Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Things I found in my duffel bag while unpacking from West Virginia Writers Conference:

-Six new pens, three new pencils, and 14 bookmarks advertising every type of book, from romance to murder mystery to picture book

-One of my dress shoes. If anyone at Cedar Lakes comes across a high heel, I ... don't need it back, actually. I had to ditch them halfway to the dining hall anyway. Who wears high heels to a lakeside conference that feels so very much like a dreamy summer campground from childhood?

-My room key, about which the conference center was very gracious in allowing me to mail back to them instead of charging me $10. I thought I'd locked the key in the room. Turns out I had, for reasons that escaped me, neatly packed it next to my toothbrush. (Seven hours sleep all weekend, folks. This is what happens.)

-An unpopped bag of popcorn Julee gave me (thanks, Julee!) at two in the morning when I realized I hadn't brought snacks and I was hungry, but then I fell asleep before I managed to locate the microwave

-Hand-outs from some excellent workshops and classes

-Scribbled messages in notebook margins: "Remember chicken poem." "Open with exercise?" "B-fast 7:30." "Change 'second' to 'last' in final poem in FV." (Which I forgot to do.) And my favorite: "Casualties: 111111111" -- I kept track of all the times somebody likened deleting passages from your book to murder. Twice it was me and I don't even like that metaphor.

-One dirty sock. Seriously, between the shoe and the sock, I feel like I ought to check and make sure I came back with both feet!

-A bunch of beads that fell off my flip-flop. But for every bead I managed to find and bring home, I'm sure I left at least four in my room at the lodge.

-So much relaxation, inspiration, and excitement it didn't fit in the duffel bag and I had to carry it in my feet that won't stop skipping and my lips that won't stop smiling and, most importantly, in my pen that won't stop moving.

I can't wait until next summer!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Class I Failed

How many minutes in my life have I spent staring through golden mist on a morning highway? I remember it being the most romantic, intoxicating feeling. At six years old, chocolate milk in one hand and crayon in the other. At ten, Coca Cola and a pencil. Sixteen, coffee and a Bic. Scratching out the story with every mile: where I was going. Or where I wished I was.

When I was a kid, I thought every highway would go exactly where I wanted it to. I thought the mist would always be golden.

This time last year I had a foot on each end of the highway. Sold the house, moved three hours away, two weeks before school let out, and commuted to finish out my contract. Every morning I was in the car by four, driving down and down on roads that crumbled and steepened the further south I went.

This morning, children woke up there, in houses next to the crumbling highway, where the mountains are so tall the sun doesn't rise till eight. The highways run in circles. The mist is gray. I spent a year trying to get those kids to tell me their stories, to dream big, to tell me where they wanted their highway to lead.

They didn't understand the question.

Ten months I taught them and they never understood the question.

It has taken me a year to even be able to look back on those months in the coalfields. My anxiety level ratchets up several notches and my mind tries to change the subject, tries to find something else to dwell on before I have to remember each specific face, so adult, so tired and old, so tragic on a seven-year-old. How I hated that look in their eyes. How I hated that year, trying to teach my kids something that can't be taught. Hope and dreaming and a little bit of peace. How to be a damn kid for a minute.

Some days – every day – I wish I could have another shot. Do better by those children. But this time last year, I couldn't force myself to stay. I put in my resignation and the nightmares stopped. I put a For Sale sign in the swampy yard of the house with messed-up plumbing and locked windows. I jumped on the highway at the first opportunity, drove up and up until the mist turned gold.

Left those kids behind.