In Praise of Teachers

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This is a talk I gave at a fundraising dinner for the Artists in the Schools Program sponsored by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. It’s about the teacher I had in fourth grade who turned my life around, and showed me that there was something to become that appealed to me. After the talk, a woman in the audience, a teacher who has had visiting artists in her classroom said that she a change in some of her children after the artists’ visits. She could see them light up, see new possibilities, and become more engaged. Art matters! It matters to children, but it matters to adults too. It matters more than ever now because we’ve all go to see new paths. Here’s my talk:

 

I was a withdrawn child. I was shy. I was awkward. I felt dumb. I couldn’t pass tests. And I am pretty sure that I tested out as having a low IQ. The reason I believe this is because when that first IQ test with the little squares to fill in arrived in my life, probably around first grade, our teacher told us we could not pass or fail, and a test one could not pass or fail did not seem very serious to me, so I filled in the squares to make patterns. And once I was committed to it, I kept it up. So, I don’t know how I tested out. I was probably brilliant one year and off the charts in the other direction the next.

I know though that I liked patterns. I noticed patterns. I noticed shadows and sunlight and tree bark and rhythm. But noticing patterns did not help me in school. It has however helped me with art. And I found this out in fourth grade when I met my new teacher. Her name was Mrs. Semonche.

On the first day, she wrote her name across the board in beautiful handwriting, in a straight line, underlined and she said, “Not Mrs. See-man-chee. Not Mrs. Comanche. Mrs. Semonche.” I was extremely impressed with her, not just because she headed off the butchering of her name right away, but because she was young and beautiful. She was slim, wore A-line skirts, stocking and heels, had fake eyelashes that I didn’t know were fake at the time, and reminded me of Jackie Kennedy, our first lady at the time. In short I could tell that Mrs. Semonche was fresh and new. She hadn’t been in the trenches long. She was not jaded and she had a lot of ideas about how to teach us, she was eager to try them out, and she was a big fan of the arts

During this one year of my life, we studied art. We studied every kind of art Mrs. Semonche could fit into our schedule. We sculpted, we drew, we collected color pictures of famous paintings, we learned about the Impressionists, the Modernists, Abstract Art, Surrealism. We’d never seen anything like Salvador Dali.

We also had a unit in theater. We put on a play: A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. We were in fourth grade. We made the costumes. We created the set. We memorized the lines. Well, some kids memorized lines. I wanted nothing to do with a speaking part, so I signed up to be one of the fairies with my best friend Ellen. Our job was to drift across the stage periodically wearing some great filmy dresses. It seemed enough to me, but not to Mrs. Semonche. She needed an understudy for the main female role Titania, and there was no one left to do it but me, so Mrs. Semonche, in the way that grown ups do, coerced me into accepting the understudy role. But like the IQ test, I didn’t take it very seriously, and I never learned the lines.

One day Sally Hill, the girl whose role I was supposed to understudy was not in class on a day of performance. All morning long kids were hitting me on the arm and saying, “You’re going to have to play Titania. You’re going to have to play Titania.” And I nodded dumbly and mutely. I didn’t know any part of those lines. At what point I would have confessed this, I don’t know, because Sally Hill finally showed up, and I did not have to shame myself. I got away with it.

Mrs. Semonche was right that I needed to learn to speak up, but she was also wrong. I needed to find my own way to speak up. I needed something quieter. And I found it in the next art unit Mrs. Semonche taught called Creative Writing.

What a breath of fresh air Creative Writing was. I started receiving checkmarks on my papers. Nice detail, Mrs. Semonche wrote across my page, the part where I wrote about the smell of grass, the part where I wrote about the pattern of leaves in the sunlight on the ground, the part where I wrote about the filmy curtains in an old hotel room. Finally my penchant for noticing pattern was paying off. I started writing. I started seriously writing. Outside of school, I deconstructed movies I saw on TV and wrote them into stories, which is plagiarism, but I had no intention of publishing them, so really it was study. In the same way art students learn about composition by copying pieces hanging in museums, I was learning about plot and characterization and dialogue at a very young age.

Until Mrs. Semonche entered my life I had not known that writing and storytelling could be things, were things, adults did. I did not know I had a talent for anything. Stories were magic to me, and remain magic, but that magic was legitimized by Mrs. Semonche.

I took Creative Writing as an elective throughout public school. I wrote my first novel in 11th grade. I’ve written six books since then and published four. I’ve learned something from every single one of them. I learn something every day about writing and how to be an artist. It’s a daily education that began for me in fourth grade when I was lucky enough to have Mrs. Semonche as my teacher.

