I Know It…

I am losing her. I know it and I can’t stop it.

Amid medical advancements, false promises from halfwit doctors, brain surgeries, and all the physical and occupational therapy in the world, I am slowly losing my grandmother.

She  forgot where she lives, even in her own home. She didn’t know when she moved there. It was 1988…. I was three and there was a swing on the longest branch of the tallest tree in their yard. 

And here I am, my grandmother’s only granddaughter. I sit here, at my desk, knowing that the world outside is full of sunshine and pending spring, and I am looking at a blank screen. Because if I had to list all of things I know about my grandmother, I’m not sure I could.

When I think of my great-grandmother, I can remember a lot and in vivid, childlike detail. But I regret not asking her the right questions about her life and the way that she saw the world.

Thinking about my grandma, I’m not sure I asked her those questions either and I’m not thirteen.

I don’t know if it is the shock of her decline that has me befuddled or if I really don’t know. But either way, the feeling is one of both sadness and disbelief. I’m not sure what I’ll say one day when my child asks me about his or her great-grandmother. I know the basics: where she grew up, when she married my grandfather, where they lived, etc. etc. but I don’t know much, at least right now, about what makes her, her.

My grandmother has always claimed not to have any talent, which I know is a crock. She made beautiful floral arrangements when I was young and had them spread throughout her home. But I don’t know why she always said that she didn’t have any talent.

I don’t know if she ever kept a journal. I don’t know what women inspired her. I have no idea who or what she wanted to be when she was ten, twelve, or sixteen.

I don’t know how she saw the world through the lens of her own female experience.

I am afraid that I will never find the answers to these questions. My grandmother is still alive, although I know I am losing her. I know it and I can’t stop it.

There are roadblocks along my path of discovery. One person that will block me at every turn if I want so much as a photograph. Another that will selfishly claim my grandmother’s possessions for himself and the grandchildren that don’t speak to my grandparents. My grandfather is alive and well and in control of his own faculties; however, the sheer dismay of watching the love of his life decline into a shell will take its toll on him as well. I know this and I can’t stop it.

As a writer, I find it hard to believe that I don’t know this information. I am a born observer. I see more than I ever say, and that may eventually come as a surprise to the many that underestimate me. But for now, I am disappointed. In my own lack of knowledge and in the knowledge that getting that information will be a battle.

Although my motivation might seem selfish, and in some ways, I suppose it is. I want to know more about my grandmother before I can’t. I want to record the female experience from my own bloodline and preserve it for my children. They should know where and from whom they come.

I only have one grandmother, and I am losing her. I know it and I can’t stop it.

The Last Good Photo(Above: What could be the last good photograph of me with my grandparents. October 17, 2015)

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My Grandmother Lived in the White House of My Dreams

“This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven.” – Rick Bragg

 

I used to imagine that my maternal grandparents lived in the house next door to my childhood home.  Today, the house is the color of mocha and has a full porch in the front, but when I was growing up, it was a plain white house with a simple porch, and I was a little girl with a wraparound imagination. I never met either of my maternal grandparents, but I dreamed that if they had been alive, they lived next door.

My mom talked about my grandmother and her many talents, down to the way she could braid my mom’s hair. When I was elementary age through my preteen years, I used to imagine sitting on my grandparents’ floor and having my grandmother braid my hair into intricate French braids and fishtail braids.

As a teenager, I imagined walking next door during homework breaks or barging right in after school for a snack. Of course, in my fantasy land, my grandmother would have freshly baked bread or cookies. Something delicious would always be on the table. I envisioned her going on the shopping trips I took with my own mom to look for prom dresses and even the simple things we did like lunch and fun trips on Saturday afternoons.

When I graduated from college, I visited my grandmother’s grave and told her about my ambitions. I told her what I wanted to do with my life and I strived (still do) to make sure that I am making her proud.

I went back and told her about the wonderful guy that I’d met that would eventually become my husband. I wished she could meet my Paul and help my mom get me ready on my wedding day.

Today, I wish she were alive to see my children that are not yet born. I wish she were alive to play with them, to make them laugh, and to tell them the stories of her own youth. All the things that grandmothers are supposed to do with little ones.

A few years ago, my mom gave me several sets of photos of my grandparents. I have most of them safely tucked away in scrapbooks with acid free paper and photo safe glue.

My mom has told me, for as long as I can remember, that I look like her mother. And I’ve always agreed. But looking at those photos brought it front and center. I do.

