This month is NaNoWriMo, a month in which the question “What’s your word count?” separates Nanowrimoes from the rest of the world.
The word comes from fragments of the month’s title, National Novel Writing Month; the goal: write 50,000 words of a novel, forego more sleep than usual, win promotional prizes, and—well—have a novel draft you might not have had otherwise. Except for 1999, the inaugural year of NaNoWriMo, when the month was July, the month has been November.
To me, November has always seemed the perfect month for this—as fall sets in, as the garden dies in the frost, as the holidays and their attendant family drama loom, I am comforted by the prospect of sitting down in front of my laptop with my new novel idea and the straightforward task of writing 1,667 words each day (the word count one needs to maintain to achieve 50,000 words in the month of November). Note that the idea behind NaNoWriMo is not to publish a novel in a month, or to even write a good novel in a month. The idea is simply to write, and write, and write, until the word-count bar at the top of the NaNoWriMo.org account rises above 50,000 and a happy badge flashes onto the screen: “Winner!”
I’m a proud NaNoWriMo winner from 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. In 2012, I wrote 29,538 words and realized the novel was a novella, and was finished. Last year, in 2016, I wasn’t in a novel-writing mood, and I only wrote 6,921 words. But this year, I intend to win again. My current word count as of this writing? 17,060. Only a few more to go.
There’s a beautiful camaraderie to NaNoWriMo that I need in this Trumpian world. At local write-ins, we strangers sit next to each other at coffee shops and just write. Sometimes, we compete in “word sprints,” in which a leader sets a timer for, say, twenty minutes, and we all try to write as much as possible (my average in twenty minutes is about 800 words), but mostly we just write. And write. During breaks, we share the story we’re attempting, or we discuss ideas of what to do to a main character. We trade tricks to increase the word count: have the character write a letter, suddenly decide to tell the backstory, write a side story that is only loosely related to the novel—or write a column about NaNoWriMo and include the column in your novel manuscript.
NaNoWriMo is a sort of escape from the real world that requires me to wake up and drive to my job and put in my hours and drive home to help my daughter with homework and make my family dinner. For just one month, I get to give in to the frenetic energy of writing. And yet—it is not really an escape. Every year, I craft a novel I need to write. One year, I wrote a series of letters (what would become The Beginning of Us, which Riptide published in 2014) between two women who discovered they loved each other in college, because I wanted to know what would have happened if I had met Ali, who had just died, at an earlier juncture in our lives. Another year, dismayed by the way my students were sinking farther and farther into their phones, I wrote a science fiction novel about a dystopia in which the government barely needs to control the people because they are already controlled by their own technology. This year, horrified by Trump and the immigration discussion, I’m writing about a lockdown in a diverse city high school in the near future—a lockdown the main character, a teacher, begins to realize has been instigated by the U.S. government, which has declared a military state until sanctuary cities like Denver turn over their undocumented residents.
At my real high school, I am one of the faculty sponsors of the school’s Writing Club, a group of students who meet on Thursdays at lunch to just write. In November each year, they all attempt NaNoWriMo, so each week, we discuss our word counts. They want to know how I’ve written so many words: I write, I tell them. Turn off the inner editor. Even if you hate what you’ve just written, leave it on the screen; let it be counted. After November, you’ll revise.
In the second week of November, our high school had a sudden lockdown at lunch—a real lockdown. At the time, I was meeting with the school’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Club (I am the faculty sponsor of the two coolest clubs at our high school), where we were discussing the 1958 film “The Fly.” Suddenly, an assistant principal announced over the intercom that we were in lockdown, and within minutes we had paused “The Fly,” locked the classroom door, and huddled in the darkness in the corner farthest from the windows. My heart was beating in my ears; one girl had begun to cry. Sudden, unplanned lockdowns conjure terrifying images: Columbine, Sandy Hook. A boy under the row of desks beside me dropped his book, and everyone in our room jumped. But then, softly, Jocelyn, a girl who is in both Writing Club and Science Fiction/Fantasy Club, whispered, “Ms. Campbell? Are you allowed to write during a lockdown? Because this is exactly what you are writing about! You could get more words.” Even under duress, NaNoWriMo possesses us.
