I was done in by my curious urge for notebooks. If not for that insatiable appetite, I might have been a poet, a publishing mogul, a well-traveled journalist. Careers that seemed likely when I was an undergraduate. But I was unable to divorce notebooks from school. I am a teacher, famous in a five hundred pupil building for my first hand knowledge of young adult literature, poems papering my walls, and an endless supply of peppermints.

Back to school sales make me salivate. Midwinter finds me pawing through notebook clearance sales. Each June I dig through wastebaskets for all the barely used ones.

To the untrained eye, these piles of potential journals have no worth. Yet those blank lines are so many miles of farmland waiting to be tilled. There may not be cash in that soil, but I'm sure there are acres of gold. I might not plant there today, but I know that I could. My collection insures the sowing that guarantees the harvest. For all that may be there, hidden in the furrows, I keep writing.

My job is to usher reluctant, remedial readers cloaked in adolescence from their black and white lives into life between the lines. Books, poems, essays, articles. Words to lead them, follow them, keep them company in whatever life they choose.

Unlike notebooks, I don't select or own students. I don't try to collect more. I can't make any do my will. I pat them on the head, lead them to the shelves, settle them on a couch, hand them books and poems. With luck and perseverance, I'll help them discover that words will bring them the best things about themselves.

Many students are like the land I imagine in my notebooks. Rolling plains that seem barren hide blossoms that await just the right combination of sun and rain. I start each day sure that I can find the perfect mix between the pages of a book. Sometimes it's a desperate quest.

I hear teens sound out words letter by letter. Some can't embrace literature because they never mastered consonant blends. Sight words are too few and far between. A few misspell "write" three different ways in a two and a half sentence paragraph about all the places in their houses where writing is visible.

I don't like any of that. Some days finding the right words is like yanking my wisdom teeth. I wish they were less needy, that I could fix the problem with a rewrite or two, crumpling and tossing what I don't like.

They've grown to cringe from words, so show me fear and anger first. Eyes dare me to dip into their icy river, sure they will win, that I will come no closer than the shore. I'm braver and more determined than they know. I want to shoot the rapids. Where there's water, there's life. For all that may be there, hidden in the depths, I keep teaching. To warm those frigid stares, I give them what they want first.

Candy.


"Chocolate War" is a gay book." This from Aaron, after his usual post bell, yes, it's necessary Mrs. Damerell trip to the bathroom.

"What do you mean by gay book?"

"All Quiet on the Western Front was the best book ever, got me in the belly. This one doesn't have the same oomph. Just doesn't interest me as much."

"Is that why you talk while you're reading?"

"Yeah."

"You're losing interest because you're letting yourself be distracted. You're not becoming a part of the book."

"That's what snowboarding does. Let's you become a part of the mountain."

"What happens it you get distracted when you're snowboarding?"

"You're dead."

"What happens when you get distracted during a book?"

"Nothing. We talk."

"Nothing is right. Something is supposed to happen when you're reading. Is talking the same as reading?"

"No. I hate all the talking in the book. Why don't they just do it?"

"So it's their planning you hate."

"Yeah." He crouches and pretends to shoot around the room. Just what I need.

"So choose another book."

"Nah. I don't want to waste the half of this book I've already done."

I can't win. But I haven't lost yet, either. Things got better for Aaron after our talk, as today's section of the book was about Rita and her big breasts that managed to brush against a character's arm. Planning took on new meaning.


I begin class (at least the morning classes) with a poem which I read to them; the candy is their reward for reading it back to me. Earlier in the year I actually had students memorizing poems, but they quit doing that, accusing me of being crazy to expect them to actually memorize four lines of poetry! And I lost the will to insist.

I handed Aaron a poem by Emily Dickinson. After my reading, he promptly tossed it on the table, without comment, and refused the candy. Nothing works forever. In other classes I have students who ask, halfway through class, if they can read a second poem for more candy. At this point, the candy is really for me - a pick me up for all those times they mutter about what a waste of time this class is. What I want to say, and haven't yet, is "Yeah, and you'll go real far with that third grade reading ability." I've refrained partly out of respect for whatever feelings they may hide under the long stringy hair, earrings, and Way Too Big pants, and partly because it frustrates me to hear their plans for the future.

"I'm going to work at one of the local nurseries. You earn two hundred a week and get laid off all winter. My mom works there and can get me a job."

"How old are you?"

"Thirteen."

"Isn't it against the law to hire teens younger than sixteen?"

"Not at a farm. The nursery counts as a farm."

That's real dialogue, too. Some of it just stays with me, like so much molasses, and lately I often wish I could wash my hands of it.

We recently had a career day at school and many students complained that all the presenters talked about the importance of education. Duh. Gee, you'd think we would have had the brains to bring in a few unemployed people to balance that. Not that education guarantees employment these days. Today's headline: "Xerox to lay off thousands. Rochester to lose 2000 jobs."

Write "Ellavon" at ellavon@ellavon.com.
Editor: Robert Basil. Special thanks to June Denbigh, Ray Szeto, and the Raylock Design Group.
Copyright retained by all contributors.

Released: March 31, 1998