When I was my students’ age — seventeen, eighteen — I didn’t know what a strike was.
I had never witnessed one. In U.S. History, a teacher must have mentioned one of the famous ones — the labor strikes of the 1800s, maybe, or the post-WWII auto strikes. But to me at seventeen, a strike sounded simple: the workers refused to work, the owners tried to hold out, the workers kept refusing to work, the owners tried extreme measures (police, water, threats, firings, replacements), and usually, the workers won. The end. I was a farmer’s daughter when I learned about strikes for the first time, the daughter of a man who daily labored for himself and for his land, and who could not refuse to work a single day, because the hogs would suffer, the corn plants would wither. It seemed a kind of privilege to refuse to work.
On the Friday before the Denver teachers finally went on strike on February 11, I stood before a class of high school seniors and tried to explain to them why I would not be standing there on Monday if the district could not reach an agreement with the union. The students listened quietly, a little warily. The Denver Public School PR machine was regularly cranking out emails to the community insisting the teachers were refusing “millions” on the table and demanding more. The real story — that Denver teachers wanted a traditional salary schedule with dependable annual base pay, limited incentives, and respect for what we already do as professionals — was a more nuanced and thus more-difficult-to-craft soundbite.
I told the students I wanted them to apply to the events of the strike all the college-level research skills we’ve been learning: stay curious, formulate your own deep questions, evaluate each source for credibility and originality, question everything again, compare what you’re finding so you can discern the truth. Still, they watched me from the corners of their eyes.
“You’ll remember this,” I said finally, “far more than you’ll remember any college research skill I could teach you.” This made them laugh, and the room relaxed. Because of course they would. All their teachers were marching out of the building and refusing pay, starting Monday. They’d be in these classrooms with district-paid substitutes, staring out the tall historic windows at us on the picket line. I told them I’d wave, which made them laugh again.
It is a privilege to refuse to work. My family had enough in savings that I could afford the pay cut for a few days, but what I meant was more profound: I work as part of a collective group. I am no single farmer cultivating fields alone. I show up every day to teach in a classroom that is next door to ninety other classrooms, and our school is united with 161 other schools in the district. I’m not alone. When working conditions are unacceptable, it’s our great right to link arms together and demand more. Alone, it would be impossible. That’s what I didn’t understand at seventeen — what my students, each engaged in his/her individual battle for college and future, do not understand.
It’s what the Denver Public School District did not seem to understand, either. It’s what any group of powerful bosses does not understand. They tell us what to do, what to accept, what to swallow, until one day, we rise up as a group and shout “No!” and the bosses realize they never actually had power, that their power all along was dependent on our acquiescence.
On the Tuesday of the strike — day two — hundreds of teachers dressed in red marched down Denver’s Colfax Avenue to Civic Center Park, where we gathered with more hundreds, our signs aloft. The signs said it all. “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” “I choose to change the things I can no longer accept.” “More education, less administration.” “Pay us a living wage.” The one I carried asked, “What is the value of your child’s education?” On the other side, I alluded to the 1912 Massachusetts textile workers’ strike: “Teachers deserve both bread and roses.”
On all sides of us, members of other unions marched, too: firefighters, steelworkers, truck drivers, plumbers. My colleague Nick, from Michigan, often insists that ours is a blue-collar job, which seems strange, since we all have college degrees and many of us have master’s degrees and PhDs, but in these days of marching miles and miles through the city, chanting for fair pay and respectful working conditions, I understood how right he is. The teachers who marched on either side of me just wanted the chance to buy a house in this city; they wanted to have some money to save for their children’s college educations; they wanted to emerge from three decades of teaching other people’s children and find some kind of rest. They are also the most hard-working people I know. They are people who stay late to tutor students, who step out into the hallway to comfort students, who wake early to give students meaningful feedback on papers, who spend all weekend planning lessons that will light learning in students’ minds.
Without teachers in the schools in Denver, the city was eerily silent. True, the schools are open, but most students stayed home, waiting for us to return. Some marched with us. One student’s sign read: “I march because our teachers love us.”
