Mondays with Martin: Beethoven or Baseball?

David Martin

When I write at a computer, I often hear instrumental music with a piano leading the melody. I never notice words or lyrics. As I place my fingers on the keyboard, I sense a concert hall and a quiet audience, waiting. I hear a symphony in the background, and I see Ludwig van Beethoven in my mind.

Why music? Why the piano? Why Beethoven? More importantly, why at the computer? After years of wondering, the answer became clear to me one night, as I tied sentences together and coasted into the 3 a.m. darkness.

When I was young, my mother and I argued weekly about how much time I should practice the piano. There was a nice Baldwin in the house, and she wanted me to play it.

One day, I heard Mother talking to her friends about classical music. The name “Beethoven” came up in their conversation, and I paid attention every time his name was mentioned. “He was the best German composer,” she said.

At first, I was curious if I could make my fingers please Mom, and I was serious with my lessons for awhile. I practiced, diligently, so I could perform at a planned student recital a few months away. Would she think I was a little Beethoven? The stage fright I experienced at that small gathering killed my interest in playing. I knew Beethoven was beyond my reach.

However, the biggest competition for my piano playing time was baseball. I wanted to play centerfield for the New York Yankees when I grew up. Mickey Mantle, I imagined, was my big brother. I was the oldest child in my family, and I needed a brother to look up to, so I picked him. Fast, strong, able to hit on both sides of the plate, and unstoppable chasing fly balls that would be hits against other outfielders in Major League Baseball, he was my hero.

I loved the grass in “my office.” It smelled good. I thrived on the isolation in the outfield and knew it was my job to manage the players on either side of me. I dared batters on the other team to get a ball past me. That did not happen often.

The respect I got from the coach and the rest of the team motivated me to concentrate on the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand on each throw, so I could get a jump on the batter’s swing, as he made contact. I had to cover more ground than any other player. I wanted to be the best I could be, and I felt excited when I caught a line-drive on the run, grabbed a pop fly out of the sun, and threw a frozen rope from deep center field to home plate before the opponent on third could score.

My fingers were meant to throw baseballs, not find middle “C” on the piano. I liked the feel of my hand around the leather ball. I felt the gift of strength in my arm, and if I kept practicing, I would receive more praise from my coach and teammates.

Every Saturday at 10 a.m., God bless her, Mother would make sure I was seated on the piano bench doing my scales to warm up before practicing the new piece my instructor assigned for the next session. Weekly, this routine took place. My desire to improve was not as great as hers. While she dreamed of “Moonlight Sonata,” I dreamed of the Chicago White Sox visiting Yankee Stadium.

In the spring, one Saturday morning, my life changed. As I sat on the piano bench absorbed in a new piece of sheet music, three of my closest friends knocked loudly on the front porch door, only a few feet away from me, as I was lost thought.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

I nearly fell off the piano bench in fright.

One of the boys yelled, “Hey, Dave, we’re going to the baseball field, and we need you to practice some plays. We want to win that first game of the season. Come on.”

Quickly, Mother said, “Tell them you can play in about an hour, after you finish your piano practice.”

“But, Mom, they need me now,” I replied.

“Your promise to me comes first,” she whispered.

The boys on the porch were all older friends from the neighborhood. They played infield positions, because they did not like the outfield. They thought playing there was boring and too much work. They felt better on the dirt, and they needed me to back them up in the outfield.

I was not going to win this contest. Either my friends or Mom would not like my decision. I could always do piano practice later, like my friends said. They would not wait forever. I knew I would be grown up soon, and the Yankees would call me.

Mom’s hands slowly folded across her chest. Her eyes filled with tears.

Beethoven or baseball? I knew that I loved centerfield more than the piano, so I made my move. Fifty years later, I still feel my legs slowly sliding off the piano bench and moving toward the front door.

“Mom, I’ll be back after baseball practice,” I reassured her, but I did not hear her say anything.

As I reached for my leather glove, she reached for the music pages.

When I stepped through the door onto the porch, the oldest boy put his arm around my shoulders and said, “We need you, buddy,” and the other boys agreed.

As I started down one of the many roads I took to reach manhood, I imagined my piano music being torn in half.

