6: Lewis, the Library & the Dynamic Duo

narnia1My seventh and eighth grade years blur together in my mind. From late 1984 through mid-1986, I watched the early morning anime Robotech (when channel 11 no longer showed Star Blazers) before my school’s first bell, which I could hear across the street from my and Wendy’s bedroom. Having quit piano lessons after sixth grade, I was in seventh and then eighth grade concert choir and participated in Texas’ UIL choir competitions.

Beginning in 1985, the school library was my twice-a-day pit-stop, where I would check out a book to read over the school day and then check out another book to read at home, when I wasn’t writing in my novel notebook. I would show Jill what I wrote, and Jill would show me her Remington Steele fan-fiction (which often veered towards erotica) at lunch-time as we ate our dubious school cafeteria lunches.

But, most importantly, from 1984 to 1986, I was a student to seventh and eighth grade Honors Reading teacher Mrs. Bearden, and from 1985 to 1986 a student to eighth grade Honors English teacher Mrs. Campbell.

Although C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had a massive influence on me while I was flying over the Pacific when I was ten, I hadn’t followed through in seeking Lewis in the library as I adjusted to stateside public schools and living a mostly civilian life in Texas. So I was happily surprised to see that Mrs. Bearden’s seventh grade and subsequently eighth grade required books to buy were all of C. S. Lewis’s seven-volume The Chronicles of Narnia, which served as a cornerstone to Mrs. Bearden’s class.

Thanks to my eighth grade yearbook that I still have, I can remember Mrs. Bearden. She was fortyish with short, blond hair, a quirky sense of humor, and — even though she wasn’t that much taller than I was (I stopped growing any taller than 5’2” at thirteen) — a commanding presence in her classroom. I still remember a classmate who pushed her rules a little bit too much, too often, as a class clown. He stood in front of the class, his arms stretched out from his sides and his palms up, while Mrs. Bearden counted. If he had dropped his arms, she would’ve restarted the count.

For some foolish reason, he kept grinning and commenting, “This is easy!”

So Mrs. Bearden found a couple of textbooks and put them on each outstretched hand, which instantly sagged and then dropped. She restarted her count. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five…” and so on until my classmate, his arms shaky and his face red with exertion, looked like he was about to crumple.

“That’s enough. Back to your seat.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rule One of Honors Reading: do not cross Mrs. Bearden.

In spite of that, Mrs. Bearden’s class was a fun classroom, as we worked on year-long The Chronicles of Narnia reading portfolio projects. In seventh grade, my class covered Book 6: The Magician’s Nephew, Book 1: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Book 2: Prince Caspian. In eighth grade, we covered Book 5: The Horse and His Boy, Book 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Book 4: The Silver Chair, and Book 7: The Last Battle. Mrs. Bearden disregarded the published order sequence of the series (which I would learn years later was C. S. Lewis’s intended order sequence), but we never questioned her why — see Rule One.

Mrs. Bearden’s class was where I learned how to read a novel, not just for entertainment, but for comprehension and awareness of the nuts and bolts of fiction’s structure. It was as if we pulled back the surface skin of Lewis’s story and peered into the inner structure of plot, character, and setting. In an age before Google and Wikipedia, Mrs. Bearden had us answer weekly reading comprehension questions and create character and setting summaries in order to ensure that we were learning the secrets behind Lewis’s fantasy books of world-hopping children and talking animals.

At the end of each book unit, we compiled our answers and summaries into one portfolio folder that was supposed to look like a book, with a cover, table of contents, numbered pages, and an end page: seven books, seven portfolios. Since I loved Roger Hane’s cover illustrations, I copied them, using colored pencils. My table of contents page for each portfolio were also illustrated, whimsical pictures that remind me of Lisa Frank folders, but less eyeball-screaming complexity and airbrush art.

I even drew and colored illustrated section pages, usually characters from the book. All of the extra illustrations usually garnered me extra credit, but I didn’t do them for the extra credit, which I didn’t need. The process of constructing these heavily illustrated portfolios tapped into my desire to make a completed book, albeit a book that was hand-drawn and handwritten (again, in neat cursive) with grading marks and dried White-Out smears here and there.

