You Can’t Wait for Inspiration

I’m thankful for the teachers who came here to write together. I’m thankful for the teachers in my district who invited me to write in this space. This month-long challenge has motivated me to pay closer attention to my teaching and personal life. Most importantly, it’s breathed new life into my writing…I should know by now that if I wait to be moved to write, I’ll rarely get anything down. It’s just like Jack London said: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Teaching is

Teaching is noticing a pensive 8th grader

in the corner of the room

her index finger hovering over the keyboard

while staring out the window

waiting for the words to come

teaching is laughing during lunch duty

because the Jolly Rancher I tossed his way

bounced off his forehead and landed in the applesauce

teaching is telling my story with a shaky voice

the room thick with tension

and attention

heads tilting

hands slowly raising

Teaching is a book passing from hand to hand

I finished! You HAVE to read this

I need another one,

What’s next?

teaching is apologizing

You know, I shouldn’t have raised my voice.

I was wrong.

I’m sorry.

teaching is asking questions

leaning into conversations

into discomfort

If students grow there

so do we

A Quick Recommendation

I read to be moved. If I settle down with a book in hand or set out for a long run with earbuds and audible, my hope is the same: I want the author to make me feel something. The best books help me experience the full range of emotions, but I’ll settle for a hard giggle or an I cannot believe the author just did that moment. If I’m in between books or just need something a bit shorter, The Sun is my go-to literary magazine. It is guaranteed to pack a punch. It’s filled with personal essays, memoirs, and poetry. There are typically one or two pieces of short fiction. A section titled Readers Write offers readers a chance to write short (true) stories around a given theme. Examples of past themes are fences, my backyard, hanging on, and windows. If I had to choose one mood for this magazine, it would be melancholy. Somehow, after reading, I am always a little more focused on the things around me.

There’s a Mouse in my House

It was 2:00AM. My teenagers were up late because they do not have school today. The 15-year-old woke us with a shrill voice, “Can one of you come downstairs?”

“Why?” I was still not fully awake.

“There’s a mouse under the couch!”

We recently moved to a new house closer to town. Our kids spent most of their lives living in a more rural setting where a mouse in the house was a common occurrence. When they were younger, it never seemed to be a big deal. Apparently, when you are a teenager and you witness one run under the couch at 2:00AM, it’s an emergency.

“Leave it alone,” I said.

“So you’re not coming downstairs?”

*Sticking head under pillow, “No.”

My wife and I searched under the couch this morning, but alas, the mouse had moved on. When the kids finally woke today, they shared a short video they recorded (from a safe distance, of course–because they understand the vicious nature of a mouse on the loose ).

Teenagers are funny (at least mine are). They feign toughness and fearlessness so often but watch a mouse skitter across the living room floor, and they dart upstairs as though someone knocked on the front door with an axe.

Teaching Teens to Drive

Child #1

wasn’t exactly excited to learn to drive

is cautious by nature

drives slowly and carefully

methodical while training

wanted parents nearby to answer questions

only driving to soccer practice

and to friends who lived nearby

Almost sixteen-year-old child #2

who dreams of driving alone

far away from parents

is somewhat impulsive

a wandering mind, an adventurous spirit

driving represents freedom

a bold move toward independence

Yesterday in a vacant parking lot

child #2 drove slowly

around the perimeter of the lot

asking questions

carefully checking mirrors

who was this child?

so cautious, pensive, focused?

I was sure there would be giggling

whiplashing, apologizing

but steady hands

and mindful eyes

gave me hope

The Spirit of Reading

I’m sharing a piece I wrote after my daughter read me something she’d penned on the bus to school: ““When I read, I’m a ghost next to the characters. They can’t see me, but I’m really there.”

The Spirit of Reading 

My eleven-year-old daughter, Maddie, will occasionally leave a poem, a letter, or note on my pillow, her tiny print scrawled over half-sheets of wrinkled paper. These notes–filled with her wonderings, frustrations, and hopes–are gifts. They give me glimpses into the parts of her life she doesn’t often share through conversation. Last week, she couldn’t wait until bedtime, so she read me her latest right after school. 

“Dad,” she said. “I was sitting alone on the bus today, and I just thought of this. Can I read it to you?” she asked.

“Of course.”

She cleared her throat, and in a soft, serious tone, said,

“When I read, I’m a ghost next to the characters. They can’t see me, but I’m really there.”

“Please read that again,” I said. 

“What? Why?” 

She smiled, read it again, and giggled. I shook my head, amazed.

“What? She asked. “You like it?”

“That, my dear, is beautiful.”

I’d been thinking about exploring the idea of what reading means to me, to the kids I teach, and to all book lovers. We often hear how books are an escape from reality, how they broaden our understanding of the world, foster empathy, and push us to lead fuller lives. While I believe all of this is true, there’s something else about reading–something I’ve never been able to articulate–that makes it such a magical experience. Maddie’s idea that we are “ghosts next to the characters” spoke to me. 

I don’t feel like a ghost in every book I read. When reading is a chore, when I’m not invested in the characters, or when I’m lost or confused, I’m outside looking in. But, when a character feels authentic, and I’m hanging on her every word, decision, and action, I become a shadow inside the pages. The best books create a magical blur between our own reality and the story we’re experiencing. 