When I look at myself, I see so much of my maternal grandmother. I have her chin, cheeks, and yes, even her feet! I could pass as a photo of her from the 1950s as me with a different hairstyle. She’s beautiful and gracious with a big, welcoming smile.

I take photographs seriously, and as I’ve written about many times, there are very few places in my home that don’t have a frame. I have a copy of my grandmother’s senior photo in my office, and my great-grandmother is on the wall leading downstairs. My mom is on my desk. All of these women have shaped who I am in various ways.

When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in the house next door, even if in my own dreams. Now that I’m an adult, they live in my house through photographs and the stories I know about them.  And in that case, they were always there, all along, just as they should have been.

 

 

Written in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month.

 

The Slayer Within Me

Is a person capable of being inspired by a fictional character? I hope that the answer to that is a resounding “yes” or I have grown into a warped human being. I love many of my fictional friends and have at times preferred them over real people.

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(ABOVE: Me and Buffy. December, 2016)

Growing up, I remember reading and falling in love with characters and spending hours at my local library (thank you mom) picking out new books every week. I read The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew. Then as I got older I read all the books from the summer reading lists. By the time I got to summers as a teenager, 1984 was on my “for fun” list.

I also have a deep abiding love for classic films. An Affair to Remember is my favorite film, but anything with Cary Grant is, for me, swoon worthy. I have also seen Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington more times than I can count because before we had Tom Hanks, we had Jimmy Stewart. And then, Bogart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Bogey film that I don’t like, although if pressed, The African Queen is my favorite.

My fictional friends have seen me through all the stages of life I’ve encountered to date; however, there is one fictional friend that I come back to time and time again. Her name: Buffy Summers. Her job: vampire slayer.

A few months ago, I wrote about the cathartic nature if repetition and the comfort that I find in the familiar. Yes, I watch things on repeat. Of course, I listen to the same songs over and over again until I find a new one. Have I read books more than once? Are you seeing a pattern?

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I have been on a kick recently of watching all seven seasons of Buffy back to back. And by kick, I’ve been doing this since last summer.

I can quote lines from my favorite episodes and I have characters that I love to hate. (Riley? Really? Joss, did we have to go there?)

And I know that Buffy is a creation, and even more than that, I know that Sarah Michelle Gellar is an actress. However, I grew up with Buffy. Watching Buffy was something that my mom and I did together. She’d make us a snack and we’d settle in front of the WB (throwback to channel 20 in Detroit!). When I was a sophomore in college, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had the series on DVD by then and she’d watch it, or we’d watch it, while she was at home recuperating from surgery. Maybe one day, I’ll introduce a daughter to the chosen one?

Since it is March, and I’ve been thinking about the many women that inspire me, I am reminded of a line from “Chosen”, which is the last episode of the seventh (and final televised) season.

“So here’s the part where you make a choice…. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

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(ABOVE: Buffy sitting on my desk)

The last two statements resonate with me: “make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?” There are times when we aren’t ready to be strong, but we must be. This scene brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it, and I have watched it a lot.

It’s the wherewithal of one woman to challenge the status quo, to do something rebellious but good, to make a change where and when she can. The character of Buffy Summers doesn’t have a perfect life and starting with season one, she experiences loss and this theme repeats. She’s flawed and in many ways, she’s fragile. But she comes back time after time to slay her demons, both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer since it debuted in 1997 and today, I still watch it for the same reasons. Buffy inspires me. If I’m having a bad day, I can watch one of my favorite episodes and feel better. Need a grading break? Stressed? Feeling blue? Feeling good? Need to kick ass and take names? Listen to the theme. (Seriously. I highly recommend this. I met my fastest goal while running to this song.) A few years ago, my husband bought me the comics that continue where the television show ended. Buffy and I still hang out.

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(ABOVE: Buffy t-shirt)

I watched Buffy Summers go from a high school student that desperately wanted a “normal” life to a self-sufficient woman who knew exactly what she was. What teenage girl doesn’t long for “normal” because we’re all “abnormal” between the ages of 14 and 18, particularly in high school? What young woman doesn’t start her first job out of college thinking “what in the hell am I doing here? I don’t have this!”

Many times, I have thought to myself, “are you ready to be strong?” And the answer has been “yes”, no matter how many times I wanted it to be “no”.  I feel that this question is relevant today more than ever.

I’ve been considering what matters to me and what I’m willing to fight for. “Are you ready to be strong?”

Once again, yes.

 

(BELOW: No school bag is complete without a Buffy button.)button

“Chosen” Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Seven, written by Joss Whedon, directed by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, 2003.

