Stories from the Trenches: In which I rewrite history and Jesus rides dinosaurs

Recently, one of my students and I reconnected on Facebook and she messaged me, “I still get a big smile when I remember our talk about Jesus horses. LOL. ” Unfortunately, I have no recollection of that story so I asked my former aide, friend and conspirator to figure out what Jesus Horses were. The story goes something like this…

On one of my first field trips with students, we went to my Alma mater for a college visit. It was my hope to inspire my students to think beyond high school to their goals for the future. With pride, I showed them the campus and the dorms. We ate lunch at the cafeteria and ended our tour of the museum, which happened to be hosting an exhibition of dinosaur bones. One of my students, an inquisitive 17 year old, detached herself from the group to ask me a question about the exhibit.

“Ms. Stone,” *Anna asks. “How old are dinosaur bones?”
“Pretty old,” I reply, trying to remember exactly how many bajillion years ago dinosaurs roamed the earth. “Were they around when you were born?” she wonders innocently.
I level her a frosty stare. “I’m not that old, Anna,” I say tartly. “They were around a long time before me.”
She’s quiet for a moment as she thinks about what a long time before me could mean. “Were they around when your parents were born?”
“Anna,” I explain patiently, “dinosaurs died off millions of years before you or I walked this earth.”
She nods her head wisely. “Oh, so they were around when Jesus was alive.”
By this time, my patience has worn thin, and I can’t tell if she truly doesn’t understand or if she is purposefully misunderstanding me to see how far she can push me. Rolling my eyes to the ceiling, I give in. “Yes, Anna. Dinosaurs were around when Jesus was alive. He used to ride them like horses.”
“Jesus horses,” Anna says with a twinkle in her eyes. “I thought so.” And with a small giggle, she runs off in front of me to catch up with her friends.

All I wanted to do was inspire my students to think outside themselves and their view of the world, and all I ended up doing was memorializing Jesus Horses.

Plus, I think I’m probably going to hell.

*Name has been changed

Unbreakable

It’s spring break and if you’re from the cold wasteland that comprises the Midwest, there’s not much to do besides watch the snow melt and binge watch shows on Netflix!

This week I binged my way through Unbreakable: Kimmy Schmidt and as an unintended consequence of said binge watching, I now have the Unbreakable: Kimmy Schmidt theme song stuck in my head. (For those of you who have yet to discover this quirky comedy from the writing genius of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, you’re missing out. It follows the  reintegration of Kimmy Schmidt, a 30 year old woman who was kidnapped at age 15 and taken to live in an underground cult, into a new life in New York City. It sounds serious, but come on! It’s Tina Fey!)

The theme song is pretty catchy and has been running in and out of my head all week. For the most part, I can mute my inner dialogue if need be, but one line refuses to be silenced. “But females are strong as hell. Dammit.” I figured those words remained when the rest had faded to the background because I needed a little boost of confidence. Never above the self-love, I accepted that I was strong as hell and went about my week.

Then today on my home page in Facebook was a call to action for survivors of gender based violence to submit their survivor stories for the #pixelproject, an organization raising global awareness for violence against women (VAW). Normally, I would have passed this post by and continued reading others, but there was that persistent line from Unbreakable that would not leave me alone–Females are strong as hell. Dammit.

And so I submitted my story.

There’s no need to get into the gory details of my past. That part of my life is over, and I am in a good, healthy place. Yet the message from the song lingers. Females are strong as hell. (Yes, gents. Males are strong as hell, too, but since my story has to do with VAW, guys you are just going to have to take a back seat while I talk about some girl empowerment).

In the years following my own trauma, I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking with women who are survivors like me. They are courageous women who have experienced the horrors of life and have come out stronger for it. They are mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, wives, and daughters picking up the pieces of their lives and persevering. Every day they make a choice to get up and face the world in spite of what has happened to them. They go to work and school. They take care of families. They learn to love themselves again and to take charge of their own lives. Their actions and bravery are helping to ensure that the vicious cycle of VAW is one step closer to being eliminated.

Above all, these women have helped me see that we are not victims. We are survivors. And like Kimmy Schmidt, we are Unbreakable, dammit.

Please consider donating to the Pixel Project: http://goo.gl/Bz4Sfp or donating to your own town’s local abuse shelter to help women help themselves.

