Things I Used to Imagine at Night

On the nights I couldn’t seem to fall asleep, I used to employ my favorite “Imaginings.”

I used to pretend that the walls to my bedroom expanded out and out and out into a vast dormitory with rows and rows of old fashioned hospital beds, the kind with metal bars and headboards like the backs of folding chairs.  In this dormitory lived a hundred other girls, all the cliques one would expect from high school, and we were in the charge of at least one surly matron and occasionally her kinder, younger helper.  I would whisper to the other girls in the beds surrounding me until we had to hush because the matron was walking by.  The circumstances surrounding the dormitory changed.  Sometimes it was a camp for training us to be servants to the upper classes.  Sometimes it was an orphanage.  (It really depended what books I’d been reading lately.)  But that didn’t matter so much, because I only played this game at night, so I only imagined the dormitory itself.

I used to pretend that the ground below my bedroom window dropped away to a moat far below my tower, because I was a queen tucked up in her castle.  Except I was no orthodox queen – I had privateers with whom I could only meet at night for fear of tipping my hand to the sleazy ambassadors at my court.  I imagined a trusted maidservant showing the fierce pirates up to my sitting room, where we pored over battle plans until the wee hours of the night.  Sometimes I even held audiences with thieves from all over the provinces, gleaning evidence of treason by sending them to steal from my nobles.

I used to pretend that mine was the nicest room the boardinghouse had to offer, a respite from my long, secretive journey.  But I couldn’t rest just yet.  I had to listen for suspicious murmurs from the hostess downstairs, who looked at me sidelong when I paid for the room (a girl traveling alone?) and who might this very moment be disclosing my whereabouts to my pursuers – for a pretty penny, of course.

I used to pretend I was a favored servant in the palace of a sultan (particularly after I discovered the Arabian Nights), keeping tabs on court intrigue from my strategically placed room at the center of the harem.  My true loyalties shifted from night to night – sometimes I would pass on information to the sultan, and sometimes I would bide my time.

On the nights I couldn’t seem to fall asleep, I used to pretend a lot of things.  And even though I always woke up as myself again, I think the Imaginings – especially the ones I revisited over and over and over – left their mark.

Teaching Moments with Skits and Donuts

Summer always meant Vacation Bible School when I was growing up.  My mother complains says that she can still remember all six or seven verses of “the Moses Song” from my first year in VBS (“Mooooooses, floating in a basket, drifting down the river Nile.  Whoooooooo will, who will save him?  God will save this lit-tull child!”  There were hand motions and a lot of six-year-olds screaming the words.  I’m sure it was memorable indeed).  I loved this five-day opportunity to make summer as much like school as possible.  My mom probably loved the opportunity to have someone else entertain Bird and I while she ran errands.

You could only attend VBS as a student through 5th grade, so then, naturally, because I hadn’t had enough of the mind-numbingly repetitive songs and the cutesy themes (OK, I actually love the decorations in the Social Hall every year), I decided to be a volunteer for several years – until I graduated high school, actually.

One year, the Social Hall was set up to look like a Roman marketplace.  I forget the theme, but it was something about the book of Acts and the apostles trying to avoid persecution in the early Church.  There was even a cave (made of gray butcher paper and stacks of chairs) set up in the hallway for students to duck into whenever the “guards” walked by.  I worked in the abacus stall, helping kids string beads in cardboard frames (which usually took so long we didn’t have time to show them how it worked…which was fortunate, since we didn’t actually know).

I was also in a skit.

Every morning, volunteers would act out a short scene teaching one of the values related to that day’s Bible story.  I was supposed to be the kindly baker who buys a thief’s freedom from the surly guard, even though he steals bread right off my tray.  It was supposed to demonstrate forgiveness or something.

However, there were several problems with this plan.

