Mondays with Martin: Black Jack

“There Is More”

2006: 15.2 – Fine Lines

David Martin

In 1990, one of my English classes was filled with downtown, street-wise, tough high school teenagers who were one step from expulsion. All of them failed English classes before, at least once, some of them several times. They did not want to be in school, and they could not wait to leave those classroom walls. They did not do homework for other teachers when it was assigned, and they stared at me as they dared me to teach them anything. Half of the class was black. The rest were Caucasian, Latino, Vietnamese, and Native American, but the meanest looking and most physical was a white boy named Jack.

This group of “at-risk” juvenile delinquents was quiet, like the silence before a storm. If they misbehaved, they knew their days as students in that urban high school were over, and the street was the only thing they had waiting for them. Most of them knew what that meant: gangs, hard work, prison, and an early death from drugs. They all had friends or family in one of those places.

Jack never talked to anyone in class, including me. For all I knew, he was mute. From the first day of class in August to the week before Thanksgiving, he did not talk to anyone. He turned in enough work to maintain a passing grade, but when I asked him a question, he shrugged his shoulders and refused to reply.

Jack never took his eyes away from mine. Whenever I turned around, after helping another student or when I looked up from my desk, his eyes were on me. After a few days, I was leery to turn my back on him. I started doing things in class, so I always faced him. He sat in the next to last seat in the second row from the door, and I planned all my classroom activity, so I had one or two rows between us. Jack only let one student sit behind him, George, who was everyone’s friend and always seemed happy. George was slow and had behavioral development issues, but he tried to read and write, even though he was four grade levels behind his peers.

Some of the girls in class had children. Carlotta was nineteen-years-old and had three. It was forbidden in school to flash gang signs, but when she was not paying attention to me, I could see her give a sign to another girl across the room. She was pretty and smart, and all the boys spoke to her every day, except Jack. When she spoke to him, he glared at her. After a while, she ignored him.

Fights scarred some of the boys, and they never relaxed, even in class. They were always looking over their shoulders, as the worst thing that could ever happen to them was be caught off-guard or surprised, and where they came from, they were probably right.

The first day of class, I walked through the door and looked at this collection of races and attitudes, of dark sunglasses and darker souls, of defensive body language and silent despair, of low motivation and lack of hope. I said to myself, “Oh, Lord, why me?”

The next day, when I saw the principal, I asked him, “Why me?”

His answer was, “No one else would take the class, and we thought you could make them work. You have coached seven sports. You get along with any student who tries. Give them a chance. They all know that if they don’t do what you tell them, they will fail the class and won’t be allowed back in school.”

I agonized about how to teach this unusual collection of young adults who did not fit into any group in the school. How would I get them to write essays, learn poetry, and read the standard curriculum? They did not do those things before, so I knew I had to try something different. I threw the school’s traditional way of doing things out the window, metaphorically. I decided we would write every day and keep a journal of our own work. Our writing notebooks became our textbooks, and I graded their work by the pound. In this class, the sweat that appeared from pushing a pen across the lines on the paper would earn credit. Three days a week, I would bring ideas for us to write about, and two days a week, different students would bring ideas from their personal lives for the class to write about. In effect, they would share in teaching the class. We sat in a circle, and everyone was equal.

Chemistry started to build between us. Slowly, trust crept into the room, silently and unseen. I would not let students enter class if they did not bring their journals every day. I brought photocopies of chapters from many classics, and we read those, often aloud. Textbooks scared these students, but they would read, discuss, and study anything that was photocopied. One reading I handed out that created the biggest stir from these young, angry rebels was “The Song of Hugh Glass” in A Cycle of the West by John Neihardt.

I introduced Neihardt’s epic poem and talked about defeat and victory, rejection and acceptance, revenge, and forgiveness. I thought I saw Jack’s lips move in response to something I said, but when I called on him, he shook his long hair that touched his shoulders and refused to speak. I knew he wanted to ask a question, but he would not verbalize it. He sat there in his long, black, leather coat, years before Columbine, and I thought, “Will I ever reach this one?” When I read his journal entry about Hugh Glass’s true story, I felt a strong passion come out of his pen that started to show a different aspect of his character.

