My hike starts in six weeks. All the decisions are made. I’m continuing to make minor tweaks to my gear. If I make windscreen prototypes every day looking for the minimum size it takes to produce optimal stove performance, does that make me an ounce shaving lunatic? I hope that this blogs gives its readers all sorts of useful information about how to finish an AT thru hike. This particular post will offer none that, however. I’ve got this brain worm and I think I have to write about it to get it out of the way. You see while I have dreamed of walking the Appalachian Trail for 45 years or so, I’ve never dreamed of writing about it. The thought of carrying a notebook and mechanical pencil on a thru hike was at one time abhorrent to me. My God, do you have any idea how much those things weigh? This particular post is really only intended for the two people most responsible for helping me find my voice so that I wanted, even needed, to write about this journey. I was a math/science geek. Writing always felt like I was giving birth and the baby was always frank breech. The tyranny of the red pencil forced me to edit as I wrote. Writing felt like torture. Given a choice between writing and a root canal, I would have think about it a long time before making my choice. Nothing was more terrifying to me than an empty sheet of paper begging to be filled. This post is about how I got from that place to a place where I would not think about taking this hike without a journal.
I taught at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn. My math classroom shared fourth floor of the middle school with Todd J., an English teacher. Now Packer’s Middle School was built inside an old church and the fourth floor was in the roof of that church. It is a beautiful space. The architects wanted to keep it open so our rooms were divided by portable book cases. Todd had a reading circle near the elevator as far from my classroom as you could get. One afternoon, while waiting for the elevator, I listened to one of Todd’s classes talk about Black Boy by Richard Wright. This is a book that I was never tempted to read until I heard his class talking about it. I asked Todd’s class if I could read this book with them. They enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Later I figured out that I probably should have asked Todd first, but what’s done is done. I was the eighth grade head teacher which really means that I was the Julie of the eighth grade Love Boat. I planned all the dances including the eighth grade prom and a couple of class trips. While initially I asked the kids if I could join them simply because I wanted to read the book, I later rationalized that it was a way to get closer to the kids I worked with including those I didn’t teach. So I joined that class. When they moved to the reading circle to discuss Black Boy, I was there. I’m always reading a book, but until I joined Todd’s class I hadn’t really appreciated how much discussion added to the experience. Some interesting, unexpected things happened. My math classes improved. They seemed to be less top down and authoritarian and more collegial. When I told Todd this, he told me that his English class was better because I was there too. I was after all the only 50-something in the class. I think my taking their class simply for fun somehow made the class more fun for them too. We decided I would read all of the eighth grade books. The following year, I joined another class to read Catcher In the Rye. Catcher is one of my all time favorite books. I told my students that my parents gave it to me to read when I was in eighth grade and I had to buy several copies because my teachers kept confiscating it because they thought it was porn. It remains the only book I ever flipped back to the beginning to read it again immediately after finishing it the first time. There were a couple of writing assignments connected with Catcher. Todd had what I initially thought was an unrealistic expectation. If I’m in the class, I should do the writing. I don’t think he realized that this meant that he would have to actually read my papers and give me feedback, but Todd is one who is willing to suffer the consequences of his actions. Now here is a huge difference between writing assignments now and writing assignments when I was in school. When we turned in a writing assignment, we were never given any feedback on our work until after we submitted the final draft. Now there are peer reviews and after receiving feedback from Todd, students have the option of revising their work. I read Todd’s feedback from time to time I found myself going back to revise and improve my original work. I never really told anyone about this. I wasn’t doing it for a grade or to get an assignment done. I was doing it for me. Eventually, I felt they were actually finished. Producing a finished work was a new experience for me.
Packer’s Middle School has an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. After one of these, I got to thinking about an old woman I used to play bridge with when I started teaching in Ft Stockton, Texas. I had known this woman for a couple of years before I noticed that she had a six digit number tattooed on her arm. Ft. Stockton is a little town in the middle of no where. Jews are as common as unicorns. I felt compelled to write a story about her and my discovery of her history. My son, who writes for living, read it and gave me feedback. I had put some stuff about one of my cousins who had died shortly before I went to Ft. Stockton to teach. Zeke wanted to know why that was in the story. When you write something it is always clear to you, but that doesn’t necessarily make it clear to the reader. Taking Zeke’s feedback. I radically revised the story to make this aspect more clear. I found my near compulsion to write this story to be earth shaking. I was, after all, terrified of the blank page and here I was writing a story for no apparent reason other than it was screaming to get out of me. All Todd’s doing! Thank you, Todd. I thought about putting a link to that story here, but the story isn’t important. What’s important is that it exists.
My last year at Packer was rough one. My wife had left the school to work on her dissertation. She would not be coming back. I was going to have to move somewhere with her and God only knows where that would be. I had read all of the eighth grade books with classes. What next? At the beginning of the year, I asked Celeste T.,who taught American Literature, if I could audit one of her tenth grade sections. The students I had read Catcher with were currently in tenth grade. She asked the section that met in one of my off periods if it would be ok. Since they had the experience of me in one of their classes before, they were happy to have me join them. I truly audited Celeste’s class. I don’t think we read a single thing that I had read in my own American Literature class. In my high school classes, I don’t think we read anything that wasn’t written by an old white guy. I loved the diverse voices we experienced in Celeste’s class. While I certainly didn’t do all of the homework, I did the what I could. At times, the assignment compelled me to do it. Shortly after joining the class, we were discussing Self Reliance. At that point, Celeste was calling me Mr. Turner (Packer was a formal sort of place). Celeste let her students pass the floor when they felt that had contributed all they could. The tenth graders kept passing to me. Eventually, I told them, “Guys, this is without question the hardest thing I’ve ever read. I’m not here to explain it to you; I’m here to discuss it with you.” After class that day, I told Celeste that she had to call me George to communicate that in her class, I was just one of them. At the end of that unit on the Transcendentalist, we had a project. It was incredibly free form. It could be just about be anything as long as it showed things the Transcendentalist valued. I chose to write about backpacking. I basically write about backpacking trips that I had taken and described the Transcendentalist lessons I learned on the trip. That was the first thing I’ve written that felt like it could be a book. I also realized how much I owed to backpacking. Later in the year, as Celeste introduced a unit of poetry, she told us that if we looked we will often see our own lives in poetry. The class was eventually divided into groups. Each group was going to pick a poem and teach it to the rest of the class. My group chose On the Beach at Night by Walt Whitman. We had no clue what it was about, but we liked the imagery. After a lot of discussion, we came to the conclusion that this poem was about a father explaining to his daughter that life was going to go on, that there would be joy, love and laughter after her her mom had died. BOOM! My father died with I was four and I still remembered how my mother told me and my younger brother this. My life springing out of this poem! I ended up writing a poem about how my mother told me and my little brother this the night my father died. It took literally hours to write the first line of that poem, but the rest almost wrote itself. Reading Death of a Salesman the last weeks of my work life was an incredible experience.
Joining Todd and Celeste’s classes was without a doubt the best staff development I ever had. It changed me for the better. Of course, the administration and most of my coworkers thought I was nuts. While we were all required to participate in staff development, this wasn’t recognized as such. While it is probably true that my actual English teachers taught me the mechanics of writing, they did it in a way that made me hate it…certainly made me doubt that I could do it. Todd and Celeste provided me and their real students with the scaffolding we needed to teach ourselves to write. If they taught us anything about writing it is this: Writing is like giving birth and the baby is frank breech, but then is there anything more joyous than than bringing new life into world?
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