  1. This skit took place at snack time, with a tray of actual pieces of bread/donuts to entice the kids, instead of during the morning assembly when they were all sitting quietly already. Obviously, the kids found the food more interesting than the stilted dialogue.
  2. The boy chosen to play the thief and the boy chosen to play the guard were brothers.  Identical twins, actually.  Who spoke very fast.  And got a little too into the whole “arrest” part of the skit.  Which led to…
  3. …an adult volunteer mistaking the spectacle for a real fight, coming over, physically separating the brothers, interrupting the skit to lecture them on acting their age in front of the kids.  At which point I noticed the students turning toward us with wide eyes.  Oh, sure, now they paid attention.
  4. None of us knew how seriously to take this, so we weren’t sure at what point we were supposed to break character.  I tried to explain to the adult that we were acting, but he didn’t seem to get it.
  5. The second time we performed the skit (there were 2 snack time shifts), no one had reset the gold I was supposed to use to pay off the guard, so I had to run around to the stalls looking for the plastic “gold” coins the kids used to gain entrance to their activities.  So essentially it looked like I was stealing in order to save a thief.  Oy.
  6. We were supposed to use a microphone so the kids could hear us, but passing the mic from person to person doesn’t make for a particularly realistic argument, nor does it make a lot of sense for a baker handing out trays of donuts to be holding a microphone in the other hand.

Hopefully our failure of a skit did not make or break anyone’s VBS experience.  But the important thing is, the kids learned their theme songs by the end-of-week show.

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My Life in Books, Part 2: Rereading Runaways

Elementary school was a time of reading and rereading for me as I discovered the escapism of my favorite books.  Several of my favorites tended toward children cleverly making their own way in the world – with a lot of detailed lists of the chores and tasks involved in their survivalist adventures.

1. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

download (4)This was the best runaway book ever.  Claudia spends the first several chapters of the book preparing extensively for her escape from her boring suburban life – saving her tiny allowance, choosing a sibling to accompany her, selecting a destination.  Needless to say, I identified with this level of forethought; I was never one to just take off in anger.  I also loved the idea of living in a museum, having it all to myself at night, and investigating a mysterious statue.  And then, when Claudia and her brother meet Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?  I wanted to be her too, this little old lady living in a house full of her own personal collection of artifacts with a secretive filing system that makes sense only to her.  She was great!  But more than that, the characters seemed to understand the escapism I was seeking in the very books I read.  It wasn’t about anything specifically bad in everyday life.  It was about “coming home different,” as Claudia puts it, having something to assuage the ordinariness of home life.  It was about having a piece of adventure to hold onto while one quietly assumed one’s daily duties – precisely the reason I read.

2. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

9780064400589_custom-0dc27ef1292bfe782c935e615a12b66a172f4107-s6-c30Like Claudia, Julie is realistic about her plans.  She wants a change of life, not just to make a scene.  Escaping a fairytale-esque step-family situation (in other words, not good), Julie ends up living on the Arctic tundra and befriending a pack of wolves.  She lives by the same rhythms of nature as the animals she follows, from lemmings to caribou to the wolves themselves.  Even though the book was full of detailed technical descriptions (e.g., Julie makes her own winter clothes out of caribou skin…after making her own needle and thread from other parts of the caribou), I pored over it as a kid.  I think I liked the idea of being self-sufficient, of filling my day with simple but useful things.  There wasn’t much dialogue, except between Julie and her imagined voices for the wolves, but it reassured me that I wasn’t the only one who imagined conversations in her head.

It was also one of my first books with a bittersweet ending; the wolves move on.  So does Julie, who goes to live with her father.  As much as I wished she could go with the wolves every time I reread the book, Julie’s sense of self was more important than a happy ending for the sake of happy endings.

3. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George…again.  Hmm.  Honestly never knew that.

JacketAnother self-sufficient, outdoorsy runaway book, I think I mainly loved this one because of the falcon.  I wasn’t planning to burn my home out of a hollow tree, or make snares, but falconry?  That’s just cool.  Minus the part about stealing a nestling.  However, in case I ever did decide to dash off to the forests of Washington (and goodness knows there are plenty to choose from), this book would have provided a wonderful manual.

This was another unsatisfying ending, at least for me.  Sam’s family shows up, agreeing that they could all “get away” from society.  But I wanted Sam to live happily ever after in his solitude.  It frustrated me that his family caught up with him, even if he was lonely.  I liked the idea of carving out a life (literally) alone somewhere.  It appealed to my introversion.  So I kept rereading it, despite the ending.

