Long Story Short: Talent shows in the dark

Sometimes the only evidence of the electricity going out is the relentless blinking of 12:00 on our oven.

But there have been times in my life when the lights going out practically meant a cause for celebration. For whatever reasons, an electrical outing in my childhood home usually sparked a talent show.

Flashlights became automatic spotlights. The living room a stage. All my brother, Robin, and I needed was a brief introduction, and we were American Idol anachronisms.

My mother generally recited poetry for her talent. Casey at the Bat, by Ernest Thayer, or If, by Rudyard Kipling, were her stand-bys.

Sometimes I would do the dance to Sonny that Miss Glenda taught me when I was in the third grade. Other times I’d sing. 

My father rarely performed in the shows. Robin usually stole them.

His most memorable performance, without question, happened on a hot July night in 1983. Our family was living in an ancient house my grandfather built way out in the country.

Our show began.

Mom recited her poem.

Then I sang So Far Away by Carole King.

So far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore? It would be so fine to see your face at my door. Doesn’t help to know you’re just time away. Traveling around sure gets me down and lonely. … I sure hope the road don’t come to own me. There’s so many dreams I’m yet to find.”

Even though I was right there in the middle of the people I loved best, I did what I could to use the lyrics to convey a feeling I didn’t know at the time. Maybe my song choice foretold of my nomad years. A few years after our Big Talent Show, I left home and headed for parts unknown. I filled my wanderlust and came to know all about the yearning caused by missing people I love.

At any rate, the talent show didn’t offer me much time to ponder that thought.

It was Robin’s turn to perform. He was 15 at the time.

We didn’t need an X to mark the spot to find our way to center stage in the dark. Robin took his place. We turned the flashlights on. Normally, he looked like any other skinny 15-year-old boy. But in that light, and with a broom in place of his air-guitar, he became a mini-version of Hank Williams, Jr.

Like my mother, Robin always has had a knack for memorizing poetry and song lyrics. Unlike my mother, he doesn’t have what most would consider the voice of an angel.

That detail did not stop him. He strummed his broom-guitar and began.

“I had a good friend in New York City. He never called me by my name, just Hillbilly. My grandpa taught me how to live off the land. And his taught him to be a businessman. …But he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife. For 43 dollars, my friend lost his life.”

What he lacked in tone or pitch, Robin made up for with heart and certainty. He stood there steadily strumming his broom-guitar.

My brother and I are the products of a long line of people with more than a healthy distrust for city-folk. To this day, my brother – with no shame or prompting – will expound for long periods of time about the superiority of the country lifestyle.

“I can plow a field all day long. I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn. …We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine. And a country boy can survive. …We say grace, and we say Ma’am. And if you ain’t into that, we don’t give a ****.”

Robin, now a Southern Baptist preacher, sang those lines to a room full of teetotalers. He couldn’t say the last word of the chorus because such language wasn’t allowed in our house.

Even back then — though I shared his roots and appreciated his conviction, I knew that cities held things I didn’t want a little geography to rule out of life. There were far-away places I wanted to know. Our in-the-dark-performances shed a clear light on the differences two siblings’ goals and perspectives can have — and prompted one of those question-the-gene-pool moments for an entire family.

Long Story Short: On the value of coaches

A good coach can say more with a whistle than the rest of us can say in an essay.
In all the glory that was Thursday (if you didn’t notice and appreciate the way the sun was shining just right and that it wasn’t too hot or too cold, you missed one of the reasons living in South Louisiana is a good thing), it was the drawls and drones of a whistle during a low-key football practice that made me smile the most.

 

 

As a returning teacher, sounds like whistles blowing and bells ringing have reminded me of dreams and nightmares long forgotten. 

 

With few words, the coach guided about 20 high school boys through an offensive/defensive pass drill. Though I had papers to grade, I couldn’t help climbing up a rickety wooden set of bleachers to sit and watch for a few minutes. 

 

At one point, a receiver stutter-stepped, threw off his defender, caught the ball and ran toward the make-believe goal. It was impressive footwork. 

 

His friends appreciated it and went wild. One of the coaches strutted across the field in admiration of the moves. As the triumphant player jogged back toward the gathering of athletes, he did so with unmistakable swagger. The coach gave him an upraised arm as a show of respect. There was no need to wonder whether the gesture meant anything to the player. 

 

Athletics in general, and coaches, in particular, have the power to transform lives, much less attitudes. 

 

Nothing else good may have happened to that kid all day, but he caught that ball. His friends saw it and cheered. The coach noticed. 

 

And the sun was shining. 

 

Even though it was on a practice field on a February morning, chances are high that the moment and glory will stay with that student. As much as we try to replicate that feeling of success in a classroom, it’s nearly impossible. 

Through the years, readers have asked me to write about the power of good and bad coaches more than any other topic. Yet, until now, I’ve never written that column.

As the daughter of a football coach and a former student-athlete who lived for basketball during my formative years, I know the influence a coach can have. Like others, along the way, I had good coaches – even a couple of great coaches, but I also had a few real losers.

 

 

I’ve made it a point through the years to let the good coaches know what a positive difference they made in my life. All these years later, I’m amazed at how clearly I remember the moments that shaped relationships with coaches – for the good or the bad. I realize those same coaches probably have little or no memory of the incidents that created much of my teenaged perspective. 

 

But, the primary reason I’ve avoided writing about coaches is that, even now, some of my own emotions are still raw about the way one coach misused his influence. He did his best to “put me in my place” on and off the court. Until I played on his team, I loved everything about basketball. Truth be told, I probably loved it too much. 

