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The latest in Regge's series of Endless Mountains ghost stories is available on Amazon:

The Boy in the Toy Room: An Endless Mountains Ghost Story

Nora is haunted. She's haunted by the past, haunted by the future, and haunted by the boy in the toy room. Wanting desperately to fall back in love with her husband, Nora moves back to the country to work on building their dream home. Building dreams isn't easy, though: she'll have to fend off a drunken ex, contend with an interfering mother-in-law, and try to keep a battered rental house from falling down around her.

Meanwhile, someone has been breaking into the house, and her daughter's imaginary friend, the boy in the toy room, seems to be trying to burn the place down. While the men around her rage and bluster, it's Nora's job to hold things together and keep her daughter safe, whatever the cost. 

 

And don't forget Waking Up Dead: An Endless Mountains Ghost Story

If Deidra Shay had known she was dead, she might have made other choices -- but she didn't. When her best friend, Jesse, finds her body and is pulled away screaming and crying, Deidra follows her home and all hell breaks loose! Friends and family are pulled into a maze of love and sex, revenge and redemption as Jesse and Deidra struggle to figure out how to go on living after waking up dead. 

This is romance, a testimony to friendship, and one answer to what life might be like beyond the grave for both the person moving on and the people left behind.

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Old And Still Evolving

photo by Angela Episale

Someone once told me that, "To live is to dream; to dream is to live." As I get older people I've been young with and dreamed dreams with are falling, one by one, into a state of perpetual stillness. Dreams are scoffed at and put into "when I was young" and "before I knew better" categories. This is the blog of someone who hopes to never know better. It's the rambling of someone who should know who they are by now, and doesn't -- someone who is still evolving. 

 

Thursday
Sep012011

FIGHTING BACK



Every day I count the change

That's jangling in my pocket

To buy the gas to reach the job,

And I know I haven't got it.

My piggy bank is empty now,

My boots are full of water.

You -- you call it conservation.

Me -- I call it slaughter but



Chorus:



I'm fighting back, fighting back!

With everything that's in me.

Like a cornered rat when the mazeruns out

And I know they're gonna get me.

We're all at war; it's a bloodymess.

The dream is to be free.

You cut back more 'til I lose mymind

But I just can't let it beat me!



Smile glibly now at the camera man

As we cry in exasperation.

Take billions from the small guyspay

To spend on inaugerations.

We've got power plants to blow usup,

Bombs to fight for this side.

You call it strategy for peace.

Me, I call it homicide, and (chorus)



Old people die when it gets too cold;

Babies cry when hungry.

My house is gone for the taxes due

And my purse is always empty.

Rich man, just ignore the poor,

Don't offer us your reasons.

Call it anything you want --

Me, I call it treason, and (chorus)

Sunday
Jul312011

Tougher than shit and tired of it.

When I had the power of attorney for my mother, my siblings and I had a huge fight one night.  I started out sober and ended up drunk, screaming that I was done and had had all I could stand.  If you've never been the one responsible for making physical and finanacial decisions for someone else, you probably have no idea what can happen in families, but it was ugly.  The next day I took my power of attorney to my sister with the appropriate signature filled in resigning my authority.  I then took a copy to my mother and explained that I couldn't stand between my sisters and my brother and I was no longer representing her.  She sat in her chair, oxegyn tubes coming out of her nose, her legs elevated and said, "I thought you said you had power of attorney because you were the strong one."  I gathered my strength, took a deep breath and said, yes, I was the strong one.  She re-authorized me on the spot.

My mom died three years ago and I have always been glad I continued in my role as her financial and physical overseer.  She taught me something important that day; she taught me that she believed in me and that I had to believe in myself.

While that ended well, I'm not so sure sometimes that I am capable of holding the power of attorney for myself.  I make bad decisions.  I fail miserably.  I take gambles and I lose and sometimes I wonder whatever made me think I could do anything other than work mindlessly in jobs I hate in order to earn the basic money needed to survive in terms of food and bills and life in general.  Give me a 50/50 chance and I'll chose the losing side every time.

