Monday, April 17, 2017

Part 6: High School Twice

Not that the classroom failed to provide valuable lessons, but it was my extracurricular work that showed me the most about teenagers.

And about myself.

One teacher's bad apple was another's blue ribbon.

Not only did I direct plays, I had to get sets built and lights hung in the Commons because we had no theater.

Instincts told me which boys could be my assets: boys who were handy and spirited, however risky. Over six years, they were known as The Fly-By-Night Construction Company. They knew how to measure wood, swing a hammer, and wield a paintbrush. They fearlessly climbed into the rafters to hang lights. (Every now and then a girl helped, too, but those were different times, remember.)

Because modular scheduling provided free time each day, they worked between classes. Sometimes after evening rehearsals, they worked until midnight. A colleague once asked, "Aren't you afraid to be alone in the building with those boys?" That's how mislabeled they were. When I said they were often the highlight of my day, she was speechless. 

With no basement or warehouse, our platforms were stored at the lagoon, a fenced drainage area that housed goats to control the grass and weeds. Our stuff was stacked in the goats' shelter. In order to get what we needed, a few of the boys and I created a goat distraction at the far end by rattling soda cans filled with rocks. That commotion, accentuated by our jumping and yelling, gave the others enough time to jump the fence, grab the platforms, lift them over the fence, and stack them in the back of the maintenance truck.

This battered pick-up, a standard and not an automatic, had erratic brakes, at best. It was every boy's ultimate driving adventure on those campus gravel roads.

Because I gave the boys free reign, there were surprises.

At morning announcements, we were once asked if anyone had seen the missing ropes used as boundaries around the football field. Across the room from me, the crew caught my eye and surreptitiously pointed up. There they were--holding our theater lights in place. Because some of them were football players, they saw it as friendly borrowing. When the play was over, the ropes mysteriously reappeared around the field.

Another time when we ended up with a blank space on our set, two boys had an idea. They approached a local greenhouse about loaning us potted shrubs. The owner agreed but insisted they needed regular sunshine. Because that was impossible in the Commons, the boys had been faithfully carrying the plants outdoors after school, watering them, loading them into the pick-up, and driving them around in the bright Oklahoma sun. I had no idea about this until I spotted them joyriding the plants. All smiles, they honked and waved as they passed me. These devoted boys had once been accused of stealing from the theater treasury.

Sometimes schools get it wrong.

One afternoon I was desperate to get lumber delivered for scheduled crew work. The pick-up was out of commission. I searched the Commons for help, and a boy stepped forward. Not any boy either. He'd been labeled the meanest boy any faculty member could remember.

I took a chance.

An unrealized gentleman, he raced around opening doors for me, and when we arrived at the lumberyard, he insisted on taking the receipt and overseeing the loading into his mother's station wagon. On our return, he stopped at a convenience store, emerging with an Icee for each of us. "It's really hot out here, Ms. Clark. This might help." He refused my money.

Teenagers make all kinds of mistakes. But a golden heart defies negative labels. He needed someone to look past the tarnish because he was desperate to shine.

By this point I understood how easy high school had been for me the first time through. No one had ever labeled me as a throwaway. This time, however, in my second high school experience, I was deemed a problem child.

I felt the sting of not being appreciated.  

I vowed to see the kids. And to hear them.

That's how I discovered the humiliation girls felt in their uniforms: box-pleated skirt and middy. Boys wore regulated clothes from their own closets; girls wore turn-of-the-century outfits that had to be ordered. In public they received stares, jeers, laughter in get-ups making them look like identical dolls.

It's a complicated story, but I backed their decision to seek a uniform change. They were supported by boys, as well. Suffice it to say, all kinds of roadblocks were set in motion. They pushed through. A student opposition was instituted. I eavesdropped during play rehearsal while one side debated the other. In a forum with parent representatives, I explained that if we were genuinely supporting equality for male and female students, and if we felt the girl's uniform was appropriate, we should institute a similar look for boys: plaid knickers and middy.

