Writer’s Group Doesn’t Hate You

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I see you sitting there, shoulders clenched tightly under your bulky coat, papers in front of you untouched, mouth tightened. I know you’re a hot mess underneath that fake calm you’re projecting to the group. Your thoughts are racing, the anger’s rising, and it’s taking all your self-control to stay in the hard metal chair while the urge to fly grows.

Here’s the thing you don’t understand. We’ve all been there- right there in that hard seat- feeling those same emotions- but we’ve returned and done it all over again. The real test is if there is a next time.

Can you hear me yet? We don’t hate you. We don’t even think that you’re a terrible writer. We think you’re brave for sharing it and braver still for sitting there as we take it apart and put it back together again. Some of your mistakes are classic newbie ones that you’ll learn quickly to avoid while others are complex and more of a teaching tool for the rest of the group.

It’s not about you at all in fact. The focus is on the work and how to make it the best work you can write- and in the end, when it’s over, it’ll be up to you to decide which changes to make or reject. Not all our suggestions are on target or meet the needs of your story.

I suspect that you’re used to people reading your work and telling you how great it is, but that’s not our role. We focus on the things that don’t work because we only have a limited time before it’s the next writer’s turn. You’ll know you’re good when silence falls over the group after your work is read. It will happen to you- if you’re still at the table.

Writing is a craft. Every writer who takes it seriously is on a journey. When we critique your writing at writer’s group, it’s to help teach you the craft, not to say your writing is terrible. Everyone’s writing is terrible- all the time- that’s why we rewrite, edit, polish, and beta read it. We are not there to be your cheerleader or friend. We are there to help your journey end in mastery. What we’re trying to teach you are the same mistakes we made until someone taught us. Sometimes, we still make those same mistakes until someone points them out to us. That’s why we go to writer’s group. Check your ego at the door and bring on the work. Your other choice is to listen to the primal need for flight and not return. Please return!

Santa Doesn’t Visit Poor Kids

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“You say that to shock people,” the love of my life offers. I offer him more cheese and crackers and drink the last of his Sam Adams Winter Lager. It’s bitter and I make a face.

“Maybe,” I agree, “but it’s true.”

I hadn’t been teaching in an urban school long before I changed my December curriculum. No one cared what I taught my special ed. Kindergartners as long as they quit running naked in the halls and didn’t leave puddles of pee on the newly waxed floors. When Christmastime came at my new school, I approached the Principal about taking the kids to the mall to see Santa. He was dubious but made arrangements for a school bus. I told the kids we were going to see Santa, but Elvis objected.

“No see Santa,” he insisted, but I ignored him- a mistake I tried never to make again.

The gentle white Santa sat on his throne, in all his splendor, and called for my class. Milton went first. Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he wouldn’t let the old man touch him. Inching away, he knocked over a fake reindeer and a small tree. Comforted with a candy cane, he sucked on it without removing the plastic.

While I was trying to get Dalton to spit out the fake snow he was cramming into his mouth with both hands, Elvis strutted up to the waiting Santa. Six years old, street-smart and wise, he had something to say and no adult was stopping him.

“How come you no come my house?” Elvis shouted. “You no like me? I’se good boy!” Good for Elvis is a relative term- meaning in the last five minutes he hadn’t cussed me out in Spanish or stolen something from the classroom.

Santa lost his smile and he stuttered. I suspect they didn’t cover dealing with Elvis in Santa school. Elvis put his hands on his hips and shook a tiny finger in Santa’s direction. “You no come my street. I no like you!”

He stomped off the staging area, grabbed a handful of candy canes from the Elf, and kicked over the remaining fake reindeer. Joan liberated most of the candy canes, but Santa didn’t want them back, and we hurriedly rushed the rest of the class through the experience.

I quit asking children what they wanted for Christmas or what Santa would bring them. There were whole neighborhoods in my city that Santa didn’t go down and it seemed cruel to taunt them with dreams that wouldn’t come true.

I focused on the role of family and friends during the holidays and the beauty of the lights. I taught my kids the story of Chanukah and Elvis acted out the lead of Judas Maccabee with relish. We learned about Kwanzaa and the meaning behind each candle. We pretended to light the candles for Diwali and float them down the river. We talked about the angels singing to the shepherds. And once in a while, we colored pictures of Santa and his skin tone varied, depending on what color crayons were left after Dalton chewed his favorite ones.