I didn’t know how difficult it would be to strike. It was far harder than teaching all day. Every day, I woke early and put on my long underwear and then my jeans and my three sweatshirts, stocking cap, two pairs of gloves. On the picket lines each day in the cold, we walked nine, ten miles. My hips and lower back ached. And yet: every day it became clearer that if we did not strike, the bosses would continue to do as they please. This was our reminder of who was in power.
In the end, the Denver strike was the shortest in the city’s history: only three days. The district awarded us the salary schedule, and raised everyone’s salaries to meet surrounding school districts’ levels. By Thursday, we stood in our classrooms again, exhausted and exhilarated. By the middle of Thursday, it seemed we had never left; we were badgering students about turning in assignments on time; we were trying to motivate a whole class to care about our content areas; we were again fighting the relatively smaller battles between teachers and administrators. But there was this difference: starting in August, the pay we receive for this hard work will actually allow us to put down payments on houses in Denver, save for our kids’ college years, and maybe travel a little. In Denver, teachers will have enough to buy both bread and roses.
A few naysayers visited us on the picket line. One man squealed the brakes on his shiny silver BMW and jumped out, shaking a fist and shouting, “Get back to work! Get back to work!” I’m sure he believed his tax dollars fund our salaries and that we shouldn’t complain. I’m also sure that, if he had chosen to make a living as a teacher, he would have likely been out there marching with us, too.
The Friday before the strike, a student in one of my colleague’s classes rolled his eyes at her and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset about the pay. You chose this job.”
True. And most of us teachers, at some point, frustrated by student apathy or by parents’ vitriol or by administrators’ hoops or by the long hours of grading papers and planning lessons, have said we wish we could quit. It’s a small salve sometimes in this hard job we chose. But it’s also true that most of us don’t quit. Most of us keep slogging on, because of the shining moments when a student gets it, and cares, because it is actually wonderful to plan educational experiences for teenagers each day — far better than working in an office would be.
Now, in Denver — and in Los Angeles, and in West Virginia, and hopefully soon in Oakland — we’re paid fairly for that work, too, because we chose to walk the picket lines for a few days. It’s connected us. When the bell rings to start each class, we wave at each other down the long high school hallways, and then step into our classrooms, to begin.
“For the Thousandth Time, I want to Know” is a poem by Mark Nepo from his out-of-print book Inhabiting Wonder.
I first imagined this piece nearly four years ago, and contacted Mark, who generously gave me permission to reprint the poem. It was an ambitious project at the time, and I got about three-quarters of the way through before I abandoned ship. Over the course of a year I designed it, printed it, built all the frames, and scored each sheet by hand eight times and each hinge three times. Then I assembled the first full prototype, and my morale plummeted. It just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. A classic example of what Ira Glass is talking about in this genius little video on beginners, and making things. I let my perfectionist get the better of me and put the whole darn project up high on a shelf, leaving it there to lurk in the corner through three studio moves and countless other projects.
For three years now, I’ve alternated between forgetting about this project and feeling bad about it: guilty, dismissive, or just plain impossible. It’s been entered on to several hundred to-do lists without ever being crossed off. Until about a month ago. Something shifted and “Thousandth Time” moved from the “unfinished old crap” list in my mind to the “new work to be editioned” list. There were a few external motivating factors, but in reality I don’t know what made the the project click over from one side of my mental divide to the other. The good news is it did, which made it feel possible to work on, and voila! Now its many pieces are covering my work table and the edition is more than half completed!
It also feels current, which is perhaps the most interesting thing of the whole matter. Because the fact is that when I began the project it was beyond my ability to execute from a technical standpoint. I could see it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I simply did not have the experience and hand skills to improve it. Now, coming back to the binding process a good three years later, with a handful of large book editions under my belt plus a lot of one-off blank books, my hands are much more capable! And my eyes can see a lot more. It’s been an unexpected gift to pick up the pieces of this ‘old’ project and experience just how far I’ve come since I started it. Somehow my old self must’ve known it would be important work for my future self to complete.
by Expedition Press
(click for full-size images)
“Thousandth Time” is a three-dimensional poetry broadside, printed on Japanese paper and bound on balsa wood frames with two-way hinge so it can open and close in both directions. I’m making it in an edition of 26. The design was inspired by traditional shoji screens, and a few smaller pieces built by Jules Faye for window displays. This broadside folds closed like a book and slips into a protective black soft-sided slipcase – which is a whole ‘nother pile of work. But hey that’s okay! I like work. Doesn’t everyone like work? One more prototype and the slipcases should be ready to edition.
