Guest Post, Caroline Chavatel: Dear Voices of Resistance

TwitterOn February 14th, 2018 when news of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting broke, my immediate reaction wasn’t to continually check the updates or to phone a loved one. I cried. And then I logged onto Twitter. And why? Because I’m a good millennial. But, more seriously, because whenever tragedy strikes, my Twitter feed fills with poems to cope, poems on the subject matter, and poems from victims, both current and previous. Through this work, I’m able to transcend the current context and feel hopeful about what might come from this, whatever this may be. The possibility for art within spaces of tragedy becomes clear and, on some level, we are just trying to make it through—some more so than others.

Just recently I had a conversation at a dinner party with friends who expressed their dislike of Twitter. I felt—well—personally attacked. Okay, okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but it did later make me consider the strong visceral reaction I had to their statements about the site. They communicated the uselessness of it and I raised my voice and crossed my arms. I called bullshit and felt myself clenching my teeth, trying to swallow the rising fuck off. I then went silent as if in childish cold-shoulder protest. What do you mean you hate Twitter? How? When did this start? Why?

Why did I urgently feel this need to come to Twitter’s defense? As I reflect, I suppose I did, and do, understand where they were coming from. In the past, Twitter has actually sat idle and permitted my own harassment. I’ve seen them remove photos of female menstruation and breastfeeding but happily conserve racist threats. I’ve seen teenagers be told to end their lives from total strangers. I’ve seen transphobic hate speech. Twitter does, after all, actively contain and maintain the same evils of performativity and trolling present in most social media.

The day after that dinner disagreement, I felt uneasy. embarrassed—Was my reaction too strong? What did it really matter? So, I decided to consult the Internet. I found Maya Kosoff’s piece in Vanity Fair, “Just An Ass-Backward Tech Company”: How Twitter Lost The Internet War,” which detailed the vast complications of Twitter, the violence committed regularly on the site, and what’s been done (or rather, not done) about it. Comedian and SNL repertory player Leslie Jones essentially got chased off by a bunch of white nationalist trolls’ racist vitriol surrounding her part in the most recent Ghostbusters film. At any moment scrolling through comments one might see someone receive anything from sexually violent threats to unsolicited dieting advice. Maybe I did over-react in my own quick confrontation? After years of objections of the continued abuse on the app, Twitter higher-ups countered with increasing the character count per tweet, essentially giving trolls more space per post to utter their hatred and ignorance. The site often officially verifies self-proclaimed Nazis and repeatedly ignores hate speech. Sigh. Still, I couldn’t rationalize the incredulous reaction I had to their opposition of Twitter in that moment. It was as if they had insulted my own livelihood and hadn’t just critiqued an app I use.

Perhaps I responded as I did because like so many other poets and writers I know, I rely on Twitter to feel supported and occasionally revived in the never-ending hellscape of the Trump presidency. I’m often greeted with screenshots and shared links of reminders of what other artists are putting out into the world. And, when I’m feeling dissatisfied with my own writing, teaching, reading, and the chaos of Everyday Life—I suddenly feel as though it’s possible to create within structures that are regularly seeking to obstruct artistic consumption and production. I am living in a kind of echo chamber—one that celebrates art and good humor, social justice and reproductive rights, underrepresented voices, tiny political wins and killer line breaks. It’s the same echo chamber that made the news of a 2016 Republican victory even more alarming because I couldn’t have possibly predicted it given the material I had come to expect in my feed that essentially just agreed or aligned with my own interpretations and outlooks. As someone I know always says: It’s dialectical.

I’ve cultivated a feed I look forward to logging in to—poets, writers, artists, comedians, left-leaning politician and activists—and these voices reassure me, daily, that EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY. They write, resist, post, repeat. Those friends had made claims that Twitter was where their peers and non-peers alike used the platform to perform or push agendas. But I frequently log onto praise and promotion, publicity and appreciation, shouting-from-the-rooftop excitement toward and of my comrades’ art. And this, I now realize, isn’t something inherently virtuous about Twitter itself—au contraire. I have no doubt that these poets and writers, artists and activists, would and could carve out these spaces anywhere they needed to.