If you are a survivor of VAW, consider sharing your story with the #pixelproject at http://goo.gl/RAbx2V

Head Hopping

As a new writer, I have received a lot of advice about head hopping, the practice of switching POV within a scene to better understand character emotions, ideas, motives, etc. I certainly have my on POV when it comes to head hopping, both as a reader and an author, but what do you think? Does it confuse you as a reader to have authors switch POV within a scene? Do you even care? Take my poll and let me know what you think, and then I’ll tell you my opinion on this contentious topic.

Stories from the Trenches: In which I take advice from my students and end up cussing out a family

My first year of teaching I was so green. I had been hired to do a job I wasn’t sure I was exactly qualified to do–teach English to immigrants. True, I had a language background and some experience with teaching non-English speaking people (if you count making chocolate chip cookies with some Chinese exchange students teaching, that is), but I was grossly unprepared. And I didn’t speak Spanish.

My entire population of students back then consisted of Spanish speaking students either freshly arrived from Mexico or very recently so. While I had had over a decade of speaking **French, two years of Spanish and a year of Italian, this hardly prepared me for my job. While I could understand what my students were saying about me behind my back, I had limited vocabulary to express myself in return.
(**In over a decade of teaching I still haven’t had any immigrants from France. I’m so glad I majored in it)

Enter my brilliant plan. I would have the students teach me Spanish. Brilliant, right?

Yeah. Not so much.

At the time I concocted this crazy plan, I thought everything was going to go so smoothly. The students had started to warm up to me and they really seemed to enjoy teaching me little phrases to say. Every day my Spanish was getting better, and I was feeling more confident.

Then parent teacher conferences rolled around and I decided to practice out my new Spanish. At one of my first home conferences, a family was upset because they were unable to afford to pay for school lunches. I told them about the school’s free and reduced lunch program and then proudly using one of my newly learned phrases I told them not to worry.

I will never forget the shock on their faces when I said that or how two of my students sat giggling helplessly in a corner. That’s when I knew I might have been a tad too trusting. My students laughingly told me that in my earnestness to reassure their parents that everything would be ok and that they shouldn’t worry, I actually told them it was none of their damned business.

Fortunately for me, those parents had a good sense of humor, and after a rapid explanation by their children on what had happened, I was clasped on the shoulders and taken to a table where I was served shrimp soup.

To this day, I am not quite sure exactly what happened that evening, but from that day on I was a welcome guest in their home and in their family. My students, too, eased up on me and started to really help me as I learned Spanish.

Twelve years later and now I’m fluent in Spanish. Never again will I have that unsettling foot in mouth feeling that we language learners frequently experience as we grope and fumble our way around a new language. Yet despite the years that have passed and the proficiency I have gained, there are still times when I get nostalgic for the days of my first Spanish lessons and those first students who taught me as much as I taught them.

#Pitmad

If you have a twitter account and are looking for an agent, join in on what’s left of #pitmad today March 11th and pitch your manuscript in 140 words or less! If an agent favorites your tweet, then that means they want to see your manuscript. It’s fun seeing everyone’s tweets condensing their novels in so few words.

Here’s my favorite tweet (I have five I’m cycling through every hour).

Woo the girl. Find the traitor. Save the country. Too bad Tavis didn’t count on falling in love. #pitmad #R

Mother Knows Best

March 1st has come and gone and since no one has been knocking down my door with a fat check in their hand, I can assume that the non-fiction memoir I wrote for the “All About Love” writing contest sponsored by Good Housekeeping did not win. (Cue the saddest song in the world played on the tiniest violin…) Regardless of the unfortunate status now applied to my story (that of, um, loser) it was a fun contest, and it’s a pretty good story if I do say so myself. Without further ado (drum roll, please) here it is in its entirety for you to enjoy!

Mother Knows Best

“What are you doing?” my husband asks me, leaning over my shoulder to get a better look at the computer screen.

“Hmmm? Oh, just writing down how we met.” I drum my fingers absently on the desk. “The girls were asking about it the other day so I thought I’d write it down.”

“Let me read it,” he offered. “I can see if you’re missing anything important, like a description of how good looking you thought I was when we were dating.” He wiggles his eyebrows up and down suggestively.

I roll my eyes at that, but move away from the computer so he can read.  He’s silent for several minutes as he reads about how my mother set us up on a blind date.

