Tag Archives: writing about teaching

Dear Brockport, an open letter:

imagesI’ve come to recognize a low-level anxiety in myself, not unlike I’m holding my breath, scared for something that makes me come back here to blog. Especially at the start of the fall semester at SUNY Brockport, I find myself preparing for something to happen. I warn my students they are not invincible, that they have to take care of themselves, to be vigilant, that those who come here (and are without their parents for the first time) don’t always know better (or act better) to look to faculty and staff and peers for guidance to make their vulnerability a little less-so. This is not just a college campus, it is still the real world.

Everyone knows about last weekend’s so-called riot after SUNY Brockport’s Homecoming game, when there were unfounded rumors of stabbings and vandalism and reports of Brockport cops threatening students with lines like “I will end your college career.” I try to find in myself an advocate, an even-minded person who defends the students I teach every day, and say, “They were chanting USA. They were displaced from the bars with no explanation. No one got hurt. There were no named victims of anything.” But the flashing emergency lights from the media pictures argue otherwise, and with that, the tensions between college (my alma mater, also where I teach English) and “townies” (a derogatory term, a term I use to define myself), have taken off, and not for the betterment of anyone.  Social media has blown up with negativity.

Last night, a Brockport High School student was beaten with a baseball bat after the high school’s Homecoming game, and this morning, the only press I can find about this is a Facebook post issued by the victim’s mother pleading for any witnesses to come forward, and none of the witnesses who were at the game had called the authorities, and what good is a frightened mother without a lead? Where is the press? I Googled and re-Googled for anything I could find. These criminals–and they have committed a violent, egregious crime–have escaped, and there is no Brockport Blog/WHEC News 10/WHAM 13 news item anywhere. What are we afraid of? If there’s a victim, there’s a crime, there’s a criminal. Our students aren’t criminals, but after this weekend, there’s a criminal out there.

My son had been at that game with his friends and his friends’ parents, a game my husband and I were so bummed we couldn’t attend with him. They played soccer in the patch of grass under the lights next to the families who were there to cheer on their student athletes and next to the high school students who cheered for their best friends. I hate to think of the narrow escapes from danger, how narrow they can be, and the threat that some time, they might not be narrow enough.

For these news events to occur on Homecoming weekends, how can this feel so unlike our home? It’s an out-of-body experience, almost, yet you feel the wound because it’s you, it’s your community. And when that happens, they are not just news events.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband, Cory, and I, sat on our porch and watched the children who live across the street sell their late-September lemonade, an act of suburban bliss. College students and high school students alike pulled over on Park Ave to support the enterprise. They were showing the younger kids how to be in the world.

At 2:30 and 3:45 and 5 this morning, I was horrified to think that the perpetrator(s?) of this baseball bat beating were still out there and still dangerous and very little was made public about it. I thought about my students, who were the “criminals” last week, their homecoming cheers, how they were likely in their beds at 4:30 am. And by the next morning, when they woke, they saw themselves all over the news.

One of my students said in class on Friday that one of his high school teachers “hated him,” and I said, skeptically, “That doesn’t sound like a healthy feeling to have toward a student.” I explained that, to me, it felt congruent (although a smaller congruence) to hating your child. How do you give up on someone you have responsibility to? But I can’t say the feelings any of the parents or community members in Brockport would feel anything less that hate for whoever beat that high school boy last night. In that boy, we all imagine parts of our children. We all just want everyone to act in a way that is as human or humane as we feel.


Look in the Same Direction You’re Moving

Upon finishing an MFA, you’re surprised to discover that exactly what you thought would happen, actually does. It’s anticlimactic the same way that, at the end of this week, your teaching semester will end. Students will fall away to summer vacation, grades will post, and life will yawn out before you.

In Fiction Workshop, regarding a story set in a coin-operated porn booth, you say, “I’m sorry to ask this, but what is the climax in this piece?” After a few labored giggles, a student ventures a guess: “Is it when the main character flashes back to when his daughter was hit by a car?” and you discuss if a climax can happen in a flashback, and what does it mean for the story if it does? You don’t know what else to do but to care deeply–almost too deeply–about this.

