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Category Archives: Read’in and Writ’in

To Teach is to Learn

An interesting thing happened at my journaling class today. For all that I like to think of myself as a giving, committed teacher, sometimes my attitude does not match my good intentions. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I get lazy.

I was not in the mood to teach. The weather was glorious outside so I knew attendance would be low, and frankly, I was not much in the mood to work. I hadn’t prepared any specific exercises for the class, so I’d have to wing it. I hate that. It’s no fun to teach when you’re off your game. Two regulars came in and offered to take the meditation class if no one else showed up for journaling, so I sat in the front lobby watching the door, hoping no one else would arrive so I could cut out and head for the beach with my daughter . A few moments later, in walks this woman with a journal in hand. I muttered, “Shit” under my breath. Guess there was no getting out of teaching today.

I set up the tables and a few chairs and pulled out my journaling class notes. I made myself a cup of tea and all but dragged myself into the room. I sincerely love to teach writing, but on this particular afternoon, I felt as if I was giving up precious time with little hope of it being worth the effort considering the small turnout. I forced a smile and glanced at my notes thinking it didn’t really matter what I focused on today. Everyone there was a beginner and I just had to go through the motion of teaching journaling and get it over with.

The students gathered and exchanged some small talk about the journaling they had done since last we met and I gave them a simple exercise – to write a letter to a part of their body. I’ve done this in journaling classes before and some fun things can bubble to the surface. Once, a woman wrote a letter to the roll of fat around her mid-section, telling her belly that it was time they parted acquaintance for good because, with a friend like that who needed enemies. It was a silly, but fun essay, and one that made the entire class chuckle. Remembering that, I thought a body letter would be a nice place to start warming up this group’s writing on such a slow, lazy day.

For 15 minutes everyone scratched on their pads, deep in concentration. I wrote a little something about my feet thinking that with so few writers in the room, I might need to share something to keep the conversation lively. (I usually try to keep my writing classes focused on the student’s work alone so it doesn’t become the “Ginny’s show”.) When everyone’s writing wound down, I asked if anyone wanted to share what they had worked on so we could discuss connections and see if the writing led you anything resembling a personal discovery.

One woman had written about her thighs. She shared a cute and thoughtful essay about how, despite workouts and dieting, her thighs had an agenda of their own and they kept spreading, taking on the look of cottage cheese the older she got. But then her passage shifted and she started talking about how she felt badly about having imperfect thighs, and before you knew it, the piece had changed dramatically, turning into a poignant reflection on how society and the media made her constantly feel inadequate. I couldn’t have asked for a better example of how journaling can lead us to explore our inner world and personal issues as the power of privacy and space for self-honesty takes effect, so I was delighted.

I asked if anyone else wanted to share what they had written and that woman, the one who was responsible for my having to teach today, offered to read a bit of what she had put on paper. I leaned on my elbow and urged her to read, expecting something light or silly sine that seemed to be the tone of the day.

She had written about her hair. What no one in the room realized is that the lovely hair we assumed was hers was actually a wig. The woman has breast cancer and is in treatment and she has lost most of her real hair. So, she began sharing this conversation she had written between her and her hair, talking about how she misses her hair, but had come to accept it would soon all be gone. Meanwhile, clumps of it is apparently still hanging on and she wonders why, wonders if it is her hair clinging to her, or she is clinging to her hair. She wrote about how petty it seems to worry about hair when your life is at stake, and yet, the transition felt symbolic, as if not just her head was exposed now, but her identity, leaving her naked and vulnerable and open to more hurt than she feels she can bare.

Her words were honest and pure and everyone in the room was touched. Especially me. I thanked her for sharing. She had tears in her eyes when she said, “No, thank you for having this class. You have no idea how badly I need this. Some days I don’t know how I’ll cope, but I believe journaling will help. The minute I read in Natural Awakenings that you were offering this class, I knew it was exactly what I needed.”

I sat there feeling deep chagrin, thinking how close I came to canceling the class and how I wanted to urge the woman to take meditation instead. This shy woman would never have said anything, and I’d be at the beach, glad I didn’t waste my time teaching writing that afternoon when the weather was so lovely. Meanwhile, that woman would have gone home feeling as badly as she felt when she dared cross the threshold. She had come to me for help dealing with her inner quandary and I almost turned her away because I was not in the mood. I never imagined my choice to teach or not would really impact someone else. But it did.  

It struck me that we all go through life saying and doing things that leave small or large impressions on others, and we really have no clue of the wake we leave behind us. As such, our intentions are important, just as our commitment to do what we set out to do. Our work shouldn’t have parameters depending upon” how many we serve” or “how much we make” to validate our efforts.

I thought I needed to lighten the mood of the room, so I chose another exercise that is often fun for students. “If you bed would talk, what would it say about you? Write.”

Cute and creative work came out of everyone, commentary about wrestles nights, active bed springs, and bodies that keep growing a bit heavier or lumpy over the years.

But my new student had more to reveal. She wrote in the bed’s voice about how it (the bed) missed being the place where she formerly visited for steamy nights of romance and passion and easy nights watching TV with the family. Now the bed said she crawled into the covers to sob or lay sick and depressed, and that she spent way too much time there, exhausted, spent and hopeless. The bed was looking forward to the day when his mistress could get through an entire afternoon without visiting and dreamed that someday, it would again become a place where love and life was celebrated rather than sickness and sadness.

It was powerful stuff. The entire room fell silent. I sat there thinking how lucky I was to be a teacher today. I was witness to a student finding her voice and exercising it, and that discovery had nothing to do with the number of students in the room or my assignments being preplanned, or anything else that I normally associate with a “successful” class.    

Everyone has a story to tell. When you teach journaling, it is like mining those stories from deep in the gut and helping people learn how to unleash the essence of those stories on paper so our choices and experiences don’t fester and make painful grooves on the  heart and mind that debilitate us or keep us from feeling whole. Whether the process affects a roomful of people or only one individual doesn’t make a difference. What counts is sharing the tools of reflection and self-discovery with others. That is I put a journaling class on the schedule and chose to give up my Sunday afternoons.

Today, I was reminded of why I made that decision. My work is important, but only if I treat it as such and only when I come to the table committed and open to possibilities, without judgment or attitude or huge expectations of the results I’ll get for my efforts.  

A simple lesson taught.

A much more important lesson learned.              

My affair with books

I tend to gravitate towards books as my way of gaining insight into life as it unfolds around me. For me, reading a book is like talking to a wise friend, only you can’t steer the conversation by asking questions or dropping an information bomb here or there that demands addressing. Well, actually, you can talk back. I’ve been known to hold some pretty heated arguments with the authors of books I’m reading, but since its always a one way conversation, my mumbling is more like scratching an itch spontaneously than communicating that perhaps I’m getting a rash because the other party is irritating me so. 

 You can always see what I’m reading by glancing at my bedside table or by checking out the stack of books on the slate shelf that surrounds our tub. I read in the tub almost daily because it kills multiple birds with one stone. I am always sore from teaching dance and/or yoga and hot baths keep me functional. I always want some private time to myself, and hot baths are the one place where people usually leave me alone. And I always have a bulk of reading material I’m trying to work through, and there is not much else to distract me in a hot bath, like a phone, TV, computer, housework, etc…I suppose it is possible to set up a bathroom with access to all of the above, but I’m not the sort to go for that. I prefer an old fashion bathroom with only a candle, bath oil, and a good reading light for ambiance.   

 Today, my side table has three books on it, all of them half read.  You can tell what is going on in my life and/or mind by paying attention to what I’m reading.

 The first is “The Inner Peace of Tao”. It’s a classic about spiritual connectedness and simplicity in the Chinese tradition of the I-ching. Sort of a down to earth explanation of an ancient philosophy that is at the root of eastern thought. I became interested when I started thinking about adding Tai Chi to the studio classes and decided to learn more about that art form. That interest lead to a couple of Tai Chi books, which lead to wondering about the energy pathways, which lead to this book.  It’s interesting if not a bit dry. 

