A Reflection on Identity

In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.

Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.

Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.

My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?

Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.

In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.

Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.

At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.

Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.

There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.

Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.

Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.

MomNoises?

Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.

My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.

My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.

As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.

You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.

The (bird)shit hit the fan.

I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )

I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.

Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.

Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .

Why couldn’t I be more like . . .

Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.

Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.

I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.

*This name has been changed.

Review: The Paris Architect

Note: This post was originally posted on my school blog, which is just a sample site that I post on infrequently as I guide my students through their own blogging processes.¬†These words are mine. Promise. ūüôā

As an avid reader of WWII fiction, I was excited to discover The Paris Architect by author Charles Belfoure. The concept was appealing immediately: a Parisian architect, Lucien, is out of work in Nazi-occupied France and desperate for some cash. When he is approached by a fellow Frenchman with a daunting request: Will Lucien design a hiding place for a Jew within the confines of an already-constructed building?

Lucien’s self-serving nature is appealed to when his French contractor, Manet, also approaches Lucien with several jobs building armaments facilities and warehouses throughout Paris for the Nazi regime. Although Lucien is conflicted about working for the enemy (and is certainly fearful of being “found out” by the Gestapo for aiding Jews), he agrees to both jobs — the hiding place and the warehouse — on the basis of survival. He has one condition, though: Only one hiding place for Manet. No others.

As the novel progresses, Lucien’s morals are called into question on a number of occasions as he grapples with what it means to be human in a city and era dictated by monsters. Tensions rise as lives are put at risk and the Nazi regime’s chokehold grip tightens around the people of Paris.

The Good: This story was compelling and fresh. While the moral dilemmas of Nazi collaboration and fugitive hiding have certainly been broached by writers of WW2 fiction, Belfoure put an intriguing spin on the topic with his use of an architect as the main character. Indeed, in the epilogue of the book, the author notes that he actually borrowed the concept of priest holes from the 16th Century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England and persecuted those of the Catholic persuasion. This marriage of historic events created an engaging plot.

The Not-So-Good: Writing felt sluggish and forced in several places, especially during character dialogue. I marveled at this for a bit, given the fact that this book had garnered so much hype from reading circles that I am privy to; but upon reading the author’s bio, I discovered the writer is a historian with extensive knowledge in architecture. While his background contributed to the intriguing premise of the novel, the writing felt clunky throughout.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Worth a read (the story is both quick and interesting), but not necessarily a text that will stick with you forever.

2016: Year in Review

It’s just like me to have every intent of writing a “year in review” post at the start of January . . . but fail to actually write said post until the near-end of January. (In my defense, I’ve thought about this post often. It’s been at the top of my weekly to-do list in my planner for three weeks now.)

Normally, I’m not sure that I would write a review post about my year; after all, my life isn’t really that significant to anyone other than my family members and closest friends. However, as the year came to a remarkably negative and divisive end, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were riddled with posts and blog articles about just how terrible 2016 had been. “The Worst,” in fact, judging by the majority of articles, statuses, and tweets I stumbled upon.

Y’all, I’m one of the most negative people I know — my middle name should really be changed to Chief Pessimist — but I was blown away by the negativity that had clogged my social media feeds like a massive, undesirable wad of hair left to its own devices in the depths of the shower.

Call it optimism, call it white privilege, call it whatever you wish: as the year came to a close, despite the political unrest in America, I felt an absence of despair and a renewal of hope. (This would ring true, regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election — I don’t place much stock in political leaders, no matter their leanings.)

Here’s why:

  1. I survived another “first year” of teaching! In August of 2015, I moved from teaching middle school English at a private Catholic school to teaching middle and high school English at a rural public school. Even with two years of experience under my belt, the job still felt overwhelmingly new, as I was teaching new age groups and content for the first time ever. The entire year was an overwhelming blur of anxiety, stress, and insecurity — but in May 2016, it became official. I had survived. (At times, the likelihood of enduring seemed hazy at best.)
  2. I earned a second degree. The day before my first-ever class of seniors graduated from high school, I graduated from FHSU with my Master of Science in Education. After three years of online coursework and “learn as you go” teaching, tears of relief leaked from the corners of my eyes as I crossed the stage at my alma mater and accepted recognition for completing hours of school work with honors.
    9657df14-9d5d-4a43-8486-f1a253683af7

    The last day of school doubled as my graduation date, and these two goofballs desperately wanted to “graduate” with me — so I let them play dress-up. 

