Excerpt from James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother

When I was fourteen my mother took up two new hobbies:1 riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn’t mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker2, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow3. The contraption would be a collector’s item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my stepfather found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.

I don’t know whether it was his decision to pull out or not, but I think not. He was seventy-two when he died, trim, strong, easygoing, seemingly infallible, and though he was my stepfather, I always thought of him as Daddy. He was a quiet, soft-spoken4man who wore old-timey clothes, fedoras, button-down wool coats, suspenders, and dressed neatly at all times, regardless of how dirty his work made him. He did everything slowly and carefully, but beneath his tractor-like slowness and outward gentleness was a crossbreed of quiet Indian and country black man, surefooted, hard, bold, and quick. He took no guff and gave none. He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed-race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children to make it an even twelve and he cared for all of us as if we were his own. “I got enough for a baseball team,” he joked.5 One day he was there, the next—6stroke, and he was gone.

I virtually dropped out of high school after he died, failing every class. I spent the year going to movies on Forty-second Street in Times Square with my friends. “James is going through his revolution,” my siblings snickered. Still, my sisters were concerned,7 older brothers angry. I ignored them. Me and my hanging-out boys were into the movies. Superfly, Shaft, and reefer, which we smoked in as much quantity as possible.8 I snatched purses. I shoplifted.9I even robbed a petty drug dealer once. And then in the afternoons, coming home after a day of cutting school, smoking reefer, waving razors, and riding the subway,10 I would see my mother pedaling her blue bicycle.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it 11; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and 2 there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And3 I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring. I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it. 

It is comforting to look away from the windows and towards the kitchen fire, near which my sister Rose is ironing though she obviously can’t see properly, and it will be a pity if she scorches her only nightgown. (I have two, but one is minus its behind.)4 Rose looks particularly fetching by firelight because she is a pinkish person; her skin has a pink glow and her hair is pinkish gold, very light and feathery. Although5 I am rather used to her I know she is a beauty. She is nearly twenty one and very bitter with life. I am seventeen, look younger, feel older. I am no beauty but have a neatish6 face. 

I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic two girls in this strange and lonely house. She replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud. I must admit that our home is an unreasonable place to live in. Yet I love it.7Intentional fragment: This short sentence, although not an independent clause, creates emphasis by standing on its own. By disconnecting this phrase from the first independent clause, Casandra portrays the conviction of her love for her home despite its being unreasonable, and she makes the idea more important.

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Holler If You Hear Me by Gregory Michie

The topics that dominate our upper-grade staff meetings rarely have much to do with how we can better teach our kids, how we can help them see themselves and the world in new ways. In truth, we seldom have time to talk about individual students at all, unless one of them is being suspended or has broken some sort of rule.8 Instead we go back and forth about detention schedules, or state goals, or lesson plan formatting, or bathroom supervision, or girls wearing too much makeup.2 The lipstick situation is getting out of hand.3 The minutiae become the agenda, and our mission, if we can even remember ever having one, gets buried underneath it all. It can all seem so overwhelming and discouraging that at times like tonight I ask myself why I continue. Why teach? Why do I do it? Why even go in to work tomorrow morning?

A few weeks ago I went to see Gyasi Kress, a talented high school student and actor I know, perform in a play.4 While waiting for the opening act to begin, I flipped through the program, which contained the typical capsule biographies of all the show’s performers.5 The only difference was that these had obviously been written by the actors themselves. Gyasi’s paragraph, written in the first person, predictably listed a few of his theatre credits and mentioned that he was part of a local rap trio. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it said: “I plan to change the world.”6

The words jumped off the page at me.7 I plan to change the world. A naïve notion? Maybe. Clichéd? Perhaps.8 But Gyasi’s bold declaration nonetheless crystallizes why I—and I think most teachers—chose our vocation in the first place, and, more importantly, why we keep on keeping on. At the core of our work is the belief, despite the distressing signs around us, that the world is indeed changeable; that it can be transformed into a better, more just, more peaceful place; and that kids who show up in our classrooms each day not only deserve such a world, but can be instrumental in helping to bring it about.9 Their voices are abiding reminders that there is something to hope for in spite of the hopelessness that seems to be closing in around us—something tangible, something real, something in the here and now.10

Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle that it is the difference between being defeated and admitting defeat that keeps the world going. The kids I teach know full well that the odds are stacked against them. They can find reasons to give up, to stop caring, to not go to school, almost anywhere they look. But I know that despite all that, come 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, Quincy’s opening bell will sound and, as if by a miracle, they will be there, ready for a new beginning, a fresh start, a chance to be seen and heard anew.11 It is that realization that will propel me out of bed in the morning, and it is that through that I hold onto as I turn off my bedroom light ad try to get some sleep. We can make a difference. We can change the world.

Michie, Gregory. Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students. Teacher’s College Press, 2009. pgs. 192-193.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

They were tough.

