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.

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?

Save the children. Save the world.

Start with one child. That child.

The invisible one.

Or the loud one.

The awkward one.

The one whose smirk and sneer builds walls.

The one whose smile bends like a question at your Good Morning.

That one.

And then that one.

Give them a book.

Give them a voice.

Give them a chance.

Give them No and Yes and Maybe.

Give them a choice.

Choices.

And a scale.

Teach them to read: themselves in a mirror. A stranger’s challenge. A map. All maps.

Time.

Teach them to believe: in themselves.

Each other.

Magic.

Fail.

Let them see you.

Let them see you wipe your eyes and speak loudly the language of your fall.

            Then let them help you rise, and in so doing save yourself.

(*WARNING: the following contains spoilers for Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner)

By now you should have read through chapter twelve of The Kite Runner. And please don’t tell me you’ve read when you haven’t. I’ve been doing this a long time and I can tell, especially with this book which contains so many deftly plotted twists it’s like riding a roller coaster. The only way to miss those scenes is if you’re not riding the coaster.

So let’s review. When our first-person narrator Amir begins speaking to us in chapter one, December 2001, he is 38 and living in San Francisco. Earlier that summer, family friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan, ending with a peculiar invocation that “there is a way to be good again” (2). We know neither what that “way” is, nor what Amir references as his “past of unatoned sins” (1). However, Rahim’s comment suggests he knows Amir’s secret,  and is therefore offering Amir a way to vanquish the guilt he’s carried since childhood. Within this brief exchange lies Amir’s central conflict–The sin he committed at age twelve–and his central goal–The opportunity to atone for it.  Amir’s struggle with both influences events and determines his character arc, which is the process through which characters change in response to events and decisions. 

As readers, we can learn from characters’ struggles much the same way we learn from observing people in the real world. Those lessons are themes: messages or understandings about human experience that transcend literature. It’s why we can find works written centuries ago relevant today. We discussed that idea Week 5. Week 6, we discussed the concept of ghosts: experiences and observations that shape real and fictional people, determining, in part, how and why they react to external stimuli. Amir’s ghost is his fraught relationship with Baba, his father. He longs for Baba’s respect and notice, and will do almost anything to earn it. Don’t remember? Please check your notes before we move on.

No questions? 

Good. 

Because if you missed any of our earlier discussions, you won’t understand Amir’s betrayal of Hassan in chapter seven and why it matters–not only in the book but in the real world you and I occupy. This betrayal is the sin to which Amir alludes in chapter one: In March 1975, twelve-year-old Amir wins the kite tournament by cutting the string of his final competitor. Eleven-year-old Hassan, who earlier defended Amir from a trio of vicious bullies with his slingshot, is his partner and a remarkably skilled kite runner. He promises to retrieve the trophy kite but takes far too long to return, leading Amir to search for him among the streets of their Kabul neighborhood. Assef and his thugs, the trio from years past, have trapped Hassan in an alleyway and demand he hand over the blue kite or pay a price. When he refuses, Assef decides to teach “the Hazara” a lesson, payback for his perceived humiliation at Hassan’s hand. Assef is a pedophile and a sociopath and “not entirely sane” (38), and he rapes Hassan while Wali and Kamal hold him down and Amir watches, paralyzed, before deciding to run away.

Did you get that last bit? 

Amir decides to run away. He recognizes he has a choice: He can defend Hassan as Hassan has always defended him, or he can run.  He chooses to run. Amir is a coward, you see, and Amir really wants the kite. He wants to parade it before his father as evidence of his worth. He longs for Baba’s love and respect. And although Hassan calls Amir friend, he calls “Hassan…the price [he has] to pay, the lamb [he has ] to slay, to win Baba” (77). 

When I read The Kite Runner  for the first time, this is the point at which I really wanted to throw the book. This is the scene that kept me from sleeping. How could Amir do such a thing? Yes, Amir. I was more troubled by Amir than Assef because Amir knows better, Amir knows he should do something to help Hassan, yet Amir does nothing–not even console the traumatized Hassan when the two reunite shortly after the attack. He pretends it never happened, walks home with the kite, and allows Baba’s congratulatory embrace to wipe his conscience and memory clean.

