The Happy Heretic

With fanatical determination, I memorized the required lines to affirm I took Jesus Christ as my lord and savior, all the while thinking to myself, “I absolutely believe no such crazy thing.” After my baptism on that hot summer day, I finally felt like a proper member of my southern family, and not just the cousin from California-where-all-the-weirdos-lived. I was euphoric, enjoying Jell-O salad and sweet tea with my kin. But when I returned to California, Christian hymns and sweet baby Jesus were put away and forgotten.

Write Without Fear. Edit With Mercy.

A Love Letter to the Sentence

I hit a writing wall. I could construct a narrative and cast characters, but I didn’t enjoy the sentences I wrote. I didn’t know if they communicated what I thought they did. I could write one I liked every now and then, but I want to write well on purpose, not by accident.[…]

The Feeling

The first time my classically trained ears hear “Forty Six & 2” by the legendary metal band Tool, I was washing dishes alone in my apartment, music blasting through my Bose headphones. I had heard of Tool before, of course, but in high school my best friend wouldn’t stop talking about them, but, like everything else that was overtalked, I ignored them. I wasn’t really into heavy metal at the time either. I didn’t find much of what I was looking for in heavy metal, but I opened my Spotify app and search for Tool. What I really wanted to do was focus, and the way that I focused best was through classical music…

A Little Voice That Never Quits

I’m crying in the principal’s office, but I’m an adult. I’ve just quit my job at the school where I started my teaching career, and I’m telling my boss why. No, I don’t have a job lined up. No, it’s not because of any negative experience: I love this campus and the community I’ve made here since 2013. I just… need to go.

Writing in Conversation

Hearing someone else’s perspective inspired me. That’s what I’d forgotten. It was 2016. I’d lived in New York City for almost four years. I was still working on a YA manuscript that I started writing four years ago during NaNoWriMo. I’d had one short story published in a magazine, but that was a while back. I had a new desk job in the city where I tried to dodge invitations to go to Chop’t on my lunch break so I could write. I had a writing partner who lived in Albuquerque, and we were working on TV scripts together. Our G-chats about story ideas were fun, full of energy, and always gave me ten new ideas for our script. But novel writing remained a long and lonely process…

Amanda Woodard Wylie High School

Ecstasy Like Fire

My old creative writing teacher leans his squat body against his desk, his girthy thighs splayed across the seat of his swivel chair. I’m sitting beside him in one of those plastic stand-alone chairs with metal legs that are inherent to schools, and I’m sporting tight clothes that don’t technically break the standardized dress code, though some teachers in the halls give me looks. The way we’re sitting, mere inches from one another, close enough to touch, feels uncomfortably familiar, but I push the thought from my mind.

Skies turning green as a tornado approaches- Photo by C. Read

This Isn’t Normal: Climate Change from a Reporter’s Perspective

Thick clouds took over the sky as I raced down windy roads, trying to beat the impending storm. Against the strong wind, trees bent uncomfortably close to my small, red car. I zipped around tight corners hoping, more like praying I’d make it to the town hall in one piece.[…]

The Opposite of Silver Linings: The Big Comeback

This year-long hunker-down reset my rhythms to a slower, less eventful pace. The pandemic gave me an excuse to do what I would rather do anyway. I am loath to give up  sleeping until I feel ready to get out of bed. I don’t want to go back to traffic jams and parking tickets or obligatory events. Though I suppose that’s not entirely new. I am happy in sweatpants. I don’t miss zippers. Or shoes. […]

Compelling Characters – In life and In Stories

What do a Pentecostal minister, a hobbling chicken, and a German immigrant have in common? Me! The minister was my maternal grandfather, the chicken was a family pet, and Mr. Wagner was my flute teacher. Another shared aspect was their ability to sometimes completely baffle me […]

The Best Kind of Magic

Books have been some of the best friends I’ve ever had. They’ve kept me company when I was lonely, taken me on great adventures, helped me explore other cultures and worlds, and given me deep insight into myself and the Universe. But one of the most precious gifts I have received through reading books is healing – spiritual and emotional healing.