I struggled, while working a full-time job and raising my daughter, to go back to school.  Against all kinds of odds I obtained an MFA in writing at the old age of 55.  My goal was to teach adjunct and write.  Fairly lofty considering the conservative nature of publishing companies, the number of unpublished authors and the government's new anti-education attitude, but still -- I was the tough one, right?  People give up and I don't.  Talent is everywhere but perserverance is rare, at least according to the sign in my son's band room and the posters in the subways.  If you envision success and believe and be steadfast, you get there.  It doesn't come to you.  You go to it. 

So I wrote a book and I send it out and it isn't published.  I'm writing another book and who knows what will happen with that, but that's okay because I can support my writing addiction through adjunct courses and a very small retirement earned through 12 years of unhappily working for the State of PA.  During my years of education I helped take care of my mother and gave up on a career in real estate.  Now there is no real estate career to establish although I would try again if I could find the money to reinstate my license.  I sought for and obtained a reconciliation with the man I've loved for 20 years. left my state job, promised him I could succeed in my new life, and moved to Montrose, PA to start over again.

I did get an offer to be an adjunct instructor, but it was in Philadelphia.  I did it and was pretty good at it, even though I really don't want to teach the difference between a verb and a noun, and how to layout a paragraph.  If I was successful in teaching Dev Writing I could get a job teaching Comp, and I did.  However, the gas and tolls of teaching in Philadelphia roughly equaled the pay so when I was offered 2 - 3 classes in Lancaster I took them -- same cost and double or triple the pay.  Meanwhile, Bloomsburg University offered to fast-track my application there if I taught a Composition course, and the University pays 2 - 3 times more than community college.  It was all turning out just fine.  Until today, that is.  I turned down Philadelphia and accepted HACC in Lancaster and ... the class didn't roster.  And now I have no class to teach, no income, no open door to the university and no publishing income in sight.

I'm as tough as nails.  This too shall pass.  Right?  Right?  But why on earth did I cancel Philadelphia before HACC was a done deal?  Because I was being honorable. I was giving Philadelphia lots and lots of time to replace me, which was the right thing to do.  And I was wrong.  And now I'm up the proverbial creek without a paddle and I don't know what the hell I'm going to do ... but I'm tough.  I can see this through, right? 

Any one need a housekeeper?    

Tuesday
May312011

Needful Things

There are all kinds of words that bear translation. For me one of the hardest words is "need". I've spent a lifetime trying to define the difference between "need" and "want", and it isn't as easy as it sounds. For example, I "need" a pair of shoes when mine are separating at the seams, hurt so much I can't wear them without limping or get offered money for a new pair by a sympathetic stranger. By the time I need a new pair of shoes, mine are ready for the trash bag.

For many people, needing a new pair of shoes means needing a pair that goes with the dress they just bought which they also needed simply because it was on a good sale. They have no place to wear it, no shoes that match it and already own 50 other dresses, but they need it at that great price and so they buy it. I recently was trying to find a coat for someone who didn't own even one and so asked a person who had 20 or more coats hanging in the closet if they might have one to spare. The response was, "No." they "needed" all the coats they had, even though I hadn't seen any coat get worn for more than one season -- ever.

Some people also need new clothes every couple of years as their body changes. Every time they diet, and this category of person frequently diets, they throw away everything that is now too large and buy a new wardrobe in their new size. Six months later they buy another wardrobe that is the same size as the one they just threw away because they have put the weight back on and everything they own is now too small.

I will admit that at times I feel like I need a new dress. It's usually after someone comments on how they love the dress I "always wear to the cocktail party." It dawns on me that if I've worn the same dress every year to the same event for the past 10 years, that maybe, just maybe, I need a new one. This year I actually own four dresses that are less than 10 years old. I really have been changing weight and so changing sizes. I now three little back dresses in sizes 14, 12 and 10. I can't get rid of even one because I might "need" it if my new weight changes. I do have three other black dresses but they are all over 10 years old and have been worn so many times that every wedding I've ever attended (before this year) has me featured in the photo album wearing the same dress with the same necklace. The only thing that has changed is my hairstyle and facial wrinkles. The reason I have three older dresses is because one is velvet with long sleeves for winter, one is long sleeved with a turtle neck because my daughter thought I needed a new dress after seeing me in the same dress for over a decade, and one is light weight for summer.