  3. My painful encounters with endometriosis were finally diagnosed and addressed by doctors. After several years of excruciating pain and a general sense of depression/fear every month, and several visits to doctors and specialists, I finally gained an answer — and a sense of validation — about the pain I had been led to believe was “normal.” (For more, see this post and this one.)img_4736
  4. I traveled internationally for the first time ever! During the week of Thanksgiving, my family — siblings, significant others, parents, and all — trekked to Puerto Vallarta Mexico and indulged. Big time. We soaked up sweet rays of sunshine, sipped on two-for-one margaritas at Happy Hour, and mocked one another relentlessly (as Simons always do). The week wouldn’t have been possible without my brother and his future wife, Mari, who generously provided access to their time share. Numerous days in the sun were a blessing for me, as the winter months are marked with dark hours of travel to and from my classroom (which lacks exterior windows). I dream of returning one day . . .img_4742
  5. I discovered a workout group in Jetmore, and made a few friends. This was a huge victory for me in 2016. For almost five years, I’ve lived in southwest Kansas and felt so very isolated for most of that time. I mean, husbands are fantastic . . . but a girl needs girlfriends to get by. Sure, I’ve made friends at work (many of whom remain near and dear, though we’ve parted ways professionally), but for almost five years, I lacked any semblance of friendship within my hometown. A local “boot camp” workout group reached out to my husband, I took that tentative first step forward, and have felt lighter and more joyous ever since. The group of women that I work out with are supportive, amusing, and truly a gift from God.
  6. My blogging game got strong(er). Sure, I tapered off there a bit toward the end of 2016; but for the most part, I feel good about the effort that I put into reading and writing consistently over the course of 2016. Naturally, I have much higher ambitions for the coming year . . .
  7. I spent my summer at an adults-only writing camp. For an entire month, I spent my days surrounded by fellow writers/teachers/writing teachers and it was glorious. Although I missed most of harvest and summer days on the four-wheeler with Zack, the opportunity to write and study writing daily felt like a lottery jackpot. Four whole weeks devoted to my greatest passion, riddled with coffee-shop pit-stops, evening field trips to local breweries and chocolatiers, unexplored walking and running paths in a new city; in short, a paradise of sorts.
    3aba8566-cfa8-4411-9c7d-32d565c46259

    Evenings at Mulready’s provided ample people-watching opportunities to inspire writing and, ridiculously enough, sing-alongs inspired by 1960s beer commercials (per the recollections of more seasoned members of the writing troop).

  8. And, of course, last but certainly not least, I became pregnant! Just a few short days after Zack’s birthday in September (and only two months after my endometriosis surgery), it became clear that we two would become three. We kept the secret a bit longer than normal, perhaps, waiting to tell our families until just before our trip to Mexico; but we wanted to be certain that all was healthy and normal. For me, the first few months of pregnancy were marked by extreme fatigue and anxiety. I was certain that I’d miscarry early again; instead of being ecstatic, the first few months were filled with fear and great doubt. I’m 21 weeks along, though, and the doctor says that all is going well within the womb — I’m finally starting to feel confident that my body will do its job this time around.
    img_4988

    20 week bumps with my ornery guy.

So, yeah — 2016 left a lot to be desired on the political spectrum, and our country seems to be on the brink of devouring itself whole, but . . . it wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was mostly good.

I guess it all boils down to perspective.

Review: The Wonder

I first encountered Emma Donoghue’s writing two years ago after a friend recommended I pick up her uncomfortable and riveting novel,¬†Room. I was immediately impressed by this author’s ability to tackle such a sensitive (and disturbing) topic with finesse. When I learned of her newest release,¬†The Wonder, via Book of the Month Club, it was easy to persuade myself to select that novel.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, the novel opens with its main character — no, not the title subject — nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a widow native to England and trained in the science of nursing by the renowned Florence Nightingale. Lib has been sent to Ireland for a two-week job, parameters largely unbeknownst to her. Upon arrival, she discovers she is to be a “warden” of sorts for young Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t partaken of food or drink (other than water) in four months. Locals — and travelers from abroad — believe the young maiden is a miracle, living according to God’s will. After her first day in the poverty-stricken country, Lib is determined to prove the child is a fraud and wash her hands of the scandal before her two weeks are up, if possible.

Initially, Lib harbors feelings of great resentment — for her job assignment, for Anna’s presumed deceptiveness, for the gloomy conditions of Ireland, and for the zealous Catholics she can’t seem to escape. A nonbeliever, Lib finds the impoverished people of Ireland embarrassingly loony for their dependency upon church teachings and traditional Irish folklore. As the days pass, though,¬†she realizes there is more to these people than meets her hawk-like eye. While her watch winds to a close, Lib becomes ensnared in a frenzied race against time that will permanently alter the course of her life.

The Good:¬†The book is told by an outside narrator; but the narrative most closely follows Lib’s experiences and observations, providing readers with more ample insight into the perspective of the oft-irritating main character. Additionally, though the book is deeply rooted in religious themes, the novel never feels preachy or assuming. As a Catholic,¬†I was fascinated to read about a time period in which members of the Church relied so heavily (and often literally) upon the teachings of scripture and priests. I also thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious feel of this story. During the last third of the book, I jumped from one theory to another, trying to determine how Anna’s story would end. I was not disappointed in the outcome of this novel. (Exception: See the last item on my Not-So-Good list.) Finally, The Wonder is a success due to Donoghue’s¬†contrasting characters and their ideals: the relationships between English and Irish, Catholics and non-believers, educated and uneducated, and so forth. Her novel’s greatest strength lies in the conflicts that she’s so craftily woven together.

