Something for Adults — SOLSC 11

Overheard on Adams Street, downtown Brooklyn, 5pm, mother and seven- or eight-year-old daughter:

Mother: “Well, it’s something that happens between a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.”

Daughter: “Or sometimes three people?”

M: “Oh, well … I hope not. So it’s something for adults.”

D: “But what is it?”

M: “Well, when two people really like each other a lot …”

And when Alex Trebek plays this dialogue for your Audio Daily Double, your answer should be: “What is, ‘Mommy, what’s sex?'”

Yes, I kind of love this mother. First because she was answering such a charged question while walking down a busy Brooklyn street, carrying a big pink backpack and a scooter. Second because she spoke really calmly, as if answering  that question was the easiest thing in the world. Third because she made a conscious choice to be pretty inclusive in her description of who might actually be engaging in the mysterious, adults-only sex. Sure, she falls down with that, “Oh, well … I hope not,” but I’m giving her a pass. I’m sure that caught her off guard.


It’s week two of the Slice of Life Story Challenge! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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We’re always rooting for you.

“I see a lot of black faces here.”

And the air sharpens to fine, crystalline points as every pair of ears on the bus perks up. The speaker, a small boy, white, maybe five years old, is riding with his mom. We are all on board my morning B65, en route from Crown Heights to Downtown Brooklyn.

At this point in its route, the B65 is definitely a Black World bus. This side of Crown Heights, despite rampant gentrification and displacement, is still predominantly black. There are plenty of newer, non-black residents, and many of them are parents with small children.

I can’t see the little boy or his mother from where I’m standing. We boarded together two stops ago, but they went immediately to seats at the back. I saw a neighbor up front and stopped to chat.

“I see a lot of white faces,” the little boy says. He has the high, clear, carrying voice of small children. I can hear him as if he is standing at my side, speaking directly to me. “A lot of white faces,” he says. “And a lot of black faces. Why?”

I can’t see the boy or his mother, and I wonder how she looks in this moment. Is she mortified, worried that the next words out of her baby’s mouth will be problematic, making some kind of value judgment that should (at worst) be kept to himself or (at best) not be thought at all?

In the tone of the child’s voice, there has been no indication that he feels any kind of way about what he’s seeing. He seems simply to be making an observation. The same as if he were looking at cars: I see a red car. I see a blue car. I see a lot of tan Camrys (or is that just me?).

The collective ear-perking, breath-holding on the bus is electric, palpable. Because all of us — Black riders and white — want to see where and how this goes. This is a moment, maybe, the kind of moment where a parent has the opportunity to settle something in her child’s mind, plant a small, sturdy seed.

But those of us not sitting near the mother are thwarted. In the way of many moms, she has the ability to speak clearly but quietly without whispering. I can hear that she is speaking but can’t actually hear what she says.

Whatever she says, the child’s response is inaudible. So, at the very least, her self-consciousness in the moment has made her hush him.

But I want her to know that we’re probably all rooting for her. We want to hear what she says and we want her to get it right. And, even though we want her to get it right, mostly we want to know that white parents can and will answer those questions, that they will try to plant those seeds. We want to know that neither fear of erring nor the false belief that a) some age of child is too young for this talk or b) this isn’t a conversation they as white people are able to have will keep them silent, make them hush their children.

How do you have this conversation? What do you say to your child that doesn’t silence her, that doesn’t make him feel as if he’s done something wrong, that leaves the door open for more conversation? Surely it’s easier to have this conversation at home, and that may be the reason the mom asked her son to speak quietly. But if you shush your child on the bus then try to bring up the subject when you’re on safer ground, the moment is lost. You’re no longer surrounded by all the black and white faces and the immediacy, the curiosity, is gone.

I keep saying that I’m no longer going to do white people’s homework for them, and that’s true, that’s entirely true. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see and hear how well they’re doing that homework. Seeing and hearing how people respond in awkward moments like this morning’s bus ride is one way that happens.

I hope I see that woman and her son on the bus again soon. I hope her son forgets to speak quietly and has more to say about the people he sees. What he says, whatever it is, might tell me how the mother answered this morning’s question, how she explained that there are light and dark faces on the bus.

When I went to see Selma, many of the people in the theater were parents and kids. And the kids were young: most were probably eight or nine. The daughter of the mother and daughter who sat beside me was maybe as young as seven. At first, I was surprised to see so many young ones, but it pleased me, too. How the parents taught their way through the movie pleased me even more. Throughout the film, they leaned over and shared history, context, meaning. They drew attention to specific people and actions. They asked their children to share their feelings and thoughts and ideas. They did this calmly and with care and in ways that didn’t disturb my viewing of the film. They stayed in their seats after the movie ended to keep talking, keep teaching.

This is one way white people can do their homework, can help their children start doing theirs.