After class, you and Sam feed the ducks bread that’s not yet stale, bread you could’ve turned into a peanut butter and jelly, but you birdlike the stretchy afternoons when you and your three-year-old dawdle down to the path of the Erie Canal and throw balled-up white bread at aggressive mallards. The two of you analyze the knobs of their heads for brown, looking for the mama ducks, but their babies haven’t hatched yet, so they’re at the nest, you tell Sam. Only the dads swim up.

Confess to your husband that, yes, you always suggest walking to the canal, and Sam’s always game for it, but once you near the bridge, which you know Sam takes entirely too long to cross (a childhood fear that you hope you conceal), you find yourself pulling him along, telling him, Come on, or You can’t stop in a cross walk, or Look in the same direction you’re moving, but inside, you completely understand how a person can be tied to what’s behind them.

Some of your students had been okay with a climax in flashback, but you were not. Then why not just tell the story of what happened in the flashback? you asked. Put more focus on the present scene, you said, sounding a lot like your MFA advisors.

Sammy doesn’t pull you ahead the way Johnny does.  Instead, you find yourself acting the part of child or the poor-mannered mutt. Why are you so eager to get a move on? There is no deadline. Your stories have been edited to the brim and wait for you to forget them so you can read them again and pick them apart like a vulture.

You and Sam sit on the stoop of Java Junction, a spot he’s chosen because there’s an ample pile of bird food surrounding the small tree just in front of the coffee shop and a legitimate aviary in its branches. Sam is happy to sit, watching the birds, so you humor him, taking a picture of him with your iPhone and watching the same car pass three times, its driver having completed a list of errands you no longer have.

Sammy loves birds. He knows the names of more birds than you do. In fact, this is true for all animals. When Sammy is in the bath, and you say, “If you dump that whale-ful of water out of the tub one more time…” he responds with, “Mom, it’s not a whale.”

You coerce him to leave the birds by promising to draw pictures of birds when you get home, but after dinner, when Johnny has come off the bus, and you have fed the boys cheese pizza, and then have promised to play outside, you will not have drawn a picture of a bird. Tomorrow, you think.

At 7, it’s nearly dusk, and you open and close the issue of The Writer that you’ve dog-eared on “Going Postal: A new book helps writers achieve success after an MFA” while trying to drink a coffee in the warm and fleeting spring sun amidst Sam, who is slow-going to understand the logistics of bike pedals, and John, who bikes dangerous circles around your house, so you give up. You crawl on all fours behind Sammy, who lets you cycle his legs until he gets the rhythm of the pedals, leaving your magazine on the porch to blow open in the wind you wish would go away.

The teenager next door, a sensitive thirteen year-old you only hope will stick close to your boys, calls the three of you over and points at what he thinks, at first, is a dead worm on the driveway. It’s too big to be a worm, he realizes.

“I think that’s its heart,” the teenager says.

“It looks scientific,” John says.

You and the teenager agree: it’s a baby bird.

When the three boys bury the bird, you help. You remember burying a bird you found in your childhood backyard not even a block away, and how you wrote about it years later.

Before the burial, Sam had reached slowly for the smushed bird, and you stopped him. He wasn’t sad, as you’d feared. It was a beautiful and gross thing–the colors like acrylics on the black pavement. And by the time you’d finish staring at it, Sam had given it a name.

 

 

 


Old News

One thing I miss about living with my parents: the Democrat & Chronicle that arrived outside their screen door every morning.

When it didn’t arrive–snowy mornings, especially, or came late for whatever excuse the deliverer had, there was an absence, some missing constant. I was an adolescent and read the paper with my morning bowl of Fruity Pebbles. Some days, if on the front page was a sports-related headline, like the Super Bowl Champs, or a particular legislative conflict, say, the Monica Lewinsky debacle, I might have skipped to the ‘C’ Section: Living, where I could read my horoscope to see what magical or melodramatic event my day would hold, or Jack Garner‘s review of Armageddon, where I’d decided that any movie with astronauts would at least get 8 stars. If the paper didn’t show up, it was today’s misplaced cellphone. A can emptied of all its coffee grounds. Or, imagine, if the Facebook site crashed.

