My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

— Iff to Haroun in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is the story my mother told me:

A few weeks before their due dates, my twenty-three-year-old (almost) mother chatted long-distance with her friend, Dorothy, whom she met at Fort Bragg. After Uncle Sam drafted their baby-faced husbands and shipped them off to Vietnam, Dorothy returned to Ohio and my mother to Philadelphia, where she lived with my father’s family while awaiting my birth. My mother tells me the friendship was a source of comfort despite their geographic distance. Though both women were surrounded by family, each felt an isolation that only the other could understand. Which partly explains why my mother never told Dorothy how angry and hurt she was by what happened next. Dorothy, who hadn’t decided on baby names as of that conversation, delivered her daughter first and named her Elizabeth Ann–the name my mother had reluctantly revealed she had always intended for her own child.  

So I became Michele Elizabeth. Michele with one L. Remember that. It’s important.

*****

In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories–a wonderful book, by the way. You should read it–Haroun’s father Rashid, a professional storyteller, “[runs] out of stories to tell” after his wife runs off with the neighbor. Iff the Water Genie reluctantly agrees to help  Haroun reconnect Rashid’s access to Story Water, the magical source of Rashid’s extraordinary gift, and tells him to select their means of transport. “Pick a bird…any bird,” Iff insists, which makes no sense to Haroun. They’ve met accidentally in a houseboat bathroom, and the only bird Haroun sees is a wooden peacock bed, incapable of flight.

“Iff [gives] a snort of disgust. ‘A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he [says], as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.’”

The Genie opens his fist, and Haroun’s “eyes almost [fall] out of his head.” Creatures smaller than fingernails cavort on Iff’s palm.

Names, you see, are magic.

*****

Here is another story:

When I was four and my brother was three, my mother told us we would be getting a new big brother and sister. The details arise in my memory like photographs looping through a slideshow. Me seated at my play table behind the front door, Barbie on my lap. Philip sprawled on the floor pushing a truck. My mother, hair headbanded and looking equal parts flustered and severe. My father is absent, though he could not have been. The doorbell rings. The dogs scamper and bark. A matronly social worker enters with two children. Share, Mom had told me and Philip. And be nice. So I ask my new big sister if she wants to play Barbies.

Her name is Michelle, with two Ls.

*****

Big Michelle sticks.

Little Michele does not.

I become Michele Elizabeth, all one word. Micheluhlizabeth. Then Elizabeth, but only within the family. Not in school, not among my friends, never at work. I meet my husband and tell him, I’m Michele. People who know these stories ask, Why didn’t you change your name? Surely it was confusing, a sister with the same name? How on earth did you manage?

By a P2C2E. A Process Too Complicated to Explain. This is Iff’s answer to all of Haroun’s impossible questions, and it is partly the answer to my own. Truthfully, part of me did not acknowledge the chaos.

Most of me delighted in it.

*****

The summer I meet my new big sister, the six of us, our two dogs and a turtle travel to Ohio, where I meet Elizabeth Ann. A year or two later, her family travels to Philadelphia. Eventually, our families lose touch. Why, my mother does not recall. Nor do I recall much about the girl. She was nice enough and had brownish hair. 

Now, I wonder whether she knows the story of her name. Whether her mother knows that in stealing from my mother, she magicked a unique landscape for my childhood.

*****

My name was supposed to be Elizabeth Ann.

I’m glad it’s not.

For those of you unfamiliar with the challenge, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Beginning every November 1, writers of all ages and abilities set out to write a 50,000 word novel by midnight November 30. 

I planned to participate. I even signed up. I had a project and a schedule in place.

Then I changed my mind.

*****

During spring quarantine, my concentration suffered. I read poems and short articles, but no books. I wrote emails and blog posts, but no fiction. Like Didi and Gogo, I spun in circles awaiting an intervention that never came.

Their quest is called Theater of the Absurd for a reason, and I’m its fan in neither literature nor life. 

What does that have to do with NaNo?

Everything.

As I struggled to create my personal New Normal, I struggled to determine WHY writing non-fiction came so much easier than writing fiction. WHY I struggle with drafting and relish revising.

Two reasons. First, I’ve spent much more time writing non-fiction than fiction. Second, writing non-fiction is a process of manipulating and polishing events that have already happened.

Eureka! That’s my fiction stumbling block. Not DRAFTING–

Figuring out the events that have already happened so I can then manipulate and polish them.

