I once was a 4th Grade teacher.

Shaving Bag on Harry Paper

 

In December 2005, I was teaching 4th grade in Coppell, Texas.

It was a challenging job, and the pay was . . . typical, but I’d made it to my third year, and was really starting to feel the rhythm of the classroom. I remember watching their eyes widen as they grasp concepts for the first time or their tongues stick out as they navigated increasingly complex math problems.

As a teacher, I still had a lot to learn (e.g. the proper execution of a class party), but I always did my best.  It was meaningful work. I had autonomy. And I enjoyed the teacher carpool and our discussions on life and the proper way to motivate tricksy ten-year-olds.

One day we were doing some basic geometry in class and the kids were looking a bit sluggish. So I added facial hair and angry eyebrows to one of the triangles as a reward to the more attentive, fully planning to leave it at that.

But somebody laughed, and that meant everyone was suddenly paying attention. To build on that success, I adopted a grumpy, sarcastic voice for the rest of the lessons, and let Harry the Triangle teach . He was not gentle with the remaining geometries.

I’m not condoning insulting behavior here—insults hurt, whether hurled at a perfectly drawn sphere, or a tall and tan Norwegian isosceles. Instead, I made it abundantly clear that Harry the Triangle was neither role model nor paragon of kindly virtues, and the kids were falling out of their chairs. Laughter crying. Demanding that every math class be taught by Harry.

Math had never been so fun. For me or them. For the rest of the year, they did Harry the Triangle fan-fiction in their notebooks and perked up when math class drew nigh. They even played back that scratchy, sarcastic voice at random, inopportune moments.

Ahhh. The halcyon days of explaining odd 10-year-old behavior to classroom observers. If only my parties had been comparable.

Shortly before Christmas break, the room parents cornered me. There were several of them:

RPs: “Mr. Hewett, what’s the plan for the holiday party?”

Me: “Uh. . .”

RPs: “Nevermind. You just teach. We’ll handle the details.”

That was the best party my 4th graders ever had. The details are a bit hazy, but there was an abundance of adult supervision, spilled soda cups, and pizza, which was which was still a huge success back then, but you had to wait about 4 hours for it to be hand-molded and delivered on an old Italian bicycle.

And there were teacher-gifts.

Teacher gifts are the second-best thing about being a teacher. Kids are often generous with their favorite teachers, but this year was even more epic. Every kid wanted to thank me for making math less boring. I got beautiful Christmas cards (tastefully defaced with hand-drawn images of Harry the Triangle), books for the classroom library, more drawings of Harry the Triangle, gift cards, and chocolate.

And a shaving bag.

—-

Really? Like, for travel?

Like, for carefully gathering and arranging toiletries so you knew you were perfectly packed before going on an actual airplane trip? The kind that helped you ensure your toothbrush, paste, razor, floss, chapstick, deodorant, nail clippers, soap and shampoo were all packed and ready for that big, important business meeting in Detroit?

I mean, I knew what it was intellectually, but I didn’t travel. I was a teacher with small kids at home and a single income. I smiled graciously at the student though. I made sure she knew how much I appreciated her gesture. When her shy smile came out, I relaxed just a hair, glad to see that my bemusement hadn’t shown through. What if you were the only kid in the room to give your teacher something different. . . like a shaving bag . . . and then he didn’t like it?

As a teacher, it is important to be diplomatic.

When I woke up this morning, and grabbed my gear to get ready for a day of panels and networking, I stopped and laughed at my younger self. There it was. The 15-year-old Adidas shaving bag from my outside-the-box thinker.

The shaving bag I thought I didn’t need.

The one I take on every trip.

 

 

-February 15, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Constructive Criticism

“The paper is just [the] manuscript. It’s not the story. The story in your head is beautiful. . . You can take a lot of comfort in knowing that all they’re doing is reacting to the manuscript. It’s not [you]. It’s not even [your] story.” –Peter Orullian

 

Nobody likes to get told that they stink. Picture13(Try it sometime.  If you get throat-punched, then maybe you get my point.)

And yet, we like improving.  We like forward progress. We like being better today than we were yesterday.

And sometimes the thing we need to improve is a thing we don’t want to hear.

I have a friend at pick-up soccer who is always dispensing research-backed wisdom about this: “Don’t tell people what they did bad! It’s scientifically proven to trigger a defense mechanism.”

It’s funny, because he seems oblivious to the immediate walls that go up between him and the people he would educate about the dangers of negative feedback. Nobody seems to care that it’s “research-backed.”

And I’ve thought a lot about this. How do I invite positive change into my life as a writer, father, and friend?

If you’re bored, or tired of getting throat-punched for your “feedback,” check out this panel on constructive feedback for writers. Some of it might be useful.

Cheers!

 

Karate Kid at the Holiday Bazaar 2.0

The karate kid made my day.

He comes by, eyes wide, head swiveling, brain probably in sensory overload from the hanging air plants, flashing jewelry, and old-school fantasy books. He’s got a white uniform on with a yellow belt.

“Would you like to learn to juggle?” I say. I don’t bother selling him books any more than the ladies in the near-by booths would try foisting on him perfume and knitted cozies. This kid is looking for action!