Having decided I was ready to start dating again, I asked my mom, your grandma, if she knew of any available young men that would be interested in meeting me. While she didn’t think there were many single, young men where she worked, she promised to keep her eyes open. Several weeks later she mentioned a man who was ‘nice enough to hold open doors for an old lady like me,’ so she introduced the two of us over email. After communicating via email, we agreed to meet. I hadn’t dated since my divorce, and I was nervous about going on a blind date. In fact, I was so nervous that I kept a fork in my hand the entire time we were eating lunch so I could defend myself if needed.

His head whips around and he stares at me with his mouth open.  Spluttering unintelligibly, he manages to get out, “What do you mean you kept a fork in your hand the entire time we were eating lunch,” here he turns back to the computer and reads from the screen verbatim, “so I could defend myself if needed?” He crosses his arms in front of his chest and glares at me in astonishment, waiting for an explanation.

Oops! I forgot about that part. “I told you about that after we were engaged.”

“You most certainly did not!” He grumbles under his breath then begins typing.

“Hey, what do you think you are doing?” I try to swat his hands away from the keyboard.

“Adding a footnote,” he grits out.

**Girls, I should have known then that your father would NEVER have done anything that would have required me to defend myself. I was just being silly and I overreacted because I hadn’t date a gentleman before. He is as gentle as a lamb.  A sexy, masculine lamb, but a lamb nonetheless.

“A sexy, masculine lamb?” I snort. “Really? How about a wolf in sheep’s clothing?”

“What. Are. You. Talking. About?” He says each word deliberately as he turns around in the chair to look at me.

“I saw the way you looked at me throughout that meal.” Now it’s my turn to cross my arms over my chest and glare at him. “You spoke to my chest more often than not.” Then, I pretend to examine my nails. “I was just preparing myself in case I needed to stop any amorous overtures.”

Now he grins at me wickedly and stares at that part of my anatomy that almost got him forked in the hand all those years ago. “Let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised when we met in person.”

I give him a quizzical look. “I sent you my picture. You knew what I looked like beforehand.”

He coughs and turns a lovely shade of red. And, he refuses to meet my eyes.

“What? What was wrong with my picture?”

He’s silent for too long, so I jump on his lap and begin attacking his ticklish zones. “Tell me,” I demand as he is gasping for breath, “What was wrong with my picture?”

My wrists are suddenly imprisoned in his hands.  He gasps out, “Alright woman! I’ll tell you.” His forehead comes to rest on top of mine and he is grinning sheepishly. “Just don’t kill me when I do.” He takes a deep breath and blurts out, ‘You looked like a shapeless middle aged woman. The kind that keeps lots of cats.”

I pull back, startled by his confession, and quickly remove myself from his lap.  “But I picked out the picture that I sent to you. I thought I looked nice.”

He shakes his head and finally meets my eyes. “You looked much better in person.”

As I am processing what he is saying, I desperately try to recall what picture I even sent to him.

Eyeing him through narrowed slits, I ask, “Was I in a red jacket?”

“Er, yes, I think so.”

I am somewhat mollified. “I had that picture taken on Christmas Eve right before I went to church.” I lightly slap at his arm. “Of course I didn’t look super sexy.”

He grabs my hand and pulls me back into his lap. “All I know is that when I saw you, I almost fell to my knees in thanks at how utterly gorgeous you were.” One of his hands has found its way into the hair at the back of my neck and he gently pulls my head to the side where he begins to place soft kisses on the column of my neck.

“You are so bad!” I giggle. Then I swat him on the arm for good measure. “And apparently shallow!”

I can feel him shrug, as though in apology. His voice is muffled as he replies, “I was a young man.” As if that were all the excuse he needed. He ceases kissing my neck and grins at me like a naughty boy. “Besides, even if it was your considerable assets that first attracted me,” here he lavishes a lecherous gaze at my bosom before he wrenches his eyes back to mine, “it was your intellect and your sweet nature that made me fall in love with you.” His brown eyes look lovingly into mine.

“Yes, it was my brains that were the biggest attraction,” I mutter under my breath while he continues plying my neck with soft kisses. Deciding that two could play his game, I casually mention, “I didn’t really like your picture, either.”