The lockdown ended, the issue evidently resolved, and the bell rang. Strange. But my mind swirled with all the ideas I hadn’t considered for my novel. I hadn’t remembered, for example, that in a lockdown, we all have to cram into one corner of the classroom. I’d forgotten how the tension builds and builds with each minute. I’d forgotten the odd silence of the hallway outside. More words.
Every November, I meet other writers who want to get published and who wonder where they should send the novel they write for NaNoWriMo. There are many places to submit work, of course, but NaNoWriMo itself is not a publisher; it’s a kick in the pants; it’s a fire lit; it’s a reminder that no book will be published that does not get written.
I teach full-time; I’m a parent. I don’t actually have time or space to be a “real” writer right now. Or do I? At a writing retreat in New Mexico a couple of years ago, I attended a session led by a self-named “creativity consultant,” who specializes in working with women artists. One woman in the session complained, “I’ve got four kids and a full-time job. I do not have time to write.” The creativity consultant took a deep breath, looked the woman square in the eyes, and said, “Yes, you do. You have time if you make the time. Even just five minutes here, five minutes there.”
NaNoWriMo does not give me more time, but that word counter on my NaNoWriMo screen—and all the thousands of Nanowrimoes typing away across the country each day in November—remind me that I can make the time. And so I do, one word after another.
Stacks of research papers teeter on my desk; my colleagues and I slog through hours and hours of standardized testing proctoring; the students are irritable and restless, and so am I. Every April, my mind hums with the same old question: What else could I be? What else am I qualified to do? I search the internet for job postings, but drift toward all the ones that sound quite a bit like teaching. Could I get paid to garden? Would someone employ me to hike mountains? Is it possible to work as a professional reader of books?
Yes, I could be a writer. Since I was nine, when I wrote rambling stories about a girl named Zoe who lived on a farm oddly like mine, I have yearned to be a writer. Not just someone who writes every once in a while, not just someone who writes in the precious early hour before work, but someone who, for a living, writes. My secret love has always been words and sentences and paragraphs. Stories.
But at twenty-six, drifting through Central America with a piece of paper that proclaimed me a college graduate and trumpeted the profoundly useful double major in English and religion (majors to which I had switched my sophomore year, romanced away from chemistry and math), I sighed, and became a teacher. The old adage mocked me: Those who can’t do, teach. I pulled the first stack of student essays toward me and began to read.
“Teacher” is the identity with which I am most uncomfortable. For fifteen years, I have viewed it as temporary. Someday, I say to whomever is listening, I’ll quit this job and write full time. I try to wake early to keep my writing discipline. I try to attend writing workshops, where a surprising number of people seem to have hours each day to write. I try to learn from others: at a “local author” book signing for Grief Map recently, I talked to two other local authors and grilled them on how they have made the jump into a full-time writing life. One woman told me: You just do it. You just jump. Right. Except jumping requires the confidence that the stories I’m trying to tell will translate to a living wage somehow, that we’ll be able to continue to do all the other things I love and value: travel, buy plants for my garden, eat out at restaurants, save for Mitike’s college education. Better to keep teaching.
A colleague told me recently, in response to my “Someday, I’ll be a writer full-time,” that someday I’ll admit that I’m actually a teacher at my core, and I bristled. He laughed. We stood in the echoing hallway, both of us holding armloads of papers to grade. Too often, I feel like a character in a Stephen King or a Kent Haruf novel—the jaded English teacher, correcting papers late at night, staring back at disengaged students by day, her own half-finished novel in a drawer because she has to plan lessons for this week and attend professional development and call the parents of every student who is failing and beg the district to give me adequate health care.
