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.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

I posted this particular piece one year ago, but since so many of my friends will kick off the school year in new teaching positions. Best wishes to those who have the courage to stand boldly before their students and endeavor to guide with patience and love.

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they wrote to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that are heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a Petsmart parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

If you teach a girl to fish....

In a recent phone conversation with my buddy Doug, I whined to him about all the projects I still want to tackle before school starts again, one of which being the repair of one of the “rainbirds” in my sprinkler system. His directions for fixing it went something like this:

     “Uhhhmmm, I think ya gotta yank that sucker outa the ground, then take it to Home Depot and tell ‘em ya need one just like it, then come back and slap the new sucker in.”

It may not be glaringly obvious from his articulate instruction, but Doug is an engineer. He teaches that subject plus photography at the same high school where I teach. What he was getting at, though, was that it wouldn’t make sense to try to repair the mechanism. Replacing the entire sprinkler head was required.

Sigh. This is a job I’ve never done before, and I’ve never watched anyone do it (which is how I learned to change a tire, replace a kitchen faucet and swap out a toilet, all of which I have done by myself). But with a return to work looming in the near future, I decided today to simply see how far I could get on the project before really screwing it up.

Before I began, I left water from the hose trickling around the sprinkler head while I ate breakfast so it would be a bit easier to dig out the sod and so the job would be a bit less dusty. Lord knows my poor lawn could use an extra drink of water.

Then I began. It took less than five minutes to dig down around the sprinkler. I thought I might have to dig a pretty deep hole in order to spin the thing around to unscrew it, but the blessed saint who installed the system had put an elbow joint there, so as I began to rotate the head, the joint pulled up to a ninety degree angle, and removing the broken part was easy peasy.

Not long after moving into this house, it was with great good fortune that I had found, in the side yard, three perfectly good sprinkler heads. I left them there for a rainy day. Wait—wrong metaphor. All that is to say, I skipped Doug’s middle step of heading off to Home Depot because I already had the replacement part (times 3).

I rinsed mud and debris off the connecting joint, screwed the new sprinkler head back on, secured Purrl in the house because she’d been outside helping me as she always does, and turned the system on to see if it worked.

I stood for a moment, savoring my monumental triumph. (I would have whooped and cheered loudly, but it would have set my neighbor’s dog into fits of barking, and they have a new baby, so I kept it to a whispered “Yes!!!

Positioning the sprinkler in the hole, pushing the soil back in and replacing the sod took about two minutes. To be honest, the entire project could have been accomplished in about ten minutes had I not stopped to take photos, thus documenting the process for Doug.

Who, by the way, was very proud of me—but never doubted that I could do it. And just let me say here how much I appreciate guy friends who teach me life skills instead of simply offering to do the job for me. Doug’s a nice guy. Had I asked him, he would have come over in a heartbeat and done it for me. He assumed I would want to do it myself unless I absolutely couldn’t. As a badass independent woman, I have to say I like that in a man.

Moral of the story: Teach a girl to fish, and ever after she’ll not only keep herself busy when you take her fishing, but you can sit back, have a beer, and let her go at it. Ok, maybe that moral doesn’t exactly apply to this story, but I do like to imagine the scenario. It’s kinda romantic.

Friday, July 31, 2015

What it's like teaching high school: Part 3

This post is long overdue. I meant to write about this in June, but there was, you know, pneumonia... and C. Diff... and hives... but then Missouri to help me forget all of that (and now it occurs to me I should probably write something about this year's trip to my favorite place in the Universe).

Then today I was prompted by an email in my work inbox from one of my freshmen. (Yes, it's summer break, and no, I'm not currently teaching.) Why was she emailing her last year's English teacher mid-summer? To ask me what "scent" I would like because she's making "a homemade sugar scrub" and wanted to make some for me, too. Yeah, so, these situations always make me chuckle at the folks who remark that it must be "so hard" teaching high school. Why yes, yes it is. I had to sit there and think for several minutes about how this sixty-one-year-old tomboy was going to respond to a fifteen-year-old who clearly has the superior education when it comes to cosmetics.

[Oh time out right here; I have to go wash the chocolate off my fingers. More about that in a sec.]