What is even more interesting to me is that I am 50 years old and only now reading this, because in my early 20’s when I lived in New York, I dated a very handsome actor and, as things heated up between us, he gave me a copy of the I-ching explaining I had to read it to understand how he viewed the world. He was very adamant that the book would rock my world, and he believed once we were on the same mental page, we would be in love forever. I labored through that book barely understanding what it was all about, and frankly, I thought the guy a bit of a kook and we broke up soon afterwards. But I still have that book on my shelf, and every time I clean out old books I run across it and I remember that guy and something tells me to keep the book. And now, some 30 years later, I’m learning what he was trying to share with me way back when. Why now, why me??? Humm …….. perhaps it’s just time.

 Funny, for all I know, that actor has long since passed through his I-ching phase and might be some white-collar crime boss living life with a very different, harsh attitude now. And here I am, embracing the lessons in his book with deep appreciation. Life is like that – it leaves an impact on us that creates paradoxical change, for better or worse. But what’s most interesting to me is that we all seem to be lead to what we need when we need it to provoke growth or change. Anyway, I’m thinking it is time to read that darn book again  – and I mean to read it the way a book is supposed to be read – with an open mind. But it will have to wait its turn and the line ahead is rather long right now, so it may just sit for another 35 years on my shelves. Thank goodness books don’t have an expiration date!

 The second book is the “History of the Snowman.” This is a thematic book, of course, and chosen just because when I saw it on the shelf at Barnes N Nobel I couldn’t resist. I love history, love eclectic, interesting facts about the world, and love snow. My son was snowman crazed for years and has a collection of some 300 stuffed snowmen (which now, at 18, he didn’t even bother to bring out of the attic for once) so I thought this book would give me some fun dinner conversation starters if nothing else. The concept was cool (no pun intended) for a holiday book and the author has a great sense of humor and has collected some pretty fun facts about how the snowman came into existence. Anyway, this kind of book is good for putting me in a positive holiday mood, so this season, it’s an important read.

 The third book is called “Women Who Love Sex.” Don’t snicker or raise your eyebrows. It’s an academic book . . . well, sort of.  The author, a famous sex therapist, interviewed hundreds of women to compile stories about women’s sexuality to theorize how normal it is for a woman to love sex. It is sort of a validation book for woman with a romantic or lusty nature, and it puts into perspective how society (and some individuals) contrives to make females feel badly about their inherent natures. The book explores how it’s OK for men to have a lusty nature – or not – , but when women do- or don’t- they are considered (insert insulting name of your choice for a woman who likes sex here . . . and there are so many, the author points out, from slut-puppy to frigid chick.) Anyway, I was lead to this book by way of other books as well. I started teaching journaling classes at FLEX, which lead me to reading Anais Nin’s famous journals (since she is considered the world’s most prominent journal writer). She is also famed as one of the worlds leading erotic writers, which I find fascinating considering she lived in the 1930’s when “good girls simply didn’t”.  But she sure did. I was so impressed with Anais Nin and her wild, bold lifestyle in face of the social stigma that was detrimental to her writing career (until much later) that the next thing you know I was thinking a lot about how (or if) the world has changed, and that made me think about my years involved in Romance writing groups and my own mixed feelings about writing stories centered on human sexuality – so much so that I went and got an fancy literary MFA all the while hiding my interest in romance writing with shame . . . and I put aside all my interests in writing anything based on relationships or physical love. But reading quality work by Anais Nin made me think that I was a fool to put my instincts aside or to assume that romance writing was “selling out”, and next thing you know I was wondering if I wasn’t more an Anais Nin type than I felt comfortable embracing (as a writer, not as a person) and I started wondering WHY I was uncomfortable with that side of myself as an artist and well . . .that meant mental conflict and that ALWAYS means it’s time for Ginny to reach for a book. It’s not like I have a person I can discuss these touchy philosophies and curiosities with. So, as has become my way, I am having my silent conversations with a book – and this week it happens to be called, Women Who Love Sex.” 

Needless to say, I keep this book under the ot
her two, not because I’m ashamed to read it (or anything) but because I don’t want to have to explain it to family members who might jump to conclusions about what my having a book by that title means. It’s funny. People passing judgment on a woman’s sexuality is what this book is all about, so my feeling compelled to keep the book out of sight speaks volumes about the book’s inherent truths.

 Moving on . . . Near my bath is a novel called, “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo.” I’m one chapter in, but can’t seem to get into the story.I’m plugging away however, because it was given to me by a yoga student and former book club friend and I so appreciate her passing it on that I’mdetermined to stick it out and read the darn thing so we can talk about it.  On my computer table is “Writing begins with the Breath”, and “The New Diary”, two books I just finished, but don’t feel ready to slip back into the shelves yet. I want to take some notes for future writing classes.  They were very wonderful books. 

I also have a book half read called “When Things Fall Apart, Heat Advice for Difficult Times.” Don’t ask.

 I also have about 4 books on their way to me from Amazon, thanks to a recent sleepless night. I’m guilty of cruising the Internet book place when restless. The books to come are all work related in a round about way. One or two is on massage, another on couples yoga (I’m hoping to create a special Valentines Day yoga class for couples). Another book is on yin yoga, and a poetic book with readings I wanted for yoga class called “An Offering of Leaves”. I already bought myself this book but Denver stole it the day it arrived and she announced she would never give it back because she likes it so much, so I figured it must be good. I might as well buy myself another copy.  

 Meanwhile I still have books stacked up in my “When I get the time I have to read” pile, and I’m happy to report very few of them are work related. I have novels, special interest books, history, and even some philosophy books that wait patiently for me, but who knows when or if I will ever give them the attention they deserve, considering I keep finding more to read.  Ah well . . . so many books, so little time….

 I thought when I retired from my dance business I’d spend a year straight reading and I’d probably get caught up. But that didn’t happen. I enrolled in an MFA and had more assigned reading than a person could manage and ended up falling even further behind on my wish reading list. And now, I’m working again – too busy to read as much as I want. But perhaps always having something in your must read pile is a way to keep you going, one more reason to wake up everyday and function, so I should be glad. The day I wake up and realize there is nothing I want to read or think about is the day I’ll worry. Nothing more dangerous than apathy.

 So, today I will go about my busy chores of cooking, feeding animals, and putting up our Christmas tree (late!) and whatnot, and every time I pass my nightstand I will sigh and wonder if perhaps later I might squeeze in some time to read . . . and I’ll wonder which book I’ll reach for, because that is always determined by my mood in the moment. I’ll walk on the treadmill and perhaps do a bit of yoga and use that as an excuse to take a bath. Then, I’ll sink back in the warm water with one of my smart paper friends to have one of those silent conversations that make life feel like a marketplace of information and theoretical arguments –  nothing as fun as good people gathering to exchange ideas and boldly lay their life insights on the table for you to pick over. I rather do it in person, of course, but when that is not possible, I’ll settle for a paper relationship.    

My Journaling Class

Tonight, I’ll teach the second class in my Journaling for
Deeper Awareness
session. It’s a small class (5) because I scheduled the lesson
rather late in the evening, midweek, and people around here don’t stay out past sundown. Next time, (January) I’m offering a Friday
5:30 after work class, which more people have expressed an interest in
attending. Meanwhile, I’m now working with several lovely writing students who dared sign up for this first attempt to add writing to my Yoga program. The people enrolled
are reflective and open to self-discovery, and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful for their participation. Last week
a few people couldn’t make the first class, so tonight I will play catch up as
the group finally hits it’s stride (or so I hope).  It is an absolute joy to finally be involved in writing as a
teacher, though I will admit I am somewhat conscientious due to this being a
new subject matter for me. I am normally so confident as a teacher, but
something about teaching and not moving makes this experience different.
Movement centers me and makes me feel strong. When I am sitting still and
depending on academic prowess, it feels like my every weakness is winding
around my leg like a boa constrictor and I have to be careful or I will trip at
every turn.   

