I'm seventy-five now., but, sometimes --often, in fact, I feel as if I live in the eternal present. Maybe you feel that way too--as if all your ages are very much alive in you, no matter what your chronological age is--as if, sometimes, you can choose an age, almost at random, and just go there, revisit that time, and watch your own personal video of it: "Oh, YEAH! I'd forgotten that!" All it takes is a tiny detail--and, suddenly, you're transported back half a century--maybe more. Maybe just to last week.
I remember walking to school --over a mile--in first and second grade--by myself. Not another human being in sight--down Arnold Hill. I remember looking at the moss in the sidewalk, thinking "Step on a crack, break your mother's back." I remember shuddering, thinking, "How awful! I hope Mom's all right! But . . . how would that work, anyway. I mean, why does it matter--what I step on? Gosh! The world is a weird and scary place!"
Or--my dad's advice comes to mind: "Don't worry about dogs biting you. Only the black dogs bite!" Gosh! Arnold Hill seemed to be full of dogs, and ALL of them were black dogs. Maybe my dad wanted to get rid of me! Gosh!"
And then he said, "Never accept a ride from a stranger!" So--were ALL strangers bad, and scary? Why did he make me walk by myself anyway? It was like a nightmare--one scary thing after another--and all I was doing was going to school."
And then--there was school. McDermoth Elementary. I remember walking in that dark, gloomy brick building. It was like a hospital with the lights off. Creepy grown-ups, and lots and lots and lots of just plain nice kids about my age--skinny ones, chubby ones, tall ones, short ones--and suddenly the bossiest grown-up--the principal-- towering over me, shaking his finger at me, his gruff voice booming down at me: YOU KNOW that first graders are to drink out of the short drinking fountain!"
I remember looking up at him, alarmed, but indignant, thinking: "But I'M TALL! IT WOULD BE REALLY STUPID TO BEND OVER PRACTICALLY TO THE FLOOR AND DRINK OUT OF THAT LITTLE SHORT ONE!"
But he continued to stand there, pointing to the short one, looking at me like he couldn't see what was obvious.
"Oh, brother!" I thought. "He'll probably call Dad and tell him I was disobedient, and then Dad will beat me for being disobedient to a really blind and foolish grown-up." My dad was a pretty scary person. I looked at the Principal as if my look could say, "You are really blind and foolish," and then I did what I thought was a really foolish thing: I went over and bent over low low low and drank out of the low drinking fountain.
You see what I mean. I'm seventy-five and a half--and I'm six--at the same moment.
This is why I write the books I write: I remember things from every age I've ver been--vividly. And I think everybody else does too.
One of the lovely things I remember is our introduction to art, in second grade. The teacher came in one day and told us, “Well, boys and girls, we are going to introduce the entire school—all the students, all the teachers--to art. I have collected magazine and newspaper clippings of famous portraits, and have chosen one for each of you. I’d like you to take yours home and ask your mother, or another relative, or a neighbor, to make you a costume so that you will look like the person in the portrait. Then we will build a frame on the center of he stage in the auditorium, with a few steps going up on the left, and steps going down on the right. We’ll pull the curtain while you walk up the first set of steps and stand or sit for your portrait. Then we’ll open the curtains just enough to reveal the frame, and I will tell the audience about your painting.”
She handed each of us a small clipping. My friend, Diane, had long, wavy dark brown hair. Her portrait was called “Pinky.” She was to wear a pink satin dress with a ruffle at the bottom, and soft pink slippers, and a pink satin bonnet with long pink ribbons, and carry a matching pink parasol with a matching pink ruffle.
“Oh, Diane!” I said, with great admiration, “You will make a beautiful Pinky! You look just like her!!!”
Oh, how envious I was. She looked like a princess. How I wished I, too, could look like that!
Then the teacher gave me my clipping, and my heart sank. Oh-h-h. My painting was called “The Lark.” I was to be a poor, barefoot peasant girl, far out in a field, at dawn, with the red sun just coming up over the horizon. My costume was a rough dark brown ankle-length skirt, with a short white pocket apron for the seeds I was planting, and a white peasant blouse. My hair would be tied back by a kerchief. I would carry a sickle, and look up at a bird singing in a tree.
I understood that I needed to be a poor person because my family was poor. There was no way that I could have a pink satin dress, and a parasol and everything, and, besides, I wore thick, heavy glasses. I knew that princesses didn’t wear glasses. Oh-h-h. What a disappointment—that I had to be a peasant.