4. Mandy by Julie (Andrews) Edwards

mandyEven before I became familiar with the flawless Queen of Everything Julie Andrews, I loved this book.  I actually recommended this book to my kindergarten teacher’s daughter (she was in 4th grade at the time, so this made me very proud).  Although not exactly like the other runaways on this list, Mandy also has a secret escape from her everyday life.  Again, this appealed to my introverted side; I preferred my books, imagined experiences of my own or shared with Bird, to playdates or sports.  Mandy climbs over the orphanage wall (what young reader doesn’t love a good orphan story?) and discovers an abandoned cottage on the neighboring estate.  She begins fixing it up.  She figures out how to budget for supplies, schedules her visits when she knows no one will be looking, and works until her fingers blister.  Weirdly, I enjoyed the lists of her chores.  It was like vicarious cleaning pleasure, and as a kindergartener I wished I could find my own little house to fix up just right.  This may sound as though it goes against my feminist grain, but it was more about creating a world, a haven of one’s own (Mandy only wants something that’s hers, rather than something charity or the orphanage gives her) than just following some kind of societal norm.

My Life in Books, Part 1: The Formative Favorites

I can divide up my life by books: epochs of reading indicated by the particular volume that served as my security blanket, my favorite refuge, for that period.  These are the formative few that found me at exactly the moment I needed them.

1. Angelfish by Laurence Yep

41LEKDC-oYL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_The W-Z shelf in my elementary school library formed a corner with another, lower shelf that, when I settled criss-cross onto the nubbly carpet, made me feel safe – walled up in a castle.  The books at eye level when I situated myself this way included Angelfish, which I checked out so many times throughout the years at St. C’s that the librarian gave me that copy as a graduation present at the end of 8th grade.  She said it was clearly mine.  I called it my Belle book, after the scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when the bookseller gives Belle her favorite book free of charge.  The reason I read it 17 times in a single year is that Angelfish is a love story about a girl and dance.  Robin, the narrator, loves ballet so much she declares she will always find some way to be a part of it, even if it means just sweeping the stage.  “That’s the way you love something when you’re young,” her teacher responds.  The plot involves Robin helping a victim of the Chinese Revolution rediscover his own art – originally dance as well, now painting – and reaffirm the value of having that joy in one’s life.  Having quit my own ballet lessons years before, I probably couldn’t have told you in 8th grade why I loved this book so much.  Now I think I needed it to give me an example of how to hold on to your passion despite the naysayers.

2. Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede

51eC4uO6deL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This must have been one of my first feminist books.  The stubborn, witty heroine, Cimorene, gets bored being a princess, so she runs away to serve a dragon.  Although irritated by the conventions that bind her (dealing with all those princes trying to rescue her against her will, for instance), Cimorene also frequently uses her society’s stereotypes of silly princesses to her own advantage (e.g., getting an evil wizard to let slip a few details of his plan).  She finds a way of life that makes her happy and fulfilled even though few people originally understand her desires.  Beyond the quips and amusing dialogue that appealed to me as a sarcastic teenager, Dragons showed me that if you persist in chasing your dreams, you’ll find people who will listen to you.  The dragon she serves, for instance, believes Cimorene when everyone else wants to write her off as just another hysterical princess.  Plus there’s swordfighting.  Who doesn’t love swordfighting?

3. Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner

41unxgoV6iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I gave up reading anything but religious books for Lent one year, and it led me to this memoir of a Jewish girl turned Episcopalian.  Nearly every page held a turn of phrase that made me think, “Yes, exactly,” or “I thought that was just me!”  In a section on Lent, the author’s priest asks her to give up reading for the liturgical season, and I nearly dropped the book in surprise.  I just saw so much of myself and my own questions and confusion about faith (and life in general) in this book, even though I was raised Catholic and intend to remain in the Church.  I love the honesty about the difficult parts of belief and the self-awareness the author demonstrates in her writing.  Once I finished the book, I immediately turned to the first page again, this time with a pencil to underline and annotate the parts that spoke to me the most.  Since then, I’ve read it nearly a dozen times, at least once a year, each time making new notes and looking back on my past self’s questions and scribbles about faith and life.

4. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

6a00d8345169e469e2016760e64a3f970bFrankie does not get the guy.  Her friends and family don’t accept her as she is.  But that’s not the point.  When I started high school, I could identify with Frankie’s sense of confinement within others’ perceptions of her.  Her family doesn’t deem her smart enough to use her cell phone when she gets lost or attend a prestigious boarding school without a nice boyfriend to “look after her.”  The boyfriend is not much better; although most of Frankie’s schemes are designed to earn his respect, she soon discovers that he preferred it when she was arm candy in need of his protection.  But she keeps going, realizing that she actually wants to prove something to herself more than to her boyfriend.  After that, others’ opinions don’t matter so much.  By the end, no one quite knows what to do with Frankie, except Frankie herself.  In my freshman year of high school, when I discovered this book, I had just been frozen out by the group of girls I used to rely on for approval.  I needed the self-discovery role model that Frankie provides.  And I needed the honesty of the last chapter: “She might go crazy…They do sometimes go crazy, these people, because the world is telling them not to want the things they want…another possibility – the possibility I hold out for – is that Frankie Landau-Banks will open the doors she is trying to get through.  And she will grow up to change the world.”