Except it doesn’t. 

Shame and guilt continue to clamor, and in chapter nine  a desperate Amir tells a series of lies that causes Hassan and Ali to leave Baba’s employ forever. However, neither absence nor time nor emigrating to the US keeps the memory of that day buried. Remember the first line of the book? “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day at the age of twelve…. Looking back now, I realize I’ve been peeking into that deserted alley for the past twenty-six years” (1).

Hindsight, Amir reminds us, is twenty-twenty. 

Just ask my 90-year-old mother-in-law. 

March 19, she decided to clean the top of her fridge. 

By standing on a wood chair. 

In nylon socks. 

She lost her balance, fell, hit her head on the kitchen floor, and was hospitalized for a month. Doctors did not expect her to survive, but she did. Now, instead of an independent life in her own home, she lives in what used to be our guest room, six hours away from everything familiar except us.

Every day, she relieves the moments leading up to her fall and curses herself for a fool.

She’s not a fool, but her choice was foolish. Her choice not only changed her life forever, it changed ours. Her memory is spotty, her hearing worse.  She needs help with steps, with bathing, with dressing. She can’t prepare meals, and eats and sleeps on a schedule vastly different from our own. Much of that care falls to me because she is a woman and only feels comfortable with a woman’s care. 

I understand, and I want her to be comfortable. However, my daily to-do list grows impossibly long,  solitude increasingly scarce. I am cranky and tired and nearly out of patience, but my husband–who I’ve said sometimes knows me better than I know myself–sees me struggle and boots me from the house with instructions to take a long, meandering walk. So I do, and when I return my equilibrium has been restored.

So what’s the point of my story, you ask? What does my life have to do with Amir’s?

And what does any of this have to do with your lives right here, right now?

This: 

No choice exists in a vacuum. 

Often, when we choose for ourselves, we choose for others. Sometimes with disastrous, irrevocable consequences. None of us chose to incite a pandemic, to lose our jobs, to be trapped in our homes, stripped of milestones and the comforts of physical community.  Yet here we all are–same storm, different boats–because someone somewhere set these events in motion. Just imagine our right-now world had that “someone” chose differently. 

Would our world be better? Or worse? What about our individual lives?

We don’t know. We can’t know. 

And therein lies a significant part of the novel’s theme: Making decisions based on the perspective that our choices have no impact on others is not merely selfish but dangerous. When Amir chooses Baba over Hassan, cowardice over action, he sets into motion a series of events with profound implications for characters we’ve met and characters we have yet to meet–including those yet to be born. When my husband and I chose to move his mother into our home, we changed our son and daughter’s lives. I know what I want to teach them through this experience, but I wonder, What exactly will they learn?  

I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I can try to choose wisely.

I think Baba would agree. Shortly after twenty-year-old Amir meets the woman who will become his wife, he recalls snippets of gossip circulating like a virus and asks Baba what he knows of her. Baba explains she had a prior relationship after which no suitors would call, adding, “It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime” (142). Here Baba refers to negative choices. However, the same can be said for positive choices, even seemingly random ones, yes? 

Yes.

Eventually Amir’s story will end. So too will our quarantine and its merciless barrage of bad news. But every day, one choice at a time, you and I write its story. You and I create the world our children’s children will inherit.

What do you want that world to look like when this one passes?

Think about that as you continue reading. Next week, chapters 13-17. And you might want to buckle up–the ride’s about to get even more intense.

I’m excited to announce my latest short story, “Bring Me Your Yearning,” received Honorable Mention in Dreamers Creative Writing’s 2020 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest and is featured on their website.

You can read it here: https://www.dreamerswriting.com/michele-reisinger/

I hope you like it!

My least favorite chore used to be  grocery shopping. All those hours spent moving items from the shelves to my cart to the belt to the bags to the car to the house to the kitchen, only to hear several hours later, There’s nothing to eat. 

A minor thing to complain about, then.

Not so much now. 

