Lynda Barry, Genius

lynda-barryI usually look forward to the Weekly Challenge, but today’s left me cold since I DON’T make lists. Then Marilyn Armstrong commented about whether one could tell a story with a list and I started to think about how one could — and I thought of this brilliant cartoon from the 80s. Definitely lists. Certainly a story.

 

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/countdown/

They Found ME

Writing Challenge Digging for Roots In this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge, tell us about what makes you, you.

I cannot imagine anything more “Twilight Zone” than writing a novel set 800+ years ago and discovering you had written accurately about your own family of whom you had known nothing.

But…

While writing Martin of Gfenn, I became fascinated by one of the characters, the Commander. In 2005 I set out to write a prequel that would tell the story of the Commander’s life before he came to Gfenn.

Anyone who’s written a novel knows that characters have lives of their own and at certain point, a writer must allow the characters to tell their own stories. I had no idea where that would lead me when I set out to write this book. I finished a draft in 2005 and put it aside; other (rather dire) circumstances had captured my life and I had to attend to them. In 2010, when I returned to this novel, I was a different person and a different writer.

In what was going to be the “prequel” to Martin of Gfenn, the Commander was going to be the oldest son of a minor noble, a simple knight, who bred horses and lived…where? I decided he would live in Aargau. I put his castle on a hill (small castle, more fort than castle) and using some interesting information about a ruined castle near Solothurn, I built my character’s childhood home.

I gave him a brother named Hugo, a father named Ulrich, a mother named Anna and a fiancée named many different things I can’t now remember, but her name became Gretchen. The protagonist was named Rudolf.

He and his brother happily went to the Crusades — Rudolf to save his soul and Hugo to have an adventure. At a certain point in my writing, their father’s name, Ulrich, no longer seemed “right” so I changed it to Heinrich (bear with me; I know you feel like you’re in a bad dream with this half-assed plot summary and a Tolstoyan list of changing names coming at you). The family became: Father — Heinrich. Mother — Anna. Sons — Rudolf and Hugo. Fiancée— Gretchen.

Meanwhile, Martin of Gfenn came out. I sent copies to four newspapers around Zürich. Three interviewed me and published reviews of the novel. Martin of Gfenn became a big seller in a small part of Switzerland, and I got a email from a Swiss fan asking if I had Swiss ancestry. I believed I did, but I had no proof. I had looked, to no avail (I looked because my grandmother’s cooking was exactly the same as a few “typical Swiss” dishes I’d eaten in Switzerland), so I gave it another shot and I found…

The earliest known of my grandmother’s progenitors came from the Albis region between Zürich and Aargau. Some of them lived in what is now Aargau; some in Zürich. They were a large family of relatively minor knights in the service of the rising Hapsburg family. My grandmother’s — and my — progenitors names were….

Heinrich, married to Anna, with children Rudolf and Conrad. Heinrich’s BROTHER was named Hugo. Rudolf married a girl named Margaretha which is normally shortened to Gretchen. They lived in a castle on a hill looking over the Reuss and the village of Affoltern am Albis in Canton Zürich. There were visible ruins of the castle until the early 20th century; now there is just this wall (see photo). It was a197a3727-01f3-42aa-a472-131462fe9125 small castle, mostly a fort, and, apparently, judging from the supports and old records, it had had a large tower.

Of Heinrich and  Anna’s two sons, one, Rudolf, lived a very long life (well into his 80s) and the other, Conrad, was lost to time. In my novel, Rudolf survives a significant and bloody battle, while his brother is killed.Once I found all this, I changed the name of  my character, Hugo to Conrad. That was one of two important changes I made to adapt my “creations” to historical fact. The other?

The original ending of the novel really didn’t work, but it seemed to me to fit and to be effective and sufficiently mysterious. It left the door open to possibilities. A big fan of French film, I prefer equivocal endings to those that are neat and tidy, but having learned that the REAL Rudolf lived into old age, I felt a responsibility to him to extend his story, to give him one more chance to fight and win over his demons. The “real” Rudolf had also had children (and so I’m here 🙂 ). I loved “my” Rudolf and I didn’t want to shortchange him of his future. As I thought about it, it seemed more and more that equivocal or even sad endings can be as big a cop out as happy ones.

Though it is impossible, it seems that my ancestor was pushing me as a writer to do something new. I will not say what, as you might want to read the book someday! There are two chapters posted on Rudolf’s blog.