They carried 12 all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing2—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.3 They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide,4 and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.5 They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. They crawled into tunnels and walked point and advanced under fire.6 Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move.7 They endured.8 They kept humping. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really.9 Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world.10 A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Mariner, 2009, p. 20

My Last Day As A Surgeon- By: Paul Kalanithi

My Last Day As A Surgeon

By: Paul Kalanithi, January 11, 2016

By the time we finished the repair and removed the compressive soft tissue, my shoulders burned. The attending broke scrub, offered his apologies 11 and said his thanks, and left me to close. The layers came together nicely. I began to suture the skin, using a running nylon stitch 2 Most surgeons used staples, but 3. I was convinced that nylon had lower infection rates, and we would do this one, this final closure 4, my way. The skin came together perfectly, without tension 5, as if there had been no surgery at all.

Good. One good thing.6.

As we uncovered the patient, the scrub nurse, one with whom I hadn’t worked before, said, “You on call this weekend, Doc?”

“Nope.” And possibly never again.7

“Got any more cases today?” “Nope.” And possibly never again.

“Shit, well, I guess that means this is a happy ending! Work’s done. I like happy endings, don’t you, Doc?”

“Yeah. Yeah 8, I like happy endings.”

I sat down by the computer to enter orders as the nurses cleaned and the anesthesiologists began to wake the patient. I had always jokingly threatened that when I was in charge, instead of the high-energy pop music everyone liked to play in the O.R., we’d listen exclusively to bossa nova. I put “Getz/Gilberto” on the radio, and the soft, sonorous sounds of a saxophone filled the room 9.

I left the O.R. shortly after, then gathered my things, which had accumulated over seven years of work—extra sets of clothes for the nights you don’t leave, toothbrushes, bars of soap, phone chargers, snacks, my skull model and collection of neurosurgery books, and so on.

On second thought, I left my books behind. They’d be of more use here 10.

On my way out to the parking lot, a fellow approached to ask me something, but his pager went off. He looked at it, waved, turned, and ran back in to the hospital—“I’ll catch you later!” he called over his shoulder. Tears welled up 11 as I sat in the car, turned the key, and slowly pulled out into the street. I drove home, walked through the front door, hung up my white coat, and took off my I.D. badge. I pulled the battery out of my pager. I peeled off my scrubs and took a long shower.

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With heavy hearts… by Teri Orr

First, we grieve. 12

Two young boys, friends just 13, died here this week, days apart. They enjoyed their skateboards and dirt bikes and stuff newly teenage boys enjoy. They did not die from a car crash or a fire or a terminal illness. They died from bad judgement. From making a bad decision they thought they could outlive. There is no indication they meant to die from experimenting with a dangerous substance that they did not know was highly lethal.

There will be time enough for the conversations about drugs in our schools/our community/the times we live. Brutal, tough conversations, perhaps finally now, about the number of deaths in the past two years in our town, of young people under the age of 30, that were all opiate related. Deaths whose cause have been whispered about but not discussed. Because make no mistake — 2 these two boys were part of an epidemic here of massive drug abuse in our town among young people.

And there might even be blame to be dealt to who supplied the drugs to those children. We all carry a piece of the burden for not paying closer attention to the neighbor’s kid. Not asking questions when we understood there to be changes in their friends and lifestyle choices. There will be time for all those questions to be asked.

But for now, just for this week, we grieve. With one heart we mourn the dead child that could have been ours, because they all make questionable choices — even bad choices — and by some measure of grace most survive. We open our hearts to those moms and dads who will spend the rest of their lives grieving their sons, their boys who will not grow into men.

We need to stop talking about what makes a community and be a community. Nobody needs another casserole — they need compassion. A handwritten note. A single flower, hand delivered. A full-bodied hug. And what each of the families needs is that you not forget them — three weeks from now, three months, three years — after all the attention and stories have faded from the news cycle. 3

Every day the school is trying to educate students in the basic subjects and in basic living skills to keep them safe. The teachers work impossibly hard — Bob and Julie and Nancy — to provide them with educational tools and basic living tools, even, often, personal hygiene products. The superintendent, Ember, takes her tender heart to work each day and tries to find where fair intersects with fear. And how to help the students and teachers and parents navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. Our police chief, Wade, and fire chief, Paul, and our sheriff, Justin — and their staff — try to holster emotions and wrangle the real bad guys and redirect the real dumb guys. The delicate balance in a resort community is a complicated dance between law and leisure.

Mistakes kill us. And dumb decisions kill us. And ill winds kill us. And fate kills us. And old age. And disease. Adolescence wasn’t meant to kill us. Maim us a little, yes. Toughen us. Define us. Bruise us. Inform us. But never actually kill us. 4

And the platitudes….” You’ll feel better in time.” “God’s will.” “ Better place.” 5 Stop! 6 Just be sad with these families. Cry with each other. Acknowledge this is rare and abnormal and out of the order of the universe. Hold each other. Touch is good. Let your children see you sad. Let them see how it would break you to have them gone. Let them know they can talk to you about the messy stuff. Or they can talk to another adult. There are bunches in town — at school, at various organizations and churches and charities and the neighborhood — who are ready with a hug and a beverage and a conversation. Everything is fixable if you share the problem. It is the bottled up stuff that creates the pressure that seeks release.