A Man Who Literally Goes to Therapy

A meme started going around this year that hit close to home. It goes like this: “Men will literally ___ instead of going to therapy.” There are many of them, and a lot are hilarious. They poke fun at deserving men (“Men will literally run for president instead of going to therapy,” “Men will literally invent Facebook instead of going to therapy”) and the toxic behaviors of literary characters (“Men will literally hide a portrait of themselves that ages while their physical form stays young and beautiful instead of going to therapy”).

What Will Become of the Millennial Wild Woman?

I feel I haven’t even made it to adulthood, let alone nearing menopause. My outer woman struggles to have a purpose, but inside I have never felt more capable. I’m panicked. I feel trapped in my body.

Becoming a Wordplay M.A.S.T.E.R. (Maker of All Sorts of Tomfoolery to Entertain Readers)

Like any young teenager, I was passionate about the things I loved and the things I hated. What I loved were my pets, which came in all varieties (dogs, cats, ducks, guinea pigs, birds), my funny storybooks that featured dorky kids like me (too tall, clumsy, self-conscious), and my writing, especially the comical stories I composed with my best friend Izzi (which we crammed full of wordplay) […]

Being Biracial: The Identity Crisis of Both and Neither

I have never felt like I belonged to a group of people. As a kid, I spent half my time with the white kids and the other half with the Asian kids. And through it all, I never felt like I truly fit. […]

And God Said: “Come as You Are”

What I came to see was that all my prayers are answered. Every time. I don’t always hear it, and I’m not always willing to do what I feel directed to, but that Love is always present…

Hood Century: Using Architecture and Psychogeography for Community Preservation

Last week I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an image of a boxy apartment building on the corner of Greenwich and Laguna in San Francisco describing it as having a “pop-up book feel” and I felt instantly drawn to it. It led me to the account Hood Century – a page devoted to images of mid-century design from the “hood” in cities all over America.

Never Enough: The Life and Trials of a Perfectionist

What I experience goes beyond merely seeking excellence and having high standards. I compare myself to others and become easily discouraged when I can’t match their success. Individual events and conversations haunt me for days, and I ruminate on what was said, playing out alternate scenarios until I’m so upset my heart races and my cheeks flush…I am a perfectionist.

Pregnancy 101: The Woes, the Rules, and Yes, the Swollen Ankles

Two blue lines. “Are you sure?” I asked my husband, Tom. One line on the white, plastic stick looked kind of faded. I peed on another stick. Same result: Two blue lines, this time, more defined.[…]

The Baby Step

When I have children, I don’t want to let them down. I also don’t want to let myself down. I’ve got a lot of career goals and life ambitions, outside of having kids. Life is a constant game of juggling, but will I manage to keep all of the balls in the air without dropping one? Can I manage to be an attentive, loving parent as well as a dedicated writer and journalist? 

Divorce and Happy Endings, or “The Great Mulligan”

As someone with decades of professional divorce-related experience, a child of a “broken home,” and a thrice divorced person myself, I have come to some conclusions about divorce. Mainly this: Divorce is good.

It's Time for Your Dental Exam

It’s Time to Schedule Your Dental Exam

I’m sitting in a stiff blue chair, reclined as if I should be relaxing. I’m scrolling through my phone to pass the time. There’s a TV in here, playing daytime television I didn’t consent to watch. Everything around me is metal.[…]

Close Listening: Paying a Different Attention to Music

My mom gave me my first record player when I was in college. I had been eyeing it for some time: a gray and navy Crosley suitcase player, one of the many that became popular at Urban Outfitters at the beginning of the new vinyl boom. I lived at home, commuting to the university I attended in Fort Worth, and I mainly listened to music through my iPod and headphones or in my car. I had never heard music on a record player, so I had no way of knowing if it sounded better, despite what vinyl purists might say.