Today, in my mind, I sense a bust of Beethoven behind me when I type, and I always write with his music in the background. His powerful notes calm me and let me find inner paths to explore with words. I have no fear of him, anymore, so I write on.

I find time each day to type a little “music,” and sometimes, I talk to him. The music of reflection is a solitary tune. I roll through the storm clouds of life listening to “da-da-da-dum,” as I hear notes coming from the keyboard. The letters that make my words become piano keys, and I don’t look over my shoulders anymore.

Composing my “music” on paper shows me I learned to listen, while playing the piano and running in the sun. I learned the most in both activities when I did not talk, because there is power and strength in finding silent spaces during the day.

The secret of composition is to not think of the ending and what comes before the last page. The best plan is to write one sentence at a time and measure the steps, thoughts, and days in key strokes.

Today, when I watch a ball game, I recall all the fun, challenges, and respect I received at such an early age playing with my friends. Those days defined who I would become many years later. I liked sports, and I could not get my fill. I would love to return to those games and play them one more time.

I raise my hands above the keyboard, once more, and hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with those famous four notes. I am still practicing, Mom. This time I hope to make music, as I struggle to form complete sentences and developed paragraphs. I listen to Beethoven’s notes, but I write my own internal rhythms and play my own tunes.

Mondays With Martin: Who Knew?

David Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s note: This essay from David Martin was initially written when Fine Lines was “only” 25 years old.  It’s a little older now, but the essay’s message is just as relevant. 

25 Years: Who Knew?

Fine Lines is dedicated to the development of writers and artists of all ages. Our publication started out as a classroom newsletter in 1991 and has now turned into a 50 state writing network and a 501 (c) (3) non-profit educational organization. The first issue was four pages long and allowed many students new opportunities to show others their clear thinking and proper written expression. Each online, quarterly issue is about 300 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art by “authors and artists in process.”

Now, 25 years later, Fine Lines receives creative writing from authors of all occupations: prose articles of medium length, reflective essays on diverse topics of life experiences, what one learns through the writing process, and poetry in all forms. We have printed writing from a six-year-old, a 94-year-old great-grandmother, ministers, janitors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, and students of all educational levels. In this quarter century of effort, we published writers from every state in this nation and 38 foreign countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Australia, Barbados, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Dubai, Egypt, England, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Sicily, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Togo, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Vietnam, and a US Navy aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. Who knew this wonderful development would happen to a little journal like ours?

To paraphrase George Orwell, good writing is like a window pane, and the editors of Fine Lines hope to assist developing writers see through their windows more clearly. The bottom line of our work is to help writers develop their full potential. Often, we see ourselves as “writing coaches” and value reader participation in this endeavor.

Our Fine Lines mission is to provide a beacon of hope for the misunderstood, share a global vision of improved literacy, embrace the passion of human diversity, understand the need for clarity in all communication, and create the lives we desire through the written word. Led by dedicated volunteers who provide creative oversight, we are an inclusive, nurturing, writing community engaged in the thoughtful pursuit of beauty and truth.

Composition is hard work, and we are proud to show its rewards in each issue. We hope readers share with their friends, students, and fellow writers who love creative expression and celebrate our language. Join us in forming the lives we desire through the written word. Writing of life’s experiences, emotions, and discovered truths brings order to chaos, beauty to existence, and celebration to the mysterious.

In our four anthologies each year, many authors attempt to improve the world through constructive composition, clarifying their views of the world and using words to develop better pictures of humanity. At the beginning of the latest technology age, it took 40 years to sell 1 billion computers, 20 years to sell 7 billion cell phones, and 5 years to sell 1 billion digital tablets. This record teaches us not to settle for the here and now. Dreams show us the world we wish to inhabit. With proper written expression, we can do better and go farther.

Each issue is a collective art gallery of emotions and feelings. There are so many stories behind each page and new-found joys of using words to communicate with others. How nice it is to be heard. How wonderful it is to share a warmth of rhythm and a flow of understanding from one human soul to another. Our stories are simple gifts. Our writers find inspiration by not running from their passions. They compose with purpose.