Over the next few weeks, everyone helped read Neihardt’s long poem in class, except Jack. We slowly read every word, and I took my time, like I was walking beside glass and giving a “play by play account” of this unusual, adventure experience. Outwardly, Jack gave the impression that he was too good to participate or too cool; however, his journal relayed another story. After each verse, after each page, we stopped and talked about what we read. I helped interpret many words and put the lines in a context everyone could grasp. Each time I looked up, Jack’s eyes met mine.

When he turned in his notebook to me, as the others did, every Friday, I made sure to write something about his thoughts on every page. All my comments were positive. I believe in the power of positive reinforcement, and he had so much rejection in his life that I did not want to add to that long, negative list of “downers.” I was surprised to find out that he was a deep thinker. No one could see what he wrote but me. I was amazed. His words were philosophical and intellectual. The sentences and paragraphs were not filled with the anger he generated by his body language and glacial stares in class. There was a good mind leaking out between the lines of his writing. Was there a heart in there, too?

I read to the class from “The Song of Hugh Glass.”

“Alas for those who fondly place above
The act of loving, what they chance to love;
Who prizes the goal more dearly than the way!
For time shall plunder them, and change betray,
And life shall find them vulnerable still.
A bitter-sweet narcotic to the will,
Hugh’s love increased the peril of his plight;
But anger broke the slumber of his might,
Quickened the heart and warmed the blood that ran
Defiance for the treachery of Man,
Defiance for the meaning of his pain,
Defiance for the distance of the plain
That seemed to gloat, ‘You can not master me.’
And for one burning moment he felt free
To rise and conquer in a wind of rage.
But as a tiger, conscious of the cage,
A-smolder with a purpose, broods, and waits,
So with the sullen patience that is hate’s
Hugh taught his wrath to bide expedience.”

Jack shifted in his seat and rocked back and forth. He leaned forward and squeezed his pen so hard that I thought it would snap in half. While I asked other students how they interpreted those words, Jack stood up, slowly, left the group, and went to the windows and looked outside, quietly. He stood there for twenty minutes and only left when the bell rang to end the period.

The next day he wrote about rage and anger for ten pages. There were no paragraphs, just a stream-of-consciousness writing, like Holden Caulfield on steroids. He told of the injustices he witnessed, a death in the family, depression, fear, no strong male presence at home, loneliness, all the “phonies” he met in his short life, unable to control his anger, and why his court probation was connected to fighting.

The next day, I asked the students for permission to print some of their work in a four-page pamphlet that I would bring to class and share with them. Every person would get a copy and could take extra ones home for family and friends. I got a verbal acceptance from everyone in class, except Jack. When I looked at him, he simply nodded, and that was the first, positive gesture he made since school began months ago.

In 1990, our school had ten, old Apple computers, and they were always in use with a waiting line of teachers hoping to use them, so I bought my own and planned to do the layout of the student writing at home for our first, little publication. I did not mention my ideas to the class again. I was preoccupied with learning how to turn on my new computer, teaching myself how to run a desktop publishing program, not yelling while my own children were at my home desk as I graded papers from school, creating lesson plans for all of my classes, getting enough sleep to stay awake in class, and remaining sane.

Many weeks later, I walked into class, and without saying a word, I started passing out our first class newsletter. All the writing came from students in Jack’s class, and I could hear a few gasps and “Wow’s” as they started reading their own copies. By the time I got to the next to the last row passing out the copies, I heard Jack yell, “What is this?”

All the students and I jerked around in surprise. Jack talked. He was on his feet. He was walking toward the front of the room. He was 6’ 4” and weighed 225 pounds. He should have been on the football field daily after school because he was such a good athlete, but he had such a poor, grade point average, the head coach would not let him come out for the team. Other students got out of his way.

As he strode down the aisle, I thought he was coming to me, but when he got to the front of the class, he turned and walked directly through the open door, out of the room, and into the hall. He stopped out of sight of the other students, turned around, and motioned for me to come into the hall with him. I told a student in the front seat, “If I am not back in five minutes, go to the office for help.”

I walked into the hall and said, “Hang on, Jack, you can’t leave our class.”

Jack surprised me. His eyes got wet, and he began to cry. Tears came down his cheeks. With much anger, he asked, “Why did you put my writing on the front page?”

I did not know if he was going to hit me or what. I said, “Jack, your writing is consistently the best writing in the class. It deserves to be on the front page. You have talent. I hope you write a lot more, and I am proud of you.”