Because Three Women Showed Me How

I wasn’t sure what college was supposed to be. Was it a mix Legally Blonde, Dead Poets Society, and my beloved Mona Lisa Smile? In my own way, I hoped that my experience as a student at Oakland University would be a combination of all of those fictions put together to form my own new truth. I wanted to be the kind of shockingly intelligent student that made friends easily like Elle Woods; I wanted the kind of professors that stood on desks and talked about how lazy the word “very” is (that would have been pretty cool and now I’m half tempted to do it—sorry future students, I’m inspired); I wanted the kind of self-actualization that comes from doing something that other women don’t or can’t, like Julia Roberts’ character. I wanted to be it all.

I sat in my car in front of Wilson Hall on the first day of classes in on a beautiful September morning. The human health building didn’t exist yet, the clock tower might have been a thought, but it definitely wasn’t a reality, “they” showed movies off the side of O’Dowd, parking was still the one thing that nightmares run from, and I was ready to be a college student. My first class was an 8:00 writing class and I was one part excited and the other part scared to death. I had high school friends that were at O.U. also, but none of us signed up for the same classes and I wasn’t all that upset about it. I was there to do my thing, whatever that thing would be.

I worked up the courage to get out of my car at about 7:45. I’d been sitting there since 7:15 and the nerves were working me up a bit. I straightened my perky mega blonde ponytail, made sure my t-shirt wasn’t wadded up and making me look like a dork, and flip-flopped my way into Wilson, and as cheesy as it may sound, Oakland University flip flopped its way into my heart of hearts. That’s not to say I didn’t have my fair share of college stress. Just say the words: “political science 372” and I’ll break out in hives. But overall, O.U. became my second home, and it still is.

I remember what it felt like to walk into my first college class like it was yesterday, and to this day I still feel that same jittery excitement as I walk in, but the flip-flop is now on the other foot.

I never took a class that really “taught” me how to teach. I took professional development once I decided to teach at the collegiate level, but I didn’t have the same formal training as my friends and colleagues that teach K-12 did. Instead, I modeled my teaching style after those that I learned from.

During my sophomore year, I had a chance to study modern literature with Annie Gilson. I remember meeting Annie and she encouraged me to apply to become a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society on campus, and I did. We’d spoken at a few English department events, and I am lucky to have had her early in my undergraduate career.

She came in on the first day and was the most enthusiastic professor I’d ever seen. She was happy to be there! And how cool! She sat on the desk! I don’t know what kind of world I was living in before that day, but I’d never seen a professor sit on the desk. She was (and remains) unassuming and genuine. We were instructed to call her “Annie” and into the class we dove.

I remember reading Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains and loving every second of the class. And it was in this class that I wrote what would become my archetype: the feminist paper. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was readying myself for what would become the one aspect of critical literary theory that I understand and what would shape the ways I approach the teaching of research.

Annie encouraged me to follow my interests. When I wrote for her class, I could write about what interested me? You mean, I didn’t have to write what I thought I “should” or what my professor wanted? She was teaching me open inquiry.

From Annie, I also learned the kind of classroom presence that I wanted. I wanted to be that person that oozed excitement for my subject and modeled that for my students. I wanted to be that kind of teacher that got my students to speak up in class simply by asking them to.

I have students now that say “you get really excited to be in class” or “you genuinely care about our learning.”  I reply that it is because I am happy to be in class and I do genuinely care about their learning. But what they don’t know is that I had that shown to me when I was nineteen years old and I never forgot it. I took a piece of Annie’s teaching style and put it in my toolbox, or imprinted it on my personality, either way you want to look at it. I hope to be for my students what Annie was for me.

By the time I reached the end of my junior year, I knew I didn’t want to teach high school. My prevailing thought was: I hated high school, why do I want to spend the next thirty years there? I didn’t “really” hate high school, but whoever tells you that they are the best four years of your life is full of shit.

I decided to continue onto graduate school at Oakland because by then, I knew that I wanted to teach college. My first class was critical literary theory and I went home many nights and cried. The class scared me to death. I even uttered, “Oakland made a mistake! I’m not smart enough for this!” But I must have been because I survived, and here I am on the other side and teaching.

After I managed to make it through my first semester, I had to great fortune to meet Bailey McDaniel and take her Post-Colonial Drama and Performance class. Like Annie Gilson during my undergrad education, Bailey was also the kind of professor that I wanted to be.

She told the class about her own educational journey and was relatable! She infused her class with laughter and even made the darkest works we read something to enjoy.

