasses, even people I see regularly. Though his hair was gone, his face looked very much the same, effected only by a bit of a time sag. His attire, his glasses, his small features and potmarked neck, all the same. I said my name and his tiny mouth smiled in surprise. I hugged him though he wasn't really prepared for that and his voice jump started into an easy excitement. We reminisced fondly. I told him about Maya, and he shook his head. I looked at his hand for a wedding ring and saw none. The school rumor back in the day was that he lived with his parents, a man-child with never a love interest. He told me his parents had died a few years ago. I didn't ask about a wife or a partner. We did not have that type of relationship. I was sad again for him. He walked over to his class filing cabinet and without effort pulled out a file and sorted through some papers and 8x10 class photos. He pulled out the photo of my entire 10th grade Lit class circa 1983, and I laughed hard when I saw myself looking earnest, trying not to smile, trying to look scholarly but it was just a parody of that look. I was wearing a bandana on my head, 1940's style, and I was holding a ping pong paddle in my hand across my chest, pledge-like. He said, "See? You were a stand out." I knew not to say, "I was?" because when I was younger he had made me feel like all my comments had been insightful and ahha! worthy. He asked me what I did now. I said, "I'm in technology, but really I'm a writer." He said, "I knew it." Just then a parent came in with a student forcing us to end the reminiscing. I got his email address and went on to Maya's first period on a high, but mad I didn't get a chance to tell him, You were the best. You were my favorite of all time. You encouraged me to love things how I love them now. But I have his email and believe me, these sentiments will get to him soon enough.

I honestly believe that Maya will feel the same about her young and vibrant Steinbeck scholar. She has already cried to me about the ending of Of Mice and Men, and I'm already forever grateful to her teacher for that.

We’re in month one of high school, people. It’s going to be a profound ride as it was for most all of us.

Monday, September 21, 2009

826LA Echo Park

For those of you with school-aged kids, do you know about 826 started by Dave Eggers? It's a free tutoring program, usually language-arts specific, for all-aged kids. The original is in San Francisco, but they've branched out to many major cities. The building he originally rented for the tutoring/publication space was a retail-only space, so he had to come up with a shop idea, as a facade. They turned the front part of the building into a pirate supply shop. They sold handmade peg legs and evening-wear eye patches, all types of funny and clever pirate things. The store is really just a front to the meaty, inspirational stuff that goes on in the back, though the store does very well now apparently. Eggers' old Brooklyn neighborhood then demanded an 826 center, where one then sprouted with a super-hero supply store facade. The one in LA, in Echo Park, has a Time Travel convenience store front. I've posted a TED clip of an Eggers lecture about the whole deal at the bottom of this post. It's long (20 min), but definitely worth it, especially if it will help you steer your kids in the direction of a (hopefully) local 826 center, which are all around the states now.

So, as Maya is getting more interested in writing and Mina has been overly worried about the level of writing now demanded of her in fifth grade, I signed them up for an 826 workshop last weekend. The fantastic workshops are also free. This one was called Writing for Pets, where kids of all ages wrote a story specifically for an animal. In fact, volunteers brought in two dogs, a cat and fish as inspiration. Kids read their stories directly to the animals. I chose this particular workshop because it boasted that even the shiest of writers would feel inspired, and this was most important considering Mina's building anxiety about her ability to express herself well enough on paper. But 826 was right on the money. Mina bounced out of the workshop squealing and pumping her fists. Oh my gosh, I was over the moon. The workshop was a little young for Maya, but she still enjoyed it and we all got a huge kick in the pants about the time travel mart. Here's an online sample of what they sell there. It's all so thoughtful and hilarious.

While the girls were in workshop, I went next door to the cozy Stories Books & Cafe where I scored a $4 used copy of Mrs. Dalloway illustrated with a great 1970's cover, complete with coffee-ring stain. I love it. I then wrote for over an hour until a group met in the cafe planning how they were going to fight some Medieval Renaissance battles around the Echo Park Lake. Not even kidding. I saw velvet costumes on hangers.

I snuck back over to the kids' workshop and they told me I could listen in on the last of the readings. I heard pip-squeak voiced kids reading tales of Jonesy the Dog and whispers of fish adventures. Pure heaven. After workshop, the girls ran to me rattling their stories so I'd read them right away. I wasn't allowed to stand up until I had read every word. Their stories were funny and great. Mina was relieved and pumped. Here are the first few lines of her story:

Once there was a princess cat named Lucy and she lives in China. Lucy loves to torture any animal that lay foot in her castle. One of the things that she does for torturing is to make the dogs dance a hard dance or clean the castle until it is cleaner than her.

Maya's was about an Egyptian cat that became a detective to solve mysteries of the pyramids. Both so great!

After mulling around the time mart, we headed across the street to a thrift shop and I scored a light grey men's suit vest. It was made for a small man and it had pockets high and low. Maya got an owl t-shirt, and Mina tried on 80's crocheted dresses. As much as I love the Echo Park neighborhood, it was one thousand degrees on the street so we headed home, towards the ocean, for lunch and to plan which workshop they'd take next.

Check out Eggers' awesome talk about 826.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Me Like Daughters

Only two things are certain right now: School and Writing.

1. School has started. And this means a rigid schedule is back in effect and it's putting the screws to everyone. Holy shit, it's tight! We've been very graceful about it considering because we've pumped up the Start of School for weeks. Maya's a high schooler! This is huge and wow is she good at it already. She's so responsible and getting in her groove. She’s equal parts maturity and goofiness. So great. Mina's a fifth grader! This is also huge because she's ruling school this year. She's the big cheese. I did not tell you guys that I received her state test scores in the mail a couple weeks ago. We all know the Infamous Second Grade Debacle, how she was tagged as remedial and "not cut out for school" and I, shocked beyond belief, was all, the fuck she ain't and you just don't understand her is all! and I'll take matters in my own hands thank you very little . . .For fourth grade Mina tested advanced in math and just shy of advanced in language arts. It was her best year yet. I rubbed the test paper all over her when she came home. We sang “You did it! You did it!” for days. She was thrilled with herself.

So, anyway, school . . .it's all consuming. Riding their asses is exhausting. Keeping them engaged, very tiring. But seeing them rocket on their own has been transformative for me. You hope it will all pay off but really you can't think about it too much, you just have to do it no matter how it will turn out. They'll still have to make decisions on their own. But honestly, they really are amazing people.

2. Writing. I'm writing so a bunch of other balls have dropped. I get obsessed and then whoa, I wonder if plants need water to live and if so, why haven't they figured out how to do that on their own? Or is toast a legit dinner? I like it. But is it good for everyone else? It's not like I'm at the computer 10 hours a day writing this novel. It's more that I'm thinking about it 10 hours a day so tasks that require, oh, remembering stuff or too much cognitive awareness is challenging. Some of the things I'm still able to do while I'm internally piecing together a plot are: cleaning/laundry, walking the dogs, cracking a homework whip, uh, let's see what else, working (it's robotic work anyhow), buying food at the grocery store though haphazardly because the meal-plan side of my brain is a little soft right now, working out. That might be about it. Everything else is shot.

My blog writing is kind of shitty too today. I should've just written Me Like Daughters and called it a day. Bear with me. I'm sorting it all out. Just wanted to say hi.