Saturday, November 28, 2015

Eulogy for Danny Fiocchi

I grew up in California, and my cousin Danny grew up in Illinois, so we hardly knew each other. He came out for a visit when we were little kids, but neither of us remember much about that time. I loved his mom, my Aunt Betty. She was my father's sister, and when Dad was dying, she came out to spend some time with us, with him, to say her last tearful good-byes and try to put a good face on losing him. She was kind, caring and nurturing—everything my own mother was not, and I always wished that fate had allowed me to grow up as her daughter.

It was Aunt Betty I wrote to when I was in my mid-forties and wanted some insight into my father. Since I'd been a young child when he died, I knew little about his character apart from the sketchy criticisms Mom would make if I asked her. I wanted to hear about him from someone else's perspective, so I wrote Aunt Betty and asked her what kind of a man my father was.

Many months later I received a large envelope in the mail which contained a letter, photographs, copies of newspaper clippings and an audio CD of Aunt Betty and my dad's brother, Maurice, being interviewed by my cousin Mick about my dad. The information they sent was an introduction to the father I'd never known, and after sifting through all of it for hours, I wept that I had not had the chance to know him better. Turns out he was a pretty good man, all things considered.

Thus began a renewed friendship with my cousins, especially Danny, that grew as the years went on. Via mail, email and, eventually, Facebook, we introduced our families to each other, our children and our grandchildren. But Danny resisted the cyber world, so a couple of times a year, he would call me or I would call him, and now I wish I had a recording of every one of those calls. Somehow, we talked as old friends, even though we'd missed sharing a majority of our lives. And somehow he knew—whether consciously or not—that his time on this earth would be limited. We never chatted about mundane things, though occasionally he would ask about the weather on the mountain where I lived, and I would sometimes wonder how much snow they were getting in comparison. Mostly, we talked about the growth and development of our own psyches. We longed to be good parents and beloved grandparents, but we both were all too conscious of our own flaws. So I encouraged him, reminding him often that his role in the family was to keep everyone connected (a role he took quite seriously), and he would remind me that my role was to write, as that was the gift I'd been given.

And we talked about our mortality. He told me long ago that he was ready to go because we both found the world to be a harsh place. "But I got too many people who depend on me," he would say, and when his grandchildren were born, he found a renewed vibrancy and determination to be around to guide them around the pitfalls of life.

For the past few years, every time I would return from my annual trip to Missouri, he would call and let me know he knew I'd been "close enough to drive to Illinois." In the summer of 2014, I promised him I would not return to Missouri again without coming to see him, which I did this past summer. By then he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life some short months later. But what a reunion. I had not been in the physical presence of my cousins for fifty years. But we embraced as good friends, and we spent our time together laughing and teasing, just as I remember our times together when we were kids. And despite his rapidly progressing illness, Danny was his usual jovial, loving self.

To say that this man was one-of-a-kind would be an understatement. I have never known anyone like him, and my bond with him began in our first phone conversation as adults, when he told me he loved me unconditionally, without really knowing anything about me as a person. I knew he was sincere, and his love and encouragement have kept me moving forward, kept me putting fingers to the keyboard (yes, cousin, I know you're still checking up on me) for the past fifteen years. Because of him, I will push past the writer's block and the dysphoria and the discouragement, and I will continue to write. Because I want to make Danny Fiocchi proud of me. I want to honor his unconditional love for me.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Eulogy for Jean Thompson

Jean at sixteen

On Sunday, September 20th, my cousin, Jean Thompson, passed away.

Jean grew up in Kansas, and I grew up in California. I didn't even know she existed until I was in my late 40's, doing research for Tainted Legacy, and Alice Lee (Zangaro) suggested I call her for information on the Williams family, telling me that we were probably related. We were, but I didn't know that until Jean kindly sent me pages and pages of the Williams genealogy. I had some trepidation about calling her at first, but she was immediately kind, open and embracing—characteristics which she apparently extended to most folks throughout her life, regardless of how she met them.

It seems strange to acknowledge that I never met her in person. After we connected, we spoke every few months by telephone; whenever I had an hour or so to spare on a Sunday and needed to laugh, I would call her. Because she and my grandmother grew up in the same geographical region (although Jean was much, much younger), she reminded me of Grandma Lila every time we spoke, using such expressions as "I'm not a-gonna do it" (something she stated emphatically to the doctor who told her to quit smoking) and adding that elusive "r" to "warsh, as in, "We had to warsh up the floor after Murphy brought us a bird this mornin'." Murphy was her black cat.