Drowning in Numbers: How I Almost Drowned in the Ocean and Why America Continues to Drown in Covid-19 Cases

I hadn’t made it far when I heard a train-sized roar coming from the ocean behind me. I hung from my arms and glanced over my shoulder. A wave hit me, and I slammed into the rock and cut my chest on the mussels. I recovered, but the next hump of water was so tall, it would strike above my head. I had to jump.

Words Can Carry Weight

Do you remember when I called you late one night? I needed someone to confide in and you offered to listen. A scary event had happened to me a few days prior. I was having a hard time processing it because I couldn’t believe something like this actually happened to me. 

Is It Time to Panic About the Climate Yet?

I admit I’m a worrywart. That’s what my mom always said, “We’re a family of worrywarts.” In reality, we’re a family riddled with anxiety of varying degrees, from mild uneasiness to extreme panic attacks.

Bubbie’s Blog – Stardate 2020: Love, Fear and Zombies – Grandmothering in the Time of Corona

When I was a little girl, I climbed into my mother’s bed in the early mornings and snuggled up against her back. I remember feeling such a desperate love for her and also how that love was tinged with fear and sadness, as if she were somehow an evanescent, non-renewable resource.

Taking a Look at the Carnivore in the Mirror

I could feel the rubbery, nimble necks of the dead pheasants underneath my fingertips as I carried them to the sink to be plucked and gutted. My grip on their bodies was loose, making it easy to drop them quickly. I wanted to drop them, but I resisted.

Being There: Education in an Emergency

In my first year of teaching, an entire family came to meet me at our school’s first parent night: mother, father, daughter, and son. They were strikingly tall, both mom and dad my height, and the daughter swiftly approaching. The Samsons (names changed) dressed as if they might be headed to church, or coming from it. In my jeans and school spirit shirt, I felt underdressed. Tamryn, who was a seventh grader at the time, was in my Reading class. Their son was in the second grade.

“If you stick around,” their mother beamed, “you’ll get to teach Zeke.”

I was twenty-two then, and the idea of teaching middle school for another five years seemed distant, a stretch. I had not planned to be a teacher, and my position here was not so much a career choice as a placeholder, a way of putting off grad school and figuring out what I wanted from life. I committed to two years with a teaching program, but beyond that was anyone’s guess. I laughed along with the family, and I brushed the comment aside with a gentle, “We’ll see about that!”

Five years after my first parent night, I did not teach Zeke, but I had Tamryn again. I became the senior English teacher, teaching my first students from the seventh grade. It was a fairytale ending to a five year journey, seeing my kids grow up as I had grown alongside them. They invited me to their homes for graduation parties, where their parents told me I was family.

In March, with few confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas, our schools closed as we prepared to slow the spread, moving classes entirely online for two months. While this was a necessary precaution, the relational aspect that defines much of teaching for me all but disappeared. Federal and state officials sent directives: continue to educate students online, or risk losing funding. I directed a capstone project where students learn about potential future careers with field experience. How could they complete this when everything closed? Instead of our government having grace, districts—from teachers to students, principals to coordinators—were told to do our best, or else. Having never prepared for this kind of emergency, we were not so much educating students at the highest level as we were scrambling to contain a fire.

After two years of work to prepare my AP students for their exam, I still wanted them to have a fair chance at passing the test, which had been reduced from three essays and many multiple choice questions to a single essay, one attempt at earning college credit. From home, students would have exactly forty-five minutes to read and analyze a passage. I saw teachers on Facebook saying this was too easy, and I logged off, angry. In our school’s history, only one student previously passed the exam: the year before, one of my original kids. My classes worked tirelessly to prove that we could be a school with a rigorous honors English program. But now I knew some were sharing computers with their siblings, on the same Internet connection as their parents, also working from home. Students worked to not lose the gains they had made, even as they emailed me about their anxiety and fear of fumbling the exam. Each message reminded me that this test carried both hope and dread for students, and I responded with encouraging emails, telling them that I was proud of them regardless of the results. They had one shot to prove themselves, in a narrow window. Two of them passed—another landmark for our campus—but I knew more would have in different circumstances.