Anyway, what I intended to write back in June was just this: I often get thank you gifts at the end of the school year, tokens of appreciation from moms who are grateful I never snapped and killed their rowdy boys or sassy girls. Usually it's something like a Starbucks gift card (thank you!) or a bar of dark chocolate (because I beat it into my students' heads all year long that I love dark chocolate). I did get some nice dark chocolate truffles this year from one of my Honors freshmen (thus the need to go wash my hands because of course thinking about them made me have to eat one). What made the gift lovely, though, was the note the student attached:

Ms. Murphy, I bought these because I love you, not for bribery. ["not for bribery" was very carefully lined through but still readable--the gift was delivered before final exam grades were posted.] Anyways you're a great teacher who made my freshman year enjoyable. Have an awesome summer. I'll miss your sarcasm. Love, Thu N. [heart icon]

Please note the correct use of "you're" in this brief missive. Also the correct placement of commas after "Murphy" and "you." It makes my heart burst with pride. (When I asked my Honors classes at the end of the year what most stood out to them as something they had learned in my class, several immediately and enthusiastically responded, "Learning where the commas go!") In all seriousness, Thu was an absolute joy to have in class, and not because she's a hard working Honors kid (though she is that). She came in smiling every day, and her delighted laughter when someone said or did something goofy was infectious.

Erica, on the newspaper staff, gave me a thank you note as well. In it, she says, "Thank you for "another great year of Journalism." She'll be the editor-in-chief next year, with all the stress and responsibility that will come along with the title, so maybe she won't thank me next June. But she'll be damn great as EIC.

In all, I received five personal notes at the end of the year, and that is the point of this post. Teenagers aren't always sitting around with their heads bent over their phones, their thumbs flying as they send text after text. It is not all that unusual for them to exhibit behavior that is both gracious and humbling. Sometimes they actually sit down with a jelly pen and a piece of paper (or a sticky note) and express their heartfelt appreciation for someone whom they feel has helped them a little along the way.

These artifacts will be treasured, of course, in my folder kept solely to hold such mementos. I suspect I will look at them often in my retirement and smile again at the wonder of great kids.

Monday, July 27, 2015

I Am Cait

“The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives.”

This quote by novelist Armistead Maupin was the epigram (if a television show can boast such a literary device) displayed at the beginning of the premiere episode of “I Am Cait,” the new reality series featuring the life and trials of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner. I must agree; if we were all honest with each other about our fears and our foibles, there would be a lot less hatred and a lot more compassion in our society. But we are taught to follow the norm or pay the price in isolation, so we do. (Because isolation, for some, can be crushing. Consider the example of Richard Cory.)

But occasionally someone happens along like Rosa Parks or Harvey Milk who happens to have extraordinary courage, a person who refuses to bend under society’s pressure and risks being broken by it in order to bring about change. Say what you will about Caitlyn Jenner (and certainly her critics have felt this is a no-holds-barred scenario), her willingness to sit in front of a camera and apply lipstick after having been one of the studliest creatures in Olympic history makes her one ballsy dame in my book.

Those nasty critics have said that her motivation for doing the reality series is fame and money. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Fame? You’re kidding me, right? Ahem, blogger-in-your-twenties, do some homework. This gal already has more than a modicum of notoriety. Money? I want to say the wealth is there, but what do I know? Transitional surgeries are expensive, that I do know. But considering the Jenner we’ve known and loved for years, the lover, the dreamer, the Olympian, I tend to believe her statement that she wants to do good in the world, to reach out to those who struggle in darkness, those who do not have the freedom yet to be who they are openly.

In watching the first episode last night, my greatest concern was for Esther, Caitlyn’s mother. Clearly she loves her child. If my son came to me and said, ‘Mom, all my life I’ve really been, in my heart, female,’ what would I say? How would I react? Pretty sure the same way I did when he came out to me when he was fifteen. ‘Ok. Whatev. I love you.’ But then, I have always been privileged to have had gay and trans friends, even before it was cool for straight people to have gay and trans friends. For sixty-five years, Esther has had a son named Bruce—and for forty of those years, he has been her famous son Bruce. Now he is asking that she change her pronouns, call him “Caitlyn.” It’s a tough transition. And change is always scary, even for the best and bravest of us.

Esther’s bottom line? ‘I love him… that’s not going to change.’ Yes, Mama Jenner, props to you. It brought to mind conversations I had with one of my dearest friends when her daughter emerged as transgender and decided to transition. “Cathy” would become “Lee,” and his mother was nothing less than excited for him and one hundred percent supportive. But Lee’s dad was a staunch conservative, and so I worried and fretted along with my friend over what his reaction would be—needlessly, it turned out. His bottom line was the same as Esther’s: ‘I love my child. That’s not going to change, no matter what.’ And his sentiment has been born out over the years; he and his son have a great relationship.