 But I plow forward, learning as I go. I wasn’t sure where I
wanted to hold the class at first, because the Yoga loft is such an inviting
environment – thought provoking and quiet, and the tranquility in the air is
inspirational for writing in my opinion, but I ended up setting up a round
table in an open space in the lobby near the tea station where I put out fruit
and nuts for everyone to enjoy. It just seemed a more traditional set up for a
writing class, so I bought some comfortable chairs (rather than my metal
folding chairs) and tried to create a more conference type of set –up. After
one lesson, I’m still not sure this is the best way to go, so I might
experiment and invite the students upstairs on longue on the yoga blankets for
some discussion and sharing tonight. That is one thing about teaching a class
for the first time that I hate– you have to experiment and feel your way
through – the necessary trial and error is bound to make the class less ideal
than future sessions when you’ve had time to fine tune your systems for
communicating information. Ah well, we all must start somewhere.

 Last week, the group discussion centered on the value of
journal keeping, issues regarding privacy and writing honestly despite fear. We then addressed an overview of the broad spectrum of techniques available to
help a writer make sense of his or her life. I especially tried to emphasize
how important keeping a journal is, because while it may be a collection of
private meanderings, it still impacts the world. Keeping a journal changes the
way you perceive the world. It changes YOU and that means it impacts how you
react to others and make choices for yourself – thus it creates change. This is
the power of writing – it creates internal shifts that eventually leek out into
the external world. Yep, I totally believe in writing as a path to evolution.  

 Tonight we will begin with exercises to explore the seven
basic techniques used in journals to help develop self-awareness.  (Ha – If you want to know what they are,
you have to sign up for my class). Anyway, rather than get too preachy here,
I’ll just say I am having fun and getting a grip on the subject matter.

 The best thing about teaching is how it forces you to learn.
Organizing a class and teaching a subject that you feel passionate about brings
greater focus to the skill, forcing you to really consider and define what makes
an effective artist.  I became a
much better dancer after I became a teacher. I then became a much better
teacher once I became a school director. Each level requires a deeper look into
the basic elements that unearth talent and unleash potential. Hopefully, the
same kind of thing will be a result of my writing classes. Already I feel
myself becoming a much more organized and effective journal writer. I’ve been
aware of certain journaling techniques for some time, but I didn’t really have the discipline or desire to try them. Now, I feel compelled to explore the
positive and negative fallout of writing lists, profiles, unsent letters,
dialogues, map of consciousness, and altered points of view etc…. Then I can
teach the methods with conviction.  Meanwhile, my personal journal is not only a tool for clarifying my
thoughts and feelings; it’s become a deep pool of creative inspiration and
ideas. Can’t complain about that.

 So, after a long stint of feeling too repressed by my
frustrating life to dare put words on paper, I am writing again, learning and
growing in my zest to become a better teacher. I think this is a good thing all
around – for me and for the students who trust me to lead them towards
opportunities to grow. I guess, time will tell, but I must say, it feels good
to let my fingers fly once again.



Literary Adventures in Blue Ridge

Every couple of months, my former reading student, Kathy, gives me a call just to say “Hi”. Not much changes in her world, but I appreciate her keeping in touch. After several years devoted to helping her learn to read and being a compassionate cheerleader as she gained control of her life, I can’t help but worry now about what might happen as various positive influences drop away and she goes it alone. When she calls, I usually invite her to lunch and we go out, but there isn’t much to say any more. I ask how she’s doing, and she always paints an upbeat picture (because she has a very positive nature) but her life is still a struggle. She asks about my world, but due to the nature of our relationship, I don’t share much. After a few minutes, we fall into silence.

 I ask about her reading, and she confesses that she could use a brush up lesson, but we never really plan anything. She insists she’s using what she learned from me, and always has an example to share, such as a note sent home from school that she responded to all on her own, but it is clear she hasn’t any desire to progress further in her literate journey. She reads only as much as is required to struggle through forms and/or messages from school. 

She joined a drama club at church, but told me the director reads the plays to her and then encourages her make up her own lines for her role. “That makes it easy,” she said.  I nodded as if that was lovely, but inside I wanted to reach out and take her by the shoulders, look into her eyes and say, ‘You can read those lines yourself. Dig in and do it.” But I remained silent knowing this is something that has to come from within her, not me.

She often comments that she might want to start up our tutoring sessions again, but I know it isn’t because she wants to learn more.She just misses sharing time with me.  

 The other day, she came into the studio for the first time.I showed her around and she paused in the lobby to look at everything hanging on the walls. Her eyes landed on the dance pictures of former students and me and exclaimed how impressive they were, but her eyes skipped all the articles. I know she’s capable of figuring out what the headlines are, if not the long text, but it is clear Kathy still has selective vision.  She blanks out the written word, focusing on images to understand things. A literate person recognizes key words and when that peeks their curiosity, will read at least a few lines of an article, but words still don’t register with Kathy unless they are presented as mandatory reading. If she deems a message important, she will make a concentrated effort to sound out the letters. As you can imagine, this keeps reading a chore rather than a natural and/or enjoyable skill. Who can blame her for avoiding it.

 I devoted more than two years to helping Kathy learn to read, but while I wish I had left her more skilled,  I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed by this outcome. I know I’ve improved her life and self esteem drastically, and I was a friend when she really needed one.  But I can’t help but wonder if she wouldn’t have done better with someone more qualified – someone trained in elementary education that might have presented the information in a way that anchored in better. Then again, I know Kathy well enough I can honestly say she probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a month or two with a more formal teacher, so considering that, I was likely the best person for the job. Still, I’m left with an unsettled feeling, as if I fell short of the goal for us both. 

 I invited Kathy to come take a yoga class anytime on me, and handed her a schedule (which naturally, she didn’t bother to glance at.) She admitted she had no idea what yoga is, so I tried to explain it in terms that she would find appealing. She said she would definitely try a class someday, but she hasn’t shown up, and I seriously doubt she ever will. I’ll call her at the end of the season and invite her to the recital, because I know that is something she’ll enjoy. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to keep in touch, but I think my involvement in literacy, at least my Kathy project, is a closed book. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say it’s a book that never got really fully opened. 

 It is what it is, but still, it kills me. I just wish I did more . . .  or better. 

So, now I am turning my literary interests (and the MFA) to a new area. I’m spending today preparing my “Journaling for Deeper Awareness” class which begins next Wednesday. Several enthuasiastic adults have registered for the course, and I’m hoping for more participants this week.  I’m deep in the throws of research and planning now to assure this will be a truly inspirational class. It’s really important to me and I’m absolutely delighted that I’ve created an opportunity to teach writing at last. I plan to use these FLEX courses to refine my skills as an educator (in writing) in hopes of becoming an adjunct teacher in a college one day. (50 years old and still dreaming. Somebody shoot me.) but mostly, I’m looking forward to sharing what I love with others, opening new doors that just might lead students to personal insight and creativity. You gotta hand it to me, I believe whole heartedly in what I do. As a teacher, I think that is as good place to start as any. 



One story ends

After 3 plus years, and lots and lots of diligent work,
Kathy has decided she is ready to take a break from our reading project. I’d be
lying if I didn’t admit her decision disappointed me, but it is my own fault. I
gave her the out.

 Last week one of the women who work in the literacy office
stopped me in a store to comment on how remarkable she considered my success
with Kathy to be. She said none of the other tutors could seem to keep their
students interested beyond a few months, and in fact, every other reading team
had faded away. In her opinion the problem was the teacher’s manner and
approach to the task. These tutors, while having the best of intentions, come
in toting briefcases packed with homework, a determined set to
their jaw, a schoolmarm air, and a non-nonsense attitude. They’re going to be
great reading tutors- do or die.

 I’m not that sort of teacher. I’m just as likely to come in
with a book of jokes as a book of poetry, or a basket of cooking items to give
chocolate chip cookie homework. I shoot the breeze with my student and take an
interest in her life, centering all our work on practical application stuff
that I hope will enhance her life at a non-literary level. For example, we
filled out an order form for the food bank one week and I bought Kathy
groceries for the holidays. It was a way to challenge her math and writing
skills while also helping her family, and teaching her how she could manage her
family food budget better.
  I made
her keep a date book, a diary, send Christmas cards, and taught her to play beginner
word games on a computer (which we gave her when we upgraded ours at home). I
enrolled her in a craft class at the local arts association and made her write
a page about the project as homework. I got her a gift card to a clothing store
for her birthday (and since she has never had a bank account or credit card, I
had to teach her how to use it too.) And all these things felt like fun rather
than work, so she kept learning, albeit in a less structured way.

