Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Acclaimation and Aloneness of a Best-Selling Writer

I don’t feel completely comfortable calling Wally Lamb a chick-magnet. Yet, after attending his reading in Glastonbury earlier this year, I’d have to at least dub him the literary lodestone - to a flock of mature hens – myself included. The elder English-teacher type out-numbered all others the hour before doors opened at the Riverfront Community Center. When folks did start crossing into the big and bright reading room, set up to seat at least 300 attendees, the ladies still outnumbered the gentlemen, 20 to 1 I’d say, with three – maybe even four – generations of readers present. By the time the program began, , people were being turned away at the door.

I watched Wally stand by the entrance minutes before he was introduced. He blended with the ebb and flow of walk-ins. Earlier, the Rham English teacher in line next to me had referred to his looks as generic. That pretty much coincided with a story a colleague of mine recently shared. It seemed his sister, who had joined a health club in Eastern Connecticut a few months back, spoke regularly of pleasant conversations with a low-key gentleman at the facility. Weeks passed before she figured out this other member was Lamb – even though she knew his name was Wally – and she had already read all three of his novels.

In the minutes before he would address the packed room he chatted, probably as nonchalantly as he had at the health club. Then, after my hour wait outside the room and another hour wait inside the room, Wally was introduced. Wearing a charcoal jacket atop a like-colored, mock turtleneck sweater, Wally approached the podium, his generic appearance soon refashioned by his way with words.

Lamb has a tendency to smile even as he speaks. He grinned as he sized up the crowd. “Wow, you people come out for these things.” He grinned as he positioned the mike. “I always freak out on AV stuff.” And he grinned through his half-hour essay about growing up (mostly) Italian (on his mother’s side), working class (Dad was a superintendent at the local utility company), and hen-pecked (by his sisters and gal cousins). The local Norwich Free Academy graduate ventured on to UCONN and back to Norwich Free Academy (a public high school) to teach for 25 years – until Oprah rocked his world in 1997 with Book Club Invitation Number One (for She’s Come Undone) followed by Book Club Invitation Number Two a year later (for I Know This Much Is True), an unprecedented literary feat.

As acclaimed as his writing is, Lamb insists he is not the novelist by which to model process. He has a terrible time starting books. Claims years go by before a main character takes him, the mere recorder of the journey, through his or her story. And, he follows the lead with little or no insight about how his character will fare – until he pens the end. Lamb says he grew almost despondent trying to move The Hour I First Believed along until, while teaching at a writer’s workshop in Louisiana, he meandered into Saint Louis Cathedral, lit a candle, and prayed for help to “start the story.” In time, a line that began, “My mother was a convicted felon. . .” entered his mind, beckoning him through the high school English teacher’s life and Columbine times of his troubled narrator: Calum Quirk.

Lamb, who also read an excerpt from his latest novel, says placing his “fictional protagonist inside a nonfictional maze,” takes him down unknown corridors too. One of these could very well be the book-signing event he attended in Colorado during his 22-week book tour last year. A man approached his table asking, “Do you think Eric’s brother should read this book?” The question unnerved the author when he soon realized it was posed by the father of the real-life Columbine killer and suicide victim - Eric Harris,- who along with Dylan Klebold enacted the all-out assault on Columbine High – April 20,1999.Stunned, Lamb held out his hands to Mr. Harris. As they embraced tightly, Lamb replied, “I don’t have any answer for you.” Mr. Harris countered, “I don’t have any answer either.”Wally Lamb, the gifted writer who filled the Riverfront Glastonbury Community Center with hundreds of friends and fans that Sunday afternoon, managed to manifest not only the popularity and charisma of a best-selling novelist, but the loneliness and vulnerability of the writer as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Not Homer . . . not Shakespeare

What do you say after 30 years of high school teaching? This little speech attempted to make a beginning out of the end of my full-time teaching career. It was given the evening of 6/11/09 at the EFHS Retirement Dinner at the Storrotown Tavern in West Springfield, MA.

