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Filtering by Tag: Callie Feyen

Shrouded In Myth

Callie Feyen

golden-rain“Stick to the daily learning targets. Do not get off track.” This is one of my administrators, the one that meets with me once a week to go over my lesson plans. Daily Learning Targets are like Bible Memory Work: we are to write these words on our hearts and minds. Do not stray from these words. And it’s not that I stray, but if I were to claim a characteristic of my teaching it’s that when I begin to study and discuss a story, I tend to walk my students down a path that we didn’t know we were going to walk down. Mayella Ewell’s geraniums, for example. The grace in Mercutio. Voldemort’s broken heart. All of these are bulls’ eyes; I just didn’t know I was shooting in their direction at the time.

Today, my “DLT” is to get my sixth graders to cite evidence from the text we are reading when answering questions I give them. We are reading a short essay titled “Shrouded in Myth.” It’s a piece to introduce the students to mythology because we are going to read one of the Percy Jackson books. On their copy of the essay, I have my students write the definitions down for “cite,” “evidence,” and “shrouded.” Shrouded is my favorite: to be cloaked or covered in mystery. Shrouded is how I feel standing here in Detroit. Shrouded is how I feel walking around Ann Arbor. The cloak is heavy; the cover thick.

“Why was Zeus so drawn to Danae? How did Zeus get to her?” My students are supposed to find this answer in the essay. “All you have to do is highlight the words in the text that answer the question,” I tell them. They pop off their highlighter caps, happy to use something besides a pencil.

“She was stunning!” one exclaims brushing the text with her highlighter. “He turned himself into gold rain? What?” another one says.

“Yeah! And then she gets pregnant!”

“That’s stupid. Everybody knows you can’t get pregnant when it rains.”

“It was gold rain, though.”

I fight everything I have within me that wants to say, “So ladies, when it rains gold, stay inside.”

“So,” one student begins, leaning back in his chair, “Zeus gets Danae pregnant, and then what?”

“Don’t sit like that,” I say. Safety first. Then, “what do you mean?”

“I mean, where’s Zeus in the rest of this story?”

Sure enough, he isn’t mentioned in the rest of the six-paragraph essay we are annotating. He gets Danae pregnant and then the next thing we know Perseus is slaying Medusa.

“Ain’t that just like a baby daddy?” one student says, and the entire class hoots and mmmm hmmmms.

“Always leaving,” another one mumbles.

On page one of The Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson book we will begin tomorrow, Percy gives a warning: “If you recognize yourself in these pages—if you feel something stirring inside—stop reading immediately.”

I wonder if this will become a Daily Learning Target: “I can recognize myself in a story.” “I feel something stirring inside when I read.” Probably not. You can’t measure this.  Keep the mystery veiled. Walk in the golden rain while your stomach stirs and churns with charades you’ll never understand.

Dancing a Tango with Chance

Callie Feyen

IMG_3331 (1)The evening I pulled into Ann Arbor, Michigan, a rainbow appeared as I put the car in park. No kidding, it was pouring down rain and then it wasn’t and six different rays of color soared above my Mazda 5 and sailed to the Pittsfield Township water tower a few yards away. “A rainbow!” I proclaimed as I stepped out of the car, a beautiful welcome on my move to a new town.

An hour and a half later, in a fit of confusion that comes when everything seems turned upside down in a new home, I accidentally drank water meant for Hadley and Harper’s fish tank. I squinted as I read the bottle of Betta Plus Water Conditioner, looking for how much time I had left to live. A quick Google search (you wouldn’t believe how many people have done the same thing), and a call to Poison Control, and I learned that I would suffer nothing save for the possibility of a stomachache. The lady on the phone told me I should drink something to settle my stomach. I chose a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.

Missy Higgins sings a song called, “Going North,” and since I have known we would move to Ann Arbor, I’ve been listening to it and memorizing it like a Psalm. In one part of the song, she explains she wants to go North because she wants to “dance a tango with chance.” Every time I hear that phrase, I get the shivers. Dancing a tango with chance sounds so much more fun than saying, “I hear God calling me to Ann Arbor.” Why can’t God be in the dance of chance? I don’t want to believe in signs: in rainbows or drinking fish water. I want to believe that it makes no difference to the Lord where I go and where I live; that He is with me no matter what decisions I make. I want to believe no matter how spontaneous I can be when I make big life decisions, how very little I pray and ask for guidance, that He works through all of it. Still, when things go wrong, when they get sad or uncomfortable, it’s hard not to lift my eyes up towards the sky and think maybe I should’ve prayed more.

The day we pulled away from our home in Germantown, Hadley stood outside with a piece of chalk and walked slowly up and down the alley, where she and her friends rode bikes, sledded, had water balloon fights, and climbed trees. She dropped to her knees, and in her careful cursive wrote, “Farewell, everyone,” stood up and threw the chalk into the sandpit beyond our house. She walked into the garage where I was putting boxes into a UHaul and looked at me. “I don’t want to move. I want to stay here.”

“I know,” I said and put my hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off and stomped away.

As we drove, she leaned against the car window and I watched her. I kept trying to put my hand on her knee but she would move so I couldn’t reach her. I finally gave up. I turned forward, put my ear buds in, and turned on my playlist of Meghan Trainor songs.

About an hour into our trip, it started to rain. Soon it was raining so hard Jesse punched the hazard lights button because we were going so slow. A semi truck was jackknifed on the side of the road. I checked the weather forecast for flash floods and tornadoes. I didn’t say it out loud but I believed we should’ve waited another day to drive. Once that thought left my mind I was railroaded by the next three hundred: Why are you moving anyway? You can’t drive in this rain, what makes you think you’ll be able to drive in the snow? How are you going to find a job in Ann Arbor? Why’d you walk away from the one you had? Why’d you walk away from all your friends that took you so long to find? Look at your kids! They’re so sad. Why would you move them when they’re this old?

“Too bad we don’t have Harry Potter on CD,” Jesse said, one hand on his knee and the other nowhere near the 10 and 2 position. I was jealous of how assured he was. “We could listen while we drive home.”

“I could read the book,” Hadley said. Her offer to read was the first sentence our extroverted daughter said in the car.

“We don’t have the fifth one,” I said, turning to her and meeting her blue eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s packed in the UHaul.”

“I have the fourth one,” Hadley said and reached to unzip her backpack. She lifted Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with both hands.

“We could read from our favorite parts,” Harper offered.

“Yeah,” Hadley said, “I’ll start. I’m going to read the part when Voldemort comes back.” I was surprised to learn this was her favorite part. The first time I read it, the scene terrified her, but in the car, she not only read it, but she used different inflection, tone, and voices for each character. I folded my legs, rested my chin on my knees, and as we slowly trudged through the rain, Jesse, Harper, and I listened to Hadley read about how Harry, Cedric, Bertha Jorkins, Frank Brice, and Harry’s parents defied Voldemort. I started to cry when Bertha yells, “Don’t let him get you, Harry! Don’t let go!”

Hadley read the rest of the story, taking us out of the storm, through Maryland and Pennsylvania. I asked a couple of times if she was OK because she is notorious for getting carsick, but she said she was fine.

“No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it,” Hagrid tells Harry, “What’s comin’ will come, an we’ll meet it when it does.”