On PSAT testing day this April, I walked in circles around and around a room full of sophomores. In my monotone voice, I read the script: “You will only receive credit for answers recorded on your answer sheet . . . If you have any questions about testing procedures, please ask them now. I cannot answer questions during the timed sections of the test. . . .” I looked up. The sophomores held their number two pencils politely, but they were hearing nothing I was saying. They had heard all of these instructions before. Outside, a tree blossomed white, and the robins and chickadees announced spring. I thought, We are all trapped here. I told the students to just begin the test.
There are days when my job feels like one of the best possible jobs in the world. After all, I am free to plan my own time, to teach whatever texts I deem relevant, to engage roomfuls of teenagers in meaningful conversations about their lives. And every year, I reach a few students who needed to be reached.
This job, teaching, is cyclical. As soon as I sink to my nadir, in the first weeks of April, the end of the school year begins to shimmer in the near distance. At home, my plants begin to sprout in the garden: the peas and kale and broccolini and radishes I planted on St. Patrick’s Day, the perennial native flowers I planted three years ago. I store the skis and the winter coats; I spend an entire weekend digging in the dirt, carefully pushing mulch around greening plants. The delicate soft green leaves of the sage plant reminds me to have more empathy for my students, who are trying to thrive in soil and air that is not their native habitat. The delicate butter lettuce leaves tell me I need to bring those students more water, more peat moss and compost. On a Monday after gardening, I am always a better, more devoted teacher.
But I still don’t believe I will be a teacher forever. It’s a stop along my way, no matter what anyone says. On the first weekend of April, as I sank my fingers into the newly friable soil I had created for my new herb garden, I made a mental to-do list of the writing projects I intend to finish this summer, while these plants are growing: the Anna Dickinson manuscript (finished, but needing major editing), the Colorado women place names project, the new collection of hybrid essays I want to begin on the wilderness and nature, the short story about the lockdown. Someday, someday, someday. The word is the rhythm of my spade in the Colorado clay. Every morning I make myself write is a little more amendment to the soil; someday, the writing life I imagine will thrive here.
For now, I’ll drive to work at a huge Denver high school, where I’ll grade two more papers before the bell rings, and then I’ll stand in front of thirty teenagers and tell them, “Okay, let’s start by writing a little.” It’s always about that, about beginning. And then, as the morning sun streams through the tall windows onto thirty heads bent earnestly over notebooks, pens scratching, then, for a moment—just before I take attendance—this is the perfect job for me, after all.
Feedback on Donald’s final semester research paper, from his English teacher:
Donald — While you have some interesting, unique ideas here, you have not always organized them in a way that makes your agenda or your principles evident. Also while you argue for change in the United States with great passion, you have not proved that any of the sources you chose to use in this paper are credible or relevant. You fall often into non sequitur, into sweeping generalizations and into ad hominem. Finally, you overuse the simple-sentence construction, and your frequent repetition is not often effective. Note my comments throughout your paper, as well as the rubric and the original outline for this research-based position paper. You have until noon on December 22 to revise this paper. If you do well on the reading/language portion of the final, you have a chance of passing this course with a D. Please do this! I look forward to reading your revision. — Ms. C.
The vocabulary list Donald refuses to study for his finals:
An email exchange between Mrs. Mary Trump and Donald’s social studies teacher:
Dear Mrs. Trump,
Thank you for your email. Donald is fortunate to have such a supportive parent in his life. I hear all that you are saying about your concerns about the school and about Donald, but I can only speak to the concerns you have shared about my U.S. History class. I’ve responded to your specific comments below:
Donald needs extra time on all assignments. He does not have one of those special plans, but his father has always paid his teachers to make allowances for him. His father would like to know what amount would be sufficient.
