Write from Your Wounded, Wonderful Heart
Spoiler Alert: I write about events in Walk Two Moons that might ruin the story for readers if they’ve not read the book yet.
We were reading Absolutely Normal Chaos, my sixth graders and I. Well, I was reading it aloud, so maybe the better word is “involved.” We were deeply involved in Sharon Creech’s story told through the diary of Mary Lou Finney. It was autumn in Washington, D.C., and my classroom was in a portable building, where every morning I walked over a wooden, human-made bridge (still charming) that faced a wall of trees that, during our Absolutely Normal Chaos days, turned the colors of a fall cliche that never seems to lose its brilliance no matter how we writers render it year after year.
A couple of years prior was September 11, and my students all had first-hand stories of what that day meant for them, with the Pentagon and so many of their parents working nearby. The year before I taught at this school, the D.C. sniper terrorized the DMV, and so my students learned to walk in a zigzag line coming in from recess or from their cars after saying goodbye to their parents.
Often, when telling these memories, my students would confuse or merge the two tragedies. All but one, who I’ll call Caroline.
Caroline made sure her classmates always knew what they were discussing. “No, no,” she’d say, “that was the sniper.” Or, “No, no, that was 9/11.”
So when we got to the end of Absolutely Normal Chaos, the class wished there was a sequel, and I was happy to say that while there’s not a sequel, there is another book with Mary Lou Finney in it. “It’s called Walk Two Moons,” I told my students.
“Read it! Read it!” they exclaimed.
“Mary Lou isn’t the main character, though,” I warned.
“We don’t care! Read it,” they demanded. All but one. Caroline.
“I hate that book,” she grumbled.
“You do?” I said, bewildered. “Why?” I asked her.
I expected her to say she didn’t like it because she found it confusing. This is a typical response to the book for many students because there are different stories going on, and while they all connect somehow, it’s hard to keep track at the beginning of the story.
“Because there’s death in it,” Caroline said firmly. “I hate any book with death in it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “There’s death in the book. In fact, the ending is so sad I don’t know if I can get through it without crying,” I said.
This encouraged my sixth-graders even more. Who would want to pass up a chance to witness their teacher cry over a book?
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book out loud. Though it was one of my favorite books to read to classes, it so happened one school year that my Grandma Ayanoglou died right around the same time Sal’s grandmother dies. Both women died rather suddenly, and the book was too close to what I was going through. I wasn’t up for comforting my students, so I made them finish the book silently. I tried my best not to feel guilty about the fact that pages after Sal’s grandma dies, the students would learn that her mother is dead too.
“This book is so sad, Mrs. Feyen,” they moaned.
“You’re right, it’s sad,” I said, and passed out some sort of assignment they could work on silently. I didn’t want to talk about death with them. I missed my grandma, and I just wanted to think about her for a while.
So I took a couple of years off from Walk Two Moons. I vowed never to read it out loud again, but agreed to assign it to my classes to read and study on their own.
Then one year I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College and heard Katherine Paterson talk about her book Bridge to Terabithia. She told a story about a woman who gave the book to a friend to help him deal with another friend’s death. Ms. Paterson responded by telling the woman she was too late — that she should’ve given him the book before it happened. Paterson went on to explain that it’s through empathizing with characters and their situations in books that we prepare ourselves before these situations happen to us or those close to us. She got me thinking I better muster up the courage to start reading Walk Two Moons again. She made me realize I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by avoiding this book. This group of sixth-graders during my first year in Washington, D.C. gave me that chance.
Reading to them was the best time of every day. They giggled right along with me when Sal’s grandpa takes the “dang snakes” out of a lady’s car. Phoebe Winterbottom drove them nuts, and they wondered out loud why Sal hadn’t just slapped her every once in a while. They pretended not to be scared of Mrs. Cadaver, and were secretly delighted that their teacher was reading a book with an alleged ax murderer in it. All but Caroline, who listened with her arms crossed and looked at me as though she couldn’t wait to say, “You made your bed, now you lie in it.”
When it came time for the end, I walked into the classroom with butterflies in my stomach. My students walked in rowdy, bright-eyed, and effervescent. I didn’t want to make them sad.