People of reason need poems, songs, and stories that bring life to the page. Facing the blank page is the first step of creation. Our creative writers deeply inhale that open space. They breathe in and out and become sisters and brothers of that nothingness. In happiness and celebration, they use metaphors as medicine. They write every day to heal hearts and souls. They invite the lines to take them in. We are a collection of broken pieces, but with the help of others, we can restore ourselves. Nature gives us grace to start again with a new blank page. We must tell our stories.

“Everyone on this road is going somewhere” (Roy Rogers). My father believed that and lived an unusual life. He had so many stories that he was the hit of every party he attended. He knew every cowboy in the county, and they knew him, too. He felt potential was overrated. Having the ability to do any job, accomplish any goal, and complete any project required two things: passion for the task and a tough discipline to see the work completed. Artists, athletes, and cowboys must learn to finish their jobs. “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion,” said Friedrich Hegel. However, those people who deliver as much effort in the fourth quarter of their lives, as they do in the first quarter remain the most productive.

Fine Lines strives to be a motivational manifesto for new writers of all ages who have stories to tell the world. Our editors search for the purity of characters’ messages. We are looking for our homes. We are searching the place to do our best work. We want to know where we will be safe. What is your story? What do freight train whistles mean? Do you hear music in unusual places? When that one person whispers your name, how do you respond? When sleep is hard to find, what does the light rain falling on the roof mean? This is what we are all about. Slow down. Look people in their eyes. Touch them with words. Share your voice. Help others. Make yourself available to the world. Write it down.

Hope is alive for “young writers of all ages” in our publications, and self-expression comes to the surface in all creative forms. We mark their growth process line by line and page by page. Fine Lines echoes Umberto Eco, “To survive you must tell stories.” Each Fine Lines issue is an inspirational journey. The most important door to view the world of knowledge is through an open mind. We take the 26 letters of the English language, rub them together in sentences and paragraphs to start fires that turn into essays, songs, and poems, as the light of wisdom winds its way toward understanding who we are and what we must do with our days. There are so many ways to pray.

Move to the front row of your life and capture the most important part, the “now.” Life is influenced by diverse mediums: dance, theater, poetry, electronics, and cinema. They are an ongoing exploration of the world. Use the anticipation, excitement, and doubt in life to appreciate the calm moments, which prepare us for the chaos that follows.

“How does anyone grow a national literary journal with no staff, no money, and no advertising?” The first answer is “Most don’t try.” The second answer is “Fine Lines found a small group of dedicated volunteers, a couple of administrators who looked at the big picture of literacy and schools, teachers who recognized our potential, a lawyer who wanted his colleagues to write better like our authors do, and students of all ages who loved the idea of sharing their ideas with the world.”

The need for increased literacy is prevalent, and we want to do our part to speak for those who have no voice. We want to let good grow. Words bring hope and magic in so many ways. When things don’t go the way we want, we turn the page. We evolve a little each day. Stories matter. Words matter. Who knew?

Dedication, writing daily, giving our journals personal names, and encouraging them to come alive in front of our eyes, like children, can make us better writers. “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work” (Chuck Close).

Through the past 25 years of organizing, editing, publicizing, and communicating our mission, Fine Lines has played a part in cultivating a new generation of writers, artists, and insightful souls who appreciate the value of creativity. The work has been our engine of change and growth; the readers have become our products. We work to cultivate the value of creativity. It is my hope that we will succeed for twenty-five years more.

 

Write on.

 

David Martin

 

Mondays with Martin: What My Students Taught Me

This David Martin essay captures a great deal about what it means to teach.  It’s also funny.  (And should have been posted earlier this week.)

 

David Martin

In forty years of teaching, some unusual classes have come my way. In elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, universities, graduate schools, business workshops, and retirement homes, the students have been challenging and pleasant, unpredictable and insightful, unprepared and inspiring. The following sixteen English classes gave me a true education because the students taught me how to listen.