 It was kind of the same principal that was behind our
successful children’s dance program. Mark and I believed learning dance basics
could be camouflaged in fun activities, so we created a colorful, inviting environment
with props etc… to take the place of the traditional youth dance lesson. I then
wrote the syllabus, lectured at seminars about how well the approach worked in
today’s “instant gratification world” and we built a successful business on the
theory. Meanwhile, teachers who wanted to be taken seriously still swore by the
traditional dance programs they trained in a million years ago, so they pooh-poohed
and criticized our approach saying it was commercial nonsense, and that we were
“selling out” while they were teaching “serious” dance. All the while, Mark and
I were training better, more committed dancers, many who have respectful dance
careers today, and we built a school that was an artistic and financial success.
Results say more than trying to impress people by adopting an “I’m legitimate”
serious dance person attitude, in my opinion. Anyway, we always thought it was
weird people couldn’t see how well our fun approach to dance worked – and it
was always a source of frustration that we had to defend our methods over and
over again.
 Only after we left the
dance world did people proclaim our brilliance and the great loss the Hendry’s
retirement was to the dance world. (Ain’t that a kick in the Lycra pants.)

 Anyway, that experience taught me that while I could appear
a more intellectual reading tutor if I wanted to wave my MFA around and be all
scholarly, demanding grammatical correct assignments, tests and worksheets, I should
follow my instincts and take another approach. I wanted to teach reading the
way I taught dance – with joy and a love of the craft the ultimate goal. After all,
I could sense the reluctance of my illiterate, repressed student the first time
I pulled out flash cards. It makes sense – if she didn’t take to traditional
education the first time when laws forced her to attend, why would I assume
she’d embrace it as an adult when she had the power to leave?
 I had to change the way she viewed
education, and make the process appealing. So, that is what I tried to do, and
I ended up with the most successful student to date in our literacy program because
of it. Kathy not only learned to read, but she lectured at the schools, in the
prison, and became a symbol of what could be done if an illiterate person is
willing to do the work required. Of course, it’s not like she is a college professor
now or anything that would make her a candidate for a Hollywood Hallmark movie.
She only reached the third grade reading level, but she can now read her bible,
school newsletters and mail. She can read the labels on things she buys in the
grocery store and read street signs. She has a basic understanding of a
computer (which in this world is necessary to get by since even library card
catalogues and driving tests are given on the computer now.) She functions well,
surpassed her husband and siblings reading levels, and has intentions to
continue her studies on her own. God willing, she will continue to improve. And
lets not forget that she gave up drugs in the process, changed her parenting
techniques for the better, became a healthier person and a contributor to
society. Only thing I couldn’t do was get her to stop smoking.

 I was flattered by the nice comments the woman from the
office said about my work with Kathy. I responded that I was just lucky- I got
an enthusiastic student with a positive attitude, so it was easy.

 “She wasn’t so positive when you started. I remember her.
She was like all the others that walk through our door, having problems with
drugs and low self-esteem. She had no teeth, bad hygiene, and if you recall, she
missed the first three lessons without calling, so she wasn’t all that committed
at the start. YOU made the difference.”

 Well, that gave me a big, fat, conceited reading-tutor head.
Perhaps she was right and I was the reason Kathy held in there so long – at
least a little.

 Then, just to prove her point, the woman marched into our
next lesson and said, “Kathy, you’re the longest running and most successful
student we’ve had in this program. Do you think you would have stuck it out
this long without Ginny as your tutor?”

Kathy said, “I would have quit a long time ago if I was
paired with any of those other tutors. I’m here because Ginny makes learning to
read easy. I never feel stupid with her, and even when I don’t do the homework
she wished I’d do, she is easy going and encouraging and never makes me feel
 She applauds what I get
done rather than reprimanding me for what I don’t do. If I felt pressured to do
more, I’d probably have given up on this whole scene long ago.”

 The woman from the office gave me an “I told ya so” grin.

 When she left, Kathy and I talked about all we had
accomplished, which lead to a frank discussion where I admitted I felt we were
sometimes just treading water, and perhaps I would be a better tutor if I were
a little more demanding.

After three plus years, we might want more results, and I
feared we were growing stagnant – I told Kathy she should consider enrolling in
a formal class in the GED program or something to provide new challenges and
intellectual growth. We couldn’t just keep meeting forever and ever and staying
with the status quo.

 “I could do more, and I know I should, but sometimes, I just
feel overwhelmed with it all. I’m pretty happy with what we’ve done already. I
don’t really aspire to much more.”

 In response to that I said (kick me please) that if she ever
wanted to take a break we could, and that I didn’t want her to continue showing
up for ME – and that after all we had accomplished, her stopping wouldn’t be a
failure, but just a sign that she had gotten what she needed from me – we could
always get back together later, even if it was a year or two later, to pick up
where we left off, if and when she felt ready to resume her studies.

 She said she loved meeting me every week, and that our
tutoring sessions were not just about reading, but about friendship too.
 I thought I had at least laid a
foundation for some kind of evolution in the future, and perhaps she would
think it over and might even decide it was time to pour on some steam.

 But don’t ya know, she came in the very next week and said,
“I thought about our conversation. If you were serious about my being able to
take a break, I think I’m ready. But I don’t want you to be disappointed in me.
What I want to know is, can we still meet once in a while for coffee or
something? I don’t want to lose you as my friend.”

 “Of course. I’ll take you to lunch. I’ll make you read the
menu and if you start slipping and can’t make out the words, I’ll pop you
upside the head and make you come back to lessons,” I said, making her laugh.

 So, we decided to put an end (or a temporary pause) to our
lessons. I knew our break was inevitable and natural, after all, we’ve been
doing this for three and a half years consistently, and I’m supposed to be her
tutor, not a crutch – but still, the reality that our work was finished plunged
me into depression for about a week.

 Why? I worry that Kathy will slip back into ignorance, like
the character in
Flower’s for Algernon – which isn’t fair to her at all,
because it shows my lack of faith that she will retain her reading skills. But
I also know when we take breaks for Christmas or summer, she does take a step
backwards. What if she stops all those habits I nag her to do – the ones that keep her reading daily? I also worry that without our weekly pep talks and
my ongoing influence, she will fall back into her old habits and maybe even get
involved in drugs again. Not that I’m some kind of knight in shining armor, but
having to face me every week has to help keep her straight. Surrounding yourself
with pulled together people (If I may dare put myself in that category) is a reminder
that there’s a world beyond the limited, repressed existence she’s been
trapped in for so long.
the company you keep does make a difference.

 I guess it is fair to say I feel the loss for selfish
reasons too. Kathy was the one thing I did in my life here that wasn’t self-serving.
  I mean, I take care of my family; I go
out of my way to do kind things for my elderly mother-in-law. I give to good
causes, and volunteer for community events now and again. I’m your basic
good-person, as everyone with any sensitivity from my background tends to be.
But Kathy was a serious, long-term commitment to something that didn’t have any
positive rebound for me, other than my feeling good about helping someone who
was less advantaged than I. Teaching her to read took thought, time and
attention away from my own interests, and watching her life change was tangible
proof that my life wasn’t just some endless quest to enhance my own existence.
Because of Kathy I knew I would leave the world better than how I found it.

 I’ve no doubt some new cause will slide into the empty space
in my heart where Kathy took residence. I told the school I’d be willing to
take on another reading student, and perhaps that will happen, but deep down I
feel I’ve already had that experience and perhaps it is time to engage in
something new and different. I just don’t know what.

 What I do know is that Kathy taught me as much as I taught
her. It was through Kathy that I learned the most about the Appalachian people
and the very different socio-economic class that surrounds us here – and I
learned what I know about these people not just intellectually by reading about
our differences or watching them from afar, but by intimate involvement that
forced me to question my preconceived notions and prejudices. Kathy also taught
me to look at the English language a new way and to see the world through new
eyes. She is an important part of my memoir – a very special friend, one without
pretense or competitiveness or even expectations – that made her different from
any female friend I’ve ever had. Our conversations were livelier and more insightful
than any I’ve had with intellectuals over cocktails at some highbrow event. Yes,
Kathy made me think . I’ll miss her.