Resistance began crumbling.

The day I wore a girl's uniform to school, the tide turned. I looked ridiculous.

For two years, the students battled against a 50-year tradition. One group of senior leaders passed the torch to the next.

They won.

More than achieving some semblance of clothing equality, I wanted them to learn their power. I wanted them to know city hall could be defeated.

After I invited my former students to catalog what had mattered about their time at the school, I didn't know I'd be changed. All over again. By them.

That shouldn't have surprised me.

They were always my saving grace.

In meaningful, disparate ways, it turns out I was theirs, too.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Part 5: High School Twice

Somehow I thought quitting would be the end of the story.

Of course not.

Eventually, I heard from a distraught student who confessed she'd spread lies about me for years. A teacher told her I'd been fired because of her.

There it was--a missing clue to my seven-year ordeal.

Inquisitions with agendas I never understood.

Student names I was hot boxed to reveal.

Accusations written about me. 

Unannounced classroom visits from a glaring administrator determined to get the goods.

Goods that had never existed. 

History is littered with victims punished by those who fall in love with the lies of desperate children. Her words expanded a narrative that people wanted to spin about me.

I assured her I had not been fired, that I was fine, that I did not hate her.

Ironically, her campaign of lies had set me free.

Why had that teacher lied to her about my departure? Why would he drop that kind of guilt onto a student? It certainly revealed the toxic climate that threatened all of us during those years.

When I finally spoke with the woman who replaced me, she asked, "How did you do this impossible job?"

Despite the storm clouds above me, I always had the wind at my back.

And that wind taught me great lessons about what it means to be a teacher.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Part 4: High School Twice

The school stuck labels to me like neon post-it notes.

Apparently, I wasn't doing anything correctly.

Yet, I refused to believe I was a train wreck.

Fortunately, I found helpers, what Fred Rogers showed his TV audience in the acclaimed Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. He once said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

My first helper was a consultant who was heralded by the administration as the last word in teaching school. Around this time, I noted excellence started appearing on our marketing brochures, making me wonder if he'd been called in to cement this distinction. He was given a schedule of classes to observe; mine was not among them. After he attended our English department meeting, he asked if he could visit mine.

I assumed he was a spy.

When the classroom emptied, he complimented me for engaging students in a meaningful, exciting way. And he proceeded to outline the dismal teaching he'd witnessed at the school. Although it had nothing to do with his consulting work, he explained I was a change agent, someone always three years ahead of the status quo, someone whose ideas are never welcomed. I'd always face an uphill climb there, he added. At his closing presentation, in front of the entire faculty, he said, "Holland Hall is a very good school, but it is not an excellent school," and glanced at me knowingly.

This man, about whom we'd heard endless praise from the administration for months, was never mentioned again.  

Another helper, and here I use the term loosely, called me in for an annual review and asked why I pushed so hard. "Why do you always have to do everything to an A+ level? Couldn't you settle for a C?" I was dumbfounded. I was supposed to embrace mediocrity. I should set an example to my students by showing them how to be average, instead of appealing to their best. Was that how he defined excellence?

My world flipped upside down.

An unusual helper came in the form of a prominent father whose children had all graduated from the school, allowing him to hold a lengthy historical perspective. Out of the goodness of his heart, he talked privately with me about the way different headmasters had molded the program and what he predicted for its future. He praised my contributions and said, "You are an attractive, smart young woman with a sense of humor about the human condition. They will never let you succeed."

At a crossroads, I understood my challenge.

I'd have to sit still and keep quiet or persist at my peril. Martin Luther King, a witness to the price of silence, said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

In February when I began this series, I told my daughter Maggie about the points I wanted to cover. An empathetic listener, she noted my rising distress as I relived those critical years, and said, "Mom, it's called White Male Privilege. They wouldn't let you succeed on your own terms."

After two years in college, it rolled off her tongue easily, knowingly.

It took me seven years in the trenches to accept.

