Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Losing Alice

It's been a funny few days. Unrelated things keep popping up, reminding me of a specific time in my life, 13 years ago. It's when I fell to pieces. It's also when I was teaching middle-school drama.

Yesterday I learned that one of my drama kids has died.

I knew her when she was a little girl, riding ponies at the barn where I boarded my horse. I knew her as a 6th-grader in my drama class. I lost track of her after that--not surprising, as her family moved away. Reading the obituary last night I learned that she'd been a high-school athlete sidelined by a rare disease. She'd received a kidney transplant, graduated college, married young, and, last Friday, died.

I found out when a mutual friend posted on the internet a photo of her in pigtails on a pony. I recognized her immediately, but when I was thinking of her last night it was all in regards to our drama class. I had a class of about 20 middle-schoolers, 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. We presented Barbara Robinson's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," and this girl, the one who died, played Alice. I remember that she was one of the students who really learned something over the semester. We had a few students who were naturally very talented, and a few who were never going to be strong actors, and then some in the middle, who by working hard became better than they or I expected.

The character Alice gives voice to the pivotal moment of the play, when nasty Imogene Herdman, the antagonist, transforms into the persona of Mary, the mother of God. The whole stageful of children goes completely silent until Alice says, gasping, "Mary's crying! Mrs. Bradley--Mary's crying."

I went to sleep with that phrase ringing in my head, "Mrs. Bradley--Mary's crying," remembering the pitch-perfect way this girl said it into that silence. I thought, though, that I must have been remembering it wrong. I'm Mrs. Bradley. It's what all the drama kids called me. But I looked up the script this morning, and the primary adult character is indeed Mrs. Bradley. I'd remember it correctly.

Oh, Alice. Mrs. Bradley's crying.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Appalachian Literacy Initiative

I'm at our mountain place with my daughter--we're having a few sweet days together before she leaves AGAIN, for fencing camp, tomorrow. But of course I'm up early (puppy!) and she's not, so I'm working on stuff for my new non-profit.

I'm so excited about it. It's called the Appalachian Literacy Initiative. My friend Tracy and I created it, and now we have a board, non-profit status, a bank account, and we've applied for tax-free status from the IRS (which was a huge boatload of paperwork). All that's left is to start to actually help people!

ALI began when I asked to give a talk on the subject of my choice last year at the Tennessee Association of School Librarians conference. I picked the need for diversity of all types in children's books, and, among other things, researched the number of Tennessee children actually non-white (I could only get Nashville stats--that would be 68%. The east side of TN is more white, the west side less than that, and Nashville's in the center). Then I looked at poverty. What I found there led me to look at national statistics, and here we are--these are from 2016--if you divide all fourth-graders between those that do and do not receive free or reduced-price school lunch (which usually indicates a family whose income is below twice the federal poverty line)--56% of the higher income kids read at "proficient" level, and only 22% of the lower-income kids do. 

Yep. Nationwide, you're 2 1/2 times more likely to read at proficient level if you're not poor. (In Tennessee gap is actually larger.)

So I went digging some more--Donalyn Miller's got a great piece about this--and decided that the best thing I could do to help was get books into children's hands. The best way to get children to read books is to let them chose the books, even among a limited number. So we're launching in fourth-grade classrooms throughout Appalachia this fall. Four times a year we'll send teachers a set of books--10 for the first set, probably 6 for the other three, though that's not set in stone. Then all of their students can chose which book they want to order. We'll ship the classroom the books, which are the students' to keep. 

We've got a lot of other ideas: supplying books for classroom lit circles, creating mobile book fairs, working with schools to improve their libraries. (You won't believe this--or maybe you will--but there are schools in these poor rural counties that don't have libraries. Period. And neither do the towns. And there are no bookstores. And people living in entrenched poverty don't have credit cards, so they aren't ordering off Amazon, not that they would anyway because they don't have money for extras like books.) Anyhow, that's my rant. We're very excited about this.

These are statistics from 2016, that I used in my 2017 talk at TASL.

Schoolchildren in Tennessee

48.9% receive free or reduced-price school lunch
32.3% live in families that receive SNAP (food stamps)
24.1% live in poverty
11% live in extreme poverty
5% live in foster care

48.4%  of 3rd-5th graders are reading at proficient level

Of 4th-graders eligible for free lunch, 22% are reading at proficient level.