Then, the tears flowed heavily. “No one ever said I had talent in school before. What do I do, now?” He hung his head and stared at the floor, as water splattered on his shoes.

I felt him change in front of me. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Go down the hall, and get a drink of water. Take ten deep breaths. Then, come back into class, because this is where you belong. From Monday to Friday, from 2:00 to 2:50 p.m., this is your home. Hold onto that notebook, and tonight, write into it as if you are writing to your best friend. Tell it what you are thinking. Hold onto your pen, like it is your lifeline. Do not let go of it, until you are so tired of writing that you have no energy left. Whatever you do, tell the truth with your words. Make every word ring with honesty. It does not have to be pretty. It does not have to be fancy. Just write. Tell the truth. When you are done, let your “new friend” talk back to you, and all you have to do is listen. Write everything down. You do not have to show it to anyone, unless you choose to do so. Now, go get that drink of water.”

As he turned to leave, he stopped and moved toward me. I froze. He looked at me. I will never forget those black eyes looking down into mine: part animal, part divine, part confusion, part determination, part anger, and part pride. Those eyes haunt me still. Then he hugged me and said, “Did Hugh Glass ever survive?”

Tears came to my eyes, and I had to look at the floor. I said, “Come on, I will go with you. I need a drink of water, too.”

As we walked down the hall and back to the classroom, several students looked out the door, trying to find where we went. When Jack and I entered the room, the other students wanted to know where we went. Jack smiled. It was now the week before Thanksgiving, and none of us had ever seen him smile in class.

As he sat down in his seat, he said to the other students, “Come on you guys; relax. I want to see what happened to that mountain man. Can you imagine crawling 100 miles after being half-eaten by a grizzly? That is some kind of courage. I don’t think I could do what he did.”

After that day, there were many more class newsletters. Jack’s writing was in most of them, and he was the primary inspiration who sparked that anemic, classroom pamphlet to grow into Fine Lines, now a quarterly magazine for new writers of all ages. What started as a classroom motivator to encourage marginal students to write more after they saw their work in print and read by other students, teachers, and administrators became a publication, which is used today in all grade levels: elementary, middle, high school, college, and graduate school.

Jack’s grades slowly began to rise. He came in to see me after school and asked for help with his homework in other classes when he needed it. He still had to check in weekly with his probation officer, but he did graduate from high school. I found out, years later, that he stayed out of jail, worked his way through a two-year community college, graduated from a small, four-year college in another state, majored in journalism, and got a job with a small newspaper in South Carolina. He moved on from there, and I do not know where he is today.

I remember the last entry of Neihardt’s All Is But a Beginning: Youth Remembered, 1881-1901. An old man tells of his youthful vision quest and how he felt like a failure after experiencing the three days and nights of fasting on a lonely hill, praying and hoping Wakon Tonka would appear then provide a spiritual message as he entered manhood. The old man admitted he had no great dream to tell when he returned to the tribe.

“If I have no vision to give me power and guide me, how can I ever be a man? Maybe, I shall have to go far off into a strange land and seek an enemy to free me from this shame.”

Then, just as he had this bitter thought, a great cry came from overhead like a fearless warrior hailing his wavering comrade in the heat of battle. “Hoka-hey, brother – Hold fast, hold fast; there is more!” Looking up, he saw an eagle soaring yonder on a spread of mighty wings, and it was the eagle’s voice he heard.

“As I listened,” the old man said, “a power ran through me that has never left me, old as I am. Often, when it seemed the end had come, I have heard the eagle’s cry, ‘Hold fast, hold fast, there is more.’ ”

Mondays with Martin: My Child, My Journal

By David Martin
By David Martin

A person’s writing may develop into many things. My attempts at creative writing take the form of a journal, a personal warehouse of ideas and feelings. These bits and pieces expand into larger ideas or are used to support other thoughts that come later. My journal began as a skinny, empty, three-ring notebook and evolved into a robust creation with a personality of its own.

My first attempts to originate something from a non-artistic life, bound in the past to mediocrity, surprised me. Without a conscious effort on my part, this unassuming notebook began eating pages scribbled with pathetic sentences, mostly unconnected, didactic, and plain. A few pages held feeble attempts at poetry, stilted, forced rhyming patterns on the most boring topics and secretly hid some scattered, embarrassing attempts at describing the passions of a mid-life crisis or two.