We can’t heal if we can’t grieve. Hearts filled with heavy sorrow are painful but not empty. Young boys who lived among us just days ago are forever gone now and we need to grieve them — and grieve with — each other.

The boys were friends. Grant and Ryan. They belonged to us here in Park City. They grew up here. Played on our streets, rode bikes on the jumps, skateboarded uptown. They were floppy-haired boys in sweatshirts that last week looked like all the other floppy-haired boys in sweatshirts.

And now they are dead. 7

To everything there is a season, the Bible tells us. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn …” This week we should allow sadness to cloud our conversations. We should acknowledge there are apparent mysteries that cannot be understood by a forensics report. Layers of mystery and decisions and judgements and perhaps eventually somewhere, grace. The grace that will lead us home. Together. Not yet, not today, but somewhere down a mountain road….some Sunday in our Park… 8

 

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Disappearing by Monica Wood

So I went back. And floated again. My arms came around and the groan of the water made the tight blondes smirk 9 but I heard Good and that’s the crawl that’s it in fragments 2 the redhead when I lifted my face. Through the earplugs I heard her skinny voice. She was happy that I was floating and moving too.

Lettie stopped the lessons and read to me things out of magazines. You have to swim a lot to lose weight. You have to stop eating too. 3 Forget cake and ice cream. Doritos are out. 4 I’m not doing it for that I told her but she wouldn’t believe me. She couldn’t imagine.

Looking down that shaft of water I know I won’t fall. The water shimmers and eases up and down, the heft of me 5 doesn’t matter I float anyway.

He says it makes no difference I look the same. But I’m not the same. I can hold myself up in deep water. I can move my arms and feet and the water goes behind me, the wall comes closer. I can look down twelve feet to a cold slab of tile and not be afraid. 6 It makes a difference I tell him. Better believe it mister. 7

Then this other part happens. Other men interest me. I look at them, real ones, 8 not the ones on TV that’s something else entirely. These are real. The one with the white 9 milkweed hair who delivers the mail. The meter man from the light company, heavy thick feet in boots. A smile. Teeth. 10 I drop something out of the cart in the supermarket to see who will pick it up. Sometimes a man. One had yellow short hair and called me ma’am. Young. Thin legs and an accent. One was older. 11 Looked me in the eyes. Heavy, but not like me. My eyes are nice. I color the lids. In the pool it runs off in blue tears. When I come out my face is naked. 12

The lessons are over, I’m certified. A little certificate signed by the redhead. She says I can swim and I can. I’d do better with her body, thin calves hard as granite. 13

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“Disarray (collection of drabbles) – Al: The One with the Crooked Jaw” By: 7Storm and Split Evan

The wind blew gently through the sparse trees, rustling the dry air and dusty landscape. 14

It carried stale scents of the watering hole, a desolate desert oasis, 2 with only a few skinny dry trees. The earth here was rock and arid.

Al opened one eye, glancing around the dusty land below, the empty watering hole. 3 He grumbled, raising his head to sniff. 4

He was a loner. Abandoned, 5 he would never reach adult size, but for now he was surviving well, however empty his stomach was, and with every day the ache in his shrunken belly hurt less.

The male stood letting out a gurgling grumble, stretching his legs, The watering hole was a lonely empty place, but he had gotten used to that feeling by now. 6

He lifted his beautifully teardrop-marked face to gaze around the land. His land. 7 His single shade tree up on the hill, the one under which he had spent his first night on his own when he was just a few weeks old. The day that changed – or more so ruined – his entire life. 8 A chill ran down his spine and his skin shivered, Al shook his head and rearranged his jaw. Horribly deformed, it had set him apart. The jaw was the one reminder he had, a promise for vengeance in the Tail-whip creature that had torn his life apart. 9 He ran a tongue across the scar tissue and malformed bones, narrowing his small eyes. But for now, vengeance could wait.

He trotted back along the lonely hot shore under the blistering sun, plopping down under the sheltering shade of his precious tree with a grunt, the coolness instantly making him close his eyes. His hungry gut quieted, and his mind slipped into the cool dark sea of dreams, away from the blistering lonely watering hole.

——–

He was a young hatchling again. 10 But not a comfortable child-hood memory of playing or snuggling with his fellow siblings like it should have been. 11 No, Al’s opportunity to that had been ripped away. Instead he lay there on the hard hot earth, pain making his vision blinding white. And the stench of fresh iron-smelling blood filled his nose, mouth, and pooled around his head in a dizzying amount. 12 Searing pain left his pupils just constricted dots. But soon his vision began to clear, the white light of pain faded only slightly. And who should be standing there but the towering shadow of his mother! His eyes brightened and for a second he forgot his pain, and cried out for her. The large female Allosaur looked down at her offspring, at how crooked and loose his bottom jaw, almost severed, hung. 13 She stood still, staring at what had become of her hatchling, the bloodied half dead mess he was. Her small eyes met his wide agony-filled ones that stared at her in anticipation of the comfort of her presence.

She turned away.

And left. 14

Maternal instinct only goes so far. 15

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