Lois Lowry taught me who Freud was. A guy prominent enough to have a bust, one that her character, Anastasia, kept in her room and talked to. Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst was the name of one of the books I loved. Reading about a Freud bust, a big Victorian house in the city of higher education. She wore glasses, she was an intellectual, and a little bit of a snob, as I hoped to be, joking about Freud as if this was a normal thing for a young girl to do.
I sat on the floor of a small college auditorium and Lowry, my favorite author of my later grade school years explained that she got so many sweet letters about her first book, A Summer to Die, she was led to continue writing for kids. The book, although it has a grim title, is a sweet juxtaposition of a girl’s losing her sister and witnessing the birth of a neighbor’s baby in softly lit hippie-at-home birth-style.
Ms Lowry spoke along with another writer, someone I didn’t know. I was pretty amazed I had managed to get to downtown Brooklyn relatively on time, and to be let into the room even though it was packed. I was also relieved the Book Fair volunteers told us we could sit on the floor. Pretty much every day here I do something new and painful to my feet.
The great author told us that for years, she had a paper she had written for high school English. Her teacher had written, “Your writing is good, I think you could make something of it.” It is now lost, but she kept it a long, long time.
My teacher wrote something on my story “The Owl and the Magic Tree.” To be honest, that teacher made everyone feel like a million bucks. Which is not to discount the quality of “The Owl.” I’m sure it was brilliant.
Another story I found curious: Lowry received an email without punctuation, rife with spelling errors, an only sort-of paragraph. The email was about how the kid wanted to be a writer. She wrote back, “It’s important to listen to the lessons your teachers teach you about grammar and punctuation.” The child’s mother wrote her back, infuriated that Lowry had damaged the kid’s self-esteem.
I am always ready to defend the cause of linguistics over grammar Nazism, and remind people of the living nature of language, blah, blah, but really, you want to be a writer and you can’t use periods? How can the writer not comment on such a thing? When is your attempt at communication such disrespect that it begs for a kind, solid intervention of reality check. One cannot write for others without some rules.
Four of my six classes are working on the hazing part of my induction to the new school. One kid who was throwing paper across the room whenever I turned my back, I stopped him at the end of class.
“I hate writing,” he said.
“Uh,” I said, gathering my thoughts. “Why?”
“I just do. I hate it. I can’t do it.”
“Like, you don’t want to do it because you might get your paper handed back covered with red ink, like everything you did wrong?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Oh. That’s not what I do. I won’t do that. I promise.”
The longer I am teaching, the more I am likely to forget to explain these basics, to reassure kids of things, like the fact that I am not the grammar police, that I don’t, and won’t, make my life harder and make myself feel smarter by taking the red pen to their papers until they are “right.”
As I walked here today, I was having my usual agony of not knowing what I would write about, then sat down and realized I had not brought my notebook, so I would have to type everything, no warmup, no emotional pen time first.
The best thing about opening up to make something, or mentor others to create, is all the moments of yes that present themselves. Yes, you can type instead of hand write for one day. Yes, people who wrote books you loved are people. Yes, that is a whole paragraph that is there, thank God, and yes, it needs periods. Yes, you can stop throwing paper across the room. Yes.