Indeed. Put your dancing shoes on Hadley. It’s time to tango.

Kicking off the Tarp

Callie Feyen

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The year I was going to be a senior in high school, my youth group went on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico to build houses for people who didn’t have them.

The homes we built were simple: four walls, a foundation, and a ceiling. I remember my youth group director, Bill, showed me how to fold thick, black paper into fourths, then prick the nail through it before hammering it into the wood. He told me to tap the nail to stabilize it, then with two or three whacks the nail would slide into the wood, securing the wall. It was repetitive, satisfying work.

One of the houses we built sat on an edge of a cliff. The man we built it for was currently living underneath a blue tarp held up by sticks. On breaks, we climbed down from the cliff, sat around for a few minutes, drinking pop. Somebody figured out that you could jump from the road, fly through the air and land on the dirt without getting hurt. It was like a sand dune.

We jumped from the road and into the bright blue sky for a few minutes every afternoon. I practiced my toe touches, having ample time to fly in the air, lift my legs and reach my arms towards my toes. I sailed in the air for about three seconds, gracefully let myself out of the pose, then tumbled down the mountain, laughing and spinning. I remember my brother, Geoff, did cannon balls with the same skill. Sometimes, we jumped together and even then there was plenty of time to jump and fly and fall.

I remember on our last workday in Tijuana, Bill handed the hammer to the man who would live in the house to pound in the last nail. The man sobbed while he hammered and I worried he’d hurt his fingers. I remember wanting to kick the blue tarp off those sticks, and hoping the wind that rarely blows in Tijuana would pick it up and sail it off the cliff.

*                *                *

We went to San Diego at the end of our work trips because I think that was Bill’s hometown, and he had a connection to a church so we could stay there for a few days and unwind. I remember we went to a Dodgers game, Bill’s favorite team. I remember walking up what felt like a mountain to the ballpark. “This isn’t Wrigley Field,” I complained.

The night before we left, I called my parents from a pay phone across the street from the church to say hello and check on my flight. My mom and I chatted for a few minutes, confirmed what time I’d land in O’Hare, and then her voice changed when she told me that several days ago there was an accident. She told me that Tim Lutz, a boy I had known since I was six and who lived down the street from me, got hit in the head, lost consciousness, and died.

“He was playing basketball with his friends,” she told me. Tim got hit in the side of the head with a basketball. He was knocked unconscious and never woke up.

All of this, including the funeral, happened while I was in Tijuana, twenty-three years ago this June.

Tim had brown eyes with long, thick eyelashes. He had freckles on his nose and cheeks that I swear danced when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. To say he was a baseball fan is an understatement. He and my brother were on several baseball teams together, and growing up, summer meant watching them run the bases and slide into home plate whether they needed to or not.

I think a lot about the details of Tim’s death, especially when June arrives, and what I was doing while it happened. It seems morbid, maybe even perverse to admit that. Was I hammering nails into wood when he got hit in the head? Was I jumping off that cliff when he was rushed to the hospital? At night, while Bill led devotions, and we sang songs under stars so bright I believed if I stood on my tiptoes I would at the least feel their heat on my fingertips, was Tim taking his last breath?

I could ask my friends. Decades later, I know at least twenty people who would tell me the details, go over dates and times and days. It would take three texts, twenty-five minutes on Facebook, a google search with key words: Tim Lutz, June 1993. But I don’t do any of this. Every June I think about it, and every year I do nothing.

*                *                *

I once saw Tim catch a baseball in the middle of Gunderson, the street he and I lived on. He was in mid-air when he caught it, and I was driving away in my car towards who knows where. His friend John, who lived across the street, threw the ball at him and Tim ran into the street, caught it, then threw it back to John. I saw it all in my rearview mirror.

I consider asking about the details of Tim’s last week on earth, and end up here, on Gunderson, with Tim playing catch with his buddy as the streetlights flickered on and the fireflies showed up. I’m not even sure how accurate my memory is, but I don’t care. Maybe it is like the blue tarp I didn’t kick off in Tijuana years ago. Maybe I thought I was protecting something for this man. Maybe I was afraid I was being disrespectful. Maybe it is easier to think about a memory I cannot create.

Hopeful Mysteries

Callie Feyen

Line drawing of the Stratford grammar school drawn by Edmund Hort New. “Mrs. Feyen, do you like professional football teams?” This comes from George, one of my 8th grade students. He’s asking me about football because I’m wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt today. I probably shouldn’t be wearing it; it’s not very professional, but every so often I get dreadfully homesick for the Midwest and this morning as I got dressed I decided to pull Notre Dame over my head and feel a little of South Bend on me as I walked through the day.

I wore a cardigan and a scarf with it and figured nobody would notice I was wearing a t-shirt. George notices, and now he’s asking me about the NFL. While I like everything that has to do with football: tailgating, the stadiums, fall, old, grey depressed towns that transform into vibrant, storybook places for 48 hours, I know nothing about the sport, professional or college.

“Let me guess,” George says, shifting his backpack to his other shoulder. “The Chicago Bears.”

I smile. I never hear them referred to as “The Chicago Bears.” Just, “the Bears,” and the “s” is drawn out a bit. George reminds me where I am – in Maryland, in Redskin territory, in a classroom of 21 of the rowdiest, craziest, 8th graders I’ve ever come into contact with. Trying to teach them is like trying to keep the lids on 21 pots of boiling water. On better days, I call them hippogriffs. On the days they bring me to my knees, they are grizzly bears.

I shouldn’t take any of this personally: the eye rolls, the snickers, the talking while I’m talking. Most days, standing in front of them feels like I have my fly unzipped or toilet paper hanging from my butt. That’s how they look at me, if they look at me. Most of the time they are either looking at each other, falling asleep, or so zoned out I think I am teaching the dead. I usually drive home from school crying, trying to figure out where I went wrong.

They are my grizzly bears, though. As ruthless, conniving, and ridiculous as they are, I adore them. They make me laugh, they are dead silent when I read out loud to them, and when I can get them to trust me and themselves, they are poets. We take walks in a patch of woods behind the school and they write in the second person using all five senses. They can write a sonnet about baseball or their little brothers, all in iambic pentameter. Their writing is vulnerable and gritty. They can be lyrical and they can be stark. You’d never see it in class, though. It only comes out on paper, when they are writing with the lights off. Their preference. They are most comfortable in the dark.

“George,” I say as I erase the whiteboard. “I don’t think I can say I like the Bears, but I do root for them.” I turn towards him and say, “they break a lot of peoples’ hearts on Sundays in the fall.”

George laughs. “Yeah.” He leaves the classroom and I am by myself, looking around. Candy wrappers are everywhere. Assignments I took hours grading are balled up and lying next to the garbage can. There’s writing on the whiteboard, something about peaches. I think it’s a dirty, menacing joke aimed at a student in the class, but I’m not certain. I’m also not sure which student this is aimed at, nor am I sure how this got here in the first place. How did I not see a kid writing on the whiteboard?

As much as these students break my heart, I am addicted to the contrast they bring. I believe my faith lives in that contrast.

