Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunny Saturday & Sunday

A few thoughts on this gorgeous Saturday morning in northeastern Ohio ...

  • A friend joked that my blog name (Dawn Reader) was close to C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of my favorites in the 7-volume Narnia series.  I actually thought of calling this blog The Voyages of the Dawn Reader--but (timorous guy that I am) I wondered about a copyright issue.  And chickened out.  A response I learned in elementary school, practiced in junior high, perfected in high school.  At Hiram High School, a junior in1960-61, I once talked my way out of a fight by an aggrieved senior (justly aggrieved, too--I'd messed with his girlfriend); this senior could have killed me with a single punch.  I told him that I knew he could--that he knew he could.  So what's the point?  I held my breath, awaiting the death blow.  But he walked away--and that might have been the moment when I knew I should be an English major.
  • Another friend--a long-ago student named Chris--wrote this on my FB wall: "Starting a blog on a FRIDAY... Any chance this may coincide with 'free writing' withdrawal - and the reading thereof??? Hmm..."  My Aurora students from years ago will know what he meant, but Chris reminded me of one of the great serendipitous discoveries of my middle-school teaching career.  One dreary November day in 1972 ... what follows is from something (unpublished) I wrote about that day:
  • Friday, 3 November 1972.  Aurora Middle School.  Aurora, Ohio.
                Today I have no lesson plan.  I don’t remember why.  In those days it could have been anything.  Perhaps I was busy with family, or had a Thursday night graduate school class.  Or I planned to get up early to work on my class preparation, but when the alarm went off, I said fuck it and slept.  This November morning a week before my twenty-eighth birthday, I enter my room without the vaguest idea of what I am going to do.  I look at my students.  They look at me.  (Such trust in those young eyes!  They always think I know what I’m doing!)  And then I say, Take out a sheet of paper.
                Groans and sounds of shuffling—and questions: A pop quiz?  Over what?  We didn’t have any homework last night, did we?  Were we supposed to read something?
                Now, I continue, I want you to write—I look at the clock—for thirty minutes.
                Write what?
                Anything you want.
                Anything?  The boy who asks this, I know, will soon be grinding into his paper some fresh permutations of the perversions that seem to occupy him most of the time.
                Anything.  And it doesn’t matter if you finish—in fact, don’t even try to finish something.  The goal is not to finish.  The goal is to write about something you want to write about.
                An innocent child looks at me.  Why are we doing this?
                You’ll see, I say sagely.  Then another idea:  And I’m going to do it, too!
                You are?  (On their foreheads I can see their thoughts flickering like neon signs—a teacher doing our class work?  What does this mean?)
                After some initial bustle and confusion—kids borrowing pencils and paper from one another—the room slowly grows silent.  All of us are writing.  All of us.
                And “Friday Writing” is born.

                The free-writing idea was not all that novel and did not simply blossom in my mind like some sort of mystical flower arising from soil touched by Gandalf’s staff.  Back in 1967–1968, my second year of teaching, I’d read an article in a teachers’ magazine about a course at Yale University called Daily Themes.  It did not meet as a class, but every weekday each student had to turn in a three-hundred-word piece.  (I’ve subsequently learned that both William F. Buckley, Jr., and Bob Woodward were once students in that course.)
                And so I promptly assigned my seventh graders something I called Daily Observations.  These were really just journal entries, as I think about it, but each weekday my students turned in a single hand-written page of their thoughts.  I read but did not correct their submissions for spelling or other mechanics.  Instead, I gave them some sort of mark that reflected my judgment about their seriousness of purpose.  And at the top of the page I wrote a one-sentence response.  This doesn’t sound like much—but I had as many as 200 students a day back then.  Each set took hours to read, think about, mark.
                But after a few months I’d quit assigning Daily Observations.  I can’t remember why, but I’d probably fallen behind, probably had a week’s worth of Observations—hundreds of pages!—stacked by my desk at home, growing, growing, forming a pile of paper that began to approach the heavens, a tower of babble.

                And then the thirty minutes are up.
                Once again my students are staring at me.  There are still about ten minutes left in the period.
                Now, I say, you’re probably all wondering what all of this is about?
                They are.
                I look at them.  They look at me.
                I’ll tell you, I say, at the end of the period.  Now … would anybody like to read aloud?
                Students look around.  A few hands go up.  I call on the owners of those hands.  They read.  And suddenly the period is ending.  And I am telling them that I want them to enjoy writing, that if they do, they will improve—almost like magic.  They sort of listen.  I collect the papers, and students head out in the hallway, where I hear them telling the incoming class about the cool thing they are going to get to do today.
                It was not long before Friday Writing became a weekly ritual, one that all of us cherished—and protected.  And sometimes on a dreary winter Wednesday, a student would ask, Mr. Dyer, can’t we have Friday today?
                Over the years I filled entire loose-leaf notebooks with my Friday Writings.  I wrote about my childhood, I wrote stories, novels (yes, novels), poems, skits, disquisitions on things that bothered me.  I grew to love Fridays, and not just because every other one was a payday or because the weekend beckoned to me like an eager lover.  Fridays became times when my students and I enjoyed ourselves more than we did at any other time.  And, slowly, I began to think of myself—on those Fridays, at least—as a writer.
                I look now at those blue loose-leaf notebooks stuffed with my Friday Writing from the 1970s and 1980s.  The first piece, dated 3 November 1972 (it was first period of the day), begins, I have in mind a story … .  It’s an idea for a novel about a teacher (one like me, one with my history) who gradually forgets what it’s like to be a kid.  Intercut with that story is a seventh-grader’s story, and it’s only later that we learn the two characters are the same person.  (I never wrote the novel—not a bad idea, though!)
                Soon I began to realize that my writing could reach students in ways that more direct or didactic methods never could.  After a few weeks students began writing the sorts of pieces I was, and so I would shape-shift from time to time, give them some other example to follow.  And so I made the greatest discovery of all: My students really did steadily improve even though I was not teaching them at all, not in the traditional sense.
                But the bulk of my writing that first year, oddly, involves memories—fragments, I see now, of a memoir.  I wrote about little Easter chicks, dyed purple, that my parents brought home one year.  (They lived about a day.)  About old classmates—their troubles, quirks, fistfights, loves.  About stupid things I did in childhood.  One piece the students liked a lot is about a time when I hit a bully in the face with an ice ball, then raced for home while he, dripping blood, chased me all the way, screaming fierce promises about what he’d do to me if he caught me.  (A pursuing cheetah could not have neared me that day.)
                The next year,  1973–1974, I begin our first Friday with a long piece about my boyhood dog.  I follow that with some summaries of dreams.  A week later I’m writing about the time in elementary school when I stole and destroyed the basketball of a kid I hated.  And then a long story about a time I fought some kid outside a public swimming pool.  And a rollicking Thanksgiving ballad about one of my students—“The Ballad of Turkey Tony.”  I gave him a copy.  And decades later when I ran into him, he pulled from his wallet that poem—its paper time-softened, its folds torn. The next year, 1974–1975, I begin by writing about my bicycle and its squeaky brakes.  Then a summary of a dream I’ve had about a conversation with Buster Keaton.  Later in the month I make a list of things to write about: little league baseball, my feelings when I played …  By the end of September I’m writing about the concept of being chicken.
    • More later ...

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