Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Value of Imagination

It is hard to figure out why telling a story is so important when the front pages of every newspaper flood fear, hatred, danger, violence. Reading through headlines and delving into analysis pieces and reportage, my head swirls and I look away and then look back, committed to know what is happening in the world--yet fearing it and feeling insignificant and deeply troubled by it.

There is a question that reverberates inside me a lot lately: How do we not get lost? It was a question Jennifer and I first heard when we watched the film Dinner with Friends years ago. It is the story of two couples--one of whom is divorcing, the other of whom stays together. By the close of the film, one partner wonders aloud, "How do we not get lost?" In essence, how do we confront and face all that seeks to obliterate love and forgiveness and mercy in our world, and not get lost?

This past weekend, my seven-year old, Tyler, and I went outside to climb the trees in a nearby field. For hours, we climbed and created imaginary games about pine-cones and contests and races and reaching higher. I didn't notice it in the moment, but those hours were the first in a long time that I was existing at only one moment: the present one. I was so deeply enthralled by the imaginary visions of my son that I stopped--at least for a while--with the imaginary visions of all the horror that was yet to come in our world.

I hadn't realized how deeply it was with me. All the time. On the drive to teach my 7th graders, while teaching, and on the way home.

How do we not get lost?

I think there is a balance between knowing as much as we can--trying hard to stay current and then do all we can whether giving money or time or sharing messages or writing letters--and then also living in that beautiful world of possibility: imagination. And when we do one to the denigration of the other, we lose our ability to keep moving forward. We lose our ability to have the endurance to keep loving and letting ourselves be loved.

We become, without balance, much like one of the characters in a novel. The Absolute Value of Mike, that my 7th graders read. His name is Poppy and he is unbearably despondent after the death of his son, Doug. Rather than allow his wife and others to love him, Poppy shuts himself off from the world. The world is too painful, too cruel and untrustworthy, and so Poppy chooses to sit and remain in a world of his own.

What Poppy doesn't realize is that while his son had suffered and died, the world is still very much alive. There is more work to do, and more love to bequeath. Poppy had left the possible--the new kinds of love that others around him choose to imagine--undone and unexplored.

The value of imagination is that it helps to provide balance, and imbues us with the energy to keep moving forward, believing that even in the face of treacherous violence and fear, love is still possible. Storytelling, then, is a way of sustaining our spirits so that we can act in love. Stories seek and speak to our souls so that we remember, inside, that life is still worth living.

As a kid, I remember reading and re-reading to shreds a book called The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was a collection of ghost stories--hilarious and ridiculous and terrifying---that I could go to anytime the house erupted with screaming and yelling and fighting and fear that I wanted to flee. Those ghost stories were a form of imagination that helped me live through a reality and yet move on from it, simultaneously.

When Jen and I visited Russia many years ago, we were deeply struck by the orphans we met and learned with there. They thrived on two things: hugs and imagination. They let themselves be enthralled by the power of stories, and they gave and received hugs with a kind of reckless abandon and efficacious joy. I know so little of what their lives were (and are) truly like, and yet in the small moments they showed both of us the power of balance: how to live through horrendous experiences and still crave love, crave imagination, crave the possible.

God, help us crave the possible rather than quit because of the present. Help us to be willing to walk into stories--both of ourselves and others and this world and other worlds--allowing our souls to be stirred up there, empowered for further action, small or bigHelp us to remember balance, boldness, and tree-climbing. Help us not to flee truth, but to touch it and still walk forwards.

This, I think, is one way that we do not get lost. This is the power of imagination.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Our First-Draft Selves...Our Tenth-Draft Selves

When I first heard the news that a second Harper Lee novel was going to be released, I did an actual jig. Even though I am not much of a jig-dancer, I did. (I created my own jig, which probably would have made the Riverdance professionals hang their heads low in embarrassment on my behalf.) Yet, as journalistic reports and media coverage of Lee's hotly-anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, came out, I began to view the release with a certain sense of ethical dread. 

Was this what Ms. Lee wanted?

Was it about money for those involved on her behalf?

Why was the novel only being released after the death of Lee's close confidant and handler in all legal issues, her sister Alice Lee?