So Mrs. Bearden fueled my imagination and knowledge of narrative structure, which made me a more conscientious writer. I was learning how to reign in my tendency to ramble in my writing without structure or order. For it easy for me to ramble, especially as life at home started to get complicated.

Pa’s time at NAS Dallas was coming to a close, and his next duty station was deployment in Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. This was where a military family couldn’t go. If we were to move, Mom, my siblings, and I would be stationed on a naval base in Naples, Italy, while Pa was overseas, gone from October 1985 to November 1986. While moving this time around would be easier paperwork-wise (Mom, my siblings, and I all became naturalized U.S citizens in the spring of 1983) and the prospect to living in Italy was exciting, Mom didn’t want to move.

Cheryl, my youngest sister, would start kindergarten in August 1985, which meant all four of us kids would be now in school. Mom saw this as an opportunity to try to re-enter to workplace again. Also, the house – with its mortgage – would be a hassle to put on the market, and Mom didn’t want to sell the house anyways since it was the first house that she actually owned. She had redecorated the house to her liking, grew a flourishing garden in the backyard, and knew all the stores, amenities, and the Filipino-American diaspora within driving distance. In three years, Texas became her home.

So, before Pa left, Mom and Pa renovated the house. They turned the two-car garage into a huge, spare room, which was divided into a home office and Eric’s own bedroom. Wendy and Cheryl shared one bedroom (Eric’s former bedroom), and I stayed where I was, now alone in my own bedroom with a full-size bed and my own TV. Mom and Pa also renovated the living room, paneling a wall, changing living room sofa sets, and so on. It was as if Mom was nesting, but without the baby.

One of the last things Pa did before he left was bring home a dark tan IBM Selectric II Typewriter, with its supply of ribbon cartridges, spools of correcting tape, and removable typing ball, which came in different fonts like Courier and Times Roman. His office was phasing out these typewriters and had already written off the stock.

Even though we had a computer – an Apple IIe that Pa bought in the commissary last year – we didn’t have a printer. Even though I could practice my typing with computer typing games like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, I couldn’t print what I typed. So I suppose Pa realized this deficit and, instead of spending more money buying a printer, he got a free typewriter that the Navy would’ve thrown away.

Pa set up the Selectric on a little secretary table in the new garage office. He plugged it in, turned it on, and heard the low hum of the typewriter’s inner workings. “Here,” he said to me, “let me show you how to use this.”

Then he showed me how to put in the sheet of paper, how to set the margins, how hard to type on the keys (and, boy, that typing ball was loud!), how to space back to correct a mistake, and so on. It had an auto-carriage return, which it would do with a satisfying “DING!” when it hit the left-hand margin.

“Isn’t it easy?” he asked. “Now you can type your reports for school.”

“Yes, Pa,” I replied. But I wasn’t required to type my school assignments. Instead I was going to type up my second novel once I was finished – except that Pa didn’t know that. Actually, no one in my family knew that I was writing a novel in that little notebook, and I preferred it that way.

Writing that second novel became a way for me to have control when everything changing around me was beyond my control. All of my siblings would now be in school, Mom was looking for a job for the first time in years, Pa was leaving for Diego Garcia, and my body was changing and doing weird things that, frankly, disgusted and distressed me even though – intellectually — I knew what was happening.

My thirteenth year of existence just plain sucked.

So I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, instead of pulling out my hair or starving myself whenever I felt anxious. I became obsessive about my novel, bringing my notebook like a security blanket to Filipino parties, shopping trips, and even church. I wrote every day, well into the night, and by the end of the summer of 1985, I was done.

And then, following the “look” of a published book because I didn’t know any better – three-spaced indents, single-spaced — I typed and typed and typed. I typed like a transcription machine, not seeing my novel but a bunch of words. Therefore, I didn’t see my bad writing habits. While I didn’t have a problem in the quantity of my words, I still had the bad habit of choosing “big” words and writing long, convoluted sentences in the mistaken idea that I sounded clever and smart that way.

