At Motivation High
Thanks to Ms. Coldren and Principal Jones for the invitation to spend time with these marvelous students at Motivation High School.
At Motivation High, a small magnet in the very Southwestern corner of Philadelphia, when I visited 10th graders who’d read Black Ice, I planned to read a brief section of the book, talk a bit about the writing process, and then invite students to lead the conversation with their questions. It’s literary-performance improvisation. For years I’ve practiced like a jazz musician to have at the ready the skills I need: writing, teaching, reading, collaging ideas and current events, Bible passages, poetry; images, metaphors; I’ve practiced listening. I feel you.
Earlier that afternoon, for example, a 9th grader had revealed a publishers’ probing business mind. How did the process work? Who did what? It mattered to her to try to envision the system. Then she asked how a writer would get “discovered.” Her language changed from active to passive, and the image that came to my mind was from my parents’ generation: Lana Turner, “discovered” by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter as she sat drinking soda in the Top Hat Cafe. But the Hollywood myth had trickled through time to this Philadelphia high school gymnasium in 2013.
The other image that came to mind was the pack of 40 queries offering to publishers my early-career mystery novel and the four or five responses, all rejections. I told students this, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted them to envision the lady from the book who looked like their grandmother not as a literary ingénue waiting for success to drop on her (it already had in the form of a scholarship, of course), but as a hungry young writer trying every strategy she could, banging on doors.
That was it!
I climbed up onto the side of the bleachers and grabbed the five or six-foot high iron barriers that protect students from falling off. They looked amused, quite beautiful in their blue uniforms, curious. I rattled the metal supports and shouted: “Publish me! Publish me! Read my stuff! That’s what you have to do. No one will ‘discover’ you! You have to go get’em.”
When the 10th graders came, they were warm and attentive and friendly, but I felt some tension. I couldn’t read them, so rather than picking my choice, I asked which passage they wanted. A girl on the top tier called down, not too loudly, but clearly: “Chapter Six.”
I do not generally remember content by the chapter, so I thumbed pages. “Oh,” I said, “Chapter Six.”
That’s the chapter in this memoir about boarding school where my boyfriend comes to visit a day earlier than we’d planned, and, using adolescent logic, I decide that the only thing I can possibly do is to hide him in my room for the night. There’s sex, crying, fear of pregnancy. There’s another girlfriend who did have a baby. It was the chapter I had to write, but did not think I’d publish. It’s about bad judgment and how we program boys to go for it and how we program girls toward passivity. It’s about consequences and luck, family, and loss of innocence. Twenty years ago, I realized that I had to write as honestly about that first foolish and unhappy sexual experience as I was writing about exams, soccer, race and class, and summer work at the diner in Springfield, PA. Writing that passage turned the book from a sociological text with me as my own subject to a book about a girl growing up. I think they were asking me whether I owned it, whether it was true, whether their sexual lives are precious, even though our society urges them to use them up carelessly, and even though the feelings that urge them on often result in lousy encounters that do not feel good at all and often cause harm. Was I blaming him? Did I own up to my part? I tried to talk about these things to them. I tried to be honest.
After dismissal, a few students came up to talk. Finally a reserved boy named Garrett stepped forward. He wanted to know what I’d meant by the phrase “Life is like a leaf” in the last chapter.
Oh, Lord, that was 40 years ago. What came to me was photosynthesis and its parallel to cellular respiration, the whole body, in fact, taking energy from food and using the calories to fuel creativity. And, of course, there’s decomposition. I looked at this very serious boy. He’d thought about these things. Then he told me: he’d written a poem, long before reading Black Ice, titled “Life is Like a Leaf.”
There in the gym, as one of the teachers folded back the bleachers, and Ms. Coldren encouraged Garrett, we laughed together, and he showed me his poem, a Zen-like meditation on life and death and renewal, shared with a 56-year-old woman talking to 16-year-olds about her book about being 16, and doing it after a season of illness that followed a year on the School Reform Commission.
The next day was Ash Wednesday, and I found myself thinking about Motivation High as I drove out to the church where my husband’s just been called as interim rector. During the psalm I prayed for the girl who said that she wanted to know where God figured into my writing.
She wants to write for children with disabilities. Bob’s sermon gave the answer that I hadn’t been skillful enough to call up: writer and theologian Frederick Buechner’s idea that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
“Find love,” my husband told us.
This is what I should have said. That and “life is like a leaf.”
Life is like a leaf
It starts out on its tree surrounded by others;
Through time it grows, and changes its colors.
Soon the wind blows; the leaf searches for a new home.
Finally landing, the leaf is on its own.
Time passes. The leaf decomposes.
Joining the soil it is nutrients for new roses.