The binding process for these screens is challenging and time-consuming. The materials are delicate and finicky and I designed it without considering the grain of the paper. The truth is I derived the overall dimensions from the paper itself, which I found in a dusty old box labeled “Antique Japanese Paper from Ralph” which must’ve been sitting for a couple decades itself. As it happens the grain is running short-wise which means the longer turn-ins are the more difficult ones. Here’s the process in a nutshell: first, I trim the corners of each sheet so that they’ll fold properly. Then I glue the frame to the sheet and place it under boards to dry flat. Now the turn-ins, the most difficult part. Head and tail are turned in first and the corners are wrapped with the tabs (cut in the first step). Then the sides are turned in, with generous amounts of PVA, some swearing, and a few deep breaths. Back under boards to dry flat. Then the hinges are attached to two frames at the same time so they line up, first to the front, then folded and scored against the frame. The last step is joining the two screens together by gluing the hinges on the back. Then back under boards, and they are left to dry closed under weight. This helps the finished pieces stay flat and also lets the hinges relax into their closed position.
On a personal note, my mother asked me to print this poem the year after my older brother died. So the project has a lot of grief tied up in it as well, which I am sure has played its own mysterious part in the stymied stop-and-go nature of working on it. I can’t help but note the time of year: there’s something about fall and the days getting darker, a general trend toward introspection that feels appropriate for coming back around to finishing this edition. I spent Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, prototyping the slipcases, which are all black. Who knows why we let certain things go, and when if ever we’re able to pick them back up? Some things can’t be rushed, and sometimes we’re not meant to know. Good craft has a way of being slow, as does healing when there’s a rift in your soul. I’ve thought of my brother Nathan a lot while working on this project, and I will continue to through the many slow hours left to finish it. “Thousandth Time” is dedicated not just to him, but to all of those we love, and see no more.
As a letterpress printer, I work primarily with handset metal type and antique presses. My studio practice is research based and employs strict experimentation alongside no-holds- barred exploration. I collect poetry fragments, expand on them visually, and thread them together to create an experience at once intimate and vast, exposing a sense of wonder and available space. According to Franz Kafka: “a book must be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” I aim for my prints to be pages out of that book. Whether an ice-shattering blow or a tiny doorstop, my work holds space at the threshold of imagination and invites the viewer to enter.
About the Press
Expedition Press produces literary-inspired artwork and limited edition poetry books and broadsides. Our mission is to increase access to poetry via multiple beautifully crafted points of entry.
Expedition is also home to a full service letterpress print shop and bindery. Our shop offers a broad range of design and print work rooted in handset type. We’re located in downtown Kingston, WA, just a few blocks from the ferry. The Press is open by appointment.
As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books.
I began them when I started third grade. When people ask about formative books, I think first of this series: of these books that I read when I walked around the house, that I carried to the dinner table, that I pored over during recess, and that I bugged my teacher to put on her curriculum even as the school year was ending. But I put off writing about them for a long time as it seems that I can’t bring myself to re-read them.
I still can’t.
Wilder’s semi-autobiographical children’s novels follow the pioneering Ingalls family as they move from Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods) to territory that was in reality an Osage Indian reservation in Kansas (Little House on the Prairie). The family then departs for Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), where they live in a house made of sod, then to De Smet, South Dakota, the setting of By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. One book, Farmer Boy, follows the childhood adventures of Almanzo, Wilder’s husband, as he tends to livestock, does chores, eats cake, and tries to get along with siblings in upstate New York. The Ingalls family (and the Wilders) sew their own clothes, endure blizzards, illness, and locusts, and still manage to find love, and joy, and adventure with family.