And to resign.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Part 3: High School Twice

When I say I turned out to be an above-average teacher, you'll have to take my word for it, unless you picked up a hint of my reach by reading the 12 reflections from former students.

Of course my daughter Maggie, who has a wicked sense of humor, read those posts and said, "Mom, I can see you helped lots of kids, but I wonder what happened to the ones who are still in therapy because you were their teacher?" Her eyes twinkled.

She makes a good point.

I made mistakes left and right.

Many were the result of impulsive decisions I made without having all the information. Or believing the words of colleagues who did not have my best interests at heart. Or not paying proper deference to my superiors. I was young, with all the arrogance that surrounded being the one who pointed out the emperor had no clothes, thinking my words would be appreciated.

I had a world to learn about teaching, and the school, for better or worse, made that possible.

For a faculty professional day, we listened to a brain researcher from Yale, I believe. He lectured on thinking styles: Concrete, Sequential, Random, Abstract. We took a lengthy test to determine our  personal pattern and charted the numbers on graph paper. He asked if anyone ended up with a perfect square. As I recall, two of us raised our hands. "These are the best minds for teaching. They can present material from all four angles," he said.

I was sure the other man never faced the assaults I did.

Capsulizing the assaults is difficult after 35 years, but I've carried those critical stones long enough. When my 12 guest bloggers examined their pasts at the school, I believe they emptied their pockets of sharp rocks that had nicked their hearts for decades. 

Those students and I had something in common that no one realized at the time. We were Baby Boomers, with me at the early end while they accounted for the last wave. We listened to the same music. We'd grown up on the same TV shows. We were like-minded in ways that distinguished us from our elders residing in the building.

We were a voice for change in that buttoned-down atmosphere.

I taught among people who were at least 20 years older. They were focused on spouses, children, and mortgages. Many already dreamed of retirement. The few colleagues my age were men who coached and/or held administrative slots. Mostly they were math/science/language teachers.

I pointed out once that all administrative upper school decisions were made by men with the same background. The same brain. "That's one side of the coin reinforcing itself repeatedly," I explained and went on to illustrate the girls saw no leadership role models. Nor was an arts' opinion ever part of the official equation. Those assembled in the room stared at me. Blankly.

You see my predicament.  

In a male-dominated system, I was a marked target. They came after me constantly. I once went for three months without being called on the carpet and breathed a sigh of relief, thinking my worth had been realized.

No such luck. The onslaughts picked up speed.

My drama program was criticized because I didn't use the talent developed in the middle school program. My play selections were too ambitious, chosen to entertain me and far beyond the grasp of high school students. In fact, it was alleged that the demanding role I'd given one boy would surely drive him to suicide. I contended the role offered him a constructive way to counter his virulent case of senioritis.

Because we had no theater, we built sets on the patio and moved them into the Commons for our performances. The building designers had given us no closets, so costumes and props were stored on the faculty lounge pegs and shelving. The official assessment: "It's a constant mess."

I was hounded for my demanding English classes and for overly emphasizing writing with standards only reachable by graduate students. A well-respected boy returned from a college search at an Ivy League school and gleefully reported visiting an English class "like ours because they got on a roll discussing a poem and lost track of the time."

When a colleague and I reshaped the sophomore research program that we'd inherited, we reduced the time spent on library scavenger hunts for reference material. The fill-in-the-blank worksheets ceased being the centerpiece. This was deemed unacceptable because it watered down the curriculum, but we saw little merit to papers that were a patchwork of secondary sources.

The toughest indictments came in a letter specifying my personal unsuitability. I was not sufficiently sunny, nor was my body language acceptable. The way I held my head was of particular concern. Worst of all, I was not a team player. There were more charges, but these were the prominent accusations that I recall.

During this time in America, women began successfully challenging discriminatory workplace treatment through the courts. An attorney read my letter and insisted we had a winning case but added, "Honestly, if this is the mentality you're working for, it isn't a job worth having."


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Part 2: High School Twice

Frustration, fear, and fury marked my seven years of teaching at Holland Hall.

My experience was not atypical for working women back then.