I have no doubt this will happen for Caitlyn and Esther, and I hope we see their mother-daughter relationship solidify as the series goes on. I doubt that I will watch every episode. As a somewhat ‘gender fluid’ individual myself, I am not interested in Caitlyn’s wardrobe choices or hair accessories or nail color or make-up. But I am definitely interested in her motivation, which I believe is a sincere one. As a high school teacher and a supporter of the LGBTQ community, I am thrilled that this series is out there. Trust me: Across the country, there are teenagers who have shut themselves away from others because of their grief at not being able to live outwardly as they truly perceive themselves inwardly. For them to see a big strong man transition into a big strong (but no less sexy) woman is a tremendous advancement in our society. So thank you, Caitlyn Jenner, for providing, once again, a healthy, positive role model.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Back to Baldy

Last week The Grandson (Ben) asked if I would take him and his girlfriend hiking in Mt Baldy, something we hadn't done in a year or so. Ben is twenty now, will be twenty-one in October, and yes, he still hikes with me (aka "Nana"). How blessed am I? Miraculously.

Yesterday the stars aligned so that we could take that hike. Unfortunately, The Goddess Diana (Ben's girlfriend) was off on a family trip to Northern California, so she was unable to accompany us (though the two exchanged text messages and photos throughout the day as she explored the Monterey Bay Aquarium and he the mountain, so they shared each other's experiences in a lovely 21st Century way).

I had some reservations about this hike. With work, writing, an ankle injury and the past spring's pneumonia, I haven't been able to hike since last summer when I enjoyed long walks in Baldy with Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. My exercise lately has consisted of walking him, doing yoga a few times a week, and constant weeding in the garden. I didn't know how my legs would hold up, so I didn't know how far I'd be able to go. I told Ben as much, but he was game for anything, mostly because he can find adventure anywhere, and partly because he'd been promised lunch afterward at Mt Baldy Lodge.

If you've read this far, dear reader, you may be wondering how that hike went, and I must say I'm eager to show you. (Teaser: I'll share a link to a very short video later in the post.) But... will you indulge me for just a moment while I reflect upon the words of William Wordsworth in his classic poem, "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"? These are the opening lines:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. --Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Certainly it has not been five years, but the poet's excitement at revisiting a place which has carried significant meaning for him is something with which I can identify. I had deeply missed hearing the waters of San Antonio Creek "rolling from their mountain springs" and the serenity of that connection of "the landscape with the quiet of the sky." And I love that mountain because it has been, for twenty years now, one of my favorite places of "deep seclusion."

One of the themes which runs through Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" poem is that Nature is immutable. In other words, you can leave a mountain for a year or five years or twenty and return to find everything--trees, boulders, streams--in place where you left them so long ago. It's one of the magical aspects about hiking in the forest (although there is the potential for that aspect to inflict profound boredom on others if you keep repeating, "Oh my gosh! I love this tree! I've been passing this same tree on the trail for twenty years now!" and other such statements of joy and familiarity with those who haven't shared the same experience).

But back to that glorious hike in sun-dappled shade along the still-running (despite the drought) creek: Yes, we had a lovely time. We walked farther than I had anticipated I'd be able to go, Ben patiently waiting for me each time I stopped to catch my breath or greet an old tree-friend. Ever the explorer, he found multiple treasures in beautiful stones and sturdy walking sticks, and along the way we had those great moments of spontaneous conversation one can only indulge in when one passes into a mystical realm which holds no cell phone service. We took copious photos and videos, with Ben continuing my education in How to Use an iPhone 6. Later, when I had returned to the luxury of home wi-fi, I deftly uploaded pictures to Facebook and videos to YouTube. (To see and hear the "waters, rolling from their mountain springs," click here and here.)

If I can leave you with any parting thought, dear reader, it is this one: Get yourself up to the mountains or into the woods or the forest. Find a place in which you are surrounded by Nature (so much so that there is no cell service, preferably) and just breathe in the cool air and the soft breeze, and let the music of birdsong replace every other sound in your head, even if it is just for a few brief moments of tranquility.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


As I write this, it is late for me—after 10:30p.m. I am sitting on the floor, my laptop wobbling on my crossed legs. Actually, I am not sitting on the floor directly; I'm sitting on Sgt. Thomas Tibb's dog bed, which is on the floor next to the couch. When he is really, really frightened, he leaves his sanctuary in my office to curl as close to the couch as he can get. Tonight he is so terrified by the ongoing explosions outside, I crawl down onto the floor to sit next to him, and this boy who never offers his affection curls against my knee, panting, every muscle in his body tense as he waits for the next bomb to go off.