I can’t see the faces of the characters I read about; I visualize outlines of their bodies, general shapes and sizes. Sometimes this bothers me, because I know them so well–their deepest fears, who they love, and what motivates them. When I’m living inside the story, I silently urge them to make better decisions (they rarely listen), but they will sometimes surprise me: what I thought was the wrong choice ends up having a positive impact on another character. I learn from this. 

Being a ghost, I’ve learned, does not preclude me from having emotional reactions. Indeed, ghosting inside a story allows me a unique type of intimacy with places, problems, and people. Unlike viewing images on a screen, ghosting requires immersion, a sort of virtual reality without the haptic suit or the goggles. When the description is rich, I can inhale the dense humidity of Alabama summers, run my fingers along the bark of a mammoth California redwood, and wiggle my toes in the sand of an Australian beach. 

When characters are faced with a life-changing decision, I am forced to consider how I would deal with such dilemmas. It is here, in these moments, that my belief system is challenged, and I feel compelled to confront my default; I’m pushed to explore why, at times, I’ve been so sure that choosing A is right and B is wrong. As a ghost, I have the power to freeze time, rewind and re-experience heightened moments. This affords me a unique opportunity to consider and reconsider why I’m so moved by a character’s decision. 

When someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” I have trouble answering. I typically list a few of my favorites, and they all have one thing in common: memorable characters. Though plot and setting may become foggy over time, the heart of the characters remains. After haunting the innermost thoughts, conversations, traumas, and successes of characters crafted by my favorite authors, I am left with a permanent imprint. The mere memory of them will cause a visceral reaction. I can conjure them in a heartbeat, simply by recalling their lives, conflicts, and choices. Because these characters’ experiences span the spectrum of emotions, this is both a blessing and a curse. While I cannot erase the horrors I witnessed alongside them, I am able to cling to the warmth and joy they felt during their best moments. 

So, yes, from time to time I become an apparition–who doesn’t want to believe in ghosts? We are always looking for proof that spirits exist, that there are otherworlds just beyond our reach. What if we are the ghosts? What if all the worlds that authors create are playgrounds for us–the ghosts–to inhabit and explore? What if moving seamlessly between our world and the dream worlds of authors is proof that magic exists? 

For years I’ve been grasping for the right words to explain my love of reading. Leave it to an eleven year old to state it simply, “When I read, I’m a ghost next to the characters. They can’t see me, but I am really there.” Yes, Maddie. Isn’t it amazing that we can transform ourselves anytime we like? Maybe, when we do it often enough, and we come back to reality, share what we witnessed, and listen to other ghost stories, our transformation bleeds into reality, and changes us–permanently.

Experiential Day

Today, a colleague and I met with a group of middle schoolers to plan an experiential day. The mix of 7th and 8th graders wanted to create 40 minute sessions where the students would teach other students. Suggested instructional topics included martial arts, yo-yo-yoing, improv, and songwriting. Our half-hour lunch discussion was filled with enthusiasm around the idea of students taking the lead to share and teach about a personal passion. I went home today inspired by the energy of this potential endeavor. I love when students are engaged and motivated to take on leadership opportunities. We (I) need to listen to their voices more often.

Reminiscing with Students

Yesterday I was asked to cover a high school health class. Several of my former middle schoolers were in the section I covered; though I’ve seen them in the halls on occasion, we haven’t had a conversation in years. As they worked on their projects, they started reminiscing about books they read in middle school, moments they recalled when I got “mad” at them, an 8th grade field trip, and other random occurrences that stuck with them. Most are 12th graders now and it struck me how much and how little they’d changed. They were the same voices, same eyes, similar silliness. But there was a more mature calmness, curiosity and trepidation about the future. When Class was over, they waved goodbye in the same appreciative way they had when they were 8th graders. But instead of sprinting for the door, they walked carefully alongside friends, a little more aware of their surroundings.

We Are All Allowed to Have Bad Days

Some days I am energized on my way to school. I look forward to conferring with students about their writing, reading aloud favorite passages, and facilitating discussions. Other days, not so much. I am irritated before I even walk into the classroom. And that’s ok. I’m allowed to have bad days. I may need to be alone at lunch, go for a walk during my prep period, or call a friend to vent.

If I think I’m alone on my own rollercoaster of emotion, I’ve certainly forgotten what it’s like to be 13 years old. In the space of a five-minute class change, middle schoolers can feel all the feels. They are walking on sunshine after a friend’s whisper in the hallway, and then they are holding back tears when someone ignores them at lunch. I am guilty of forgetting this. In the chaos of the school day, I forget that my students have days when everything seems off. When all the things that matter to them are going sideways.

So, I write this as a reminder. Offer students the same grace I give myself, the same space and support I give to my friends when they are hurting. Be on the lookout for rough day warriors who try to cover up all the pain with artificial smiles and forced laughs. When you see them, don’t try to fix anything; just listen and support. Give them the same thing that you need on those days: space to breathe, walk away for a minute, and find someone they trust.

Spring Air

Frost on the mittens air

frozen ghosts at the window air

salt air

seaweed and seagull air

Clear crescent moon air

leaf skittering across sidewalk air

Revival air

windows cracked air

child left kitchen door open air

Morning walk chilly air

mid-day, kid-squealing, jacket-shedding recess air

evening bedroom breeze air

cozy under the covers air

eyelids heavy, words on the page gone fuzzy air

inhale the night, let out the day air

easy in, easy out, sleep air