 

I have a friend who jokes that he maintains his sanity because he’s “dead inside.” Looking back, I believe that’s what that coach was trying to do. All evidence shows that his goal was to break my spirit. Sadly, he sort of did. 

 

I’m ashamed to admit this, but after having him as my coach, I never cared as much about anything – other than my family – again. 

 

I don’t believe that’s the role a coach is supposed to play. 

 

Coaches are supposed to be like the ones I saw Thursday morning. They blow their whistles, shout words of instruction and encouragement, give high-fives and build their players up – not tear them down.

Long Story Short: Back to teaching

About a month ago I decided to go back into full-time teaching.

Mine was not a decision taken lightly. The last time I taught high school, I was young. Fresh out of college. Ready and willing to change the world.

Much of my initial teaching experience did what it could to take the pluck out of me. I left that job (and the South) and moved out West. Like a line from Dr. Seuss, it’s opener there in the wide-open air.

I started working in a different field, but I could never get completely away from teaching or the rest of my Southern roots. I taught writing classes at night. I went to Europe and taught English. I taught political refugees in Washington, D.C. I taught at-risk high school students along the Texas/Mexico border.

No matter what other work I did, a part of my heart was always in the education system.

However, those first two years quenched my desire to be in the classroom full-time until recently when I started thinking a little too long and hard about a couple of lines from a song in Mamma Mia.

The song was from a mother to her daughter. The mother sang to her daughter in the hours before the daughter’s wedding.

It’s sappy and represents a sentimental melancholy that a more accomplished writer would not admit to falling for, but I couldn’t help myself.

“What happened to the wonderful adventures? The places I had planned for us to go? Well, some of that we did, but most we didn’t. And why, I just don’t know.”

That’s the part that got to me. My daughters are 11 and 7. I realize the time is slipping through my fingers. I want to make good on more of those adventures I planned for us to take. I related to the mother’s sentiments on every level except one.

I knew why we hadn’t done all the things I had hoped and planned. The reason was simple.

Time.

The life of a full-time working mother is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Though my reasons were more complex, one of my primary motivations in getting back into full-time educator related to that old adage about the three best things about being a teacher.

June. July. August.

We’re down to two these days (since school starts in early August).

Even still, June and July should offer plenty of time for adventure.

In the meantime, I’ve been fully reminded of the reasons teachers love and hate their classrooms. There’s too much time spent on students who demonstrate no interest in learning, and too little spent on those who steadily do what they’re supposed to do. Squeaky wheels get too much of the grease.

Yet, there have been a couple of those moments every teacher teaches for – those brief shining moments when you know that you’ve reached a student. Every time it happens, I know the exact moment something changes within the student standing in front of me. There is, without question, a certain look in the eyes.

As of yet, I haven’t figured out what kinds of stars have to align to make more of those moments happen, but I’m setting out to do what I can.

Long Story Short

Walking through Jackson Square last weekend, I did my best to talk my husband (whose birthday we were celebrating) into letting one of the nice ladies sitting under an umbrella near the makeshift jazz band tell his fortune.

He would have none of it.

I begged some more.

The answer was a firm no. He was the birthday boy, and I had to respect his wishes. I dropped it, and we kept walking.

I can’t say exactly why I wanted him to get his fortune read. Do I believe those fine folks sitting a proper distance from the wrought iron fence and each other have a special cosmic line to see something the rest of us don’t?

Not really.

But there is this hope – a silly hope that maybe something said will prompt some piece of introspection that makes a difference.

Maybe that’s why I wanted my husband to get his fortune read. I wanted to witness him being introspective. I like those conversations. Yes, he has occasional flashes of noticing interesting things about himself and others, but there are times when he wears on my patience.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, I’ve decided to give some advice. Men (speaking in general, of course – this has nothing to do with you, honey), here are a few tips:

(And, I should interject, if someone has handed you this piece of newsprint to read, you should really pay attention here.)

The ladies – no matter how long you’ve been together – love to hear the story about the time when you first met.

Bring it up one night at dinner. Say something like, “You know what I was thinking the other day? I was thinking about the first time I ever saw you. You were …” (at this point you fill in your own details).

I can’t explain why those conversations are so nice and affirming. Maybe in the re-telling, she’s looking for that one extra tidbit you’ve never mentioned or she’s never noticed. But chances are high, you’ll rake up major Brownie points when you indulge her with your thoughts along those lines. Women like to hear what you’re thinking – specifically when it’s something positive about them.

With my husband’s blessings, I’ll tell you that kind of expression doesn’t come naturally for him. Does he love me? Yes, I know he does. Does he love our kids? Yes, I know he does. And in that sense and many others, I realize my blessings. However, as mentioned previously, there have been moments in our marriage and relationship when I could string him up.

Case in point: One day about 10 years ago, I got what I considered to be a great new haircut and highlights. The change, to me, was radical.

My husband came home from work. I expected a “Wow.” He said nothing.

We ate dinner. He said nothing.

Our daughter was a baby. We fed her, bathed her and put her to bed. He still said nothing about my new ‘do.

By 10 p.m., even I had forgotten about my haircut – so dim was his response.

Then the news came on.

Finally, he and I are sitting on the sofa watching the news. I remember about my new ‘do and give it a little check. About that time, the television zooms in to the anchorwoman. My husband turns to me and says, “Look, she’s got a new hairdo.”

No. He was not talking about me in some weird third-person dramatic presentation.

My dear husband, sitting right there on sofa beside me, was talking about the news anchor.

He’s made a point to mention my haircuts in the years since.