Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wild Things

Last Thursday was Fine Arts Night at John Strange Elementary School. We visited Jake’s second-grade classroom first, where we read his first published book—poems! Illustrated by Jake himself, with a nifty author’s bio. Then on to Heidi’s third-grade room, where we read Heidi’s second published book, a fabulously illustrated alphabet book.

I love it that the kids write books at John Strange. I love the school itself, with its corridors full of children’s artwork and its friendly principal who actually stands outside to greet the children every morning. It feels happy there, the way I think a school should feel.

But what I love most at the moment is the new music teacher, who put together a production of “Where the Wild Things Are” that was, without doubt, the high point of all school productions. Ever.

To tell the truth, we were feeling a little grumpy. We didn’t know there was a program after the open house part of the evening. We were hungry, we didn’t want to wait a half hour for it to start. We wouldn’t have stayed, except for the fact that the second graders were the ones performing—and Jake is in the second grade.

So we’re sitting, waiting. There’s the usual shuffling behind the curtain, they’re running late, the principal is scurrying around, looking anxious. Finally, a kid comes out with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, sits down on a chair at the edge of the stage, and opens it.

Then curtain comes up and maybe 75 second-graders on risers, wearing these monster costumes made of paper bags with string hanging on them, like fur, are suddenly singing along with the music blasting into the auditorium. That old 60’s song—

Wild thing,
You make my heart sing,
You make everything
Wild thing!

Oh. My. God. It was hilarious.

Talk about groovy! They were doing dance moves (more or less) in unison. Every single kid was totally into it. The audience was hooting with laughter and delight.

I was sublimely happy. I loved watching kids engaged, really engaged, in the arts.

Yes! This was the arts. This was school, as it should be

Plus, I was having one of those weird what-is-time-anyway moments in which I was dancing to that absurd song at fraternity parties when I was in college and watching my grandchild (grandchild!) dance to it now.

Whatever now is.

“Born to Be Wild” followed, shortly thereafter (featuring sunglasses).

And I think everyone in the audience felt a little wild with them. The applause was wild, at the end. That’s for sure. There was a standing ovation.

The kids on the risers grinning that embarrassed grin kids grin when they know they’ve done something cool and right and they're really, really happy with themselves.

It makes me grin myself every time I think of it!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blooms of Darkness

When this wonderful new book by Ahron Appelfeld begins, 11 year-old Hugo is waiting for the peasant who is to take him to the mountains, where he will be safe from the Nazis. Other children are disappearing one by one, including his friends Anna and Otto, but Hugo’s peasant doesn’t come. Hugo’s father has been taken away to labor camp in one of the “actions.” Hugo and his mother sleep in the cellar, hoping this will keep them safe from the night raids of soldiers looking for Jews. When they dare a glimpse through the window, the see people burdened with packs so heavy they can hardly move, herded through the streets to the railways station by soldiers brandishing whips. Hugo recognizes people sometimes: classmates, neighbors, an aunt. Eventually, his mother decides she must take him to live with Mariana, a childhood friend who’s “fallen low.”

“What does ‘fallen low’ mean?” Hugo asks himself.”

“What is the meaning of ‘fate hasn’t been kind to her?' Hugo wonders.”

Mariana is a prostitute. Hugo and his mother escape from the ghetto through sewer pipes, in the dead of night, arriving at the brothel where Mariana works well after midnight. Within moments, Hugo’s mother is gone and Hugo is left to live in Mariana’s closet.

Of course, Hugo doesn’t know she’s a prostitute; he doesn’t even know what a prostitute is. He’s barely eleven. In fact, what made this book so compelling to me was that I felt like I was figuring everything out right along with Hugo. I lived in the dark closet with him, waited for Mariana to come with food and water. I heard the voices of the German soldiers and the sound of their boots in the hall. I felt the dangerous, irresistible comfort of Mariana’s bed and understood the love that bloomed between Hugo and this poor, wrecked woman who cared for him the only way she knew how.