I cannot take bribes. Donald has turned in most of his assignments on time, but he has not met the expectations. When I’ve asked him to revise, he has said, “It’s not important. My GPA is already bigly. It’s the best GPA, ever.” Have you and Mr. Trump considered having Donald tested? He might benefit from additional support.
Donald feels nervous and afraid when he is surrounded by people who look and act different than him. He tells me that your class is full of immigrants from South America, Africa, and Asia. Can he be switched to a class where he will be more comfortable?
No. It is too late at this point in the semester (the last week) to switch classes. Also, I must point out that Donald is surrounded by students who bring fascinating stories from their lives; he could learn quite a bit from them. I know from a passing comment Donald made that you are an immigrant from Scotland, Mrs. Trump. If Donald could see that the immigrant students who sit beside him in my class are immigrants just like you, he might relax and begin to get to know them. Maybe you could encourage this mindset at home?
Donald told me that you encourage the students to criticize our great country. I would like to request that Donald be excused from these uncomfortable conversations.
Donald regularly quotes from sources like Breitbart and Fox News in his papers for me, and he argues regularly in class discussions that the U.S. should build a wall on our southern border and that we should obliterate North Korea with a nuclear attack. As his history teacher, it is my job to provide other perspectives; it seems particularly important for Donald. However, he usually puts in his earbuds or watches Netflix videos on his phone when he does not like the topic of discussion. It is not criticism of our country that I am encouraging, but responsiblecivic engagement. I’d love to see that in Donald.
Thank you again for your email, Mrs. Trump. If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Transcript (from the video) of a restorative justice conversation between Donald Trump and five girls who have accused him of inappropriate behavior with them after a football game. To protect the girls’ privacy, we will call them by the randomly selected pseudonyms Jessica, Ivana, Jill, Kristen, and Lisa. Note: after this session, the mediator, Mr. Jones, recommended the administration expel Donald, file a Title IX complaint, and get the district legal involved immediately.
TEACHER: Okay, guys, we have brought you in here because you five girls want Donald to hear something, right? And Donald, you want the girls to hear something, right? Okay, you’re all nodding. Good. So let’s start with Donald, okay? Donald, why do you think we’re sitting here together this afternoon?
DONALD: Because my father’s lawyer made sure we did it this way.
TEACHER: Ah. That — might be true, but this is also one way we solve conflict in this school, and —
TEACHER: I hear you, Lisa. Look, let’s back up, everyone. We are doing this through restorative justice, okay? So Donald has two minutes to tell his side of the story, and then you girls are going to repeat back what he said. Okay? Go ahead, Donald.
DONALD: Well, we were all hanging out after the football game, in the parking lot, right? I mean, Mr. Jones, you did that, too, right? Hung out with girls in the parking lot after football games?
TEACHER: Um, yeah.
DONALD: Right, this is just locker room talk, right? I mean, I was hanging out with these five beautiful ladies in the parking lot, and we were dancing to some good tunes someone was playing, you know? And that’s it. I went home after that.
DONALD: She says we were dating at the time? I can never remember which of these blonde hotties I’m dating when.
JESSICA: You do see, right, Mr. Jones? I mean, that night of the football game? Donald was like an octopus. His hands were everywhere. People have definitely been expelled from this school, with criminal charges brought against them, for far less.
DONALD: Are we done here? I’m meeting my buddies for lunch at Chick-Fil-A, and they’re texting me.
Documentation in the high school’s online records system, by Donald’s physics teacher, Ms. Sheridan:
December 15: Emailed Donald’s parents that Donald will receive a zero on the physics final, as he was 1) standing in the hallway during passing time and proclaiming loudly, “I could stand in the middle of this hallway and shoot someone, and they would still pass me in physics!”; and 2) boasting on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat that he had paid two students to allow him to copy their answers on the final exam; and 3) physically copying answers from the student sitting at the desk in front of him (in the video a classmate took, Donald stands at his desk so he can adequately see the other student’s scantron bubbles).
