Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Behold the Duck

When knowledge and experience collide in one perfect lesson, learning is transformed from such feeble ingredients as "education" and "instruction" into something more. Something higher than the sum of its parts. Something magical. Transformative. I can smell those lessons coming, because the air in my classroom has that special, pre-lightning storm charge to it. Those perfect lessons can be hard to spot, as they can appear in unexpected forms, of their own accord. I can't plan my schedule around them, because they have their own free will, but if I am vigilant, and keep my eyes open, sometimes I find them underfoot, hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered.

Enter, stage left, "Mom Mallard," the newest resident of the Crossroads Academy campus.

Her nest, carefully constructed from downy fluff plucked from her own breast, appeared yesterday in a rather unfortunate spot.

The ramp on the right is the entry to Klee, the main building on our campus, and Mom Mallard's nest is less than two feet from the base of that ramp, hidden between the azalea bushes. Every child in our K-8 school walks by the nest at least six times a day, so between faculty, staff, and students, that's roughly 2,000 feet passing within 18 inches of Mom Mallard's nest. She's been working on her nest for a while - at least for the ten days it takes to lay ten eggs - and we had no idea it was there. When she leaves, she buries the eggs under her plucked feathers, and the deception is perfect. If you were not looking, you would never know a clutch of ten ivory eggs had been secreted there. It's not the spot I would have picked for my own nesting, but who knows what goes on in the a duck's decision-making process?

Today is day two in Duck Watch. On day one, our second grade teacher, Marge, erected a large sign, warning the children to keep their distance from the nest. We set out traffic cones in order to create a line in the sand (there is a literal line in the sand as well, if you look closely at the above photograph) and crossed our fingers.

Marge watched out her window and noticed that as long as the kids keep walking, Mom Mallard stays on the nest, but if they stop for even a quick look, she walks away. Marge has become our Duck Watch point person, and her Day Two sign reads:

Mallards, or anas platyrhynchos, are also known as "dabbling ducks," and this particular duck has apparently been dabbling in Aristotelian philosophy, because she's presented our students with a lesson on this month's virtue.

Crossroads Academy is a core virtues school, and we (even the ducks) take that part of our mission seriously. The core virtues - prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice - make it into nearly every lesson we teach and every part of our daily lives on campus. The younger children use slightly more simplistic language to talk about the virtues, but the discussion begins in kindergarten and continues through the more sophisticated language of eighth grade.

This month's lower school virtue is self-control; stopping to think about our actions before we enact them, giving the best of ourselves, and saying “no” to our weaknesses. The middle school students use the term "temperance," but tomāto, tomăto, it's all the same idea.

In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles' impulsive rages in The Illiad, King Ozymandias' petulant demand that we "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair," Macbeth's bloody, "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other."

This is my favorite part of teaching at Crossroads, even though it took me a year or two to fully commit to the virtues bandwagon. A lot of my prep time is spent setting up opportunities for connection, when the literature and the language of virtues come together in real-world lessons my students can discover for themselves, if they just pay attention and look.  

This month, that lesson walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. 

In Stanford's famous experiment on self-control [this link is not to the original study, but it's funny], children were faced with the reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter or fitter or more proficient at test-taking, but it's the essential skill hidden within all of those positive outcomes. 

Here on our campus, our students must weigh the reality of a quick peek at Mom Mallard versus the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days. If everyone, even the youngest children, can stay away from that nest, we will all benefit. 

Marge explained the situation to her second graders thusly: we get to see ducks a lot, living here in rural New Hampshire. However, what we don't get to see every day is a mother duck leading her ten ducklings across the playground, teaching them to nibble on the grass and find the power of their wings. If we make the right decisions now, and allow her to keep those eggs warm, we will all get to share in the reward, knowing we did our best by Mom Mallard and ourselves.

The sight of those ducklings won't increase Crossroads Academy's scores on the standardized testing we endure each year, but this 28-day education in temperance is not a skill that can be measured with number two pencils and bubble forms. 

This afternoon, I plan to hand the following quote to my seventh grade English students:

"Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power." 
Seneca, Epistles

I will then send them out to the playground, to spend five minutes in silent study of that quote. I will ask them to ponder the relevance of Seneca's words on this day, in this place. My hope is that, if they pay attention and look, they will find the real-world lesson nestled down, underneath Seneca's words, the lesson Mom Mallard and I have constructed on this beautiful spring day in New Hampshire.