Cringe-Worthy Jewelry Choices

Moving back into my mom’s house yesterday, I went on a cleaning spree as I attempted to cram all my belongings into the room that I only inhabit on vacations.  And boy, did I dig deep.

I found Every Single Homecoming T-shirt from high school.  I found pajamas I haven’t worn since 8th grade.  I found my Nintendo DS (and promptly sat down to conquer the world in Civilization Revolution, which was still in the game slot).  I found the hardcover notebook in which I wrote my very first spy novel, a twenty-page, painstakingly handwritten epic about a neighborhood society of dogs, who uphold the age-old feud between felines and canines, and a turncoat kitten.  I found the watch I borrowed from my mom for an AP test four years ago.

And I found a box full of jewelry I used to love.

These included such gems as a tattered peace sign bracelet; a necklace with fake silver, gold, and bronze links; another necklace with one of those homemade pendants from a repurposed Scrabble tile; another necklace with some kind of giant fake amethyst that frankly probably made me look like I thought I belonged in a fantasy novel (which, to be fair, would have made high school a hell of a lot more fun); and a truly hideous flower pendant choker.

I could remember loving every one of these pieces, planning entire outfits very carefully around the grayish white peace sign bracelet or the weird flower pendant.  I could remember the heady feeling of no longer having to wear a uniform (#CatholicSchoolKid), the awkwardness of trying to figure out my own style, and the terror of having my Then-Best-Friend, who I idolized, look me up and down and say, “Really?”

My style, of course, has evolved over the years.  I stopped looking to others for the final say.  I got addicted to Pinterest and all its inspirations.  I figured out what actually looked good and what didn’t.

But I remember what it felt like to be that awkward, shy, please-God-don’t-anybody-look-at-me-too-closely girl who hoped that the jewelry would help me pretend I knew what I was doing.  It was one of those moments I think a lot of people have where we want to give our past selves some reassurance that they’re going to turn out okay.

The nostalgia was not quite strong enough, though, to save these beauties from the Donate Pile.

That Time I Almost Punched a Sexist

As a freshman in high school, I was the type of girl who enjoyed stepping menacingly toward my male friends when they said something that offended me, even though we all knew I would never actually lay a finger on them. Besides, I was too short to be scary. (I’m still short, but I sometimes pride myself on the ability to be menacing when necessary.)  Violence was not, in fact, my go-to problem solving strategy.

Still, I knew I would have a hard time not slapping the smirk off P.B.’s face the minute I met him.

calvin and susie bug

We were in English, one of the few classes in which I was not on the honors track because my high school did not have an honors English class for freshmen.  While by junior year I could happily spend 75% of the day away from those students to whom I was merely a nerd who took school too seriously, freshman English required me to rub shoulders with people who still stopped at the end of every line, whether or not there was a period, when reading aloud.  (The teacher also frequently asked my help spelling things on the board, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his pedantic abilities, but I digress.)

I don’t remember how it started – the teacher must have asked us to have a conversation about something in the lesson with a partner nearby – but somehow I found myself talking to P.B., who was twisted around from his seat in front of me and was draping one lanky arm across my open copy of Lord of the Flies.  Glaring, I slid it out from under him so he wouldn’t wrinkle the page.  Whatever we were originally supposed to be discussing, the conversation turned to grades and schedules.  He bragged that he had a B+ in the class, to which I nodded approval.

I was less approving of his shock at the fact that I had a high A.  He began quizzing me on my grades and how many honors classes I was in.  At first I didn’t care, but it quickly grew satisfying to see him attempting to process the idea that I was probably beating him in the GPA department.

“Well, I must have a higher grade than you in math,” he said finally, leaning back against the metal bar connecting his chair to his desk.  (His arm was still across my desk.)

I rolled my eyes.  “I’m in Geometry Honors and you’re in Algebra,” I said, trying to point out that he couldn’t really compare our grades there because we were studying entirely different things.

He smirked patronizingly.  “I’m still probably better than you.”

“Why would you assume that?”