We are studying Romeo and Juliet right now, and day they meet Sampson and Gregory, they gasp in what I’m certain is delight when they hear Sampson talking about thrusting women against walls. When we get to the part where Gregory and Sampson contemplate the size and beauty of their reproductive organs, I feel like I’m conducting class in a frat house.

“I had NO IDEA how dirty this play is,” one kids says, delightedly.

When Romeo describes his love of Rosaline, “feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,” we discuss why the opposites contribute to the definition of Romeo’s love. “You can feel it more,” one of them says.

We try to do the same thing to describe the word, “crush:” perfect confusion, sorrowful happiness, paralyzing giddiness. They all smile, and I smile, too. I remember so well those days.

“Romeo kind of likes this mood, doesn’t he?” I suggest.

“Yeah,” they all say, knowingly.

“Now you try,” I tell them, handing them a piece of paper.

Loud secret is used for "mysterious," blurry focus for "art," and my favorite, hopeful mystery for the word "bless."

I tell them I’m going to cry for how good they are. “Read mine! Read mine!” they say, reaching their papers towards me. I take their work, and they put their heads on the table, shy now. I always tell them good job. I always tell them I love what they write. It’s as close as I can get to saying I love them.

When Mercutio and Tybalt die, I have them make webs around their names and we write down all the things they were: inappropriate, angry, possessive, rude.

“Is that all they were?”

No, they say. Mercutio was hilarious and he was a good friend. Tybalt was fiercely protective of Juliet.

I tell them Mercutio and Tybalt were nasty and awful, but that’s not all they were. “If we believe they were made in the image of God, then nothing they do – nothing anything any of us do – can separate us from His love.” I stagger when I say this. I’m always stuttering and tripping over my feet when I talk to my 8th graders.

This class might give me nightmares. They might make me second guess everything I do, but they show me how to live in the contrast. I think it’s where the smiles are bigger, the laughter is heartier, and grace is at its most palpable.

We are cleaning up the classroom during the last five minutes of class. I’m trying to pass back papers, and kids are shooting baskets across the room with them. I get hit several times and realize they’re probably aiming at me. One girl has hip pinned another girl to the wall. Another kid is doing some sort of rendition of “Bring in the Noise, Bring in the Funk.”

George is sitting at his desk, whistling. He has perfect pitch, and I can hear him above all the ruckus. He is whistling the Doxology. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

George reminds me where I am. George reminds me of my blessings. George, and all his classmates, help me believe in the hopeful mystery.

An Unexpected Journey

Callie Feyen

1024px-HMCoSecondEdHobbitsI am reading The Hobbit for the first time. I am 40 now, and I am reading it because I have to teach it to 7th graders.

I believe it’s important I tell you my age and my motive for reading J.R.R. Tolkien because it’s embarrassing. I should’ve discovered the Misty Mountains, I should’ve gasped when Bilbo slips “a golden ring, a precious ring” on his finger, I should’ve considered how to blow smoke rings and having second breakfasts years ago when summers meant riding my bike and chasing fireflies until my mom called, “Callie, come home!”

I was not a reader growing up, and I have so much to catch up on: Tolkien and Eliot, and Shakespeare, and I haven’t even read all of Judy Blume’s books.

Reading is hard for me. I have to read The Hobbit with reading guides and synopses of each chapter. One night my husband came home from work to find me sobbing, my head in my hands, moaning, “I don’t get this. I’ll never understand it. I hate those damn elves!”

That evening, he made his from scratch taquitos and strong margaritas (he only knows how to make them strong) and he found Peter Jackson’s film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey online.

“Oh,” I said when the red paper kite dragon flew into view. “That’s foreshadowing. The paper dragon’s there because it’s the dragon that stole all that gold.” I took a sip of my drink then said, “I think I remember that dragon can’t do anything with the gold. Is that right?” I looked at Jesse for a moment, then back at the TV. “I mean, I think the dragon can’t enjoy what he’s stolen. He just lies in it and makes sure it doesn’t go away.”

I haven’t finished reading the book; I’m about a chapter ahead of my students (I have a friend who tells me all I have to be is a tad smarter than my class), but I like to think I have a lot in common with Bilbo Baggins.

I have a side that’s been lying dormant for years, too. It actually comes from my mom and my dad, the Ayanoglou and the Lewis side. Both are great readers who did their best to surround me with the finest literature. For Pete’s sake, I lived next door to a library. It was no use, though. Reading wasn’t something I did. Reading has always been hard. Oh, I can sound the words out just fine (usually). It’s processing and understanding what I read that’s difficult. I’ve been tested for everything but “poor reading comprehension” was all that showed up.

“I’m not bright,” I told Jesse during the part where Gollum and Bilbo were giving each other riddles (none of which I understood). Jesse told me Gollum used to be a hobbit, but after he found the ring, he became the freaky, scrawny, big-eyed thing we were watching on TV. I started to cry imagining Gollum as a happy hobbit smoking a pipe and wondering about after dinner seed cakes.

“Why are you so hard on yourself?” Jesse asked putting another taquito on my plate and pouring more margarita in my glass.

“It doesn’t bother me to say it. I’m not sad,” I explained as I squeezed lime into my drink. “It takes me a while to process things, but maybe that doesn’t make me any less of a person.”

It was probably the tequila talking, but I’m looking at what I’ve underlined in my copy of The Hobbit now: “The Took side won. He suddenly felt he would go without bed and breakfast to be thought fierce.” And, “You think I am no good. I will show you…Tell me what you want done, and I will try it.” And maybe my favorite, “There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”

I think what I’m learning from Bilbo is that it’s not so much that you think you’d be good at something if you just had a chance. Rather, it’s trying what you don’t think you can do, and are probably afraid of, and doing it anyway because the door is open and the Lonely Mountain is waiting with a dragon who believes all that glitters must be fiercely protected.

In Praise of Folly

Callie Feyen

Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection One of the less hefty thoughts I had after September 11, 2001, was whether the show Friends would continue to air. I assumed that since the show took place in New York City, and that it was funny, NBC executives would choose to stop running it. When the show returned to the Thursday night line-up, I felt guilty laughing along with six of the coolest twenty- and thirty-year-olds I knew. I was also ashamed that I was expecting—almost craving—a laugh. Was this the time for comedy? Shouldn’t I be praying or donating money to some sort of relief fund? What good would a chuckle do now?

Folly, Erasmus’ narrator in In Praise of Folly, says comedy does a lot, including but not limited to, making us laugh. What’s more, Desiderius Erasmus argues (albeit humorously) that comedy is vital.

One of the first things Folly points out about comedy is that it brings about change. “…[W]hen you laid eyes on me, you were quite transfigured” (7).  Folly takes note of the adjustment in the audience when they realized that she was the one who would speak to them. She compares their reaction to feeling the signs of spring for the first time after a cold winter, and as though the audience was feeling the sun for the first time. The use of the word transfigured here also suggests that comedy not only lightens a mood, but it can transform us.