At the very least, they will have learned that conventional wisdom isn't always right; sometimes the eleven birds in the bush are worth more than the one bird in the hand.
Photo by Mary Howell

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Luck Be a Lady

Last week, I wrote about the fact that I was tempted to get chickens again. I admit it. I missed their presence. I was all about chickens for years, until a marauding weasel ate them all over one 18-hour period. I used to write a blog about farming and chickens, and my old business card even featured a chicken. A chicken with a quill pen.
I wrote an entire book about all of that farming and chicken stuff called The Education of a Flatlander. It did not get published, which was a good thing. That book stunk as much as my chicken's manure, but it did give me experience in writing a 70,000-word book. That may seem like a middling accomplishment, writing a crappy book that never got published, but when I have another 70,000-word book due in a mere six months, I'm glad I've written a book before. That book is more than just a compilation of words; that book represents an arc, a structure, my experience as a writer.

But back to the chicken thing. I had a gorgeous flock - a flock, perfected. One Black Australorp, an Arucana or two, a couple of Buff Orpingtons, a Silver Laced Wyandotte and a Barred Rock. Yes, they all had names, and they were gorgeous in their diversity.

And then a weasel ate them all while we were away for the weekend. Our neighbor's daughter discovered the carnage, and while I think she's survived the trauma, it's not something you want your average five-year-old to stumble upon after breakfast. I swore off chickens for a year or two. I simply could not handle the stress and disappointment. I even adopted rabbits that used the chicken tractor space - the most gorgeous chicken tractor ever, designed and built by my father for my 40th birthday.

But as this spring grew into summer, it seemed criminal not to fill that lovely chicken tractor with my own chickens. Just a few. I pushed the urge aside for as long as I could, and then I went to my friendly neighborhood farmer, Betty Sue Robie, and asked if she might just have a few extra chickens this year, four or so that she might be able to part with for a price. She admitted that she had a couple of "wandering" Hy-line reds who were driving her nuts; I was practically doing her a favor to take those garden mauraders off her hands.

Last night, she collected a couple of the wanderers from their night-time roosts, and this morning, I became a chicken farmer again.

They are not used to confinement, and are still figuring out where to lay their eggs, but we'll get along fine. They will satisfy my need to have chickens, to have eggs, and to have a disposal system for our kitchen scraps. The rabbits will be fine in their smaller, more modest, rabbit tractor.

And now I deserve that image of a chicken with a pen in its mouth. I do love that chicken graphic and the writer she represents, not to mention the graphic designer who first dreamed her up. That chicken, trotting about my yard with a pen in her mouth represents those years when I struggled through my first 70,000-word manuscript.

My next manuscript is due November 1. I will write it in the company of my chickens, my rabbits, and the creatures who ushered my first manuscript into being. And that feels just about right.

Friday, April 26, 2013

It's Shakespeare Day! It's Shakespeare Day!

I am heading down to watch my third grader perform the role of Duncan in Macbeth in about five minutes, and will do a full post on Crossroads Academy's Shakespeare Day tonight, but in the meantime, here's a small taste of what even little kids can do when they are taught to love and understand Shakespeare. Congratulations to fifth grade teacher Bruce Freeberg and his motley band of fifth grade players.

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Most Felix Emmy

I am feeling very lucky (Latin: felix, felicis, lucky, favored by the stars) tonight. One of the people I adore most in this world, my friend Emmy, is in the photo below, in the green puffy coat. I think you might be familiar with the guys behind her.

I'm going to sleep soundly tonight in the knowledge that my beloved and wonderful friends are in tact, and safe, and well, even in the face of the most infelix, or ill-fated, moments.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Cleopatra. She was eaten by a predator before she started laying. 

I'm contemplating this year's flock. Of chickens, that is. My chickens were massacred by a marauding weasel two winters ago, and I've been reluctant to commit to a new flock, particularly when I'm up against a book deadline. However, I have been reading Lauren Scheuer's Once Upon a Flock, and I'm beguiled. I should know better than to read chick lit in the Spring.

I re-read an old essay I wrote for my first book (never published, and never should have been) called The Education of a Flatlander in order to connect with the reality, rather than the romance, of chickens. Which is hard, because there's lots of romance to be had:

My niece Mina and my son Finnegan, braving a summer storm with the girls. 

Finnegan torments a Buff Orpington. 

My Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Flower, not looking particularly smart. 

Plus, my father built me the most gorgeous chicken tractor EVER for my 40th birthday.

Finn and Bubba painting the coop's frame
Bubba affixing the final touch on the front of the coop. 
The finished product. It's so lovely. 

