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Dear Student

2011 June 21
by prgiff

We had guests for dinner the other night. And always when I spread the cloth over my table, I think of Scott. The cloth is ecru with cut-work that outlines the softest beige flowers. It’s a beautiful cloth, but precious because of the story behind it.
There’s always a story, isn’t there?
But this one reminds me of the blessings of being a teacher, the joy that relationships with students bring…and linger more than forty years.
In those days I taught sixth grade, a fascinating age, the kids were at the top of the heap in our school, feeling their oats, amazed at how they’d grown and how small the younger ones were.
But sometimes life wasn’t all that easy. And maybe Scott wasn’t having an easy time; he didn’t give me such an easy time. Sometimes he was angry, and once, he banged his books on his desk and walked out of the classroom.
In June, I said goodbye to them with some sadness. They said goodbye to me with glee; they were middle schoolers now. I walked the three blocks home thinking about those kids that were mine for a year.
September came, another year, another group of kids, a new beginning. But late afternoon, I sat at my kitchen table, marking papers, when the doorbell rang.
Scott stood there, scowling a little. “I’m having trouble with math.”
“Come in,” I said.
Even now, all these years later, I think about that moment with such nostalgia, such joy.
He came almost every day. We sat at the table, going over the problems, doing the work, until he was sure of it, sure of himself.
And the tablecloth? A gift from his parents, his mother holding out the package, both of us smiling, thinking about the courage he’d had to ring my bell that fall afternoon.
I love having the tablecloth, I treasure the memory it holds. I’m so grateful for the belief that dear stormy child had in me.
I wonder where he is now, as I do about so many of my students. I think about them, wishing I could know what happened to them, how their lives evolved. I wonder if they remember me. I hope so.

NANA

2011 May 31
by prgiff

May twenty-ninth was Nana’s birthday, an event our family celebrated every year on Memorial Day. As a child, I thought all the flags and buntings and occasional fire-crackers that boomed in the distance were for her. And even now, sitting at a picnic table, the sun on my face, the sound of song sparrows, and the taste of homemade salads make me think of her.
Born in 1886, she would have been one-hundred-twenty five on Sunday. Amazing numbers, and even more amazing that I write them. She wouldn’t be happy that I recorded her age, or even that I knew it. Her years were so secret that her second husband learned how old she was months after their marriage, and that by accident.
So how is that possible? My grandmother who had beautiful hands and a wonderful laugh and who was often in trouble with her three daughters. My grandmother who confided in me. My grandmother who is gone now for forty-six years.
I wrote about her in my memoir, DON’T TELL THE GIRLS, wrote about the things she did that made us both laugh, but would have horrified my mother and her sisters. But then Nana is in so many of my books, her words, her thoughts about life, I see her smiling over my computer when I write something I know would have pleased her.
Yesterday, my children and grandchildren sat around the picnic table with Jim and me. The sun was warm on our faces and I heard a song sparrow in our tulip tree. Only my oldest son Jim remembers Nana…a small memory of Nana reading POKEY LITTLE PUPPY to him.
But I remember her and I think she would have felt blessed that I tell my grandchildren about her. I think she would have been pleased that I write about her often. More, that all these years later, there’s still a blur of tears when I think of her. Maybe that’s just a little bit of the immortality we all seek.

THE BOY IN THE MOON

2011 May 12
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by prgiff

It’s not often you read a book you’ll never forget. But I’ve just finished THE BOY IN THE MOON, A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son. Written by Ian Brown, published by Random House, this is a remarkable book that will make you think about your relationships with others, and especially how you feel about the disabled.
The title points out that although we see the face in the moon, we know he’s really not there. And Walker, Ian Brown’s son? This account involves a boy who was born with CFC, a condition so rare, that only a few children in the world had been diagnosed with it. Walker’s face is mildly distorted; he cannot talk, he is fed through a tube in his stomach, he smashes his fists into the sides of his head, he functions on the level perhaps of a one- to three- year old.
Ian Brown is unflinching in describing life with Walker, the terrible lack of sleep, the cost of keeping Walker alive and safe, the worries, the fears, the anger, but so much more, the shining love of a father for his son, of his search to know this unknowable boy.
Roger Rosenblatt provides a wonderful review in the New York Times Book Review section (May 8th) which involves so much of what Ian Brown learned about his son, and about himself which is the heart of the book.
But my concentration this morning is something Brown was told. If he could teach Walker to sign for yes and for no, he could change his world. He could give his son choices; he could give him some measure of control over his life. A stunning possibility!
It makes me think of our lives as parents and teachers. What do we teach? What is important for humans to learn? Just that. What can we give children that will change their worlds? Teachers especially have to make that choice. In today’s classroom where every moment must have weight in the growth of students, what will we decide to teach? Read this book. It will make a difference.