I also Lunkhofen Coat of Armsremembered how, in 1994, on my first trip to Europe, I had been taken into some old hall in Zürich and told to look at all the coats of arms up around the wall. I remember not caring one bit. The Twilight Zone aspect is that the coat of arms of my own family is on that wall. Heinrich’s older brothers (Heinrich was the youngest of three) became very powerful. In Aargau there are towns that bear their name. Over time, “my” side of the family changed its name. That name was Anglicized in the 18th century when some of the members emigrated to America. The last person in my family with that name was a woman. Her daughter was my grandmother’s grandmother. All of my grandmother’s female ancestors (and most of the male) were Swiss (Amish!). That explained her cooking.

Valentine from God and from Danny

I should not be so cynical about Valentine’s Day. In fact, I got a lacy, beautiful and perfect Valentine from none other than God.

I was in love with a fella’ who wasn’t in love with me. Valentine’s Day came with the usual feelings of failure and confusion. At about 1 pm I decided to take my white Husky/Wolf, Ariel, for a hike up in the Laguna Mountains. We reached the trail head and, the moment we did, it began to snow, the particular gentle, wet and lacy flakes of a Southern California snow shower. The loop we hiked was three miles. It went across a small forest of Jeffrey Pine, up some rocky hills, down through more pines, up a wonderful outcropping to a pond. From the pond we returned across a meadow and then we reached the truck.

It snowed the whole time, dream snow, perfect snow, white, gentle, sweet and ALL MINE. No one else was there — and, at the moment we returned to the trail head where we’d begun, the Valentine snow shower stopped.

In spite of having no particular religion — and not liking religion much — I really love God. I don’t actually know why and don’t think I have to. It’s things like that, small miracles in nature that appear just for me, just because I go out there where I’m more likely to see God trying to communicate.

I’ve had a couple of other amazing Valentines, too. One miserable day I got home from school (back when I lived in San Diego). It’d been an awful day. Frustrating, annoying, disputative, bleah. I drove up to my house disgusted with things, life and people and saw my porch was covered with red and pink flowers. Someone (I had a good idea who) had stripped every geranium, every hibiscus, even the thorny bougainvillea to do that. I was enchanted. I melted. I stepped over it and went inside. Soon there was a knock on my door, at about the height a 6 year old could reach. I knew who it was. Danny, a little boy being foster-momed by my wonderful neighbor. Danny was different; he liked his foster sister’s clothing and played with Barbies. His foster mom made no fuss over that, just left him to be himself. I opened the door and there he stood wearing pop-beads, carrying a purse and wearing lipstick. He’d been sent over to apologize. His head hung in shame. I said, “Did you do this, Danny?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? I LOVE it. You made me so happy!”
“I did?
“Yeah. It’s beautiful. I had a bad day but you made it all better!”
He climbed up on my lap and hugged me, then jumped down and danced around the yard, his purse flapping, singing, “I did it! I did it! I did it!”

Valentines are everywhere, actually. I just got one. I was outside with the horse and the little boy next door who’s almost four. When I said I had to go in, he said, “I need to give you some water, Martha!” I told him I was OK, I didn’t need any water (he’s learned to keep the horse watered).
“OK,” he said. “I love you, Martha!”

So, what card could possibly equal any of these Valentines!

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/writing-challenge-valentine/

Dude’s Love Story

“It’ll have to show up sooner or later. The way the tides work? There’s no way it won’t. She said she put it in the water at Santa Margarita. I’ll wait. I’ll prove my faith and love by squatting here on the shore until it arrives. I know it’ll be great, everything, everything I ever wanted. It’s like her to do this instead of just picking up the phone or writing a letter. Ok, so, where is it? She’s right, you know? Patience is a virtue I really do not have. This will help me cultivate it. I’ll wait and hope it doesn’t rain, but it’s still fucking cold, damn, why didn’t I bring a wet suit or something? At least wear clothes. OH WELL. OK, so I can see it from up here, but what if I can’t get down there in time to pick it up? What if it gets carried on a current or something and then I never get it? What about the important information she was – she said she was, but she could be lying, that’s certainly, wait, she could be lying about the whole thing, maybe it’s not even. What did she actually say? Did she say she WAS sending it or that she might as WELL be sending it? Oh shit, I hate that. Everything she says is so perfect, so beautiful, I should write it all down for posterity, it should always be remembered, like the words I KNOW are coming to me, here on this promontory of sand. We’re all on promontories of sand, come to it. Everything washes away sooner or later, and I will, too, and who the fuck knows but I’ll die here waiting? Maybe a tsunami will come and wash this whole fragile promontory away and then? She’ll be sorry, that’s ‘and then’. Sorry she couldn’t just pick up the fucking phone! It’s not like… OH well, there’s that patience thing again. If I could just master that! Man, my life would be so much easier, I’d be so much calmer, I wouldn’t blow the little things out of proportion! I’d get the big picture, right?”