But there are also ugly details inherent in chicken ownership. The part where the chickens get massacred by weasels. The part where they get egg-bound and die, the part where they turn out to be roosters instead of hens and the neighbors complain about their daybreak serenades. The part where I have to put them out of their misery because they are clearly in pain.

Dewey, my beloved rooster. Sadly, my neighbors did not share my deep affection for him. 

That responsibility is great, so today, I present "Headlong," the story of the first hard choice in my life with chickens. There were many more to come, and it appears there will be many more, but this was my first.


Chickens really do run around when you cut their heads off. And when they fall out of their leg restraints on to a sloping riverbank, they bounce into fence posts and trees until they start to roll, at which point they flap and tumble down the steep bank, and when they hit the brook, there’s some splashing. And then they float away…

The bright and glistening woods were silent but for the babble of the brook and the matter-of-fact “Shit,” that rose with my breath into the cold winter air. I stood, motionless, on the bank. What do I do? Dive for he body in order to save it before it hits the water? Jam the head back on the body and apologize? It all happened so fast, and already, the body was downstream, halfway to the Connecticut River. Damn. I really miscalculated on that one.

The other five hens were fine – if that’s an appropriate way to describe five dead hens – bleeding out as they hung upside-down from a piece of lumber I’d nailed between two trees. This last one had final travel plans, I suppose, and she took the opportunity when I turned my back for a moment.

Her head lay on the ground, beady eye open and staring up in surprise, as if to say, “Hey? What happened? Why can’t I get up? Where’s my body?” It reminded me of the surreal fairytale film Pan’s Labyrinth, and I half expected her head to impart some wisdom, maybe the riddle that would reveal the key to the center of the maze.

I waited.


The eye stared up at the sky, unblinking. No wisdom was forthcoming from this disembodied head. Not today, anyway.

Abby’s frantic barking snapped me back to reality. I picked the head up off the snow and tossed it as far downstream as possible in an attempt to give the head a shot at catching up with its body.

My chicken books never mentioned any of this. I’ve read and re-read Damerow’s and Storey’s chapters on butchering in order to have the process clear in my head, so I could best manage the chicken’s stress rather than my own. It was sort of like learning lines for a play so you can improvise if need be. I’d had plenty of time to think about today, because the moment those chickens came out of their cardboard box a couple of weeks ago, I was fairly sure they were much older than advertised.

When they had calmed down and settled in to their new quarters, I got down to the task of checking them out a little more closely. I did examinations on the hens in order to try to estimate their age, and my best guess was that these hens at least four years old. Their legs, which should be smooth - like a lizard rather than a crusty old dinosaur - were tough, cracked and gnarled. They were pecking at their bleeding feet and the bulbous, scaly crevices on their legs were holding on to wads of poop and mashed feed. Once chickens start picking at each other’s bloody wounds, it’s almost impossible to get them to stop.

I considered the hens one by one, knowing they were probably all the same age, but wanting to give each one the benefit of the doubt. Their keels, or breastbones, were rock hard rather than flexible, and their bellies, which should be soft and spongy, were hard and taut. The space between their pelvic bones was really narrow, as was the space between their keel and pelvic bones. The final death knell sounded when I found that their vents, where the eggs come out, were tight, dry, and round, rather than relaxed, moist and oval.

I had a couple of choices, and, as is my wont, obsessed over each and every one. There’s a good chance Chantal is looking into caller ID so she can screen out my frequent chicken-obsessed phone calls. I bounced some of my questions off her, but when she stopped answering the phone, I spent hours on Google searches: “Chickens,” “Age,” “Lifespan,” “Laying,” “Butchering,” “Spent Hens,” “Egg-Laying Duration.” I settled on two options.

1. I could overwinter the hens and give them one last chance to lay some eggs. Based on their age, they might lay once or twice a week rather than every twenty-five hours, as a young hen would – if they could muster any eggs at all. They would likely suffer from diseases of old age, and eat the equivalent of $150 in feed by May. Putting costs aside, I would spend an hour a day taking care of and talking to hens that will likely end up under the knife anyway. That’s an emotional investment I’m not eager to make.

2. I could simply get it over with and butcher the chickens before I descend into anxiety-fueled fits of indecision. It sounded logical to butcher them now, when they have to huddle together for warmth in the cold and dark coop and get frostbite on their combs. It would be cruel to give them a glimpse of the wonders of spring, when they would get to chase and eat bugs, take dust baths in the sunshine, and nest under the foxglove. Why tempt them with a paradise they could never have?