As the other students and I arranged our desks in a circle, Bailey sat with us as we talked about what Post-Colonialism was and what we would be studying. I hadn’t studied plays before and I was excited to look at a new genre.

Sitting in Bailey’s class made the genre come alive! I loved coming to class every night, and even though I was exhausted from working my full-time job, I felt re-energized once I got there. Bailey was just the kind of professor that I wanted to be!

I remember writing a paper for her that I proud of today. It might be one of the only two papers from graduate school that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have my name attached to. I remember walking into Bailey’s office hours and telling her that I wanted to write about the Irish play that we studied. I was fascinated by the female theater group, so once again, I wanted to write “the feminist paper.”

Bailey’s face lit up and she encouraged me to research the play and write the paper that I wanted to write.  The takeaways from her class were these: teach your class the way you would want to be taught. Don’t talk to your students like you’re talking “at” them; talk to them like you’re talking “with” them. Encourage their research and the reasons why they are interested.

My final semester in graduate school led me to many things but one of the most important is my friendship with Andrea Knutson. I took Andrea’s class and throughout the semester, we read literature from colonial America. I’ll never forget reading Thomas Jefferson’s description of the Natural Bridge. Traveling there is on my life’s “to-do” list.

While the semester came to a close and I prepared to write my last graduate school essay, I found myself, once again, writing the feminist paper. This time, I’d set my sights on Hannah W. Foster’s The Coquette. I thought this was the best paper I would ever write and I felt smart (finally) while I was working on it. My thesis was something about ownership of the female body and for possibly the one and only time in my life, I incorporated Foucault, Rousseau, and Locke into something that made sense. I scored well on the essay and that bolstered my confidence as someone looking to begin teaching writing to others.

I was terrified to apply for teaching jobs. I knew I had the “smarts” but I had no idea how to showcase those abilities in any sort of academically relevant fashion. One day I visited Andrea’s office and asked for help.  I brought my pathetic looking resume in and we studied it together. She was the first person to introduce the words curriculum vitae to me and told me that my CV wasn’t the same thing as a beginning resume. I didn’t have to stick to one page!

We worked together for weeks getting my CV in shape. Just like writing any paper, I drafted, revised, and drafted again, then I went to see Andrea for feedback. And one day I received an e-mail. I had an interview to teach! Later that week, I had another!

I went to both interviews and landed both teaching jobs. I couldn’t believe it! I had done it! The months leading up to graduation proved taxing and without Andrea’s guidance and patience, I wouldn’t have landed my first teaching job. Before she sat with me and explained the way academic job searches work, I had no idea. I had “hi, I’m new here” stamped to my forehead.

Today, Andrea is one of my dearest friends. From teacher to mentor to friend, she has exuded endless patience and kindness. She’s been to my home and explored my weird and lovely town with me. Andrea is one of those rare friends that a person finds in an unlikely situation, like ours, first as professor/student, but is one of those friendships that has great depth and value.

Without these women: Annie, Bailey, and Andrea, I don’t know if I would even be a teacher, or the kind of teacher that I am to say the least. I had the desire to teach but these women showed me how to teach. Each of them has a style all her own and characteristics that not only make them great teachers but they are also women to look up to, to aspire to.

Now that I am in the classroom at the very same university I attended, I sometimes have to pinch myself. “Am I really here? Am I really doing this?” And the answer is yes, yes, I do. I work in a different department than the women that taught me, and I am surrounded by friends and colleagues that inspire me every day.

Today, when I walk across Oakland’s campus, I get a similar feeling to the one that the eager eighteen-year-old with the electric blonde ponytail had. I walk in to face the day, and my students, as a mental combination of Elle Woods, John Keating, and Katherine Watson.

All because three women showed me how.

 

 

 

 

Written in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month.


 

Betty Big Cheeks Becomes a Teacher

Throughout my educational journey, I had some alternatively great teachers and some stink bugs. I’m awed at the ones that stick out of my mind’s tree. These branches are the strongest and most vibrant. Like words, I would not be a complete teacher without all of their pieces lining up and standing for something, giving it meaning. I can feel their tremendous influences but I am not weighted down by the pedagogical-pedestal that I have given them.