The Not-So-Good: This book is a very, very slow burn. One might even say it smolders. . . . While I was intrigued by the premise of the story, I had a hard time truly getting into the book until after the first 3 chapters were concluded. This may¬†be, in part, because Lib is such a remarkably stubborn and one-dimensional character for so long. Her stubbornness is key to the story, of course; but the first two-thirds of the book was infuriatingly tedious. Also, on an admittedly nitpicky point, I was irritated by the volume of italicized phrases throughout the novel. Donoghue used italics frequently to emphasize particular ideas or revelations Lib had throughout the book, and these often just ended up feeling cheesy to me. Again: extremely nitpicky, but the excessive italics grated at me like sandpaper. One final “meh” moment: the epilogue of the book. Many laud the (very) end as the one redeeming quality of the narrative; however, I felt the epilogue was too convenient and not altogether necessary. I’m interested to hear how others feel . . .

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Not the most thrilling or engaging read, but an intriguing piece of historical fiction with a worthy conclusion and mysterious vibe.

Review: Final Reads of 2016!

For almost three months, I abstained from reading (and, so it seems, blogging). This wasn’t entirely planned — I was exhausted, bogged down with grading and lesson planning in the thick of the first semester, and entirely uninterested in doing anything in the evening (other than eating and sleeping, of course). When we went on our vacation to Mexico, I was so mentally exhausted from finalizing a major editing project, wrapping up the quarterly publication I edit, and planning for the school days that I’d miss, I couldn’t bring myself to crack one of the three books I’d toted along with me on the expedition.

At first, I felt guilty. Then I was frustrated. And then — I panicked. What if I was burned out on reading altogether? What if I could never bring myself to finish another book again? If you can’t comprehend the fear that these revelations induced, imagine having your dominant arm amputated.

I should have known, though, that something I loved so dearly could never be pushed aside forever. With the advent of Christmas break, my desire to read returned (as did my sanity). Without further ado, I present to you my final reads of 2016:

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. This book felt like a selection-of-obligation. I’d heard of Gaiman, referenced often by other readers and lovers of spectacular literature, but I’d never picked up one of his works. Each mention of his name made my cheeks burn a little brighter with shame. So, when Book of the Month made The Ocean at the End of the Lane an add-on option, I felt a sense of dutiful satisfaction when I added the book to my cart. And let me tell you — this pick was not at all what I expected. For whatever reason, I thought of Gaiman as some sort of contemporary male Jodi Picoult, a writer of the intense complexities of everyday life. I discovered, to my delight, an author with a knack for vivid prose and a captivating imagination. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkably odd and fantastic work that expands on the childhood of a man who has returned home for a funeral. Readers are jerked into the past, along with the unnamed narrator, and sucked into a dark tale of magic, danger, and other worlds. Although this book doesn’t make my top 10 list for the year, I appreciated the beauty of the words in his novel and the nostalgic feelings the story evoked. Mostly, I have conflicting feelings about the work . . . I really admired the author’s diction, but felt “meh” about the story itself. When I was finished, I was left thinking . . . “Okay. Well. That was odd.” That being said, at right around 200 pages, this curious (and brief) book is worth exploring, if you have any interest at all in adult surrealism and fantasy. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
  2. The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon. This work of Young Adult fiction is, in a word, delightful. It’s also a bit heart-wrenching, idealistic, charming, and dramatic . . . but mostly, it’s delightful. Yoon writes the delicately entwined tale of Natasha and Daniel, resident New York teenagers facing very undesirable futures. Natasha, an immigrant of Jamaican parents, faces deportation after her family’s illegal status is revealed via some rather unfortunate circumstances. Daniel, son of Korean immigrants and lifelong resident of the city, is heavily burdened by the academic and professional expectations of his parents (who have already been disappointed by their first born). The book takes readers on a fast-paced one-day journey through the city, alternating between Daniel and Natasha’s viewpoints with short, witty “histories” of other characters or significant topics sprinkled throughout. The result? A sweet, hopeful account of love in a world of endless possibilities.  I raced through this engaging read in one day and couldn’t wait to recommend it to several of my high school students. Rating: 4/5 stars
  3. The Mothers – Brit Bennett. This book is everything, friends. Everything. Another Book of the Month selection, The Mothers sat on my shelf for two months during the Great Reading Hiatus of 2016. I finally cracked its spine two days before the new year and a handful of pages into the book, I knew I was in for a treat. Bennett writes the aching narrative of two girls estranged from their mothers — one by death, the other by choice. The unlikely pair, both members of a seaside church in a black community in southern California, develop a close friendship bordering on sisterhood as Nadia searches for reason and safety in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. Aubrey is the perfect companion for Nadia — comforting, seemingly self-assured, and loyal. The pair is destined for lifelong companionship, it seems . . . until one choice and a dark secret forever alter the course of their lives. The plot is heavy with deception, drama, and longing; characters are multifaceted and brilliantly relatable, despite (or because of?) the weight of the circumstances that compose their lives. The Mothers is a richly textured novel that will stir your heart and remain with you for years to come. Rating: 5/5

In short: if you only read one book in 2017, make it The Mothers. You can expect to experience heartbreak, but you certainly won’t know disappointment.