The final nail in the hens’ coffin came yesterday, when I ordered twenty-five new chicks from McMurray Hatchery. I am splitting an order with Chantal (if she’s still speaking to me when they arrive). We got five Barred Rocks, five Silver Laced Wyandottes, five Buff Orpingtons, five Arucanas, and five Black Australorps. I need time to build a brooder box inside the bigger coop space and to clean out and disinfect the existing coop in anticipation of the new babies and their infection-prone systems. Older chickens can (and will) brutally establish pecking order among new pullets, which can kill them. The chicks will live in a brooder box in the basement at first, but I need to be able to move them into the coop as soon as their bodies can handle the cold. They would not survive in the same coop with an established flock of hens at that age, and I’m NOT building a second coop to segregate old from new.

One of my neighbors ridiculed my angst. He said he would have taken one look at those crusty old hens, and thrown their bodies into the woods for the bears. Another said she didn’t even bother to eat her spent hens, she just cuts their heads off and tosses them over the bank into the brook. Another suggested that I might not want to own chickens if this part of the process is so hard for me. Such advice usually begins, “Time was….” Let me translate: I – and apparently the entire 21st century outside of New Hampshire – am soft, lacking in gumption, wherewithal, and pluck.

But I do want to own chickens, and I do think this part should be hard. I understood that I was beating this particular horse to death, but these were important decisions. I had to do the right thing for myself and for the hens. It would be so much easier to chop their heads off and then feed the neighborhood vermin by throwing the carcasses into the brook, but I felt more responsibility to these hens than is implied in the carelessness of that act. I had to use the meat, if only for stock.

And that leaves the question of the rooster. Ah, Rooster. The bird I was going to execute right off the bat (that’s one method I hadn’t considered). I was growing attached Rooster, and Chantal tried to offer some hope. If I left him in the coop by himself for a while he might get lonely and take the new flock of hens under his protective wing. This sounded a bit optimistic. If a flock of hens could cannibalize new chicks, I was terrified of what a rooster could do to them. Besides, chickens are social animals, and he would get very lonely and very cold without any ladies. I decided to let the question of Rooster’s fate rattle around in my brain while I dispatched the rest of the flock.

Butchering should be done on a cool, clear day, and I wanted the kids to be at school the first time I did this on my own. I could really screw it up and I did not want them to witness any undue suffering or learn any bad habits. The cold helps the birds cool down faster after bleeding so the meat won’t rip when I cut it away from the carcasses. I am doing a sort of partial, short-cut butchering routine. I won’t scald, pluck, and gut the birds, simply remove their skin and feathers like a jacket, then remove the legs and breast meat. If these were young birds, I’d process the whole bodies inside and out, but these old biddies aren’t good for much but stock.

The first five hens went well, and I was in the groove, even establishing a rhythm. Until the accidental decapitation of that last one. I guess I just got a little too confident or stopped paying attention to what I was doing. I hadn’t meant to sever her head, but cutting the throat of a chicken is harder than you’d think, even with a very sharp knife.

I know I had decided on the broomstick on the neck dislocation method, but I’d had to abandon that technique early on in the process. I understood the concept – hell, I’d even seen photographs of how it’s done. But when it came down to actually executing the technique, I hit some snags. It wasn’t hard to get their heads in position - chickens get eerily calm when they are held upside-down by their feet - but no matter how hard I stood on the broomstick, their heads kept slipping out from under it. Maybe it’s easier on bare earth, but the snow made things slippery. I tried twice, and then, not wanting to make the hen suffer any more than she had to, I gave up and went straight to the neck incision. I’ve been watching DVDs of The Tudors, a television series about Henry VIII and the treachery of his advisors, so I’m familiar with the knife to the neck methodology, at least with respect to treasonous courtiers.

I hung the chickens from lengths of rope I’d tied to the 2x4, stretched their heads down, covered their eves with my left hand, and cut into their necks about a half an inch below (or above, from this angle) their heads with as swift and deep a cut as I could muster without severing the head altogether. After the cut is made, they remain still just long enough for me to step away, and then they start to flap and spin around on their rope, splattering red blood in wide arcs across the white snow. The twisting and flapping lasts for about twenty seconds, and then the it slows, and they become still, and it’s quiet again.

Rooster was more skittish than the hens, so he ran around inside the coop when I tried to catch him. I don’t think he knew – he’d been inside the whole time and the hens had not made any sounds of distress in their final moments. I finally pinned him next to the nesting boxes, thanked him for being such a good rooster, and secured his feet in the final loop, next to his motionless flock.