In the midst of all of this, I sent encouraging comments to my kids, apologetic for asking them to be productive during a pandemic. “I am here to celebrate you and cheer you on, no matter what,” I wrote. “Please know that I am not docking you for making an effort. I see it.” They did what was necessary to pass their final high school courses, as prom, senior week, and graduation were all eventually and inevitably canceled or postponed. “This is unfair,” they said. I agreed, but we had to move forward and check boxes, as if time was not standing still. I spent most of my time filling out a spreadsheet with information on learning engagement, trying to contact students who seemed unreachable. Both students and teachers were ready to check out for the year, and I wondered what the point was in finishing haphazardly. Whatever this was, it was not really learning.

*     *     *

Then, in September, educators across various states were deemed essential workers, putting their and their families’ health at risk to be present for students. It is hard to know what is right: our students’ education is suffering in this environment, but how are we to keep people safe while helping our kids grow? Instead of prioritizing children, we spent the summer watching state governments allow businesses to reopen too soon instead of providing financial relief. Conservative protesters, backed by the president, raged against the lockdowns as if their personal freedoms were at stake. I worried about my students, who would endure another year of trying to learn through a pandemic. 

As COVID-19 spreads and numbers spike again in over forty states, there is a renewed push to send remote learners back to schools amidst rising numbers of failing students. Several districts announced that they now only offer in-person learning, forcing families to send their students to campus or enroll in a different school. The choice as presented to us is this: either students learn in person, or they fail. In the false dichotomy created by a lack of moral leadership, students can either risk contracting and spreading the virus while passing their classes at school, or stay relatively safe from the virus while failing at home. Touting low transmission rates in schools, state and local officials ignore that the spread may currently be low because more than half of 5.5 million Texas public school students are currently learning from home, allowing some measure of distancing in classrooms and hallways. Send everyone back, and those rates could explode. Not to mention that every time a student or teacher contracts the virus, those they expose must quarantine for at least fourteen days, meaning that many children will have to learn from home at some point, by choice or force.

I am not saying that learning from home is ideal or best. But this? Watching the number of deaths in the nation creep over 230,000 while Texas reopens restaurants and bars? While people refuse to wear masks? There is a difference between wanting businesses to make it and demanding more from our leaders. There is a difference between wanting our students to learn and demanding more from people who do not have to bother themselves with creating safe learning environments. In the rush to shuffle students and teachers back to the way things were, we are forgoing conversations about how things could be. Those who quit teaching do not do so lightly, and their reasons for quitting could be prevented under better conditions. Without those difficult and necessary conversations, good teachers who care about students leave the classroom because our hands feel tied instead of freed to do our work well. I am now one of them.

This summer, I decided that I still wanted to serve students, but I needed to take steps to protect my mental and physical health. I left the classroom, but pangs of guilt hit me at various times throughout the summer. I felt like I was abandoning my post, surrendering my station, saving myself while the ship sank. But there is more to me than my job. There is a person to care for, who can only care for others by doing the same for himself.

Not only that, but I could read the writing on the whiteboard: forty-four percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years. I had taught for five, with two years of grad school in between. Ask any teacher who quits and you’ll hear similar answers: low pay, high workload, unjust conditions for vulnerable populations, the seeming lack of connection between state standards and true learning. Those frustrations have only grown with new expectations for teachers who must toggle between teaching in-person and remote learners. As the nation struggles to get and keep teachers in classrooms, and experts predict major backslides in student learning, we keep trying to plug a wound instead of finding a cure, preventing the initial injury. Education is in an emergency state, but COVID-19 did not start that: it is only exacerbating problems that were always there.