December 18: Called Donald’s parents, per request of the principal, to explain my reasons for giving Donald a zero on the physics final. Father asked how much it would cost for Donald to re-take the final, then explained he will sue the school. Mother said, “What kind of son have I created?”
Screenshots Taken of Donald’s Snapchat Story on December 22:
[image of a Mexican girl standing alone in front of the wall, looking up]: Ha ha ha can’t get in!
[image of five men in Chad trying to fill a plastic jug with brown water]: Why America is BETTER!
[image of ten dancing women bent over, backsides to the camera]: Yeah I’ll grab THAT!
[image of dead Sandy Hook teacher]: What I’d like to do to my English teacher
[image of a cat licking another cat’s anus]: JK! What I’d like to do to my English teacher
Email to Donald’s parents on December 22 (using mostly language from Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which explains the reasons for which a president can be impeached) from district superintendent’s office:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Trump,
He may be entitled,
he had a choice: stay eligible? Or endure removal?
I haven’t exactly had writer’s block for the past month, but I haven’t been writing. This is a red flag.
Until a month ago, I maintained a strict writing discipline: I’d wake at 4:30, eat my breakfast and read for an hour, and then sit down at my computer to begin. My goal: write for an hour, at least, before I had to drive to school to teach. For two years, I followed that discipline. Before that, for many years, I wrote every night after I put Mitike to bed; I refused to let myself go to sleep until I had reached at least 1,700 words.
But lately, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a place I know all writers visit at some point, or at many points (because I have read so many memoirs by writers, like Stephen King’s On Writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). It’s a place that looks like despair, except it also looks like regular life without the requirement to get up at 4:30 a.m. or drink strong coffee at 10 p.m. to reach those 1,700 words. In fact, it’s a more relaxing place. The in-progress novel about the girl whose brother is shot by the police? I no longer have to figure out how to make her reaction both powerful and believable. The other in-progress novel about the high school classroom on lockdown? I don’t have to solve the mystery of why, exactly, they’ve been put on lockdown. The historical fiction about Anna Dickinson? I don’t have to research anymore. The nonfiction work on coffee? I don’t have to walk through my life connecting everything to coffee any longer.
It’s easier to not write. Regular, non-writer people have calmer, far less obsessive lives. I never knew.
I’ve fallen into this place because I’ve been rejected on almost every possible front lately: a PhD program put me coldly on their waiting list; five colleges failed to call me for an interview for their posted composition or creative writing positions; four magazines informed me I have “high-quality work,” but they do not plan to publish the essays I submitted to them; and three writing residencies thanked me for my applications for their summer programs but informed me I am not quite for them. And the two books in the world with my name on them as author make only a few dollars (literally) each month. Only one book waits in the wings: the book of essays on grief, which wonderful Brain Mill Press plans to publish soon.
So, pitying myself, I decided to stop waking up at 4:30. Or, rather, I still get up at 4:30, and then I lie down on the couch and sleep for an additional hour. On the weekends, I choose to read instead of carve out my writing time, as I used to insist to my family I required. I spend my hours outside in our backyard, building a square-foot garden. The kale plants appreciate the water; the cabbage never asks me to turn a beautiful sentence; the eager broccoli never tells me my work is “not for them.”
Then, this week, in one of those moments that make my entire teaching career matter, a student came to my classroom to ask for help on a scholarship essay. The student’s name is Nasra Yusuf, or at least that is what I’ll call her here, to protect her identity. Nasra Yusuf has faced nearly every imaginable challenge this year: a Somalian immigrant from a traditional Muslim family, she chose to come out to her family as lesbian this fall and was promptly disowned. Technically homeless now, she lives with a friend’s family and is scrambling to apply for as many scholarships as possible, as her parents refuse to assist her with college unless she renounces her identity as a lesbian. She has endured depression and anxiety, crippling self-doubt, and the grief of standing separated from literally everything and everyone she has known. Secretly, she still prays to Allah for comfort, though she has chosen to take off the hijab, to wear 1980s T-shirts and jeans, to unbraid her long hair and wear it free.