This means  that 88% of 4th-grades NOT eligible for free lunch are reading at proficient level.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Now We Are Fifty-One

Today is my husband's fifty-first birthday; he's caught up to me once again. He's got a terrific cold and so is celebrating by canceling the late-afternoon golf game with friends and lovely dinner with me that he had planned, but he still woke at 5:30 and went off to give sight to the blind.

"Sight to the blind" sounds like hyperbole but it's really what he does. He's a cataract surgeon.

I thought of trying to write a post that was 51 things about him, but realized that I'd either have to get way too personal (Rule #1 of my blog: only tell my own story) or else I'd have to resort to stupid things like, "He hates coconut," which is true but tells you nothing important about him.

Our wedding anniversary is in four days. We were married when we were 22, in the summer between college graduation and the beginning of medical school. We didn't know anything; of course we didn't. No one does at 22.

For our honeymoon we went to Paris. We stayed in a very small hotel on the Left Bank where no one spoke English except the owner. Every morning as we set out, walking down the cobbled street to the Metro station, the owner would stick her head out the front door and yell, "Courage, children!"

We walked and walked. I had the most unsuitable shoes in the world. (They were cute, though.) A heat wave hit Paris that week; it was 104 degrees. Our hotel had no air-conditioning. Nothing had air-conditioning. When we were in Rome last week my husband said, "Have we ever been on vacation anywhere hotter?" and I reminded him of our honeymoon.

Sometimes I realize that I can describe in very few words something about my life right now that would make my former self, my 22-year-old newly-married self, giddy with joy. "You and Bart went to visit your daughter studying abroad in Rome," would be one such sentence. Or, "The sunrise on your farm this morning was beautiful." "The trees you planted have grown so tall." "Your husband turned fifty-one this morning. He loves you more than he did when he was sixteen."

Happy birthday, darling. For the record, I do too.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Rome, and Back Again

I just got back from a short week/long weekend in Rome. Some people think my husband and I are nuts for doing this length of trip overseas, but it works really well with his schedule--he doesn't miss any operating time. We're both good at sleeping on the overnight flight to Europe, and that happens after he's put in at least a half day of work. With the Fourth of July holiday he only missed 2 1/2 days of work and we got five full days on the ground in the Eternal City.

We went there because our daughter is there, studying Latin amid the ancient ruins in stultifying heat. We are very impressed with her. We always have been, of course--she's our child, sheesh--but now we're impressed with her enthusiasm and the way she navigates a foreign city and a foreign culture, and the fact that she's sleeping in a tiny un-air-conditioned apartment whose windows don't open at all.

On our first night, we were having dinner just off the Piazza Popolo, which is both lovely and a magnet for touts selling crap to tourists. I had my back to the sidewalk, so when someone said, "Here you go, Ma'am," I thought it was our waiter, and I blindly reached out and took a handful of roses from a man selling them. This was a big mistake--in my defense, it was an accident, I do know better--but usually nothing on earth will make guys like this take the roses back, and if you don't pay them something you get into a big messy yelling fight on the street and they will let it escalate until you do pay them, however long that takes. In this case, our daughter frowned at him and said, "No, grazie," with such perfect Italian pronunciation that he mistakenly thought we were locals, nodded a quick apology, took back his flowers, and melted away.

Our daughter grinned. "I only know four words of Italian," she said, "but I say them really well."

Later in the trip, she repeated her, "No, grazie," to a man selling something outside the Vatican. He replied, "prego," an Italian word that can mean "sorry," "excuse me," "I'm fine," or "You're next." Then, realizing she was American, he said, "Hey--your grazie is really good!"

Recently at my annual physical my doctor exhorted the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Italy is of course surrounded by the Mediterranean--it's a boot in an azure sea--and so while in Rome I mostly confined myself to the major Italian food groups: cappucino, bread, pasta, cheese, gelato, and wine. And it worked: I lost a pound. Of course I also walked on average more than 22,000 steps per day. The only day I didn't hit 20,000 steps was the day my daughter was busy all day and so my husband I went to Pompeii. I confess to having been a little disappointed. When I was a child I read all about the amazing treasures unearthed at Pompeii--the jewelry, the statues, the household goods, not to mention all those macabre plaster casts of people who died during the volcanic eruption. What I didn't realize was that for 200 years people dug out the treasures and took them home with them, willy-nilly, so that they are everywhere except in Pompeii, which is now a very large rock village with no roofs, baking in the hot hot sun.

I'm still glad I saw it. I'm gladder still I then read a book about the excavation. I learned a lot of history combining those two, and it will inform my Egypt book, which I'm going back to, right now.