And this is all to say: I get it. I also resent the site’s lack of acknowledgement of its own severe harms. I now realize that when I jumped to Twitter’s defense, I was actually defending the artists and writers I feel I’ve come to know and not defending the site itself. Twitter is, at large, often painful. But, for some of us, it’s a means of day-to-day survival. I now realize I had been conflating the online apparatus with all the voices, known and unknown, who greet me daily in my feed. I am thankful for those who make it all less painful and cultivate online presences that encourage, promote, and shape positive artistic discourses. Dear voices of resistance, I’m so thankful for you.

 

Guest Post, C.A. Schaefer: Waiting

I am good at waiting. Good in the sense that waiting could be my vocation. Like a professional mourner, I am skilled at hollowing out all but the most immediate demands of body and mind and instead substituting performance. Waiting demands that I occupy myself with small and useless tasks in order to perform busy-ness. I am a body in the chair until a body can be made useful, and speak.

Waiting is part of the in-between that Charles Baxter describes in his essay on stillness. He describes the amorphous space of nothing as being shaped by the action that frames it. The scenes of talking in Pulp Fiction, he says, are rendered possible by the violence that punctuates them. A hallway is only a hallway because of where it begins and ends. When we turn our lives into narrative we choose the beginnings and the ends to describe, those landmark points where action occurs. But such a description is possible only afterward, and not during.

When I am waiting I am concerned about time. The time bleeds away from the waiting body, dissolving harmlessly into no time at all. It flows along with the second hand until I am no longer conscious of every moment. When waiting, there could be no time at all. Except there is still the time of the body: processing, transforming, synthesizing food into calories, energy to the cells, nutrients to the bloodstream, awakening acid. Eventually the body calls us away from waiting, away from the book, to attend to its relentless needs.

Lately I have spent some time in emergency rooms and hospitals, not as a patient but as an observer. Family. Are you sisters? They always ask. Sometimes I just say no. Sometimes I say I’m her wife, at which point they straighten, either apologetic or embarrassed for us both.

As with so many emergency room visits, the reason for arriving was not immediately clear. It was, perhaps, an abscess, a post-surgical complication; it might have been infection, or perhaps a ruptured endometrioma. The last ER visit was prolonged. I was attentive to the beginning (3:30 a.m.) and the end (8:30 p.m., upon transfer to a neighboring hospital). I called family. I texted friends. I researched. Mostly I waited.

Afterward, I would try to arrange my thoughts into a narrative, a cohesive order, but they became jumbled, unwieldy. Pain and the attempts to quantify it. I pull Allie Brosh’s webcomic on pain scale for the nurse to laugh at: are you being mauled by a bear? A list of pills taken at different times over the past 24 hours. Calling the resident, waiting for a call back. Receiving blessing to drive ten minutes to the emergency room. Waiting, and waiting. Waiting. The CT scan. Waiting. The chest X-ray, performed for reasons never articulated. The surgical team on the trauma floor, too busy to visit us. The latte at Starbucks that burned my tongue. I wait. I wait. The ultrasound. I wait. My wife, alternately drugged and in pain and vomiting, enters into an experience of time that operates not as a blank spot in her memory, but a nebulous area from which nothing can be retrieved. Her brain is exhausted, but mine is endlessly awake, bright and anxious.

Later, when I describe this, I sketch out the shapes using the principles of narrative events. Time as a framing device: we arrive at this time, we depart at that one. Here is the ordering of medical tests, here is the progression of doctors that come to speak with us, each with their own theories. Here is the eventual decision, which will be revealed to be the correct one. Here is the transfer, the journey, the movement to another space.

We know, of course, how artificial this construction of narrative is. This is not how time is experienced—this is the mind telling the story of memory until it’s believed. When I tell the story, I may pause for some of Baxter’s stillness, some of my waiting. I may describe the expensive glossy magazine I bought that held pictures of even more expensive clothes within. My disgust at the magazine’s smooth, poreless bodies within that refused to tell the story of the body as I was experiencing it, my butt going numb in the ER chair, the EMT snapping on blue gloves before touching my wife’s skin, the endless presence of the translucent green vomit bags with the hard plastic ring to clutch at the top. Oxygen saturation at 83-90-96-99 (the last only with the slippery cannula wound behind her ears). Thick slices of cheddar cheese on the sandwich I finish, in spite of a vague feeling that I should be unable to eat. But these details, too, eventually become framing posts. Pauses in the hallway to mark the progress I’m taking. Again, it becomes the story of a story, a memory that builds order out of fear and anxious watching.