I say that the books are semi-autobiographical because despite the fact that the main character has Wilder’s name and the family travels roughly along the same paths that Wilder’s family did, the novels are very much fiction. Liberties were taken with Wilder’s real life story. And to a certain extent, this is acknowledged. Little House in the Big Woods, after all, opens like this:
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The book has the opening for a fairy tale, with one solid fact thrown in—sixty years. Reception of the series—and certainly my feelings about it when I was young—concentrated on the harsh pioneer life, on details about playing ball with a pig’s bladder or making a doll out of a corn cob. I know I also identified with the setting of the story because I lived in the flat, cold middle of Canada (albeit in a city, in a house with indoor plumbing and heating). I know I also wanted to be resourceful and plucky, like the Ingalls family. I wanted to make my own bread, sew my own clothes, churn butter, and plant things.
(Basically, I wanted to do crafts and ride in horse-drawn buggies—but to have other modern conveniences.)
More recently, however, writers and scholars have turned their attention to the fictive-ness of the books—and to the mythmaking. Some memorable characters, the handsome Cap Garland, for example, are made up. More important, Pa Ingalls’s reasons for dragging his family across large swathes of Kansas and the Dakotas are elided. Pa Ingalls and his family weren’t benign settlers pitting their ingenuity against the dangerous wild; they were invading Native American territories. They had to do it on their own because they weren’t supposed to be there.
Indeed, Caroline’s Fraser’s 2017 book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looks at the ways that Wilder’s books not only diverged from the realities of her life but made that life into one of the shaping narratives of American identity. The book also examines how Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a follower of Ayn Rand, extensively rewrote her mother’s books, often twisting facts to reflect Obectivist values.
But Fraser’s is only the latest in a series of sources that made me re-examine my feelings about the series. Among those:
Louis Erdrich’s books Birchbark House books, written from the perspective of Native Americans and set at around the same time as Wilder’s books;
Scholar Debbie Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” in which she talks about the depiction of Native Americans in the Little House series and in other books. This is just one example.
It was a conversation about Wilder’s books that Dr. Reese shared on Twitter that initially made me question what kinds of books from my childhood I wanted to give to my own child (which I talked about here) and, more important, why exactly I wanted to share them.
Does reading the Little House books lead to a greater understanding of history? Not on their own. Would it lead to my daughter understanding me or my life better?
Would it bring us closer?
If that were true, would this I want this particular story connecting us?
I am at a loss. I don’t know how to reconcile my memories, my newer knowledge, and my feelings about what is best to do right now. I have been told I should talk these issues out with kids, but so far I haven’t mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to my daughter. I’m not actively hiding them. But I’ve chosen to put different books in front of her and to have her explore what she likes on her own. In any case, it’s likely that she’ll encounter them without my interference. She’ll be older.
By then, I hope I’ll be better prepared to talk about them.
In Owl At Home, Arnold Lobel’s 1975 illustrated early reader, solitary Owl scolds winter for coming into his house. He is frightened by a creature under his covers, which turns out to be his feet. He makes himself cry in order to enjoy a pot of tear-water tea. He runs up and down the stairs in order to be in two places at once. He worries about the moon.
Throughout these five short episodes, Owl never encounters any other animate creatures. He talks to the weather, his legs, objects in the sky. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that they never reply.
“If I am looking at you, moon, then you must be looking back at me. We must be very good friends,” Owl says.
Aha, the reader thinks, the moon isn’t a real friend—it just seems like it’s there for you. The moon begins to follow Owl and Owl shoos it away. He feels sad when he is home safe in bed and cannot see his friend—and relieved when it reappears from behind clouds to shine in his window. Poor, deluded Owl.
At another point, Owl tells himself vignettes of small things and objects, about wasted potential, and isolation, in order to make himself cry:
“Spoons that have fallen behind the stove and are never seen again,” said Owl…. “Books that cannot be read,” said Owl, because some of the pages have been torn out.” … “Mornings nobody saw because everybody was sleeping,” sobbed Owl.
