Friday, October 28, 2011

The Day Jenny Hubbard Came to Class

Jenny Hubbard

Alexandra said, "I know, I'm just awkwardly walking around with a science project."  

Alexandra's science project

This is her coffee cup.  Her science project regarding capillary action

I'm sitting in a room full of 13 year-old girls who aren't afraid to be smart, and I can't stop smiling.  

I'm at the Village School, a middle school for girls, in downtown Charlottesville and the guest speaker is Jenny Hubbard, author of Paper Covers Rock, her first young adult novel, which was published by Random House this summer.  Her book, which has been named to the top 10 list of "New Voices Among Young Adult Authors", and which just earned a gold medal from The National Parenting Publications Awards, is a creative, poetic and brilliant book that takes the reader into the boarding school world in a way you haven't been there before.  
I am tagging along.

She could just read them pages from her book.  It's so good, and it's polished and they would hear it and they would want to buy it and read it (and they should), but Jenny is a former teacher of college and high school English, and she's got more to offer them than a reading.  She wants them to help her with her new book.  She wants to know what they think.   

If Jenny Hubbard had come to my classroom when I was 13 and given me the first 10 pages of her second novel and asked me to critique it, to give her my opinion, to point out what I didn't understand, I would've left that room and wanted to be a writer.  I would've thought it was the coolest thing EVER.  Maybe they will.  Some of Proal Heartwell's English students already know they want to be writers.  There are tips and quotes all around the room from Eudora Welty and other famous authors.  

Jenny talks to them about what publishers want to do with covers, what happens from agent to publication, and how long it took her to write this book (6 years total, she says, "I know that's going to scare you, but some of those years I was teaching full time and could only work on it during the summer.")  She reads the first few pages.  She tells them she really wants their input.  She's got to send the first 10 pages away to her editor who is "going to go crazy with red pen", so she might as well make it as good as she can before she sends it.  Mauve raises her hand and asks about a plot point.  Jenny says, "That's an excellent question." 

Her generosity doesn't surprise me.  I've known Jenny for over 15 years.  As a poet, teacher, actress and friend, I've never known a more disciplined multi-discipline person.  She's also incredibly encouraging to other artists and students -- she gets it and she also has the capacity to really enjoy your work, which is a selfless gesture that can't be underrated.  I've always wanted something Disney to happen between us, like maybe we could switch bodies for a day and then we could both write about it.  I would love to have a chance to pick from her closet AND sit down to write exactly when I said I would.  

With five minutes left, she asks the girls to write a poem in the voice of a character we haven't heard from yet.  They grab some paper and jump right in.  After one brave student reads hers aloud, Jenny asks them to put their names on them; she's going to collect them.  For a moment, it could be any last moment of any English class across the country right before lunch.  But it's not.  It's the day Jenny Hubbard came to class, and I don't think it will soon be forgotten.    

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jeff is a Long Story

Ladies from the Mooresville High School Class of 1991

Heading south down I-77 Ashley said, "What are you going to say when someone asks about Jeff."
"I don't think they will.  Everyone knows."
Ashley said, "I had a dream that a man without a face would ask about your brother.  You need to know what to say.  Do you want to say, 'He passed away?"
I kept pulling at my wrap dress and looking at my glossy lips in the rear view mirror and I said, "I don't use that phrase.  I'll just say he died.  I won't go into a whole long story.  It'll be okay."
We were quiet for a moment and I turned up the Adele cd.  I told them that they needed to get Adele's cd.  It was a beautiful afternoon turning into a beautiful evening.

It was the night of my 20 year high-school reunion and I was sure that everyone knew my brother was dead. 

My brother, Jeff, earned the nickname, "Pluck" on a week-long chemistry field trip during the summer of 1989.  I never knew how he earned it, but "Pluck" stuck.  Jeff was two years older than me and had a little tiny space between his front teeth.  Jeff was the kind-of person who, if he found you asleep on the couch, would wake you up by putting his finger in his belly button and then putting that finger under your nose.  Jeff self-taught himself to play jazz guitar.  Jeff is a long story.  

At the reunion it was too cold to dance under the tent.  The best pictures were taken before the sun went down, but hardly anyone was there then.  I walked around the front of the house and sat on the rocking chairs on the porch.  My biggest duty was to set up the powerpoint slideshow I'd made of pictures of our classmates.  I'd gone way back into my middle school yearbooks and old prom shots.  My memory is full of moments and teachers and smells, but all these old pictures really took me back.  I think the reunion for me was much longer than one night.  For days I had been thinking of those people, those streets, those t-shirts.  

Jeff got sent to the office one time because he asked Mrs. Henderson if she'd woken up on the wrong side of the coffin.  My mother said, "And what was so funny was that I was sitting there across from her and she DID look like a vampire, so how could I be mad at the kid?"  Jeff went joyriding 5 days before he turned 16 and crashed his two-toned Camaro into a power transformer and knocked out the power for two miles.  We got out of school early because of it.  Everyone in my town knew Jeff. I depended on the grapevine to let everyone know that he died.  

James asked, "What are you up to these days?" Leslie asked, "How old was your son when you adopted him?" Melissa asked, "Where are you living now?"  Then Jeremy asked, "How's your brother?"

There were four of us standing there.  I touched Jeremy on the shoulder and I kind-of winced-smiled.  I said, "He died."  It wasn't enough of a thing to say.  It wasn't enough, but it was all I could say.  I couldn't feign trauma because the intense grief and pain of Jeff's death has left me.  I've grieved my brother's suicide, and it didn't seem like the right time for details.  I couldn't even spit out, "It was five years ago."  I don't know how, but our foursome broke up and I walked into some other thought like, "There are alot of people smoking."