Here is what I remember from those hours: the idea that I needed to hold past and present and future together in my mind. I might be helpless in the passage of time, but I needed to hold the future. Conceptualizing what might happen as important as what was happening.

I think about Choose Your Own Adventure books, where the wrong flip to page 32 would guarantee your death. I was an anxious child who kept one finger hooked on the previous page. I knew, vaguely, that this was cheating. I also did not care. These books provided reassurance that life did not.

This is what Borges understood in “The Garden of Forking Paths;” all possibilities are equally likely, and we have an infinite number of choices before us. I think about Borges while I wait. I imagine different futures. One in which this was proven to be nothing; one in which it was an infection; one in which it was an obstruction; one that required immediate surgery; one that indicated cancer. Even the impossible future, the one in which everything continues to go more and more wrong, and I am ushered out of the waiting room, to wait to become or not become bereft, is present. If I believe in the theory of many worlds, all these things do happen. Somewhere, I am broken; somewhere, I do not write this because this did not happen at all; somewhere I am not married to my wife; somewhere I do not write at all. Somewhere I am no longer.

These did not happen. My wife went home, eventually. The crisis eased. But the possibilities remain. Waiting is constructed not only by beginning and end, but what each of those could be. I fantasize about things breaking in the way that they do on television, when the action on screen suddenly is suspended and then rewinds. Players rotate back to their starting positions. Broken objects reassemble themselves. Relationships are repaired. Maybe it’s simply anxiety: if I imagine the worst, fate will not see fit to surprise me with it (she’s already done that, things can work out now). It’s the worst kind of magical thinking, because I suffer for it. These imaginings are, in their own way, as real as what occurs.

Time passes. Choices are made, or made for us, by the body. Even if I write this story as a Choose Your Own Adventure or its literary, hypertextual alternative, I am still limited by the body, by my ability to write and choose, by how many infinite alternatives I can conceptualize, by how many times a reader can make a choice. But the ghosts of those choices haunt every story. They inform the decisions that we do make, those things that we did not write but that we imagined. Those traces can surface in a narrative, sometimes in an errant thought in a character’s consciousness, or as a potent description that hints at a possibility. They can nod to the glorious untidiness of our minds. If and might and could, all those conditionals, remind us of how perception and imagination are sometimes inseparable, and that what might have happened is as potent as what did.

Guest Post, Sharon Horne: Leap of Faith

She said it would be easy. She promised I would love it. I did not.

My daughter, newly ten-years old, stood on the ropes course platform across from me in a red helmet, the green of the forest swirling behind her. Between us was a long row of wooden pegs dangling from ropes. For this part of the adventure course, I needed to cross on the wobbly wood and reach the rope on the other side. I looked across at her, twenty feet across. Eden gave me an encouraging smile and a thumbs up.

I put my foot out on the first peg. I hadn’t expected the peg to move like water, and flip upside down, leaving my foot dangling in the air. Gripping the ropes above me, my other foot followed suit and also found itself air borne. The next thing I knew, I was hanging from my harness like a suspended cargo container, staring up at the bottom of the pegs and the tears collecting on Eden’s reddening face.

A bushy bearded forest millennial came to my rescue and eased me down. “This challenge gets people—happens all the time,” he empathized, as he lowered me to the ground.

Eden met me at the base of the course. By then, she had stopped crying.

The areas of my body that had been suspended near the harness were starting to burn and throb. I was thinking of the peaceful picnic table in the grove of trees and the trail mix we had packed. “I’m sorry, hon,” I said. “That was really hard. I think you’ll have to go on without me.”

Her face crumpled. “No, I can’t. You have to try again.” She looked away from me, her face a mixture of disappointment, embarrassment, and concern. “You can’t give up.” Her voice was now steady, direct, and frankly, maternal. “You just have to try it again.”

This, of course, was my mantra to deliver, not hers. I was the one who coaxed and encouraged, who knew how to persuade.