Throughout the book, Folly sheds comedic light on otherwise serious subjects. For example, she suggests the body part that a man uses in hopes to become a father is “so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker” (12). This is the organ that creates a human, “the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence.” In another example, Folly wonders what woman would ever have sex again after going through childbirth.  Not only does she have to endure contractions, labor, and the ordeal of having various liquids pouring out of her body parts, but she must rear the child as well.  Having gone through a miscarriage, the delivery of a ten-pound baby, and another somewhat high-risk pregnancy, knowing what I know about the miracle of life isn’t exactly foreplay. However, I also know the joy in first holding my daughters, watching them take their first steps, and listening to their voices. Folly’s question affirms the pains of childbirth and rearing, but her use of comedy here (I imagine her shaking her hands above her head in mock exasperation) lightens the situation as well. Bringing anything to life—a story, a recipe, a skyscraper, a human being—hurts. It is nice to laugh at the difficulty in it, whether it is a snicker or a howl. Laughing about the seriousness in life brings relief, and this is what Folly is doing here.

Comedy is a great leveler in the book. Folly makes fun of everyone, even Erasmus. She describes a wise man (Erasmus) as “always sparing, saving, sad, solemn, severe, and strict on himself…” (38) (The use of onomatopoeia here is humorous as well, in the sense that one could draw out the “s” in each word adding sarcasm and melodrama). Folly then asks, who cares if someone like this dies, “since he can’t properly be said ever to have lived?” (38) Women, apostles, writers, those who memorize Psalms, are among the groups that Folly makes fun of.  Being in on the joke shows we are all included. When we are included in the comedy, it means we have been observed; that there is something intriguing about us that deserves enough attention to make a joke. In this respect, comedy can also be looked at as a form of grace: we are all, in our strange, serious, silly make-ups, included in on the joke.

At the end of the book, Folly argues that practicing comedy is a form of piety. When we laugh at ourselves, we become like the pious man who, “shrinks as far as he can from the concerns of the body, and allows himself to be lifted to the realm of eternal, invisible, and spiritual things”(85). The more we lose ourselves in the joke, the closer we grow to God, and therefore closer to the way he created us to be. In this sense, comedy restores a new order.

It is probably folly to compare Desiderius Erasmus to the likes of Joey, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, Rachel, and Monica. However, on a basic level they do the same thing Folly does: that is make us laugh, relieve us from our serious situations, include us all, and maybe, when we turn the TV off or when Folly leaves the stage, these offerings will stay with us prompting us to forget ourselves and become the people God created us to be.

Stealing Grace

Callie Feyen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA When I lived in South Bend, Indiana, I had a friend who, for one night, tried to teach me how to sew. As with all my DIY pursuits, the fabric I bought for a giant pillow I convinced Meg she could teach me how to stitch together got mutilated, and I don’t remember a thing she tried to teach me.

What I do remember about that night is a conversation Meg and I had about writing and seminary. We sat on my living room floor and spoke about what we hoped we could do in the same manner one digs her heels in the wet sand to test whether she can stand in the undertow after the rush of the waves. I also remember discussing journals, and what kind we like to write in: lined or unlined, spiral bound or loose leaf. I don’t know which Meg preferred, but I remember her saying something about being anxious about breaking rules when she begins a page. Whether it was that an unlined blank page gave her too much freedom, or that the faint blue lines of notebook paper were too strict, I don’t know. It was her comment on the rules that struck me.

I don’t attend too much to rules, or directions for that matter. This is probably why nobody can teach me how to sew. When it comes to writing, I’m not sure if it’s arrogance or ignorance in my capability to tell a story, but I don’t care if I’m writing on a napkin or a Moleskin journal. Telling the story is all that matters to me. I’ll worry about what’s right later.

And so it was that two girls in their mid-twenties sat together piercing holes in fabric and secretly admitted to one another what it is they’d really like to do someday.

About eight years later, I was in my church’s nursery, when my husband Jesse walked in and said, “Callie! Meg’s preaching!” He walked towards me, took the baby I was holding and said, “You go. I’ll take your place.”

I darted out of the nursery to hear Meg.

Meg had completed her seminary work and was the Pastor of the Washington DC CRC, a church nearby my own. When she moved, we met for coffee a couple of times, but this was the first time I’d get to hear her preach. I ran down the hallway towards the sanctuary, giggling, and remembering the no-sew night years ago.

I sat in the back of the sanctuary in front of a man I will call Jacob, who lives in his van. Just before we were to pass the peace, Jacob sneezed, and what came out splattered all over my back. I was wearing a sundress and I could feel snot running between my shoulder blades. I was supposed to turn, shake Jacob’s hand, and say, “Peace be with you.” Instead, I walked out of the sanctuary and into the bathroom to wash my back.

I was so angry as I scrubbed my back with a brown paper towel. I was grossed out, annoyed that Jacob didn’t put his hand over his mouth, disdained that he looked at me expectantly to pass him some peace, and frustrated that my friend was standing at the pulpit and now I was missing it. I walked back into the sanctuary and sat down in front of him; my back pulsating from how hard I had scrubbed it.

Meg’s sermon was on the Prodigal Son, and she told three versions of it. The first two were the stories Jesus probably should’ve told if he wanted to impress the Pharisees. They end with the son who left being punished, his father shrugging in nonchalance at his return, the other son, the one who stayed and followed the rules was celebrated and rewarded.

Meg suggested the Pharisees would’ve nodded in agreement at Jesus’ anecdote. “It’d be true-to-life,” Meg said, then waited a beat and added, “but it isn’t a very good story.”

I wrote those words on my hand, inched forward and tried to make eye contact with my old friend who whispered that she thought she might like to preach someday as she tried to show me what a whipstitch is. Gone was that girl who concerned herself with the rules of lined or unlined paper.

She went on to tell the rest of what happened, the real story where the father cries in relief at the sight of his son, where he throws the world’s greatest party at his return, where the older son sulks because he did it all right and he doesn’t get a party. It’s not fair. “Jesus Christ was many, many wonderful things,” Meg said. “But fair doesn’t rank high on the list.” No, I thought. And fair doesn’t have much wonder in it.

I was working on an MFA at the time I heard Meg preach, and the residencies reminded me of the party the father of the prodigal son threw for him. I approached these parties with a lot of trepidation. This was because getting an MFA was not only about becoming a better writer. I am unable to separate my learning from my faith, and I believe experiencing grace means wrestling with something I barely understand, and grasping and clenching on to a piece of it. Grace haunts me. It baffles me. It terrifies me. I do not write because I know something. I do not write because I believe I will figure something out. I write because I am tormented and I yearn for that agonizing grace. Writing is the only way I know to experience it. Maybe that’s why I don’t care about rules. I am a thief for stories. I will use anything I can for grace. I approached those residencies I imagine the same way the Prodigal Son approached his party; both of us understand we don’t deserve to be here.

“Tell us of the banquet where everyone gets invited!” Meg writes in her sermon. One where it doesn’t matter what rules you’ve followed, or what you’ve failed at. Tell us about the party we want so desperately want to be a part of even though there’s nothing we can bring to it that would get us in. Tell us an unfair, wonderful story, Jesus.

I stood behind Jacob and waited while Meg shook each of the congregants’ hands at the back of the sanctuary. She saw me as she was shaking Jacob’s hand, but she made sure to speak to him as though he was the only one there. When it was my turn, we hugged each other and held up the line. “You did it,” I said, and her hand pressed into my back where Jacob had left his mark previously.

The three of us, strangely linked together, would eventually leave this party, taking whatever grace we thought we had with us, and move on to do whatever it is we would do.

