1. Ties that Bind
In yet another instance, when working with characterization, I stumbled across an anthology edited by Nikki Giovanni entitled Grand Mothers. Contained within this book were a host of lovely short stories, poems and memories of Grandmother’s by people of various ages, genders, ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well as geographic locations. Two of the pieces which I used in class were: “A Conspiracy of Grace” by Ethel Morgan Smith and “Roofwalker” written by Susan Power. I read “A Conspiracy of Grace” aloud to the class who became quite enthralled. Once I finished the story the duration of the period was dedicated to discussion of the piece. We talked about how the writer developed and presented her characters in such away that the reader had a vested interest in their well-being. The mechanics she employed to describe her characters. Whether or not they seemed to be three dimensional (real)? Why? Discussion also revolved around writing about the things and people closest to you. They were instructed to do two things for homework. First they were to read Susan Power’s “Roofwalker”. Secondly, they were to select someone in their family that they wanted to write about. The next time class met, following a preliminary warm-up writing exercise and an exercise on characterization, students were asked select a memory and use it to write a short story about the family member they had selected. After some moaning and groaning over the minimum word requirement (200 words) they came up with some pretty interesting results. Actually some which were quite touching.
2. Those Who Don’t
Sandra Cisneros’ book “The House on Mango Street” is a collection of short stories about growing up female, Hispanic, in the “Hispanic quarter of Chicago” in a house on
. It is also about the neighborhood, the people who inhabit it their hopes, dreams, heartaches, disappointments and lives. None of the stories are especially lengthy. Some are a short as three paragraphs (ideally suited for the fast clip MTV music video generation). All of the stories are strong, moving and captivating.
Because of the brevity of some of the stories I was initially reluctant to expose the book to my first year creative writing students. A number of who would try to pass off a paragraph as a short story if they the thought they could get a way with it. But the power and innocence present in Mango Street could not be ignored. So when I decided to present my pupils with an exercise that would allow them to view their neighborhood from a different vantage point I immediately referred to “Those Who Don’t”. In this extremely short story Ms. Cisneros considers the way her neighborhood appears outsiders as opposed to it’s inhabitants:
“Those who don know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.
But we aren’t afraid. . .. .
. . . . we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. . . . . That is how it goes and goes.”
This tiny story opened the door for discussion pertaining to appearances, formulating assumptions and walking a mile in another persons shoes. It also speaks to making judgments based on our personal values and experiences as opposed to considering another perspective. To reinforce this point students were assigned to read Nikki Giovanni’s Nikki Rosa:
“. . . .if you become famous or something they never talk about how happy you were to have your mother all to yourself and how good the water felt when you got your bath from one of those big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in and somehow when you talk about home it never gets across how much you understood their feelings. . . ..
. . . .i really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy”
Once the material was read and discussed, students were instructed to write about either being in an unfamiliar place or situation (i.e. a strange neighborhood in a strange city; meeting new people) and how they reacted to it. They were told they could describe how their neighborhood lots/feels to them and how it would appear to an outsider (perhaps someone from another part of town, an different city, an other country, or even another planet!)
3. Crossing the Abyss
Over the three (3) year period that I have taught at Coop High School I have noted a change in the demographic make-up of the student body as increased numbers of Latino and Caucasian students have enrolled. During the school year I teach four (4) freshman creative writing classes (Introduction to Creative Writing) one each quarter (approximately 9 weeks each.) The classes are two hours long and meet twice a week.
In one of my freshman classes I was lucky enough to have a relatively large number of Latino students. (Frankly, it was the most racially balanced class I”d had all year.) I sensed no racial tension among the students. Actually I found them to be refreshingly accepting of one another. However, I did note that they tended to be cliquish. For instance, when allowed to sit where ever they wanted the students (African American, Latino and Caucasian) tended to segregate themselves. Noting this I decided to reinforce, for them, the things they had in common as individuals while allowing them to explore and celebrate their differences. At the same time I was looking for material that the Latino students could identify with.
As luck would have it I discovered
Currents from the Dancing River: Contemporary Latino Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry
edited by Ray Gonzalez. It has proven to be a fantastic find. Among the 556 pages of short stories and essays I found a number of pieces that I could use in my class. One of the first pieces of literature in the book to catch my eye was “Kitchens” by Aurora Levins Morales. I decided to have the class read this short story out loud because in this exploration of her status as an immigrant, Morales recalls the cooking lesson she received in her mother’s kitchen. In so doing she discusses the dishes they cooked and the methods of preparation that they applied:
“It’s a magic, a power, a ritual of love and work that rises in my kitchen, thousands of miles from those women in cotton dresses who twenty years ago taught the rules of its observance to me the apprentice, the novice, the girl child: “This much coffee in the colador, girl, or you will be serving brown water.” . . . .”Always peel the green bananas under cold water, mijita, or you’ll cut you fingers and get mancha on yourself and the stain never comes out: that black sap stain of guineo verde and platano, the stain that marks you forever.”