I looked at the ground, shuffled my feet, and tried to move my shoulders. “I don’t know that I can, Popeye,” I said. “I really don’t think I can.” The truth is I really didn’t know if I physically could get through another fall, let alone survive the humiliation of another rescue.

Her arms were crossed, her hazel eyes unwavering in their gaze. “You can.”

I shook my head. I let out a long breath of resignation. Kicking the wood chips, I muttered, “I’ll try it. One more time. I can’t promise that I’ll finish though. Okay?”

She nodded. A slight smile emerged at the corners of her mouth.

We climbed the start wall of the course again. At the top, I asked a guide what I needed to know about the pegs. He chopped the back of one hand into the space between his pointer finger and thumb to show how people sometimes wedged their feet in between the peg and the rope for balance. My feet hurt just watching his demonstration.

Eden nimbly raced across the pegs and shouted, “You can do it.”

I stuck my foot in between the first peg and its rope and tried not to show the pain shooting through my ankle. I braced, looked down the row of pegs, and wedged a foot alongside each, one stinging step after another. At the end, I pulled myself up beside her and fell on Eden’s small frame in relief. She held on to my arms to steady me.

Then she divulged that the saddle was the next obstacle. The saddle that someone had to hold for you in order for you to even climb on, then fly over a deep ravine, balanced on two ropes, and hope you slid close enough to the dangling rope at the end to pull yourself to the platform on the other side. If not, you sat loose on a saddle hundreds of feet above the mountain stream.

Again, my daughter waited patiently for me. I reached for the rope and grasped it just as I felt the saddle moving backwards. I pulled myself to the safety of a narrow shaky platform held together with a few nails. Everything is relative.

Next was a rope ladder that you had to let go of with your hands in order to reach the higher section that moved to the next level. There were more pegs, slats, and skinny shaky boards. There was a skateboard in the sky between two trees with one rope to hold for balance. For each challenge, I followed Eden’s steady climb. She waited, without complaint, for me to catch up at each landing, carabiner secured, hand on her hip. “Way to go, Mommy!” she said after each challenge.

No one told me that it would end with a leap off a 40-foot platform. With nothing to hold on to. All the way to the ground. Just faith that the harness would catch on the way down and slow you down just before you slammed into the jagged forest floor. Along the way I had heard other climbers murmuring about the “leap of faith.” I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Then I knew. I stood at the top hugging the tree trunk, considering what it would take to get a ladder truck up the mountain. I wondered how long this might take and how much this would cost. I looked back, weighing whether I could go backward through all the challenges. Then I looked at my young daughter on the ground, her helmet a small red ball. Strong, confident, anticipating. Already becoming the person I would someday have to learn to depend upon.

I gripped my harness.

She waved to me. “You can do it, Mommy!”

I jumped.

Guest Post, Anne Barngrover: Self-Care as Vengeful Web Comic

Three years ago, my artist friend Heather and I created a secret web comic to mock the outlandish behavior of men. Officially its purpose was to call out “woke” male academics who gain social capital by posing as allies online while still treating women like dirt in their everyday lives. Rather than introducing a whole new cast of characters for each situation, our comic stars Chad T. Brooks, a floppy-haired amalgam of your basic late-twenty-something bro-ets (that’s bro-poets for those who are unaware).

Don’t let his self-assured, corn-fed looks fool you, though: Chad isn’t like the other guys. He’s a nice guy. He’s sensitive! He’s down for the cause! Or, at least he did purchase a ten-dollar Hillary mug after it was clear that Bernie had lost the Primaries, and he’ll perform a soliloquy on the exact moment his allegiance shifted while letting his hand linger (in a totally platonic, perhaps almost protective way) on the small of your back. Without a doubt, Chad T. Brooks is “the noblest white dude you know.”

He’s a Slytherin in Hufflepuff’s clothing, a run-of-the-mill misogynist in a pink pussy hat who’s marching (for the ‘gram) with a “Believe Women” sign. In our current #MeToo era, we’ve had Chad’s number for a while now, and it seems like the rest of the world is finally catching up to what we women have known all along: The number of feminist articles a man posts is in direct proportion to the miles you should run away.