Waves hit the beach, wave after wave after wave. Night falls. The stars come out above the layer of fog on top of the ocean. Our hero persists; waiting, waiting for what?

photo-jun-05-10-40-37-pm“This reminds me of something, what is it? Something from college, from English class, something that seemed particularly pointless, and turned out to be totally and completely pointless. Perhaps everything is pointless, actually. Even this, even this, her, she, me, I, us, we – how can I know? There is no crystal ball, no way to read the future. It’s just this. Squatting for hours on life’s sandy promontory waiting for. I could leave! I could leave and come back tomorrow and see if the tide dropped it along with the sand dollars, the shells, the broken glass, the kelp and some guy’s broken flip flop, but…”

“Dude!”

“Someone’s HERE?”

“DUDE! Yo!”

“Lamont!”

“Whatup?”

“Nothing, I mean nothing so far. I’m waiting for…”

“Christmas? I saw you here yesterday, Dude. You haven’t even hardly moved.”

“No. Moving would be faithless. This is a test of faith.”

“In fucking WHAT?”

“Her. My love. This is a test of faith and a lesson in patience.”

“You’re squatting here waiting for a WOMAN? Unreal, Dude. Why?”

“No. I’m not waiting for a woman. I’m waiting to hear from her, from the one I love, my beloved across the sea.”

“Have you tried email? I hear good things about it. The phone seems fairly popular as well. You want half of my breakfast burrito? It’s eggs and chorizo.”

“Hmmmmm. Wow. Yeah, I’m hungry, I am, but no, no, part of this, I must fast. I must prove my worthiness.”

“You’re more worthy if you’re HUNGRY? Wow. What miracle play did you drop out of, man?”

“I took a vow. I would wait here until I heard from her.”

“Where is she?”

“Santa Margarita.”

“That’s only two miles up the coast.”

“Not that Santa Margarita. The one in Italy.”

“ITALY? And what’s she doing, Dude? Sailing?”

“No, she wrote me a message. I’m waiting for it.”

“There is no fucking mailbox anywhere around here, Dude. How are you going to get a message? You sure you don’t want some of this burrito? It’s yummy and you look hungry.”

“Thanks, that’s very kind, but no. I – well, yeah, just a bite, just tear off a bite.”

“Here.”

“Wow. That is great, that hits the spot. You wouldn’t have a soda would you?”

“Back at my place. You wanna’ come back to my place? I can fix you some coffee or something.”

“No, no, no, I have to wait. It will have to arrive today. I looked at the charts of the tides, everything, and it should be today. Any time now.”

“What IS it for the love of Pete?”

“It’s – wait – that’s it! It’s here! It’s here! I gotta’ go get it.”

“Watch yourself, Dude. It’s steep. Don’t fall or all this waiting will have been a waste of time. Where is it, anyway? What is it?”

“There, see it?”

“That’s TRASH Dude!”

“No, no, no, no that’s a bottle with a cork in it, a wine bottle, our favorite wine.”

“You got a bottle of wine floating on the ocean? That’s not gonna’ happen, man. Wine sinks.”

“No, it’s a bottle that held our favorite wine. Inside, inside, look just wait here. I’ll go get it and…”

“What a FREAK! That dude has been sitting here for three days waiting for a wine bottle to float here from Italy! Some message in a bottle number, yeah, look at that.”

“I can’t get the cork out!”

“Probably swoll all up in the water.”

“What should I do?”

“Break the bottle, get the message.”

“No! I can’t do that! How will I send a message back?”

“The phone? Like I mentioned before?”

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/inspiration-images-1000-words/

New Cookies, Starbucks at SDSU

“Do you want your oatmeal cookie heated up?”

“No thanks,” I say.

“It’s good heated up,” says the barista

“It kills the mold if you put it in the microwave,” says my friend.