Questions asked of me during that early summer interview would be illegal now but were standard practice then for hiring women. Did I have a boyfriend? Did I plan to marry and have a family? Did I belong to a church? Did I have a long-term commitment to Tulsa? Society assumed marriage and full-time homemaking were the ultimate female ambitions.

A large part of my appealing candidacy, I was told, was the fact that I was single.

I got the job but didn’t meet my teaching partners until August.

The first one said he’d agreed to my hiring, despite my master’s degree. He delivered a pronouncement about the unsuitability of overly educated people for teaching. (He was the only member of the English department without an advanced degree.) He warned me against deviating from his curriculum. All lectures, classroom discussions, tests, and assignments would be determined by him. To keep my students aligned with his, I’d need to meet with him before each class and take notes about how he presented every lesson.

His closing words: “Don’t get any of your own ideas.”

My other counterpart was visibly discouraged to learn I’d be teaching material I hadn’t read since my own high school years. She’d devoted her personal and professional life to studying and traveling abroad, visiting the haunts of these illustrious authors, only to be handed someone who just fell off the turnip truck.

Explaining she had little time for me, she delivered a clear message:  I was on my own.

Welcome, Karen.

My other responsibility was competitive speech and debate. Because I’d participated in tournaments in high school, I had some background and drove our participants to Saturday events where I served as a judge. Fortunately, a staffing change the end of that year allowed me to escape into the drama program, an area where I was better suited.

Several months into my first year, I crossed the Commons after school, apparently looking pale and hopeless. Carlos Tuttle, wise and wonderfully independent Upper School Head during my first years there, ushered me into his office and asked how things were going.

Tearfully, I admitted I couldn’t do the job.

He laughed. “Of course you can’t. We knew it was impossible. Now let’s talk about how to help you.” That’s one of the rare moments when anyone understood my perplexing assignment or offered constructive assistance. Carlos patiently accepted my many mistakes and generously congratulated my successes.

Much of that initial juggling year remains a blur to this day.

However, I vowed to succeed.

The students were incredible. Quick, funny, sweet, smart. They captured me, heart and soul. 

A classic overachiever, I’d never failed in school yet. I could see how to improve my work.

I’d soon learn that didn’t matter.

Eventually labeled as a problem, my second high school experience was about to be viewed as anything but brilliant.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Part 1: High School Twice

No one escapes high school.

Graduate or drop out, but the memories linger. You smile at them or puzzle over them or imagine how you could have handled issues differently. Like it or not, those formative years are never far from you.

The same is true for high school teachers, too.

I discovered this recently when my friend Laurel encountered one of our high school English teachers who is now 100 years old. She told Laurel she was sorry the department did not give me the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Essay Award. They chose someone who wrote a standard academic response to that year's writing prompt. Mine was more moving, deemed "emotional" by some faculty members. Yet she still believed my determination would have prevailed all the way to Nationals.

That had happened 50 years ago, and her regret continued.

Laurel secured her address. I sent the teacher my book and a note assuring her that I had persevered as an ambitious writer, despite that early loss. Honestly I hadn't thought about that missed nomination in decades. She had. More than anything, I hoped my reply set her free at long last.

Sometimes schools get it wrong. 

It did, however, make me consider many of my former high school students and how they remembered those turbulent years. I wondered how their choices had impacted their lives and how they'd made peace or not with what they'd done or what had been done to them. Their written reflections, beginning in January 2016 and ending in December, were astounding but not surprising, based on how I knew their uncommon teenaged selves. My blog readers, who'd never met them or ever been to Oklahoma, were undone by their observations.

Now it falls to me, in all fairness, to evaluate my seven years with them at the school.

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I resisted the occupation from the time I was in first grade when I started being encouraged to consider the profession. I wanted to be a writer and thought I was headed that way when I landed an editorial job after graduate school.

Not so.