“Keepin’ It Chad” is our attempt to balance the scales. Our comic is the most joyful, petty, reckless, silly, and emboldening thing that I do—or, rather, that we do, Heather and me, together. The collaboration is what makes it fun and what makes it powerful.

Our creative partnership began with simple storytelling about a year after we became friends. I would vent to Heather about the sexist microaggressions I experienced in the academic and writing worlds, and she’d sketch them out on scratch paper, complete with conversation bubbles and puns, to make me feel better. That was always our initial endeavor in both the stories I told her and the sketches she drew for me—to make each other laugh.

And there was power in that laughter. Suddenly, this annoying or even hurtful thing that had just happened to me didn’t sting quite so much. I was no longer the one being used or condescended to or ignored. I was no longer the butt of the joke.

Instead, we literally designed the perpetrator to be ridiculous. As the comic matured, we drew on our shared love for hyperbole and absurdism: Chad combusts in a puff of smoke because he can’t figure out if he should shake a woman’s hand or hug her. A mini Chad in a top hat and waistcoat pops out of a phone screen like Jiminy Cricket and squeaks, “But Pence could be worse!” Chad blasts himself out of a canon, declaring “Not all men!” as he flares across the sky. We created these images. Rather than being passive, we were active. With our words and minds and pen, we were the ones in charge now.

This role reversal got us thinking about how humor can function, not to downplay gender-related oppression, but to brandish as a weapon for our empowerment and survival. Of course, drawing a farcical comic and writing a clever caption cannot undo the real difficulty that inspired it or change the systems of oppression that allow Chads to exist in the first place. But, at the very least, our use of satire could illuminate a possible force to overcome paralyzing despair. Humorous rhetoric could work as both a lantern and a sword to reclaim our narrative authority.

After the 2016 election, “Keepin’ It Chad” is no longer a secret. We display it proudly on keepinitchad.tumblr.com, and it will soon exist as the website keepinitchad.com as we develop it further. Even with its more public presence, though, we reject the goal of trying to reach out and reform others. Educating the Chads of the world is not our intention. We as women perform far too much emotional labor every day to expect our humorous outlet to undo years of deeply ingrained sexism and misogyny.

Alternatively, we view our comic as a resource to embolden other women with internal fortitude. We can let them know they’re not alone and that the reductive and hurtful things these men say and do to them are not isolated incidents but rather ongoing patterns of sexist behavior. In fact, the most rewarding aspect of our project is the community we’ve built along the way. Both newcomers and longtime female friends have approached us with saying, “So, this happened to me…” and then we have the privilege and challenge of flipping the script to turn their perpetrators into the ones who are actually ignorant and foolish, not the women themselves.

The best part is that we get to make our friends laugh. A narrative that once caused irritation, frustration, or pain can now burn like a talisman in their chests. Sometimes resistance is as simple as changing the direction of one small story. Sometimes it’s transforming the way you feel in your own body—that subtle yet remarkable shift from passivity to action. Collaborative storytelling and humor can perform this kind of alchemy. Let’s work to keep that magic aflame.

Guest Post, Jenny Ferguson: On Facing Rejection

A particular kind of rejection exists, and while all rejection burns at some level there’s a point in a writer’s life when the people they have surrounded themselves with, their community and their friends and their rivals and their lovers, start to rise on stars so fast and brightly sharp, that rejection for this writer who has been left behind, down here on the earth, becomes something new, something beyond.

I’d like to try to characterize that kind of rejection here, so we can better understand it. So we can better learn to live with it.

***

We wanted to let you know that it made it further in our reading than many submissions do and though we won’t be publishing it at this time, we do hope that you’ll send us work again.

This thing I’ve created, boiled down to it, it, it, a compliment that bee stings. I’m only a little allergic, only want to take a little Benadryl nap.

***

Oh my gosh this is so strange—I was just writing you a long response to your piece! Well, congratulations! I’m glad it’ll be in print. Can you tell me where? Two of my reviewers who read it were very enthusiastic and I know would like to be able to see it.

In a recent job interview, I was asked about my dream publications and presses. I tried to explain to these lovely people—generous and kind writers and thinkers themselves, people who understand both the academic job market and the world of publishing thoroughly—that in my life as a professional writer I was smacking my forehead repeatedly against a maybe metaphorical, maybe not, ceiling. In the Dean’s conference room, I used my hands and gestured a lot, trying to indicate that my career as a writer is full of possibilities. My gestures were supposed to say something like, Given time, I’ll find new ceilings to smash.