JOURNAL WRITING — “BIC 101”

For this class, knowledge was needed in athletic taping. There were a lot of wrist sprains because so much volume was produced. Assignments were graded by the pound. Just like chopping boards in karate class where the person swung his hand through the object, the journal writer wrote through the pain. Students learned to quickly switch to the other hand, when their normal writing fingers fell quietly limp by their side. I read every page, and they knew it, because all the writing came back graded, stamped, or commented on. No one could hide in this class, and usually, I knew more about each student than the school counselors did. Frequently, a counselor would appear at my classroom door and want to talk about “Freddie” or “Lilly,” because I encouraged all students to write about what concerned them at school, at home, and in life. This was a great way to “back into class” and informally work with student issues, while teaching composition at the same time.

GENERAL ENGLISH — “Duck”

Slow learners with low metabolism traditionally filled these classes. They often exhibited symptoms of chronic jock itch. Alex asked to be excused to the restroom every time I assigned in-class work. The last time he was in my class, I said he could not leave to avoid the classwork, so he stood in the middle of the room, loudly cleared his throat of more phlegm than I thought any human being could possess, and spit a large volume of sputum twenty feet over the heads of students through an open window, as they gagged and laughed. He earned an immediate pass to the principal’s office and never returned. Now, every time I hear someone clearing his throat, my impulse is to lower my head.

REMEDIAL ENGLISH — “Little Birds”

Corrective surgery was performed on an out-patient basis. Much physical therapy was advised. Once, under all the rubble, I found an honor student, who had fallen in disgrace, because she was brilliantly disorganized. She regained her throne and earned a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. The journal I encouraged her to keep became the right side of her brain, where she could impulsively place her many thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Enthusiastically, she opened it every five minutes to jot down thoughts worth keeping, and every evening before bedtime, she organized them, so logical order entered her world before she went to sleep. Her grades improved within one week’s time. We are all little birds with broken wings. We just need someone to care about us and help show the way through the fog of life.

ETHNIC LITERATURE — “From Around the World”

Diane arrived in class at 8:30 AM dressed in buckskin and tennis shoes with a United States flag draped around her shoulders, alternately singing the national anthem and saying, “I don’t feel well.” I soon found out she was drunk, because an agency was removing her daughter to a foster home and committing Diane to a psychiatric hospital. She won a second place award in a city-wide essay contest titled “One Nation under God,” when she addressed the inequalities her Mexican American brothers and sisters were experiencing in this country. She was scared while she wrote the paper and asked me, several times, if she should give it to the judges, because she was afraid of being deported. I told her to do what she honestly wanted to do. She walked silently up to my desk, laid it down without a word, and walked out of class. I was as proud of her, then, as when she received the announcement that she had won one of the three prizes. Ethnic writers are probably the only true original writers we have left, because their eyes haven’t experienced cultural assimilation. Conviction, determination, and resolution can surface in our students at any age. We must be ready when it arrives.

ACADEMIC ENGLISH — “The Price Is Write”

Most of these students were college prep types. If they didn’t know the answers, Mom and Dad bought them wholesale.

HONORS ENGLISH — “Are You Ready?”

I had to throw out the teaching style that says, “Follow me, guys.” I was forced to bring in a new format, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Go get it. There will be a test afterwards and pro scouts from Yale, Harvard, Vassar, Dartmouth, Wisconsin, Stanford, John Hopkins, and UC-Berkeley will be here to time your SAT sprints with hand-held stopwatches, so be ready.”

ENGLISH METHODS CLASS — “4 Steps”

English majors may acquire the essence of all Teachers College education through four easy steps. Simply put into practice the following: make your students believe that you see them, hear them, understand them, and will try your darndest to help them every day.

COLLEGE COMPOSITION CLASS — “Check Them at the Door”

I don’t have to stand when I talk to maintain silence, but this class got very quiet, when a uniformed policeman showed up to finish his degree. He brought his partner to patrol the hall, while class was going on. Eventually, I had to ask both of them to check their guns at the door, because a female student who was a tank driver for the National Guard was becoming annoyed. She stood up in class and said, “This is not Dodge City. You should not wear uniforms to class, and it would be a good idea to leave your weapons in your cruisers.” They did.