In her scholarship essay, which only needed some editing, Nasra Yusuf describes the way her father called in the Muslim sheikhs to surround her in a prayer intervention when she first came out to her parents, the way she kept herself separate and distant inside even as they chanted, certain in her new awareness of who she is. It is a beautiful and powerful essay—the kind of writing we read because it matters and it’s honest and it reminds us to be honest in our own lives, too.
“You’re brave,” I told her, as I often do.
She grinned at me, pushing up her glasses. “Writing about it helps. It really does.” Then she thanked me, gathered her laptop and books, and rushed out to a meeting with another scholarship organization. I sat alone in the sunshine that streamed through the tall classroom windows. Writing about it helps. It does. Of course, I am the one who has taught Nasra Yusuf that this year. Again and again, I have encouraged her to write about her experiences, to discover how she feels by writing herself onto the page. Again and again, I have told her that I have survived the most difficult parts of my life because I have refused to stop writing.
In those times, I didn’t care whether anyone wanted to publish or pay me for my writing. I wrote because I had to. I wrote because I knew that was how I would survive.
And now I’m going to quit because of a handful of rejections?
Last week, I heard the writer Anne Lamott speak about and read from her new book, Hallelujah Anyway. Lamott, who wrote the sage advice in Bird by Bird that a writer should and must create “shitty first drafts” and keep plodding forward, though writing is often tedious and unrewarding misery, reminded us that it’s about the work. She said she remembers that her own father, also a writer, required himself to sit down at his desk every morning by 5:30, no matter what. So you don’t feel successful. So you despair. So you feel like you have nothing left to say. So what? It is the work that matters. In Bird by Bird, Lamott explains, “…this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”
I never used to write because I wanted recognition or fame or money. From age nine, I have written because I felt compelledto write. I wanted to feel more alive. And Nasra Yusuf is right: it helps. It does.
Starting right now, I am returning to my green chair in my orange writing room in our house. I am returning to my 5:30 a.m. writing routine. I have reopened the in-progress novels, the half-written essays. I have returned to my old requirement for myself: write, every day, no matter what.
Writing, of course, is not much different from the spinach and onion and collard green seeds I’ve planted in my square-foot garden. The work is what matters. Something might grow, and it might even be good — but for now, I’ll keep watering, I’ll keep scaring away the rabbits, and I’ll wait.
At my first parent-teacher conference at my daughter’s kindergarten, one of the newer instructors asked me why my daughter would often re-read books that were “too easy” for her.
My daughter was already a strong reader by then. She’d taught herself, although we didn’t know about her new skill until sometime before her third birthday; she held up a cup at a restaurant, pointed to the words, and told us, “This says, Have fun.”
It did say, Have fun. We rushed through dinner and zipped home so that I could hold up magazines and novels and point to random (easy) words to ask her what they were. By the end of the evening, we had confirmed that she knew how to read.
There was no stopping her after tha—no.
That’s not true.
That makes it sound like it was never-ending progress: a rush toward fluency and proficiency when it was not like that at all.
Yes, every day, month, and year, she read harder, more complicated things. But as that teacher noted, she would also go back and re-read books—picture books, board books, books without words. She went forward. She went back. She re-read more than she read. We didn’t push her; she was in charge of her pace. The main thing that we did was to make sure there was always something for her to read. We took her to bookstores and libraries. We let her pick out and renew what interested her. We read to her when that was what she wanted. We left her alone when she needed that, too.
It didn’t occur to us to do anything different. So when the teacher asked us why—more out of curiosity than judgment—why my daughter re-read so often, I was surprised. I muttered something about familiar books being comforting, and the teacher seemed content with that. It never occurred to me to tell my daughter not to re-read. I had done the same as a child, too. And for me, yes, re-reading was a way to soothe myself. But re-reading was also a way of marking how much I had learned.