But maybe I’m not hitting this maybe metaphorical, maybe not, ceiling right now at all. If I were, I should be breaking through—simply by force of repetitive strain against metaphor, against a hard surface. Instead, I’m collecting rejection notices, collecting new writerly scars.

But that voice, it’s rejection doubt, slimy like the crap left in my lungs since H3N2 took me down two weeks ago. As creators, we need to learn to hear that voice for what it is, for what it does to our minds and hearts—and our art.

Perhaps, the original metaphor stands. I’m close, tapping at the plaster, forming hairline fractures I know exist only because of the dust I find in my teeth and hair.

***

I got a chance to read into this today, and while it’s a really strong project (truly, I think you’re such a talented writer!), I’m afraid it’s not a perfect fit for me. That said, I think someone else is going to snap you up with this one. But if that’s not the case, please do keep trying me! I continue to feel very confident that there’s success in your future.

Gritty chalk like substance on my tongue. And it doesn’t matter how much water I drink, how many times I brush my teeth, it binds, invisible.

Form rejections hurt. Because someone pressed a button. Someone clicked decline or nope or not-for-us-at-this-time or haha-they-thought-they-were-good-enough. And that click, it didn’t take much time on the part of the clicker. It happens. And then, for the clicker it’s over.

For the writer, it’s a new email notification after an already too hard day. Or it’s three rejections in a row. Or it’s a week of rejections. Or it’s the flu and one really painful slap to your writer’s heart.

But I’ve digressed…

***

This other kind of rejection is personal. It’s personalized. It’s a balm meant for that soon-to-be-wound. Words we’re supposed to cherish, to pin up on our walls or Pinterest boards, to ease the pain of this hurt—and the ones to come.

But maybe we’ve never talked about how that balm is salt, how salt grates against raw skin, how the burn travels on neurons, lingers, stays, imprints on a part of us that’s critical to the art we practice, how salt kills grass.

Maybe we’ve never talked about how kindness can be unkind.

As practicing writers we will always be rejected. It will never stop. Editors and readers and agents and bookstore clerks who don’t believe you’re the person who wrote the book you’re asking if you can autograph. Even TwitterBots will reject us. That’s a simple fact of what we face as writers.

As humans we will always be rejected. Learning how to process it is part of learning how to live. The moment we think we’ve found the last ceiling, the moment we stop learning, stop hurting, stop bouncing back, stop trying to get rejected, the moment these things happen I believe we’re no longer alive.

Rejection is the litmus test. Around my writer’s desk, metaphorically of course, you’ll find little strips of used filter paper stained by water-soluble dye made from lichens. Around your space, I hope you find this too and recognize the beat of your heart, the oxygen that animates what you are in this life.

Guest Post, Barrett Warner: My Memoir for a Plot

I’m not the first poet to write memoir, but I’m probably the worst. I loved it anyway. There’s no hiking involved, and no drinking in the whole world with a sip. And it saves a lot of time by living each page rather than doing any research.

In poetry, my cat-like imagination tends to run into other rooms for no reason so it was nice not to worry about invention. And while a novel might require heart to write, all I needed for memoir was a walnut desk, and a small bronze sculpture of a nude man to hold the paper down on breezy days.

It took surprisingly long to write and re-write a ten month snap of my Tuberculosis. Like: 45 minute conversation about a 25 minute version of a 5 minute Phish song.

I went to the mirror to look at myself. I’d aged since beginning it. In writing almost exclusively about my body in 2013, I had neglected small details about my current portrait. I no longer resembled the bronzed man sitting so pensively on my desk. Was it true that you could sand blast wrinkles away? My soccer ball didn’t reply.

My publisher had asked for a book of poems. “Beautiful memoir,” he wrote, “But it’s so inscrutable. The problem is that there’s no plot. The narrative of your life is not the same thing as plot. What about a few scenes outside of the hospital? Maybe a train or two?”