Clothing isn't the only thing that varies in importance from person to person. I know people who need new curtains and bedspreads and lamps but don't seem to need to replace the carpet that has holes worn through it. The carpet replacement would cost approximately the same as the new accessories but since it can be covered up with all the new clothes, it isn't a priority. I once had a sister-in-law who would order a new rug from Spiegel’s every spring and fall to put over a bathroom floor that smelled like rot and that sagged when you walked on it. You bet -- I would have ripped up that floor and saved five years worth of carpet money to put down a new one.

I, on the other hand, am constantly in the remodeling mode and am oversensitive to anything in the house that, in my opinion, is worn out. I have a list of needs: new kitchen cabinets (the drawers are held together by tape, glue and metal brackets), new kitchen appliances (the stove can't be cleaned because if you remove the electric units they stop working), new living room window (cracked by a golf ball), new paint in the hallway (necessary once the hole in the wall is repaired), new curtains (the current ones are 18 years old and no long come clean) and the list goes on and on. I'm not much on covering up worn out things -- I like them replaced or repaired. I guess I'm unreasonable that way.

Having things isn't the only difference related to "need". Cleaning is a controversial subject; there are wide opinions on when something "needs" to be cleaned. I need to wash sheets every week, and every two weeks at the longest. I recently asked my granddaughter when she had last changed and washed her sheets, and she replied that she couldn't remember. "Sheets have to be washed!" I told her. "You sweat when you sleep and it's just -- well -- dirty." "But I don't sleep on my sheets," she said. "I sleep on my blanket." "So when was the last time you washed your blanket?" "I don't remember." Yuck.

I also think dishes need to be washed as soon as they are used. They get cleaner faster that way. Nothing is more disgusting than getting up in the morning to dried on food that takes real elbow grease to scrub, not even mentioning the risk of mice, ants and fruit flies. Leave food long enough and you actually scratch the plates trying to get them clean. For me, that would mean I needed new plates since scratches collect bacteria. (See? I really am a little over the top.) I hate plastic anything for that same reason -- plastic scratches and stops being "cleanable."

I "need" to wake up to a neat, if not clean, house. I need laundry put away, empty sinks, flushed toilets, clear surfaces. This particular need creates a lot of problems in my house. But the most controversial thing I need is quiet.

I work at home. Sometimes I'm grading papers, other times I'm revising stories, poems or books already written. For those things I can deal with TV, talking, music, and all the other normal noises that families make. However, when I'm writing, really writing, something new, I need quiet. I can't have people talking to me and pulling me out of the crystal mountain and my 12 year old boy narrator. I can't have someone walk through the room just as I remember, with tears running down my face, that moment I knew I wanted my sick and pain-racked mother to die, or the shock of finding out my husband of 20 years, whom I had stayed with because it was the morally right thing to do, had had not one, but two affairs while I struggled with his constant criticism and temper tantrums. I need not only quiet, but privacy. I need to go to those other places and bring them to life on paper. For this reason, I need an office.

The need for an office that has closed doors, that is mine and mine alone, that is absolutely neat and light and organized, and a computer that cannot be touched by teenagers for any reason whatsoever, has been a real issue. There are people who can't see how this could possibly be a "need." They see it as a self-serving, ridiculous grandiosity. But I do need it. I need it to breathe. I need it so I can stop constantly trying to turn the rest of the house into the kind of space I "need" while they "need" to make messes and leave them there for later in order to feel at home. If I can go away to this private space and do what I "need" to do, maybe I'll be able to ignore some of the things that they "need" to do and that drive me crazy.

The biggest need I have right now is the need to do whatever I'm going to do in this life, and to get it done within the next 20 years. That's how much time I figure I have left, and only that if I'm lucky. When your mother dies, you see that life is short. When your husband dies, you realize that it may very well be a lot shorter than you ever imagined possible. When you turn fifty, you start attending funerals for, not only your parents and aunts and uncles, but for your friends. And you realize that life is very, very short indeed, and not even vaguely guaranteed.