I don’t remember much about the day that Marsha Chapman altered my course indefinitely, but I do know what I was reading. It was 2002, and the beginning of my junior year of high school. While my friends were reading Sara Dessen books, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I was in 1958. I was listening to Connie Francis, Ricky Nelson, and Elvis. I was spending time with Truman Capote and reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I was early, per usual, for my American Literature class. Capote rested atop my collection of notebook, text, and school novel, Ethan Frome. Edith Wharton’s lovely words spent days bubbling in my teenage brain. Ms. Chapman walked by my desk and paused. She looked at my shining, silver Capote cover, smiled, and nodded. She asked if I started the book yet. I told her that I had and it was really good and making me think. Our conversation was brief, but she said “you are ready for undergrad my dear”. At the time, I didn’t know what exactly the word “undergrad” meant. My parents went to college but that’s the only word I knew.

Ms. Chapman was always one of my favorite teachers. She has an energetic personality that resonates with her students. She is a quiet soul with a gentle teaching style that fosters learning and old-school understanding. She assigns writing. Real writing! Long hand drafts and tangible outlines. I was always comfortable with her and excelled in her classes. They were my favorites because of the way that the students were encouraged to not only have original thoughts but to follow them through and share them.

That day I stayed after school and we struck up a conversation. I asked her what undergrad was and she explained eagerly, checking my face for reaction. Me? I was ready for college! I was sixteen, and my favorite teacher thought I was ready for college. She was talking about concepts and using words like “analysis” and “literature based inquiry”. I was all too geeked. Ms. Chapman said I was ready for college! I was smart enough for college already! Her comments bolstered me and in that afternoon, I became Betty Big Cheeks, a name I still use to refer to myself.

I told my parents about the great declaration. This seemed not to be the shocker I thought it was. They looked at me with the “well yeah” look that all parents seem to have and know how to use well. I had not released government secrets. They knew what Ms. Chapman knew. Funny how adults know more than kids.

The rest of my junior year strolled along, taking its time, before rolling into the grail that was my senior year. Throughout the remainder of the school year, I took over the writer’s club with my best friend. We were co-captains of the cruise ship and we published two books of student writing and art work. We were able to sell our books to the student body and it was my first experience as an editor. During this time period, I also discovered poetry and began going down the path of authorship that I still stride along today.

I’d been a short-story writer but found myself gloriously stunted when it came to character development. I found poetry and began writing with a teenager’s wildly centric abandon. I had never asked a teacher to look at my poetry. I’d taken creative writing courses, and my teachers read my stories, but poetry was much more personal. There was so much more me on the page. But when I did go to a teacher, it was Ms. Chapman.  Patient and kind as ever, she read my odes and ides and provided nothing but helpful hints and taught me my first lessons about enjambment, poetic diction, and style. I trusted her. Ms. Chapman was the only grown person to read my poetry aside from my mom. She told me I was a writer, and like I believed my mom, I believed Ms. Chapman as well.

2003 finally arrived and I was a senior. Betty Big Cheeks rides again! Ms. Chapman selected me to be her teaching assistant. Every day, I spent fourth hour in her class of freshman. This meant I could grade assignments! I could file! I! Could! Make! A! Bulletin! Board!

It was the best part of my year. I watched my favorite teacher in action and I learned the behind the scenes “stuff” that made her class challenging, but yet also a safe creative space. She showed me how to plan, how to read assignments, and how to think like a teacher.

When I graduated from high school, my plan was to double major in English and history. I was going to be a high school teacher. Then I majored in journalism for a minute. Then I changed my major back to English and I minored in journalism. Throughout college, I kept going back to Ms. Chapman. I asked questions about teaching. She wanted to hear about my learning. She was an anchor. She was more than mentor can hold.

Now I teach, and I’m technically, according to the law, and general principles of mathematics, one of those smart adults. Ms. Chapman is my friend, and she is always the North Star in my teaching sky. I attempt to repeat her grace with my funk. Her quiet nature is my long laugh. I am her, and I carry her influence, but I am not her either. I am everything she taught me. I am a sixteen year old with Truman Capote. I am a twenty year old studying Emily Dickinson. I am a twenty-three year old crying because Derrida hates me. I am a teacher, and I am not sure I would be if it wasn’t for her Breakfast at Tiffany’s conversation.

Ms. Chapman was the beginning for me. She could show, not tell, me how to be a teacher. Her compassion for not only me, but for every student, shows vividly in her actions. She continues to do what is best for the young readers and writers in her classes. She is my living, breathing Frank McCourt. My teacher woman. Every time I walk into a classroom, and I see the eager faces of my little duckling college freshman, I think that I will tell one of them, “I see you in grad school one day” and see what happens.

 

This is in celebration of inspirational women and Women’s History Month

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(Above: This photo is of me when I received my bachelor’s degree.)