Without knowing what I was seeing, the birth of a journal took place before my eyes. The thing increased its appetite. From a page a week, it soon demanded a page every couple of days. As it got bigger, it enjoyed eating more. It wanted to be fed daily, then ten or twelve times a week. What began as a weak, scrawny creature developed muscles and a healthy attitude towards survival. Each time its covers opened to consume more pages, I sensed the bellows of lungs expanding as though it aggressively inhaled new life.

With increased bulk between the covers, its lips pushed wider apart. It began to smile at me, as it sat on the shelf across the room. I imagined it standing up and strutting in front of those other notebooks that kicked sand in its face when it was just a little child. Now that it became aware of its own mortality, it insists on the four basic health groups for good writing; literature, spelling, grammar, and composition.

Like a parent, I am learning a lot about myself by watching my new child at play, and I think I see the time coming shortly when I will have to find it a name. What would other people think if I did not have a name for my new baby? When it begins to talk, will it develop a psychological problem stemming from a lack of self-confidence without an identity of its own?

Nicholas Notebook? Julia Journal? Danny Diary? Bradley Biography? Ashley Album? Pilar Page? Elizabeth Exposition? Imogene Imagination? Karma Klassic? Big Bubba Book?

At times, I think my journal is a gold fish in a bowl swimming around in circles without much room to explore or opportunity to develop, while others watch me from a position outside my vision and feel a sort of pity at my writing inadequacy. Often, I feel clumsy like Godzilla smashing Tokyo. Of course, some pages show me to be nothing but a large mouth bass looking for sucker’s hook. Other pages convince me that I am a lazy dog waiting in the sun for that creative idea to come by, as I continue to slumber in ignorance.

In rare moments, my little friend also convinces me I am a rose bush with the softest petals, and I celebrate my uniqueness. My back arches proudly when the pages open to something worth reading a second time. It is a second backbone, which supports me when times are tough. My journal, the teacher, explains to me inner ideas that are hard to discuss with others. It acts as a prism reflecting the light of shadowy, mental images. It sings the blues to me in a rhythm I can understand. It is the older brother and sister I never had. It is both masculine and feminine, whose inspirations make me a whole person. It is a growing tidal wave. It shows me doorways between the pages that appear unexpectedly. It carries me to places new and old. The binders reach out and hug me when I need it the most. It is portable and reinforcing. It is a friendship, a crutch, a magic carpet, and a time machine. Alternating between a snail and a 747, its speed constantly fluctuates between short scribbles and long flashes of light.

I read to understand the thought of others. I write in my journal to understand myself. I help shape my destiny by learning to shape the sentences I use. Life speaks for itself, but I listen with my journal. Each written page is a brush stroke added to my life’s painting. Page after page, I view myself in greater depth. One day, I am a bird trapped in a small cage. The next, I am an Eagle soaring close to the face of The Mysterious One.

Writers and Other Liars

This is a #TBT. Originally Published October of 2010.

Writers and Other Liars

By Deb Carpenter-Nolting

pencilsI was five, and I knew how to write.

I stood in the living room, fondling two new red pencils.

“There should be one pencil for everyone. Did you take an extra pencil?” my mother called from the kitchen.

“No, I just have one,” I answered, as I quickly hid the other one behind my back.

When she entered the living room, I extended the one pencil for her inspection, while keeping the other behind my back.

“Are you lying to me?”

“No, Mommy.”

“I know you are lying,” she said in a hurt voice, taking the culprit hand from its hiding. The evidence was right there, a second red pencil clutched in my naughty writer’s hand. Her voice sounded different. I caught the disappointment in it.

The pencil wasn’t an expensive item. It wasn’t so important that I had taken an extra one. The issue was I had knowingly lied. I felt so guilty that I disappointed my mom, the truest and best person I’d ever known.

I’ve tried very hard to never lie again, and for the most part I’ve succeeded, but there’s just something about a shiny new red pencil that still beckons me to lick the lead and be wicked.