JOB CORPS ENGLISH — “It’s Part of My Job”

My football coach liked to tell his team, “When you make a tackle on defense, keep your head down but your eyes up. That way you can see which way the ball carrier is moving, and you will protect yourself from injury.” — Many years later, I had to tackle a student in front of his barracks and sit on him until the police arrived. He began sniffing glue in his room, came to class very high, and tried to set the building on fire after receiving the assignment “How did you spend your summer vacation?”

LAMAZE ENGLISH? — “Tell the Paramedics to Go to the Second Floor”

As varied as my experiences have been, at least, I did not have to teach the English class my friend taught to a junior in her high school. This teacher got to deliver a baby in the girls’ bathroom next to her classroom between passing periods. The student was so small that none of her friends noticed she was pregnant, and even her parents did not know she was expecting.

ADULT NIGHT SCHOOL — “No Empty Cups”

This simply meant fifteen-hour days. Sometimes, it is known as the “red-eye” class or “Caffeine-College.” Every ten minutes, I changed what we did in class, and every thirty minutes, I asked the students to stand up and move to accomplish a class objective. This kept them from falling asleep at their desks. I talked to them while they moved and got to know them better when the class “shifted.” They didn’t know I was still teaching, as we laughed and told each other stories about our families and what happened during the day. Universal education never stops.

BUSINESS ENGLISH — “Everyone Uses It”

Teaching a toilet paper salesman to write is a unique experience. All he was interested in was figuring volume sales, analyzing the folding technique of “crunchers” and “wadders,” the numbers of sheets per visit, and studying Thomas Crapper and Mr. Whipple. Wizards come in all shapes and sizes.

HOSPITAL ENGLISH — “It’s Time to Operate”

Here we patch and mend like a M.A.S.H. unit. After a period of time, we send the students back to the front lines. I remember Tommy not being able to write anything of consequence, until he started to trust me. When this happened, he allowed himself to cry over his mother’s death, a year before. Between the tears, he was able to scratch out an essay that would have earned a B+ in any teacher’s classroom. He did all the other class assignments, but he came into my classroom every Friday afternoon for two months, sat in his seat, and reread that paper, while I worked on student grades. Most of the time, the room was silent. Once in a while, he would ask if he could reread the paper aloud, because he thought he made an improvement or two. When I asked to see the paper and reread it like it was a first time submission, I gave it an A+ grade. I handed it back, and he smiled, then cried, again. He thanked me for listening to him, as he left the room for the last time. The rest of the school year, I saw him in the hall, frequently, and he always had that letter folded in his shirt pocket.

STRAIGHTJACKET ENGLISH — “Never Close Your Eyes”

Instructors of these classes try to keep the students awake without allowing them to injure themselves, fellow students, or teachers. John was up, down, and “off the wall” every day, but he never changed his blank, expressionless face. When I asked him to write on the class assignment, he looked at me and said, “Why would I want to do that?”

TERMINAL ENGLISH — “Do Your Homework, Then You Can Eat Supper”

Here the patients will not recover in their lifetimes. Teachers of these classes are like nurses in coronary wards. They must be rotated regularly to prevent burnout and severe depression. Bernie was a favorite student of mine. He misspelled words like “was,” “does,” and “God,” but he is now an athlete at a state college. Once in a while, I will receive a postcard or an email from him. The last time he contacted me, part of the message went like this. “Hi, Teach. I may pass my English class this year. The new, young teacher likes me, she said, because I make her laugh. Thanks for your help last year in that writing class. Can you send $100? I am getting too skinny.”

CEMETERY ENGLISH – “Her Last Goodbye”

Mary had writer’s block, because she couldn’t forget that her grandmother died on the family’s porch swing. She was Mary’s favorite relative. Her grandmother was resting on the swing and asked Mary to fix her a cup of hot coffee. Mary went inside to the kitchen, made the coffee, brought it to her, and set it on the table next to the swing. She forgot to bring the sugar and cream and had to return to the kitchen for them. When she came back to the porch, her grandmother was sitting up straight with the coffee steam spiraling upwards past the smile on her face. Mary could see the light was gone from those loving eyes. Fourteen-years-old and without another person in the home to help, she had to deal with the rescue squad, the police, and the coroner. Mary went on to win a national writing contest when she got over her writing block caused by this personal situation. She asked me to go to the cemetery with her to say her last goodbye. Her mother and father approved, so we both took our journals with us and wrote in them as we sat by her grandmother’s grave. Mary still writes to me, all these years later.