*     *     *

Now it has been seven years since meeting Tamryn’s family, and I am almost thirty. I am still at the same school, and I am entering my eighth year of education in a role where I oversee several special programs, including acting as the liaison between our campus and the local college where our students take dual credit courses. Zeke, now a freshman, is one of those students. I called his mother to ask how he was doing.

“Oh, Mr. Taylor, I am so glad to hear your voice,” she said.

I blushed, though she could not see my face. “Do you remember when you said that if I stuck around I would have Zeke?” I asked.

“I do,” Mrs. Samson said. “You have no idea what it means to see a person be there for our children for this long.”

It was true, I thought, humbled by her kindness. I was just a kid when I started here.

“How’s Zeke?” I asked.

“This has been hard,” she said, her tone dipping. “He’s always been a good student, but this is all too much.”

My heart ached. Students—still children, even if we have known them forever—are expected to charge ahead, to navigate their difficult teenage years while a pandemic rages. Seniors feel cheated, a time in their lives when they should be able to reflect and feel proud of making it this far instead of struggling to get by. Freshmen feel like their transition to high school is starting all wrong. A mother told me that her daughter struggles to focus at home but is afraid to leave the house for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. While the nation seems to be giving up on slowing the spread, our kids are still trying to do their homework, learning how to navigate their emotional and mental development through an unprecedented situation. While they should be given space to learn how to just be, they feel they cannot become themselves until this finally passes.

“I agree, Mrs. Samson,” I replied. “This is all very overwhelming.”

“It kind of feels like we’re underwater,” she said, “and we have to keep swimming and praying that we will reach the surface again.”

Her image was especially apt. We swim in anticipation of breathing the air again. We don’t know when that day will be. We swim to keep from drowning, even if we don’t know when the surface will reappear. I am still learning that. Mrs. Samson is still learning that. Zeke will have to learn it, time and again. In the meantime we help him, give him the skills to stay afloat and reach shore. What if more people invested in Zeke’s safe arrival?

After thirty minutes, Mrs. Samson realized how long we had been talking. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized. “I know you have more pressing things to do than listen to me vent.”

It was the middle of a school day. I looked at my to-do list, the different tasks that I needed to accomplish before 4pm. I had not noticed how much time had passed, but it did not matter. My role is to serve families, in or out of the classroom. “No, Mrs. Samson,” I countered. “I am here to support you in any way that I can, even if I don’t have all of the answers.”

“Oh, you do, you do support us,” she said. “I want you to know that I appreciate that you are there for both of our children, and I pray for you daily, that you may have the strength and wisdom to do your job, and that you will be blessed in life.”

I was on the verge of tears, and I remembered the day that I met the Samsons, how young Zeke and Tamryn were. Yes, how young I was, and still am. I’m still here, I thought. I’m really still here. Was it Mrs. Samson’s prayers that carried me all along? “Thank you,” I said. “Your prayers mean a lot to me.”

We said goodbye after Mrs. Samson showered me with more blessings. I sat in my office, too quiet now. I picked up the phone and called another family, the only way I knew how to be here, right now, in this moment, while an alarm sounds, just waiting to be heard.

 


Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX with his spouse Meg. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program, where he also works on the Lunch Ticket staff. Ben co-hosts Book Cult with Cristina Rodriguez. His work appears on The Adroit Journal, New South, No Contact Mag, and FreezeRay Poetry, among others. He can be found on Twitter @blewellyntaylor.

Spinning Spooky Facts Into Fiction

Many years ago, when cops rarely arrested teenagers for trespassing in vacant buildings, I went ghost hunting with my forever friends, Marney and Janine. Our target was a building in an abandoned arsenal not far out of town. It was a moonless, windy night, perfect for a bit of misbehavior and mischief.

The CIA Believes in the Paranormal?

The government is researching what your fave ‘spiritual guru’ on instagram has been trying to sell you? And the CIA studied this in the eighties?!