No age is too young for this conversation. The first times I encountered racial prejudice, I was five years old. The people who created those encounters were also five years old.* Those children had clearly already heard a whole other conversation. Moms like the mom on the B65 this morning, like all other moms and dads need to figure this out. Yes, it’s awkward. Yes, you worry about making a mistake. Yes, of course. And maybe you think it’s better to teach your child the myth of colorblindness.** Don’t do it. Telling your child color doesn’t matter, that they shouldn’t see color is a disservice not only to your child, but to all of us.

This isn’t easy. None of it’s easy. Not for you, not for anyone. But really, you can do this. And, just like on the bus this morning, we are all rooting for you.

It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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* I’ve written about those happy memories and then turned that story into an episode of my comic.

** Seriously. Colorblindness is a lie. If it’s a lie you’re telling yourself, you need to stop. No, seriously.

Looking in the Mirror at the Missing Girls of Chibok

Still thinking about Chibok, still thinking about those girls.  Today, I tried again to articulate my thoughts.

This isn’t an article about what we can do — or what someone should do — to bring those girls back home.  This is an article about education, about the fear of educated women, about the risks all of us take every time we dare to learn something new, to use education to change our situations.  The girls of Chibok were kidnapped because they went to school.

When I first became an adult literacy teacher, I had a student who was a confident, funny, intelligent member of the class.  She was an absolute beginning reader and was making gradual progress.

One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.  Her greeting and hesitant smile were nothing like the bright, wide smile we saw in class each night.

Instead of a greeting, he tossed her The New York Times, asked her to read to him.  When she told him she couldn’t, he asked why she bothered with school if she couldn’t read, told her she was lucky she had him to take care of her, that she’d be helpless otherwise.

I’ve thought about her so many times since that night, and thought of her as my initial horror and sadness over the abductions in Nigeria churned into anger.  What was that man so afraid of?  How could it have been so terrifying to him that his girlfriend was learning to read?  I know an answer to this question.  He imagined that an education would help her see just how much she didn’t need him.  But while he had every right to be afraid, he had no right to use his fear as a weapon to smash her curiosity, her cleverness, her smile.

In the years after that class, I saw many women for whom attending school was a dangerous decision.  A student in one program withdrew from classes when her boyfriend reported her for child neglect because she left her daughters with their grandmother to attend classes three nights a week.  A GED student missed every test she was scheduled for because as each test date approached, her husband would beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house.  Another student’s partner destroyed her birth control each time she enrolled in school so that she would get pregnant and need to leave school before taking the test.

We aren’t the missing girls of Chibok.  We aren’t.  We have experienced trauma and abuse, but we aren’t those girls … except that we are, too.  I think about past students as my heart aches for those girls and their families because people around me keep saying they can’t imagine a culture in which girls would be punished, would be terrorized for wanting an education.

No?  Look outside.  Look in the mirror.  We are that culture.  And we, as women learners, teachers, researchers, advocates, and allies are fighting back against that culture.

And so are the girls in Chibok, and Warabe, and other Nigerian villages under the shadow of Boko Haram.  They are going to school.  Now.  Still.  They are asserting their right to learn, their right to determine who they’ll be in the world.


I use the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag.  It’s one painfully small way to remind people that those girls are still missing, that many may already have been sold into slavery.  I can’t go to Nigeria and rescue them, but I can work here at home to change attitudes and dismantle systems that harm women.  I can continue to support WE LEARN and education for women as vehicles for equity and change, for putting power in women’s hands.


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Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

Learning What We Think We Already Know

One of my favorite things from Saturday’s time spent at the Industry City Open Studio event? Getting to stand in the Colson Pastries window watching the very skilled baker make croissants. I was there with Mopsy, and we were both just a little bit mesmerized by the process. One highlight moment for me was the step after the cutting of the dough but before the rolling of the crescents. The baker took each piece of the dough he’d just carefully (but so quickly) and cleanly cut and tossed it on a scale. The idea that every croissant would be the same weight (ish) pleased me enormously. Quality control in action!  Even more impressive was that only two of the many, many pieces of dough he threw on the scale didn’t pass muster.  Amazing.

The rolling of the crescents was more elaborate than I’d expected, too.  Each piece of dough was an almost-isosceles triangle — but where there should have been a point at the top with the two equal sides meeting, it was flat instead, as if the point had been cut off (it hadn’t, the not-quite-triangles never had pointy tops to begin with).  The baker took hold of that not-pointed end and stretched it out in front of him before beginning to roll up the crescent from the base to that stretched end.  Then he looped the ends of the rolled down around the join in the front, making a closed crescent.

I love getting to see how things work, particularly when they are things I think I already know about.  And maybe that’s a nice move from random information to tonight’s poem.