And for me, that takes time. Time and thinking, then writing. Then rewriting, then more time and thinking and rewriting, all the while remembering that, like building a house, building a story requires certain parts be fabricated and placed before others leave the factory. Every writing session, I always begin by rereading and (slightly) tweaking scenes drafted the day prior, even if it just means making marginal notes about necessary changes. I have to. I can’t move forward otherwise.

Which means the NaNo model doesn’t work for me.  Writing on such a stringent timeframe makes my brain cramp.

Uh unh.

It doesn’t mean I won’t be writing every day this month. I will be.

Nor does it mean I won’t start writing that novel. I already have a very ugly draft.

It means I needn’t feel guilty about not meeting the NaNo challenge. Every writer needs to recognize and celebrate her own process, and stepping away from NaNo means stepping toward a writing month that works for me.

And I’m more than okay with that.

*****

What have you learned about your writing during quarantine? I’d love to hear it! Share your comments below.

My microflash story “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” is included in the fall issue of Sunspot Literary Journal. I’m honored and thrilled to be included in their publication and to have had my piece accepted by them in only a few minutes!

You can download a copy and read the entire issue here: https://sunspotlit.com/editions

Enjoy!

So I love showing up early to my own classroom Google Meets because, well, I like to be prepared for things–the early bird and all that–but also because some of my kids show up early and I chat with them about non-class topics like, Is that a Squirtle poster? (Yes). And, What’s your parakeet’s name? (He doesn’t have one.)

An aside, one of my students has not one but TWO pet rats whom I’ve met virtually, and I must say that, while rats in general are not my thing, hers seemed perfectly reasonable and friendly creatures–not the least prone to transmitting Bubonic or other such nasties. 

Now seems like a good time to mention that I teach seniors mostly, with a smattering of freshmen through juniors. 

Anyhow, sometimes we discuss Whether it really is cold enough to wear a fuzzy blanket to class (always), and Why we aren’t wearing socks (wet nail polish, of course). Sometimes we discuss yawning and tea versus coffee or Boost (which is like flat cola and a New Jersey staple and something I could never understand, being neither a NJ native nor a fan of soda). 

Actually, we discuss yawning and sleeping A LOT because, quite frankly, we are all TIRED like, ALL THE TIME.

Speaking of which, we talk about TIME. About how sloooooowly time moves. How hard it is to keep track of the minutes and days when the minutes and days seem like eating Jello without a spoon. Ever try to scoop Jello with your hands? It’s okay at first, but then it wobbles, and globs plop on the carpet or your pants, and the globs still in your hands start to ooze and goo because Jello is supposed to stay cold or it melts. Not counting the scary over-preserved pre-made packages in the Shoprite non-refrigerated snack aisle.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. Time. These days, time feels like scooping Jello with my hands. I hate Jello. I hate Jello and it’s all my mother’s fault. She knows this, or she should, because I tell her all the time.

Ha! Ha! Like what I did there?

Anyway, I don’t like Jello because when I was little and sick and would hide my Children’s Chewables between the sofa cushions, my mother would instead crush them up in a bowl of Jello, which–in case you haven’t realized–is DISGUSTING. So no Jello for me. Ever.

But I do like Time. 

And I enjoy spending non-teaching time chatting with my students. I wish I had more such time,  like I did when school was normal and students crowded the halls and my room and our conversations were frequent and spontaneous and as natural as breathing. Priceless, though I didn’t know that then.

God, how I miss it.

*****

Fellow educators, what do YOU miss most about pre-Covid teaching? I’d love to hear your stories. Drop your comments below!

September 8, I returned to my classroom for only the second time since Covid closed my district mid-March. The first time occurred early June, when my colleagues and I returned to help empty student lockers and reunite their contents with the kids who’d been abruptly forced to abandon them. Administration allowed us a few minutes in our rooms to collect our own things, not knowing then when–or if–we’d return in the fall. 

I didn’t even consider the How. 

Walking into my classroom on the first day of remote instruction was like walking into a haunted house, not scary but sad, and filled with reminders of those who once walked the aisles, those to whom I never really had a chance to say goodbye. 

Along a blue-papered bulletin board,  my last year’s seniors’ handwritten names adorned our editing posters, proudly proclaiming which skills they’d mastered.  Suspended from the closet, my red hanging folders overflowed with graded student work  I’d planned to return and review. My desk pad read March. My chalkboard still held taped mementos from homecoming, Christmas,  Valentine’s Day.