But as the release approached, I knew that I would have to read the book. My first thought: I'll put my name on the library waiting list so I don't have to necessarily support the whole Lee-being-taken-advantage-of-for-money possibility, etc.

So I put my name on the waiting list, and BAM! There I was: 298th in line for our town of Acton, Massachusetts.

But I was resolved to wait it out.

Until I wasn't. I was on my way home from the library one day and my car kind of drove itself to our local indie store, Willow Books. There, I purchased a copy of Go Set a Watchman, went home, and promptly read the thing as fast as possible.  

Like many readers who once idolized the heroic and calmly brave Atticus Finch, I cringed as I read about him in this semi-sequel. I finished the book, and I almost as though it was my own father who had been pretending--and many years later I had found out who he really was, what he really believed. 

And I mourned--for a little while--the fact that I had even named my own character in The Looney Experiment after him: Atticus Hobart! An eighth-grader who learns what real courage is all about. I saw the "new" Atticus through the eyes of my own Atticus, and I could hear my character asking, WHAT DOES THIS SAY ABOUT ME!!??

I tried to calm him down, let him know that everything was going to be okay. That his courage is still courage. But when I read an article about an actual couple changing the name of their seven month old baby after Watchman was realeased because they no longer wanted him to be named Atticus, I admit I lost some sleep. 

After all: I couldn't change the name of my eighth-grader! And he certainly felt like a real son to me. 
And then I proceeded to devour every news story released about the saga. And my heart kind of flooded over with a certain gratitude when I read about Tay Hohoff, Lee's editor for To Kill a Mockingbird. From all evidence gathered, The New York Times did an incredible job of painting the scene: Mockingbird had been the EVENTUAL draft--the final draft--of Lee's masterpiece. But Watchman had been the first foray. It was only through Hohoff's extensive revision requests and effusive encouragement that Lee was able to get to many drafts later and the masterpiece we have come to know. 

In essence: First-draft Atticus Finch was not the man that later-draft Atticus became. And it was only through the insight, counsel, and support of an astute editor that we came to meet the real Atticus Finch. 
I began to think about this in terms of my own character, Atticus Hobart. And I realized that, at the start of The Looney Experiment, he is definitely his first-draft self. He is terrified of life: of speaking up in class, of talking to AUDREY HIGGINS, or being real with his Dad, of using his voice in any way to speak his truth. 

But Atticus Hobart doesn't stay there. His first-draft self is not his finished self.

And then I began to think about myself, too. And about the people I love. And I realized that we all long to grow from our first-draft selves. We try things, we get it wrong. We try again, we get it wrong again. We make mistakes, mess up, miss opportunities, remain silent when we should speak, speak when we should remain silent, attack when we should repent, repent when we should attack--and so on. 

We all mess up, and were life a courtroom drama, I suspect we'd all be found guilty of a jury for all of the above. For our missed moments and our unkind actions. But the thing is, life is more a novel than a courtroom drama. We get to see our first-draft selves and then we're not stuck with them. We get new chapters, new revisions, new drafts--and we get the chance to create second-draft, third-draft, fourth-draft...tenth-draft selves. 

And the truth is, this process of getting to out next draft-selves is a lot easier if we've got someone supporting us. We can't do it alone. Just as Lee had her editor, Hohoff, to help Atticus Finch become his best-draft self, we too need others to love us, challenge us, hold us, push us, see us, and--especially--see what we can yet become. 

Sometimes, I remind my character, Atticus Hobart, of this fact. Atticusyou don't have to be like anyone but yourself. You are free to become the best-draft of yourself that you can be. 
And I sometimes remind myself of this, too. 

We are all masterpieces--classics of a sort--waiting to become a new draft that is just a little bit stronger, a little bit bolder, a little bit braver. And we all need someone to help us along that road. 
In this way, I see Atticus Finch in a new way. No longer do I view him as a perfect model of sensitive strength. Instead, I view him as a draft--because now I know where he began in Watchman, and how far he came along to get to Mockingbird

I too have a long way to go and a long way to grow. Atticus Hobart does. We all do. And the good news is, that's a journey worth taking. That's a journey worth talking about, writing about, and believing in--no matter how long it takes. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Climbing Mt. Grace (Kind of)

About a hour and a half from us is a Massachuseets State Park called, intriguingly, Mt. Grace. And so, this past weekend, when we were looking for a fun place to explore, something about the name beckoned and two kids + dog in tow, we trekked off towards the small town of Warwick, Massachusetts.

