Life lessons, Teaching

The People Who Teach Us

I was in my mother’s room at the convalescent home recently when a woman’s voice behind a curtain said, “Is Joan Livingston here? There’s a man here who says he knows you and your mother.” Intrigued, I left my mother and in the hallway found a man wearing a mask (we all have to wear one there) who identified himself as Dennis Duval. He was my ninth-grade history teacher.

I gave the man a hug although I hadn’t seen him since my last day in that grade and I then moved onto our high school. That was a very long time ago.  

Mr. Duval, as I called him way back then, was visiting his brother who was also a resident of the home. On the sign-in sheet, he saw my mother’s name and my first name, so he put the clues together. He could have left it at that, but he decided to seek me out.

Like me, Mr. Duval grew up in North Fairhaven, Massachusetts. His father had a pharmacy in that part of our oceanside town. Mr. Duval was the youngest of ten kids, he told me.

I remembered Mr. Duval as an energetic, dark-haired teacher not long out of college who made history relevant to us kids. I was a member of the first ninth grade at what is now called Elizabeth Hastings Middle School. And as we spoke that day, I thought of the other great teachers I had. I even mentioned a few.

Mr. Mignault, who taught geography, lived in Boston and stayed in a motel in our town during the school days. It was my first exposure to the counter culture — he wanted us to understand the message behind “Puff the Magic Dragon” and told us those drills we were doing in case there was a nuclear bomb were useless. Unfortunately, he left us that year after a bad car accident.

Mrs. Lima, my freshman English teacher, recited Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by heart. She stood in front of the class or sat on a student’s desk, holding a finger in the page but she didn’t look at the words. Decades later, my mother mailed me a box with clothing she bought at a tag sale, and at the bottom was a slim blue volume of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Yale Shakespeare version, 1923, edited by Willard H. Durham. The blue cloth is mottled with something white, perhaps from moisture. Susan Lima’s name is written in perfect cursive on the second page. I still have the book and fond memory.

Mr. Piche had a difficult time talking due to a past injury, but he brought American history alive. At the end of each lesson, he would say, “You know how I know? Because I was there.”

We brought up others like Mr. Hughes, who also taught history, and Mr. Cardoza, my math teacher.

I remember so many of the teachers I had during those three impressionable years. To be honest, a few were not among my favorites. But I would say I got a great education, and thank you Mr. Duval for reminding me.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s Mrs. Lima’s copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

LINK TO A FABULOUS MYSTERY: I want to let Kindle readers know that during the month of June they can buy my friend Teresa Dovalpage’s latest mystery for $2.99. Death under the Perseids is the third in her Havana Mystery Series. (Teresa was born in Cuba.) I will tell you more about Teresa and her book it in my next post, but for those who can’t wait, here’s the link:

Fiction, Teaching

Finding the Invisible Man Redux

I am juggling two things right now: Final edits of my next mystery, Redneck’s Revenge, my publisher’s Kindle sale, and settling into a new home we renovated. So I’m digging through the archives for one of my more popular posts: Finding the Invisible Man.

Ralph Ellison’s book is one of my favorites. There is a great deal of inspiration tied to that novel, including a professor’s influence. Here goes.

I was on the second floor of a second-hand store this week checking its supply of used books. Ten books for a buck, the sign said. In the E section, I found a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Hard cover circa 1952. The book jacket wasn’t pristine, but I didn’t care. It is worth a lot more than ten cents.

Inside the book I found a folded piece of paper that said “National Book Award for 1953. Fiction. Judges: Saul Bellow, Martha Foley, Irving Howe, Howard Mumford Jones, and Alfred Kazin.” I suppose it has been with the book since whoever bought it new back then.
I had been wanting a vintage copy of the Invisible Man for a while because this book has so much personal value to me.
In the second semester of my junior year at the then Bridgewater State College, I took a Black Literature course with Dr. Barbara Chellis. She was a dynamic professor her students couldn’t pin down.
She also taught an American Lit. course I also took. One year she would say Emily Dickinson was a hack. Next year, when her students were ready to echo that theory, Dr. Chellis praised Dickinson as a private poet who never expected to be published.
When we read The Scarlett Letter, Dr. Chellis cut her hair monk-short, wore severe clothes and an ornate silver cross. I learned about Poe’s “knowledge is power” and why people write.
Dr. Chellis was brilliant and compassionate. One time I was stoned when I took a mid-term exam. Without a lecture, she asked me take it again. I know you can do better, she told me.
That semester, I moved into the same apartment house as Dr. Chellis and her companion, another woman who taught in the history department. They lived on the first floor, and from our kitchen window on the second, I watched them hang out in their yard. My roommate lied to the landlord, telling him we were nurses and not college students.
I remember the day I came home as Dr. Chellis drove her convertible into our driveway. The top was down. She slammed on the brakes, backed up and glared at me. We got our eviction notice shortly afterward.
But I got her back, sort of. We had a huge, noisy party one of our last nights there. And, then there was the presentation I had to do for her Black Lit. class. I chose to speak on Ralph Ellison’s theme of invisibility in his Invisible Man, that nobody can see who we really are including a professor who had me evicted from my apartment. I recorded my speech and played it in front of the class so it would seem I was invisible when I spoke.
Dr. Chellis gave me an A for the presentation.
The last time I saw Dr. Chellis was when I went to her office to get my final grade, another A. She was cordial and encouraging. She asked me why I no longer dated a popular student she liked. I simply said he broke up with me. The truth was he was gay and didn’t want to love a woman.
I went to Europe that summer. When I returned, I heard Dr. Chellis had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, which later killed her. It seemed terribly unfair.
Here is a quote from the Invisible Man: “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was.” Thank you Dr. Chellis.
ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yup, that’s my copy.
Teaching, Writing