This is not a young adult novel. Yet is has the immediacy, the rawness of emotion that characterizes the best YA’s. Reading it, I felt like I was growing up myself, the world cracking open—for better or worse, all around me. Some might feel Hugo’s world is too harsh for teenagers to experience, but I believe that the greater understanding of what love is and how it can save us it brings is well worth the pain of sharing his journey.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Between Water and Song

Last night I went to a poetry reading at Marian University to celebrate the publication of my friend Norman Minnick’s new anthology, Between Water and Song: New Poets for the Twenty-First Century. David Shumate, a Marian professor and prose poet, began the program with this poem from the anthology, by Ruth Forman:


why so afraid to stand up?
someone will tell you
sit down?

but here is the truth
someone will always tell you
sit down

the ones we remember
kept standing

He said that of his students loved this poem so much he declared he was going to have it tattooed on his body. The student was there, he admitted he hadn’t done this quite yet, but…he might. Which I hope he does—not because I like tattoos; I don’t, particularly—but because I think it’s such a fabulous example of how the right poem can totally blow you away.

It’s not the same poem for everyone. I’ve taken to reading poetry collections the same way I look at paintings in a museum—wandering through, letting myself be drawn to the work that seems to have been made just for me. Like Vermeer’s “View of Delft” or Jill Bialosky’s “Another Loss to Stop For,” which I carry, folded up in my wallet.

Malina Morling, whose work is featured in the anthology, said that when her high school English teacher read “The Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” aloud to the class she knew suddenly, absolutely that she wanted to be a poet.

Talking about how she collects the details and sentences that make their way into her poems, she observed that writing poems is a lot like remembering dreams. People often say they don’t dream or they don’t remember dreams, but if they make an effort to remember their dreams—they do. Poetry is like that, she said. If you make up your mind to write poems and keep writing them, the things you notice start to make themselves into poems.

I was glad I went to the reading last night. It made me remember that, in the right frame of mind, the whole world becomes a poem--and a a single wonderful poem can crack open the universe with its astonishing, ordinary truth.

Like this one by Norman Minnick:

While You Work

While you sit at your desk
water striders dance upon the surface of a pond,
high, thin clouds stretch across the sky,
and acres of tall grass, reticent after a long dry summer,
practice nothing but grace.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Indiana Basketball

There were not a lot of great things about growing up in the Calumet Region in the ‘50’s and 60’s, but high school basketball was one of them—especially tournament time. There was no class system then. Every school was equal—on the bracket, anyway—and every school had hope (no matter how small, no matter how absurd) that this was the year they’d make it to the finals.

The absurdity of this hope did not scar us, in the least. It was fabulous.

Sectionals started on Thursday, which meant we got a half-day off when our team played, and we’d pile into cars or take the bus and head for the game—dressed in our school colors, armed with crepe paper shakers and homemade signs. Our cheer section was a sea of red, our cheerleaders lined up before us, their hair sprayed into perfect flips, and whipped us into a frenzy as our team ran out onto the floor.

On the few occasions that we actually won that first game, we were sure we were on the way to the Regionals. When we lost, as we invariably did, we were crushed—but good sports about it. And picked another team to root for. When they lost, we picked another…

All the way to the final game, which was always held in Indianapolis at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse. Some rooted for those powerhouse teams. I always loved the underdogs—especially small schools in Podunk towns whose run-up to the Final Four seemed nothing short of a miracle.

My dad was a basketball nut. He was a wreck watching the final game on TV. He paced. He yelled at the players, coaching them from the living room. He yelled at the refs, challenging the calls, citing this rule or that.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” he said again and again.

I knew nothing about game of basketball myself. For me, tournament time was about a story: romance, passion, triumph, tragedy.

The players, so tall and cute--and so out of my league.

The wild joy of the new state champions at the final buzzer, each one climbing the ladder brought out onto the gym floor to clip bits of the net they’d keep forever to remind them of that night.

The abject despair of the losers, compounded by having to watch the victors clip the net—all the while thinking about what might have been.

In 1997, the Indiana State Athletic Commission insanely decided to go to a class basketball system in Indiana. It just wasn’t fair for the small schools to have to compete against the big ones, they said. So now we have four classes, four tournaments, four state champions—and nobody pays a bit of attention, except (maybe) the schools involved.

I feel like calling up the commissioners and saying, “Hey! Morons! Have you been following Butler in the NCAA the past few weeks?

Small school, small budget, modest stadium.


They're playing in the final game of the final game of the tournament this evening.

No doubt you have tickets. I hope any pleasure you might have in watching the game will be wrecked, remembering the tradition of the high school tournament you so stupidly threw away.