A Boy, Writing at age Ten

I can't think of a worse hell for a writer (especially one who spends any amount of time teaching) than realizing that your own child doesn't like reading or writing. I'm not there, but my son has definitely entered a new stage in his young life, one where he doesn't want to be bothered with written language.

Somebody just kill me already.

He reads every day, but only because he's encouraged to do so at home and because he has to read each night as part of his homework. But he's not into it. His lack of interest started over the last year. He can't seem to find any enthusiasm for the stories they read in his classroom textbook, and he's whizzing through short answers he has to give in school assignments without constructing complete sentences or adding punctuation. His comprehension isn't good either; I'm certain his mind drifts as he reads. And this is from a kid who babbled from the day he was born, whose first word had three syllables. I remember being happy that he conquered reading early with his beloved Ant Books.

A while back, I read Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax and Boy Writers:Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher. These books analyze how boys are systematically disengaged from learning (the Sax book) and writing (Fletcher's book).I recognized many of the problems the authors described from my experiences with male students in the classroom. These authors examine and critique education through the lens of gender, but if you add race to the equation and how the lack of cultural representation may affect a kid's interest in school and writing, there's another level to the problem that has to be undone.

I've started to come up with strategies. I'm looking into outside tutoring. I'm also tutoring him, but that's always a very delicate situation where emotions run high. I plan to inject more oral storytelling and discussion of stories in our conversations so that he becomes comfortable with narrative and how it works. I'm also searching for books that he will like, and I've made a note to ask him for the title of a book he recently read in one sitting.

It occurred to me on Sunday that I'm now homeschooling on the weekends, something I never planned to do. But I can see how important this moment is in his life, how his esteem is and will be affected by what happens next in his literacy. As we worked on writing answers to a story that we'd read together he started to cry. "I thought I understood how to do this," he said. I told him that he did know, that writing is a process, that we constantly work to improve our writing and the work of this is never done. I showed him a journal that published one of my stories in the fall of 2009. Then I pulled out the lined paper with my handwritten list of all the places where I considered sending that story. There were over sixty publications on the list. I actually sent the story to thirty-four journals. Only two of them were interested. "That's 'no' thirty-two times," I told him, "and that meant I had to look at the story several times and rewrite it many times to make it better." Then I said something corny about being a fighter and getting up when you get knocked down. He listened and gave me a half smile.

At that moment, it was the best thing I could think of to say.

won't you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed

--Copyright Lucille Clifton, from Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press 1993)

R.I.P. Lucille Clifton

I don't know what to say. What a loss for us here on earth.

Consume Only When Ripe

The kids are losing teeth around the house; Ava lost two baby teeth a couple days after Christmas, and a week later Amir lost his first molar. There isn't a more symbolic marker of maturity for a little kid than a tooth that’s fallen out of her head and landed, bloodied at the root, on the living room floor. Ava freaked out. Amir was at school when his tooth came out and he went to see the school nurse who gave him a plastic container shaped like a tooth in which he stored his molar.

I’m maturing, but it’s not as cute on me as it is on the kids. I chose not to color my hair the last time I went to the salon and now silver strands glitter at my hairline like cheap tinsel and I’m having second thoughts about being dye-free.

In our family garden, vegetables have broken ground as evidence of the planters’ hard work, patience and luck. Last November, Paul and Ava planted tomatoes, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and basil in our backyard. We had a feral cat, we think, that nibbled the lettuce for a while and because of that we didn’t believe the lettuce would ever grow. I’m not really sure what “we” did to remedy that, but today there are beautiful heads of lettuce above ground.

The lettuce is not quite mature, but it’s getting there.

Who knew that broccoli had such proud stature as it grew?

Our tomato and basil plants didn’t make it, although I remember Ava pulling off leaves of basil in December and munching on them near the swing set, so I think it was growing for a while. I asked Paul what happened to those plants and he said the weather got too cold. In a classroom, two out of four would be a failing grade, but in the garden it feels like our effort deserves a B+.

My manuscript is maturing. I’m 80% there, working on the last three stories before I send it to friends for review and feedback. I’ve had most of the stories published and recently sent another story out to find a home. I started the first stories in the collection some ten years ago, think about that! Over those ten years I’ve written a dozen stories, a novel, a poetry collection, had two children, completed an MFA… and I still don’t have a book. Believe me when I say that this writing thing ain’t for everybody.

Even without a book, I’m pleased with how my writing has evolved. The stories in my collection feel like everything I’ve thought about over the years and I’ll be proud to copy this manuscript and stand on street corners to pass it out if it comes to that. Unlike the novel and poetry--which I rushed to finish for school or because someone asked if I had a manuscript--this collection has been a labor of love like the garden. I’ve been slowly growing these characters over time. The stories really weren't ready before now. Sometimes I flip through the pages simply admiring how it looks.

There’s something satisfying about well-told short fiction. A story is not an entire world, not like a novel, but it’s a slice of life that reaffirms our daily experience. I re-read one of my favorite stories last week: “Real Estate” by Lorrie Moore. Those pages with Ruth’s laughter….well, it just doesn’t get any better.

Upcoming Readings + Lectures

On Wednesday, February 3 at 2:00 p.m., Dwayne Betts will do a craft talk at ASU's Piper Writers House. That evening, at 7:00 p.m., he has a reading at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.

On Thursday, February 4 at 6:00 p.m., Jewell Parker Rhodes presents a lecture at ASU's downtown campus titled "Racism, African Vampires and the Legend of New Orleans' Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau".

Next Tuesday, February 9 at 7:00 p.m., Junot Diaz reads at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in the Performing Arts Center.