In 2012 I attended my fortieth high school reunion. I’d not really been aware of it at the time, but I went to school with the same batch of kids from first grade through 12th. When asked what teachers we might invite to our reunion, we named Mrs. Semonche. She only taught that one year. In talking to my classmates, I learned that she’d made a difference in their lives too. The arts, they said. She introduced me to sculpting. To painting. To writing. To acting. To a new way of seeing the world. To knowing I was smart. I learned I had a talent. I began exploring. I started reading. I visited museums. She expanded my world. That introduction to the arts was a lifeline. I heard this again and again.

Mrs. Semonche, that one teacher who celebrated the arts and taught her only fourth grade class everything she knew, did attend our class reunion. She had cancer at the time, although none of us knew it. We surrounded her and hugged her and told her what a huge difference she’d made in our lives. Many of us had found a niche because of her. We began to understand ourselves as important and worthy. We started expressing ourselves, and we kept it up through the sixties, through the turmoil of our own roiling hormones, through good decisions and bad ones, she gave us a tool to use for the rest of our lives.

This is what the arts do. They give a feeling of belonging, of expression, of value, of community, of humanity. The arts make us kinder, and we need that. The arts give is different points of view and we need that too. The arts give us empathy and self worth and self trust, and we need all of that. When you support the arts you support much more than that one individual who created something. Your support fingers out into places you can never know about.

I teach a free class at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. I’ve been teaching this free class for 15 years. Sometimes someone emails me and says, “Remember that story I started in your class. Well I finished it, and it’s going to be published.” Just yesterday a student, Don Basnight, emailed to tell me he’s been accepted into The Monti in Durham and to say thank you. And I feel so blessed when this happens. My own career may or may not be going well, but art is never about one person. Art is always about relationship. It is about how we can help each other. Artists are often seen as selfish, but we’re not. We just have different sets of priorities.

Mrs. Semonche passed away a few years ago. She’s someone I will never forget, and although I never fessed up to her about not knowing my lines as the understudy to Titania, I am sure she is aware of this now, and forgives me and is probably having a good laugh too.

So I want to thank you for caring about the arts, for supporting the arts. You never know who you’re touching, and that spread of goodness, even without knowing its exact trajectory, is its own reward. I hope you put your trust in that, because it’s a solid place to stand as a human being. The most stable of all.

Thank you.

Letter to a Stranger

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This was written from the prompt: Write a letter to a stranger. It made me realize I miss this stranger, whom I always saw around Carrboro.

Dear Sir, I love you, and now you are gone, and I didn’t tell you I love you before you disappeared. That’s because when you were here, I did not love you. In fact, you were always annoying to me, but I miss you now, and I think I love you, and I wonder what happened, where you went and can only imagine that you have died.

The way it happened is that one day I noticed you were gone, and realized that I had not seen you for a long time. I don’t know your name, but you, sir, were  a damn good character, and Carrboro, the town we shared, has become so gentrified. There are no good characters here anymore. They can’t afford it. And so I miss you and feel love for who you were.

I miss seeing you in Harris Teeter blowing that one note on your harmonica. It was always one note. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. It never varied. You never played two notes or a different note. It was like your lips were glued to the one place on the harmonica you always carried and always blew into. You never breathed in, only out, and you walked around Harris Teeter playing your one note. It used to annoy me so badly, but today… today I miss you. Perhaps I’ve grown a little.

I miss your harmonica, but even more than that, I miss your car. It was a big green car, long with a big hood and on the hood you’d glued a huge rag doll in a crucified position, and there was a bumper sticker on the back that said, “Be Patient. God Isn’t Finished With Me Yet,” and on the top, just above the driver’s door was a bunch of bananas. The bananas were always there. They were real bananas too, and they were always fresh and yellow and they weren’t glued down. People would drive up beside you and roll down their windows and point and say, “You have bananas on your car.” And you’d nod and smile and say, “I know.”

You used to run a junk shop out at the county line. It was in an old white house. I stopped in a few times. I even sold you some things. I never bought anything. There was a lot of stuff, inside and outside, and after a time the neighbors complained about your place. They said it was an eyesore, so you lined up barrels along the roadway so they wouldn’t have to see it. They complained about that too, and finally you were forced out and they tore down your house. There’s a Walmart there now, but that’s long after a series of other businesses in a series of other brick buildings. They just couldn’t get that corner right. I wonder if you cursed them.