As I grew up, I became more concerned with the ‘B’ section: Local, the (mostly) miniature catastrophes, the small-town news. A page or so in, I would find the Obituaries, and read them, looking for familiar last names, which, if I did recognize them, would mostly be the great grandparents or grandparents of my acquaintances.

Now, when I go “home,” to my parents’ house, I instinctively reach for the newspaper that was usually folded and in the center of the table (except for the Sports section, which I never read, but was always next to the toilet, anyway), but now they only get the weekend paper, which is a strange option to me, as though all important stories are saved for the weekend. Sadder, to me, is when I recognize that people either don’t have time for a daily paper, don’t have the desire to handle its unwieldy pages, or, like me, refuse to pay for what they can now get for free. The problem is that the paper determined what was important to me, so now, in this information-age, how do I find what’s important in the face of so much else? The whole internet full of triumph and tragedy intimidates me, and I can close the window easily enough.

Idaho, a news photo of the dog who was tried for murder. Here, he is situated at a typewriter.

Lately, I’ve spent at least two hours a week at the Emily L. Knapp museum in Brockport, the old Seymour Library that sits a block away from my childhood house on Spring Street. The building’s first-story once held the library and has since been turned into the village hall, but when I was little, it was the only place my parents would let me walk to on my own. The sidewalks on Park Ave were uneven tiles, and I remember looking down nearly the entire way to be sure I wouldn’t trip. When I arrived at the building, I would find the same librarian, a woman with a long straight ponytail hanging at least to her lower back. Then, I would check out the same book nearly every visit: The Valley of the Ghosts, book with a strange corpse-like figure on the cover with anatomically correct breasts that made me slightly self-conscious to check the book out, but I suppose not self-conscious enough.

“It’s a book of ghost stories,” I’d tell my mom when she looked at me funny.

So, every Wednesday for the past couple months, I’ve gone to this museum, the richest resource I’ve found for the anecdotes of Brockport’s village, and carefully turned page after large page of musty old newspapers bound together by year. There, a committee of researchers, archivists, historians, or citizens preserve these papers. They alert me to topics in old newspapers or photographs that I might find “interesting,” they say and laugh a little, that it involves murder or death.

One day a committee member said, “Here, Sarah. Here’s a picture for you.” Across the Brockport train tracks lay the dead body of an unidentified man, and the look on his face was, as awful as it was, peaceful. I made a copy of the picture, which I nearly had to pry out of the clerk’s hands at the Walmart Photo Center after he argued that it might be copyrighted. He hid the photo away from my sons, who sat in the cart next to me.

“I will not reprint it,” I said. “I just want to look at it.”

I persisted, unlike myself. How could I write about something I couldn’t hold centimeters from my eyes, couldn’t prop up on a mini-metal easel on my desk to refer to (the stones piled up against the ties, the angle of his shoe, the way his face was restful, but his body was not)? How could I write about what I couldn’t fold into origami or rip to smithereens if I wanted to?

I had to have a hard copy, I just could not look at it on my cell phone, where the image of the photograph was stored.

The word “microfilm” intimidates me because I’d rather read something I can touch. For example, I printed every article about Idaho, the dog charged with murder, from the Brockport Republic’s internet database before I could begin the story. I wanted to turn pages.

A lot of the stories I research for my fiction come from scrapbooks–the collection of news-clippings that Raymond Tuttle, one prominent resident, clipped with scissors and glued into a notebook with stitched binding. A layer of what the Brockport resident found notable or quirky. This is my favorite way to research, it’s almost as if he’s pointing these stories out, calling on the residents to tell them. It is a built-in filter, so I do not cower away from the years of newspapers bound in volumes, or feel incompetent in the face of boundless years captured on the internet.