“Because guys are better at it than girls.  You just aren’t smart enough to think that way.”  The most remarkable thing, now that I look back on it, is his tone – there was no malice.  He was simply stating something of which he was utterly convinced.

“That…is..the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, trying to control my tone.

He shrugged.  “It’s true.”

Almost unconsciously, as though independent from my body, my left hand curled into a fist and my elbow drew back as though I was about to fire an arrow from a bow.  I had never punched anyone before, but P.B. was about to be the lucky first.

Until my teacher materialized at my side and asked, “How’s the conversation going here?” a little too brightly, having seen it all unfold from across the room.  I honestly don’t remember the rest of that class, although I do remember that when we next came to English the teacher announced we had new seats and P.B. was diagonally opposite me, literally as far away as the teacher could physically place us.  This was probably a wise move.

This incident, one of my earliest face-to-face encounters with the concept of sexism, sticks with me for several reasons.

One, I had never realized that people could be so certain of something that I found so obviously wrong.  P.B. was jeering at me, but he was just as convinced that females were inferior as I was convinced that the earth is round.  We had discussed discrimination and assumptions about women’s abilities in my family before (see: weirdest dinner conversations ever), but it hadn’t really dawned on me that there were people – people in my day-to-day world, no less – who actually thought of me that way. It was suddenly and newly personal.

Two, because it was one of the first times I had ever come right up against sexism, I had no idea how to react.  I was angry, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to correct him or explain to him why his certainty had no actual support.  (Sometimes I wonder, though, if one good punch would have convinced him much faster that girls are just as good as boys…kidding, kidding!  Mostly.)  And I realized how much I – and all the girls around me – needed to develop that vocabulary.

When Furniture Moves in the Night

My dad used to come home in the middle of the night sometimes from work trips.  Trying to be considerate of his sleeping wife and daughters, he would tiptoe through the house – only to bang his shin and nearly take off a toe on the furniture that had moved since the last time he walked through the living room.

When we got older and Mom took it into her head to rearrange the house while Dad was on a trip, Bird and I had to help.

“Why,” we asked, wedging our shoulders under the arm of the couch while she lifted the other end like Wonder Woman, “can’t this wait until Dad is home to help?”

Mom shook her head at us, the upended couch swaying slightly in her grip.  “Girls, if we can do it ourselves – and we can – why wait?  Now, lift with your legs.”  We sighed.

To be fair, two generations of women in my family before her had repositioned furniture while their husbands were away – it was an inherited habit, one that sneakily followed me to college.  Last year, when the Commodore and I were sharing a room, we grew tired of the bunk bed arrangement and decided to unstack the beds.  I texted the Engineer to ask him to come help us move furniture while the Commodore paced out the new arrangement of our room.  The novelty of a fresh room arrangement (and the idea of no longer hitting our heads every time we got in or out of bed) was exciting.

Except the Engineer couldn’t make it.  Maybe this weekend he might be free.

The Commodore and I looked at each other.  And then we started shoving smaller furniture aside to make room for us to lift the upper bunk down from its perch.

Our third roommate’s boyfriend insisted on helping us, because he heard the scraping and sliding from the living room and, as he told his girlfriend, “I want to make sure these two don’t kill themselves.”  But the point was that, regardless of whether or not a Male Personage miraculously appeared to assist us, we felt like moving the furniture, so dammit, we were going to move the furniture.

When we settled down in our newly un-bunked (debunked?) beds that night, I told the Commodore about my parents and my grandparents and rearranging the house in the absence of one’s spouse.  She laughed.

“Of course your mom would do that,” she said.  “Still, it was nice to have help.”  She sat up straighter in her bed and declared, “We are Strong, Independent, 21st Century Women…who are quite happy to let guys do the heavy lifting if they feel so inclined.”

And that’s just what I love.  The lesson that I learned from my mother was not to reject a friend’s help, be they male or female, but rather to not put my life on hold until someone bigger or stronger can come and help me take the next step.  When Dad was home, of course he was roped into helping.  But if the mood struck while he was away, she made my sister and I feel that we didn’t necessarily need a man’s physical strength to get things done.  She showed us how to put towels under the feet of the couch to slide it across hardwood floors, how to come up with innovative ways to take a burst of inspiration and run with it despite potential obstacles.

And, of course, always lift with your legs.

Home

Freshman year of college made me overly conscious of the word “home.” I consciously said I was going back to my dorm, or my room. When I did say “home” by mistake, my friends looked at me, puzzled.