The Importance of Writing – Noni Williams

I prefer to write poetry, but I hardly ever shy away from a literary challenge. My interest in writing began when I was three years old. This is one of the main milestones in my life, because I started to read at this age. By the time I reached the fourth grade, I was reading on a college level and had started writing my own short stories and poetry. The summer after fourth grade ended, I turned nine.

FL - Blue skyThat summer, like many other summers, I got into trouble for fighting with one of my brothers.

My punishment was to write a two page paper on why what I did was wrong and why I would not do it again. In the midst of my nine-year-old anger, I wrote an entire page about how I was mad at my mother for giving me an assignment as a punishment and how unfair the entire situation was. On the back of that piece of paper, I simply wrote what I was really feeling, and as I wrote, the anger and the sadness fell away and I realized not only had I finished the assignment, but I created something meaningful.

I showed the sheet of paper to my mom, and she said, “Noni, this is good.”

I thought, “Sweet. I’m done. That means I’m not in trouble,” but she insisted that it was more than just a completed assignment.

Near the end of the summer, at the North Omaha Boys & Girls Club, a poetry contest was held. I apprehensively entered my writing into the competition. When it was my turn to present my piece, I stood in front of all of the other kids in the summer program, shaking and scared, and began to read. As I read, I noticed no one was talking like they did during other people’s turns. Every person in the room was watching me, and they were listening.

Once you realize that you have the power to command attention in a room, things change. Confidence is a powerful thing. I ended up winning that poetry contest and other contests in the future. When I was eleven, I won the If I Lived in a White House contest and was published in the book that followed.

To make a long story short, since I began writing in earnest about a decade ago, I have written countless songs, stories, and poems. My senior quote was one of my own poems.

I write often, but not at the behest of another. I write when I become overwhelmed with emotion and when I need to share what I am going through but lack the wherewithal to approach a friend to discuss it with me.

Writing is a tool I use to center myself, and I have been told that it aids those who read it. It is something I have always done, and I have never had to question whether or not it was something that I was good at. I write because I need to, and I believe others might need some of it, too.

– Noni Williams

*This is a #TBT – this essay was originally published in November of 2013. Write On!


Making the Great Novels into Your Own

*Today’s essay is from Fine Lines Senior Editor Stu Burns

Writers Read, Right?

A while back I read the first draft of a friend’s novel then punched out my critiques and advised her to read more novels. This would give her a sense of how she could finish her work and take it to a more mature conclusion. That was the diplomatic version. Privately, I was wondering if she had ever read a novel. As I typed, I looked at the reflection in my monitor’s glare and realized I was staring at a hypocrite.

reading quote

I was trying to write my own novel at the time, an entry in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) creative project I’d floundered on the previous November. I am a voracious reader, but mostly of nonfiction; I will argue all night that the life of Moe Berg is more interesting than anything J.D. Salinger ever wrote. Novels had never been something I looked forward to. When I read them, it was out of obligation, either for school or after years of prodding.

If I was going to be able to write my own fiction, I had to read novels and like them. In other words, it was time I indulged in outright thievery. There is a much-abused quotation from T. S. Eliot:

Continue reading “Making the Great Novels into Your Own”

The War for Me – Jennifer Peterson

The War for Me

 Jennifer Peterson

The day I came upon Linda Ellen’s mother crying in the kitchen was the day the war became real for me. Before that moment, it was just parties and parades, fundraisers and patriotism. The soldiers were young and vibrant and strong. It wasn’t death. It wasn’t pain. It wasn’t real.

It was not real until that afternoon when I found straight-laced Mrs. Eleanor Pineberg, who was quick with a Kleenex if I so much as sniffled in church on Sundays, standing with her hand pressed painfully against the green linoleum countertop, as silent tears poured down her face. The phone hung off the wall, the receiver dangling from its curly cord, bouncing up and down, up and down, in tune with the silent heave and fall of Mrs. Pineberg’s shoulders.

I’d only come up for a glass of water. Linda Ellen was still downstairs, hunched over the checkerboard, scrutinizing the pieces, trying to outmaneuver me this time. I knew my way around the Pineberg house, being Linda’s best friend and all. I’d taken the rickety old basement steps two at a time, thinking I’d burst through the door into the small neat kitchen with the floral curtains and a proudly displayed new dishwasher. The Pinebergs had a pastel blue phone with a black dial track. It wasn’t like ours. Ours was a dismal custard yellow with enameled numbers more rubbed off than on.