After almost a year at the company, I discovered it was in financial trouble, deeply and dangerously. I sought a way out. Through a series of unexpected events, I was hired to teach at Holland Hall Upper School. Keep in mind that independent schools typically function under guidelines exempting them from hiring state-certified teachers.

The Head of the English Department invited me to his house to meet the woman I was replacing. He assumed she'd be helpful. She was. But not in the way he intended. The curriculum discussion quickly ended when she began outlining her personal experience there as a teacher. As he attempted to change the subject, she leaped to her feet, charged toward the door, and snapped, " Of course I'm right! Look what they've hired! An innocent young girl!" 

I reeled.

I didn't think she was misleading me about the job I'd landed (out of desperation, not desire), but I had no way to understand the ordeal she'd described.

Schools had always adored me.

I was that polite, quiet girl who made perfect grades easily. Teacher's pet. Respected by my peers. I was some sort of editor for every printed publication. I wrote the school's monthly radio show. I was either in every play or headed a technical crew. I was awarded Best Girl Whatever in all kinds of clubs. The drama teachers permanently extricated me from study hall to serve as their assistant for anything that needed doing, which covered plenty in a large public high school. (Nevertheless, as straight arrow as this all sounds, my Saturday night hijinx were alarmingly risky, but I kept that under wraps, as clever teenagers often do.) 

In graduate school, English professors frequently admitted they saved my papers for last to spur themselves forward.

Exemplary. Competent. That's how I'd always been perceived in schools.

Things were about to change.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Hail Mary Pass

Every year we watch the Super Bowl, although I'm mostly interested in the snacks and half-time show.

I don't know a thing in the world about the game itself, but I know a metaphor when I see it.

It looked bad for the New England Patriots on Sunday night. Tom Brady threw pass after pass that overshot the mark, when he could even get the ball into the air. Time and again he was knocked down.

As successful as he'd been over the years, nothing worked for most of the game. The camera often showed him slumped on the bench, looking baffled. Who could blame him? But he never looked defeated. He'd get up and run onto the field once more when his team had the ball. And he'd watch his plan slip out from under his fingers yet again.

People said Brady couldn't do it. He couldn't fight the odds as the Falcons' score charged ahead.

He did though.

That's the part about football that takes my breath away.

I know they practice relentlessly. I know a plan requires someone to break loose and run left as
someone else tackles so and so and the quarterback throws a ball. But in the tangled collisions, as the quarterback steps free, every pass looks like a Hail Mary to me. With hope sailing on a wing and a prayer, a teammate rises above his own doubt. He catches the ball and runs. Weaving through those stampeding mountains, he sprints across a thin white line of disbelief.

You can say it's all about muscle and strategy.

To me, it's a matter of faith.

That's what happened at the critical second when Brady threw and James White caught. 

I say this, not because I have any insight into sports, but because I know that slumped-on-a-bench feeling.

Authors famously recount tales of receiving dozens of rejections, searching for that one editor who rises up, contract in hand, to seize the project.

Talent aside, it's a writer's resilience, sometimes spanning decades, that gets a manuscript over the thin white line.

Recently I tacked note cards with colored stars on my bulletin board. They chart my effort. Every time a rejection arrives, I have a choice to stay on the bench or run onto the field. No cameras. No crowds. Just me, a story, and another Hail Mary Pass.

But you don't have to be a writer or a quarterback to understand facing impossible odds.

Someone eating popcorn in the stands will always think you can't do it.

But someone will think you can.

Go on.

Throw. 

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Monday, January 30, 2017

The Women's March in DC: The Epilogue

This picture was taken before Maggie's feet ached inside her muddy shoes. Before she'd been jostled for six hours. Before part of the group wandered off. Before the others panicked and set out to find those four needles in a haystack. Before she realized their leader had  organizational issues.

Even after all those befores, she said she'd do it again. She's not annoyed or afraid.

She's determined.

Change happens because the end result is more important than the sharp edges.

So whatever Maggie thought the day would be like, she adapted once she arrived. She was on a mission and grabbed it for all it was worth.