Like all the women in the Williams line, including my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Jean might have seemed simple in her speech and demeanor, but she was highly sophisticated in her intellect and insight into the human condition. Our conversations always began with light-hearted, jovial humor, but at some point we would begin to talk about our kids and grandkids, and she amazed me with what she understood about human behavior. Truly, she was an old soul with unfathomable wisdom.

Beyond that, the attribute most characteristic of her was the love she exuded for everyone, and I mean everyone. She adored her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren—and everyone associated with them. Although she'd never spoken to any of my kids or grandkids, she asked about them often when we talked. At the end of every conversation, we always engaged in a gentle competition to see who could out-love the other. ("I love you a million." "Times ten! Ha ha ha!" "I love you to the moon and back!") Jean always won.

When she passed, the outpouring on her Facebook page was extraordinary. People are still posting notes of love and remembrance all these weeks later. She is deeply and daily missed by her family. She is certainly missed by me. And she will be missed by all those great-grands who grow up without her influence. But she has left a legacy in the way she has raised her children, and they will now step up to be those who readily love and embrace others as she did, a great heirloom to treasure from a truly great lady.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

What it's like teaching high school, Part 4

In a Facebook post in September, I mentioned that a very shy boy I'd taught as a freshman returned, now in his junior year, to say hello, and to tell me that life had gotten better, that he talks more now. In response, I received this comment from Donny Rios, a student from class of—2004, perhaps:

S. Kay Murphy, my fav teacher ever! The effect you had on me is everlasting. Because of you and your class my junior year I fell in love with writing. I write songs for a living because of you, my enormous interest in pursuing law school can be traced back to your class. To this day I still talk about the lessons you've taught me and also that damn red balloon movie lol. You have touched many lives and I have always promised myself that if I were ever to win some award or give a thank you speech somewhere I would include you. If that doesn't happen just know that you helped mold me into who I am today.

Are there words to express how deeply his heartfelt sentiment touched me?

For days afterward, Donny's comment floated before my teary eyes as I stood in front of this year's crop of potential poets, songwriters and attorneys. And then something even more miraculous happened.

In anticipation of retirement and downsizing, I have been slowly working through my files, discarding reams of unnecessary paper. A few days after Donny posted his comment, I began to sift through some poems I'd written years ago, evoking memories in the same way paging through a photo album might. And then, BAM. I pulled out a poem entitled "Reading Billy Collins," with a dedication to Donny Rios.

Oh my gosh, I remembered writing the poem but hadn't remembered who inspired it. The flood of memories became a torrent—days we spent in class, me ranting about the beauty of words, my students dutifully resisting anything that threatened a commitment to deep reading. For me, it is always akin to convincing a five-year-old that salad, with all its green foliage, is really tasty. I suggest, nudge, wheedle and plead until they just try a little of it, just to see if they might someday develop an appetite for it. At times—very, very rare times—they do.

Donny Rios did. How incredibly validating for me—especially in this final year of teaching. And then to find this poem, which not only mentions Donny but mentions retirement as well, written all those years ago... I can only say that this special blessing was brought to us today by the Universe. Oh, and thank you. I can certainly say thank you.

Now if you don't mind reading a little further, here is that poem:

Reading Billy Collins
S. Kay Murphy
for Donny Rios

I shake my head from side to side
Chuckling as I turn the page.

Occasionally I don't move on
To the next poem because
I want to savor the one on my tongue.

"How can you sit around and read books of poetry?" my students ask.
"Because he writes about what he is in love with," I tell them,
"and they are the same things that I am in love with."

The hush that follows is familiar;
They are afraid that I will be swept
Over the edge once again with my ranting.

"Like what?" 

The lone voice in the crowd
Is the brown-eyed boy, Donny,
Who hated poetry in September but now in May
Has admitted openly that he loves Robert Frost.

(Can I retire now? Are there accolades that teachers earn for such an achievement as this? A Purple Heart from the President with his warm handshake and a salute, accompanied by an honorable discharge, a hard-earned respite at long last from gum on the desks, phone calls from D grade parents and the ten thousandth essay on Hamlet?)