The argument might be made that life is short, and for that reason maybe the dishes don't need to be washed, the laundry done, the stories written but I disagree. I have fulfilled my obligation to work around what other people consider "needs." This is my last opportunity to fill some of my own needs, and I have learned that no one is going to do that for me. I'm willing to do the work to have what I need. The time is now. So -- if you don't like my dress, it is probably old. I don’t need a new one; I don't see it as important. If you feel uncomfortable because I put things back when you leave them out then don't leave them out or find a place where I don't have a say about such things. But don't expect me to compromise anymore. I have come to a point where I "need" to actualize some of the things I've been "wanting" all along.

Monday
May232011

Writing for Middle-grade: What you're taught and what you know

Okay, so I wrote a middle-grade novel about a boy who is overweight and getting bullied.  He becomes a hero by solving a mystery and his opinion of himself goes up several notches.  He even gets kissed by a girl he never thought would look at him.

I revised and revised and revised at the suggestion of writers and excellent published professors, all who urged me to tone it down, be nice, get to the mystery, get rid of the tone of violence, etc.  Then an agent told me it isn't "gritty" enough.  You know what?  She's right.

I talked to a teenager last night and asked him to tell me what it was like to be fat (He is now 6'4" and plays tennis.  He isn't svelt, but he sure isn't fat.).  He didn't say much at first.  As a matter of fact he sounded a lot like my book -- kind of non-committal.  But the longer the conversation went on, the tougher I interviewed him, the more I heard that being fat was a nightmare.  It wasn't nice to be insulted and made fun of, but it was worse when people tried to help by telling him he had to do something about it.  He got the message but didn't really know how to change things, and no one consistently did anything with him that would make a difference.  He sat in front of the TV and ate frozen dinners and all kinds of snacks while his parents worked and told him not to leave the house.  He didn't see his weight as something he could control but rather as something that was "wrong with him."  He didn't think people would like him because he didn't like himself.  And he was mad.  He didn't say  he was mad, but he was.  When someone suggested he eat less or eat better or work-out or turn off the TV he would just look at the floor and be quiet, but inside he wanted to hit something, or better yet, hit them.  People talked but no one did, and he didn't see his way clear to helping himself until he was older. 

So -- my "nice guy" is very poorly portrayed.  If I want this book to speak of hope to chubby kids stuck in the house with bad food while parents work or go out or concentrate on younger siblings, I have to write about the anger, the hurt, the self-loathing and that awful sense of hopelessness.  It can't be a "nice" book.  Even if parents don't want to know how violent nice kids can feel, the kids already know and aren't going to want it glossed over.  They know the truth.

I asked him if there was anything I could put in the book that would actually be helpful.  He said maybe if the kid is older, more mature, more ready to come to grips with his own power.  I disagree there.  I write books about kids who worked for a living on farms and in coal mines at the age of seven or just a little older.  Those kids weren't too immature to come to grips.  Those kids grew up youger and knew they could take charge of things even if it wasn't by choice.  Sometimes I think they were lucky even if they did have more responsibility and less opportunity.  At least they didn't have to feel like they couldn't change things for themselves. 

So, Charles DuBois solves a mystery, and that is good.  But life sucks, and that isn't good.  Sugar coating the situation might make adults more comfortable with what's happening to their kids, but it won't help the kids who are dealing with the real issue. 

I do think the book should stick with the positive message -- the one that says Charlie is valuable.  The one that says he understands what hurt is and doesn't want to inflict it on other people who are in equally hopeless situations.  And I want to keep all the other stereo types that get exposed for the nonsense they are:  kids from cities are bad, teenagers are violent, fat boys aren't dateable, old people are good, smart or pretty or cool kids feel secure and are never lonely.  The book has all kinds of things that are well done but the main character, that wonderful hero of our story, isn't portrayed honestly at all.  He isn't enough of a coward or enough of a hero.  He isn't angry enough to be real.  He isn't honest about his situation and how he sees himself.  The tone isn't dark enough, the teasing isn't vicious enough, his inner thoughts aren't nearly violent enough.