It would take a special kind of teacher to teach me the basics of clear writing in correct English, and I would learn this in a way that isn’t really taught anymore but it should.

 

In the fall of 1985, in my final year of middle school, I was not only Mrs. Bearden’s student again but also a new student of Mrs. Campbell. Like Mrs. Bearden, Mrs. Campbell wasn’t very tall, had a quirky sense of humor, and a commanding presence in her classroom. She was like a brunette, younger Mrs. Bearden, so it made perfect sense that they would be co-sponsors of the National Junior Honor Society (many of their honor students – including me – were members) and educational partners, linking Mrs. Bearden’s Honors Reading with Mrs. Campbell’s Honors English.

Mrs. Campbell classroom was in one of the small warren of portable buildings adjacent to the brick-and-mortar building, a testimony to Truman’s increased student body size. What I most remember was the first thing we would do as soon as we entered her portable: diagram the sentence that Mrs. Campbell had written on the chalkboard. We would sit down, get out our spiral notebook that was dedicated to sentence diagramming, and start working the sentence out. These morning exercises are why I credit Mrs. Campbell with demystifying the English language for me. While I was fluent in speaking, reading, and writing in English, I never understood the logic behind English syntax. Why does a sentence look that way, and if it’s wrong – why? Up to that point, I had been memorizing word lists and rules.

Sentence diagramming, therefore, was an awe-inspiring REVELATION. Subject plus verb plus predicate made sense. Modifiers and clauses and phrases made sense. The seven parts of speech made sense. Commas – even commas! – made sense. English grammar and syntax weren’t just arbitrary things; they had a structure and logic that was just like math – and I liked math.

Meanwhile, every time I finished typing up a chapter, I would show my typed pages to Jill or to Nikki, a new friend that I made in my Honors Pre-Algebra class by exchanging cartoon notes about a superhero pig and his sidekick frog. Each time, both Jill and Nikki would give a thumbs up to whatever wrote, with Jill often reminding me, “Remember to make a copy. No use moping about losing another one.”

“Gee,” I’d reply, “Thanks for the reminder.”

But as much as I appreciated my friends’ support, I knew I was making grammar mistakes. I needed expert advice.

I don’t recall how Mrs. Campbell found out about my novel – whether she overheard me talking about it to a classmate or whether I bluntly asked her to read my manuscript. I just remember Mrs. Campbell holding up the portfolio folder that held the loose, typed pages of my entire novel and saying, “Do you mind if I make a copy of this?”

“Yes, please!”

After about two or three weeks, before class begun, Mrs. Campbell handed back to me her copy of my manuscript in its own folder. Opening the folder, I saw that she had meticulously corrected every grammar, diction, and punctuation mistake that I had made in two color pens. One was in green and the other one was in red. At first I was overwhelmed by the sea of editing marks on every page of my manuscript.

But then I recognized the handwriting of the red pen. “That’s Mrs. Bearden’s pen,” I commented.

“Yes,” Mrs. Campbell confirmed. “We both read your novel.”

“Oh, God.” I cringed. “It’s really bad, isn’t it.”

“What? No!” Mrs. Campbell crouched next to my desk – a real feat since she was in heels. “You wrote this before taking this class, right?”

“Yes.”

“So most of my marks are mistakes that you don’t make on your assignments anymore – run-ons, comma-splices, fragments, passive voice. Mrs. Bearden noticed that you tend to choose complicated words and sentence constructions when a simple one will do. That’s called ‘word choice’. A writer’s voice comes through his or her word choices, and how it fits with what he or she is writing. Your story is good – I love that ‘frog oolong’ is a secret phrase for the clubhouse! But your third person narrative voice is cluttering the flow of your story.”

“How do I fix that?”

“Well,” Mrs. Campbell said, looking up and noticing most of my classmates were already in their desks as the tardy bell rang, “you can re-type your draft, fixing all the errors that Mrs. Bearden and I noticed. And when you type your second draft, have one-inch margins for your paragraphs and double-space your paragraphs. That’s what professional writers do.”