He flapped the least as he bled out. I felt the need to keep him around in some form, so I saved a couple of his long, curved tail sickles. Maybe I will make Finnegan a Peter Pan hat, or see if I can fashion a tiny quill.

Once the the bodies were cool, I butchered the chickens, one by one, on the makeshift plywood table I set up in the backyard, next to the brook. The sounds of the brook distracted and soothed me during the less enjoyable parts of the process. I’d thought about listening to my iPod while I cleaned the birds, but I decided against it. I wanted to be truly present as I processed the bodies.

The hens certainly didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part III

I know, I know. I promised the next installment of my story “tomorrow,” but as often happens, circumstances intervened.

So…where was I? Ah, yes, after Part I, and Part IILaurie finally agreed to be my agent. Oh, and Laurie read my last post and reminded me that due to a miscommunication, she was under the impression that I had already signed with an agent when I contacted her about the possibility of working with her after “Why Parents Need toLet Their Children Fail” went viral. So there’s another lesson: when approaching an agent – particularly the ethical ones – make sure they know you don’t already have an agent. Oops.

The evening after I signed with Laurie, I sat down with my laptop, a bunch of books about how to write a nonfiction book proposal (that I’d already read about fifty times), all the accumulated scraps of paper around my side of the bed bearing my late-night ideas, and the pages of notes I’d taken during my phone call with Laurie, and began to write the proposal for what would later be called The Gift of Failure. I had a blueprint for a nonfiction proposal from a friend who had successfully landed an agent based on her [compelling and amazing] proposal, so I worked from that example.

Four days later, I’d banged out a first draft of the proposal and sent it off to Laurie. My favorite concerns included a clever title and the overview, but Laurie kindly and oh-so-supportively pointed out that we had bigger fish to fry in the short term. Phooey. I really liked my very clever, yet altogether unclear titles.

Two or three days later, the proposal came back with edits. Lots of them. Lots and lots and lots of them. I am used to markup from editors, and have had the privilege to work with some really amazing, smart, and effective editors like K.J. Dell’Antonia, Robert Pondiscio, and Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, but Laurie was a whole different kind of editor. She was editing for content, of course, but she was also editing for style, and with a much larger vision in mind. She was editing for approaches and angles I had not even considered, and I had to admit that every single one of her suggestions improved my first draft by leaps and bounds. Some sections had so many changes and re-arrangements that Laurie even suggested I hide the tracked changes and read it fresh. That was a good tip.

Passes two and three went pretty quickly, and by the end of that week, we had a final draft and had scheduled a phone call to talk strategy. Laurie retreated to her war room over the weekend to plan which editors would receive our submission, and I waited for the master to reveal her master plan. On Monday, Laurie unveiled her list, and the proposal went out to a list of thirteen or fourteen editors.

Within a day of submission, we knew we were going to have an auction. An auction can happen when more than one editor is interested, and we had at least three or four interested in talking to me and, if all went well, bidding. Laurie had promised daily submission updates at around six every evening, but between the pre-empts (hold on, I will get there) and the large number of editors interested, she was often in contact three or four times a day. By the end of the week, Laurie was able to assess the field, and there were eleven or twelve publishers in the mix, and Laurie had begun the process of setting up phone calls with the editors.

Here’s where I finally came to understand how good Laurie is: she asked for my schedule, and I sent her my very complicated schedule that includes both my daily class schedule my myriad kid-related obligations. Laurie scheduled my calls with the editors between my classes and after school, and a couple of days before I was to speak with the editors, she sent me a dossier for each. She detailed that editor’s recent acquisitions, of course, but for many of the editors, I knew the details of their interests, education, children’s names, their spouses’ occupations, and any other tidbits that I might find helpful to my conversation. I had acquaintances in common with many of the editors, and it was incredibly reassuring to have more than enough information to feel comfortable during the phone call.

Editor phone calls are exhausting. They reminded me a lot of parent-teacher conferences, actually, because I had to be my very best, most impressive, charismatic and personable self for long stretches of time. Each phone call lasted roughly an hour, with about three or four minutes in between to stretch my legs and get a drink of water. Laurie wanted me to email her after each call, but the timing was often so tight thanks to my full-time teaching schedule that I had to dash off a quick one- or two-line email before the phone rang again.

My favorite part of this process was the accumulated list of phone numbers on my phone’s caller ID memory. I often use this feature of my home phone to call my friends and family because I’m frankly too lazy to commit these numbers to memory, and it’s easier to simply scroll through for the number I need. I think my phone holds around 20 numbers, and that’s usually enough to hold the numbers of the people who call me most often. That week, however, all the big names in the publishing industry were in there, punctuated by my parents’ home phone number and my friends’ cell phone numbers. I was a little trippy.