“There’s no mold,” says the barista. “These are new cookies.”

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/weekly-writing-challenge-lunch-posts/#more-66914

Elevator Ride, SDSU, “Dude, I need a Humanities”

In the elevator in the parking structure:

“Dude, I need a humanities.”

“How about Intro to Humanities?”

“Does that fill the humanities requirement?”

“Take music, dude. I am. I’m taking Intro to Music.”

“Dude, that’s not music, that’s, you know MUSIC.” Shudder.

“It’s Radiohead to Rachmaninoff, dude. Do you know what that is?”

“They’re not music. Radiohead is rock and I don’t KNOW what Rachmaninoff is.”

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/weekly-writing-challenge-lunch-posts/#more-66914

Fearful and Loathsome/Gone Gonzo/Weekly Challenge

Weekly Writing Challenge: Three Ways to Go Gonzo: You’re in a street-side café (in San Diego, California). The couple seated at the next table is breaking up.

“What?”

“If you’re going to ‘Go Gonzo’ like your dumb blogging site instructs, you have to find some novel you like and type it over a gazillion times until you find your own style. God forbid it’s War and Peace.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “If I type someone elses’ novel over and over, I’m going to be really good at writing that novel.”

“I agree. It doesn’t. Still, I don’t think Capote would’ve called Hunter Thompson a typist.”

“He was definitely a writer, though he did have a typewriter.” I thought I was funny, but Peter didn’t.

“People make a lot of noise about his drug use, don’t they?”

“So dumb. It was the times. Remember your frantic phone searches back in the day for ‘Vitamin Q’?”

“You’re one to talk, Mr. Amyl Nitrate.”

“Oh yeah.” I laughed at the memory of us in a cavernous black-walled disco passing around a bottle of RUSH. “Oh and the movies!”

“Yeah, I think a lot of young people know Hunter Thompson through Johnny Depp and maybe some English teacher.”

“That’s a laugh, isn’t it? English teachers?”

“Fuck you.” We were, both of us, English teachers.

“Hey, there’s an Edith Wharton novel in progress. Look at those two.” The couple beside us was clearly in the throes of a late morning break up.

“Oh man, I’d never go back to that, would you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not a chance in hell.” Peter shuddered. Our young love had had enough drama for twenty people.

“Yeah, and they’re always saying, ‘You’d like to be young again, wouldn’t you?’”

“A lot of people would. You sure as hell would prefer walking without a cane, but…”

“Shhh. This is good.” We drank our coffee and watched the sitcom at the table in front of us.

“Why?”

“If I have to explain it, you’ll never understand it.”

“Right. Yeah, I get that. If I understood you and all your deep and meaningful ideas and your precious fucking soul, we wouldn’t be breaking up right now, right? This is all because I don’t understand you. Look, I fucking understand you. I fucking understand that this is only scene one in this stupid ass drama you’re always staging. Once a month, at least. I could schedule it. Well, you know what?”

“What?”

“I do understand you, and you’re just NOT all that interesting. Hot, yes. Interesting? No.”

Brakes squealed. Glass shattered against a light post. A woman screamed. The white-noise of predictable urban traffic came literally to a screeching halt. Only one car was in motion and it was the one that should not have been. A white Nissan.

“Did you see that?”

“Can’t you pay attention to me for once?”

“I think that guy’s been killed.” Mark dug around in his back pocket and pulled out a Bic pen. He spread his left hand, palm flat, scribbled for a second or two, then wrote.

“What are you doing?”
Peter was already running to the corner. I called 911. “Yeah. A cyclist. Hit. No. The driver left. Backed away from the light post he hit and took off down 6th. No I don’t know if it was a he. It could’ve been a she. We need an ambulance here, sweet-cheeks. Not some PC gender awareness interrogation. White Nissan. I didn’t get the plate number. Vanity plates, but no, I didn’t see it completely. There’s a heart.”

Passersby formed a circle around the body, each person hoping that what they saw on the street between head and helmet was not brains, but it was brains. Peter returned to our table, clearly shaken. “My god,” he said. “Is it so difficult to look out your car window and see a cyclist about to make a LEGAL turn? Did you get the plate number?”