For my part, I spent that Saturday waiting for a picture that never came. I hyper-focused on a picture of her and her alone in that t-shirt. Isn't that just like a mother? My daughter took pictures of great posters and interesting details along the route. None of herself.

The pictures I finally received of her were taken by others who traveled with her. (Mothers, probably.)

When she sent me her reflections for Part 2, especially her Lin-Manuel Miranda quote about the ultimate significance of seeds, I remembered a song called "Plant a Radish" from The Fantasticks. Two fathers sing:

          Plant a radish.
          Get a radish.
          Never any doubt.
          That's why I love vegetables;
          You know what you're about!

          While with children,
          It's bewilderin'.
          You don't know until the seed is nearly grown
          Just what you've sown.
    
I was mistaken to think she'd be a selfie-taking Millennial on such an important occasion. Or that what I wanted was truly necessary. In fact, when she read Part 1, she admitted the day had been another Winnie-the-Pooh moment, just as I described. I thought about that--her breakaway dash at Disneyland. Never a risk-taker, she realized even then she'd never be lost.

We'd be right behind her.

When you look at her in this picture, you see an enthusiastic girl.

And me? I see my radish.

A prize-worthy one indeed.

And I'm still right behind her.
          
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Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Women's March in DC: Maggie Takes to the Streets

Protesting or resisting. It's a tough business.

You either discover yourself in a group venture or you get lost in it.

And at the end of the day, you make a decision about the price of admission. Because there certainly is one if you raise your hand to power and say, "Wait a minute."

Authority never rolls over without a fight.

So I asked Maggie what she thought the march would be like and what she thought would happen.

On reflection, she admitted thinking it would be a great trip with friends, hanging out, taking pictures,
chanting about common beliefs. She never saw this as complaining about a President. She believed in supporting significant issues being swept aside.

She was ready. She was present.

What she got was a long, scary bus ride in the fog. Fitful sleep. Disorganization and mixed messages. Erratic cell service. Pushing and shoving. Padlocked Porta-Johns. Muddy fields. Aching feet from six hours of walking and nowhere to sit. Frazzled nerves and worry because four girls wandered off and never returned.

At one point, she stood with friends by a tent left over from the inauguration. It displayed a refreshment sign, and people kept lining up for food. "Whoever set up there could have made a lot of money," she said to me.

Protests don't come with cake pops. But those young passersby, raised on endless Starbucks, wouldn't know demonstrations don't include concessions. This rally was their first time on the streets, after all.

Still, she took the experience in, texting when possible about her location. We'd get aerial views on TV of where she stood. No, we never saw her face, but we witnessed her heartfelt presence. She sent pictures of her favorite posters. Like the good Southern girl she once was, the Y'ALL slogan pleased her no end. She appreciated the witty signs from clever people and valued seeing her own thoughts expressed in neon colors.

She heard inspiring messages from Gloria Steinem and America Ferrera, women from different generations, whose remarks mirrored her own beliefs. Although the massive crowd made it impossible to literally march past the White House, she saw it in the distance. On the metro, three older women from San Diego asked her group about their thoughts on the march, reinforcing that she was part of something beyond age or geography.

For the first time in her life, she uses sisterhood, understanding its long history and feeling appreciated for her newfound place there.

She belongs to the tradition built step by step.

With no intention of going back.

In prime Maggie fashion, as if she were completing an essay exam, she wrote to me about the significance of fighting for social justice, a fight often plagued by lonely uncertainty. To illustrate her point, she quoted from Hamilton: An American Musical with this line: "What is a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see."


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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Women's March in DC: The Prologue

Because Maggie is the President of College of Wooster's chapter of Planned Parenthood, it seemed likely she'd attend the march.

Along with women's issues concerning respect and reproductive freedom, she's an immigrant, a minority, and a new voter.

Wooster's Westminster Presbyterian Church contacted her about filling the eight seats they'd reserved for her group on their bus. The girls would be under the guidance of activist women who'd experienced previous marches.

Easy peasy transportation.  