“I don’t mean home home,” I said.  We used repetition for emphasis, as if we were gossiping about who like liked who else in eighth grade.  As the year went on, I slipped into using the word more and more often.  Now, in my third year of undergrad, my friends and I know when someone means “home” vs. “home home.”  There’s a subtle difference that truly collegiate ears can hear.  But it still strikes me sometimes that I now have three “homes.”  I have to wonder if it cheapens the word.

I had been through a phase like that before, when my dad finally bought a house after the divorce. I was determined not to bestow the term “home” on his bachelor pad, angry as I still was. But after a while I admitted that Dad’s house was just as much a home base for me as Mom’s, particularly as college loomed and I was clinging with white knuckles to everything familiar in the face of having to go away to a huge campus (by my sheltered standards, anyway) where the only people I knew were the ones I never really liked in high school.  “Home” was suddenly akin to “haven,” and it stayed defined that way for the first half of my college career, particularly since I found myself having to move once a semester for a year and a half for various unforeseeable reasons.

But now, as a new transition rears its head like the Cave of Wonders bursting out of the desert, I find myself thinking more about “home” as something I am about to create than something preexisting.  In a way, this is sad.  I love being able to return to the places where I grew up and revisit the life I used to have.  However, since Bird took over my room (I had the bigger one all through high school) as soon as I went to college, I haven’t actually gone home to the room of my adolescence for almost three years now.  Instead, I’m arranging the apartment the Commodore and I share, making it suit us both, and spending pretty much all my free time either here or over at one of my friends’ apartments.  I’m enjoying our little nest (and I love not having to move again until at least graduation!).  But even this is temporary by nature; I’m not even living here full-time, since I go home for breaks.  (Not that I’ll be home for the summer – I have an internship three hours away.)

The Southern Belle and I were discussing our plans for the summer, and she brought up a good point.  She told me that although she looks forward to returning to the South, it’s not because she wants to see the people and places she left behind, but rather because she is excited to see how she as an adult fits into that space.  It’s about her, not her past.

I agree.  “Home” is shifting from “origin point” and “haven” to “where we fit/belong in the world” – and that might not be the places we grew up anymore.  I’ll always love going home to my parents, but soon my “home home” will change.

Part of me wants the glamour of city life, living in some brick apartment building with plenty of character and becoming a regular at the coffee shop down the street, walking to work or taking the subway in flats and changing into my heels in the elevator.  Part of me wants the quiet of suburban or even secluded country life, where I can putter in the yard and make a house a comfortable place for me and my family to spend our days, not having to venture too far into society if I don’t feel like it, having a view of something other than concrete.

Surprisingly, only a very tiny part of me wants to run back to the “wispy peach” room at my mom’s house and the “papyrus green” one at my dad’s.  It sounds more exciting to me right now to have the agency to create my own home – furnished, of course, with the beloved, familiar, castoff furniture we’ve been saving in the basement for years.  And for once, I’m okay with the uncertainty.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Perfectionist in a Group Project

I have trust issues.  More specifically, I have trust issues when it comes to group projects.

You see, the trouble with group projects is that in my formative years, everyone in the group got the same grade regardless of the amount of work they had put in.  I learned very quickly that if I let most of my classmates half-ass our posterboards and say “I don’t care” the whole time, the end result would be a posterboard I was embarrassed to stand in front of while we presented to the class.

So I took over.  The way 5th grade me saw it, they didn’t want to do the work, and I didn’t want them to do the work, so everyone was happier if I just made everything just the way I wanted it.

But then high school came, and even though I still ended up taking over most of my group projects, I had a new weapon at my disposal: evaluations.  Secondary education, apparently, was not quite so idealistic in its assumptions of how children would divide the labor.  These new teachers knew perfectly well that the nerds and perfectionists (and believe me, I stand proudly at the intersection of that Nerdy Perfectionist Venn Diagram) would end up doing all the work if the slackers had no carrot or stick to move them along.  Suddenly I had power; instead of being the group workhorse or overachiever, I was the taskmaster.  With a gleam in my eye that was the precursor to my Soul Burning Glare, I quietly but significantly jotted down notes of who was and was not working during group meetings.

I was usually a benevolent dictator, or at least I tried to be.  After all, I only wanted what the rest of the group wanted: to get a good grade.  But it was often difficult not to wish that I could just do the whole thing myself and only have to worry about my own time management.