It was a Saturday. A sunny, 80-degree Saturday. And if Walden Pond State Park and Wachusett Mountain State Park were any indication (surefire favorite exploration places for our family), surely Mt. Grace would also be packed.

Teeming with people!

Hard to find a parking spot!

But when we arrived at the parking lot, there were two cars. Two cars and approximately 148 empty parking spaces. I didn't even bother to lean over towards the glove compartment and grab our nifty MA STATE PARK PASS, which allows us to visit any state park for free. No parking fee!

Here at Mt. Grace, though, there would be no parking fees.

Ben woke from his nap, yawned, and then yelled out, "Ball!"

Even though there were no actual balls around, part of the surface of the parking lot must have looked a bit like one. Tyler took off his seat belt and leaned forward, inquiring, "We're here?"

"We're here!" I replied in my jovial Dad-voice, trying to hide the confusion I was already feeling--and the question: But why isn't ANYONE ELSE here?

We all climbed out of the car, and proceeded to read a disturbing sign that informed us of the following (paraphrased):


After chasing Ben down--who was gleefully on his way towards Rt. 78--I turned to Tyler and said, "Maybe we should hike someone else..."

Tyler inquired why, upon which time I re-read the sign, aloud, to him.

Now Tyler was nervous too. And Ben seized the moment to dart towards Rt. 78 again.

We began heading back towards the car, when I saw the sign, "SUMMIT," and an arrow point up a steep path. We had already come this far. Shouldn't we at least try?

This could be a very stupid parenting move OR a decision to not let fear overwhelm my parenting. Aren't there dangers inherent in anything?

We began hiking. I listened intently for gunshots or any sounds of walking as I imagined hunters might walk--stealthily and slowly. I listened for the slow snap of branches, the steady crushing of leaves.

After 20 minutes of hiking, we had seen or heard nothing and no one. I began to shake the fear. Tyler did too. Ben merely looked for ball-shaped objects and Rt. 78.

We eventually did see another human being (and not one with a gun in his hands). Two, actually. A couple were hiking down with their dogs, one of whom frolicked in a particularly goupey muddy puddle. Tyler, Ben, and I laughed.

It was going to be alright. We were safe.

An hour later, we were all wiped. The temperature had risen, our legs ached, and Ben grew heavier on my shoulders. Tyler asked, "Can we go back down without reaching the top?"

My first thought was NO! We've got to summit! And we're so close! But then I remembered that the hike today was about getting out into nature and having fun--exploring, have space to roam and run and be loud. The night before had been a rough one for sleep in the Reynolds home, and we were all wiped.

"Yeah, we can go back," I said and held Tyler's hand as we made our way back down the mountain.

At the bottom, I was grateful and happy about two things: 1) We hadn't gotten shot. 2) There was a huge field just off the trail, where I put down the backpack with Ben inside. And then we all proceeded to play numerous rounds of tag.

Spider tag.

Lion tag.

Kangaroo tag.

Crocodile tag.

Tickle tag.

No-base tag.

And Tyler seemed to forget how tired he was. I did, too. Ben giggled as he watched us run, trying his best to keep up (and even seeming to forget about balls and Rt. 78 for a while).

We stayed in that field by the foot of Mt. Grace for over an hour--running until we were breathless and happy.

And walking back to the car, I kind of felt that climbing Mt. Grace wasn't really ever about reaching the top for us: it was about two things: 1) Not letting fear stop us; 2) Enjoying the journey.

Sometimes, playing and laughing at the feet of Grace is good enough, which is particularly potent for me right now. Maybe 'good enough' is okay--even better--than struggling for a standard that breaks our backs and pushes us beyond joy.

Tyler and Ben hiking Mt. Grace

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Everything is a Ball. Or Not.

Benjamin is now 16 months old, and everything is a ball to him. Balls are balls, of course. Basketballs, soccer balls, kick balls, bouncy balls, footballs. But then there are other things about which his pure relish and love of balls makes his little mind transform into balls.