I think now you knew more that I ever gave you credit for and I’m sorry. If I knew where your grave is, I’d go there, clear the weeds of it, maybe put a jar of wildflowers on it, maybe a harmonica.

I want you to know that I think you wouldn’t annoy me now. I think I’d be happy to see you. I’d love to hear your one-note harmonica in the aisles of Harris Teeter. I’d be happy to see your big green car gliding through the traffic of Carrboro, people staring at the crucified rag doll. I’d love to pull up behind you at a stop light and watch the person in the car next to yours roll his window down, point, and say, “You have bananas on your car.” I’d love to watch you nod and smile and say, “I know.”

Sincerely, Nancy

 

Mute

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How do I carry on when I feel mute?

How do I create art and to whom do I offer it?

Does art even matter anymore?

The answers are:

How do I carry on when I feel mute? I don’t know. I just do.

How do I create art and to whom do I offer it? I don’t know. I just do.

Does art even matter anymore? Yes.

The truth is, even though it seems the world is escalating and spinning out of control, even though I feel closer to the brink of street fighting and/or ecological destruction than I ever have before in my lifetime, even though I know more about my own and other’s suffering than I knew before, these have always been the answers to these particular questions.

Yes, art matters.

You don’t know how you make art or whom to offer it to, but you just do it anyway.

You don’t know how you’ll carry on, but you just do.

Stay as grounded as possible. Notice nature. Make art. Find the things and people that will help you not despair, because despair is not an option. The world needs you and your voice, and this has always been true. And will always be true. And on this you can count. This is truth. Art is a steady and stable place to stand. Artists are often known for being flaky and unstable. The truth is, we are very stable. Because we have to be.

 

 

Reading Books in the Age of Madness

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A few years ago, I sat on a public bench, waiting for a friend and reading a book. A woman interrupted me. (Please note: Do not interrupt a person reading a book!) The woman wanted to know what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and then the woman said she couldn’t read anymore. She used to read. She used to read a lot, but now she can’t. She can’t concentrate. Things have become so unstable lately, so volatile that she can’t concentrate on reading.

“Read,” I told her. “Go read a book. You’ll thank me later.”

After she left I muttered under my breath, “You think it’s hard to read in this environment? You should try writing.”

I know a lot of writers. We plug along. We ride the waves of self doubt and the waves of cultural madness. We have no choice. Being a writer, or an artist, requires a little unplugging. So we unplug. And then we plug back in. And our blood pressure goes through the roof and we unplug again. We write. It’s incredibly selfish of us. It’s incredibly hopeless. And it’s incredibly depressing as we watch the celebrity-titled books fly off the shelves while ours, and those of many authors I know, linger and gather dust.

You want to help the world be less crazy? Support the arts. Support a writer. Buy a book that does not have a flashy familiar face on the cover. And be seen reading it. And then buy another.

 

 

Hurricane

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Hurricane Florence is bearing down on North Carolina. If you’re reading this you’re likely in the path of it, or at least of a part of it. We all know the drill – get food and water, gas up the car, tighten down the hatches, get ice. It sounds easy when listed like that, but it’s not. There are lines at the grocery stores and the shelves are empty, lines at the gas pump and people cutting in front of you, or bags over the pump handles, the freezer is void of bags of ice, your mind is constantly scanning for what else needs to be done.

Is the patio umbrella down? Should it be brought in? Do we need to take down the porch swing? Is there something I’ve forgotten? Something I’ve forgotten? Something I’ve forgotten? The echo goes on until it’s over. The question can never really be answered.

Twenty-two years ago Hurricane Fran hit NC and came inland. I lived in a cheap apartment in Chapel Hill in an area that was prone to flooding. My neighbors in one apartment moved out in a rush that very night, taking everything they had with them and not cleaning the apartment and digging up the irises they’d planted and taking the bulbs. I made sure I had plenty of food and cat food and candles. I put the legs of my furniture in plastic cups and hoped that if my apartment flooded it wouldn’t rise above the rims.

The hurricane came at night. Neither I nor my cat could sleep. I stood at a window (which was pretty stupid) and watched the trees whip around against the streetlights. Then the electricity went out and everything outside was dark and all I could hear was the wind. Around 2:00 a.m. there was a knock on my door. It was my neighbor Dawn. Water was coming into her apartment. We decided to vacate and see if we could stay in another friend’s place, up the hill from us. But first Dawn needed to move her car. Water was creeping into the lower parking lot. I called my friend and got the wrong number and woke someone up. I put my cat on the refrigerator and told her she could jump up there if need be (as if she needed my permission) and we walked up the hill with our flashlights to Tift’s place. Tift wasn’t home. We walked back and knocked on the second story apartment of another friend, and he said we could stay there through the night. Unbeknownst to Dawn and me there were fallen live wires all over the place during this walk. The wind had died down but it was still raining. We were lucky. It was pure dumb luck. The best kind. Sometimes I think the only kind.