 

Listening is the most important part of any conversation, and most of us do not try hard enough to master this skill. People who were born to be “radios” need good listeners. I wish more of us would develop this talent. The students in these classes taught me so much, and thank goodness, I let them teach me about life. One girl said, “You seem to care more about us than other teachers do. You hear what we are saying.” Surely, that is the best compliment I have ever received. In every class, each student was a unique, bipedal poem.

“I will do what’s right.

I will do my best.

I will show others I care.”

-Argyle, TX, Elementary School

Mondays with Martin: First, a Dream

 

David Martin

This is a piece David Martin put together back in 1999.   Still great to read today.

 

“In dreams begins responsibility.”

-William Butler Yeats, Irish poet, 1865-1939

 

Some of my high school English classes were concentration camps of pain. The boring grammar and punctuation drills seemed to never end, and I knew my case of “senioritis” was terminal.  

One day, my teacher methodically reviewed Shakespeare’s writing, again. To protect myself, I entered “dreamland.” Right then, she stopped talking and asked me a question about one of the bard’s sonnets the class just finished reading.

Embarrassed because I could not answer the question and did not know or care what page we were on in the text, I resented her intrusion into my reverie. I planned to build my own “epiphany.”

The other students laughed vigorously, but I saw a calmness and peace in her eyes that made me feel warm inside. She was sincere. She knew my mind was somewhere else important, and I wanted to go back there.  

I would have paid more attention if she looked like Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love,” but she didn’t. This grandmotherish-looking teacher smiled and said with all the tenderness in her heart, “That’s all right, David, dreaming is allowed in English class.”

Her show of support and trust in me as an individual remains after all these years. I loved her for that simple act. She believed in me. I felt she understood the importance of sudden insight and the rarity of intuitive understanding.

I owned my seat in that class. My voice was heard. I belonged in that room. I had freedom and presence. It was a safe place. It was a strong place. I could bring my fragile dreams into her classroom and share them with this adult who knew where I hid my heart.

I regret I never told her any of this before she died. Somehow, I think she sensed my feelings. Years later, I was able to bring this memory to my consciousness, deal with it, and put the emotions into words.  

If anything happens in life, first there must be a dream. We are a “dream deprived” people. We don’t dream enough because we don’t see enough. To be truly happy and successful, our dreams must come true.

Creative people revolt against the world as they see it and develop a world of their dreams. They revolt to find a principle of existence. These are metaphysical revolts, people against the conditions of life, aspirations toward clarity and unity of thought. Artists in any field explore their souls, try to discover who and what they are, create meaning out of chaos, and search for their own inner compasses. Joseph Campbell said happiness comes from recognizing one’s soul and following one’s bliss.

“To thine own self be true, then as night follows day, though canst be false to any man” (Polonius, Hamlet). This is life’s mission and the purest form of love. It equates into spiritual growth, courage, irreplaceable character, and the strongest bond imaginable.

What we feel emotionally is more important than what we sense physically. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Theologically, this translates into Karma and The Golden Rule. Intention causes effect. Angry people draw angry people. Hell is not a place where we are assigned. It is a place of our own choosing.

We spend our lives seeking our fate. Where we were born, what station in life we entered this world, what gifts we have now, none of these things prevent us from crossing paths with our destiny. We work hard not to hear messages sent to us in life, and we ignore signs in our dreams which show us the way to our future.

If my dreams could come true, I would write of wisdom and how to succeed in life. I would tell about the steps I must take to maximize the opportunity given to me at birth, the chance to taste happiness and experience a few raptures on my journey. I would illuminate the occasions when mankind becomes entirely alive. I would remember to look into the void of space on the darkest night of the year and see the brightest lights in the sky.

Like Curly (Jack Palance) in “City Slickers,” I would look for that “one thing” in life, the one thing that makes a difference, our reason for living. Our choice won’t work for anyone else, and no one can tell us what our one thing is, but our dreams will.