While she was home for the holidays, preparations began. Details from the church liaison. Rounds of questions. Waiting lists. Times and places decided. Participant regulations texted. Metro pass snafus untangled.

It's not the 60s anymore. More is required than tie-dyed clothing and a poster.

When the official t-shirt arrived, I resorted to my best shrinking methods because her petite frame baffles all standard sizing. When the sleeves remained too long, I suggested visiting our seamstress. But Maggie said she'd make the best of it.

We found warm, flexible gloves for texting during the march.

I bought protein bars and foil-wrapped chocolates to fill her pockets. Because I love a metaphor, heart-shaped candy expressed my love for her courage, especially since she explained her 2017 New Year's Resolution is to fight complacency. She knows it's easy to hit LIKE on social media, another thing entirely to actually work for change, step by step.

Our local library staff wished her well, too, praising her strong character and adventurous spirit. Maggie smiled. I beamed.

A friend suggested I attend the march with Maggie. She saw the march as a grand mother-daughter gesture. "This is her defining moment. I'd be in her way," I said.

As I drove her back for the second semester, I asked for a picture of her in that t-shirt. And one of her with the campus friends traveling with her by bus. In my experience, Millennials love smiling group shots and momentous selfies. They flood FB. On a bus filled with supportive women, I knew there'd be no trouble getting a volunteer photographer. In Maggie's history, finding supportive, like-minded friends is a constant challenge. Finally she's found them, I believed.

I couldn't wait to see these pictures. They'd be right up there with the Disneyland picture of her squealing, enthusiastic hug for Winnie-the-Pooh at age three. Yes, it was adorable, but the incredible detail not captured on film was her letting go of our hands and running alone down the sidewalk. Never a risk-taker, she surrendered completely to a beloved presence.

I kept telling her what a significant life experience this would be. She'd be forever changed.

She's heard my horrific tales of being at Ohio University in May 1970 when the Kent State killings occurred. Riots eventually closed our campus. Students had 24 hours to clear out. My incredulous mother drove our packed car through the town's streets lined with armed National Guardsmen.

"I realized I was seen as the enemy," I add when I tell Maggie the story. "You never get over that."

I doubted she'd face weapons.

But I knew she'd end up feeling empowered. And changed.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Guest Blogger: Tim Blake Nelson



[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Tim Blake Nelson, Class of 1982, took me by storm. Every day. For four years. Countless interactions with him in class and rehearsals reduced me to giggles or tears, soul-searching tears. In morning meetings he often impersonated faculty members. Several of them confronted me in the lounge and demanded to know why he did that. Panicked, I knew I had to save him, so I said he’d either become an actor or a writer and was practicing dialogue and characters. (Shocked silence. I sounded crazy, but I believed that was his destiny.) I insisted he meant no harm. He probably did, but I knew better than to throw him to the angry mob. Yet I repeatedly held his feet to the fire in other ways. When I refused to give him an A on his sophomore research paper, the English Department revolted against me. “In twenty years it won’t matter,” a colleague contended. “It will to Tim,” I said. “He’ll see it wasn't an A and be embarrassed for himself and ashamed of me.” Tim called, almost on cue in twenty years, and said, “You were right, Karen. It wasn’t an A.” This rowdy boy changed the trajectory of my life. Even now, no one can push all my unsuspecting buttons the way he still does.]

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This is going to be boring, because it’s not a story of struggle or duress. High school in many ways mapped out my life. During those years (for me 1978-1982), I began to engage in aspects of every pursuit that occupies me now. I wrote and acted in my own scripts, took lots of photographs, read and wrote a great deal, and acted in as many plays as would have me. I encountered extraordinary teachers, including the one hosting this blog, and I learned how to take from them what they gave, while endeavoring to give back some measure of myself by way of enthusiasm at the very least. Above all, I gathered that a great education and a good deal of work and determination make anything possible. This is a simplistic cliché in which I still believe, much to the frustration of my inculcated children.