“Oh, okay.”

“But the secret to good writing is reading good books. Which I know you’ll do.” She smiled, winking at me as she stood up, and pointed to the sentence diagramming exercise on the chalkboard for the class to do.

From that day on, I increased my library visits from whenever I felt like it or was required to go, which I did for sixth and seventh grade, to at least twice a day. I would check out a book first thing in the morning after the first bell but before my first class and read it at any available free time during and between my classes. I even got in trouble one time, when I was reading a book before my choir class started and not noticing that the bell had rung and that Mr. Dunn, the choir director was talking.

“Rufel? Rufel? RUFEL.”

“What? Oh.” I looked around. “Sorry, Mr. Dunn.”

Already familiar with Madeleine L’Engle, I read every book the school library had of hers. At the recommendation of the librarian, I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and his Westmark trilogy. I read sci-fi books by William Sleator, starting with Interstellar Pig. I read Margaret Mahy’s books and loved The Changeover so much that I bought a copy as soon as I could afford it. I read trippy books by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, coming-of-age novels by Paula Danziger and Judy Blume, and lots of teen problem novels like Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! (I still love that title) by M. E. Kerr and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, which taught me how an unhappy ending didn’t have to mean a meaningless story.

I read books by authors I don’t even remember now. Considering that a typical school year has 180 weekdays in it (holidays excluded), then that’s a lot of library books I checked out by the time I graduated from eighth grade. In many respects, the school library became a second home to me.

Thus, I – along with my science class — was comfortable in the library on a late morning of January 28, 1986. I was feeling optimistic that day. I had my new second draft typed up and ready to show Mrs. Campbell. In a fit of youthful confidence, I even submitted a copy (after spending lots of dimes on the library’s copier) to a publisher I found in The Writer’s Market that I read and took notes while sitting in Century Books but didn’t buy because I didn’t have the money. I had submitted some of my poems and short stories to a local city-wide writing contest. I was designated first soprano in choir class and looking forward to my last choir concerts and competitions in middle school.

And – even though I gave up my astronaut dreams – I was wearing my jean jacket that had a stitched-on official STS-6 Challenger mission patch, which I won by submitting tons of Tang proof-of-purchases. My class and I were watching a live TV feed of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the one with the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, and 1986 truly felt like a brand new year.

Then the horror happened.

As we watched Challenger break up in the sky, many of my classmates didn’t know what they were watching. I wasn’t one of them. Thanks to my early obsession with space exploration, I had read about the earlier disasters, especially the Apollo 1 fire and the near-disaster Apollo 13 mission. I had seen video footage of successful shuttle launches, and I instantly knew something had gone catastrophically wrong.

I stood there, stunned. School ended early that day, and Wendy and I crossed the street to our empty house, as Eric and Cheryl were still at Dickinson, Mom was at her new job at a Dallas hospital cafeteria, and Pa was on the other side of the world.

I went to my room and took down the hand-made banner of the solar system and my drawings of the space shuttle. For some reason, I pulled out Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet and skimmed through the pages. Almost near the end of the book, I paused at a passage. Then I jumped up, rifled through my arts and craft box, and found white cardstock paper, gold and purple paint markers, and a thick calligraphy pen. After an hour of copying from the book and then making margin embellishments in gold and purple, I placed this new poster on where my space shuttle pictures used to be.

I place all Heaven with its power
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness,
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness!

At age thirteen, I wasn’t a particularly devout Catholic Christian – Mom often pulled double-shifts and weekends at her new job, which cut into Sunday school — but this was the closest to prayer I could offer to the lost Challenger crew that day.

Good God, that was a sad day.

I would feel the same way, over fifteen years later, when I saw on live TV two passenger jets hit the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11.

 

After the Challenger disaster, the last semester of eighth was surreal.