KIDS IN PRINT

2011 May 3
by prgiff

From the time I learned to read, I wanted to write. I loved the sound of words, their meanings; I loved language. I’d hold a book in my hand and pretend that my name was on the cover. I’d read paragraphs aloud, pretending I’d written them.
But how could I ever hope to be a writer? I had no idea of how to get my words in print. And so I didn’t write until I was married with three children and had been a teacher for many years.
I’m holding a book in my hands now. It’s called KIDS IN PRINT, published by the Richland County Public Library, in Columbia, South Carolina. There’s a wonderful illustration on the cover, drawn by a thirteen year old, and lovely photographs and illustrations throughout this wonderful book. I love the stories and poems, written by children as young as six years old and as old as seventeen. (I was particularly drawn to a poem and collage done by a six year old.)
What an affirmation this is for young writers and artists. How I would have loved being a part of this when I was a child. Just the trying, the competing, would have been so satisfying, and to finally turn the pages and see my name, my words, printed professionally, would have thrilled me. It would have made the journey to becoming a published writer seem possible.
I congratulate the Richland Public Library on this exciting book. I wish every library in the country would consider the publication of children’s work. What a difference it would make!

Augusta Baker

2011 April 26
by prgiff

I’ve always felt that Augusta Baker belonged to me. Usually I don’t tell people about such impertinence. It would be like my saying that Louisa May Alcott was a personal friend, or that I knew Betty Smith of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN fame.
Augusta Baker was a children’s librarian for the New York Public Library when I was growing up. Not only did she live in St. Albans, Queens, not far from where I lived, but as a teenager, I worked as a page, shelving books, in our little storefront library there, which was part of NYPL. Often I listened to stories Miss Bailey, the librarian, told me about writers and stories and librarians she admired.
I don’t remember when I first heard about Augusta Baker, I don’t remember when I heard her tell a story to enraptured children. But I do remember that I thought it would be the best thing in the world to tell stories and have children listen.
There was something else. I read that Augusta talked about her love of story having to do with her grandmother. “One of the ways my grandmother kept me quiet was to tell me stories,” she said.
That reminded me of my own grandmother.
Years later, I spoke at a conference in Athens, Georgia, and that evening—a magical evening—I sat in a living room, listening to Augusta tell her stories. We shared memories of St. Albans and the New York Public Library, (which also belongs to me.)
Augusta would have been one-hundred this year, born in April, as I was. What an honor to have been asked to speak at the festival honoring her at the Richland Public Library in Columbia. Augusta belonged to the people of South Carolina. After she retired from the New York Public Library, she became the storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina.
I loved the A(ugusta)Baker’s Dozen conference and listening to Leonard Marcus presentation about the emergence of realistic fiction in which Augusta had such an important part. Listening to the storytellers and watching the children who were absorbed in those stories was a joy.
The dedication of the librarians reminded me of my own beloved Miss Bailey. So is it possible then for me to say that those librarians and the Richland Public Library belong to me?

MADDIE AND THE GHOST

2011 April 14
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by prgiff

How do I go about writing a book? Is it all in my mind first? Do I outline?
I wish.
I wonder why I always think of a violin when I begin. I’ve never played; I don’t think I’ve ever touched one. Still, I picture its strings, long and loopy, hanging over the edge; it’s impossible for them to make a sound. They certainly can’t sing.
That’s a new book, a story unformed, the writer uninformed; I have only a glimmer of what might be ahead. And each sentence that remains after writing, and rewriting, takes me closer to understanding what I’d like to say; each sentence tightens the strings so that in the end, the story is there.
Often though, there’s a nugget of knowledge when I begin. Round and smooth, I turn it over in my mind, It’s something that belongs in the book. When I began NORY RYAN’S SONG, I knew Nory would give her brother, Patch, her place on the cart to find the ship for America. When I wrote MAGGIE’S DOOR, I saw my father bent over a book, and I knew he was my character Sean, in love with learning.
I have a few nuggets, as I write my new book. One is a ghost, skinny, with a hint of nail polish. The other is an ambulance driver. And yes, there’s a war.
Here I am, more than a third finished; it’s still unformed. The protagonist’s name is Mariah; no, it’s Madeleine. Her older brother, Claude, has gone off to war; no, it’s her older sister, Genevieve. And which war? Is it Iraq? No, it’s the Second World War. And Mariah/Madeleine, is left to find her grandmother. In Brooklyn? So far from the action? Maybe she goes to Alsace.
So I write and think. It’s coming, I tell myself. I’ve learned to love Maddie, I’ve put her in a place that will change her life; I’ve surrounded her with characters that, I hope,will make her grow.
It’s not easy; it’s never become easier. But soon, maybe she’ll sing. I hope so. I spend my days trying to make it happen.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY

2011 April 7
by prgiff

I’ve just read Ruta Septys’s first book for young people, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. Not only is it beautifully written, but it’s such a powerful story that I can’t stop thinking about it.
Set in 1941, the subject is Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region. Lina, the protagonist, is deported from Lithuania with her mother and brother. The terrible trip to Siberia, the cruelty of one person to another, is so vivid, so powerful, and so dreadful. But Lina’s strength, her mother’s incredible kindness, her brother’s love, give this book hope.
What an important story this is, not only for young people but for all readers. I want to reach out to this author, to thank her…and to hope that we’ll be hearing more from her soon.