One Wednesday at the museum, I sat down and asked the village historian, Jackie Morris, for more information on the houses that were razed or moved to expand the campus in the 1940s or 50s. We sat for a little while, talking about the families whose homes were moved or dropped to the ground, and when I moved a newspaper or two that had collected in front of me, I found a random scrapbook page, the clipping of a Brockport Republic article with a dotted line around the campus, denoting the space where the razing would occur, showing the houses that were scheduled to be moved.

“Oh my god,” I said to Jackie. “Where did this come from?”

She said, giggling, “I told you, sometimes Seymour likes to help us out up here. Sometimes he gives us what we’re looking for.”

There is a pile of The Stylus, Brockport’s student-run newspaper, on my desk, and I recognize some of its writers to be my current or former students.

My mother brings a copy of the university paper home to my father every week, and she prods me, too, when she finds an article especially interesting–this week, she made sure I read the article about a disgruntled student who’d been expelled and brought a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition to the SUNY Brockport campus one year ago, who was arrested before any tragedy occurred, and while I read the story in terror, my heart thumping, I was thankful that this one-year-later-article was all that came of it. Long after I stopped reading, I was still transfixed in that time, stuck wondering what the campus looked like that day, imagining the exchange between the expelled student and the officer. And the students, I thought most about the students, the how, the why and the who of the community on that day.

This semester, in the ten or so awkward minutes before class begins, I mention stories to my students that, with time, have become just plain interesting, but at one time, were much more. They are captivated by details like a pile of 10,000 tomatoes in the parking lot of the Cold Storage, the horror of the dead man on the train tracks, instances like a dog on trial for murder, and, with all their intrigue, I hope it’s proof that this tangible “rag,” this ghost of an era and all that it stands for, is not on its way out.


Halloween Leftovers

As I write this, I am coercing the Sour Apple Laffy Taffy out of my molars with my tongue.  89.1 is on the radio in my kitchen.  My husband has just left for work, and when he left, I was slicing a piece of fiction (inspired by a 1920s plane crash in Brockport) into paragraph-sized morsels with kid-scissors.  I realize I am alone for the first time in nearly a week.

Loser Candy

Compelled to rummage through the candy bowl from Halloween, I stopped my project, and stared down into the bowl: Sour Apple everything.  Whoppers.  Clark Bars.  Runts.  Blech.

A week or two before Halloween, Johnny and I were watching the cartoon Gravity Falls, a Disney series that explores an eerie village through the eyes of a creepy family.  Johnny loves this show.  I was unsure at first, but loved it after seeing this: The Summerween Trickster–a candy monster made out of the bottom-of-the-bowl-rejects that the children of Gravity Falls have termed “Loser candy.”  So I sifted through my own Loser Candy, and succumbed to Sour Apple Laffy Taffy.  It was neon green (and tasted it), unsatisfyingly waxy, nothing like an apple.  Not even sour.  Not tasty enough to warrant the tiredness of my jaw after minutes of chewing.

Cory is not a fan of the show Gravity Falls, and I thought that by telling him about the clever Summerween Trickster, he might change his mind.  But this is the same person who looks at me strange when I watch Coraline with Johnny for the twentieth time.  Or The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Cory looks at me cross-eyed when I say to Johnny, “Hi, Johnny.  I’m your other mother.”

Johnny will say, “You do not have button eyes!”

My students think it strange that I watch such a creepy movie with my child.  But why hide the scary?  Johnny sees monsters all the time in movies and cartoons, but acknowledging that what appears in real life can be scary or threatening, too, like in Coraline, might make him more… prepared?

My cousin bought me The Happiness Project for my thirtieth birthday, so I’m sure some consider it abnormal that I dwell in the dark.  But I see it as pulling at life’s unbound strings, just braiding these fibers together, attempting to understand the fabric.

When brainstorming writing ideas, my students have said, “But I don’t have any conflict in my life.”  I press them with questions until they find something.  When students resist conflict and tension, the feared candy at the bottom of the bowl, I ask them, “Well then, if you understand everything, why write?”

Sometimes I feel like I understand nothing, and that’s when I write the most.