Do You Smell That?

Callie Feyen

14 rules eat My 8th grade classroom smells like mint gum, and body odor. The gum is not allowed. I am to tell the kids to get rid of it, and then report it into a shared record system that’s stored on the computer. After a certain amount of gum busts, I think the student gets a detention or something along those lines.

There is no rule against body odor. Body odor is allowed in my classroom, and by the end of the day the smell is knock-you-over palpable. So I say nothing about the gum because each shift in a chair, each reach for a book, stapler, or clipboard, each step towards the “complete work box” brings with it a stench followed by a cool minty breeze.

“Mrs. Feyen,” one boy walks up to me while I’m standing at a counter in the back of the room sorting through papers.

“Yes?” I ask and pivot towards him.

“I don’t understand this assignment. You want me to write about something beautiful, but it has to be bad in some way?”

As he asks, I see bright green gum stuck to his bottom teeth. When I was a kid, I was so careful to keep the gum at the roof of my mouth. I could even fold a Fruit Roll-Up so it perfectly fit inconspicuously in my mouth and I could enjoy it from noon until three. My teachers never knew a thing. I am sure of it.

“I want you to write about a time when you saw beauty in a situation where beauty didn’t seem to belong.” He looks at me like I’ve answered in Japanese. He shifts, than scratches his forehead. If we are going to continue this conversation, I need him to start chewing that gum to balance out the smell.

“Like Mayella’s red flowers in slop jars in her front yard,” I remind him. We’ve just finished studying that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird and I want my students to do what Harper Lee did; write about beauty that baffles.

“Can you think of a time when you were really scared, or really angry, or really sad, and you noticed something funny, or pretty, or even interesting?”

He isn’t staring at me blankly now, and I think something is starting to take shape, but he wants more.

“The thing you noticed didn’t fix the situation,” I say. “I mean, it doesn’t make everything all better, but you noticed it. That’s what I want you to write about.”

He’s chomping his gum now and nodding vigorously. “OK,” he says, “I got something.”

I should tell him to spit his gum out now, but I’m afraid it’ll break the spell, so I choose not to, and he pivots, leaving me in a wake of B.O. and mint gum, and the unease of letting him off the hook.


In her book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner writes about finding God in smell. She tells of a homeless man who sued a public library because he was banned from it due to his smell. Other people couldn’t focus because of this man’s body odor. At first, the court sided with him, but in a second case, the court sided with the library.

Winner contemplates this incident along with similar situations she’s experienced in her city, and she decides that this sort of reflective thinking is a form of prayer. “Prayer in which you replay scenes from your day, scenes from your year, and try to see God in them, or try to see them with God standing alongside you, looking too…What do I see when I try to look with God?”


The kid writes about a park in his neighborhood where he goes quite a bit to play sports with friends, but he also shows up alone, on days when he wants to pray. He climbs trees and prays. He has a lot on his mind, he writes, a lot to figure out. But he likes those trees with their sturdy trunks and thick leaves.

“Jesus,” Winner writes, “was a sometimes homeless man whose body was not always perfumed by women bearing nard. He surely sometimes stank.”

I smell thirty-one images of God in my classroom. Sometimes they reek. Sometimes they blatantly break the rules. Always they bring with them beauty that confuses, overwhelms, doesn’t fit in. I believe it is my job to help them notice and name this ridiculous, life-saving beauty.


It is May. The last instructional day of class and my students have to write two exit essays to show where they are as writers. One essay is narrative: write about something memorable. The other is expository: explain something you know well. The kid who goes to the park to pray raises his hand, and I walk over. He switches his gum to the other side of his mouth. I guess he thinks it’s not as obvious there.

“Mrs. Feyen,” he says. “For my expository essay I want to write about baffling beauty.” That’s what I called their writing assignment back in October. “Do you think the high school teachers will understand what I’m talking about?”

I stand and take a quick survey of these kids I’ve spent nine months with. The kids I have to say goodbye to, who in less than four years will be adults. They’ll be able to chew gum whenever and wherever they please, and they’ll have this B.O. thing figured out by then. But right now, I get to work with the image I’ve been given, and that’s just fine with me.

I lean towards my student and I smell all of it: dry erase markers, the air-conditioning, carpet, mud, and yes, mint gum and body odor.

“I think you better explain what you think baffling beauty means,” I tell him.

He Is Not Here

Callie Feyen

14 woman running It is Holy Week, Maundy Thursday to be exact, and I am standing in line at Target waiting to pay for Sulfamethoxazole. I have some sort of infection that started in my nose, spread to my sinuses, and, worst, has manifested itself on my hands: little round bumps that itch and fester. They’re disgusting. I’m disgusting. I’m certain that if this were medieval times, I’d be put to death due to my condition.

I have no plan to take my medicine. I’m going to tell you it’s because of the side effects. I’m going to tell you that after reading every word of the document attached to the red pill container, I have decided I will surely die if I swallow these pills. It’s what I tell my husband, Jesse, while I’m waiting to pay for the medicine I have no intention of taking.

“I got it,” I text him, “but there’s no way I’m taking it.”

“Callie,” he begins and I can see from the little moving bubbles on my phone there’s more coming but I cut him off.

“You wanna know what I could die from? Diarrhea! I’m not dying from diarrhea!!!”

He doesn’t text back. He knows I’ll pay for the medicine. He knows I’ll bring it home, unfold the side effects document, flatten it on our bathroom counter, and place the corresponding pills on top. He knows I’ll be frantic. He knows that I will be so afraid that I’ll go for a run.

Jesse knows that I am grieving, or that I don’t know how to grieve. Maybe it’s that I refuse to grieve. He knows my pills are a scapegoat for a deeper fear, an unquenchable sorrow, a gaping loss. Almost eight years ago, my Aunt Lucy died. She went to the doctor thinking she needed gall bladder surgery and it turned out that she had pancreatic cancer. She was dead two months after that; about ten days before my daughter Harper was born.

I think I probably worshipped Lucy. I know that since I was a kid I wanted to be like her. She was fierce and she was fancy. Once, I saw her kick a garbage can over in a spaghetti strapped silk midnight blue gown and I thought, “I want to be exactly like that.”

I loved her style. I loved how she decorated. I loved her laugh. I loved that she blasted Jim Croce throughout her home so that my cousin Tara and I rocked our baby dolls to, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim.” Lucy was Superman. Lucy was the Lone Ranger. Lucy was Jim. You didn’t mess with Lucy.


On Easter Sunday, I learn that Mary Magdalene and Mary ran, too. They came to the tomb and an angel told them He was gone. “Trembling and bewildered…the women left because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

I still haven’t taken my medicine and I have Band-Aids around my fingers to cover up my marks. I’m pretty sure I have a fever. The sinuses under my eyes are throbbing. But when I get home, I will run. I will take off my heels, and unzip my blue dress that my older daughter Hadley gave me for Christmas. I will pull on shorts, and a tank top. I will lace up my shoes—carefully because I don’t want to hurt my fingers. I will put on my Calvin baseball cap and pull the bill low. I will run until I cry. It will take about twenty-five minutes.

On Easter, I imagine myself running with the Marys, and I imagine Jesus and Lucy watching us. I begin a conversation with these women:

“Hey, Mary and Mary, Jesus and Aunt Lucy want us to be still and know.”