I digress
As I am wont to do while teaching,
Often choosing to lead my students down
The other path in that yellow wood.

"Mice!" I proclaim, "Dead brown mice!
Dogs! Dreams! Words like they are people! And readers as if they are words!
John Keats! And tea! Billy Collins drinks tea!"

By now I am shouting in my jubilation,
And they are convinced of my lunacy at last.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What it's like teaching high school, Part 3

Today was one of those absolutely golden days of teaching wherein a band geek stepped up to be a hero, we caught a bad guy, and I made two proud mothers cry. Oh--and we spent some time with our favorite reptilian visitor, Houdini--but that part of the day is strictly off the record. Here's how it all went down in a nutshell:

Per. 1 & 2: My Honors freshmen read the short story, "The Interlopers," and carefully picked out the standard elements of short fiction--protagonist, conflict, climax, etc. Steve, who never volunteers to answer questions, raised his hand today--and BINGO!--gave a spot-on explanation of the conflict. (Two men who hate each other are trapped under a fallen tree on a winter night, side by side.) Nice. Rosa (who, by the way, was told by another teacher to leave the Honors program because if she didn't she'd "struggle all year," which prompted a great conversation with my students about grit) gave us the tiny detail that led us to the greatest irony in the story: the two protagonists each pray that harm will come to the other--and their prayers are answered. (**SPOILER ALERT** Both men die in the end.)

Per. 3: For the last ten minutes of class, the kids paired up to drill each other in preparation for tomorrow's quiz. After class, Very Sweet Band Geek Boy (hereinafter known as VSBGB) approached me privately to let me know another boy in class had been boasting about taking a smartphone that didn't belong to him. He didn't intend to return it (he explained to several students around him) and had already removed the SIM card. "It's making me feel bad," VSBGB said. "Like I'm alone in the world" (meaning no one else in the group of students cared about the person who would by now be terribly missing his or her phone). I told VSBGB I would take care of it, and I did, giving a proctor all the pertinent information, who promptly headed off to interrogate the culprit. I mean suspect. (Innocent until... yeah, right, we had him dead to rights, cell phone in hand.)

Per. 4 is my conference/lunch period. New Boy to College Prep earned an A+ on last week's quiz, answering every question flawlessly and with "Repeat after me!" precision, so I decided to call his mama and let her know that he was settling in nicely and that I'd like to recommend him for Honors next year. She promptly began to cry, explaining that she and her husband had just today returned home from an out-of-state trip because her husband's grandmother had died. The family was in mourning. "I have neglected him for three weeks," she said tearfully. "His older brother has been taking care of him. We were so worried about them...." It comforted her to know that her boy continued his life, status quo, in her absence. She planned to reward him upon his return from school. Nice. I also took a minute to leave a voicemail for the mother of VSBGB, thinking she would be proud of her boy, too. I didn't tell her why, but asked her to call me when she could.

Per. 5: Just as I began to teach my unruly fifth period, a teacher's aid from another classroom (an adult, not a student TA) rushed in to show me her iPhone--oh yes! the one the Naughty Boy had nabbed! It had been recovered! He had, in fact, removed the SIM card (which was recovered). He had also removed the case and thrown it in a dumpster. It was a wallet case--with all her credit cards and drivers license in it. That was recovered, too, and yes, the cards were all accounted for. She was over-the-moon happy and thanked me profusely. I explained it was VSBGB (and we agreed to keep his super-hero identity a secret, lest the Naughty Boy swear out a personal vendetta against him).

Per. 6: I suppose we always need balance in life--from heroes and villains to comic relief--so the Journalism class was pleased to see Katie show up with her bag full of tegu. (A tegu is a very large, very exotic lizard.) She's had Houdini since she was a freshman, and she has brought him to school nearly every day, at first hidden beneath her beanie (when he weighed a pound or two), then curled in the bottom of a cloth bag that looks like it would hold a bundle of PE clothes. Houdini is huge now--over three feet in length--and an absolutely beautiful mini-dinosaur. The young journalists gathered 'round, and Katie told them all about the care and feeding of a tegu. She's part of the Zoo-Bot club on campus, so sometimes it's actually legit for Houdini to be on campus. Today, though, she just came by so I could see how much he's grown. (NOTE: I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to my boss. He's a bit touchous about critters in the classroom. Ahem.)