I shook my head. “Vanity plates. A heart. That’s all I saw.”
Sirens screamed all around. The ambulance finally arrived. EMTs pushed the circle of protectors away from the body and lifted it onto a stretcher. Some of the spectators were so shaken they had to be helped back to the sidewalk, safe from the random horror show of life. The ambulance pulled away, no sirens, no lights. Death was no one’s emergency. Fire fighters attached a hose to the hydrant and blasted the brains down the storm drain below the painted a blue dolphin and the words “We live downstream.”

“That’s what you don’t understand,” Mark said, sighing, looking at his hand. “Any minute, any day, any time that could be me or you with our brains splattered on 6th and University, circled by strangers, and some old fag calling 911.”

“It’s not nice to call people fags, Mark.”

“OK look, honey. I was making a point. That guy’s dead. He got up this morning, god knows what happened between here and then — maybe he had a fight with his girlfriend, too, or given the neighborhood…”

“There you go again, gay-bashing.”

“I’m NOT fucking gay-bashing. Why do you keep changing the subject? Wait, I get it. You can’t handle the truth. That’s it.”  Mark — the young man — turned around to us and said, “You guys are gay, right? You’re a couple, right?”

“Yes,” said Peter. “Going on — what? Thirty-five years.”

“There, Jessica. They are fags.”

“That’s right, sweetie,” I called out over Peter’s now bald head. “We’re fags.” I looked at Peter. God he’d been a beautiful young man, this great love of my life.

When the police came by asking questions, the young man — Mark — showed his hand.

“This is the license plate.”

“Seriously? Do Me <3?”

“Yeah.”

“What was the make and model of the car?”

“Nissan. Sentra. Maybe two years old. White.”

“Anything else you remember?”

As the police talked to her boyfriend, the events seemed to finally register in Jessica’s self-absorbed little brain and she began to cry. Mark reached for her hand, leaned forward and whispered in her ear. They stood and prepared to go.

“Sorry for bashing on you guys,” said Mark. “She can be hard to talk to sometimes.” He shook our hands.
pants1
“No worries,” said Peter.

As they walked away I wondered how this smart young guy could take that girl seriously. She was wearing sweatpants with the word “Juicy” silk-screened in glitter across her ass. Peter and I sat together for a few more hours then decided it was time to go to Whole Foods. Peter helped me up from my chair.

“C’mon, cowboy,” he said.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/gonzo-writing-challenge/

I Live through a Big Earthquake, Part One

“Mrs. Beall? Mrs. Beall?”

A man stood at the back door with a flashlight.

“Mr. Faye. What is it?”

“An earthquake. You probably felt it.”

“My Lord! That’s what that was!” The old woman wrapped her arm more tightly around the little boy beside her. “I’m sorry, Kirk. I shouldn’t have swatted you like that.”

The little boy was too sleepy to care. He stood with his thumb in his mouth looking up at Mr. Faye.

“Gramma?”

“Hush now. Mr. Faye is talking to me.”

“We know your kids are up at The Park. Do you know where?”

“Not rightly, no.”

“Do you think they were — are — camping at Hebgen Lake?”

“No, not usually. They like Fishing Bridge.”

“Good.”

The old woman now clung to the little boy as if he were a life preserver in a tossing sea.

“Gramma!”

“What happened, Mr. Faye?”

“The earthquake was centered in Yellowstone. They don’t yet know much about it, only where it hit.”

“My Lord,” she said.

“Do you want me to stay here with you, Mrs. Beall? Until you hear from the kids?”

The old woman held the little boy even closer.

“I’ll be fine, Mr. Faye. Thank you kindly for coming to tell me.”

“Call me when you hear from them?”

“I will, sir, I will.”

“All right, Mrs. Beall.”

Mr. Faye walked back out into the August night.

http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/states/events/1959_08_18.php 

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

I Live through a Big Earthquake, Part Two

cont.

Grandma's houseI sat up in bed. My little cousin was sound asleep next to me. Listening to Mr. Faye and my grandmother,  I understood why, in the night, I’d dreamed of being on a pirate ship swinging back and forth atop the waves. The bed was on casters. It had been rolling! This was all really too exciting — and scary. Two of the people I loved most in the world were somewhere in Yellowstone Park, maybe dead in the earthquake. I’d had a crush on my Uncle Hank as long as I could remember (not long as I was only seven) and my Aunt Martha was my best friend. What if they were dead? What would happen then? I didn’t go back to sleep, but I didn’t get up, either. I didn’t know what to do. I liked being up in the early morning with my grandmother, but somehow I didn’t think she’d appreciate my company just then.