He stops mid kiss and eyes me suspiciously. “Wait, what? Why?” His lips are pouty now and I can’t resist. I give him a quick kiss on the lips and hop off his lap. Then, giving him a saucy smile, I toss out matter-of-factly, “Your eyes looked squinty.”

Before he can splutter out anything else, I turn his chair around to face the computer and order, “Read some more.”

He shakes his head, and I swear I hear him grumble something about ‘crazy women,’ but I ignore him and he continues at his task.

After our first date, your father and I continued to email daily. He was very good about calling, whereas I was not. I often said I would call and then I didn’t.  Sometimes I would go for days without calling him. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him; I was just scared about things progressing too rapidly for my comfort. I didn’t want to make another mistake.

He turns around and looks at me questioningly. “Is that why you never called? I always assumed it was because you didn’t feel for me what I felt for you.”

My smile is sheepish as I nod. “It was scary for me, how intensely I liked you after such a short time.” I clear my throat and continue. “It wasn’t just me I had to worry about either.  I had my daughter, as well, and I knew I couldn’t move too fast.”

I suddenly find my hand engulfed in his. He gives me a fond look. “You could have told me. I would never have asked for more than what you were ready to give.” He squeezes my hand and returns to reading.

One night after a date, we were sitting on my couch together talking. During that time, your father had scooted very close to me and had his arm around the back of the couch near my shoulders. His face was very close and he said to me ‘I’d really like to kiss you now.’  I panicked. Even though I knew I liked your father, I wasn’t ready for anything more intimate yet. So I told him no and he backed off immediately. That’s when I knew that your father was someone I could trust because his actions showed that he respected me.

“Hardest thing I ever had to do, too,” he mumbles. He huffs out a sigh and then gestures to the screen, “You think the girls aren’t going to get grossed out reading about the more intimate details of our relationship?”

“I didn’t put anything like that in there,” I counter. “I just wanted them to see that any man who forces them into doing something they are not ready for is not worthy of their time or love.”

Putting my hands on his shoulders, I lean over and whisper in his ear, “As much as you grumble about having to wait, though, those ‘intimate details of our relationship’ were worth it, hmmm?”

All I hear in return is a growl deep from his chest. Shaking his head, he shrugs my hands from his shoulders and starts typing again.

“Another footnote?” I guess.

The typing continues for several more minutes before he grunts out, “Read for yourself.” He swivels aside so I can see the screen.

 **Girls, although your father was the perfect gentleman, not all men are. If you ever find yourself in a position where you have said no and the man in question does not respect your wishes, you can do any one of these things or a combination of all of them. Your choice.

  1. Take the palm of your hand and shove it hard against his nose.
  2. Punch him in the throat.
  3. Hit him in the crotch.  Repeatedly.
  4. If you have a gun, shoot him somewhere not vital like the foot or maybe, I don’t know, his brain because he obviously wasn’t using it when he tried to assault you!!

When I finish reading, my jaw has dropped.  He’s just sitting there with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

I clear my throat. Then again. Finally, I manage to get out, “Do you really think you should be encouraging our daughters to shoot people?”

He frowns. “I want them to be safe. This is just good advice.”

I have to tread lightly here. I don’t want to upset his fatherly sensibilities. Tactfully, I point out, “While I think your advice is very important, this, our love story, might not be the best venue in which to include such fatherly gems as,” I glance at the screen and continue, “And I quote, ‘Hit him in the crotch. Repeatedly.’ End quote.”

He is still frowning. Then he begins to stare at me. So I stare back. Neither one of us is willing to give an inch. I feel my eyes burning. The urge to blink is unbearable. Then, just when I am ready to concede defeat, he rolls his eyes, throws up his hands and yells, “Fine! I’ll erase it!”

My shoulders sag and I rub my hands over my eyes. Victory has literally never felt so good. I look over his shoulder and see him erase his footnote. Then just as quickly, I see him type:

**Girls, see your father’s “Guide to Being a Teenage Girl and How to Deal with Scumbags, Dirtbags and other %$&#bags that might want to date you.

I sigh but leave him his small victory.

Having satisfactorily executed his fatherly duty, he is content and ready to continue reading our story. “Where is the part where you talk about falling in love with me?” he asks with an impudent eyebrow wiggle.