I joined a vibration society. The salon had sixteen tables and each one vibrated a different part of your body. It was a caper to crank the timer and start the vibration before settling in, but I eventually grew fond of the slight nausea. Early afternoons were excellent for vertigo, before the after-work crowd came to jiggle. Still, it was nothing like an actual train. Last month, one had derailed about two hours away, in Columbia.

My memoir was full of seductive ache and longing, and horrible mortality, and impossible love, but without any plot—without any hiking into some dark wood—it was just a bar story. The set-up was the climax, which might be OK if I were Li Po drinking the moon.

The nearest passenger train depot was 25 miles outside town. The train passed at one in the morning. In spite of my florid disguise, I was spotted by a fiction writer as I boarded the regional train bound for Norfolk. “Barrett,” Mr. Yoon said. “This train is only for short story writers.”

“How short is short?” I asked, offering him a taste of my subject-verb-direct object sandwich with its plain spoken tomato.

The easy part about poetry is that you don’t have to show character motivation, a definite downer as far as writing prose. You just put a man on a train. He has two packages and he’s wearing eye glasses which he doesn’t really need. You don’t even have to say whether he’s stopping in Norfolk or changing trains to Richmond.

I blushed up each step to the garret studio off Broad Street. “I was sure you had died,” the artist said. I offered him the packages and accepted a drink. I walked around the studio blinking at the works in progress and taking my clothes off as if I were going to change into something else, but I didn’t change into anything. He reached for a stick of charcoal and rattled out a few coughs. I turned. I shifted my arms. I looked past him into wilderness.

Guest Post, Karin Rosman: A Place to Avoid

When I was in grade school, I learned a couple of important tips to surviving middle school. One was to keep your mouth shut if it didn’t involve you. The other— really, there is no need to bring up the other because it paled in comparison. For example, I no longer need to know how to make an ice ball to fight back, or how to conceal rocks in my pocket, or how to kick if I’m attacked while lying on my back. It took me decades, but I eventually learned how to avoid trouble.

But sometimes I still can’t keep my mouth shut, even if it doesn’t involve me. Now that I work as a substitute teacher in the Seattle and greater Seattle area, and now that I have seen the incredible income disparity between schools, now that I can say what I witnessed has a lot to do with race, I’d like to tell you something others have already been shouting. When it comes to schooling our kids, middle income parents in America have a bad habit of putting our own kids first, and we do this at the expense of students of color.

I spent three nonconsecutive days in one of Seattle’s worst performing schools. I’m not going to name it because the students don’t deserve the school’s label, and it’s my experience with parents in Seattle that they will label a school as a place to avoid, and not do enough to address the reasons they are avoiding it. I’ll nickname it Wallace, after that amazing writer who, it seemed to me, couldn’t sit still with his own intelligence. The base statistics of Wallace speak clearly: 61% of the students receive free lunch, 73% of the students are of color, 30% of fifth graders are passing assessment tests of English Language Arts, 21% of fifth graders are passing assessment tests of math, 24% of the fifth graders are English Language Learners. There is a steady decline in assessment tests from third to fifth grade, as if the kids are tumbling down a kite hill.

Wallace is a school that parents will spend a lot of money to avoid. It exists in a wealthy and hip (liberal) neighborhood but does not reflect the general population of that neighborhood. When I’m in Wallace and speak to the students, I have the sense that it works as a funnel, drawing similar students from various neighborhoods around the region, from as far away as Everett, nearly thirty miles away. I know from reading news reports there is a significant homeless population attending this school, and these students are also served by an organization providing shelter and housing services.

What I experienced as a substitute teacher at Wallace was complex and not easily described in a handful of words. On the first day, soon after we had ninety minutes of incident-free explicit instruction and practice, one student slighted another in such a careful way that I could not hear the insult. Before I could draw a breath to ask them to line up for recess, they were circling each other, kicking with so much magnetism half the class was pulled into their fight. The other half sat in miserable ineffective frustration. I put everyone in order by leveraging recess time. After pulling the two fighting students aside to take to the office, I walked the students partway then released the rest with a to-myself-prayer: please walk the halls quietly and without the ramped-up energy you showed in the classroom. I worried they would re-embroil themselves into another slight and fight unattended in the halls. My faith in these students was secure. They went to recess where the normal rivalries—and there were plenty—played out on the field.