“Gee!” I thought. “How will Prince Charming ever find me way out there?” (I thought about Prince Charming a lot, in those days, and drew pictures of myself as Cinderella, coming down steep, seemingly endless palace steps. My dress in those pictures was always pale yellow, and the prince was always standing way up there at the top of the steps, calling after me, “Wait! Wait!” But I was running as fast as I could so my carriage wouldn’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight.)
So, at first, I was very sad about being a peasant.
My mother didn’t have time to make me a peasant costume so her mother, my Swedish grandmother, Selma, offered to make it. She had an old treadle sewing machine in the corner of her dining room, next to the parlor palm by the window that looked out on the driveway, down on East Second Street, just a couple blocks from the old swing-out bridge to North Aberdeen. She made her own clothes, and my mom’s clothes, and my aunts’ clothes. She made everything. She even made her own patterns, and pinned the fabric on me so everything fit just perfectly. Every day I could feel myself turning into a peasant girl, far out in the country somewhere, by the tree with a lark in it. And, when I stood on the stage to practice stepping into the frame, I saw that I was the only one that got to walk barefoot on the cool wooden stage. I started to feel pretty special after all, and I saw that my grandmother’s stitches in the soft white blouse and in the smooth white apron with the wide pocket all the way across were just perfect, and my kerchief fit just right, and I got to use my dad’s real sickle that he cut the grass in the parking strip with ,out behind the raspberry bushes on the other side of the picket fence where you could see Think o’ Me Hill way over there beyond the tennis court and the Natatorium and the football field.
And so, from then on, I thought of myself as an artist, a sort of peasant artist, out in the big real world somewhere, drawing everything I could see, starting with everything that was in our backyard in Aberdeen—the red gladiolas and the Tiger Lilies and the wild pink rose bush under the clothesline where the sheets were always hanging on Monday, and the sweet peas, and the strawberry plants in the round garden by the pear tree, and Nyberg’s old falling-down shed at the top of our stone wall, and the wild cherry tree, with the swirly spidery branches, and the other cherry tree with the other kind of branches, and the blueberry bushes, and the lilies of the valley, and sometimes my mom and dad and sister and brother and the cats all standing still in order, from tall to short, and my sister and me wearing our identical turquoise full skirts with the straps that we could swirl around in and pretend to be ballerinas in out in the backyard under the prune trees.
It was all because we got to be famous portraits standing in the frame on the stage in the McDermoth auditorium, and because we got to show everybody that way that art is about real people everywhere, no matter how much money they have or don’t have, and all you have to have is a little leftover fabric tucked away in a cedar chest someplace, and a grandmother who is an artist, really, who can make just about anything out of next to nothing.
Strange, how these things happen.
I had driven by the school, knowing nothing at all about it, and had felt , “I need to go in there and introduce myself. Maybe I can do some kind of good there. It looks like such a forlorn place.”
So I had driven into the parking lot and had walked in to see if I might speak with the principal.
He had listened—thoughtfully.
“I don’t know anything about this school,” I had said. "I just feel that I should try to do something here—sit in on some classes, listen to kids, and teachers--something."
I had told him I had been a college English prof for several decades, and, to understand the students there better, I had gone out into mostly public schools to listen, take over classes, do what I called "experiments,." My college students, at that time, had struggled in school, had said they "hated" English, "dreaded" English, had felt certain that they could never pass Freshman Composition, and so had put it off as long as possible--until they were, in fact, juniors and seniors. I wanted to understand how their "hatred" and "dread" had developed--what their classes might have been like, felt like--when they were in elementary school.
I had arranged to visit a class of third graders,students who could already read and write., I had assumed that they would be happy, cheerful, upbeat little kids, overflowing with creativity and imagination. The problems, I had assumed, had probably started in Middle School.
I had found, instead, on my first day in third grade, that those eight-year-olds were rarely cheerful, relaxed, and happy, that they were, instead, stiff, anxious, watchful, and way too quiet! And their teacher, from the moment I opened the door, was condescending, critical, sarcastic, and punitive.
In fact, she had told them, in front of me, that first day, how mediocre and unimaginative they were. "You people just think you'e gifted," she had said. "You don't even have large vocabularies! You don't even use large words! You use itsy-bitsy words. You have no imagination. You don't follow directions. You don't pay attention!"