After school, since I hadn't heard from the mother of VSBGB, I called his dad. Papa was very, very proud (and convinced, as I was, that Boy would come home from school and when asked about what transpired in his day would respond "not much" in typical teen fashion. "Did you call my wife?" Proud Papa asked. I let him know I hadn't received a return call. Just as I was getting in the truck to leave campus, my cell phone rang. When I told Mother of VSBGB that her boy had been quite the hero, she immediately began to cry. She was so choked up, she could hardly speak. "We've never had a teacher call to tell us something nice," she said, echoing what her husband had said. "We're just so proud of him and we love him  so much." How could you not? He's very sweet. AND a band geek. AND a young man with empathy who saw something and decided to say something. Super-hero.

I have fewer than 150 days left to teach. May each day hold such tiny golden gifts as these. I will treasure them forever.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Open Letter to the School Board of Upland USD

I have been employed by Upland USD as a teacher of English for the past thirteen years. In this letter, I do not presume to speak for the other teachers in the district; my opinions are solely my own, though they may be shared.

Formerly I worked for the Jurupa Unified School District. I began my teaching career there, and I loved my job. I taught English, Journalism and Yearbook, and by the time I left I was making close to $90,000 a year. I took a $12,000 a year pay cut to come to teach in Upland. You may wonder why. (Certainly my friends and family members did.)

It would take far too much column space here to attempt to unravel all the turbulent events of the mid to late 1990's in that district. Suffice it to say, it all began over money. Teachers faced a situation similar to the impasse we have now in Upland. Attendance at school board meetings rose dramatically and tempers rose accordingly. Teachers rallied and carried signs, bought slogan-printed t-shirts, got the community involved. People took sides. Administrators who were sympathetic were transferred punitively, and that's when things really became an ugly mess of name-calling and shaming. (For all the gory details, look for stories archived in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and the Riverside Press Enterprise.)

Through all that mess, I continued to teach. I loved my students, and I loved my colleagues. I showed up for work every day ready to teach, to encourage, to support, and I waited for resolution, for the dust to settle. Sadly, it never did. Oh, eventually the district offered a salary increase that was acceptable and teachers ratified a contract. But the damage was done. Bitterness and resentment remained, permeating every classroom. It felt like a marriage that is irreparably damaged by anger and infidelity. And then the turnover of administrators began as the district hired principal after principal in a desperate attempt to find someone who could shore up sagging test scores (which had plunged right along with teacher morale). Nothing worked. The pervasive negative attitude coupled with a principal who felt no qualms in making profoundly hurtful and sexist statements caused me to look elsewhere for work.

I will never forget my first year working for Upland USD. I was welcomed repeatedly by everyone from administrators to the maintenance crew. New teachers were given constant support, and as I met my colleagues, I found people who still had that zeal to make a difference in the lives of the kids they taught. Everyone smiled. Not so now.

Do the teachers currently employed by Upland USD deserve a raise? Absolutely. I could go on and on about how hard we work and what we sacrifice; please don't think any of us have forgotten about buying our own copy paper and yes, buying our own toilet paper when we were asked to conserve a few brief years ago.

But there is now something at stake here that is greater than money, and that is virtue, specifically, the virtues of dignity and mutual respect. These were the virtues that were beaten down and destroyed by angry activists on both sides in Jurupa Valley. It took that district a decade to recover.

I did not come to Upland because of the salary schedule. I chose Upland because of the school district's reputation. Friends told me Upland was a district steeped in teacher support, professional regard and civility, and these are exactly the traits I found here. I would implore you not to allow these traits to be further eroded by the salary dispute. What we stand to lose in teacher morale and support for our students will be a very great sum to forfeit, I assure you, and, once lost, could take years to recover.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wood Shop

I suppose this post could be the sequel to "If You Teach a Girl to Fish." The guy pictured above wearing safety glasses and using a circular saw is my buddy Doug, literally the aider of damsels in distress (because that day when I called him, his response was, "Any time I have the opportunity to aid a damsel in distress, I'll take it").

Four years ago I bought a beautiful, custom built drafting table on I'd been looking for just the right drafting table for years, and when I saw this one, I fell in love. I drove to Apple Valley, plunked down $200, and carted it away in my truck. The following winter I wrote The Dogs Who Saved Me while sitting at that table every afternoon. Problem was, though, it was just a few inches too tall, so I could never quite get comfortable sitting on a stool or standing up.