He nods once, silent and confident. He’s young enough to still have that “I can do anything!” audacity that comes with wearing a karate uniform, and thinks it’s funny when I tell him that the first trick to juggling is learning to drop the ball properly.

Of course he nails it. And the next 5 steps in the juggling process. We get him up to double-throws and catches before karate beckons. It all takes less than 5 minutes, and his form is good.

He’s not the only one. Every kid in the place wants to see me juggle, even without the swords and torches that I’ve stopped bringing because they make the adjacent booths (and the fire marshal) nervous.

A couple more kids are brave enough to give it a shot themselves. I sell some books. I talk with their parents about literary tradition, and what they’re reading now. And I realize again why I like doing shows.

I thought I’d hate shows. The idea of being that guy who lurks at the mall kiosk and preys on unsuspecting passers-by makes my feet itch.

But I’ve realized, that I can do things my way. I can sit back and pass out free smiles. I can eat my sandwich, even with salami. I can teach kids to juggle and grannies to make snowflakes. Or, I can mix things up and teach the grannies to juggle and the kids to snowflake.

I’ve realized I can pretend to sell books as an excuse to talk to people about literature. And if, by chance, someone says they like Tolkien, or Pratchett, or Dragonlance, I can hand them one of my books and say, this one’s for you. These conversations wake the inner child and chase away the off the aches and pains of not being able to run a 5:20 mile anymore.

I like the quiet moments too. I like that lull around lunchtime where the morning crowd is drab-dribbling away and the afternoon crowd is still eating barbecue and wiping their fingers. I like talking shop with Laura who drove all the way from San Antonio to sell books and, well, talk shop.

Most of all, I like the people.

Thanks to those of you who stopped for conversations, lessons, and/or books. You made my day.

 

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Managing the Mortal Coil

“…what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”
– William Shakespeare

Duo1

 

Sometimes writing good books isn’t about word count. Sometimes it’s just about living through a difficult week so that maybe, someday, you’ll be healthy enough to put words on a page.

2016 was that year for me: newly divorced, single dad, struggling at work, and feeling like a failure in nearly every aspect of my life. It wasn’t true, of course, but I felt it was.

Some nights I went to bed exhausted yet didn’t sleep.

One of the best decisions I made that year was to start attending writing conferences. I went to the World Fantasy conference in Columbus, Ohio. I crashed at my friend Josh’s place. In exchange, I cooked his family dinner. Calzones, I think. It was a soft landing.  There was laughter and kindness. Nobody expected too much of me. He let me guest star in his monthly D&D campaign. At the conference, Marco Palmieri gave me some writing advice and asked me for a partial manuscript. I made friends with some really cool writers. It woke me up a bit, reminded me that I had a lot going for me.

I also attended Life, the Universe, and Everything, or LTUE. I stayed with my sister. I ate delicious meals with her family. Enterprise gave me a free upgrade. I did an interview with Howard Tayler, although my interviewing skills were a bit . . . rusty. Still, the interview turned into a low-intensity, multi-day conversation.

I didn’t do much writing, but I connected with a community that I love, and that gave me something special to look forward to amid the day-to-day. It gave me hope. I made friends.

Fast forward.

Last February I got to do a panel with Howard. I’d been writing more, thriving, and finally felt like I had something to add to the conversation. This particular panel was “self-care.”

I arrived five minutes late and deeply embarrassed.

Howard smiled at me. He’d saved me the panelist seat next to him. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“You know. Taking care of myself,” I said.  “This is the self-care panel, right?”

Howard grinned. Everyone else laughed. Good friends are like that. They set you up for the home run.

Be a friend. Set someone up for the home run. Bring out the best in the people around you.

Activity Report: February 2019

 

 

Activity Report: February 2019 

  • Published Shadowcloaks.
  • Built book stands in my garage.
  • Presented at Life, the Universe, & Everything 37 (LTUE 37).
  • Planned and  drafted my first middle grade novel.

 Highlights from Life, The Universe, & Everything 37:

  • Driving my niece to school in the traditional rental car. (We’ll spare her the selfie for anonymity reasons, but let’s just say February 14th and me get along when it comes to car rentals.)
  • Hanging with Laura Palmer and juggling with Howard Tayler at LTUE’s mass book signing. Unfortunately, we forgot our cameras. All photographs are event-posthumous. (There’s probably a better way to describe that . . . )
  • Learning from Allison Hymas that “acquisitioners” might be called “retrieval specialists” in the modern middle school.
  • Being assigned panels with some very talented writers.
  • Receiving an epic 1-on-1 historic weapon tutorial with Gordon Frye and his wife.
  • Talking with Kelly Barnhill about space camp, Launch Pad, and fortuitous meetings.
  • Scoring a heely goal in a late-night, post-conference futsal game at SportCityUtah.
  • Seeing the opening scene from Shadowcloaks repeated on the Wasatch front.
  • Spreading grins and good cheer with Coco, the Emotional Support Queen Palm among the passengers of Delta Flights 3922. I have more seedlings in my back yard if you need one. . .

It’s been a busy month. Thanks for your support.