Of course, group projects have taught me some valuable skills, though probably not the teamwork and collaboration my teachers hoped I would get out of them.  More accurately, I learned that most of the other kids actually didn’t mind pitching in but were afraid to try to wrest control from me.  (To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have responded well to an outright coup.)  I learned to delegate, to reluctantly relinquish little bits of the project, and to pretend to be okay with relying on other people.  And I found allies in unexpected places.

Sophomore year of high school, we had to draw a map of the Odyssey, including quotes from the book.  My group sat around on the floor of the hallway, staring at the markers and the terrifying expanse of blank butcher paper in the center of our circle.  They all claimed not to have a mental picture of Odysseus’ journey.  Conscious by then of my domineering tendencies, I had been trying to bite my tongue, but at that I pulled out a pencil and started sketching the islands as I had envisioned them the whole time we’d been reading.  After I placed the islands, my group members followed behind with the markers to color them in and add some scenery.  That night I went home and compiled a list of short quotes we could write next to each island and showed up to the next class ready to write and draw, feeling as though I hadn’t done much.  At the end of that meeting, as we divvied up the remaining labor for the weekend, I volunteered to take the poster home and finish it.

“I think,” a boy named Will said, looking at the printed list of quotations in my eager hands, “that since Grace has done pretty much everything so far, she shouldn’t have to do anything else.”  A murmur of agreement ran through the group, and I blushed down at the poster.  He didn’t say it meanly, as though he thought I had steamrolled all over everybody.  He simply acknowledged my work and kindly pointed out that they could take it from there.  It was a nice moment.

But then I had to keep six people on task for an entire semester-long government project senior year, and my exasperation with group projects was cemented.

I understand that they have their place.  Really, I do.  I’ve learned from having to deal work with other students and communicate with them.  But college is so busy already that I would rather not have to track down five other people and twenty disparate pieces of the project just so we can pass the class.

As for the basic argument that we’ll need to work in groups in our careers?  Just one more reason I want to be a happily introverted writer tucked away in my garret.

Libraries I Have Known

The Southern Belle was dubious when I strode toward the checkout station with a baker’s dozen of books, most of them hardcover, in my arms. She added her own modest three novels to the stack, then proposed using the plastic bags provided by the library to transport our literary loot out to my car.

I scoffed.

“Nearly all of these are hardcover – they’ll tear holes right through those bags,” I told her, starting to gather the scanned books back into my arms.  The Southern Belle sighed, and because she is a fabulous friend, grabbed half the stack for herself so I didn’t actually have to carry them all.  I would have, though.  I’ve done it before.

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To me, a library trip is only successful when it results in such a large haul of reading material that I can’t quite open the front door when I get home.  I’ve developed this habit from childhood; ever since I got my first library card in kindergarten, I would toddle up to the counter with a stack of books tucked under my chin, my fingers barely gripping the bottom of the pile as I propped it against my torso.  The librarians would lean down and peer at me as I tried to shove my heap up and over the counter for them to scan.  “Are you really going to read all those?” they would ask, half to me, half to my mother, who stood by nodding.

“Oh yes, she will,” my mother said.

That was in the first library I knew, the brick one with the lane of trees out front and Reading Riley, the brass turtle, on his pedestal just outside the door.  That was the library where, seized by one of those fevered obsessions that strikes third-graders, I checked out nearly every book available on lemurs and wrote a report.  For fun.  During the summer.

That library is gone now, torn down and the spot where it stood filled in with mountains of dirt.  The city promised a new library in that same spot, a bigger, better one.  A year, two at the most, they said.

It took five.

During those five years, the temporary library was crammed into a space that used to house an auto parts store.  Many of the books, including some of my favorites, were now in storage elsewhere.  I had to request a lot of things from other branches.  The librarians who had watched me grow up shook their heads whenever I asked about a beloved volume.  Probably in a box somewhere, they said.

Now we have a new library, with floor to ceiling windows and self checkout stations and conference rooms for readings and signings and book clubs.  There’s a job search area with resources for unemployed people, a teen area, a kids area.

I think the kids section might be the only one without computers.

Of course I miss the library of my childhood, the one with brick walls and a hushed atmosphere and a counter that allowed me to get to know the people who worked there.  But at school, what I’m really homesick for are those teetering, heavy stacks of pleasure and leisure reading.  Spring break means getting to pile books up to my chin, crash through the door, settle in, and devour half the stack in one afternoon.  And that, to me, is home.