Jeff laughed like a crazy man.  He took great pleasure from funny movies, comic books, and car dancing.  When I got my first apartment, he took me to the dollar store and bought me plates. He told me that the bread I bought was too expensive.  He took me by the shoulders and shook me and said what he always said, "You need to call me more."  When Jeff got deep into alcoholism and depression, he started every day with bourbon in his coffee, and he didn't work.  He cut me off.  When the eviction notice came on his apartment door and his checking account was overdrawn, he left a weird note and shot himself.  

Near the end of the reunion, I took it upon myself to gather my classmates in one room.  The catering people were starting to clear tables and to give us that nudge.  I felt the need to say something.  I felt like you couldn't come together after 20 years and stand beside each other and drink wine and not say something.  So I herded them into one room.  Some people hadn't taken off their coats all night.  It was an indoor/outdoor kind-of event.  I said thanks and I said cheers and I said something about the next time, but I wanted to say, "I am saying thank you for coming tonight, but I'm really saying thank you for all THOSE times, the old times.  You don't know that going to school was the best thing that I ever had, that going home scared me to death, that you helped me survive.  You don't know that people in my house rushed into death like a kid runs into the ocean...or maybe like a kid that's getting chased into the ocean." 
People know more than they let on.  You have more in common than you know, more in common now than you ever have before.  I thought of all I didn't know about what had happened to them over the past twenty years, and all the questions I never thought to ask at the reunion.  At least some of us danced.  Then we hugged and said goodnight.  My cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing.  I would go into more details, but it's a long story...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reunion Games

Duke Power State Park, Summer 1990

"Time makes you bolder, children get older, and I'm getting bolder, too."  
                                                    --from "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac 

On the way back from taking the SAT, Lisa Sawyer shut my head up in the back window.  That's only one of the dangers of big cars with electric buttons.  Why was my head hanging out the window?  Oh, you don't know me very well if you're asking that question.  It was a Saturday afternoon in the Fall, and it was Highway 150 between Salisbury and Mooresville, NC.  I didn't recognize it then as the big step towards the end of high school, towards obtaining my ticket out of town.  Filling in circle after circle, gesture after gesture to say in a quiet, number 2 pencil way, "Gotta go, see ya, this was always going to happen.  You, you go that direction, I'll go this one.  I don't know where you're going, but you're not going with me.  I'm 18 and I'm going thatta way."

Bam.  Fizzle.  Click.  Buzz.  Ouch.  20 years pass, and it's time to head back to town.  To the Reunion at Beaver Dam (yes, I'm already planning the Flannery O'Conner short story/screenplay that's been going gothic southern since the pre-planning days a year ago).  I'm in charge of the Powerpoint presentation of old pictures...and games.  All those with Buster Pointdexter bangs will be highlighted and grouped.  I might go looking for trivia questions...and games.  People hate games.  Why wouldn't that stop me?  Oh, you don't know me very well if you're asking that question.  Here are some ideas I'm toying with:   

1.  Last Chance Cheerleading Pyramid
Be Aggressive.  Be Passive-Aggressive...Putting your knee in someone else's back never gets old, so if you were super-beautiful in high school and won any sort of crown, we're going to need you on the bottom row.  It seems like there's never an in-depth discussion of someone's high school days without a self-description of where you fit in the beauty order.  We hang on to old stories about what you were or what you weren't.  With each layer of our pyramid, we'll say, "Now if you think you were dissed or overlooked or a little turtle afraid to talk or sickened by good looking people...if you ever wanted a chance to be on top, climb on up there little monkey."  It will be brief, that moment on top because backs are tender now and human pyramids are always fragile -- and someone from down below is going to fuss.  They might even holler up to the top, "Dumbass!  You got it all wrong.  They said I was beautiful, but I thought I was ugly.  Big difference.  Huge."   

2.  Roads Not Taken  
Circle up people.  Yes, you can hold on to your pumpkin martini.  Fun.  This is going to be super-fun.  Super-super fun.  It's an improv game that you might've been informally rehearsing over the past 20 years, but that's okay.  Don't beat yourself about over-achieving on your regret list.  We'll go around the circle and you can say, "I should've..."  "I never..."  "The worst decision I've made so far was..."  Then we'll improv dance to "True Colors" with these ribbons that I'm getting at Micheal's, and we'll release all that crap and you'll go away thinking that you never knew reunions could be so therapeutic. 

3.  The No-Games Game
This game will happen all night, kind-of like a murder mystery dinner, but with less snappy dialogue.  You'll know when you're playing it because you'll feel all warm and the hug will feel real, and you'll get that feeling that you rarely get these days, that feeling that you're standing with someone whose known you since you were 5.  They do look different but exactly the same, their little baby face still in-tact.  Remember accidentally turned and popped that girl's sister in the eye with your softball bat?  You fell off a horse with her at a birthday party.  You and her and her and her went and serenaded him "Top Gun" style under his window when he was supposed to be studying.  You sat beside her on the bus to New York City in the 10th grade and no one said anything when you bawled through Steel Magnolias off-Broadway.  You played tennis with her for years and years and she helped you find your retainer in the Wendy's trash.  You thought her and her and him should've gotten more attention and more of a push to go to college and more scholarship money like you did, but you know that only happened to you because you were white.   They should've been in the car to take the SAT.  

So we'll gather under trees and on a big porch and we'll say in quiet and loud ways, "Hey!  We're here.  We're back.  You...after all this time.  This was always going to happen.  We were always going to come back together.  You look great...I'm really happy to see you.  Really happy..."