“You guys,” I said (A bad habit I started in college. My professors would write on my observations, “Stop saying, ‘You guys!'” Somewhere in my file at Calvin I’m sure there’s a note that reads, “Will never make it as a teacher. Says ‘you guys’ too much.”). “You guys, we’ve come to the end of Walk Two Moons. I think we’ll finish it today, but it’ll take more than 15 minutes, and it’s really sad. Are you prepared for this?”
Of course they were prepared. This was the moment they’d been waiting for. Mrs. Feyen is going to cry! Over a book!
“YEAH!!! WE ARE READY!” they screamed. “READ IT!” they shouted. I’d never had a more exuberant bunch of students.
“Okay,” I said, and dove in.
We started with Sal in the hospital with her grandparents. The students gasped when they found out Sal’s grandma died, but just as soon as their frowns appeared and their eyebrows began to burrow, they began laughing with delight when Sal’s grandpa hands her the keys to the car so she can go see her mom.
“She’s gonna drive?! She’s in eighth grade!” one student yelled.
The rest of the class cheered her on. “Yea, Sal! Go find your mom!”
None of them but Caroline knew Sal’s mom was dead, and that the road trip Sal and her grandparents were on throughout the book was for Sal to say goodbye. I felt like such a traitor while I read to these kids. They expected a happy ending, and I was about to break their hearts. I could not turn back now. Caroline was right (even if she only used her eyes to give me the message). I had to go through with this.
As they learned about the bus accident, Sal’s mom’s death, and why Mrs. Cadaver was so important to Sal’s dad, the class grew still and quiet. Some boys put their heads down on their desks. Girls put their hands to their faces. Some students stared straight ahead. I read straight through without dropping a tear, not because I wasn’t sad, but because I wanted to read this story well. I wanted my students to notice Sal’s courage and not hear my blubbering. It was Sal who took the last part of the journey to her mom, to deal with her death all by herself. Her grandparents weren’t there. Phoebe Winterbottom wasn’t there. Sal did this alone. Sal, who throughout the book didn’t want to accept her mother’s death, finally does so by herself on a windy, dangerous road in the Badlands. She could do it because of the stories she told her grandparents along the way. Those stories made room for understanding her mom, her dad, Phoebe and Phoebe’s family, Mrs. Cadaver, and her grandparents. Stories — telling the story — gave Sal courage.
I could be sad. But I could still tell the story. If there is any objective I’ll ever have in teaching again, it is that students must be able to tell a story well — no matter the sorrow, the pain, the fear. A story told well gives us power and courage and empathy.
“Did Sal know her mom was dead?” one boy asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I wish I would’ve known that,” he said. “I thought she just left and ran off with some other guy. I didn’t know she was dead.”
“I TOLD you all it was sad!” Caroline said miserably and looking at me with “now look what you’ve done” eyes.
Caroline was absolutely right, and if she were here now I’d tell her I have no regrets. I would tell her that if there is one thing I miss the most about teaching, it is having experiences like this. Because when we are in the thick of a season that’s on its way out but the color still clings to what is dying, something must be shaken loose. We can witness the fall because we have a story. The story can help us if we’re willing to let it, no matter how brutal it is.
I think Caroline would agree. I think she knew this back then, and that is why she said what she did. She didn’t hate Walk Two Moons — she knew what it means to walk in a world that is wounded and wonderful and not to be able to always tell the difference. She knew that claiming to know the difference doesn’t really matter.
Try It: Wounded, Wonderful Heart
This week, write a poem, a blog post, or an essay telling us about a difficult book that helps you tell (and live?) your story.
Photo by Nathalie Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Callie Feyen.
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I have been a fan of Callie Feyen’s writing for quite some time but I finished this book in almost one sitting. If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.
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Laura Lynn Brown says
Great post. I wonder what grief Caroline knew that made her so not want to hear this story.
L.L. Barkat says
(It’s such a great story, Callie. I read it to my classroom, too. Long, long ago. Second-graders, actually. They loved it. I cried.)
Katie Spivey Brewster says
“I could be sad. But I could tell the story. If there is any objective I’ll ever have in teaching again, it is that students must be able to tell a story well – no matter the sorrow, the pain, the fear. A story told well gives us power and courage and empathy.”
Callie, I am so thankful for teachers who read to their students. I am now in my seventh decade of life and still remember with fondness my fourth-grade teacher reading The Secret Garden to our class. Reading aloud to my children was by far my favorite part of motherhood and now nana-hood. Jesus, the best storyteller of all, knew how to reach hearts with stories and still does.