It doesn’t all have to be negative, but most of us don’t dwell on what makes our lives easy–the happy times, because we enjoy them, and take them as memories for a “rainy” day.  We live in the awkward, fearful, combustible moments and stare hard at the uncomfortable moments that play tricks on our minds or come back to haunt us when we think they’ve gone for good.


How to Talk to Students About What We, Ourselves, Don’t Understand

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png

Vector version of Image:Color icon purple.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Normally, I might make some joke that goes unnoticed and unresponded to by most of my students, but this morning, walking into class meant walking away from the comfort of small talk and abandoning the ability to smile without feeling guilty. It was, after the wholly unprecedented event on our campus this past weekend, like forgetting how to teach.

On Friday, Alexandra Kogut was in classes on SUNY Brockport‘s campus, would attend swimming practice on Monday, and had a planned visit from her boyfriend that night. Something went wrong, and Saturday morning, Alexandra’s friends and college community woke to an email from the campus that a female had been murdered in their dorm room earlier that morning.

What’s happened since on campus, I can’t know, but can only from read the news reports–the reports I’ve been glued to, trying to make sense of this while at the same time terrified, not knowing the identity until last night, that one of my students would not sit down in class on Monday morning, that I would have the dreadful task of addressing a class that had lost one of its members. What’s happened since, on campus, has been a visually beautiful display of the internal unrest and sadness felt by Alexandra’s loss. A pulling together of memorial services, impromptu vigils, swim-team members housing other female swimmers who could not face the dorm where their teammate and friend was murdered, a wide white sheet with a note to Alex hung over the siding of a college house. In class this morning, many of my students wore purple, a color bringing awareness to domestic violence.

On Saturday morning, an hour before any of the college community received an email about the tragedy, Alexandra’s killer, 21 year-old Clayton Whittemore, was hand-cuffed at a rest stop of the NYS Thruway. Before any of her classmates had even known she was gone, the murderer was captured. And had confessed.

I admit, after the news reports came out, the hungry side of me searched Facebook for his profile, looking for some explanation or warning, or something I knew I wouldn’t find. What I’d found was this: a very meaty shirtless young man, who looked as normal to me as students that sit in my class. And strong. His picture, because I knew in a very superficial way, what had happened, looked horrifying and violent because those arms and those fists had become accomplices.

A close friend of mine had gone to home to Minnesota to celebrate her new novel, but I couldn’t help ruining her weekend with texts about the tragedy, wishing she was here to see the community come together or simply to wander in this strange proximity, the feeling of wanting to hug, but not having the arms to do so.

Saturday night, I had a dream that I wandered to a house just off campus where an older woman lived. She had a lamp on the end table just in front of her window, and slept, sitting up, on her loveseat, with the remote in her hand and her TV on. I walked in as though the house were my own and lay down on the couch on the opposite wall, pulling the afghan over me. She opened one eye, and then took a second look, but didn’t say anything. And I said, “I’m sorry. I should have woken you up to tell you I had to stay here. I was too scared to stay at my house. I will leave when the sun comes up.”

But she got up and made me tea and talked with me about what had happened, the young college girl murdered, and I’d said to her that when I went back to class (and this is where it gets cloudy and strange) I would have to buy my students chewing gum.

As though I didn’t know what to do next. As though anything trivial that I could offer, even words, could address this loss, this permanent cloud, the absence of every version of Alexandra Kogut.

After talking to my husband, Cory, last night about how to address this with my students, he said, sarcastically, “What, are you going to turn it into a writing prompt?” He was right. How could I approach something as sensitive as the immediate loss of human life, the loss of an individual many of these students knew.

Then I talked to my mother, who runs the Hartwell Cafe on campus, in the building where Alexandra would have had her first class this morning. I asked, “What do I say to my students?” As though any answer could solve anything. She said, preparing a cup of tea for a customer, “Tell them you don’t know what to say.”

So I walked in, and, feeling my nose get sting-y as it does when I’m on the verge of tears, I said to my students, “I thought about it all night, but I just don’t know what to say to you.”

And that’s where it opened up.

Click here for information of domestic violence.