Dispatch from Somewhere High and Dry

Misquamicut Beach

Misquamicut Beach

At Misquamicut Beach a few days ago, my cousin Sue and I toasted one another at the Andrea which, these days, is a temporary tent ala a MASH unit, set up where the old hotel once stood. Hurricane Sandy left only the original hearth which now sits surrounded by sand, a relic from an ancient civilization. Behind my cousin’s shoulder, the sea rose and fell, lit by some source that might have been as mundane as a streetlight, but whitecaps glowed nonetheless. Why would anyone live anywhere else? I wondered. When you can round a bend and be confronted with the sea?

Today, I have moved inland temporarily, but still I perch beside a lake and raise a glass to a water view. What is it about water that draws me? Especially when the smell of chlorine transports me instantly and miserably, to the cinderblock hallway of the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA, the worm of worry crawling through my belly as my mother dragged me to swim lessons.

“I never learned how to swim,” she said. “But you will.”

She had the kind of determination she used unscrewing stubborn jar caps, tight jaw, narrowed eyes. She wanted what was inside and, if forced, she’d smash the goddamned jar rather than admit she couldn’t open it. Knowing this, I bit my lip against any whimpering.

Remember Aquaman? Except for Archie, I hated comics. but my Aunt Nancy reserved one kitchen cabinet for her son Mark’s comic books and when he spread them out on the kitchen floor, I’d seen the blonde muscle man on a cover or two (Mark never allowed me to actually read the books which caused all kinds of trouble when it was time to go home and my mother said, “Clean up.” Let’s just say she wasn’t the only lock-jawed, fist clenching, stubborn female in the family). And that’s who awaited me in the Y pool. Okay, I thought, so I’m terrified of water and I like getting wet about as much as your average housecat. But how bad can lessons be with a superhero?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This Aquaman treated me like Black Manta. Was it my cowardice? My absolute inability to blow bubbles without water squirting up my nose and burning an expressway to my brain? My wild and useless flailing of limbs as I attempted to make it from one end of the pool to the other without clinging to the buoys? God. I HATED swimming. Years later, I can’t pour bleach into the washing machine without remembering Aquaman’s seething disdain. How easy, he must have thought, to just let go of the hopeless, whiny landlubber whose mother had to fork over extra cash for private lessons because she was too terrified to swim with other, more naturally aquatic kids.

I should have introduced YMCA Aquaman to the swim instructor at Winnapaug Day Camp. Their love of this unforgiving element and their contempt for me would surely have bound them for life. We six year olds took swimming lessons daily in the brackish pond beside one of my father’s rented cornfields (which I looked toward longingly each time we traipsed down the path that led (cue Jaws theme) to the water). Overcast days, drizzly mornings, times when you really had to poop, you had to get in. No wading in and doing the Town Beach sponge bath I perfected later on in life — scoop of water up one arm, then the next, chest pat, return to seat.

“Just get in already,” the instructor said, oozing disgust as I tiptoed past. (Years later, during my first year teaching, one of my students said, “Can I ask you something?” He was a cocky bastard, but on this particular day, he looked truly puzzled. “If someone hated kids, why would they teach?” His question took me right back to that camp counselor).

The dead man’s float in particular eluded me (and by the way, who thinks a good name for an early swim maneuver has the phrase dead man in it?). Finally, Aquaman’s soulmate said, “Why don’t you just go over there and practice.” She motioned towards a reedy patch. A breeze ruffled the surface of the pond, clouds hovered. “Alone.”

Oh, water. How I love your mirror-surface, the “sorrows of your changing face”, the way you give us the sky above, a salt spray, a lullaby, a reminder of the world’s vastness. From a distance, you soothe and inspire. You are mythological, a high priestess, a mesmerizing story teller. And it’s okay, isn’t it, this long-distance intimacy we share? It’s one kind of devotion and it preserves my dignity.

So I sit, this week, observing Lake Winnisquam. Its loons glide by, my daughters and their friends dip and dive and float and kayak. I took my girls for swimming lessons, too, of course. With less of my mother’s grim resolve and more hope that they wade in, dive under, swim out, if that’s what they choose, if that’s what that other world offers them, if they accept that invitation.

And I did learn to swim (I’ve also read up on how to perform a tracheotomy with a bic pen, but I’m not anxious to put that knowledge to the test, either). In fact, during the camp’s final days, I surprised that cranky young water nymph by taking home the Jellyfish Float championship. I’m my mother’s daughter, after all. Push me hard enough and I’ll set my jaw, grit my molars, wrestle with the obstacle at hand to earn some little success.

(And here’s a link to one of my favorite poems, Lament for the Non-swimmers by David Wagoner: http://garmon-okemos.weebly.com/uploads/3/1/1/3/31136891/lament.pdf)

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Fat Heifers, Good Teaching, Happy Father’s Day

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on).

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on). I was supposed to be looking at the judge.