Keep Writing

Today, May 6 marks the end of one writing project: creating a book of flash fiction with my fifth-grade students. They’re not really my students. But as part of the Taos Visiting Artists Program, I began working with Kathy Serna’s class for two hours a week beginning last fall.

The photo above is the book’s cover. The students chose its name: Superstar Writers of Ranchos Elementary. And, yes, to me they are superstars. Today at a reception the public can see that, too.

My life as a writer began in earnest in fifth-grade. Students from the town’s schools gathered on Wednesday afternoons to take an advanced course in science and creative writing. Guess which one caught my imagination?

I wanted to do the same for these fifth-grade students. I came for an hour on most Tuesdays and Thursdays. I began by reading aloud, some from other people’s writing, but mostly mine, actually from The Cousins/Los Primos bilingual series. Los Primos cover(More below on that.)

Then over the months we spent together, I gave them five writing prompts: A Picture Is Worth 750 Words; Along With Paul Revere’s Ride; Three Inches Tall; My Neighbor Is a Giant; and I Have a Superpower. The students were given a word count for each.

Their teacher and I worked alongside the students, encouraging them. A few, whose first language is Spanish, wrote in English. One boy wrote in Spanish.

Hopefully, this experience was as rewarding to the students as it was for me. Their teacher said her students wouldn’t have had such opportunities to write without this program.

Yes, I believe their creativity and confidence increased over those months. One student wrote a story about living in a sink of dirty dishes. Another told Paul Revere’s ride from the perspective of his horse, Brown Beauty. One student wrote a giant stepped on her father — but a potion save him.

Here is one called “The Battle,” by Elijah.

3-5-20: Have you ever wanted to join the ant army? Well, don’t. Let me tell you why. If you’re three inches tall like me and a human, then you are unlucky. I was a mad scientist’s puppet for a long time until one day he shrunk me and I got away. Then about three days later, the ants found me. The Midway Ants found me, I meant. They raised me, fed me, all the stuff a child needs to stay alive. I was always a little bit bigger than the other ants, but they didn’t mind. Neither did I.

When I was 16, I joined the Midway Ant Army. Now in 2020, there is another ant war. Midway vs. Fullway! It’s three days until I get sent to the army. My birthday is tomorrow.

3-6-20: Today is my birthday, but I have no one to celebrate it with because everyone is freaking out about the ant war. Well, I need to go train in base camp. I’ll probably document again tomorrow.

3-7-20: It’s 6:30 p.m. and I’m going to bed, so I can be ready for the war. God bless Midway!

Day of the War: Right now as I write, my left arm is not working, so this is pretty hard for me. I got bit three times and shot once. It hurts so bad. If anyone ever gets a hold of this, please send help. We are under attack. I don’t think I’m going to survive.

Midway Loses the War: Sgt. Elijah almost won the war for Midway, but Fullway had the upper hand. Now all Midway Ants are extinct. These are the last documents Sgt. Elijah took. God bless Midway!

This week, I visited the class this week to bring each student a copy of the book, plus cookies I baked. I got a huge welcome with cries of,“We missed you so much.”

Many asked me to sign their books. This is what I wrote: “Keep writing.” And I meant it.

Zia awardABOUT LOS PRIMOS: The bilingual kids books “The Cousins and the Magic Fish/Los Primos y el Pez Mágico” got some recognition when the New Mexico Press Women named it second runner up for the Zia Award. I was the author and Teresa Dovalpage, the translator. My son, Ezra, created the illustrations. Teresa and I were at the conference in Las Cruces to accept the award and read from the book. Jessica Savage, with the NM Press Women, is behind us.