And then she had called across the room to me, as I stood just inside the door, and had said, loudly, resentfully, "I usually like this class, but there is one boy in here that I cannot stand!,”
I had looked around, shocked, wondering how the students were taking this, wondering what this boy could have done or said.
Those third graders just went on with their work--as if this were an ordinary occurrence.
I had made my way across the room, to stand next to her, to whisper, “What’s the matter with the kid?”
“He has a one-track mind!” she had said—disdainfully. "All he ever writes about is sharks.! "He reads book after book about sharks, he writes about sharks, he draws them! That's all he thinks about!”
And then she had added this: “My husband is just like him!”
I told this new principal that I had stayed with that group of students for ten years—because I didn’t dare leave.
These “kids” turned fifty-one this year. Some are Facebook friends. They have their own families now. Some of their kids are in college.
The principal said, “I think I know a teacher who would welcome you. Let me talk to her.”
By the time I got home that afternoon, there was a message on my phone. “I’d love to invite you to my class,” a teacher's voice said. Can you come on Tuesday?"
"Make use of her while she's here," the superintendent told the faculty., as we all sat around a large conference table in his office.
I told them a little about my efforts to understand my college students' needs by visiting public school clsses all across the state.
Well, I tried to.
But how can you summarize more than a quarter of a century of your life?
That's the sad part, to me--but , of course it's humorous too---ludicrous.
This is the story of all our lives. You can't "be there" again--except in pictures, in your mind, in your heart, in your muscles.
Those who were there might even have forgotten all about it, might be remembering something else, at the moment.
So we do a lot of glimpsing, and imagining.
We say, "That reminds me" a lot.
One of my students in my ten-year project in the 1970's and 80's asked me recently, how I was able to lead such an active, engaged life.
"I take naps," I said.
I strongly recommend that! Take a lot of them! Give yourself permission to linger in your memories of how things used to be--or seem.
I asked the sixth grade teacher (whose classroom I was visiting for a year, what she did for fun when she was not teachng. She said she read the Sunday New York Times.
How do you do that!!!" I asked.
"On the run," she said.
Well, that's not my style. When I read it, a few of us would gather on my living room floor, and hand out sections to each other. We'd snack on donuts and coffee, or spring water, and celery sticks--read parts of the section we had, at the time, out loud, get into a discussion of the issues there. It took us all day, that way, just to do some justice to the Arts and Leisure section, or The Book Review, or the Magazine Section.
We read it on Sunday too! We never rushed. We just kept on reading parts of sections throughout the week--and then we piled them up somewhere where we could , maybe, look at them again.
This is how I deal with memories too.
I call that treasuring. I think we need that.
So these kids in the photographs, these sixth graders, are fifty-one now. But if they glance even for a moment at these photographs, they will, instantly, be back in sixth grade, and they will remember how I was standing outside on the sidewalk, with the cemetery behin me, and their frisky selves happily escaping their English class for a few minutes, full of pep and mischief--and not a Type A kid among them--at least not right then!
"Could you do something with the sixth grade boys? It's hard for them to concentrate in class. They disturb the other kids, and they don't get their own work done either."
So, you know how it goes.
They get sent to the office. Right? So, while they're sitting there, they're, well, not exactly thinking about their English homework.
And, you know, walking down the empty hallway, while the other kids are sitting silently in rows in the classrooms is, well, kind of liberating.
Nobody out there but maybe a couple visitors now and then,,, and maybe a custodian.
It feels , well, relatively FREE out there! You can walk at your pace, go down the stairs however you want, breathe, stretch out.
Yes, an empty hallway, really, is about as close to freedom as you're going to get--in a school.
"Oh, sure!! I would love to! Could I possibly, well, TAKE THEM OUT OF CLASS TO DO SOMETHING--like across the hall, in that empty room--where they store the band instruments? "
("Oh, brother! What am I thinking????? Well, we'll deal with that when the time comes.")
"Oh,, certainly. What would you like to do over there?"