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “realism” poem or a “magical” poem.  Or, of course, a really magical poem.  Or even a magically real poem.  Or,yes, a magical realism poem.  Right.  Perhaps I would be better off being realistic about how tired I am, how close to midnight it is, and how unlikely it is that anything like any of those possibilities will be happening. No. Instead I’m thinking about teaching, about a thousand years ago when I taught high school and gave Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” to my students for the first time. Feeling their brains, their hearts, their whole beings expand and contract as they worked to come to terms with the printed pages in front of them. That might have been one of my first “Whoa” moments as a teacher. (And another would come not long after when I gave them Octavio Paz’s “My Life with the Wave.”)  Marquez and Paz were firsts for my students, forcing them struggle with the realization that things they thought they already knew — this is how a story works, this is what an angel is, this is what love looks like — might actually work some other way all together.  The work they had to do was far more dramatic and difficult than my experience observing the Colson baker, but I like that I found a weird little connection between that and this.


they read
him, students
took his stories,
shook them hard, rattling
the real, known.
Not everyone
reached the far side.  Some
stayed angry.
Those who came through
flung wide all their doors.

I’m doing it again — ending before the real end has come. But I’m giving myself a pass because I’m that tired. And because this almost works. I told myself the other day that I’d come back to some of this month’s aruns and write them until they were really finished. We’ll see if I do. That could be interesting. I don’t usually come back after April passes.


Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer.  “Support” can be as simple and cost-free as sending the Indiegogo link out to your friends and telling them why they might want to help me get to VONA.  Any and all help is appreciated.  To date, I’ve received just over half my goal amount! I am encouraged and humbled by everyone’s generosity.  Thank you all!

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It’s Slice of Life Tuesday!
See all of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers!


An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

A Willow Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I saw them again! The lovely mother and daughter from my Cat in the Hat post the other day! We were on the bus again, heading downtown. This time, the mom was doing the reading.  Her daughter was curled up against her, listening intently.  Mom was reading The Wind in the Willows. Put a smile on my face that she had chosen a classic.

The bigger smile on my face came from watching and listening to the way the mom read the story — thinking out loud after she read certain lines so that her daughter could see the way she thought about what she was reading, pausing and asking her daughter to predict what might happen next, etc.  I love how invested the mom clearly is in her daughter’s literacy, how patiently she waited for her daughter’s answers and talked through them with her, how cute they looked snuggled up together on the bus seat, deep in their story, deep in that book.

They made my morning.  And I wonder what I’ll get to hear them read next time!


Check out all of the slices on Two Writing Teachers!

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My new hat is fabulous.

This year, on top of the many hats I already wear (daughter, sister, aunt, friend, writer, grant writer, teacher, program manager, comics maker, Jamaica-phile, new knee poster child …), I have been gifted a magnificent new hat: Mentor.  I have signed up with Girls Write Now to be a writing mentor.  That means I meet once a week with a high school student — to write, to talk, to laugh a lot …  We also have a series of genre workshops with the rest of the pairs in our cohort.  Next week, she and I will read together at the first of the big GWN readings, and then we’ll work on what pieces we want to submit for the book GWN will publish at the end of the year!

I’ve never mentored anyone, at least not in any formal fashion. The extremely well-organized and competent women at GWN put me at my ease right away, however.  Their mentor orientation and support system is strong, as is their system for connecting mentors to mentees.  I was pretty amazed that they managed to pair me with the exact young woman I wanted to work with despite the fact that I couldn’t remember her name after our whirlwind speed-dating-style meet and greet at the start of the school year.

I hope my mentee — let’s call her Naima — is getting a lot out of our work together.  I think it’s true, and she certainly says it’s true … but I really hope it’s so because I often feel completely guilty about just how much I am getting from our work together! This is a new aspect of my writing life, and I’m enjoying myself like crazy. Naima is delightful. She’s smart and funny and seems somewhat shockingly together for such a young person. Working with her is just plain fun. She makes me think differently about writing, makes me think about writing even more than I usually do.  She also just makes me think. Always a gift.

Being Naima’s mentor is more than just writing with her, though we do quite a bit of writing. It’s all of our conversations, all the discoveries of her various clevernesses.  It’s getting to know her family and talking to her about mine. I’m no sensei and she’s no grasshopper … or maybe we’re both senseis, both grasshoppers.  And maybe that’s why this is such an interesting and enjoyable experience for me.  She’s a sophomore, so I get to work with her for a couple more years before she breaks my heart by growing up and I start working with a new mentee.  It’s going to be so much fun to see the ways her writing develops over time, to see the ways we influence one another’s work!


See all of today’s slices over at Two Writing Teachers!