My daughter, Erin, 14, an eighth grader, dreams of finding anyway possible to reach home plate and score for her softball team. Returning from practice one day, she said:

“Dad, I knew you’d like to know you aren’t the oldest father of an eighth grader at our school anymore. A new student entered our class today, and her dad is older than you are. He doesn’t have any hair at all.” Dreams are egotistical, too.

After babysitting all evening for the two boys next door, she came home at 11:00 PM, feeling very mature and authoritarian. She saw Mom and Dad watching television and eating popcorn, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square to signal the start of a new year.

She said, “What’s going on here? Where is the party? Are you two dreaming? Get up, Dad. I want to dance.”

She dragged me out of my chair in the living room and onto the kitchen floor. We danced for 20 minutes until I was laughing so hard tears ran down my cheeks. She tore off a green leaf from one of the indoor plants, held it over my head, and yelled, “Mistletoe!” so I would kiss her on the cheek. We twirled and hugged. When she was done, I knew this year would be filled with wonder and dreams.

I hope to find a doctor of dreams, a healer to those with hidden scars acquired from the well-fought war, one who breathes life into the lost and malcontent, one who provides hope for broken hearts and puts wind beneath their wings.

This dream doctor would carry me to the unknown and back, over the bridges of understanding. I would become a professional pilgrim. Travelers learn the most by telling their own stories. I would become observant and tell my own.

With my dreams, I invent myself. I sense a new vision that allows me to see through the fog of life. I observe a new dose of reality that documents the pain but is also a healthy vitamin. I learn to dream, create, and heal.

 

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

-Albert Einstein, 1879-1955.

 

Monday with Martin: Nurturing the Writer’s Garden

This post from David Martin goes back to the very beginning — 1994.  In it, David describes how he came to see how important personal writing could be as an educational method.  Check it all out below.

* * *

By David Martin
By David Martin

This year I tried to make something special happen in my classroom. I decided to teach what I knew was right for me and my students. I sacrificed the tired, traditional composition format of grammar, mechanics, and the five-paragraph theme. I instituted a new divine trinity: the first person pronoun, writing from direct experience, and the journal.

So far, I am not sorry with my decision. In fact, I see tremendous improvement in my students. In previous years, I taught the following levels of English composition: pre-remedial, remedial, hospital English, terminal English, pre-civilized sophomores, academic juniors, twelfth grade night school, creative writing, and college undergraduates (freshman and advanced upperclassmen). Many students from each level told me quietly, in secret, so none of their friends would hear that they felt writing to be fun again. They told me they learned self-discovery through their writing.

I was most inspired, however, to find proper punctuation magically appearing where necessary, when the students believed what they were writing was important and someone was going to read and believe what was written, inside and outside the classroom. Passion, al kinds, entered into their papers, to stay, to grow, like seeds well nurtured in a garden.

My high school is an above average, college prep school. The faculty and administrators are very happy with the schools image and success. It provides good teachers and good education for the average, above average, and the gifted teenagers. I saw a way I could add to this quality by increasing the warmth and humanness in English class. I offered a place of caring for the individual student with personal journal.

In my high school classes, one day a week is devoted to journal activities. By far, the most successful writing-teaching technique I have used to incorporate the personal journal into all my lessons. I feel strongly that my students’ writing improved with the journal that 20% of my class time is concentrated in this yearly project.

I prepared a list of over 300 topics for students to write about if they could not find interesting ones of their own, but I always gave them a choice of topics on which to write.

The first day of class, students had to design the own coat of arms by cutting pictures from old magazines to pictorially represent the following characteristics of themselves: 1) one important item of their past, 2) one important item of the present, 3) one important item of their future, 4) one important item of how others see them, 5) one important animal that symbolizes their personality, 6-7) two favorite quotations which illustrate important concepts wit which they identify.

Each student must bring an open loose leaf, three-ring notebook with rings two to three inches in diameter. I store them in my so they are always available to me, and I may read them at my convenience. The students take loose-leaf paper home with them and when the assignment is finished the next day; they simply insert the pages into their notebooks. This prevents loss of books and increases neatness and orderliness.