Adults buy books for kids.  Middle-grade kids buy books for themselves.  They do need a message of hope and acknowledgement but they don't need something so deep and personal to be glossed over.

I will, however, consider the possibility of making Charlie older -- not because only older kids can change things, but because 1.) kids like the protagonist to be someone they would like to be and they would like to be older than they are, and 2.) because maybe if Charlie is older the message will be distant enough so that the 12 year old chubby kid reading it won't throw it in a pile with all the self-help books well-meaning adults gave them.  Maybe they'll see Charlie, that strong kid who does get kissed and solve a mystery and make friends with the cool guy, as someone they want to and can be. And maybe if he's distant enough I can have him grow an inch or see a change of some type from rowing and swimming and hiking through the woods, and maybe, just maybe, they'll find a little hope without being preached at, insulted or lectured.

I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that the protagonist being fat gives me an obligation to be honest, with him and with myself, and with every kid that picks up the book. And I'm sure it can't just all be "nice."  Feeling bad about yourself isn't nice.

Actually, I've already figured out how to do this without making him older.  After all, the dialogue is good and age appropriate.  What I will do is have Salvo, my mean little cool guy, point out that he can't do anything about being short.  He wishes his problem was fixable, like being fat.  It's tough to be a kid.  But then kids, in Charles DuBois and in real life, are very, very cool.

Saturday
May142011

Teaching

At one point in life I ran from my position as a Disability Advocate because the burden of responsibility overwhelmed me.  Every time I lost a case I felt like a failure.  People looked for me to save them, to change their lives, to make something positive out of one kind of catastrophy or another.  It was too much.  I fell into my books and swore I'd never be responsible for someone else's survival again.  I was wrong.

Most MFA in English graduates eventually look to teaching as a way to shore up their income while developing as a writer, and most first time English Instructors are given Developmental Writing classes to teach.   For me, it was a matter of once again shouldering the great cloak of responsibility for someone's surival.  Developmental Writing students didn't or couldn't pass the essay assessment for college level writing and pay full price to take a class which gives them no college credits and which they must pass in order to move on to College Composition, which is a requirement for any individual obtaining an Associates Degree.  Developmental Writing covers the most basic building blocks of writing -- sentences, paragraphs and essays laid out in a logical sequence using grammar correct enough to not detract the reader from the meaning of the writing.  It's what every student should have learned in high school, but many didn't.

My class was made up of working adults trying to support families while going to school, housewives trying to take classes during or after raising children and caring for homes, and men and women who had completed military service and were now looking to complete their education.  Many of them had been laid off of jobs and were looking for careers.  Over half had been born in another country or been raised by parents born in another country and not fluent in English.  Others might as well have been born in another country since their language was an urban vernacular that blended street talk, English and idioms from multiple populations of diverse languages.  All of them were giving up three hours on Thursday night plus multiple hours studying during the week to learn in 15 weeks what they hadn't learned in 20 to 45 years; all of them were driven by a firm resolve to succeed. 

Four members of my class were well spoken professionals who fell apart every time I said the words quizz, exam or test.  It wasn't hard to figure out what had happened when they wrote their assessment essays in the first place.  One had had a nervous break down when he tried to go to college the first time -- something he confided in me one night after class when I was trying to drill home the basics of a paragraph outline and he broke down.  Another student, a lovely French speaking woman who had raised her family while her husband obtained his PhD, confided in me that her husband had laughed at her when she enrolled in the class, saying, "What are you doing that for?  You know you can't pass." 

There were stories -- heartrending stories -- that came to me in written form, bared in simple paragraphs and essays while each individual struggled to remember what verbs and subjects are and how to stay in one tense.  And they were my peers -- people who worked everyday in responsible positions.  Professions represented: housewife, pre-school teacher and vocalist, electrician, army sharp-shooter, police officer, surgical technician,  loan officer, elementary school developmental aide, physical fitness instructor, plumber, and two gentlemen who had worked in some type of technical field and been laid off.  One of those was from India and had completed college there but needed an American degree and the other was a brilliant man from Albania who had spent years as an illegal alien before obtaining his US citizenship.  The student from Albania could speak five languages.     