 So, I’m feeling sort of low…. Like I’m not of much use to
anyone now. I suddenly miss my passionate dance students, my work with downs
syndrome kids, my involvement with literacy. I feel isolated and sort of empty
as if my life needs a bigger purpose than writing (for myself) or toying with
animals (for myself) or doing laundry and cleaning house (for my family, which
in turn is for myself too).
I feel compelled to buy a cow (not for me, silly, for a family in a third
world), or go build a house with habitat for humanity or something.
  Amazing how a little thing, like
meeting one little woman a few hours a week, can make such a difference in how
you feel about your time on earth.

 Anyway, I am no longer teaching someone to read. I am
open and eager to see what will come next.

 This weekend I begin my Yoga Teacher’s Training, the first
of nine weekends that involve two twelve-hour sessions on a Saturday and Sunday. I got a hotel room for
this first Saturday because I’m guessing that after holding warrior poses all
day, I won’t be able sit much less drive the two and a half hours to get home.
I’m not the vivacious young dancer with the indestructible body I had at 30
anymore, sorry to say.
all that meditation I’ll be practicing will help me survive the muscle twinges.
Meanwhile, I’m armed with books on Yoga medicine, yoga theory, anatomy and
more. You know me, read, read, read, whenever a new subject tweaks the mind. As
if I might be able to think my way through the work ahead…
 but I also know intimate experience is
going to teach me more than any book, so I can’t wait to get into the training
sessions, meet the experienced yogi’s and be with other people starting a new
journey just as I am. The people in this course are hand selected by essay and
interview. Bet they all have interesting stories.
 You can bet I’ll find out.

 Perhaps this is the new door I’m meant to walk through to
lead me to something new and meaningful. Perhaps Kathy’s disappearance from my
life was meant to come at this juncture, clearing the way for me to grasp onto
something new  – something I’m meant to do – maybe even something yoga connected. 

Or maybe that is wishful thinking. 

Gee, I hate a void, especially when its in the soul.

Life’s Schoolroom

    It has been 2 ½ years and I am still working with my reading student, Kathy. We have become dear friends and meeting a few hours each week continues to provide us both with a chance to reflect on the world from a different perspective. 
   For Kathy, the lessons push the envelope of her world awareness as I continually introduce her to new things and try to instill the confidence to reach for more in life. Meanwhile, the lessons remind me to appreciate my blessings and to have patience for those in the world who are very different than me. The great divide between the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the uneducated, the sophisticated individuals and the rednecks, seem to be nothing more than a roll of the dice to me now. Those born into repressed circumstances or who were raised in ignorance are really just people playing the life game with loaded dice; all the more likely to crap out no mater how diligently they play. 
  Of course, I know enough about sociology to understand that environment plays a huge role in how people turn out. This basic truth is drilled into the enlightened middle class at school. We read magazines, newspapers, and memoirs that explore and philosophize the impact of diverse life experiences. We see portrayals of different social classes in movies. Sometimes our favorite heroes are people who despite their environmental influences overcome adversity. Educating Rita is my favorite movie, and who is not moved by The Color Purple
    But all of this provides only an academic understanding of a scientific fact. Easy, considering the distance we keep from those with hugely different backgrounds . We can bemoan the plight of women in a third world country and send money to educate them, all the while thinking we are liberal and generous, but how quickly we abandon our sensitivity about that kind of thing when we come face to face with someone who is ignorant. We feel threatened by narrow mindedness; angered. People lacking our enlightened perspectives really seem inferior. Rarely do we pause to accept ignorance or embrace it with respect for its origins when we’re close enough that it might affect our way of life.   If anything, we rather not encounter it at all personally.  
     Kathy is smart, sensitive and caring, with remarkable potential as an individual, but she lives one breath away from poverty, is illiterate and has had very little exposure to the world. Knowing her, liking her, has helped me to be tolerant of ignorance. Rather than be annoyed when I butt up against narrow world views now as I once was, I find myself struggling to understand; wanting to make change. I will forever be grateful to Kathy for opening my eyes in this way.

   A few weeks ago, Kathy graduated from two years of drug court probation. The ceremony was at a local college and twelve individuals from several counties were each given a plaque for their diligent work in overcoming addiction. Judges, social workers and ministers, all people involved in the program, spoke, and introduced the graduates, and then each graduate was given the opportunity to tell their story. 
  Mark and I listened, profoundly moved by the honesty (and the tears) of people who had just completed the difficult journey to recovery. We often watch a show called Extreme Home Makeover, where families faced with extreme hardship are given a new house, which in most cases, changes their lives forevermore. We always cry when we watch the show, laughing at each other because we’re such sentimental saps. We know we’re going to cry before the show begins, and that makes us laugh too. Anyway, as we listened to the speeches, tears in our eyes, Mark leaned over to me and said, “I feel like we’re watching Extreme people makeover.” Ha. So there we were, laughing and crying at the same time. So us.

   Each time a graduate took the stage; their friends and family were asked to stand as a gesture of support. People would clap as the individuals came to the podium with note cards to help with their speeches.
     I leaned over to Mark and said, “Kathy is at a disadvantage. She still can’t read fast enough, especially under pressure, to prepare notes!”
    “She’ll be fine,” he said, and he was right.
     When Kathy went to the podium, she got a standing ovation. Everyone knows her now – she is the supreme example of a success story, remarkable because she is someone who, despite modest resources and limited capabilities, manages to give back. People admire her for that, as do I.  Dressed in a beautiful white lace dress, her make-up impeccable, her hair falling over her shoulders in luscious curls, it was hard to believe this was the same woman who only two years ago was a skeleton with rotten teeth, dark circles under her eyes and pallid skin.
     “Look at how gorgeous she is,” Mark whispered. “Do you remember what she looked like before?”
For him, the change was shockingly drastic. It’s been a gradual thing for me since I’ve witnessed it all along, but he was right. She did look striking. 

     In a very soft spoken tone, she thanked God, the program, her church, and “my tutor who stood beside me the entire way.”

   I was humbled by that. Proud too. Not just of Kathy, but of myself, for embracing the life disruption that comes with volunteering and sticking with something long after the glow of it being new or exciting or making you feel like a compassionate savoir has long since worn off.  It has been very good for me on a deeply personal level.

   I bought Kathy flowers and a gift in honor of her accomplishment, a delicate gold cross with tiny diamonds. Her faith has become the cornerstone of her strength, and recognizing this, I wanted to select a gift that would have meaning for her. She wears it all the time now –  which convinces me it was a good choice.

   One of the requirements for being in the drug court program is that participants must go back to school. Usually they begin working on a GED or they enroll in the community college. For Kathy, our tutoring lessons fulfilled this requirement, so I was forever writing notes for the judge to verify that we were meeting regularly. Now that  Kathy is off probation, she is no longer required to attend school, and yet, we continue with our twice a week lessons. Learning to read is not something she has to do anymore. It is something she wants to do. That makes me feel good to know meeting with me is not a chore, but a choice.

   I continue to bring new challenges into the mix, marveling when I stumble across something she doesn’t know that I considered general knowledge. For example, the other day I brought in the Atlanta Sunday Paper, and suggested we read the funnies.
    As she stumbled over the text, it occurred to me that the funny papers are unique from other written stories by nature of their layout. I said, “Do you know why these words are written in these little white bubbles?”  
     “I haven’t a clue,” Kathy said.
     So I explained that the bubbles have an arrow to denote who is speaking, and that they are supposed to be a visual clue of the conversation, sort of like quotation marks in a story without pictures.
     She lifted her eyebrows and said, “Well, isn’t that creative. I wonder who thought that up.”
     Of course, the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop wondering about that myself.