Things like: the round tops of chair backs, the round handle of a toy fishing net, any building with a curved roof, the front of a car.

While Jen and I repeatedly say back the right word, "ROOF ... ROOF" or "CHAIR ... CHAIR" this doesn't seem to matter much. Instead, his bright eyes and gleeful face grow ever wider and he replies to us and to his big brother Tyler (who also helps in the ball dissuasion mission) "BALL! BALL! BALL!"

And then, usually we all laugh because, hey, it's kind of fun to see almost everything as a ball.


But then I read the news. I open my front door and proceed to go teach my 7th graders. And everywhere I look I see the brokenness in our world. Baltimore. Nepal. Broken hearts. Broken dreams. And I wonder about that question Langston Hughes asked so powerfully and which Lorraine Hansberry brought to life so vividly: "What happens to a dream deferred?"

What happens when we want--desperately--to see the world be peaceful, equal, kind, and instead we see racism, hatred, fear, war, natural disasters, confusion?

What happens to a dream when it is deferred, or worse: impossible?

There is a great scene in Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun when Beneath says to her Ma about her older brother, Walter, "There ain't nothing left to love!"

Walter has acquiesced to the racism of the whites in his neighborhood, who have offered to buy out the black family so that they move out of the neighborhood. Walter is broken, defeated man.

But Ma says to Beneatha a line that makes me tremble: "There's always something left to love." Her subsequent speech to her daughter beautiful articulates that when we are most broken, that is when we most need love.

Years ago, I would have my 7th graders in Hudson focus on that speech, and rewrote it about someone in their own life. We would read Hansberry's play and act it out in class, and every time one of my students read that line from Ma out loud, I would tremble. I would cry.

One year, we brought out students to a live performance of Hansberry's play. And when that scene occurred, I vividly remember sitting among my 7th grade students and just weeping. I mean, weeping so hard many of them around me looked at me and wondered how anyone could ever let an emotional wreck of a guy like this teach them!

And my heart sometimes feels so weak. I can't read about the brokenness in our world without crying. And when I cry, I can't help wondering what I can do. What any of us can do against injustices that seem so formidable.

How can we change a deeply entrenched system of racism?

How can we find hope for deeply broken forms of education?

How can we transform lives--our own and others--fraught with despair or fear or hurt?

And I come back to Hughes. And I come back to Hansberry. And I come back to my sons.

Again and again and again I come back to trying to see the world not just through my own crying and weeping and wonder, but through the lens of hope which others show me.

I try to see that anything good--a poem, a play, a word on the blank page, an interaction with a student, a protest, a smile, a plea--is never wasted.

I know that, soon, Benjamin will learn the reality that not everything is a ball. Some things are most definitely not, and are in fact the complete opposite. Life is hard. Life is unjust. Life is fearful and confusing and painful.Life has jagged edges that don't even  approach roundness, smoothness, and a curve towards good.

But there are still balls in the world. And there is still some hope that we might transform things that had no earthy business being balls into balls.

We might use the tools at our disposal to change, re-envision, rethink, and redeem. We might find ways to help create curves of growth and curves of possibility where none seem possible. And though I can't always find the strength to wipe away my tears and work, I find it most often when I realize the truth of Ma's statement.

In all our brokenness, there is still something left to love. There is still something worth fighting for. There are poems, plays, protests, pleas, and purposes which need hands and feet to energize them.

There is always something left to love.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Waiting for Knowledge...or Pursuing It?

There’s a great scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot when Estragon says to Vladimir, “Let’s go.” And Vladimir replies to his buddy, “Yes, let’s go.” Beckett then gives us the final stage direction: “They do not move.”

Usually, talking to my 7th graders about the English portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test is a bit like that scene. There is not a whole lot of movement when it comes to deep learning, knowledge, and reflection.

So this year—my sixth as a public school teacher—I decided to not really talk about the test very much.

I figured that if my students were learning to become more effective writers, stronger readers, and deeper thinkers, that would show up on any kind of assessment they were forced to take.

But with three days to go until the test, I noticed something: a bunch of my students began to freak out.