I’d always thought of the Pineberg telephone as blue like the ocean, blue like the sky. But when I saw Mrs. Pineberg clutching the counter as her blank eyes blinked desperately, all I could think was that it was blue like sadness, blue like tears.

“Mrs. Pineberg…” I said slowly. My voice was almost a whisper, but I don’t think she would have heard me if I’d screamed. “Mrs. Pineberg, are you okay?” I asked, stepping closer, but her eyes looked right through me. I blinked, trying to figure out if I was hallucinating. My carefully rounded fingernails pressed into my palms, hard enough to leave little half-moon marks behind. My heart was pounding in my ears and I was terrified. I knew it was something serious. I knew there was something very wrong.

Mrs. Pineberg’s face was… desolate. Just empty. Crushed, broken. Her carefully curled hair was slipping out of its rigid, familiar updo. I knew she must have been pulling her fingers through her hair because the carefully sprayed blonde beehive was skewed and frizzy, as if all the bees inside had suddenly gone into a frenzy, swarming out towards the walls.

I stood there staring at her, watching her stare right back at me without seeing.

“Linda Ellen!” I cried at the top of my voice. “Liiiiinda!” I screeched, flinching reflexively away from Mrs. Pineberg, sure she was about to scold me for my banshee-like behavior. Nothing scared me more than her lack of reaction. She didn’t so much as blink.

“Golly Mel, what’s wrong?” Linda asked, bolting up the stairs, the door slamming against the wall as she threw it out of her way.

She froze in her path when she saw her mother standing there, bulbous tears dripping down her face. They left glistening tracks in the powder on her face, over her cheeks, past her nose and lips. Tiny trails of tears, shapes of sorrow we didn’t understand.

“Dad! Daddy!” she hollered, looking just as horrorstruck as I.

Mr. Pineberg burst into the kitchen, probably alerted by my first scream. He didn’t spare a look for us, his eyes were drawn straight to his wife. He stepped into the kitchen towards her cautiously and it seemed to awaken her. Her face went from hollow to hopeless as her knees buckled and she crumpled into a tragic heap on the floor. Mr. Pineberg was at her side in two strides and down on one knee, taking her face in his hands.

“Eleanor?” he asked, the question clear in his voice.

Mrs. Pineberg avoided his eyes, trying to seek whatever emptiness she’d been seeing before. Her hands clenched and her thin fingers floundered on the floor, looking for something to cling to. Mr. Pineberg gently picked up the still swinging telephone and put it to his ear.

“Hello?” he asked, but there was only the fuzzy noise of the gloomy gray gauze, scraping its way through the line. His long arms reached up to the wall, dropping the receiver back on its hook.

“It was the war office…” Mrs. Pineberg said suddenly, so softly I hardly heard. Mr. Pineberg had eyes only for his wife, but mine snapped to Linda Ellen.

“Georgie,” she mouthed to herself, raising a timid hand to her lips as her mother said the same.

“He was… they said he’s been killed,” she said, closing her eyes slowly, like she was too weary to hold them open any longer. She sighed, from the energy spent holding back all her tears. “There was a surprise attack… Vietcong… soldiers disguised as villagers… hidden in the forest. I don’t know more. I don’t care,” she said harshly. “I want my son back!” she screamed, her voice raw and sharp.

Mr. Pineberg’s shoulders drooped and he wrapped his arms around his wife, falling from his crouch on the floor to the ground beside her. The sadness in his eyes wasn’t liquid. It didn’t run smoothly down his face like his wife’s had. His sadness was sharp and blocky behind the thick glass of his squared off spectacles. His eyes weren’t dead. They were alive and tortured, in disbelief as he looked at Linda. He had one child now, not two.

Linda walked to her parents, but I couldn’t see her face. I turned away. I walked out of the kitchen, slowly down the hall. I didn’t look at my reflection in the antique, silver framed mirror that hung there as I passed. I didn’t want to see how I wore my sorrow.