"Well, I have a pottery kiln at home, and I was thinking that maybe, since they're probably not that good at sitting still with their hands folded, listening to a teacher lecture, they might focus better if they re doing something --something they regard as adventurous--like building something out of clay. We could spread heavy plastic over the semi-circular tables in there (I think they're used for reading practice, usually.) And we could clean up after ourselves, make sure no clay is left on the floor, or the furniture--or their hands, for that matter. I could take their work home to dry it , and bisque fire it, and then I could take it to Seattle Pottery and raku fire it. I don't know if you're familiar with raku. You can't eat out of a raku-fired piece, because it's still porous, and there's copper in the glaze, which, of course, is toxic inside the body, but the colors are wonderfully bright and exciting and unpredictable. I think they'd really do well at something like that, and find it exciting. It would be nice to give them some positive attention--bring the work to class, and let their classmates see it, and admire it. Then they could take their pieces home, and get some more admiration from their families, have something at home that expresses their interest and engagement at the time."
"That would be great--as long as they were quiet enough, and didn't disturb anyone."
"Sure. I think the chance to make the pottery will be worthwhile enough to them to persuade them not to disturb the others. They might even like that kind of quiet!"
"We don't have any funding for a project like this."
"Oh, that's okay. I don't mind donating the clay, and paying for the Seattle firing."
"So it's all set, then. . . .."
It's not the product, so much. It's the process--more than one thing happening at the same time. Time to breathe, watch, feel, reflect.
My first concern is all those band instruments stored in there, There are half a dozen semi-circular tables in there too--for reading practice. The teacher, you could see, sits in the center.
" How about if we push one of those over against this wall near the door?"
"Hey! Can I sit on the inside?"
"Sure! Just crawl under!"
(Nice! All the musical instruments are behind us now. We all face the boy in the center. We all grin at each other. I ask them to guess how much the bag of clay weighs. They take turns lifting it.
It weighs twenty-five pounds. Surprising. )
"How about if you all draw a sketch
of what you want your piece to look like?"
"I want mine to be big! A bowl that gets wide at the top."
"I want mine to be straight up and down."
"I want mine to be straight up and down, but go out at the top."
"I want mine to be like a flat fish, sort of."
"I just want a slice of bread, with finger holes in it."
"I want , well, sort of like handcuffs."
( I slice layers about an inch and a half off the twenty-five pound "loaf" of clay, offer to make extra coils for them, so they can concentrate on shaping their pieces. I explain how the bottom of their piece needs to be as even as possible, and just a little thicker than the sides. I tell them about "S" cracks that can form in the bottom if we're not careful about that. They watch me make some coils--no quick, heavy-handed motions--peaceful, easygoing not rushed at all, not racing to any finish line., not a mechanical process--a kind of meditation, more than anything else--a chance to gather oneself together, breathe, not worry about performing, about grades, about test scores, about competition, about failure, about trouble, about stress, about feeling like you're on the outside of everybody else's world. )
I think about how much I still enjoy hand-forming, myself, even after all these years--how don't think of performance, of cleverness, at all .
When I make my own work, I am not following a pattern, not trying to imitate anything I have made before, anything I have seen others make.
What I most often think about is the natural world around me--when I hike in the Olympics, when I hike in the Grand Canyon, when I walk along Route 101, alongside Hood Canal.
I think of rocks, and boulders--how ancient they are, how exposed to wind and weather, seasons, centuries--how old they are, compared with how old I am.
I tell these sixth graders what I think of.
I have a kind of reverence for clay, have a sense of its possibilities. I always feel humble around it, knowing that I do my part, almost subconsciously, and then the clay dries, slowly, in its own way, at its own time. I have no wish to rush it. Maybe it will take two weeks, maybe a month. I don't feel anxious about it. I don't say, "Why don't you hurry up and dry, so I can sell you, be done with you, move on to something else?"
No, I look at my own hands, think about what they have touched, and felt, what they have been cut, and torn, and bruised by. I think about the breads they have kneaded, the music they have tried to make, the poetry and grace and meaning they have tried to express, and I feel so strongly that these are the same hands I have had now, for seventy-five years. I would not wish any violence, or pain, or greed, or hurtfulness on them. I wish they were not as lonely and alone as they are, but I treasure them, and think kindly of them., have a world of compassion for them.
I think how my clay pieces all come from these simple and temporary hands of mine, how they say simple and oh so temporary things, even though they long to say wonderful and long-lasting and profound and deeply loving, caring, kind, and grateful things.
I know they listen; they have years of patient listening in them.
All of these things go into the clay. All of these things are part of something so much larger, and so much older, than myself.
These sixth graders have all lived just eleven years. That's not so long, compared with seventy-five. But I already know that their eleven years have not been easy, have not just been lighthearted and fun. They have felt the sting of criticism, and dismissiveness, of rudeness, of rejection, of excessive heat and cold on the part of other human beings--especially adult human beings, who, it's easy to say, "should have known better," should have cared more, should have been more aware, more tender, more loving, more everything.