“Mr. Reynolds, are you going to prepare us for the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, WHEN IS the MCAS?”

“Mr. Reynolds, what are we going to have to do this year on the MCAS?”

And that’s about when I realized that I was either doing one of two things: 1) being a terribly inept teacher in not photocopying a slew of models and worksheets and test preparation activities for my students; or 2) practicing what I had been preaching all year long: that education is about more than a test grade, and that authentic learning is more about going deep than it is about going fast or far.

However, I relented a bit and explained what the MCAS was about, and what it would ask them to do. I even photocopied a few examples of what the MCAS people said were strong writing samples.

This seemed to quell the anxiety of some of my students. Yet the day before the test, I asked all of my students in each of my five 7th grade classes to close their eyes. Then I asked them to hold up a hand with fingers from 1 – 5. 1 meant I am really freaked out and nervous and anxious about this test tomorrow! 5 meant I am not worried at all; everything will be fine.

While some students held up 5’s, I felt a pang inside myself to see that some students felt a 1 or a 2. Many held up a 3. In years past, I had done more test prep activities, and I had detested every minute of it. It felt so awkward to stop what we were doing as a class to hand out practice bubble-tests, practice test-writing prompts, and practice readings.

I love writing and reading. They are my lifeblood, and I believe that words have the power to dramatically transform lives. But I struggle with the intention behind the words we ask students to read and write. If the intention is words for the sake of accountability, my heart wants to distance itself from activities in this camp.

Maybe I am idealistic. Maybe I need to learn how to help my students pause the normal classroom activities and prepare with conscientiousness and a good work ethic for the test that they are required to take.

Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I need to learn to think about my students more—asking, if they are forced to take this test, then isn’t it my responsibility to ensure they are impeccably well-prepared for it? In this vein, my actions this year indict me as self-focused and unkind.

But some part of me wants to hold on to the hope that as we talked (briefly) about the MCAS this year, and as I used the refrain, “You are more than a test score” over and over and over and…Perhaps something of that reality set in.

Perhaps my students were able to reflect on the fact that we can focus on writing and reading for the sake of writing and reading, rather than bubbling, and they felt the continuity of our class and curriculum moving deeper and deeper.  

Maybe, come next Fall, their scores will provide the verdict.

Or maybe, we won’t be just sitting around waiting to hear their scores. Maybe our stage direction will look a little different than Vladimir’s and Estragon’s. Maybe we won’t be waiting, at all, for the knowledge of if we are strong writers and readers, so much as we’ll be pursuing it. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Looney Experiment: A Cover and a Quandary

I have been reading voraciously over the past week as the news of Harper Lee's second (first) novel, Go Set a Watchman, unfolded. What began as elation about my favorite author's new (old) novel that would be released this July transmogrified into worry and doubt--Does she want this? Is she being taken advantage of?--and then has settled somewhere along the lines of either a humble ignorance or an ignorant humility.

Still not sure which.

Of all the articles that have come out--from incredibly keen observers and analysts in national newspapers around the country to insightful authors and speakers who have aired their opinions on great programs like News Hour--I've come away knowing only one thing: I have no idea what Harper Lee really wants.

And I am becoming more comfortable with simply not knowing. As my first novel is being prepared--copyediting occurring right now!--I am left with a deep sense of irony, too.

The novel is called The Looney Experiment, and it follows the journey of 12-year old Atticus Hobart. It has the heart and humor of everything I've learned about life, twelve-year olds, and courage. And much of what I've learned comes from two people: Mr. Robert Looney, my real-life fifth grade teacher, and Ms. Harper Lee, who penned the book that gave my soul a figure like Atticus Finch to ponder, aspire towards, and appreciate.

So, as the cover for The Looney Experiment is now final, my processing of the news about Harper Lee is anything but. In the next months, we will probably learn much more. And many more brilliant thinkers and friends and writers will share their ideas and insights.

In the meantime, I'm simply grateful--grateful to have had the chance to write a novel that tries to explore the life a middle-school kid named Atticus, and a crazy, old teacher named Mr. Looney. And I'm grateful that the fictional journey of these two characters was--and continues to be--inspired by two characters from my own life to whom I owe a huge debt.