The text of a book doesn’t change—most of the time. A couple of authors have on occasion gone back to update details. (For example, Judy Blume altered a scene in later editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret so that the protagonist used stick-on maxi pads instead of the belt and fastener that was prevalent when her classic children’s novel was first published in 1970.)
But for the most part, what changes is not the book, but the reader.
There are the jokes written for adults (by adults) in stories meant for children that most kids aren’t likely to find funny until later. Or there are the scenes where there are emotional currents that children—the protagonists of the book and maybe the young reader—don’t necessarily understand.
For example, I was reading middle-grade writer Susan Tan’s latest book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic recently, and came across this passage:
Until right as I was about to put together the triceratops’s tail, I heard a conversation that made me stop and pay attention.
They were still talking about the wedding. And my mom said, “Just remember, this is your day. All that matters is you and Paul. Everyone else will deal.”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “Also the trick is knowing how to manage Mom. She can be a handful, but you just have to know how to keep her happy.”
“That’s easy for you to say, big brother,” Auntie Eva said. “You’re the son—you just have to show up and be yourself and you’ll make Mom and Dad happy. I have to be perfect…”
Cilla is an optimistic, aspiring writer. She’s in third grade and happens to be biracial. Her beloved aunt is about to get married, and the event brings out tensions in the family that Cilla doesn’t quite understand. Adults may be able to unpack all that’s going on, but Cilla’s confusion—her growing knowledge that the grown-ups see all of the events of life quite differently—mirrors the younger reader’s. In a way, the fact that this book may be understood on more than one level means that this book is meant to be remembered and re-read.
But of course, sometimes, re-reading doesn’t make a book seem better.
This column, of course, is all about re-reading. It’s about looking at how books shaped me, and also at how my perception of those books has changed now that I’m an adult. At times it has been a delight and a comfort to greet my old friends. Sometimes it has been painful but rewarding. Sometimes it’s been shit.
Recently, my husband was flipping through the channels when he happened upon an episode of The Golden Girls, a classic NBC sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1992. As soon as I saw it, I said something about how often I’d watched the show in re-runs after school. I remembered watching TV in the basement, eating peanut butter sandwiches. I was a latchkey kid and spent hours alone except for books and the television. I knew even then that the show wasn’t perfect, but in a lot of ways it didn’t matter. It was a comforting place where I could settle.
Of course—of course—as soon as I said something about this to my husband, the following happened onscreen:
Teacher Dorothy, played by the great Bea Arthur, is doing roll call for her adult education class. She says, “Jim Shu.” No one answers. She says, “Oh, very funny. Gym shoe.”
Then an Asian man, played by Ralph Ahn, stands up and says, “I am Jim Shu.”
Dorothy apologizes profusely. She explains, “I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Jim Shu looks at her up at down and says, “I don’t think I could drink that much sake.”
The live studio audience laughs wildly, even though the line doesn’t really make any sense. Also, sake is Japanese, Jim Shu is probably Chinese, but who can tell the difference? LOL ASIANS AND THEIR FUNNY-SOUNDING NAMES FOR THEMSELVES AND THINGS.
It was like a kick in the stomach. But at the time I first saw it, I probably thought I should laugh along. Even while sitting alone in the basement.
I guess it’s a measure of what a person I’ve become—Oh, look how I’ve grown—when the space for comfort is no longer comfortable.
And I don’t wish that the children’s books I’ve re-read as an adult were different, nor do I wish to unlearn what I know now in order to feel soothed by old, familiar fictional people and places.
But if I did have to do it over again, I might answer my daughter’s teacher a different way. If she asked why my daughter returned to books that were too easy for her, I would tell her that in re-reading, my child was exploring the spaces she’d been in, furnishing them with new knowledge. And in doing so, she was asking if she needed more.