All of my students love to eat . . . .My class is at the end of the day, an especially long day since our day ends at 3:45 P.M. Therefore by the time they reach my classroom they are (to hear them tell it) famished. Food is a frequent topic in their Mind Dumps and as they converse among themselves. It is not unusual for the discussion to revolve around what they plan to eat “as soon as they get home!” So there was no doubt in my mind that this particular short story would get the attention of each and everyone of them. Needless to say it did. Because my Spanish, which was never especially wonderful, is a bit rusty I asked the Latino students to assist the rest of us with pronunciation and translation. By the time we’d finished reading the story aloud their appetites were primed for food and literature.
I then moved on to a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera called “Notes on Other Chicana & Chicano Inventions.” I don’t know why but for some reason when I read the title I assumed this poem was a historical survey of one type or another. The dedication, “for all middle school teachers” while propounding that my initial assumption could very likely be incorrect sparked my interest to an even greater degree. Once I read the poem, written in English and heavily seasoned with Spanish , I realized it was a poetic overview of the rich, vibrant, raucously colorful Latin culture:
. . . . . .”(I am not going
to mention the low rider
actually created in Tijuas in the 40’s
Jose Samuel Flores told me
mecanico de primera)”. . . ..
When it came time to read the poem aloud I explained to the class that because more years than I’d admit to had passed since I’d studied Spanish the Latino students would have to help again with the pronunciation and translation. As we read through the poem, amid giggles which grew to peels of laughter, I watched my class transform from numerous fragmented clusters to a single cohesive group. My usually reserved, quiet, unassuming Latino students were being drawn out and placed squarely in the spotlight by their peers who bombarded them with questions like: “What does that mean?” “How do you say that again?” “It’s a what?” The Latino students were practically rolling in the aisles laughing at the way we mangled their language and all of them got a charge out of my absolutely horrendous accent!
The classroom was abuzz with the chatter of sharing in a discovery. It was only when they’d finished taking turns reading the poem aloud that I realized everyone was seated on the same side of the room. All smiles . . . with their heads bent over Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem. Things had progressed just as I’d hoped they would. It was time to move them to the next step.
“Ending Poem” is, fittingly the last piece in the anthology. It is a collaborative poem by Rosario Morales and Aurora Levins Morales. It was the inspiration for the writing exercise I had planned for my class. But first I wanted them to read the poem together:
“I am what I am.
A child of the Americas.
A light-skinned mestiza of the Caribbean
A child of many diaspora, born into this continent at a crossroads
I am Puerto Rican. I am U.S. American.
I am New York Manhattan and the Bronx.
A mountain born country-bred, homegrown jibara child,
up from the shtetl, a California Puerto Rican Jew
I am a product of the New York ghettos I have never known
I am an immigrant
and the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants.”
Once they finished reading the poem. I explained to the class that what the poets were doing in this piece was comparing the ways in which they are alike and the ways they are different. Which was what I wanted them to do. I divided them into groups of two being careful to pair a Latino student with one who was not. Then I asked them to alternate lines and come up with a poem in which they considered the things they have in common and the things that are different about them. The Latino students were told to feel free to write in Spanish if they so desired. When everyone finished the assignment each pair read their poem out loud to the class. In one or two instances the students opted to work in larger groups. This was the case for three 9th grade boys ( James Jeter, Torres Derr and Jose Garcia) who co-authored the following poem:
“We Have Something in Common”
In this country we are both minorities.
Nostotros fuemos forcaso en esta pias.
We are mistreated in this country.
Y sufrimas mucho in esta lugur.
We are different in many ways.
Comimos differentes comidas.
Our music differs.
Our dance differs.
Our history differs.
and our traditions differs.
But yet we are looked upon
By society the same way.”
As could be expected in some cases, usually when males and females were paired, the obvious was noted. Likewise is was of no surprise that students did not neglect to mention food. Rosemary Johnson and Billy Cordero’s poem is a good example:
“I am a girl.
Yo soy un muchacho.
I am Italian.
Yo soy Boricuan.
We have a lot in common.
Pero, Nostros tieremos mucho en distinto.
We both go to Coop School.
Pero, no me gusta.
We both like music.
Pero no el mismo estilo.
I like pizza.
Pero, me gusta arroza con tostones.
Different or Miso