All that they have felt goes into their clay pieces too--even though no one else sees or knows.
Clay art is a form of healing, a form of appreciation, a form of caring. All of us, together, that day, understood something about this. There was not one second of acting out, not one second of anger, resentment, disrespect, indifference.
This is what clay art can teach, if the teacher knows and understands and cares about these things.
So that first group of sixth graders are fifty-one now, and I am seventy-five and three-fourths, as I have said. And the second group of sixth graders graduated from high school last week.
Because of my vison issues, I was no longer able to drive that long distance, about two and a half hours each way, back and forth, day after day, semester after semester, year after year. But I kept thinking: "They're in eighth grade now. They're in tenth grade. Twelfth.
I had such a longing to see them, spend even a little time with them. But, by then, there were other kids--fourth and fifth graders a little nearer home, a whole elementary school, even closer than that, where I had offered to help students do creative projects around the school, and where the administration had, at first, welcomed the idea.
A few weeks ago, I decided, I just had to call the high school, and ask, "Aren't those sixth graders graduating this year?"
I listed some of their names.
"Why, YES, they ARE!" one of the former teachers said.
I asked if, possibly, I could come down, sit in on their last week of classes--do something.
Classes were over, for seniors, the administrators said. "But you're welcome to come down for graduation practice. There are several rehearsals this week. They start at nine A.M. and go until noon."
"Okay," I said.
I hoped I could see well enough to do that. I would have to leave home about six. I could take the back roads, where I probably wouldn't even pass another car at that hour.
I did that. Took along my copies of what the sixth graders had written--six years ago. Pulled over to take a break from time to time, sat next to a stream, a forest, a farm, re-reading some of the things the sixth graders had written. Saw how trusting, how open, how cheerful, they all were--and how easy it had been for them to laugh, and think fresh thoughts, in those days..
I arrived at the high school parking lot with their sixth grade voices, and their sixth grade energy accompanying me.
"How would you like to hand out certificates to those who were in that sixth grade group?" the new high school principal asked.
"Oh! I'd LOVE it!" I said.
They offered to print out some certificates.
"Oh, no thanks," I said. "I'd like to make my own."
So I sat in the empty bleachers in the gym, watching these kids I didn't know, sauntering in for graduation practice. I recognized one. She looked like a taller version of her sixth grade self.
"Where is so and so?" I asked the administrators. "Oh, he's not here," they said. "He's married. He's a father now. He has a job. "
Wow! At eighteen.
"And how about. . . .? "
"He's not here either. "
"And. . . ."
"They're not here either. I'll circle the ones who are still here."
Half the class--about a dozen. And a dozen gone! Where? How? No one knew. Or said.
The ones in the gym--they're all so tall, so happily inattentive, so at ease, so preoccupied. Did they remembee me? I didn't know yet.
I knew what I would do for my certificates, though. I would write down each person's answers to just one of the questions I had asked in sixth grade on just one day. "Complete this sentence in any way you'd like: 'If you really knew me. . . .'"
I would type at least one answer from everyone--put all their sixth-grade voices in the certificate--the dozen who were still here, the dozen who weren't.. I would give them a little present of their past selves. And then I would thank them for the privilege of having been able to listen to them, of having been able to be with them, and kn ow them--then. I I would share my gratitude for having been able to bring their sixth-grade spirits back to life.
If You Really Knew Me . . .
You would hug me. You would like me. You would like me because I am a nice person. You would love me. You would think I'm funny. You would know my name. You would know my tickle spot. You would know that I'm very friendly. You would think I am beautiful and smart. You would think I'm smart and funny. You would think my family is very creative. You would know me as well as I know myself. You would know I love dancing. You would know I'm smarter than a gummy bear. You would know I'm smart as a monkey. You would know I am as smart as an eagle. You would know I am as smart as a book. You would know I like chocolate. You would know I am not annoying. You would know I think of cool things. You would know I have an albino cat. You would know I make jokes. You would know I have psychic powers. You would know I can multiply big numbers in my head. You would know I am as smart as a cat or a deer. You would know I am smarter than a cougar. You would know that I am smarter than a baby giraffe and a bird. You would know I like college football. You would know I like pie. You would be surprised, because I am awesome. You would know everything about me, because there is a lot about me.