Two weeks ago when I had a new floor put in the family room, I called Doug and asked if he would come over and help me move furniture back in place so I could function in my house again. This prompted his damsel in distress response, and he appeared an hour or so later, helping me not only with the furniture but the TV and computer as well.

The drafting table had been moved to the patio during the flooring job, and when Doug asked if I wanted to bring it in, I explained my issue with the height and asked him if he thought it would be feasible to just chop a few inches off the legs. This time his response was "Get a taller stool."

In the end, though, he went home and returned with a saw, a router, a fancy ruler and some other fascinating stuff, and went to work.

I will confess here how envious I was as I watched him. When I mentioned something about the "boy skills" he possessed, he referenced his experience with Wood Shop in junior high, and that hurt just a little. I had asked counselors in both junior high and high school to put me in wood shop or auto shop classes but was told those were "all boy" classes. Times are different now, of course, and girls are certainly not discouraged from taking vocational education classes at the high school where I teach, and I'm glad for that. I love wood, and the idea of having both the skill and tools to build something lasting is a very compelling one to me. Alas, I'm relegated now to standing on the sidelines and watching.  Hmm. Perhaps a wood working class might be placed on the agenda as an activity after retirement.

Less than an hour after Doug began, we were carrying the drafting table back to its spot by the window in the family room. We set it down, and I shook it. Absolutely amazingly stable. No wobble. Ahhhh, the perfect workspace.

When I'm writing, I often do so with a notebook open and also the internet open as well, especially if I'm working on a blog post. (In this post already, I've double-checked my accuracy on "circular saw" and "router," and I grabbed the link to the previous post.) The drafting table gives me lots of space for all that plus room to stick a lamp and a few pencils and a cup of tea. And a cat, on occasion. I have illustrated some of this in the photo below (sans cat). A removable sheet of glass covers the surface of the table, so I can place things under it—such as the outline of the children's book series I'm currently working on.

Having the table just right is a small thing in the larger scheme of my life. But... workspace to a writer is much like a classroom is to a teacher; you kinda need a place for all your books and pencils and stuff.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Atticus Finch is not a real person. He is a character in a novel. While he may be multifaceted and dynamic as a character, he is that and only that—a character, comprised of the requisite parts given him by Harper Lee when she wrote the consummate American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird and also when she wrote the first draft of that novel, which is now known as Go Set a Watchman.

For in fact, that is exactly what Go Set a Watchman is—a first draft, the initial disorganized and somewhat plotless musings of a slightly younger Harper Lee than the one who wrote Mockingbird. Miss Lee's publisher, HarperCollins, has done the business of promoting Watchman as if it were an entirely separate novel—because that is what their identity is; they are a business. As much as we would like to think of publishing houses as being run by noble, educated persons who are nearly super-heroes in their defense of great literature, the truth is, HarperCollins is a business organized for the purpose of making money. Lots and lots of money.

And so it seems they have done with Watchman. (It is currently number one in literature/classics on Amazon.) But while they touted this book as 'a new novel by Harper Lee,' those good folks know exactly what this is; it is the first pages of a novel written by a young college student who thought she might like to write about the South, her hometown, and her father. In Watchman, she characterizes Atticus as having caved to the agenda of the racists of his town. In Mockingbird, he stands against such folk. Which Atticus best reflects Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper's real-life father? Who can say, and we will never know, as our beloved Miss Lee, always reticent to give interviews, is now beyond the point of discussing either novel.

When I wrote Tainted Legacy, a book about my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, who is now vilified as a serial killer, I wrote the original draft to fit the current True Crime genre. After long discussions with a publisher who read that original draft, however, I decided to rewrite the book as a memoir. Now it is a book that I am quite proud of, as it reflects a wider scope of Bertha's story (which is also my grandmother's story and my mother's and mine as well). In the same way, I believe Harper Lee had similar discussions about her first go at a novel, and she came away with some ideas about how she wanted to change her portrayal of this character, Atticus Finch, and the town of Maycomb... and herself. Thus she produced the much beloved work we know today as Mockingbird. If only she'd had the presence of mind to toss that first manuscript in the incinerator... as I have done with my first attempt.