“Soon,” Lobel writes, “the kettle was all filled up with tears.”
And yet, while the episode chronicles small moments of stunning loneliness, the chapter ends on a note of optimism. “Owl felt happy as he filled his cup. ‘It tastes a bit salty,’ he said, ‘but tear water-tea is always very good.’”
After his recitation, Owl’s decision is to be happy—to be nourished by his temporary sadness. He seems to be the master of these sad stories.
And yet…if Owl understands the illusory nature of these stories, does he know that his friendship with the moon is also not real? Does it matter, if it makes him happy? Is Owl in command of the narrative? Are we?
Arnold Lobel is perhaps best known for creating Frog and Toad, who make up one of the funniest, most poignant relationships in children’s literature.
The first book, Frog and Toad Are Friends, came out in 1970. The pair is a classic odd couple: Frog is sunny and energetic; Toad frets about buttons, swimsuits, and about not being able to think of stories. He has moments of deep and deeply real insecurity and melancholy that always find reassurance in Frog’s abiding friendship. Frog and Toad can also be seen as a portrait of male-male love. In total, Lobel wrote four Frog and Toad books. (Another two were discovered more recently and released by Lobel’s daughter, Adrianne.)
When reading the Frog and Toad books, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Lobel’s life. In a May 2016 piece for The New Yorker, Colin Stokes traces Lobel’s origins as a children’s book author and illustrator—sometimes in collaboration with his wife Anita Kempler. Stokes also notes that Lobel was gay. Lobel was one of the early casualties of AIDS and died of complications from the disease in 1987. He had come out to his wife and children in 1974. Owl At Home was published in 1975. It is hard not to read some of Owl’s loneliness—the wasted potential that he cries about in the tear-water tea, the ignored history of objects and creatures—as being about Lobel’s personal, hidden tragedies.
But perhaps we don’t have the right to look at Lobel’s story—his stories—through that lens. Lobel’s books, after all, are ultimately happy. They affirm friendship. They show that people (or owls and amphibians) need and find joy in ties, even while acknowledging that relationships are as ephemeral as life.
My experience of Owl at Home has always been social. I likely first encountered the book during one of those important early kid’s events: story time.
Between kindergarten and third grade, my class went to the school library at least once a week for a reading with our librarian, Ms Wilkins, and to take out books.
Ms Wilkins was tall and gray-haired. She wore a heavy man’s watch, which I sometimes stared at when she read. She introduced us to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. She read us Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and paused to explain to us how the author used collage to make up his illustrations. I still remember the care she took to talk to us about each book that she selected, about how pictures and words were put together. She was teaching us how to see, what to look for in narrative—something that I don’t think anyone had ever really done for me before. I remember her as a reserved woman—not the kind of person whom one would peg as someone who wanted to work with kids. But as my reading advanced, she listened to me quietly when I told her I wanted books like Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. She didn’t grimace or laugh—and she steered me to Enid Blyton, P. L. Travers, and Dodie Smith.
To this day, the memory of Ms Wilkins—of sitting cross-legged on a low carpet of the library surrounded by other kids, of listening to her read in her low, scratchy voice—brings me immense comfort. It was this same feeling of intimacy and sharing that I tried to bring to my daughter when I read to her about Frog and Toad, and Owl.
In the wake of the US election, I have been thinking a lot about the uses of reading and writing. I dwell on how useless writing—my writing—seems to be. I consider this while taking refuge in stories that conclude happily and unhappily—in narratives that have the courtesy to end while our reality continues rudely and dangerously on.
We do think of reading and writing as solitary pursuits—perhaps they’re even selfish. But reading can take the form of a parent reading to a child, a story time for a class of eager kids. Or it can be one person and a book.
I tell myself this when I write: that a book may be an inanimate object, but it is also contains the words of a person reaching out. I tell myself that empathy works even when results are not immediately visible. Or I tell myself nothing and just go on.
At the end of Owl at Home, Owl has fallen asleep. The moon is still shining on him. It is there if Owl needs it.