“That’s easy,” I reply as I shoo him out of the chair to sit down and scroll down to the part describing how he wooed and won me. “It all started when you and I went up to our favorite Thai restaurant with our eldest daughter.” I turn around to look at him.

“We were leaving the restaurant and she, being two years old at the time, was making quite a scene.” I smile up at him.

“She still didn’t like me very much at that time,” he muses. He grabs my hand and squeezes. “And I remember being frustrated because I wanted to help but she wouldn’t let me.”

I nod. “That’s right. So, you grabbed her princess backpack and said, ‘I’ll deal with the princess backpack and you deal with the princess.’ I knew then that you cared for her, and that you would, if asked, be willing to help care for her.”

Standing up, I walk to him and circle my arms around his waist. I lay my head on his chest and take comfort from the steady rhythm of his heart. “And you have cared for her ever since.” I raise my head and look up into his eyes. “The greatest gift you gave to me and her was when you adopted her and made her your own.” My eyes mist over, so I lay my head on his chest. “You have been such a good father to her. To both of our girls.”

We stand together quietly, content just to hold one another as we take comfort in our love.

Soon, though, I hear a gravelly voice in my ear. “But that’s not when you told me you loved me. And you were first, I might add.”

I look into his eyes once more. “I believe it was you who told me that you loved me first,” I respond haughtily.

“No, cupcake.” He’s grinning ear to ear now. “It was you who said it first.”

I swat at his hands and I pull away to once again sit at the computer. I scroll down the screen until I find the part that will prove me right. “No, you said it first. Read here.”

Toward the end of our fifth month together, your father asked me to go see a Star Wars movie with him. Not being a huge fan, I agreed reluctantly. When I found out he wanted to go TWO HOURS early to wait in line so we could get good seats, I knew that it had to be love because I agreed willingly. The afternoon of the movie, he came to my apartment with some flowers and a card. On the inside, he told me he loved me. That’s when I told him I loved him.

“Aha!” he shouts too closely to my ear for comfort. “There!” He shoves his pointed finger at the screen and taps it several times on the important part. “You said it first.”

I look where he is pointing. “No, you said it first. In your card.”

“I didn’t say it first. I wrote it first. You said it after I wrote it!” He is positively triumphant in his victory. “Then I said it to you.”

I concede. Ungraciously. “Fine. But it wasn’t like you didn’t know. I mean, what woman in her right mind agrees to see a movie she doesn’t like and then wait in the line for TWO HOURS to go and see said detested movie?”

I snort. And continue. “If I had a neon sign flashing over my head that said ‘She loves you, you lucky idiot’ I don’t know how much clearer I could have been.”

I’m on a roll now. Giggling, I start again. “You were so lucky…”

“Yes, yes.” He interrupts. “We’re all in agreement in how lucky I was to find such a great woman like you.” I can hear the exasperation in his voice. He spins the chair around, scoops me into his arms where he carries me into our bedroom and plops me unceremoniously on the bed. Then he walks back to the bedroom door and locks it.

“And you?” he asks. “Were you lucky?” Even though he asks it casually, I can see a spark of vulnerability in his eyes. Quickly quieting my giggles, I kneel on the bed and open my arms to him. “Yes, I am the luckiest of all because I found my best friend from a blind date.”

Much later….

“You know, my mom was pretty sneaky,” I mention casually.

Rolling over on the bed to face me, he asks, “What do you mean?”

“I mean how she set us up.” I see his quizzical expression, so I continue.

“Well, you know how I told her I was ready to start dating again and that she told me she didn’t know of anyone, right?” He nods. “And then she came back and said she knew this guy that seemed ok?”

“Right. But I don’t see how that was sneaky.”

“After we were engaged, mom told me that she had noticed you when you started working there. A full year and a half before we actually met.” I prop up on my elbow so I can see him better.

“Yeah, so? I met a lot of people when I first started working there. I imagine your mom was one of them.”

I give him a pinch on his arm. “No, not like that. She said she noticed you and kept you in the back of her mind as a possibility for me to date in the future.”

Now I have his attention. “Really?” His question seems just a tad smug.

I give him another pinch for good measure. “Yes. She thought we would hit it off and she was just waiting until I was ready to date again to introduce us.”

He leans in for a kiss. In between kisses, I swear I hear him say, “Well, it turns out mother knows best.”