Countries represented: India, Africa, Jamaica, Albania, Trinidad, Harlem and Philidelphia.  If you don't think Harlem and Philidelphia should be in the list, spend some time helping students struggle with English and you'll change your mind.  Some individuals from various parts of our cities speak a very different form of English and struggle when they attend college.  That conversation, the one about our schools and what they teach, or rather, don't teach, is for a different post. 

The barriers my students had to overcome were humbling.  I received essays about illegal immigration, alcoholic parents, parents who were imprisoned for drug abuse and physical abuse of their children, teenage pregnancy, cancer survival, controlling husbands, and clinical anxiety.  But I also received essays about faith and family, wisdom obtained through maturity, and great determination.  If I were a psychology major it would have been a fantastic study in the resilience of human nature.  As an English major, it was overwhelming.  I am thankful for all those years working in disability and welfare.  I was at least somewhat prepared to balance multiple backgrounds and experiences and to give much deserved respect to the students who were so honest and forthcoming. 

So, back to the topic of feeling responsible.  As each student put their life story on paper and spoke to me in private, I felt that mantle of despair falling like lead on my shoulders.  It was up to me to give them the tools to succeed.  They were willing to do their part; I was obligated to do mine.  Fifteen three hour sessions hardly seemed like enough time to provide so much knowledge, no matter how dedicated the individuals in my class were. 

As a teacher, I faced a different type of barrier.  Like many writers, I had never had to work at the English language.  It came naturally to me, like drinking water or eating food.  Before I ever went to school I was reading Longfellow, Wadsworth, Whitman, and many more of the great writers. In junior high school I hid Shakespeare behind my text book during history class like other kids hid comic books.  My first poem was published when I was 10 years old.  It is very difficult to explain something you've never gone through the process of learning.  I, too, had to study for Developmental Writing, only I was studying methods of defining verbs, subjects, pronouns, punctuation and tenses.  I learn in huge blocks, not in individual bricks.  When I was in school, teachers would lecture and and on and I would be waiting for the punch line; until I had the whole picture nothing made sense.  Now, as the instructor for Developmental Writing, I had to break everything down into little, tiny steps and help students build, one brick at a time.  For me, it was a new way of thinking.

I am a firm believer in learning by doing.  I believe that people learn through sight, sound and muscle memory, so everything has to be seen, heard and done.  We always started with grammar.  I would assign a reading on nouns, review the information in class and have them do the exercises in their workbooks in a round-robin style in the classroom.  What I found out is that reading about nouns, if you don't know anything about them in the first place, doesn't seem to help.  The same goes for placing commas, beginning and ending quotes with quotation marks and staying on subject when you write.  My plan to break class into one hour of grammar review, one hour of paragraph discussion and one hour of writing fell apart.  I had no idea that the simple sentence is the hardest concept to learn for people who have been speaking but not reading for a lifetime.  Class changed.  I, the instructor who had promised at the beginning of the semester not to lecture, lectured.  I wrote on the board, starting with the most simple sentences possible, and we identified a subject and a verb.  As soon as a phrase that also had a subject was introduced, half the class honestly couldn't answer when I asked who or what we were talking about.  We were one third of the way through the semester when I gave a grammar test and 50% of the class failed it.  That was my darkest hour.  I was sure that I couldn't teach in any way that would be affective.  I informed my class that we were going to spend a lot more time on grammar and started from scratch.

Another thing I learned was that, even in this day and age of technology, very few people in the class knew how to use a computer to write.  Even those who were computer savvy didn't know how to format a paragraph in wordprocessing.  Many did not have computers of their own.  The first writing assignments were often handwritten and on one occassion I received a paragraph that had been written on a cell phone and texted.  For that reason nearly half of our scheduled classes were held in the computer lab. 