Like most at my private school, I grew up in relative privilege. I had access to a family car, a bit of money to spend on weekends, and a room of my own with a door I could close. I lived in a safe neighborhood, and there were both the expectation and means for me to attend college. My best pals and I went off mostly to fancy schools that provided extraordinary educations. Additionally, we got to do this from Tulsa, Oklahoma; what remains to me a contrapuntally exotic place because it offered little allure to the homogenizing corruptions of the outside world. Yes, it was middle America, but a middle America largely hidden from view because folks didn’t go there to visit, but to live. There were few tourists, and therefore none of the places that catered to them, allowing a kind of genuineness to pervade. When I eventually moved East for college, I got to come therefore from a place remote and specific; I was the only kid in my class of twelve hundred from my state, and that felt special.

I was small, Jewish, not particularly athletic, and not among the very smartest scholastically, so my currency came mostly from being funny, a pursuit I pushed hard, and at which I often succeeded but also occasionally faltered. My humor could be cruel, disrespectful, and when it was I knew instantly.  I learned through failure about laughter in its more benign and even constructive forms, how when humor lacerated, it needed to have a purpose. Somehow I got a girlfriend who was smart and kind and very pretty. She drove a Jeep Renegade and was the star pitcher on the softball team. When she would periodically break up with me, being funny, let alone doing schoolwork, felt impossible.  When we’d get back together, I felt invincible. My friends all loved her, a few of them a bit too much for my liking.

My sophomore year, on the night my girlfriend and I had our first real kiss, my father walked out on my mother, initiating what would be an ugly and attenuated divorce over the next several years. My mother was in unbearable pain, and selfishly I often couldn’t take it, so I hid in my schoolwork and social life, throwing myself into every activity I could, and pursuing the most advanced courses available (except for math, at which I was preternaturally abysmal). I escaped from real life and real pain, in other words, with a new enthusiasm for school. My best buddy JB and I edited the paper our junior year, driving my car onto the floor of the indoor commons to deliver the April Fools edition. It helped us to avoid punishment that he was the headmaster’s son. For my senior year, I was elected student council president. With my friend James, I did skits we would write and perform during morning meetings, often twice a week, for every event or item that needed to be advertised. My grades improved steadily, and with a cadre of enthusiasts I fell in love with Latin and the teacher who taught it. Our clan would study late into the night, reading and translating Catullus and Horace and Virgil. 

There was also a good deal of drinking…and driving. How none of us was maimed or even killed—how we didn’t maim or kill others--remains a mystery to me. Every weekend night involved some form of cat-and-mouse with the local constabulary who would search us out in their prowlers in abandoned parking lots, behind churches, or on backroads and overlooks where we’d guzzle Mickeys Big Mouths, Little Kings, or Cold Duck. Had our parents known, we would have been slaughtered.  There was plenty of pot around too, but I liked the booze, and spent my last prom night in jail for public intoxication.  Ultimately I didn’t care, as shameful and stupidly dangerous as it was. I was graduating, and high school had been glorious.

In contrast, my first months at college were awful. I was lonely, unfulfilled, and lost.  I missed my girlfriend, my still struggling and extraordinary mother, my friends, my complete life and its sense of purpose. Yet most of all, even in a homesickness that would eventually abate, I felt lucky. Yes, I’d had ups and downs—breakups, a bad grade here and there, my parents’ divorce, not being cast in a play, an arrest, friends who betrayed me—but by and large high school was something I’d assayed with a verve and enthusiasm that had rewarded me dearly. I had teachers who encouraged and truly cared (again, topping the list the host of this blog), along with a smart and varied group of friends, and a girl who taught me how to love. People laughed at me when I wanted them to, and were interested in the stories I was beginning to tell. I was learning to control and focus that in a way I sensed someday might have meaning. 

I left Tulsa, in other words, with a burgeoning sense of what my life could be, and because of that, I feel like I’ve been living it fully ever since.

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Tim Blake Nelson, a graduate of Brown University and Juilliard, is an actor, writer, and director. He lives in New York City with his wife and three sons.