On another day, as I assisted a teacher in the classroom, a small whiteboard fell off its easel. There were only eleven students tackling the math lesson, and six ran out of the classroom in a post-traumatic stress panic. One openly exclaimed he thought it was a gunshot. Though he sat in his seat and reapplied himself, his panic was evident in the way his feet and eyes didn’t stop moving.

These two experiences are not irregular at Wallace, and I found it difficult to teach content over behavior, despite my strong belief that every child should have access to grade-standard material. But, as is evident in students who are succeeding there, teachers at Wallace structure their day around grade standards and benchmarks, leveraging as much learning from students who want to learn but have bigger things on their minds. In the class I subbed for, the students had pulled their reading two levels higher than at the beginning of the year. They were approaching grade standard. Their fight had less to do with the slight than with the insecurity of being with a substitute they didn’t know, someone who might believe the statistics over their drive to do better.

These kids don’t deserve the home lives they have, and by that I don’t mean the parenting. Yes, there are some bad parents; but I’ve seen bad parenting in the school my son goes to. I’ve also seen great parenting at the food bank I volunteer in. Income or race doesn’t drive parenting skills, but being continuously impoverished drives desperation. Living in a community that is constantly impoverished increases the examples of desperation. What is normal for them is a state of hyper-alertness, like the boy who ran out of the classroom. If it isn’t a state of hyper-alertness, it can be a state of complacency about one’s own situation, like the children who sat waiting for me to teach them. What else can they do?

These kids deserve communities that can help them. If I, as a mother, thoroughly foul up and go on a drug or alcohol bender because my investment portfolio fails (this is purely theoretical, my benders usually involve binging on books in the summertime), my son is still surrounded by better behavior from those whose immediate needs are taken care of. That’s because in my income community, we may lose our jobs and have to cut back on cello lessons, horseback riding, or biking gear, but we will eat food we choose, and we probably won’t have to give up our homes (and if we do, we’ll find an adequate little place and turn down the heat). We have time to spend with our children (rather than take on two to three jobs) and average our personal errors with reflection and better practices. If we lose our jobs, many of us have a sweet compensation package—or in my case, decent spousal support—to help us get through tough life transitions. It’s not that we never feel overwhelmed or experience personal difficulties, it’s that we aren’t continuously overwhelmed, and our personal difficulties don’t expose us to violence or the continuous threat of violence. When we experience a crisis, we can come back to a common place—game night, reading night, movie night—and not worry that the neighbor in room 12B will interrupt it with drug-induced hysteria.

These kids don’t deserve the school they go to. No matter our income, no matter where our kids attend school (and I know this doesn’t happen just in Seattle), Wallace is our problem. We are irresponsible when we push so many kids into a school where what is normal is a constant struggle for survival. And then we have the nerve to call these kids underachieving. More than a few kids at Wallace will steal their teacher’s lunch. They may have free lunch, they may have free breakfast, but it has all the nourishment that you can expect from sugar and fried breaded bits of whatever, which means they are hungry for more before school gets out, and many of them don’t know if they will have supper. Normal shouldn’t be this, or any version close to it.

In nearly every class I substitute in, there is one to four students who cannot sit comfortably for more than a few minutes. Various measures are taken to help these students learn; and when the teacher is particularly skilled, the other students carry on with their learning in a way that acknowledges the student but not the behavior. The students who can’t sit still are carried in the learning current, and bring their own swift thought. In all classrooms, students learn and they teach each other. It’s marvelous to witness and be involved in, but particularly so where we don’t choose the cohort based on academic ability and life privileges. The demographics of poverty, homelessness, and trauma should not overwhelm a school in the way it overwhelms Wallace. This should not be their norm.

Students’ brains at this age have incredibly plasticity, meaning they are adaptive; and their experiences have a profound impact on the rest of their lives. We must ask what they are adapting to, and what they will carry with them on their life journeys. Morally, that means we should ensure a quality education in a safe environment for all students. We should not separate students with difficult life circumstances from students who experience daily secure social interactions. My son should know the grit of that boy who returned to his seat after his body kept telling him a shot was fired. Every child deserves a fair chance at a normal education, no matter her life-circumstances.