    Yesterday, I enrolled Kathy and I in a Saturday class at the Art Center scheduled for November. This particular class teaches how to make a Christmas tree out of Kudzu – a weaving project for the holidays. Kathy loves crafts, and often makes things from bits and pieces she finds out in the forest.  Considering this, I thought this class sounded like a perfect introduction to a new artistic endeavor. Kudzu grows everywhere around here, so if she has fun, Kathy can continue with the craft without having to invest in tools or supplies. I also think it will be nice for the two of us to do something fun together that isn’t about reading or writing.  I’ll take her to lunch and we’ll make a day of it. Later, I’ll ask her to write about what she experienced. That will be a good lesson. Best of all, we will both leave with a spiffy kudzu Christmas decoration that has personal meaning. I suppose Kathy and I will have to stop working together some day, afterall she won’t need me forever. But, we’ll each have that decoration to symbolize our friendship, a tolken to drag out each Christmas . . .  to remember.  

   After Kathy graduated, I wrote an article about her and dropped it off at the local newspaper. I included a letter of introduction, a résumé and two letters of recommendation with a note explaining I’d be interested in a staff writing position, column or even work as a freelancer if ever they should have an opening. I figured the article would serve as my writing sample. But mostly, I just hoped they’d publish it for Kathy’s sake. It has been two weeks, but so far, nothing. I’m told the paper often holds onto human interest stories and slips them in when they have a need to fill space. The paper comes out twice a week, so I have my fingers crossed. Since my blog friends don’t read this small town  periodical, I think I’ll post the article here. It tells Kathy’s story fairly well, and shows off what I’m up to now. Perhaps it isn’t great – it is newspaper-y. But it is honest.

I am diligently working on a book, a memoir (which is why haven’t been blogging as much as I did previously). It is nearing conclusion and I’m rather excited by how it’s taken shape and evolved. Can’t wait to see  how it does. When finished, I’m planning to write another piece of creative non-fiction about teaching an adult to read. I can’t begin to describe the life lessons learned through such a poignant relationship – but I will have a good time trying.

Anyway, here is the article for those of you who are not bored to death with my long, meandering  blogs entries. If nothing else, check out the picture. Don’t ya know I forgot my camera the night she graduated. It was down at the barn waiting for the baby llama’s premiere. I was furious at myself for not remembering it. I ended up taking a picture the next day at our lesson, but gee, I wish I had gotten a picture of us her holding her flowers and plaque in that wonderful white dress. But it will be forever imprinted in my mind.

 The article:


Reading into the Future

       Kathy Smith was not only proud to graduate from Fannin County Drug Court at Appalachian Tech on August 21, she was proud because she could read the achievement plaque herself, proof that personal growth and positive results truly can come from adversity.
     Three years ago, when Kathy was first arrested for possession of Meth, she was one of many in our population that is functionally illiterate. Kathy dropped out of school after her freshman year, joining the ranks of her other five siblings who also attended school yet never learned to read. Despite nine years at Morganton Elementary and Fannin High twenty years prior, Kathy didn’t possess the rudimentary skills to recognize all the letters of the alphabet. The only word she could read beyond her own name was “Stop” because she saw it so often on traffic signs.
     Years later, when Kathy’s first child enrolled in school, she was self conscious about not being able to follow his academic progress, so she sought out a tutor in hopes of learning along with him. Six months later, with no progress made, her tutor opted to discontinue lessons.
     “The woman offered to find me someone else, but her quitting made me feel unworthy of the time and trouble, so I just gave up. I’d gotten by without reading until then, so I figured it just wasn’t going to make that big a difference in my life,” Kathy said.
     Years later, when she fell into trouble with drugs and found herself in court, Kathy was denied the opportunity to enter a rehabilitation program because she wouldn’t be able to read the manuals used in class. Suddenly, the reality of her handicap was clear. A caring probation officer helped her gain a chance to participate in drug court if she agreed to tackle her reading problem along with her addiction. 
     “My second child was now in school and I’d been thinking about trying to learn to read again anyway, so I was kind of glad when the judge made the suggestion,” Kathy admitted. “I was ready to be caught. Ready to make changes. This time, I was determined to stick it out. I was tired of hiding my disability and my addictions. I was tired of being embarrassed.”
     Kathy went to FLAG to seek help and after braving the tests designed to establish her entry level, found she didn’t even make it on to the lowest level on the learning chart. She was paired with a volunteer tutor, Ginny Hendry. For eight weeks they worked on the alphabet together, but just as they were beginning to move on to words, Kathy was arrested again and this time, she was sent to jail. Her son was sent to foster care and Kathy watched her world fall apart.
     “That was when I realized that my drug addiction and lack of education wasn’t only hurting me, but the people I loved too. I couldn’t live with that.”
      Two things happened then that helped Kathy resolve to change her life. She expected her tutor to give up on her in disgust, but Ginny began visiting her, making plans for them to continue her lessons in jail if necessary. Next, Kathy began listening to visitors from the World Harvest North Church who offered comfort and encouragement to the incarcerated.  Kathy was moved by the support she was offered from her family, her tutor and the church jail ministry. She vowed that if she was ever given another chance, she would do all in her power to overcome her weaknesses and help others.
     Rehabilitation is a difficult road for anyone. When Kathy was released she faced with a rigorous schedule of meetings and drug court commitments. She had to avoid former friends that might be viewed as a bad influence and make effort to surround herself with encouraging, supportive individuals. She never missed a single court hearing or drug test, diligently followed all probation rules, and practiced reading and writing daily.
    Two evenings a week she participated in Narcotics Annomyonous meetings and one night was devoted to an intervention class at the World Harvest North church, where she had become a member.  She began attended a bible study group, struggling with the literature because of her reading handicap, but knowing participation reinforced her convictions. She also continued meeting her tutor two mornings a week, pushing her education forward until she not only passed preliminary tests but reached a third grade reading level. Soon she could read a children’s bible herself, fill out school forms, and even help her son with his homework on occasion.
     “When I first volunteered to teach someone to read, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be.” Ginny said. “Drilling basics quickly grew tiresome, and I feared Kathy would lose interest, so I opted for a more creative approach to show her how reading could enhance her life beyond just following road signs or understanding notes from school.”
      Ginny bought Kathy a cookbook, pans, and all the fixings to make cookies. Kathy’s homework assignment was to follow a recipe and bring homemade cookies to the next lesson. Ginny also bought an extra coat for the News Observer empty stocking drive and sent the subscription to Kathy. Each week, Kathy was given assignments to follow the local news and learn the resources available in the community.
   “Kathy didn’t even know there was a place where job, obituaries and local announcements were listed,” Ginny said. “She was most distressed to see local arrests, realizing a public announcement must have been printed about her as well.”  
     Together, Ginny and Kathy filled out an order for the Angel Food Ministry, and Kathy learned how she could stretch the family food budget. Ginny bought her an address book and Kathy collected addresses from friends. Her homework was sending them all Christmas cards with a handwritten note. Writing in a daily calendar helped Kathy keep track of all her appointments, and a new library card and youth dictionary made it possible for her to borrow books and practice reading on her own. She was encouraged to keep a daily journal as day by day, Kathy adapted new habits that challenged her reading skills, reinforcing all she was learning. Meanwhile, she read the arrest reports, saddened to witness just how many people were still slaves to addiction.  
     Kathy’s health improved, but now that she was finally clean, she didn’t recognize herself when she looked in the mirror. “I couldn’t believe what those years of doing meth did to me,” she said. Kathy had lost all but six decayed teeth, her cheeks were sunken in and her hair hung lifelessly down her bony back. “I looked much older than my age, and many days, I felt it too.”       
     Kathy had discovered a support network of people who cared about her and her progress, and she was motivated to succeed for them as well as for herself. A friend from church gave her a make-over and her tutor helped her purchase a set of false teeth. With a new haircut, a healthy weight, and a smile she no longer tried to hide, Kathy’s self esteem surged. The transformation on the surface reflected the changes she was feeling within, and Kathy’s deep sense of gratitude inspired her to want to help others.     
     She joined the church ministry and began visiting the jail weekly as a voice of inspiration to others. She was invited to speak at the high school twice and, accompanied by her tutor, she lectured high risk students on the importance of staying in school and staying away from narcotics and alcohol.
      “I always bring my before and after picture. That’s a wake up call to anyone,” Kathy says.
nbsp;   She then began volunteering at the Ester Academy, devoting time to sit with Girls battling addictions. “We sit and talk. I share my experiences. I want them to know they are not alone and that there’s hope. If I can do it, anyone can.”
     Kathy knows several non-readers, and she continually encourages them to go to FLAG to find a mentor in hopes that they too can improve their life. “It’s embarrassing to not be able to read. You tell yourself it isn’t that important and you learn to survive without it, but the truth is, you’re always self conscious and you settle for less than you deserve. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m proof anyone can read,” she says.   
     Unfortunately, few people step forward because it’s inconvenient and they have negative associations from earlier school experiences.
     “I know how hard it is. But I have no problem explaining to my friends at church or my son’s teacher that I might need help or that sometimes I have to go slow. I’m actively doing something about my problem so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m not a great reader yet, but I’m proud of what I’ve learned so far, and I’m only getting better. This year, I even filled out my own forms to re-enroll in FLAG and I was able to send a note to my son’s school when he was sick.” Kathy’s smile  reveals just how empowering it is to be self sufficient at long last. 
     “Kathy is an exceptional case,” Donna Earl of FLAG says. “I’ve been testing her from the beginning and she’s made remarkable progress. Her positive attitude and unfaltering commitment is inspirational. I wish every student who walked through our doors had her outlook.”
      A student like Kathy reminds everyone working for organizations such as FLAG or the drug court that, despite limited funding and many discouraging cases, their efforts really do help members of the community. No organization or volunteer can help people who aren’t willing to help themselves, but Kathy is proof that when a willing student is pared with well intending community organizations and/or individuals, wonderful things can happen.   
     “I’m no longer someone who is a part of the problem. I’m someone who is helping to be a part of the solution,” Kathy says, her pride as evident as the effervescent smile she no longer has to hide. “And I’m here to tell you it’s the greatest high a person will ever experience.”
* The Fannin Literacy Action Group (FLAG) not only helps people attain their GED, but has a waiting list of willing reading tutors eager for students. If you know anyone who cannot read or write, please share this article and encourage them to visit FLAG to begin their journey towards self sufficiency today.  