I rearranged my thinking on class organization.  We wrote first, I reviewed and commented on their work, and then we reviewed the writings together, going over each grammatical error as a group.  As the class worked together, they started really talking about the errors, challenging my revision suggestions and asking more questions about similar sentences.  I had to be careful about how much was revealed because as the students got to know me they started writing those wonderful, painful, personal paragraphs and essays.  Often I would ask permission to share a sentence because it was so perfectly expressed, and often I would warn a student that I was going to use something they had written as an example of what not to do.  That system, the forewarnng system, broke down a lot of barriers.  As I introduced the idea of workshopping and peer review, they were willing to share their work with each other because the idea had already been implemented.  By the end of the semester the students were turning to each other spontaneously to ask opinions and share ideas.  I believe that sense of being "in it together" and supporting each other made a huge difference.

As the semester drew to a close I panicked.  I was convinced that each person had given 100% and that I, being new and still struggling with strategies, had let them down.  In one class as I, once again, pointed out the lack of articles (a, an, the) in a piece written by the man from India, he threw his pencil at his book.  The teacher/singer started coming to class with such a quiet, sad attitude that I asked what was wrong, at which point she spouted, "I hate this class!  I hate it!  I cry all the way here!"  We went through her completed paragraphs so I could show her how much progress she had made and assure her that she was succeeding.  We did get past the class drop deadline without her quitting, but just barely. 

What I couldn't share was that I, too, was in a panic.  The average success rate in Developmental Writing is 50% and I knew I couldn't accept that result for this wonderful, handworking group of students.  There wasn't one person in the class that didn't have something huge at stake in their own mind, including the high cost of the class and books.  I tried to take an objective look at the work that had been done so far and at the essential mile stones required.  That led to one of the hardest conversations I had to have all semestser.  I had to let the gentleman from India know that he could, but most likely wouldn't, pass the class.  He just didn't have enough understanding of the English language.  We talked about ESL (English as a Second Language) and he told me that his wife was in an ESL class and when he saw the material it was so simple he thought it was a waste of time.  I showed him the college ESL books and his eyes widened.  "Yes, that would help," he said.  His understanding of paragraph and essay organization was perfect and I told him that.  I suggested he take the ESL class and then request to be retested for Composition rather than go through Developmental Writing again.  I was relieved when he seemed to accept what I was telling him.

For all of the students, I started arriving earlier and earlier, and staying later and later.  Security guards and cleaning people developed the habit of stopping by to see if I was alright and to ask when we would be done.  An hour before class time students would start arriving in the room and at the end of every class students lined up to ask questions.  Our three hour class became a five hour class and then some.  Paragraphs and essays were written and revised and written and revised and written again. 

Because I was a new teacher, the Assistant Dean periodically reviewed the student portfolios.  Approximately three quarters of the way through the semester she asked, "How do you know they are writing these?  Some sound like they could be copied from something."  I assured her that, for the most part, the writing was being done in class, but I knew that if all or most of my students passed they would be under scrutiny and so I built what I hoped was a fool-proof plan to verify each written piece was an original. 

First, each student wrote an essay, built around a paragraph they had submitted earlier and chosen by me.  They worked the first draft together, following an outline I had provided.  They rewrote the essays according to what had been discussed in class and turned them in.  I made revision suggestions and had them rewrite them again until every student at turned in a credible essay. 

In the next to the last class we met in the computer lab and I had every student free-write an essay on a topic I chose.  I was surprised and dismayed to find out that four of them caved under the pressure.  One of the best writers in class sat at the computer and cried -- she couldn't write spontaneously.  Two others couldn't write with any noise in the room, and one had to hand write her outline before she could type.  She didn't finish the essay.  The Indian gentleman simply sat there until I asked him questions that served as prompts.  I was more worried than ever about their ability to write an essay in class that was indicative of what they had learned throughout the semester. 