I did thirteen editor phone calls over five days. And here’s the thing – all of these women were amazing. Yes, they were all women, and despite the salesmanship being slung about, I could tell that given different circumstances, I could be friends with each and every one of them. There wasn’t one phone call that worried me. Sure, there were some I loved more than others – one phone call prompted me to email Laurie mid-call and admit to loving her so much I feared I might already be pregnant with her baby – but overall, these were smart and nice women. So good for you, publishing industry. You’ve got some cool women there.

So back to pre-empts. Pre-empts happen when a publisher wants to offer a number big enough that they might just be able to snag the book early and avoid an auction. Kind of like "Buy it Now" on Ebay. From what I have learned, however, auctions are good for authors and agents. If you’ve ever been to an estate auction, you’ve seen it. It gets competitive, and people get invested either due to an emotional attachment or pride, and all of that drives the price up. The first pre-empt came during a conversation with my mother-in-law about what to eat for dinner. Laurie presented it to me, as an agent must, and then EMPHATICALLY and with great forcefulness, encouraged me to turn it down. Which I did, with trembling fingers. The first pre-empt was almost three times what I had ever dared to hope for. Late at night, when my husband and I allowed ourselves to talk about possible advance amounts if I ever sold my book, we never even dared to go near this first pre-empt number. That number was just crazy talk. 

The second pre-empt came during a dinner out, again with my in-laws, who were visiting for a long weekend. I swallowed hard and followed Laurie’s advice, rejecting that offer as well.

More pre-empts came in, some as what Laurie termed “valentines,” or numbers that were perfectly lovely, but meant to show a good faith commitment to the purchase of my book more than anything else. 

Again, yow. What if interest soured? The auction would have no floor bid – or entry level number at which the auction had to begin – so what if the bidders came in super-low and the bidding never went as high as the pre-empt? What did I know? I’ve never been in this position before.

The auction was set for Wednesday, March 27. Initial bids were due in by 11 AM, and we had eleven editors committed to bid. The first bid came in at well below the pre-empt amounts and I was fairly sure I’d been an idiot. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. But Laurie anticipated my freakout. “First bid! (Just a reminder, opening bids are strategic, not necessarily indicative.)” Reassuring, but still…I was at school that day and did my best to stay calm and not freak out on the kids. Not a lot of grading got done that day. I was too afraid to subject my students' work to my fractured concentration and marginal hold on sanity. 

My auction was a round-robin style auction, in which everyone bids, and then the lowest bidder is informed of the highest bid, which they can either top or they can drop out of the auction. Each bid took at least an hour to come in, because Laurie would call the editor, they would say they had to think about it or talk to someone, and then they would call her back. Each interval between bids went on forever, and I put some serious wear and tear on my laptop mouse pad, what with all that refreshing of my email inbox.

I actually had lost track of which publisher was which editor, and what we talked about on the phone, so I had all of those lovely dossiers from Laurie printed out, with my notes scrawled all over them, and I had to keep referring back to them to figure out who was in and who was out. As editors dropped out, I filed the dossiers away. I also cleaned obsessively when I was at home. My house has never been cleaner. I cleaned inside drawers, closets, the rabbit hutch.

At the end of the first day, we were nowhere near done. The auction would go to Thursday, and as Friday was Good Friday, I was concerned that this thing could go in to the following week, and I’d be dead of nervous exhaustion by then. By the time Thursday was almost out, we still had six editors in the mix, so Laurie checked to make sure everyone was going to be available to bid on Friday, and we were good to go for a third day. We started Friday with five bidders, and as Crossroads Academy was not in session that day, I had all the freedom in the world to obsess about the auction and nothing else. I warned Laurie that I was running out of things to clean. I had even cleaned the dog's teeth and ears.

By afternoon on Friday, we were down to three editors, and it all came down to two in the waning moments before the close of day. In the end, the top three or four bidders were all editors I adored, and as I had final say on who I wanted to work with (I could even pick editors who had dropped out days before), I was able to relax a little.

In the end, I went with the editor that felt right for me. The difference between the top bidder and the three or four lower bidders was insignificant enough that I was free to review my notes, talk things out with Laurie, and go with my gut and heart rather than the highest bid.

I chose Gail Winston, of HarperCollins for her expertise, smarts, body of work, and our phone call. She had been at the top of my list from the very beginning, and my phone call with her only reinforced what I’d heard of her from other writers and agents.