My mother carted me to swim lessons where I refused to get into the pool with other children, and to ballet when I quit after one lesson because the teacher said a word I didn’t recognize: recital. When my sister Barbara Ann picked me up, I asked her to define it. “You dance with all the other children on stage and we come to watch,” she said. End of my interest in that activity. While I cried, my mother packed my lunch for my two week stint at day camp. Around her friends’ children, I clung to her lawn chair and whispered in her ear to take me home.

Defeated, she finally left me alone with my dogs and my books.

Then, my father suggested 4-H. My father, who never suggested anything, really, who just came and went from the barns and the fields, a welcomed and beloved visitor into the everyday struggles my mother faced trying to get me to make friends.

“You have to try this 4-H thing,” my mother said, and then she added the words that sealed the contract: “For your father.”

*    *    *

“Pathways,” my principal said at this week’s faculty meeting. “This is a word you’re going to be hearing a lot about next year.”

Last year it was Successful Habits of Mind. Other years: Standardized Testing; Interdisciplinary Education; Data Driven Instruction; Rigor; Response to Intervention; Alternative Assessment; Collaboration; Project-Based Learning; Understanding by Design. What does powerful learning look like, we are asked? How can we integrate technology into our classrooms? What are some authentic tasks we ask students to perform?

Consultants arrive toting giant-sized post-it notes, markers, a powerpoint with clips to videos they find amusing. “We’re going to do some break-out groups, some pair-shares, a gallery walk, a table-share. We’ll report back.”

When I think I can’t take it one more second, a colleague who truly cares about me says: “Remember what a small percentage of your time in this career is spent in meetings like these.”

*    *    *

I did not quit 4-H. Instead, I learned a great deal. For example, everyone showed calves, not cows. In my father’s world, cows ruled. Clean-boned, pink-uddered behemoths who tested your arm strength and your endurance for a shoulder full of their drool when you showed them. These were famous cows, bovine divas. They were doing you a favor allowing you to clip their rosettes to your back pocket as you walked out past popping flashbulbs. But our calves, those poor progeny, were boneracks, pale shadows of their gorgeous dams and of the beefy calves, round-shouldered with massive throats, that my fellow 4-Hers showed.

Into the microphone, once he’d lined us up, the judge would say: “I’m starting the class today with this big, strong heifer, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the line, a calf that just can’t compete with the size of the animals up front.”

“How do you get your calves to grow so big?” I finally asked, humiliated. They fed their calves milk for the first year, extra grain.

“Grain?” I asked. Meanwhile, my crazy father asked me several times of day: Got that hayrack filled in front of your calf?

My 4-H friends snorted: “Hay doesn’t grow them.” Then they’d glance behind me at the hip bones of my feline-like yearling. “Obviously.”

Oh, the battles I waged to do what other kids did, but my father wouldn’t budge. Two months of milk, he said. Racks full of hay. That’s the way you grow cattle.

“You know what happens to those over-conditioned [farmer-speak for fat] heifers? They grow up with too many fat deposits. Can’t put up an udder. Don’t last. You want a dairy heifer, goddamnit. [By this he meant an animal that will grow up to convert her energy into milk, not meat] No matter what anyone says, that’s never going to change.” Then he stormed off to erect a silo out of a kit.

So I fumed, but I did not win. Not with him. Not against my peers and their decidedly un-dairy heifers.

4-H would be even greater, I thought, if my father would just butt out of it.

*    *    *

This past week, my seniors long gone, I have been preparing for my new role as mentor coordinator. That is, it will be my job next year to assign our new teachers an experienced educator to lead them through their first year in the profession. In an article about classroom management, I read that it’s important to understand what your own bottom-line is. What do you absolutely believe to be true about what is necessary in your classroom? Behaviors? Philosophy? etc.

I stare out the window. Good question, I think. Then: Thanks for asking.

*    *    *

A few years ago, I returned to the fairgrounds. It is both good to be back and heartbreaking. If there is such a thing as ghosts, my father’s is here every August.

In a calf class, I watched the children — even grandchildren — of my former 4-H friends leading their animals around that hot ring. When they lined up, the biggest calf did not win. Instead, the judge chose an angular calf, sharp-shouldered, leggy. Her over-conditioned competition stood much farther down the line, in a spot I was very familiar with.

Into the microphone, the judge said, “I’m starting the class today with this dairy heifer.”

Okay, I said to my father, who, if his ghost was there, was leaning on the rails beside me, sunglasses on, hands clasped before him. He would have picked the winner as the animals milled about outside the ring but he would have waited anyway, see if the judge knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t say, I told you so. He would have looked at me and smiled (he had a beautiful smile) and remind me: “I told you, honey. Your daddy is always right.”

*    *    *

Distilled, my teaching philosophy is this: I want kids to understand the power of language. Maybe this means to love a book, really love a book. Maybe it means to write a poem they didn’t think they could write. Maybe it means listening to a peer read aloud from something so powerful, or so funny, or so honest, that it stays with them long after that stupid tone sounds to end the class period. Tell a story, listen to a story, love a story.

And I want them to love being in my class, to feel safe, valued, a part of the community we get to inhabit for only a few days out of what I hope will be our very long lives.

