Home Sweet Missouri, Journey

To Fear, Standing Up, and the Indomitable Ms. A

The thing I remember most about my 11th grade English class was Joseph McCarthy.

My high school English teacher died last week. It wasn’t a quiet death, no it was sudden and violent. She was ripped out of the world and those that remain still haven’t come to grips with her departure.

Ms. A was a domestic violence survivor, but I didn’t know that when I sat in her English class my junior year of high school. I learned that recently, nearly fifteen years after she had me in class. She’d begun to write her own story, to give voice to her own experience. Her words, like her voice in the classroom, were a force to behold, simultaneously piercing and cataclysmic. And yet, it seemed that they gave her a sense of peace. Her death, then, was tragically perverse.

I, like many of my classmates and community members, am having a difficult time grappling with the reality of her passing. I keep thinking back to the lessons Ms. A taught me. They’ve echoed and reverberated through my lifetime; I learn and relearn them the older I get. This makes me smile, because isn’t that what every great teacher wants? Their lessons to just keep on educating, year after year?

Way to go, Ms. A.

I don’t really remember anything that I read in high school. I vividly remember all my favorite books from ages 4-14. And I have strong ties to many stories and poems and essays from my years in college and graduate school and beyond. But the four years of high school are a literary black hole in my life. I could psychoanalyze that but I think the easiest explanation is that I was preoccupied with a million other things. Read: I was an adolescent.

So, when I think of Ms. A, I struggle to remember what we read. What I remember was Joseph McCarthy. We studied the literature of the 1950’s and what I remember from that unit was an in-depth examination of McCarthyism and its implications. We read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I remember the comparison of the Salem witch trials to McCarthy’s quest to rid the U.S. of communists (and homosexuals and artists and civil rights activists), and evaluating how Miller’s play served as a vehicle to express his views on the subject; to take a stand.

Ms. A also gave us the Harlem Renaissance. She gave me Langston Hughes’ poetry, James Baldwin’s stories, and Lorraine Hansberry’s The Raisin in the Sun, which was undoubtedly another of Ms. A’s lessons at work—here, a story providing a platform to highlight inequity and racism. Again, I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember the history and the implications of the writing on the world clearly.

These are some of the best examples of the power of words to shift perception, to stand up for something, to advocate through literature. In that regard, they rocked my world.

I was scared of Ms. A. She was sharp, took no shit and wasn’t afraid to stand up to the snarkiest of bullies. She was, in a word, fierce. I was scared of her, but oh, I admired her, I wanted to be just like her. Her actions and her demeanor showed me how to take a stand.

I kept in touch with Ms. A. She followed my writing, as well as my personal journey of travel and exploration. We had conversations about writing and social justice. The more I found courage to publicly take a stand in my own work, the more she encouraged me. Even in my mid (okay, late?) thirties, I can tell you, that still matters.

When I was a teenager I thought she was a fearless woman. Now, I know better. She wasn’t unafraid. She let her fear stand beside her as she stood strong, told her story, let her words empower her. She was an example of a woman who had plenty to be afraid of and was, but she stood up anyway. This lesson is her legacy and I will hold it close.

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Words for Food

War of Words

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Rainier Valley Lit Crawl at Flying Lion Brewery–community and words in action!

I started a whole bucketload of new stuff in the last 90 days, because why change one thing when you can change EVERYTHING? In January I started wrangling the marketing and social media for my terrific friends at Team Diva Real Estate–I thought I was pretty hip to the social media but WHOA. Much to learn. On the opposite end of the writing spectrum, I also started an MFA program in Creative Writing. Talk about two very different types of writing–but the awesome, stupendous, high-fiving, ass-slapping amazing thing about it is that I am writing all. the. damn. time. Words are coming out of my ears and I could not be happier about that.

Getting adjusted to letting go of the non-profit world was both as easy as breathing and complicated. I have a bit of a save-the-world complex, so I’m still working on how to save the world from where I now sit. After a few months of letting the dust settle, I’m realizing this–the intersection of words and community and learning and social change is where I find fulfillment. The power of language to impact and change the status quo in our neighborhoods, our communities and beyond is magnificent.

Which brings me to this little article that’s made a lot of noise lately. A writer in Seattle wrote an article that essentially shames MFA programs and the participants in them and read sort of like a two-year-old in the grocery aisle throwing a tantrum that you can’t look away from. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes:

  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re not a real writer and will probably fail.
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader (and this is qualified by those who have read The Great Gatsby and those who haven’t), don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • Memoirists are narcissists who are simply using writing as therapy.
  • Stop trying to sound smart.
  • It’s important to woodshed.

There were a whole bunch of responses posted. I’m linking the ones I think are worth reading herehere, here and here. This guy, Ryan Boudinot, is also the Executive Director of the Seattle City of Literature, and since his article stirred the pot so much, he’s been asked to step down from his post, which he declined to do (does anyone else think that this on it’s own is indicative of something about his character?), stating that the organization’s Board of Directors and the community as a whole was imposing a dangerous censorship upon his opinion and writing.

I have thought a great deal about this article and the subsequent responses over the last few weeks. I agree with a lot of what he said. I also roll my eyes at self-absorbed narcissistic memoirs that seem to be a dime a dozen these days. I also want to shake anyone that complains about “too much reading” or “not having time to write.” It is absolutely true that something like 1% of us will actually be remembered as writers fifty years from now. (Incidentally, that’s not why I’m in an MFA program or why I write. I am there because I can’t NOT write and I want to do it better, be around more people that are better than me and soak up as much concentrated writing knowledge as I possibly can. Will I be paying off my student loans until I die? Yes. The investment is worth it). All that said, I still ultimately think he’s both a pretentious asshole and not very good at being the leader of an organization that is supposed to represent a major metropolitan area.

But here’s why I ultimately feel compelled to comment.

I am a self-described rabble-rouser. To not address this would be shirking my obligation as such. I believe in the power of language to both divide and unite. This a call to action for myself.

Writing, like so many of the arts, has long been an elite activity reserved for those who had enough money and power and leisure to enjoy it. And yet, when the arts–writing, music, storytelling–was/is engaged in by those who are disempowered, it is incredibly, deliciously world-changing.

Ryan Boudinot’s article smacks of that elitism. IMG_3313

I want to be the kind of writer, educator and community member who does not put up walls, but breaks them down. I want my community to be conducive to all the writers. I want my little blocks of Hillman City, my beloved Seattle, and the rest of the world to lift up the use of words to tell a killer story, to have the openness to forever learning how to do it better, and that will bit by bit change the world.

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