I cried. 

And then I got pissed. 

Someone had destroyed my reading corner.  

Stripped the cozy gathering space of its rug and pillows, throws and cushions, items I’d bought. Items I’d arranged and dragged home to wash.  Items I stitched when wear split their seams. Replaced when they were beyond repair. My kids loved my reading corner, even using it for group work conferences and writing sessions. Instead, bare linoleum gleamed like bones  beside my bookcases still thankfully filled with books scrounged at yard sales or donated, books culled from my own personal collection. 

The thing is, I knew it had to go.

I would have done so the week before during in-service, had my son’s second Covid exposure not required I participate from home. In fact, I had planned to dismantle the nook my first day back, to wash each piece and donate them to Green Drop or Goodwill. Or maybe the Women’s Humane Society, which welcomes used linens for its waiting-to-be-adopted pets.

That someone had already done so felt like a violation. 

They didn’t even ask. They didn’t even tell me where they’d taken my possessions. Another in a long series of losses. 

And I’m sick of it.

I sat at my desk, head in my hands, wavering between fury and grief. 

Not for my things

For what they represent–Lost opportunities. Lost connections. How on earth will I be able to reach my kids this year if we’re reduced to tiles on a screen?

They say there are five stages of grief. Stages, like steps, that we approach one foot at a time, one after another, until finally we are healed. Made whole once again.

Except we don’t and we aren’t.

Grief is like playing Chutes and Ladders. One turn forward, next turn sliding back to Start. The only way to win the game is to keep playing. To keep moving forward time and again, no matter the number of  setbacks. No matter the number of rolls.

I picked my head up and looked around my room. Tossed April through August in the trash, and logged on to my computer. 

Then I invited my new students to join the game with me, but all of us on the same team.

On my first first-day of school, I was four and my mother walked me down Torresdale Avenue to the playground preschool where I would learn how to color and paint and cut with big girl scissors. Skills I needed along with sharing and taking turns, as I already knew how to read and write and count. 

Since then, I’ve missed three first days. Once, when I was on maternity leave. Once, when we had a family emergency. And once last Tuesday, my forty-ninth first day, on what would have been my thirtieth as an educator. Instead of donning my mask and joining my colleagues in our building, I logged in from home. 

Exactly where I did not want to be. 

The day before, I’d checked off the last of my summer to-dos. I received an almost immediate acceptance on one of my short stories. My daughter and I shopped for her wedding dress, and I smiled through tears when she said yes to one that makes her look like a princess. 

After six months of upheaval, I felt calm. In control.

And then my son texted me. 

His co-worker had tested positive for Covid, which meant he had to be tested, which meant he could have exposed the rest of us.

So much for tranquility.

My principal told me to stay home. Better safe than sorry, she said, and she’s right, though part of me wished I hadn’t said anything. I want my life back. I want my routines and my classroom. The first day joy of a new year, new students. Celebrating and commiserating with colleagues. Instead, I had to jettison nearly everything I’d planned to accomplish during our two teacher days because I wasn’t allowed in the building.

Pandemic pandemonium.

I know, I know. It’s not just a me thing. Same storm, different boat I wrote in an earlier post. We’re all struggling.

Like being alone in the middle of the ocean, said our curriculum coordinator during one virtual meeting. Some days the waters are calm. And some days the storms leave you hanging on for dear life–seasick and buffeted by waves, desperately bailing the onslaught so you can somehow stay afloat.

Thank the stars, I know how to swim. I’ve built a sturdy boat, and I’m sailing with a good crew. 

And although I cannot predict the storms, I can prepare for them and teach my students how to navigate them together.

Because that’s what education should do. Teach us how to thrive no matter the weather.

I’m grateful my storm last week proved minor. I learned some cool tech hacks during in-service. I reconfigured my class plans. Most importantly, my son tested negative and my family remains healthy.

Tomorrow, my district begins virtual instruction, and I’ll join my colleagues in our building for our students’ first day. My fingers are crossed for smooth sailing… but I’ve packed a life vest and flares just in case.

I hate to dream. 


I dream in color and minute detail. In patterns of setting, plot, and genre. Their characters are archetypes, not familiars. Their conflicts encoded metaphors for my waking life. 

Vivid dreams, in other words. 

Subconscious manifestations of external turmoil, they are a nightly phenomena with which I have been intimately acquainted even prior to Covid.  However, as the new school year approaches, my dreams’ intensity and frequency have worsened because I’m worried about reopening schools. I’m worried about bringing Covid home to my family. Myself. I’m worried about my students and my ability to provide the education they deserve, and so are my peers. 