“Yeah,” says Mary Magdelene, “forget that.”

“I’ve been still. I know too much,” the other Mary says.

“So let’s keep running,” I say.

I round the corner towards home but decide to go further; me and my imaginary friends. We run and we cry because we lost somebody we love and we don’t know what to do now.


On Easter Monday, in the middle of the night, pain from my right index finger wakes me up. The infection has gone underneath my nail bed, swelling my finger to the width of a hot dog.

“Jesse,” I whisper frantically. He rolls over.

“My finger,” I say and he puts his hand over his eyes for a second, then pulls himself to a sitting position. He takes my hand and turns it over, examining it. He gets out of bed, and walks to the bathroom. I hear him filling a glass of water and then opening the medicine cabinet. I hear the pills shake in their red bottle.

Jesse walks back to bed, hands me the water, opens the bottle and spills a pill onto his palm. He gives me the pill and I take it.

“I don’t want to die,” I say and begin to cry.

“I know,” he says.

“I don’t want Lucy to be dead,” I whimper after I’ve swallowed the pill.

“I know,” Jesse says, and walks to his side of the bed while I drink the rest of my water.

I lay down and begin to position myself as I usually sleep, arms folded and clenched to my side, hands in fists. But I can’t bend my right index finger, so I turn over onto my back and open my palm so it’s facing the ceiling. I hate just lying here. I hate being still. I begin to move my right foot from side to side.

Jesse takes my hand. “It’s okay to live. It’s okay to see what happens.” I fold my three working fingers around his.

“Sometimes I’m afraid to see what happens,” I tell him.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

It is the last thing he says before we fall back to sleep.

On Taking Note

Callie Feyen

14 memorial rocks One summer, my family spent an afternoon riding bikes on Mackinac Island. During the eight-mile ride, I noticed several piles of rocks ranging from just a few stones to almost three feet high. I learned from the brochure I carried in my bike basket that these are called “cairns,” and they’re used to mark trails by hikers and bikers; mostly at points where the trail isn’t obvious or there’s a sharp decline. However, the cairns on Mackinac Island weren’t on trails. In fact, they were scattered over the shore. The Mackinac Cairns, I learned, served “as a memorial for having been somewhere or as a simple art form.” I laughed at first, and thought, “simple indeed” as I watched my six- and four-year-old daughters pile rocks on a break from riding bikes. I wondered about the memorial part of this practice as well. What was seen or heard, what was the weather like, and what else happened while rocks were being piled up? I was annoyed that I didn’t know the story, and instead, had to look at the lake, the sand—nature—and wonder what in the world would make someone get off her bike and stack four or five rocks in a pile.

The idea of taking note of something in one’s day with little to no reflection is explored in an essay titled, “Rambling Round Evelyn,” in the book The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf. Throughout the essay, Woolf examines the diary, which could also be thought of as a memorial for having been somewhere, as well as a simple art form. Woolf uses the diary of John Evelyn to show that while simply taking note might seem tedious and perhaps unnecessary, it also can spark wonder and imagination of those who are left behind to observe it.

John Evelyn was meticulous about recording the events of his days, but it was the event he was focused on, not his thoughts and feelings about it. Woolf doesn’t consider this writing. In fact, in her own diary, she writes, “this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles.” Woolf thought that the real task of a writer is not just writing down the facts, but to help the reader see something beyond those facts, and Evelyn does not do this in his diary. He records, and he moves on. Almost all of the work is left to the reader to decide whether what he saw is worth noticing too.

However, this is not to say what Evelyn did didn’t have merit or that keeping a diary is a waste of time. While Woolf might’ve not thought it was writing, she wrote about her own diary keeping: “The advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are diamonds of the dustheap.” Further, Woolf explains that the reason Evelyn kept a diary was because it was, “as if the look of things assailed him.” What Evelyn saw attacked him and the only thing he could do to manage this fierce sensitivity to the world was write them down.

“Evelyn was no genius. His writing is opaque rather than transparent; we see no depth through it, nor any secret movement of mind or heart,” Woolf wrote. But more than 300 years later, his diaries still exist and if we are to read them it will be up to us to see “these scattered fragments—like relics of beauty in a world that has grown indescribably drab.” I think it is this active participation on the part of the reader that makes diary writing an art form.

If I wanted, I could add stones to the existing piles scattered around the island; a symbol to show I noticed, I saw something beautiful or startling, too. But that is all. I could not say what it was or why it gave me pause. All I could do is pick up another rock and place it on the pile to mark my spot, hoping it didn’t crumble.

Awake My Soul

Callie Feyen

14 podium When I sit down to write, I pretend I am speaking at an event. I’m the plenary at the Festival of Faith and Writing, for example. Or I’m giving my acceptance speech for this year’s Newbery Award. Once, I pretended I was giving the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. I was never a student there, but I did teach step aerobics and my inspiring, motivational, and encouraging personality led the university to request my presence at graduation. In my fantasy, they would be giving me an honorary doctorate. For teaching aerobics.

I came up with the idea to pretend in order to write in the spring of 1998. I was in a study carol in the library at Calvin College. I was supposed to write a term paper for Dale Brown’s American Literature class, and my usual treats, a large bag of gummy worms and a Poor Man’s Mocha (a mixture of coffee and hot chocolate that cost me fifty cents), were not providing the jumpstart I needed to pick up my pen and write.

I was probably supposed to explore a theme in my paper. But it’s been a minute since 1998 and I don’t remember the exact assignment. What I do remember is sitting in Dale Brown’s class on the first day of my last semester of college and hearing him quote Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “Anything coming back to life hurts.”

Crap, I thought as I wrote that sentence down and circled it. I was interviewing for teaching jobs in South Bend, Indiana where my fiancée was a graduate student. I was looking for a wedding dress with enough tulle that would make Scarlet O’Hara both approve and be envious. I was wondering if my soon-to-be husband would agree to living in an apartment by the St. Joseph River. I wasn’t interested in the idea that we are only fully alive if we are in pain. No thank you, I thought, as I shifted my left hand so the diamond on my ring sparkled.

Morrison’s words were the first notes I took in American Literature. I still have the navy blue Mead notebook. The letters from the sentence and the circle around it are shaky, not my typical neat handwriting. That’s because I trembled when I wrote them.

And I trembled when I read the stories Brown assigned for class: “A Soldier’s Heart,” by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor. They all bothered me. I walked around that semester feeling as though I’d just been shocked by the morning alarm after being in a deep sleep. I felt like I needed to figure out where I was and what I was supposed to do now that I was awake.

The worst of the stories was, “Where Are You Going And Where Have You Been,” by Joyce Carol Oates. I sat in the back of the room with my head bowed, hoping not to be called on the day we discussed that story. Not abnormal behavior for me, but that morning I was raw from reading about the teenage girl who opens her screen door and walks away with the devil. She knew who he was and he knew she knew. Can Jesus still get to her now? I didn’t want to say a word about this story because I was sure I’d been that girl. I was sure I’d be that girl again. I sat as still as I could and silently pleaded with Jesus to always have a stronger grip on me than the devil.