Early March, as China’s crisis became global and Americans prepared for its invasion here, panicked shoppers began hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer, and normally well-stocked grocery shelves stood bare. March 13, I stopped at one of my three local grocery stores after work because I needed a few things and that’s what moms (used to?) do–run errands on their way home from work. By the time I finished and headed to the registers, the check-out line extended across the front of the store and up the farthermost aisle to the dairy section in the back. Harried managers directed customer traffic toward open lanes, and accidental line-jumpers maneuvered apologetically toward the line’s end. I waited nearly an hour for my turn, but the wait passed quickly as I chatted with those waiting with me, each of us theorizing and predicting what’s next.

Two months later, the once mundane chore requires girding myself as if for battle, donning my face mask and gloves, and tucking Clorox wipes in a pocket. (An aside–Who knew locating Clorox wipes in a store would become as rare and magical as spotting a unicorn in the wild?) Along the store’s sidewalk, I wait the mandatory six feet apart from my fellow shoppers as store employees record customers’ entrances and exits on iPads, signalling permission to enter one supplicant at a time. The orderliness of the line, the clear and sensible restrictions–they settle my jitters. They assure me that we can navigate this disaster. We can defeat our invisible enemy with planning and patience and rationality.

Then it’s finally my turn to cross the threshold, and my hopefulness morphs into anger, then despair.

We’re not getting out of this thing anytime soon, and it will be our own damn fault.

*****

Did you do your homework last week?

Good.

In chapter three of Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, fifth-grader Amir sits with Baba’s smoking room and watches as his father pours and drinks a whiskey, which Islam forbids. Baba, a physically and psychologically imposing character, is an extremely successful businessman and philanthropist whom Afghans revere. With the exception of kite-flying, Baba and Amir are nothing alike, and Amir’s repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to earn his father’s notice dominate his childhood. Baba, the adult Amir explains, “saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little” (15). This ambivalence forms the core of Amir’s relationship with his father and informs nearly every action the child takes in the opening chapters.

On that day in particular, Amir tells Baba about his teacher Mullah Khan’s insistence that drinking is a “terrible sin” for which Baba must answer on Judgment Day (16).  Baba settles Amir on his lap, then explains, “No matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin…theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life…. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness…. A man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man” (18).

Amir is both exhilarated and frightened by Baba’s vehemence, not only because of the rare moment of notice, but also because the approximately ten-year-old child believes Baba directs that disgust toward Amir, whose birth resulted in his mother’s death.  “[The] truth of it was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little…. After all, I had killed his beloved wife…hadn’t I? The least I could have done was turn out a little more like him. But I hadn’t turned out like him. Not at all” (19). Consequently, Amir feels both compelled to atone for that sin and helpless to live up to Baba’s expectations, a conflict that explains Amir’s eventual betrayal of the younger Hassan, his servant and unacknowledged friend.

That conflicted father-son  relationship also functions as Amir’s “ghost,” which writer K.M. Weiland explains is the observed or experienced event that first, defines a character’s core understanding of himself and his place in the world, and second, shapes a character’s false perception of what he must do to achieve happiness. This ghost arises in the character’s developmental years and becomes hard-wired in his psyche until he actively confronts the ghost’s legacy and works to exorcise it.

Amir’s ghost haunts him for over 26 years.

*****

Inside the grocery store, blue arrows mark a pathway on the floor. Signs written in Spanish and English hang on endcaps and remind shoppers of the CDC’s social distancing requirements.  Yet hardly anyone obeys. They push past me while I lag six-feet away from those ahead. Reach around me for items. Navigate the aisles willy-nilly, ignoring the arrows, their masks yanked beneath their noses or dangling about their necks. These are easy accommodations, requiring a modicum of sacrifice, yet hardly anyone obeys. Before a recent expedition, I ventured to a drugstore and saw behind the pharmacy counter a tech without a mask and a nurse with only his chin covered–both men working and walking and talking near a row of  signs announcing the wearing of masks in ALL businesses is required by Pennsylvania law.