Yesterday, I was in a reading lesson with my student of two plus years. We were working in a children’s primer and I suggested we read a story about Helen Keller. I asked Kathy if she knew who that person was and she shook her head and said she never heard of her. Always makes me pause when we come across things like this – so much of what I consider common knowledge isn’t the case for the disadvantaged.  Reminds me never to assume anything and be grateful for my education and upbringing.

I suggested we read the text and find out who Helen Keller is together.

Kathy reads the first two lines. It went something like:
When Helen Keller was a child she got sick and as result became deaf and dumb. This cut her off from the world.

Kathy stopped reading and said, “That’s just like me and not being able to read. I was cut off from the world too. I don’t know if you knew that, Ginny, but it’s like being deaf and dumb when you can’t read.”

Of course, I’ve always known that –I’ve just been waiting for Kathy to realize it.
“And now?” I said.

“Now everything is different. You know the teacher sent me a note home from school the other day, and I could actually read it. For the first time ever I actually know what is going on at school. I’m not cut off from the world anymore. It’s amazing.”

“Amazing,” I parroted.

I keep thinking about that conversation. Amazing.


Neva thinks

The other day, my youngest daughter asked for the address to my blog. I assumed she wanted to start reading my thoughts, but it turns out she just wanted to study my “style” a bit – especially how I began Heartofginny.

An hour later, she came upstairs to repremanded me about  not telling her a batch of our baby bunnies died. I was confused a moment because all our baby bunnies are alive and well.
Then I said, “Are you talking about those rabbits that died two years ago? You couldn’t have read that much of my blog. That happened a thousand pages ago!”
She rolled her eyes and said, “I wanted to see how you started . . . Now, I see should have been reading all along.” She gave me that “How could you,” look.
Humm… I’m guessing I’ll need to censor any delicate daughter commentary from now on. 

The reason Neva was interested in heartofginny is, she’s decided to start a blog of her own.
She’s a natural.

I’ve always known she was a better writer than I. At eleven, she spends more time reading and writing than I seem able to stay focused for. She is a marvelous poet. I have drawers full of her stories and poems and they have a beautiful literary quality, along with a dash of riveting drama. Last year she won the school award for most advanced reader. This year she toped the charts again and is getting a trophy for “master reader” . It stands as tall as she is – I guess the size is supposed to symbolize her intellect or something. 

Sometimes, she’ll be sitting in a lawn chair or in the back seat of my car and she’ll say, “Have a pen?”
I keep dozens of pens in my purse, as well as pads of paper everywhere because it seems I am always handing them over to her. I’ll ask her why she wants it.
She’ll shrug and say, “I have an idea for a poem. I wanted to write it down before I forget.”

Me? I am never that organized. If I have any inkling of brilliance hidden inside, you can bet every touch of it has eeked away during those moments when I didn’t have a pen and didn’t botter to ask for one.   
The other day she asked me if I had an empty notebook. I am forever giving her notepads and notebooks to house all her creative outpourings. As I handed her yet another notebook from my office, I asked what this one was for.
“I’ve been thinking about writing lyrics. I have songs in my head,” she said. “I want to keep them together.”
Later she sang her first original song for me. It was like her poetry, only with a melody. Fun. 

I guess it’s only natural Neva would feel compelled to start a blog for writing practice.

I’m thrilled. I’m her biggest fan. Besides, I wish everyone I loved had a blog so I had a puny dab of insight into what was rolling around in their heart and mind at any given time. I know a blog is a swiss cheese version of what’s going on in a person’s world. The fact is, no matter how badly you may want to be truthful and real, all writing is censored and slanted somewhat due to self-consciousness, a respect for others, a desire to protect yourself or avoid problems – something- but even so, a blog still offers an intimate glimpse of how the world impacts a person – it reveals the kind of things that touch them, or gives them pause, or makes them smile. A window into someone else’s mind, even if it’s made of frosted glass, is better than a wall.  

So, with Neva’s permission, I’m letting everyone know I’m not the only Hendry in the blogsphere.

Check it out. (And she already figured out how to put a link to my blog on her page. Gee, even I can’t figure out how to do that and I’ve b een at this for two years now.) 
I guess some apples really don’t fall far from the tree . . .


And she bounces back . . .


I opened my e-mail today to receive another agent rejection. This was from a simple query letter from someone who already stated they were not taking on clients, so I didn’t take it personally. 


But I also received a letter from an agent who currently has the first 100 pages (requested from the initial query) so we are in stage two of our correspondence. Having read the beginning, she wants the rest of the book now and wants to know if I have it under consideration with any other agents. Timing is everything. The fact is, no agent wants to devote time and energy to a manuscript that may be promised elsewhere before they make a final decision. Luckily, I can still give this agent exclusive consideration, which is interesting because today I was going to crack and send the full manuscript out to another full book request I received. Regardless of my impatient nature, I’ve tried to be respectful of an agent’s time (having been a small business owner makes you very understanding of business practices and the need to respect a firm’s resources. It’s like working as a waiter – you find yourself over-tipping the rest of your life.) Anyway, I’ve been taking it slow when it comes to sending out the manuscript, though it about kills me to do so.


 Anyway, I will begin this morning printing a copy of my book and I’ll drop it off at the post office on my way to my tutoring session with my reading student, the package smothered with good luck kisses, of course.


Just goes to show that diligence is a part of the game. None of this means I’m anywhere near selling this book – but it is a step in the right direction. More importantly, this fills my day with hope and promise and makes me more determined to hang in there. In fact, it makes me want to hunker down and write a few hundred pages of my next novel before lunch. Inspired is a nice place to be.  


Yesterday was Kathy’s birthday. I have to write her card, prepare her gift, and warm up the voice. La, la, la, la . . .


Happy Birthday to you! 

Happy Birthday to you!

I’m so proud to give you a card! 

And be able to watch you read it through! 


She is my constant reminder that it takes time, persistence  and a good attitude to accomplish the truly meaningful things in life.      