First, a Filipino family acquaintance, who was the same age as me and I would see in the school hallways as well as at a few Filipino fiestas, became pregnant and had to drop out of the eighth grade, which brought back the memory of reading about that pregnant twelve year old in Readers Digest.

Then, I won a couple of ribbons in my age group in the city writing contests, but I then received the first of many rejections that I would get from book publishers. It was almost funny.

I also found out that Nikki would be moving away, and possibly Jill since her parents were divorcing, and I fought the panic of losing two of my closest friends even though, for a change, I wasn’t the one moving anywhere.

Finally, I played flag football for the last time in PE, during one of those free days when the PE classes were co-ed. I was running for a touchdown in a mad panic, glanced back at the last moment, and immediately ran into one of the goalposts, knocking myself flat out.

When I came to, I saw Coach Lowe, who was a towering African-American man, leaning over me. “Are you okay, darlin’?”

“Uh… yeah. Yeah.” I groaned, sitting up. “Did I make the touchdown?”

Couch Lowe laughed, pointing to the football still clutched in my arms. “Darlin’,” he said, “maybe you shouldn’t be playin’ football.”

A few weeks later, the choir was rehearsing for the end-of-year concert, including walking down in single-file from the risers, the stage, and across the cafeteria. I had just made it halfway through the cafeteria when I slipped on a slick spot, landed flat on my back, and knocked myself out again. Like a bad case of déjà vu, I saw a teacher – this time it was Mr. Dunn, the choir director – leaning over me.

“Are you okay?” he asked me.

“Uh….”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Ummm… on a floor?”

I was escorted to the nurse’s office where I rested until I recovered from my second minor concussion. Since the rehearsal was afterschool anyway (and in the 1980s concussions were just one of those things that one just “shook off”), I went home to lie down.

As I said, it was a surreal last semester.

Whether it was the double concussion, Mrs. Bearden’s clever lesson planning, or my clueless lack of biblical knowledge as a cradle Catholic, I never realized at the time that C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia paralleled the Bible and had Christian pedagogy when I was reading the books and making those portfolios. They were just grand fantasy adventure stories, where children got to be the heroes by doing what was brave – and not what was easy — and I loved the books as such. In that respect, Mrs. Bearden gave me and her students a strong education in ethics without us realizing it because it was wrapped up in story. In fact, it was better that it was hidden and woven in story.

To this day, I can point to my Honors Reading and English classes and say, “That’s where I believed I could be a writer someday.”

As an autodidact, I can teach myself with books, but it takes special teachers to point the way beyond those books and the limited worldview of the reader — to stories yet to be written, to truths yet to be realized. It is those teachers that can make private readers into public writers.

The dynamic duo Mrs. Bearden and Mrs. Campbell were those teachers.

The last words they gave me were penned in my eighth grade yearbook in perfect, schoolteacher cursive. Over Mrs. Bearden’s photo was the message “I look forward to reading some published novels someday. Keep that goal! Love, Mrs. B.” Under Mrs. Campbell’s photo was the message “To my ‘frog oolong’ novelist: I expect to get a discount when your novels are on the best-seller list. Please keep on touch. You are one of the most talented student writers I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. Love, Mrs. C.”

Sadly, in my fourteen-year old immaturity, I didn’t keep in touch as the whirlwind of high school life kept me occupied, even though they were across the street from my house. Also, along the way, all copies of my second attempt of a novel disappeared (which is why I can’t even remember the title of it), except for a snippet that I later revised for an assignment when I was in grad school. But even that snippet never got published.

However, even as time and space have widened between them and me, their words of encouragement to a shy, mixed-up teen girl when she most needed it have stuck with me all of these years. Even though I never became the best-selling, prolific novelist that I dreamed of being when I was that girl, I did keep the goal of being a writer and – what would’ve been surprising to the younger me – becoming a teacher of writing as well.

They believed that I could, and I did.

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This entry was posted in AVOCATIONS, Creative Writing, EDUCATION, Faith and Religion, Family & Parenthood, History & Currents Events, Learning, LQ POV, QUIRKS, Reading, The Writing Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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