So this is for you, Dad, who taught me to understand what lasts beyond all trends, to develop an expertise by listening, by watching, by cultivating patience, and then, in the face of all those people who insist they have a better idea, to cling quietly to your own understanding of what will always work.

You Can Get There From Here

It began with Westerly High School Class of 1971’s yearbook. Began with how old yearbooks depress me. Even current ones. (Yearbooks and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Don’t ask.) Anyway, those black and white photos of other human beings who considered themselves It. Off to take on the world! Our whole lives ahead forever and ever and ever and ever! Endless effing summer of being the envy of every old woman sniffing cantaloupes at Sandy’s Fruit Stand, of every old man walking into Danny’s for a beer after his softball game. Prom queens then, and prom queens now, class clowns then, and class clowns now. Don’t we all believe (and maybe dread and maybe celebrate) that we’ll always be The Generation? We don’t listen to graduation speeches but we know that, in essence, what the speakers are telling us is that we hold the future in our hands. We always knew this, of course,  and we are selfish with our birthright. We wouldn’t give it away to just any old Most Likely to Succeed to come along. And we look good all polished up for a studio portrait (most of us; again, don’t ask). This is the most important moment to us so far and we can’t imagine others quite so big. We picked out the right sweater, the initial pin clasp; we chose a quote that made us sound either philosophical or like the most inebriated member of our species. Aren’t we clever, we thought, or: Aren’t we sticking it to the man?

The yearbook started me thinking about the music of this generation or that. This reminded me of Mr. Brightside, that song by the Killers which is definitely NOT a song from my generation (I remember someone blasting Hotel California from a boombox powered with several D batteries in the back of the bus coming home from an away football game senior year; I remember kids in study hall (I remember study hall) fighting over the correct lyrics to Stayin’ Alive.) But when I tried to teach one poetry class how powerful disruptive rhyme schemes can be, I told them to listen to Mr. Brightside. Try, I said, to predict what the line that follows “And it’s making me sick.” See what unstated things a real poet can make you hear? I love this song even if it isn’t my generation and even if, had the wrong kid been sitting in that room, I could’ve been called to the principal’s office and subjected to a slightly embarrassing recap/justification of that particular lesson.

And this led me to think about Frankie Valli’s Swearin’ to God song. This is the kind of sugar pop I used to love much to the horror of friends with more discerning tastes (and, yes, Karen Denham, I still stand by my Fifth Dimension fandom). Every time it played on WABC AM radio, I cranked it up and sang along.

The song came out the same summer as Jaws. Remember that summer?

Aunt Rita dropped my cousin Rob off early for the matinee. He was always over when we were kids, but now that was changing, too. I was twelve. He was sixteen. Maybe he had his license, but that wouldn’t have mattered. Who would ever have let us drive a car anywhere? So we walked from the farm to the Jerry Lewis Twin Cinema on Granite Street on a brilliantly sunny day when we should have been at the beach (one last guileless trip before we realized what could happen in an idyllic summer town like ours). I had never been to a horror movie. My friends had wanted to sneak into the Exorcist, but I said, Count me out. I’ll never sleep another wink. Nightstalker paralyzed me, made me a statue in my bed convinced that if the sheets didn’t move, a vampire wouldn’t know I was in there. But there we were, my favorite person in the world at the time and me: on our way to see Jaws.

If it was Rob’s idea to go, I wouldn’t have said no. Especially that summer when the stuff we used to do was out of the question: picnics on Turkey Rock, playing Shoot in the hayloft, reclaiming abandoned calf sheds as our forts. Look at us, all grown up and off to buy a ticket to a scary movie right in the middle of the day! When we got to the theater there were other boys, too. His friends from his neighborhood, one of his Shea cousins. I sat on the end of the aisle, a little heartbroken, and then absorbed, completely transported by the terror that Jaws inspired in a generation that had no idea what special effects could achieve.

Once the movie ended, the sunshine outside the theater did nothing to assuage my terror. The older boys got a ride home. Rob and I walked back towards the farm, a route where great whites might be hiding behind the stone walls and hedges that used to line my street. I don’t remember if we talked about the movie, but I do know I told my mother every detail that night as she stood at the stove and I set the table: And then the head rolled out! And the leg — with his sneaker still in it! — hit the bottom of the ocean!

Every time I hear that Frankie Valli song (, it conjures the first scene of the movie. The naked scene I watched at the end of a row of adolescent boys, boys whose voices had changed, who could grow beards. That song plays and I am back in that theater, wishing Chrissie would stay at the damn party, wondering how I will survive the next two hours, gripping the one armrest I don’t have to share, hoping I can resist screaming.

Rob and I went bowling last summer and, four decades later, it was the kind of fun I remember. There is something of those children left in us, something, too, of those people we were all buffed up for the yearbook photographer. Once, Rob and I swam in a lake where we later learned someone had dumped a pet alligator that had outgrown their bathtub. The state itself was full of cottonmouths. No adults supervised us. We never touched bottom, only treaded water for hours, at the center of our universe, no worries about whatever shared space with us, the future rippling from our young bodies, outward like a song.