Three Drafts

Mrs. Chili is at a week-long, writing-intensive workshop at Prestigious Boarding School.  We began yesterday with a round-table discussion about who we are and why we’re here, and moved on to the reasons we write (or not, as the case may be) and how we translate our own experience with words into the methods we use to reach our students.

The theme for today’s writing is “inheritance.”  I’m sure that’s a complex concept for just about everyone, but I bring my own special brand of crazy to this party.

We have been reading excerpts of Andre Dubus’s collection titled Broken Vessels.  The voice in these pieces is tight and masculine; he speaks of love in oblique ways, which, in a way, makes the entire sense of the thing that much more powerful, and the enormity of information that is conveyed in a scant dozen paragraphs is enough to keep 16 geeky English teachers engaged in round-table discussions for more than an hour (“notice that he says was here instead of is…”  “He’s watching with his father as he dies, not just watching his father…”).

Our assignment was to go off to write, and I’ve found a corner on the top floor of the massive, square library to open my laptop and contemplate inheritance.  Here are the (very) first drafts of some things I was able to take away from my brain-dump exercise this morning.  As always, I appreciate any feedback – questions, suggestions, points for clarification – that you’re willing to take the time to offer.

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It is a very handsome ring.  Heavy and substantial, the square setting supports a large and nearly flawless diamond and four rows of deep, dark sapphires.  For all its heft, the ring attempts a modicum of lightness; delicate filigree work on the sides try to counter the sharp angles and corners of the setting, but the overall effect is one of presence and power.  Her third husband, the one who divorced her shortly before the diagnosis, found the ring in a pawn shop.  The original center topaz was replaced with a diamond, but the rest of the ring remained as it was.  I remember my mother wearing the ring, but even when she and her husband were happy together, it was never a constant.

My mother wanted me to have this ring.  She gave me a number of her possessions over the months of her decline, and wrote a list of things that she wanted me to have after she died, but she was most adamant about this ring.  As someone who believed that people can imprint their energy on physical things, she asked me to find the ring in her jewelry box so that she could wear it every day; she put it on not long after the social worker came to the house to assess her availability for assistance (because it wouldn’t do to cry poverty while wearing such an impressive piece of jewelry) and wore it until, as she lay moaning and unresponsive in the nursing home, my sister-in-law slipped it off her finger a few hours before she died.  After signing a property release at the nurses’ station, the ring became mine.

I have never worn it.  For all that it is lovely and reminds me of my mother, and despite the fact that it is comprised of diamonds and sapphires – the same stones in both my engagement ring and the ring my husband gave me to commemorate our tenth anniversary –  I do not like it.  The longest I’ve worn it was the few hours between when we took the ring from my mother’s finger and the time it took me to drive home after her heart stopped beating under my hand.  I’ve visited it in my jewelry box a few times, but it’s never gotten much farther than that.

A big part of me wants to reset the ring to something that I would wear; something I could have that both suits me and recalls my mother.  I imagine a band setting, something low and secure, in which the sapphires march in a gently curving row to the diamond in the center rather than boxing it in pointed corners and straight lines; or maybe a pendant shaped so the tiny blue stones cradle the diamond in a soft wave of color.

I haven’t brought the ring to a jeweler’s, though; I haven’t convinced myself that it’s really mine yet.

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As I sit at the top floor of a massive brick and concrete library, thinking about my impossibly complex relationship to the idea of “inheritance,” I look out the window and see, growing through the cracks in the between the bricks on the roof, a single maple sapling.  There is no earthly reason for this tree to be growing where it is; there is no soil beneath its roots, the place where it’s dug in is both walled and roofed, so its share of sunlight and rain must surely be limited, yet there it is, two full-grown and clearly defined leaves sprouting defiantly from a four-inch stalk poking from between a pair of dusky red bricks mortared nearly 85 feet in the air.

I see a bit of me in the audacity of this baby maple.  I, who have sawn myself off of my family tree, have managed to find a new and unlikely place to root.  Though I don’t contend with the harsh edges and straight lines of bricks – at least, not anymore – I never imagined that I would be able to settle in as fertile ground as I have.  With no example to follow, I have managed to create for myself a life of stability and joy that I never thought I deserved, much less could have accomplished.  Unlike this little tree growing alone in the sky, I have created for myself a forest of chosen family surrounding a grove of husband and children that is far more vibrant and healthy than I was given reason to believe I would ever see.

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I teach because I need to give back.

When a family fails, the best a child can hope for is that other grown-ups – parents of friends, coaches, neighbors, or teachers – will step in and stand up.  When school is the safest place a child can be, the people who populate that school – especially the people who make it run and give it its routine – become the most important people in the world.  The people who are there, every day, with a comforting reliability give a child a sense of safety that they may not otherwise have.  The people who make and maintain fair and constant rules help that child learn that the boundaries aren’t supposed to move on a whim, and that great things can be accomplished in stable environments. The people who tell that kid that he *can* when all the people who are supposed to be important tell him that he *can’t* become the world to that kid.  That kid starts dreading Fridays and the days before vacations begin, because he knows it’s going to be that long before he again feels like he belongs where he is.

I teach, in part, because good people did those things for me.  I want to make kids feel like someone believes in them and in what they can do the way I was encouraged.  While I love my kids – and make no effort to hide that – I am hard on them, too – I *expect* things from them and I hold them to tough but attainable standards – because, as Booker T. Washington is quoted as saying, “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.”  I learned to believe in myself because people I admired believed in me, and I want to send that energy – that powerful and profound energy – back into the Universe.

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Filed under about writing, Learning, Mrs. Chili as Student, self-analysis, writing

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