School starts tomorrow. After months of debate, late July my New Jersey district opted to reopen following a hybrid model for instruction. Whereas families could opt in to the hybrid or all-remote options, teachers and staff would report to their buildings. Mid-August, the board voted for an all-remote return for students, with faculty and staff still reporting. Late August, we learned our teaching load, but not our schedules. As I write, the details of our return remain in flux. Including students’ schedules. 

None of  this situation is ideal. No one with whom I’ve spoken is truly happy with any of our educational options.  Most students are better off with daily, in-person instruction, which aids learning and socialization. We’ve already been isolated from each other for far too long, with no end in sight and no clear understanding of the restrictions’ long-term implications for our children. But we are in a pandemic. All of us. To date we have no vaccine and no cure. Only behavior modifications: wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowds. 

Meanwhile, everyone wants to weigh in on what schools and teachers should do. On their opinions of those with whom they disagree. Civility and respectful discourse have become nearly obsolete. Insults and shaming, the norm. Such behavior is  sickening and unacceptable, no matter the rationale, and certainly gets us no closer to a resolution. 

Not to mention what such ugliness teaches our children. 

Meanwhile, I have to figure out a way to do my job, following whatever guidelines and conditions my district has implemented. 

I think I figured out a way last week. 

Recently, a former student sent me a friend request, then a DM after I accepted. This may sound odd, she said, but she wanted to thank me. Even though we taught her in high school, I and a few other teachers had given her an education better than most she knows, and for that she’s grateful. 

She made my day. Maybe my year.

Honestly, I have only a vague recall of her class. In nearly thirty years, I’ve taught thousands of students, and she graduated at the beginning of my career. I don’t know exactly what I did to earn her regard other than what I’ve always tried to do: Be the kind of teacher I want for my own children.  

She thanked me, but I needed to thank her right back. She reminded me of why I love being a teacher.  She reminded me that sometimes the little things we do or say have the greatest impact on others’ lives–good and bad.

Sometimes that impact isn’t realized until many years later.  

In all the clamor and worry, I  almost forgot that lesson.

I’m glad she reminded me. 

School starts tomorrow. Tonight I think I’ll sleep just fine.

The venetian blind Lady Liberty at the heart of “Bring Me Your Yearning” actually existed.

In 1986, two days before the 100th anniversary of  New York’s original Statue, she mysteriously appeared overnight in the middle of the Susquehanna River near my childhood home of Dauphin, Pennsylvania, seven miles north of the state’s capital. Her origins remained anonymous for some time, and the Lady, built to stand through Labor Day, instead remained a beloved landmark until 1992 when storms destroyed her. By then, Gene Stilp had been revealed as her creator, and he organized fundraisers for her resurrection–this time constructed of durable materials. To this day, Lady Liberty greets travelers along Route 322, her raised torch a symbol of hope and a reminder of our shared history.

(You can read more about the Dauphin statue and see pictures of the original here: 

Lady Liberty endures – from ‘knucklehead’ idea to a beloved landmark

The Legend Behind Lady Liberty on the Susquehanna River )

*****

The title “Bring Me Your Yearning” was inspired by lines in Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colussus” gracing the New York Lady’s base. While I set my story to coincide with the Bicentennial, characters and details pay homage to the 1986 Dauphin original. Susquehanna becomes Susquehannock. George alludes to Gene, Peters to Peters Mountain Road which runs from 322 through Dauphin and over the hill to my former home on Claster Boulevard. Nell was my beloved step-grandmother. Summers she visited from her home near West Chester, and we shared the twin beds in my room. Many nights we stayed awake until midnight as she told stories about her children and their service during World War II. About being widowed young, then her marriage of convenience to my maternal grandfather. She needed a provider for herself and her children. He needed a caretaker for himself and his. That I never recorded her stories is one of my profoundest regrets. 

Madeline Harper pays homage to two different stories: Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The first recalls wonderful memories of reading to my children at bedtime, each of them snuggled in my arms. For a while, my son’s favorite was his Alfie anthology. My daughter’s, Madeline. Both characters are curious and brave, adventurers whose single-mindedness  provides valuable insight into childhood. In Lee’s classic, one of my all-time favorite novels, children see and understand more clearly than adults the evil implicit in prejudice and racism, and in doing so they teach those adults necessary lessons about human dignity, justice, and community. 