So I’m in my study carol, the one I always went to because if I leaned a smidgeon to the right I could see a sliver of the campus, and I decide to pretend that I am the valedictorian of my class. I would write an address to my fellow students to be given in the field house upon graduation. The idea was hilarious given my history of being a solid C student (give or take a minus), but it provided enough of a boost to my ego so that I wrote.

The paper was about how what we read should wake us up and shake us around. I argued that reading stories like the ones we read in Brown’s class is vital in forming who we are and how we ought to live. To this day that paper is one of my favorite things I’ve written.

And I think I fooled Dale Brown. He gave me an A on the paper. He wrote that he suspected my speech would be better then the “real” valedictorian address. He called me “one of those” students referring to the sort he’d never forget. He told me I was a writer.

Dale Brown helped me see myself differently. He helped me believe I might have the capability to wrestle with the tough stories. I can still see that girl, almost twenty years ago, leaning close to the words she’s trying to figure out, ignoring the gummy worms and the coffee that’s gone cold, in pain from trying to understand how to come back to life after seeing herself in the girl who walked with the devil, or the grandma in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”

Today, in order to get myself to write this piece for Relief, I’m pretending I’m giving Dale Brown’s eulogy. He died last year. He was riding his bike and swerved to avoid a car, but was knocked off and suffered injuries he couldn’t survive.

I’d prefer to pretend that he is still alive saving lives through his teaching; waking all of us up and helping us walk around the world with startled, awe-stricken eyes. I’d prefer to pretend that I am speaking at a banquet thanking him for his years of teaching. I’d prefer to pretend I am that girl twenty years ago, writing down that terrifying sentence about coming back to life, and waiting for Dale Brown to show me what that sentence means.

Is God there?

Callie Feyen

Church Cloud2 The days that I write start like this: I drop my girls off at school, and as I drive away I turn on the song, “Time” by the Abstract Giants. I know a few of the guys in band. I grew up with them. I know Andy Lempera, the drummer, from junior high band where our director promised that if we worked hard, Andy could free style while we cleaned up our clarinets and oboes, trumpets and trombones during the last five minutes of the period. I never had so much fun cleaning the spit out of my flute than when Andy played.

Matt Conway and Cary Kano are some of my brother’s childhood buddies. I think I’ve known them since before their voices changed. And Andres Roldan, one of the vocalists in the band is the sibling of my best friend from junior high and high school. There were very few days when I was over and Andres and most of these guys weren’t: playing basketball in the alley, or video games in the basement, or running after the ice-cream truck—Celena and I running with them.

I play the song because I’ve watched the years of revision these guys put into getting their songs together. I’ve listened to them riff in smoky bars in Chicago (when smoking in bars was legal), when the words were there, but the melody wasn’t. When the beat was catchy, but the words needed to be figured out. When everything fit together and the crowd let them know their music was perfect. Watching and listening to them was a lesson in writing: the more I practice laying down words, the more triumphant the story becomes, the more I believe in it. So I play their song for courage: if these guys can do it, so can I.

I crank the song because I love loud music and also because I love the looks I get when people hear the bass booming down the street. They expect someone else, and what they see is an almost 40-year-old woman driving a Mazda 5 with two car seats in the backseat. “Surprise!” or “Gotcha!” is what I want to yell out the window, and this is the sentiment I carry to my writing: What will I surprise myself with when I write today? What will I be brave enough to tell? What will I find out? I love the moments when my story grabs me by the ears and pulls me towards its words and yells, “Gotcha!”

While I’m writing, I listen to music that’ll keep me in my seat: Miles Davis, Sujfan Stevens, David Gray. I can’t call these guys my friends, but their music speaks to things I try to figure out in my writing. They’ve created a setting for me to sit with the things that make me wonder and what makes me uncomfortable, and I aspire to do the same thing with my stories.

That is, until a group of boys come walking down my street. Truth be told, they strut. There are usually five or six of them, and if it’s warm, they’re wearing undershirts with flannels or sweatshirts slung over their shoulders. In the cooler weather they’re wearing sweatshirts and knitted caps. Never jackets, though it hasn’t been terribly cold in DC yet. Their pants are always low. I can usually see their underwear. I’m old enough now to see the baby in everyone 21-years-old and younger, so I can’t tell if they are school age or not. They hold no book bags if they are going to school. They hold nothing. They saunter down the sidewalk, taking up all of it, the grass, and enough of the street that cars would need to slow and swerve around them.

They are always rapping. Usually it’s one of the boys in the group, and the rest are silent while the one articulates precisely each word, as though it’s liturgy. I always stop writing and listen. I wince when they drop “f” bombs. I get afraid when the tone suggests violence. If these boys were walking down the street when I was in my car, I’d probably wait in it, pretending to check my phone, until they passed. But from my desk on our second floor, I listen intently with my head bowed and my hands folded.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if one can pray without knowing that is what one is doing. Is God at work when we hear a song that makes us bop our heads and swivel our hips before we know we are doing it? Is He there when a song names something we don't understand? Is God the spark that ignites an urge for us to create something beautiful in a world that baffles us?

And what about the times when we are so angry, or so scared that all we can do is walk down the street shouting words we’ve clutched onto because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do? Are we heard when we are calling and reaching towards a God we don’t know?

Different Roads to To Kill a Mockingbird (Part 3)

Callie Feyen

Ewell My girls’ school sits on a hill across the street from Little Seneca Lake, a reservoir that was created to provide an emergency water supply to the metro DC area. It started out as a creek but swelled and deepened so that now people can fish for channel catfish and tiger muskie in it. Today, Hadley, Harper, and I head to the water, and while the girls play, I sit on a hollowed out log and watch the water lap onto the shore.

Why concern myself with a fictional character like Bob Ewell, I think while Hadley peels bark off a stick and flicks the pieces into the water. Perhaps my time would’ve been better spent discussing theme or how the setting effects the plot. Hadley shows me her stick, completely bald, its wood smooth and bare.

“I’m going to take it home and paint it,” she tells me. “I’ll make it into something new.” She hands me the stick and I put it into my bag. I dig my heels into the damp dirt, twisting my feet and pressing my hands on my thighs so I delve deep into the ground. Fiction or not, I don’t know what to do with a guy like Bob Ewell. I’m not sure my students and I can unravel the mystery of a human being like him—both fearfully and wonderfully made. Maybe all I did this afternoon was tell them to look around in a darkness so deep their eyes will never adjust.

Hadley begins to toss rocks into the water and Harper lays down on the old tree trunk and hums. While we sit, I notice several bees streaming in and out of a nearby tree with a nook in it like the one Boo Radley puts gifts in for Jem and Scout. We are sitting a few feet from a hive, but I make no attempts to move. I will eventually, but when I do, I’ll have to be careful about how I do it because I don’t want Hadley and Harper to be afraid. If they learn about the bees, they won’t want to come back here. And I want them to come back here. I want them to believe they are safe to explore in this beauty.

Different Roads to To Kill a Mockingbird (Part 2)

Callie Feyen

4629576140_71e934f808_z It seems though, that To Kill a Mockingbird is the sort of book that gives something to me every time I return to it. This year, it’s Bob Ewell I’m paying attention to, though I hadn’t planned on taking a closer look at him.