So the ride begins. My manuscript delivery date is this fall, with publication slated for fall of 2014. My life has already changed in many ways, and I’m simply excited for the coming adventure. This week will be one of firsts – my first photo shoot, my first editor meeting, my first visit to a publisher, my first time purchasing more than one [discounted] item of clothing at a time (for the aforementioned photo shoot).

And I am grateful. Extremely grateful.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part II

About two months ago, I wrote a post detailing the insanity I encountered when an article I wrote for the Atlantic, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail," went viral. I wrote the post on a Sunday, it was accepted for publication at the Atlantic on a Monday (after being rejected by a couple of other publications), went live on Tuesday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, my voicemail was full of interview requests. Thursday through Sunday was a blur, and by the time the dust settled, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail" had been shared on Facebook almost 100,000 times and had been reprinted in newspapers from Australia to Canada. 

The emails that flooded my inbox were overwhelming. I received letters from school administrators, parents, teachers, coaches, psychologists, all in support of what I'd written, asking questions about how to let their children fail, how to step back and allow their children to learn resilience. A few principals announced they would be handing this article out to every new parent at their school one said that it would be required reading for all new students. Coaches asked me expand my focus to sports and challenge parents to step back and allow their children to experience true sportsmanship through loss. I read every bit of feedback, and it was unfailingly supportive. 

Now, I've been writing on the national stage for a while now, and this absence of negativity threw me for a loop. Purely positive feedback never happens, at least not in my experience. I could write about the process of putting together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I'd receive a torrent of angry emails detailing my prejudice against strawberry jam or my clear and tragic ignorance on the subject of crust-cutting. That's the nature of writing online, and it's part of what I adore about the process. The feedback is immediate, intense, and highly entertaining.

But back to the saga. Two days after I returned home from New York City, I approached the agent I have been courting for many years. She first rejected me seven years ago, after reading my first book, and she was right to let me down easy. That book was a great education in writing, but it had negligible literary or stylistic merit. She certainly could not have sold that book to a publisher. A couple of years later, I tried again, this time with two ideas:
Two years ago, you were kind enough to humor our mutual friend [...] and consider some chapters from my first book, The Education of a Flatlander. While it was not what you were looking to represent at the time, you were incredibly kind and supportive in your rejection. You also encouraged me to try again someday. It's finally someday, and I have a couple of new projects I would like you to consider. I am an avid follower of your blog and Twitter feed and find both of them invaluable in my education as a writer. I hope those lessons, many more publishing credits to my name, and lots of time at the keyboard has raised my game.

...and she she promptly rejected me again. Well, part of my query anyway. She was not interested in the first idea, but she encouraged me to send her a full proposal for the second idea, Coming of Age in the Middle, about teaching middle school. I sent her a proposal for that book - which was, admittedly, half-baked. It was an amorphous collection of thoughts and ideas that had not had proper time to settle into a coherent book. She emailed back:
Dear Jessica,
Thanks for sending your proposal for COMING OF AGE IN THE MIDDLE. I found it engaging, but to be honest, I'm not sure what to make of it. It's a little like reading classroom scene excerpts from a movie script.[...] There isn't a narrative, and it's not a practical guide. I'm perplexed as to how I would pitch it or how a publisher would position it. 

Again, she was totally, absolutely, spot-on. I bashed away at three or four variations of Coming of Age in the Middle idea, but no matter how much I squished it and molded it into something vaguely book-like, it always disintegrated into an unformed heap of essays and blog posts. I didn't really know what book I was writing yet, and she knew it. I kept sending new versions, emails that began, "Hi, it's me again," and god bless her, she kept reading them. But in the end, she wished me luck, patted me on the head, and send me on my way.

When the Atlantic article hit, and the response was so encouraging, I hoped I finally had a project that was worthy of her notice and respect. I emailed her and pleaded for one more try. She'd heard about the success of the Atlantic article, so she agreed to talk to me on the phone that week. And in that phone call, we finally had a meeting of the minds. We both saw it - the same book, clearly defined, pitch-able and sell-able, and we were both eager to to be a part of it. As the conversation drew to a close, she said she'd be sending a contract by email, and if I felt good about working with her, I should sign it, and send it back. 

Finally - dear lord finally - my adoration and respect was requited, and I secured my dream agent,  Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company. The agent of my dreams. It only took seven years, three queries, and five proposals, all presented to her on bended knee, to get her to say yes. 