My first writing seminar where I was standing at the front of the room

Yesterday, I taught a seminar at the Blue Ridge Writer’s conference entitled The Pro’s and Con’s of Getting an MFA. This is a small local conference that attracts primarily hobbyist writers, yet still they put together a very lovely program featuring some diverse classes. The keynote speaker, Joshilyn Jackson, was upbeat and fun. She’s been on a book tour and she was a featured author at the Margret Michel house in Atlanta earlier this month. I was interested in going to listen to her talk, but then Sonia had her heart attack and all personal interests were put aside. Her new book The Girl who Stopped Swimming was featured in a small blurb in people magazine, and again, when I saw that I was very bummed to have missed her. It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized she was the speaker at this convention. I was delighted to finally pick up her book, get it signed, and hear her lecture.  

Joshilyn’s keynote lecture was about how writing is not the same as publishing. It’s a basic premise I’ve known forever, but her talk was humorous as she waded through all her past mistakes and shared her beginner anxiety on her journey to success. She wrote several books that never sold, but she explained they were learning endeavors and acts of love. She talked about letting go of a book you’ve poured your heart and soul into to turn your attentions to the next project. She made it clear there’s no easy road to writing well.

Her first class (which was in the morning so I was available to sit in) was Marketing yourself on the Web.  It turned out to be an hour long lecture to say everyone should be blogging – not about writing interests, but about everyday life stuff. Humm… got that one down pat. Considering the senior seminar I taught to fulfill graduatation requirements was about the pro’s and cons of blogging and an in-depth study of the impact of blogging on writers (which demanded months of study and my reading dozens of articles, books, testimonials, etc.. on the subject)  I know more about that subject than even the teacher, I’m guessing. Her next class was about how to get an agent to represent you, but it ended up a workshop sort of class where you evaluate the first line of your novel to see if it has a “hook”. This too was pretty elementary stuff, but very appropriate for the audience.

I sat there, enjoying the lectures, but knowing at the same time that I had far surpassed the need for the type of input gained from these kinds of writing seminars. I can’t see myself spending money or time on this sort of writing endeavor anymore, unless I was going to pitch to an agent. But considering I’m getting positive responses from agents by cold query letters alone, perhaps even that isn’t necessary. Nevertheless, I do recognize how important these learning endeavors were to me early in my writing journey and as such, I have great respect for their genuine value to people who love to write. I learned a great deal from these kinds of seminars early on, enough to convince me I needed a more in-depth learning experience. It’s all connected. And I enjoyed the camaraderie with other writers, the lunch conversation etc… I like people. I especially like interesting people, and those that write have a sensitivity regarding life that is interesting to me. In some ways, attending a conference does keep you on track and motivated and you can celebrate time spent with like minded people.  

My class (assigned to me) was a hit or miss subject for this sort of crowd.  Face it, getting an MFA is for people who want to take their writing to a higher level. The cost, expense, competitive nature of the academic writing world etc.. is not for hobbyists. I had four people signed up for my lecture. None of them showed up. One woman wandered in and in the end, I taught to her alone. She fit the profile of someone ready to step up their writing education. She was sincerely interested in an MFA, but she’d applied to one low-residency program and had been turned down, so she put the idea on a back burner. She’d attended all the same sorts of conferences and writing groups I’d toyed with early on. Talking to her, I realized that even if I had a room full of people with mild curiosity about what an MFA is all about, the person I’d really be teaching was her. I could make a difference for this one curious individual  – so I dived in with a commitment to do the job well.

I’d done a great deal of research on the subject of getting an MFA vs. an MA or PhD, and in fact, I’ve learned more about what an MFA is and does by preparing for this lecture, than I ever knew by attending a low-residency program for two years and actually earning an MFA. While compiling learning aids,  I kept stumbling over websites and books that put it all in perspective well, and thought, “Why the heck didn’t I do this kind of research before I applied to MFA programs.”  Might have had an easier time of it had I’d known what to expect. I certainly would have prepared a more appropriate writing sample, personal statement etc.. for my application packet. (I was the classic example of what NOT to do – beginning with the discombobulated writing sample I sent in and ending with getting recommendations from well established, published romance authors (they are looked on with distain rather than respect in the literary academic world) rather than from teachers. Even someone unpublished, who might work at a community college teaching English would have been a given a more valuable recommendation, because it’s assumed they understand what sort of student the MFA program is looking for). Ah well – all’s well that ends well.

My research uncovered a great deal of anti-MFA material too, books, websites and critics who think an MFA is a waste of time. In all fairness, I presented the negative opinions too, admitting some of the flaws in the MFA format. I suppose some people get their MFA and have a chip on their shoulder because they spent 40 grand on an education that doesn’t promise you a job or success. But the truth is, I believe getting an MFA made a profound difference in me as a person and as a writer, and for all that it was difficult on my ego and heart, and for all that I wanted to quit the entire time, I’d do it again. You can not expose yourself to so much wonderful literature, serious contemplation, harsh honesty, caring criticism and personal challenges and not come out changed for the better. Evolved. And I’ve never been one who needs tangible evidence or measurable returns to justify money spent. You can’t put a price on life experience or personal growth, and if you demand measurable returns on every dollar spent, you’ll probably forgo the best investments of your life. You’ll end up poor in spirit – and in the end, you’ll simply spend the money on something else -something “practical” that will wear out or be used up in time and as such, doesn’t prove nearly as lasting.

As someone who did everything wrong, I feel I have pretty good insight about what NOT to do in regards to pursuing an MFA, which makes me a perfect candidate to teach the subject now. I began with the premise that if I can get into an MFA program, anyone can. That put my one student to ease and gave her hope. We had a wonderful hour together reviewing my notes, discussing my experience, and looking over my resource list. In the end, I packed up my books on MFA schools and gave them to her along with some literary magazines and the Writer’s Conical. I certainly don’t need them, such publications become obsolete in short order. I picked up these materials as visuals for the class and had thought all along I might distribute them to anyone with sincere interest. I was glad to see they’d be put to good use. My student felt she had won the MFA information lottery and I felt I had helped someone a lot like me several years back.
I used to think I’d have had a far better dance career, if only I’d had a teacher like me when I was a young passionate student. Sounds funny, but I knew I gave more to my students than any teacher ever gave to me, and I was always proud of that. I left my seminar thinking my student (Deborah) will have an easier time of it all should she decide to carry through. I certainly know I inspired her to reach higher rungs. It felt right and good.

I told the organization they didn’t have to pay me for lecturing, because honestly, I know it’s a small fledgling group that could use a break and they need the money more than I do (I’ve chaired enough arts seminars and struggled to make them break even so I understand how difficult it is), but they insisted on paying me something. I’d been handed my check at lunch. It made me smile. I’ve been teaching seminars (in dance) for 25 years, and my average check is 20-50 times this amount. But that check gave me a profound sense of joy and accomplishment.

I waved it in front of Mark when I got home and said, “See that! Now, all I need to do is earn $39,900 more from my writing and my MFA will have paid for itself!”
Mark looked at the check, grinned, and said, “You go, girl.” 

Teaching comes very naturally to me. I’ve been a public speaker for years and years. Being a master teacher in dance, organizing comprehensive teacher’s training seminars, writing syllabus’s, and working with literally thousands of students at every stage of the learning curve gives me a broad understanding of how to best organize material for better understanding. I have an innate sense of respect for what my audience needs at any particular stage of development, and I try to always leave the people on earlier stages of the journey with a deeper understanding of the big picture – rather than focus on a single subject mater and expect the poor student to figure out how and why it’s important on their own. It was nice to discover this isn’t a dance skill, but a life skill that transfers easily to other subjects.

“There are no bad students – only bad teachers. Stop blaming the students and making excuses for their inadaquacies. Take responsibility for what your students know and don’t know, dig in and do what it takes to make them better!”
I always said to my staff, to their total annoyance, I’m sure. I hated to see professionals tredding water, going through the motions of teaching without truly making an affect, just to get a check to support their dreams. 

Believing it’s the teacher who makes the profound difference in the development of an artist enhances the importance of my roll if I dare accept the responsibilities of instructor or mentor to someone else. How much I’m going to get paid, or how many people will benefit from my lecture, shouldn’t affect how much effort or energy I’m willing to invest in my seminar. Reaching one person has to be enough to make the time invested count. 

For me, it did.