Affordable Housing

2011 March 31
by prgiff

I’m sitting in a patch of sunlight, watching a war from my window in the garden room. It must have begun in the middle of the night because I awakened briefly to the cries of outrage coming from the pond. “It’s Spring,” I whispered to Jim.
And it is. No matter that the thermometer ihas trouble creeping into the fifties; no matter that another snowstorm is forecast for Friday night. There are pansies at my front door and on the patio. Daffodils are up, and I’d like to say tulips, but the deer feasted on them the other night and I have only dim hopes that they’ll bloom next month.
But the war.
Every year it’s the same. Days before April, there’s a vast scramble for housing accommodations. Our resident pair of geese must fight off newcomers who feel that our pond might be a worthy place to raise their young.
A pair lands in the center of the pond. And once he notices, our male skims across the water at a frightening speed. He stops short just before he slams into the intruder. There’s a great flapping of wings, a dust up of feathers, and both rise up into the air.
They retreat then, to think things over. Our female, smoothing down her beige breast, stops to take a few nips at the green grass. The other female perches at the far end of the pond, wondering, I guess, where they’ll go next.
She and her mate are tired of the battle. They see that our male has great determination. And so after about twelve hours, they circle the pond and take off, maybe to a neighboring pond.
Our goose looks so proud of himself, so delighted with his power. He and his lady march up to the window. Certainly they deserve a midmorning breakfast. I run to pour it outside in a golden stream.
And maybe things will be quiet enough for me to finish my writing goal of two pages now.

Conference at Utah Valley University

2011 March 24
by prgiff

The house I’ve written about so often is tucked in the Catskills of New York State: gentle mountains, softened by evergreens. Imagine my delight to be asked to speak in Utah. The mountains there are serious mountains, soaring, snow covered, breathtaking.
It was a wonderful conference at the Utah Valley University: A Forum for Engaged Reading. I laughed over Christopher Paul Curtis’s riotous presentation; I wanted to sit down in an armchair next to one of those huge windows and reread his books—I’d certainly hear his voice again as I read BUD, NOT BUDDY.
I was awed by Steve Jenkins’ illustrations. How moving to see the six year old Steve’s work—penciled animals, a sign of what would come, those beautifully executed drawings he does now. Don’t miss DOWN, DOWN, DOWN: A JOURNEY TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. I think kids will love this look at the depths.
Always there’s a bonus for me. And this time the bonus was huge. I listened to Dr. David Booth, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. His voice is soft, his message is powerful…and delivered with wit and wisdom. I brought one of his books home with me. It’s called READING DOESN’T MATTER ANYMORE…and every teacher, every writer, every librarian…wait…everyone, should read it. He adds to that title, the words Unless We… and what he tells us is pertinent and thought provoking and talks abot a new definition of literacy. Read this book. You won’t forget it.
So I’m home now from Utah, enriched, delighted to have been a part of it. If only it would stop snowing here in Connecticut, I couldn’t ask for more!

St. Patrick’s Day

2011 March 17
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by prgiff

When I was ten years old, Georgie Ohland gave me his fife so I could join the St. Pascal Baylon Band. I loved it: marching up and down, back and forth, right flank, left flank, to the rear march. I played close attention to the person in front of me because I still had trouble with rights and lefts.
Even more pleasing was the hour spent in a classroom, practicing music. The fifes sounded like birds as we played, high and squeaky. Professor Passut would sink onto the edge of his desk, eyebrows drawn together as if he had a headache. But at last our fingers found the right notes and we were ready to march along Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
How cold it was, year after year, waiting on a side street, sometimes for two hours. I held Georgie’s fife with one hand, the other tucked under my arm, trying to keep my fingers warm.
We swung out, fifers first, playing The Rakes of Mallow or The Wearing of the Green, my sister beating a drum a few rows back, the buglers last. Somewhere ahead, my mother marched with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and my father, a police inspector, stood on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, smiling as we marched past.
So long ago.
Later this morning, I’ll turn on the television to watch those kids going up Fifth Avenue, my fingers dancing, playing an imaginary fife with them, remembering the notes, the rhythm of the old song, THE KERRY DANCERS: “Oh to think of it, oh to dream of it, fills my heart with joy.”