My neighbors have been detonating illegal fireworks—cherry bombs and M80s—for weeks in the run-up to the Fourth of July. The antics begin every evening around 8:00 and continue for a couple of hours. As I write this it is Saturday night, and I guess we're into overtime on blowing things up because it's the weekend. Thomas and I endured the same routine last year—from June until a week or so after July 4th—only last year he would not stay in the house. He was so frightened, the only place he felt safe was in the back seat of my truck. So for all those weeks, I never went anywhere at night unless I rode with someone else so that he would have a safe place to hide. This year, he has at least recovered from his First Life enough to stay inside with me, for the most part. I have taken to sleeping on the couch, though, because as long as I am close, he will at least lie still (instead of pacing, panting and drooling as he did last year).

Tonight he is exhausted, having been in this state of hyper-vigilance for hours, but just as his head begins to droop against my thigh, another boom resounds through the neighborhood, and his head jerks up as his tongue lolls out with his panting, drops of saliva dripping onto his blanket.

I will stay here with him until it is over, until he can finally relax and sleep. We're buds. I've got his back, just as he had mine some weeks ago.

It's still hard for me to believe how far this dog has come from the emotionally broken shell he was when I brought him home just over a year ago. In January, I posted about his progress. In March, he added a new trick to his exuberant joy by including a complete 360 degree spin to the ecstatic figure eights he races when I come home from work each day. What a difference from the days when I would have to go find him where he was hiding in the side yard and put him on a leash to bring him inside against his will.

In April, I became suddenly and seriously ill with pneumonia. I spent the first horrible days coughing and moaning on the couch, and since I was stuck at home, I left the back slider open—just in case Thomas decided to join me. This has been one of his idiosyncrasies; though he had become comfortable trotting in the door at night to go to bed inside, he still preferred to be outside during the day. Until I became sick. On the second day of my couch incarceration, he came inside of his own volition after I'd had a particular violent coughing episode. I know that he was checking on me, and it nearly made me cry. He curled up nearby, and eventually we napped together that day, initiating a habit that continued, day after day, even when I returned to work. Because it took so long to recover, I was exhausted by the end of each work day, so I left campus as soon as I could, returning home to sleep for hours before dinner. All I had to do was call Thom after he'd finished his happy dance in the yard. We would both adjourn to the office where I would collapse on the spare bed and he would curl next to it. To hear him sighing contentedly as I drifted off contributed, I'm sure, to my healing.

But lest he receive all the credit, I must include this part of the story: The antibiotic regimen that cured my lungs destroyed my intestines, and despite my best efforts (yogurt every day without fail), I ended up with an excruciating case of C. Diff. In the first, horrific days of that onslaught, I was often doubled over in agonizing pain. During one such bout, as I gasped and sobbed, Purrl suddenly appeared, jumped onto the counter next to me, then slowly, carefully climbed onto my back as I sat hunched over, clutching my abdomen. I started to tell her to get down, but realized she was offering comfort in the only way she knew how. She laid down quietly on my back and stayed there until I finally calmed down and my breathing returned to normal. Then she just as carefully stood up, stepped up to the counter and jumped down to the floor again.

For Purrl, this is her reciprocation for my similar attention to her in February when she suddenly became gravely ill. I spent hours just sitting next to her then, stroking her fur and willing her to pull through. Her illness lasted a week, but she finally rallied. And she has recovered in a big way; before her illness, she weighed in at twelve pounds. Now she is a voluptuous fifteen pounds, and I have had to cut back on her bedtime treats. She still loves Thomas with all her heart, and he still just tolerates her for my sake, but I know he's starting to come around.

What would I do without these two plus Sugar Plum, who now on these warm nights instead of cuddling against me stretches her body the length of my arm so she can sleep with her head resting on my hand? They do depend on me for food and shelter and safety, but we depend on each other for comfort and care. So this time spent on the couch—or on the floor, as I am now—with Thomas is no great sacrifice. My good boy deserves it. And as I type these last words, his head is finally resting on his blanket. The terror from the explosions has subsided, and he sleeps... as I will soon as well.