The last day of class is often a general rehashing of the semester and carries an easy work load.  My students didn't have that luxury.  I was determined they would be prepared for the final exam -- a full essay, written in the computer lab without the benefit of discussion or revision.  I handed out a list of five topics to choose from for their final and gave them the class period to write their outline.  They had to finish the full outline, take home a copy to help them prepare for the exam and give me a copy.  For the final, they were allowed to use the outline as given to me that day and grammer worksheets we had covered in class.  There could be no extra notes and no extra books on their desks.  I hoped with all my heart that having a week to think about what they were going to write would remove the stress related to free-writing and exams in general.  I also needed proof that they had formulated the essays themselves.

What I wear to teach has laughingly been callled my uniform.  My students, particularly the African- American ladies, had had a great deal of fun at my expense talking about my limited fashion sense.  Every class day I appeared in jeans, a turtleneck and a blazer, all in muted tones of navy and brown.  One student went as far as to comment that she would hate to have my wardrobe.  Since two of my strongest fashion critics also happened to suffer from exam anxiety, I decided to help break the tension by providing a diversion.  I showed up for the final in a red dress and pumps, with my hair styled and my finger nails polished.  It worked.  As the students arrived in the computer room they laughed, commented, complimented, and in a couple of instances even applauded.  My unexpected appearance was a perfect stress reliever.  Even the men made a point of saying how nice I looked.

If I ever decide teaching is the wrong road for me I might take up relationship building.  As students finished their essays and left, they hugged, shook hands, took contact information. It was amazing to me to hear them express such warmth and appreciation of each other.  Several stated that they would miss this class.  As they left I felt, even more accutely, the burden of helping them move on through a successful final exam.  Did I fail?  How many would be notified that they hadn't made the cut and so could not move on?  When the last paper was turned in and I gathered the files I felt physically drained and a little ill. 

I couldn't sleep that night.  It was too late to grade papers and I was too emotionally charged to be objective.  I finally put myself to sleep after midnight with a healthy dose of brandy and NCIS.  I was back up at the crack of dawn and on my way to the faculty resource room where I would grade the essays, have them reviewed by the Assistant Dean, and enter final grades on the omputer system. 

The essays were surprising good.  Some were so good, as a matter of fact, that the Assistant Dean looked up at one point and asked, "And you're absolutely sure they wrote these themselves?  There was no way to cheat?" 

"No way,"  I told her with absolute confidence.  I outlined the process with her and she agreed that they had to have been written by the students.

There were funny errors -- a sudden move to past perfect by a student who struggled with tenses, a couple of run-on sentences from another student who had struggled with fragments and articles placed in front of every noun, whether it was needed or not, by the man from India.  And there were essays that brought tears from the woman whose husband had told her she couldn't pass the class and the man from Albania.  Beautiful, heart felt essays written in correct form and order, one after the other, making me proud, relieved, humble and happy. 

I started out with nineteen students.  Three withdrew without ever coming to class, three tested out and moved up to Composiiton at the beginning of the term, two were withdrawn by me for missing too many classes, and that left twenlve.   Out of those twelve, eleven passed.  Two finished with High Pass, indicating their work was above and beyond what was required. The Assistant Dean and two other more experienced English instructors debated about the essay by the student from India and finally determined that he had to be recommended for an ESL class.  I am happy to say that that decision wasn't unanimous.  I was present when one of the instructors argued that he had met the requirements and should be allowed to move up.  The Assistant Dean insisted, probably correctly, that to pass him at this level without an ESL class was setting him up for failure in Composition I. 

As I entered their final grades on the computer, I envisioned every face, every sigh of relief, every exclamation of excitement. By the time I left Delaware County Community College and headed home I was jubilant.  I was a teacher!  I was successful!  That final exam was a test for me as much as it was a test for the students taking it.  The burden that I had been carrying fell from my shoulders with a nearly audible "thunk."  I was validated.  I wasn't a failure. Most importantly, I hadn't let those wonderful people down -- the ones who had put their trust in me to teach them what they needed to know.

I will teach other classes.  I will have students who don't care, who don't try, who don't throw everything into their work and who choose not to learn.  This group of people who came together in my classroom was a blessing.  As much as they were afraid they couldn't learn and were determined they would, I was afraid I couldn't teach and determined I would.  We helped each other move on.  When they passed, I passed.  We rejoiced together.  I will be forever grateful.