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600 Words or Less (SOLSC 20)

Still thinking about my sight-word stories …

I didn’t choose words randomly.  I pulled from the 1,000 most commonly used words, a list very nicely compiled for me by the 100-word set in The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists.  These are the “instant word” lists that were created by Dr. Edward Fry.  The lists are interesting because they’re presented in frequency order.  Here’s how that breaks down for the first hundred words:

 Words 1-25 Words 26-50 Words 51-75 Words 76-100
the or will number
of one up no
and had other way
a by about could
to word out people
in but many my
is not then than
you what them first
that all these water
it were so been
he we some call
was when her who
for your would oil
on can make its
are said like now
as there him find
with use into long
his an time down
they each has day
I which look did
at she two get
be do more come
this how write made
have their go may
from if see part

Notice anything?

I’m glad enough that “you” comes first of the pronouns … but then I’m much less glad to see that “he,” “his,” and “they” come before “I” … and that all of them come LONG before “she,” which can’t even make an appearance before “we” and “your.”  And as you move on in the lists, there are more curiosities: “man,” “boy,” and “men” show up in the second hundred, followed up at the tail end of the set by “mother” … “father” makes his appearance at the start of the third hundred, but “girl” doesn’t come into play until almost the end of that set.  “Woman” doesn’t show until you’re past 600 words.  So many thoughts.

I ordered the list alphabetically when I started writing the stories.  That way I could avoid pesky questions about sexism and patriarchy find words more easily. Still, those 100-word stories weren’t easy to write.  I said yesterday that I liked them because my students could read them without struggling and, therefore, read for meaning.  But the truth is, there wasn’t much meaning in the stories.  100 words leaves you with more mystery than meaning.  Here are my two favorite examples of that:

Looking at the Water

There she is.  I see her each day at this time, and I have been seeing her for a long time.  She likes to look at the water.  Each day she comes down and has a long look at the water.  Some days when she comes, there are other people down by the water.  She does not look at them.  All she looks at is the water.  

Some days she writes about what she sees.  Other days, she looks and looks for a long time and then goes on her way.  What does she do all day?

I would like to see what she sees when she is looking out at the water, but I have not said a word to her.  I would like to see what it is that she writes on those days when she writes.  What could she be writing?  Is she a writer?  Does she want to be a writer?  I would like to find out, but how would I go about finding out?  If I call out to her, what will she do?

Who is she, and what does she do when she is not looking out at the water?


How Could She?

Look at her.  How could she have been with him?  This is not the first time she was with him.  She was with him for a long time.  Now I will have no part of her.  I have her number, but I will not call her.  I will not see her.  Each day I go out and look up and down to see who is there.  I see many people but not her.  She is with him.  Day in and day out, she is with him.  I would have had a word with her, but she could not find time for me.  So now I do not have time for her.  If she did not like me, she could have said so.  What can I make of this?  Many a time she has come to me and I have been there for her, and now this.  I will not be there for her one more time.  How can I?  Who would be?  Not now.  Not this time.  He can be there for her now.  She has him, and now I will find someone other than her.

So yeah, not exactly winning any prizes, but so, so, so readable.  “How Could She?” was a solid crowd pleaser.  It never failed to generate all kinds of discussion in class and get students writing all the backstory and imagining what happens next.  And that’s the thing I loved about the 100-word stories.  There are so few words, so few things you can say, everything you write is full of holes, pulling the readers in to create a story to fill up the nearly-empty frame you’ve hung.

The empty frame is the magic of these stories.  I tried out various lists to see what I could and couldn’t do with each.  The 150- and 200-word lists got tossed early because there were just more words I wanted to include (such as “girl”) that I wouldn’t get until I jumped up to 300 words.  That list created so many more story options but still left so many holes.  I wrote most of my stories with that list.

Probably the most popular story after “How Could She?” was “My Husband, the ‘King’,” which I wrote with the 400-word list.  Four hundred words was right on the edge.  You can fill in a significant number of holes using that list.  Jumping up to 600 words meant closing pretty much all of the holes.  The stories from the 600-word list are much longer because, with 600 words, you can say almost everything you might ever want to say.  (Sort of.  You can’t get crazy with your vocabulary — “crazy” in that you might want to say a word such as “deliquesce” … or something even more outlandish such as “woman” — but you can really say a LOT.)  Those stories were good for students to take home to read on their own.  The word list was still basic enough that people didn’t struggle to make meaning, and the stories were long, so people could spend some time with each … they could read for pleasure, something they hadn’t done much if at all.

My original goal for writing the stories was to create reading material that was clearly for grown ups.  And the stories were about all kinds of adult themes: managing your money, raising children, learning your family history, immigration, domestic violence …

I haven’t written one in a long time, but thinking about them all day today is making me want to jump in again.  I got an email from my mom today (after she read yesterday’s post) saying she’s thinking of doing some literacy tutoring at her church, so creating some new stories for her could be a fun project to take on while I’m home recuperating this spring.  Time to dust off my lists!

my husband the king(Cover from the original chapbook story.)


See the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.