Trust me, it is far easier to stand here paying tribute to a retiree, as I have done a number of times in the past, than it is to be the object of professional attention and affection. I want to deeply thank my family - my daughter Emily, my son Conor , my future son-in-law Ryan , my twin brother Larry, and my dear friend Tom along with so many close friends who are here with me tonight. You shared my happiest moments: my marriage, the births of Emily and Conor, and helped me through my saddest. And help you did. How many can say as I can that Tod Couture has cleaned your pool, Rich Monteroosso has mowed your lawn, and Brian Mazzone has delivered papers and projects not just to your front door – but down the hallway to your bedroom when you were out of school with a broken ankle. I am one lucky and grateful lady.

But, for the sake of time and emotional perseverance, I’d prefer to mostly stay in the moment that we share right now. And, in that moment, I am struck by two faces. One is that of Carol Bruce, a Fermi retiree of a dozen or so years who was my geography and American History teacher when I was a student at Enfield High in the 1960s. Long before the expressed mission to teach writing across the curriculum Carol – a social studies teacher mind you – taught me how to write – a research paper on Nigeria freshman year and analytical essay after analytical essay after analytical essay in American History – junior year. The other face that strikes me is that of Erin Clark – one of Fermi’s youngest teachers who I had as a student at just about the time that Carol retired. I guess you could say that what I was to Carol Bruce, a student who went on to teach in the same school system, Erin is to me.

My colleagues here tonight know that Erin teaches in 316, the room above mine. I often hear her students moving their desks, for group work, for simulated battles, for review rounds of Jeopardy – and I think what energy, what vigor, what passion she and all the younger teachers at Fermi have. Well, in the Faculty Room over lunch last week, Erin looked me straight in the eye with the same piercing look she would give me when she sat front row center in our World Literature class well over ten years ago. This look, as I recall, was always followed by probing questions like: how was it possible that the Odyssey’s Penelope could stay so true to a husband who was gone for 20 years? Well, at lunch a week ago, Erin, the teacher, had that same inquisitive expression as Erin, the student, use to have. Recognizing the look, I was still unprepared for what followed.

This time, Erin’s question was, “Now that you’re about to retire, what words of wisdom (yes, she really said words of wisdom) do you have to impart (her verb, not mine) about teaching? As soon as she posed the rather weighty query I experienced a flashback to 1972 where I was ending the day in Room 200 and Tony Torre, the Assistant Superintendent, was at my door. He had just been appointed to that position, having served a year as Fermi High’s principal, and there he was at my classroom threshold asking, “Laura, now that you’ve taught for a year – what is your philosophy of education?” I remember looking at Assistant Superintendent Torre – in 1972 – and saying (and to this day I still don’t believe I said this), “Gee Mr. Torre. I’ve been so damn busy planning, teaching, and correcting, I haven’t had any time to think about my philosophy of education.”

As with many of you here tonight, life continued to be very busy through the ensuing thirty-plus years; but, getting back to Erin’s question, I really didn’t want to give her the same response I gave Tony in the 70s. So, I began to think about a fresher reply and I thought and I thought and I thought– until, after a few days mind you, two words came to me: consistent morality. That was it. The secret to being a successful teacher was a consistent morality - a commitment to regularly doing the right thing. And where had I gotten these two words after decades of planning, teaching, and correcting, yet within two weeks before I was about to retire? Not Homer, not Shakespeare. I got them from Colt McCoy, of all people, the University of Texas quarterback who spoke to the Teen Leadership classes here at Fermi earlier this month. Go figure! Colt talked less about football and more about how his grandfather would advise him to do the right thing wherever, whenever, offering him a Truth or standard that doesn’t change with some of the people – some of the time. Colt was all about integrity – on the football field and off.

Carol Bruce’s classroom had a consistent morality. Teaching social studies, coaching tennis, supervising practice teachers – she was always the real deal. I’ve sought that kind of fairness along the way – in myself and others. And, from what I see, Erin, along with many of the younger teachers at Fermi, are getting the knack of it as well. I wish them well as I leave the only high school system I’ve known since I was a teenager – with one last goal in mind. And that’s finally being able to give Assistant Superintendent Torre an answer to his question next week at graduation. Other than that, I’m looking forward to less correcting, more reading and writing, there’s a wedding to be planned, and finally – a recent addition to the list – following Colt’s last season at the University of Texas.