She sent my brother back to bed and sat down at the kitchen table in the dark. I heard her fingers tapping on the table; I heard “On a hill faraway, stood an Old Rugged Cross…”

Light began to to show through the north window of the kitchen behind the African violets. The phone rang.

“Thank the Lord.” I knew it was my Aunt Jo. “I’ll believe that when I see you, Jo. Hank’s all right? Martha? The boys are all right? You’re in Livingston? Cooke City? I wish you wouldn’t come that way, that road. Uh-huh, no no, don’t waste your money. Just come home.” She hung up.

“They’ll be wanting coffee,” said my Grandma to herself, to the kitchen walls, the wild assortment of kitchen chairs all painted white, to the cupboards, to the little girl who was not asleep. I heard her puttering around.

It wasn’t long before the phone rang again.  “Hello? Good, good, now just come home. I’ll have breakfast for you.” Grandma came in our room. “Girls, wake up. I’m cooking breakfast. Jo and them are in Red Lodge. They’re coming back from the Park. We had an earthquake in the night, did you feel it?”

“I did,” I said. “Lee slept through it.”

“You didn’t feel anything, Lee?”

“No.” Younger, even than my brother, what would she have felt?

“Poor Kirk. I’d better go wake him. I thought he was kicking me all night. You two get dressed. Lee can you get dressed by yourself? My Lord, the bed is on the wrong side of the room.”

“I’ll help her, Grandma.”

“I can do it!” said Lee, defiant, independent, four years old.

Grandma came back with my little brother.

“Why’d you keep hitting me, Grandma?”

“I thought you were kicking me. C’mon you kids now get your breakfast before Jo and them get here.”

We sat down with our Trix and milk and Grandma cooked bacon for my aunts and uncle and cousins. We heard their car drive up — two cars. A 1957 Chevy, gray and pink, and my Aunt Martha’s green Oldsmobile.

“Thank the Lord,” said my Grandma, lifting her apron to wipe her eyes.

They came in, clearly very tired. They’d all been up all night.

“Oh Jo, Martha, boys,” my little grandmother held out her arms to all of them. If she could touch them, she’d know for sure they were in her kitchen. “Breakfast is about ready.”

“Morning, Mrs. Beall,” said my Uncle Hank, tipping his hat. My uncle was soft-spoken, extremely courteous; to him she was always Mrs. Beall though he lived next door to her, married her daughter and took care of her house.

They all sat around the table. We “little ‘uns” were against the wall. Lee was in the high chair for no reason other than there was no where else for her to sit.

“Jo thought it was a bear,” said my Uncle Hank. “She sent me out of the tent with a couple of pans to scare it away.”

“Imagine that,” laughed my grandmother. “You had Hank scaring away an earthquake with pans!”

“I didn’t know, Mom.”

“They said on the radio that many people have died, over in West Yellowstone area. We were lucky, so lucky,” said my Aunt Martha.

Grandma put a plate of bacon on the table, and eggs fried as only she could fry them — in an iron skillet, in bacon grease, so they had warm soft yolks and crinkly edges and plenty of pepper. They all helped themselves, dipping toast into the yolks.

“Sit down, Mrs. Beall,” said my Uncle Hank.

“Mother, please. Sit down. You’ve had a long night,” said my Aunt Martha.

“I must call Mr. Faye and tell him you’re fine.”

“He can see our cars, Mom. Sit down.”

Grandma wiped her hands on her apron and sat down next to me. Under the table, she grabbed my hand and held it very tightly. She’d been scared, too. Many families were not as lucky as ours, but for now, we were all safe and sound. The sun shone brightly, as it should in August, and we would pick plums later.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

A Meandering Look at My Ideal of Education/Weekly Prompt

One of my dreams in my youth was to have my own school. The “model” student for the school was my brilliant but disruptive little brother. I never stopped thinking of this school and sometimes hold my own classes up against the measure of this ideal to see if I’m “doing it right.” Right, for me, means setting difficult tasks and working WITH the students to completion.

frizzleMiss Frizzle had a perfect school and so did the young people in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre. In both these examples, it’s clear that perfect school is already here. An old Chinese woman I met once called Earth a “…museum of human history and culture.” We live on it every day and when those days end? Many of us opt to be planted inside it. Earth.