I read the notebooks weekly. Each student writing is titled which lets me read selectively when I must, but each page is at least spot read. I always leave a check on each page to let the student realize that his pages have bee read even if I don’t comment on each one.

When it comes time for grading the journals, I inform the writers that the grading in done by the pound. Effort and quantity are the primary qualities I am looking for. I only make positive comments in the journal. I never make a negative one.

This writer’s garden receives only nurturing and fertilizer, never any poison or salt. With this system, I have seen changes in students’ attitudes towards English class within two weeks time. This positive reinforcement of the writer’s individual communication greatly affects not only my classes but the students’ self-confidence and their outlooks on life in general.

This year-long project develops into a warehouse of feelings, emotions, ideas, and personal revelations. In less than nine months, it surprises me every year how many students tell me, “Mr. M.! I was re-reading my journal last night and I don’t feel the same way about…that I did in September and October.” The students’ ideas move and evolve through their writing and because of their writing.

Frequently, I give students a topic and four minutes time to finish writing their ideas. Usually, they will write one-half page per four minutes. In a forty minute period an average student will finish four to five pages. This is half of their weekly writing assignment for the journal. I give “A’s” to those who produce 10 pages a week.

I try not to let the students come up for air on these days. Just as they start to breathe easily, I give them another topic. I always let them leave room on their paper, as much as they want, so they can go back and finish any uncompleted thoughts when they relax. In this way, they start in class and can finish as much as they choose.

Jokingly, I say to switch hands if their first one gets tired while writing. Even the slow composition students enjoy the challenge after a few times because they make so much progress in their journals. The ones who can’t think of something to write about must find new excuses not to write.

The journal is simply the biggest project undertaken all year. Neatness, effort, pride of ownership, creativity, they all count, but quantity is paramount. Some journals are all letters; some are all short stories; some are all possible mixtures. I don’t care, as long as they write. All prose papers written in class or for class may count.

Creativity is encouraged daily; we write at football games, at museums, in study hall, looking out windows. Seventy-five pages at the end of the semester are required for a “1.” All other grades are pro-rated on a percentage basis.

Extra credit may be earned in excess of 100%. I have given journal grades as high as 300%. If the students want to write, I never put a ceiling on their productivity or their earning potential. Write on. Right on.

I write every assignment that I give my class. I read them out loud to each class and treat all the students as if they were in my small group. This breaks barriers more easily than anything else I have found when it comes to getting reluctant student writers to share their work in class. My children at home keep a journal, and sometimes I bring their work to share with my high school students.

One student graduated a year ago and continues to write. Her production now includes thousands of pages, only a few years after graduating from high school. Once every two months, she brings her notebooks to me so I can read them.

This student and I went to her grandmother’s grave in a local cemetery one day so she could say important words to her that she never had a chance to speak before this favorite relative’s death. The student’s invitation was the most unusual one I ever received. After clearing the trip with her parents, we found the grave and sat down in silence. One hour in the cemetery with this student was a guaranteed stimulus for writing. She has not quit writing in her journal since.

I try to have fun with the journals in many ways. I include stickers with funny sayings on them. “Far out! Now you are going to town! Excellent! Teeeerrrriiiiffffiiiicccc! The stickers remind some of elementary school, but when a student of mine does not get one, I sure hear about it.

My students stopped complaining about how much writing they were doing after the first quarter, when they saw that I was not going to stop expecting them to produce, and neither was I going to quit writing myself.

When they saw that I was passing out grades in excess of 100%, they became believers. If a student writes more than 10 pages per week, I liberally pass out extra credit grades, resounding praise for that person’s enthusiastic composition, and send their best work in to the Fine Lines editors.

Journaling is the greatest tool that I have found for encouraging students at all levels to write, to improve their writing, and to enjoy writing. No matter how slow students might be at the beginning of class, if they don’t give up on writing. I promise it won’t give up on them. No matter how good students might be upon entering the class, if they continue to write in their journals, I promise them they will improve.

I tell all my students that if they keep their faith in their journal, their journal will keep its faith in them. Writers must write what they mean and mean what they write. Write on. Happy journaling. Keep the faith.