Every year, as a family, we picked out one student not in my class and bought the one toy they wanted for Christmas. One year it was the worst kid in the school. Franklin had been teasing my class merciless at lunch, on the bus, and in the schoolyard. Nothing made him cease his evil actions.

“That’s the kid we should buy for this year,” my ten-year-old son said after I ranted about his behavior at dinner- again. Taken back by his suggestion, I resisted. I’d rather put snakes in Franklin’s bed than buy him the toy of his dreams.

“He’s just acting out because he needs attention,” my kid continued, giving me the same advice I’d given him about his own bully.

I stopped Franklin in the hall the next day.

“I dina do nuttin!” He protested.

“What do you want for Christmas, Franklin?”

He stared at me. “We don’t have no money for Christmas,” he replied, like I was the stupid one. “Not like Santa’s comin or nuttin.”

“If you could have any toy, what would it be?”

A bit of the belligerent look in his eyes faded as he described the remote control car he wanted. It wasn’t the huge, brand name car my own son and his friends had requested, but a small car that ran on double AA’s. I nodded and walked away.

The last day of school before Christmas break, it snowed and Franklin skipped school. I watched the snow piling on the cars and in the street. It was going to be slick driving until the sand trucks started, and there were streets in the city that hadn’t been plowed since the last major snow.

Joan stayed behind to clean up the glitter, Kool-aid, bits of chewed wrapping paper, and smears of frosting as while I drove to Franklin’s house. No one was home. The snow was falling thicker and it was sticking. The car in front of me did a donut just missing the streetlight.  The sidewalks were empty. Even the drug dealers on the corners were inside drinking hot cocoa. The state workers who left early for their warm homes in the suburbs had already left the city leaving me alone on the city streets in the middle of a snowstorm.  There were few riders on the rare city buses I saw. The slick slush grew deeper.  Night was coming, and I had my own kid, at home, wanting to tell me about his day. I drove all over the city, praying for a miracle.

The present next to me took up the entire passenger seat. Wrapped in our best paper with a huge bow, was the nicest remote control car that Radio Shack sold; with a year of batteries attached. But it looked like Franklin wasn’t getting a present this year either. “That’ll teach you to skip school,” I muttered, ready to give up.

A snowplow, the first I’d seen, threw a mountain of slushy brown snow on my car. My wipers couldn’t clear it. I pulled over, got out the brush, and pushed the muck off my window.

“Mz. M? Need help?” Franklin offered. Snow covered his shoulders and he looked cold in his thin, three sizes too small, winter coat with a broken zipper.  I should have bought him a coat too.

“How come you cut school today?” I asked, always a teacher first.

He shrugged and brushed the snow off my hood with his coat sleeve. “Gonna get in trouble ‘n suspended if I went, so I’s started vacation early.”

I opened the passenger door, took out the present, and thrust it at him. “Merry Christmas!”

He glared at me, not reaching for it. I shoved the package towards him again. “For you.”

He crossed his arms. “I ain’t takin’ it. I ain’t no charity case.”

“Fine,” I said shortly and not in the best holiday spirits. “I’ve been looking for you for two hours, and I’m tired.” I set the package on a snowbank and shut the passenger door. “See you in January.”

“Wait,” he called as I opened the driver’s side door.

He picked up the package and nodded his appreciation. I accepted it silently. He kicked at the snow, silent. A few of the remaining working streetlights came on, and the wind kicked up, blowing snow around him like snow angels dancing. A shy smile he didn’t want me to see showed briefly and vanished.

“Wanna ride home?” I offered. My kid would wait. He wouldn’t want me to leave this kid to walk home carrying a big package. He’d be a target with it- if he even made it home safe.

I pulled up in front of Franklin’s dark house. Snow covered the taped windows and gang tags. No outdoor Christmas lights glittered in the darkness bringing light to the dark street. The lack of working streetlights added to the gloom.

“Thanks for the ride. You shouldn’t be in this neighborhood at night,” Franklin said. “Lemme run this in and watch you leave.”

“Santa doesn’t visit poor kids,” I tell people, meaning only people visit poor kids. Maybe I do say it to shock them. Mostly I say it because it’s true, and people seem to forget it. We are the lights of the season, not the bright bulbs on the outside of the house.