Tomorrow's installment: "When Opportunity Knocks: Anatomy of a Viral Post, Part III." In which Laurie and I draft a book proposal, send it out to editors, and find ourselves in a feeding frenzy.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Arma Virumque Cano

In last night's dreams, I was on a frozen pond with my students, teaching English. Robert Frost, specifically. The ice may be thawing in reality, but in my dreams, my students stand on the thin, fragile ice of Post Pond. As we walked and talked, the ice under my feet began to give way. I did what any good New Englander would do; I fell flat, and spread my surface area out over the weak ice. My students did the same, and lay on their stomachs, reaching their arms out to pull me off of the soft ice. I heard a loud crack, and the surface of the pond gave way under my students. I knew right away I was going to have to get in the water and swim away from the safety of the ice, behind them, to make sure each one was able to grab on to the solid promise of safety. People on the shore brought long branches and hauled my students out, one by one, and I woke up as the last one was pulled out, on to the surface of the pond.

Becoming a teacher was much like becoming a parent, in that I had completely underestimated the weight of the job when I got my first post. Sure, I assumed I would feel a sense of duty toward my students, but I had no idea that it would extend outside the classroom, past graduation, into long term relationships with my former adivsees. I expected to attend graduations, but I was caught off guard by the weddings, births, and particularly the funerals.

I know there are teachers out there who choose to confine their duties to the classroom, but I can't be that kind of teacher. I feel a greater duty. I feel pietas.

Pietas is most commonly translated from the Greek as "piety," but this definition is inadequate. In his translation of The Aeneid, Robert Fagles translates the word as "devotion," but that's not quite right, either. Pietas is one’s duty and expected behavior toward all those to whom duty is owed. Just as I owe pietas toward my students, my family, my boss, any gods I worship, these people owe pietas to me in return.

Pietas can suck. Pietas is hard. Pietas wakes me up at night.

But what am I going to do? I am a teacher; it's my fate. Some days, I want to stay in bed, have more time to work on my writing projects, maybe even use that law degree I'm still paying off. In the end, though, I would know that I had strayed from my path. Even when other opportunities threaten to burn my world down to the ground, I can't keep from running back in and saving what I can.

Just as Aeneas could not ignore his fate, just as he felt obligated to toss Anchises and his household gods over his shoulders and stumble to safety, I, too, have to get out of my warm bed every morning so I can make sure all of my students are hauled to a place of learning and safety.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

To the Thawing Wind

Spring comes slow to New Hampshire. It visits for a day only to retreat in a huff, leaving mud and frost heaves and fallen limbs behind. A sunny day may end in flurries, and frigid nights give way to gentle spring breezes by noon. 

As the snow melts away and the lower school children dig their drainage ditches in the Crossroads Academy playground in order to hasten the flow of winter into spring, it can become difficult for all of us to keep our minds and hearts inside the classroom. The sunshine beckons us outdoors with its promise of warmth and renewal. If we can’t hold class outdoors, I bring the outdoors to my students. I give in to our yearning for spring by teaching British romantic poetry and scheduling the annual seventh grade “Poetry on the Playground” event. My seventh graders memorize poetry and recite it during the lower school recess. They shout, gesticulate, and pander to the audience of wiggly, giggly children. They expound on Wordsworth's primrose tufts and dramatize the moment when the vorpal sword goes snicker-snack and then they go galumphing back.

Spring also marks the advent of graduation season, so my eighth graders improve their vocal projection by reciting speeches over the swollen roar of Hewes Brook. They stand on the bridge, and we sit about twenty feet away on soft pine needles and raise our hands when their words disappear amidst the the wind and water. By the time they stand in front of their proud, weepy families this June, their words will be have been tempered by that wind and water, ringing out clear, loud, and strong.

No matter how often I give into their urge to muck about in the mud, water and warm air, everyone seems to hit their spring fever limit, the moment when it seems impossible, unfathomable to pay attention to the mundane details of grammar, geometry or geography for one more second. It even happens to me, and I love teaching grammar. When the fever hits hard, I try to remember that I’m teaching my students one of the most important lessons I impart: the virtue of self-control. I take a deep breath, give one last, wistful look out the window, and turn my attention back to the subtle difference between a gerund and a participle.

Self-control may be scarce in the last months of school, but when I get the urge to ditch my grammar book and run out into the woods to commune with the spirits of the trees, I dig deep into my well of temperance, and hope that my students will find the strength to do the same. 

"To the Thawing Wind"Robert Frost 
Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate'er you do tonight,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit's crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o'er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.