At first I ran home, pushing my little legs faster and harder as I leapt over the lines in the sidewalk, trying to get as far away as I could. But slowly the blades of grass spilling over the sides of the lawn and onto the hot pavement grew into dark bushes, then jungly trees, reaching out at me from the depths of hot humid rainforests. I ran faster and faster trying to escape them, until I wondered whether Georgie had run, whether he’d tried to escape the Vietnamese soldiers. The thought hit me like a punch to the gut, and I skidded to a stop, my hands on my knees. My heart beat quickly, and my mind flew halfway around the world in an instant. I could hear the screams and smell the smoke. The whirr of airplane propellers beat in my ears.

A million miles away, the boy next door had fallen and I was helplessly imagining it. I was trapped in my mind, trying to shut the images out. But it was too late! They were locked in forever.

The soft waves of children’s laughter swept through the back of my mind. It was unreal to look up and down the streets and see children playing, grass growing, sun shining, when I knew that somewhere across the sea, Georgie Pineberg was dead.

I walked back through my front door with a quiet sigh of disbelief. Was this war? Not glorious flags and marching songs, but a broken family, crying together on the floor, just beneath a now silent phone that had brought the war to them. I was eleven, but I felt like I’d lived through one hundred tiring years in that moment.

I stand in front of the vast black wall a whole lifetime later, running my finger over the carefully carved ridges of his name. White and sharp and proud in a black block of anger, loss, and pain.

George Leo Pineberg.

Three simple words aren’t enough to represent him. A big heart, a lopsided smile, a promising future- all lost. All squeezed into three rigid words. Six inches on a midnight black wall reserved to honor and remember Georgie among all the rest. The names run together to the left and the right. So many names, each one someone’s brother, son, sweetheart.

I run my fingers over the name one more time, thinking back to the day when I ran up those stairs to find the war was at home.

I drop my flower in front of the monument and step back. I wonder where Linda Ellen is now. It’s been years since I’ve seen her. But whenever I’m in D.C., I walk the wall and I remember. I never know what’s more real, which really symbolizes the true pain of the war and what it meant to me. Is it this cold sleek scar covered in names, or the sight of Mrs. Pineberg sobbing in her kitchen because she knew her little boy was never coming home?

Finding Opportunities in Moments of Crisis – Niki Holzapfel

Finding Opportunities in Moments of Crisis

Niki Holzapfel

                The gluten battles my intestines. It punches and kicks, rattles and stabs. It infuriates my insides, which know that this protein does not belong here. I live with a gluten allergy.

A pesky protein (to me, at least), gluten pervades wheat, barley, and rye. While most consume it thoughtlessly, I interrogate the ingredients in my food, knowing the suffering gluten inflicts: a bloated stomach, swollen fingers, achy bones, and intense grumpiness. It leaves me in dizzy spells. It exhausts me. My throat does not close up as in a severe peanut-allergy sufferer, but instead, the suspect particle devastates in a few hours, as it rages against the walls of my stomach.

I learned of my allergy the summer after I graduated from high school. It explained the two seizures I experienced, the dizziness, the constant hunger and fatigue, but eliminating all the wheat from my diet left me salivating during commercials for flaky, buttery Pillsbury crescent rolls and hovering over the bagged loaves of bread at Wal-Mart just for the smell. No longer able to eat at restaurants because of the possible contamination, I dreaded social events billed as “meeting for dinner.” Restricted to food labeled on the box, jar, or bag as gluten-free, I could only brood over what I did not have.

Then five pounds of flab disappeared after omitting drive-thru windows, and my body felt fitter. A set of culinary skills developed, beyond just assembling a bowl of cereal. Using rice, potato, and almond flour, I baked graham crackers and a vanilla cake with a lemon-orange filling. I became the fruit smoothie queen in my house, blending yogurt, frozen fruit, and milk for a sweet and healthy treat. I opted for fresh instead of processed, an orange over a Pop-Tart, eggs over Krispy Kreme. I began drinking more water; it’s one thing that pacifies the stabbing pains in my stomach when I’ve been glutened.

Forced to scour a snack’s ingredient list every time I eat, I realized how many chemicals and preservatives I blindly consumed in my former life. Though they had long, science-y names, I still sent the additives clunking through my digestive system. Now, I must care more about my food, and thus, my body.

I believe in finding opportunities in moments of crisis. I believe that bits of positivity hide in negative situations, waiting for unearthing, no matter how abysmal things may seem. It might require ingenuity, but that is a part of the upside; crises extract creativity.

I do not believe my gluten allergy has ended my life. I believe it has spawned a new one.