Thus, the choice of a child’s perspective in “Yearning.” 

At ten, I vividly recall studying my world and its occupants with greater clarity than I could at the time articulate. I also knew myself to be separate and distinct from them, not merely an extension of family and neighborhood.  Hence, the third-person reflective narrator to mediate that which Maddie understands but cannot express. In some ways, she is like the younger me: observant yet headstrong, passionate yet adrift. Aware of injustice yet unsure of how to name it and fight it. I saw her, George, and the sergeant very clearly, as if we were long-time familiars.

However, this story was very difficult to write, beginning in 2015 and evolving over countless revisions until late 2019. For the longest while, I couldn’t determine why Maddie is so drawn to Lady Liberty. Why does she believe she must fix the statue’s broken torch? 

The answer gradually occurred to me as I witnessed reports of immigrant caravans walking hundreds of miles in search of asylum. Of children separated from their families and jailed in detention camps. Of law-abiding Dreamers threatened with deportation to countries as foreign as unexplored galaxies. 

Like Maddie and the sergeant, they are exiles yearning to belong. To build a better world for themselves and their families.

Lady Liberty represents that promise of solace. Respite. 

Home. 

And she belongs to us all. 

*****

You can read “Bring Me Your Yearning” at Dreamers Creative Writing: https://www.dreamerswriting.com/michele-reisinger/

I hope you like it!

“Lesson Plans” was inspired in part by a series of conversations among my colleagues in various disciplines. Months before Covid-19, remote learning, and our country’s long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, we shared our difficulties about having enough time to plan and teach our core classes effectively, let alone fulfill an ever-increasing list of duties unrelated to those classes. One said s/he understood why so many new teachers quit within five years. Another, that s/he’d have been better off in the private sector. A third, that s/he would never recommend teaching to a child considering the field. We were exhausted, we agreed, and nearly burnt-out. Demoralized by a barrage of feedback suggesting teachers get paid too much for not enough work, even though they regularly  work 60+ hours each week. Even though they use their own salaries to buy necessary supplies districts can’t–or won’t–provide. Even though many work two jobs to support their families. 

No one gets into teaching for the money. At least no one I’ve ever known. So why teach? 

“Lesson Plans” strives to answer that question.   Written in response to StoryADay May’s list prompt, it is loosely modelled on a lesson plan format wherein teachers must state learning objectives, materials, procedures, and assessments. However, in this piece, the roles of student and teacher are not mutually exclusive: they are interactive and mutually transformative.

Because that’s what true learning is. 

Think about how you learned to do whatever it is that you’re now really good at. Ride a bike. Tie your shoes. Drive. Cook a meal. Perform your job. Someone showed you some of the steps. You practiced. You screwed up. You practiced again. Maybe you asked questions. Maybe you watched other experts.  You screwed up again, and then maybe you figured out a different way, a hodgepodge of advice and experience and trial and error. However you forged your path forward, you are no longer the person at the end of the process as you were at the beginning. Likewise, you’ve continued to improve, yes? Barring any unforeseen obstacles? Maybe even shared those life lessons with others?

Same here. 

In my thirty-plus years as an educator, I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with so many wonderful young adults…and some who were less than wonderful. Nevertheless, each and every one of them has taught me invaluable lessons about not only the kind of teacher I want to be, but the kind of human being. Just like my former teachers did for me. For all of their input, I am tremendously grateful.

The unnamed persona in “Lesson Plans” is any one of us who wants to effect real, sustainable change for our children and the world we share. S/he has lofty objectives. However, all of them are rooted in the critical ability to identify and evaluate choices, then synthesize them into actions. We see that process when s/he confesses both her failure and its causes to student witnesses who neither abandon nor mock the persona. Rather, having mastered the lesson’s objectives, students use them to lead the teacher  from that moment of despair.

That’s why teachers teach. They want to model the change we need to to see in the world.

I think about that when I think about our current conversations regarding race and racism in the US. I am by no means an expert on those issues, but I am qualified to speak about the critical role education must play in highlighting and dismantling the attitudes, behaviors, and systems that have created that toxic culture. Nor do I  mean only in our schools. I mean in our homes and neighborhoods,  among friends and colleagues. And perhaps most importantly, among those whose experiences have differed from our own. Among those with whom we disagree.

Education is not the only way to fix what’s so clearly wrong in our country, but may I humbly suggest it’s a good place to start?