All the tools for apprehending this mysterious school are now taught systematically, which is possibly good, but they are taught as if they were an end to themselves. Bad. In real life, these skills help us live in a meaningful way, to understand the content and context of our world and our lives and to accomplish something. The basic premises behind my notion of an ideal school are:

  • Students LIKE to learn and appreciate a challenge
  • Students are eager to get out in the world and practice what they’ve learned
  • We keep kids in school too long; our educational system draws things out, making school an end in itself.
  • Most students are not prepared enough by life to take full advantage of higher education.
  • Higher education should be an option rather than a requirement for career success.

Students at my school would move quickly through the basic skills as did kids in my grandfather’s time (he was born in 1870). They had a few months to go to school and that only for a few years. Time was of the essence for those kids. My grandfather’s third grade arithmetic books teaches how to estimate the height of  hay stack using triangulation.

My perfect school would be a residence school on the rural outskirts of  a city; it would be a working farm. There would be a few day students. Tuition and fees for resident students would be covered partly through student labor on the farm. Day students would be expected to arrive early enough to help with morning chores. Students would learn the imperatives of nature in this way, that milking a cow or harvesting apples can’t be done at one’s discretion but when it is needed. This would help them to learn self-discipline and to care for things outside themselves. Students would learn life-skills such as cooking, cleaning, and personal finance.

The question of “keeping it relevant” would be a non-issue in my school. In our days of rapid technological change, nothing stays relevant long except those things which are timeless: the ability to think clearly and apply the tools provided by logic; the willingness to make mistakes from which to learn; the ability to express ourselves clearly to other people combined with the willingness to listen. Math, music, art, natural science, history and language would be the curriculum, but not in compartmentalized disciplines but as they exist in the real world — part and parcel of life. Students would learn to question and not to be satisfied with easy answers. They would learn that the truth is not a matter of belief or even of their own direct apprehension, but might be something yet to be discovered. They would also learn that they are part of the search for truth and would happily take their part in this grand quest.

Since Earth is the school, languages would be an important part of the curriculum. Grammar would be taught in the native language so that the joy of new languages wouldn’t be compromised. Students would start learning language immediately, directly, through poetry and story and computer games.

Because there are skills that need to be drilled to perfection to be useful, students would play computer games. The computer never gets tired of student mistakes or frustrated. Since, for some odd reason, we seem to like staring at screens, the study of languages and arithmetic would take advantage of this.

Along with farming and school, there would be sports — individual and team sports, and neither would be regarded more highly than the other. Along with the usual sports field (soccer and baseball) would be a climbing wall (real rocks in my ideal school!), BMX jumps, a skate park and a donut shaped swimming pool with a current as in a river. Kids would be encouraged just to PLAY, all the games of childhood, several times throughout the school and work day and all weekend (after chores). There would be forest nearby to allow aimless wandering, fort building, and all the great things the forest gives a kid. Periodically, Orienteering meets would be organized for students to perfect their direction finding skills and for healthy competition.

My ideal school would have a private airplane and pilot so if we are studying the history of Rome we can fly to Rome and visit all the Roman sites; if we are studying Stonehenge, we can go at the solstice to observe for ourselves what we read about. We would also have a bus with which to travel America, camping along the way wherever possible. No historical moment would be too obscure for our curiosity. The world is the school, nature the teacher and mastery the goal.

From the mountains to the country
By the glens and hills along,
Comes a rustling and a tramping,
Comes a motion as of song:

Keep not standing, fixed and rooted,
Briskly venture, briskly roam:
Head and hand, where’er thou foot it,
And stout heart, are still at home.

In each land the sun does visit,
We are gay whate’er betide;
To give room for wand’ring is it
That the world was made so wide.

And this undetermined roving
Brings delight and brings good heed;
And thy striving, be it with Loving,
And thy living, be it with deed.
 (Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre)

By the time a student is eleven or twelve, he or she would have mastered the basic skills and his or her strengths and interests would be apparent. Students would be apprenticed to a master teacher whom they would follow. Boys at this age are particularly amenable to following a leader they respect. Students would also begin to study useful, marketable skills — including teaching, office work, systems networking, farming and animal husbandry. At fifteen, the student would graduate and go to work until they are twenty years old at which time, if they wish, they would take a university entrance exam or choose to pursue the career they began at age fifteen. Two years of “work” would be service work to the community.

That’s it. I would hope that some students would go on to form their own similar schools and some would choose to stay and teach in mine.