The next day we returned to our apartments to assess the damage. Only a little water in Dawn’s. None in mine. My cat was fine and happy to be let out. The sky was clear. The air smelled like pine from so many snapped trees. The ground was covered in green needles and green leaves.

My first novel was published two weeks later. In the days preceding this event I was living without electricity. One day a neighbor came by to tell me there was a truck with free ice at University Mall. I got in my car and managed to snag a five-pound bag. I made rice and beans for a group of neighbors and gave candles to others. I got fired from a cleaning job because I’d mouthed off when my client complained about Duke Power taking three days to get their electricity back on. I’d said, “It’s an infrastructure. There are crews from other states up here helping us out. Maybe you haven’t noticed but there was a hurricane.”

There’s no moral to this story unless you want to read it as a cautionary tale not to mouth off to a client. But the real point is this – be patient with people. We’re all stressed out. Be patient with yourself too. After going out into the world of commerce, with varying degrees of success and failure, to get ice and gas and another cooler and butane canisters for the little one burner stove I bought after Fran, I forgot to put water in a pot in which I was steaming vegetables last night. I burned the pot. I berated myself for doing this. I don’t usually make such mistakes. “That was stupid,” I said to my husband.

“Yes,” he answered, “but you did a whole lot of smart stuff earlier.”

That was nice.

In the store where I bought the extra cooler, I thanked the clerk and said, “I’ll see you on the other side,” right when he said the same exact thing to me. We smiled and laughed.

Be safe. Be wise. Be patient. I’ll see you on the other side.

Holding Onto a Young Heart

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I am at an age where I look back on my younger self with great tenderness. I wonder what happened so early in my childhood that my confidence-slate was completely wiped cleaned. There are of course institutions and people to blame: parents, adults, church, school, advertising, TV, other children, teachers, etc. etc. etc. We’ve all suffered something.

What happened to my confidence was no one person’s fault. It was a system, a tsunami of cultural messaging that I couldn’t untangle from, that wrapped its tendrils around my feet with every step I took, that pulled me backwards, or down, or away from expressing my own heart. I knew my heart, but I could not speak it without experiencing ridicule, or arguments, or someone denying its truth. As a result, I became an extremely silent child, a child afraid of being wrong, a child afraid she was wrong. A child who felt stupid, and bored, and who retreated into herself more and more as time went on.

I loved the woods. In the woods no one asked me to point out Taiwan on a world map, and no one asked me to recite multiplication tables, and no one asked me to give my life to Jesus. In the woods I could trust something. I could trust the woods. I could trust myself.

I used to fantasize about living in a cave – a furnished cave with a bed, and rugs, and a cat, and books. But what would I eat? I wondered. Cereal would be good, I thought. I could sneak back home and steal boxes of cereal. But I’d need milk. How would I keep the milk from spoiling? In the end, it was the lack of refrigeration, not the lack of a good cave, that kept me stayed put.

I stayed with my family and I stayed in school and I became a teenager with the usual teenage concerns. One day a boy said to me, “You don’t talk much, do you?”

“I guess not,” I answered, taking in what I perceived as criticism.

“It kind of pisses me off,” the boy said.

So it was criticism.

I talk now. I’m 64 years old and I’m a novelist and I can carry on a conversation with a stranger and I have a public life. Some days I wake up a little panicked over this. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I knew that books were written by writers, but I noticed that I didn’t know anything about the writers themselves. If I ever saw a picture of a writer it was on the book jacket. Becoming a writer seemed perfect for me. I could present a book, but not be seen. Well, things changed, and here I am, a writer with a public life. It’s not bad though. It’s helped me gain some confidence, but I sure didn’t start out with it.

So these days, I look back on that child, the child I was, the child with her confidence-slate wiped clean and I look at who I am now, and I see that tender skinny child with the long, gangly legs and the soft hair on my young arms, the arms that I never raised in school when a teacher asked a question, and with which I hugged myself down in the woods. I see that young girl trying to please everyone by not existing, and not speaking her heart, and I feel sympathy for her and I also feel a smidge of pride, because I know that while she did not speak her heart, she did hold onto it.