My drive to school these days isn’t terribly interesting. It’s mostly highway driving, and save for the leaves that bloom with color in the fall, there’s not much to look at. I feel more that I am driving away from something, then towards it. I am a mother now, to Hadley and Harper, and I haven’t gotten used to the fact that the three of us fumble through most of our days separately, when just a while ago we did it together. I know once I start teaching, once I see my students, I’ll step into a role I love. Teaching awakens a side of me that is vibrant and bold and I love that gal when she comes out. But every day I begin my commute, I ache a little.

So I think about Bob Ewell, and it occurs to me that he and Atticus Finch have something in common: both of these men have wives who died. We don’t know how they died, and we don’t know how Atticus and Bob mourned; perhaps they are still mourning when we meet them. I press my foot to the accelerator because I can’t wait to point this out to my students. What will they think about Bob now? What will they do with this information?

In the classroom, I write “Atticus Finch,” and “Bob Ewell” on the board in a Venn diagram, and ask my students to do the same on pieces of notebook paper. “lawyer,” “educated,” “takes care of his kids,” on one side and “drunk,” “illiterate,” and “beats his kids,” on the other. “White,” and “male,” are in the center.

“What else?” I ask, tapping the whiteboard.

“One’s good, one’s bad?” a student suggests.

“OK, but they have something else in common.”

The kids look at me in disgust at first, but I wait and one says, “They don’t have wives!”

“Yes!” I say.

“Because they’re both dead!” one exclaims.

“Atticus and Bob are dead?” another one, who is confused, asks.

“No! Their wives! They died!” three or four say in unison.

We are so excited about this realization, and I don’t believe it’s because we’re relieved that Bob had a bad thing happen to him. I think we’re pleased because we might’ve discovered another layer to him.

“Maybe he wasn’t always like this, you guys,” I say, pointing to the word, “drunk” on the board. The class is shiftless and silent—a sure sign they are captivated. I take this as a miracle I must not waste and dive in.

“What do you think Bob’s wife was like? Do you think they had a love story? Do you think he has any good memories?”

I ask everyone to get out another piece of paper. I tell them to write as though they are Bob Ewell. “What else can you say about him that goes beyond racist, ignorant, and negligent? What happens when you look at him as a human that was wonderfully and fearfully made?” And then I whisper because I’m afraid to say it: “Bob Ewell has been made in the image of God.” Their eyes dart up from their papers. Fifteen wide-eyed adolescents look at me and I wonder if I’ve gone too far.

A few years ago I pulled a similar stunt with 8th graders. I suggested to them that maybe Judas had been forgiven. Maybe God could do that. The next day an infuriated mother walked into my classroom and screamed, “Judas is in hell! He’s in hell!” I shutter at the memory but continue with my experiment. “Go ahead and write,” I tell my students. “Let’s see what you come up with.”

“I am thinkin’ ‘bout my wife again,” one student writes. “I wish she could make her famous cornbread pancakes. I wish I could stop drinkin’.”

Another writes to Bob’s dead wife. “I don’t know why I write you these letters and bury them by your grave, but it makes me feel better. Every time I look at our children, Mayella especially, I feel an anger. I don’t know where it comes from but it consumes me. Mayella grows beautiful and strong, and she reminds me of you every time I see her.”

Some students reflect on Atticus: “Me and Atticus lived in the same neighborhood. We weren’t friends, though. I was jealous of him because he went to school. I always wanted to learn new things but my parents didn’t have time to teach me. Plus, they would be fighting every day.”

One wrote about Bob fishing as a young boy when his father was off at the bar, drinking. “Those were the best days,” he writes, “Sam and I would always jump in the pond and swim around.”

The class is subdued when they finish writing. There’s a feeling of confusion while they pack up and get ready to head home. I think they’re in the thick of wonder—when wonder is dark and mysterious. I hope I’ve introduced them to the real work of writing.

But as I drive home, I begin to second-guess myself. Was I wrong to encourage my students to imagine there is more to Bob Ewell than what we read in To Kill a Mockingbird? Should I have waited for his final murderous intention in the woods before I had the kids evaluate him? Have I set them up?

Different Roads to To Kill a Mockingbird (Part 1)

Callie Feyen

maxresdefault The first time I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to a group of 8th graders, I was student teaching at Stephen K. Hayt School on the North Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. Each morning, I drove down Lake Shore Drive towards my students, wondering if there would be a time when I’d tire of looking at the skyscrapers and the water.

My dad worked at Northwestern University’s city campus, and normally was at work hours before I left the house. But the days I took my first steps into my career, he stayed at home until I was off Lake Shore Drive and setting up my classroom. He blamed crazy drivers, but I think he was more concerned about my driving. I found any excuse I could to take that windy road, and I think he worried I’d get distracted with the views and my habit of blasting the car stereo. He knew telling me a better was pointless. Since I’d had my license I was on Lake Shore Drive—by myself or with friends—whether my parents told me it was OK or not. So my dad made a compromise: I could drive on Lake Shore Drive if I took the cell phone and called him when I got to Sheridan, where the road ended on the North Side. He’d wait to start his workday until then. It wasn’t exactly the compromise Atticus and Scout make when he promises to continue to read with her if she agrees to keep going to school, but still, it is an example of a father giving his girl a chance to explore the world the way she wants to explore it.

Those days, 8th graders with names like Gurendapal, Shacondalah, and Fatou howled at Dill, Scout, and Jem when they first met them. “Those are some weird names!” they all agreed.

“I suppose they are,” I said, deciding against telling them that if I were to ever have a baby, I’d like to name him or her Radley.

My students loved the scene where Scout gets in a tire and Jem rolls her down the street. They shrieked with haunted delight when she bumps into the Radley steps and is too dizzy to get up and run. They wanted to re-enact it. “I know the best house to ram into,” one said. “We just need a tire.”


A new set of 8th graders. A new neighborhood. This time, I was in South Bend, Indiana and my commute to school took me over the St. Joseph River where the Chinook salmon and steelhead trout swam upstream to lay their eggs before they died. I rounded a corner where Corby’s stood—a neighborhood bar my husband Jesse and I spent some evenings after football games or summer nights drinking Four Horsemen and watching fireflies. It took me past the University of Notre Dame, where Jesse was pursuing a doctorate in hurricane storm surge.

I could see the Golden Dome from just about anywhere, and it reminded me of being able to see the Sears Tower from anywhere in my neighborhood growing up, though the comparison stung. I have learned that I will forever be homesick for Chicago, but back then the ailment was so palpable it was hard for me to resist turning the car around and heading West towards the skyline, and not to school. A couple times, I did.

But I was there the day my students and I were struck by Mayella Ewell’s red geraniums that “popped in slop jars in her yard.” How did I miss that, I thought as I stood in front of a group of thirteen and fourteen year olds who were waiting for me to explain to them what we are to do with the sort of beauty that shouldn’t belong in the heap of the Ewell yard and the Ewell lives. I had no answer for them, but we all decided this scene needed to be illustrated so I passed out paper, they took out crayons, and we all tried to make Mayella’s flowers as beautiful as we imagined them to be. “I feel so sorry for her,” one student said as she colored. “I didn’t before; thought she was a jerk doing what she did to Tom Robinson.” She examined a red crayon before she looked at me, and said, “It’s more complicated than that, though.”