Connecting the Generations: Part 1

Posted on July 21, 2015


I recall with delight that moment at my son, Cale’s, high school soccer game when my mentor, Cathy Fleischer, (from EMU and Eastern Michigan Writing Project) was in the stands because her son was on the opposing team. I told some of my students that she was at the game and that I was excited for them to see her, because she had been highly influential in shaping me as a teacher. My students said, “Have her wave at us,” so I went to where she was and asked her to wave. She waved. We all waved at each other, connecting the generations: the past, the present, the future. It was a memorable moment for me, to connect my long-time mentor with the individuals I was–and continue to mentor. It was something like bringing one’s own child to meet one’s parent, saying, “This is where we come from…”

As a mentor, it has been important to me to position myself as a writer, scholar, researcher, conservationist, and musician, in hopes that my making visible my multi-dimensionality, students would think of themselves multi-dimensionally. Now this idea is formally articulated throughout the IB program at AHS, but I have always been committed to a multi-intelligence, cross-curricular, multi-genre, research-based curriculum. I try to model risk-taking and handling setbacks in a good way. I have mentored writers, but also designer/engineers, drummers, singer-songwriters, actors, gardeners, and artists. Now I’m mentoring a Ukulele club. I’m always open to mentoring people in whatever they’re trying to pursue; I’m a resource, a hub. I keep my eyes and ears peeled for resources that might be useful to others who might be interested.

One of the students who might have been waving at my teacher that day is Lia Greenwell.

Lia was in my English 11 class in 2005-06. As soon as I started reading her work, I was struck by the beauty and precision of her writing. In her senior year, she did an Independent Study in Creative Writing with me. I still treasure the piece she wrote that was inspired by Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. She called it, “Pulling Back the Curtains.” It consists of sixteen vignettes, each one pulling back the curtains on a moment in her childhood, allowing the reader to experience some of the mystery, confusion, discovery, and disillusionment she experienced while growing up. The final vignette is called “Curtains.”

The ground finally let out a big sigh of heavy, warm air as the sun went down. All day the soil had been drying out like cake and the hot asphalt made us tiptoe and skip across driveways and streets quick. After dinner Andrew and Lauren and me played toilet tag and street hockey until John B. and Quinn and some of the younger kids got ornery and had to go to bed.

We laid on the hill of our front yard where the grass felt cool, and Lauren and Andrew and me just talked. Nobody looked at each other. We all looked up. Up, where the sky was all ink and crystals. And it was one of those times when you didn’t have to look because everyone’s words were for everyone else, and everything you needed to know you could hear in their voice. Lauren wasn’t talking to Andrew who was as old as her, and Andrew wasn’t hitting me or telling me to go inside. And even though it was dark I wasn’t scared because we were together and laughing with our filthy dark feet and hair curly from sweat.

I kept looking up and listening to their stories. For a second I thought about the sky meaning to be light like stars all of the time but getting covered up so only little beams could peek through cracks and holes. And if we could only pull back those big dark curtains we could really see, but right then things were just so beautiful. I decided I’d let them be.

Sandra Cisneros was an important influence for Lia. She was for me, as well. I saw her speak at a National Council of Teachers of English convention, I remember very clearly that she spoke about having the voice of a child, and how she felt out of place at graduate school in Iowa, and I was overjoyed to hear someone from a working class background speaking in that environment, where I felt out of place myself because of my working class background.

Like Cisneros, Lia became a writer. She studied writing Residential College of the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, which turned out to be a very natural follow-up to studying with me, since the program emphasizes civic engagement, an interdisciplinary curriculum, individualized curriculum, and experiential learning. Next, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College. We’ve maintained close contact throughout the years, and as her expertise in certain topics has surpassed mine, she has become not only my mentor, but a mentor to those students who now sit in the classroom where she once sat. It began with asking her to Skype into the classroom with a lesson on Mary Oliver’s poetry. She agreed, and we selected two poems for her to discuss. She led the discussion masterfully, even as a beginner, even as she expressed concern for how well she did. She brought a fresh perspective, she brought expertise, she brought love for poetry–and the students LOVED it.

Homecoming 2013

Homecoming 2013

As soon as I had selected the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska as the subject of study, I called Lia to ask if she or any poets she knew were familiar with Szymborska’s work, because I needed to learn about her poetry, as I had selected her poetry for my IB Literature course. Much to my delight, she replied, “Szymborska’s on my syllabus for this term!” How cool is that?

Of course, my next question was, “After you’ve studied her poetry, will you share what you learn with my students and me?” She said yes, and now, I count on her to virtually “visit” my classroom in the fall to do a lesson on Mary Oliver, and in the spring to do a lesson on Szymborska.

Find Part 2 Here