Over one hundred years ago, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 infected approximately 500,000,000, one-third of the world’s then-population. Medical providers had neither treatments nor vaccines, and the mobilization of troops heading overseas to fight in World War I incited the virus’ spread. Large gatherings were prohibited; schools and theaters closed, retail outlets encouraged to stagger openings, citizens urged to wear masks. According to the CDC website, these recommendations were unevenly enforced, partly because of the war’s demands, partly because of citizens’ aversion to restrictions that they deemed extreme and unnecessary. Ultimately, the flu struck in three waves that killed over 50,000,000 people worldwide, about 675,000 of whom lived  in the United States.

Any of that sound familiar?

In 2020, mandatory stay-at-home orders, social distancing practices, and requiring the wearing of masks are helping to flatten Covid’s infection curve. However, weary Americans and the politicians who pander to them demand an immediate reopening of businesses and schools so we can return to a pre-pandemic normal.

Newsflash: that normal is dead and buried, and most researchers predict a second wave of the virus will hit this fall. In 1918,most deaths occurred in that second wave.

In his 1905 work The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” a saying often misattributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 2020, we’ve not only forgotten the lessons of the last pandemic, many of us are willfully repeating its mistakes.  That’s why I see ghosts when I grocery shop: I see the ghosts of those long gone, and the ghosts we’re bequeathing our children.

Like Amir, children watch and learn from their significant adults. And what lessons are we teaching them? That our actions lack consequences? That the rules apply only to others? That our rights take precedence over others’ well-being? 

That only some people matter? 

That’s what twelve-year-old Amir thinks when he betrays Hassan in chapter 7: “Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he” (77). Twenty-six years later, that event–and the fact that he never atoned for his betrayal–haunts Amir as vividly as when he was a fearful child yearning for his father’s love and respect.

I’ve read The Kite Runner at least fifteen times, so I can tell you whether Amir defeats his ghost. However, neither I nor anyone else can tell the outcome of the story we’re currently living, the story history will record for those not yet born.

This too shall pass, yes.

But the more self-centered and ill-informed our response, the longer–and more deadly–the passing.

Think about that the next time you head to the grocery store.

Still not convinced? Read through chapter twelve next week so we can chat some more.

One of my all-time favorite novels is Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which I believe contains one of the most engaging and efficient first chapters I’ve ever read. In it, 38-year-old Amir lives in San Francisco and reflects on an unexpected phone call from Rahim Khan, a family friend in Pakistan who offers Amir “a way to be good again” (2).  Readers don’t know what happened or why, but we are immediately hooked, immediately vested in Amir’s struggle to understand how he “became what [he is] today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975” (1). 

I distinctly remember reading Amir’s story for the first time, shortly after its 2003 publication. A colleague whose reading tastes mirror my own recommended it as a fantastic read. It’s wrenching, she said, but so worth it. I raced through the first several chapters…and then I arrived at the scene she’d referenced. I never throw books. I wanted to throw this book. How could anyone do such a thing? How could anyone betray a friend in such a horrific way? That night, I lay awake on my couch for hours reliving that scene, so distraught I refused to continue reading.

And then I remembered Amir’s realization in chapter one– “It’s wrong what they say about the past…about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. … I knew it wasn’t just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins….There is a way to be good again” (1-2). Okay, Amir, I thought. Grudgingly. I’ll give you another chance to prove yourself.

I finished the rest of the book the next day. Amir did not let me down.

The following spring, I introduced the novel to my AP Lit students. The year after that, I introduced it as a One Book, One Class end of year unit for all of my senior English classes, and I’ve taught it every year since. Every year students ask, When are we reading Kite Runner? When are we flying our kites? They’ve heard about it from their friends and siblings. They want to read this book. After spring break, I say. Promise.

But this year, I worried I might have to break that promise.

*****

In my district, spring break is typically scheduled Good Friday through the week following Easter. Last year, Easter fell the end of April, and, except for a few intermittent rainy days, the weather was perfect for another of my favorites, gardening. Over the ten-day break, I cleaned and prepped my shade and butterfly gardens, dug out and replaced several overgrown shrubs, and outlined my front flower beds with close to fifty purple and yellow violas. Then we mulched, three square yards of rich, dark brown bark that took us all day to spread. Beautiful, our neighbors said as they stopped to chat during their nightly walks.

This year, I could barely even get outside for a walk, let alone chat with neighbors because of Covid restrictions. I spent the first part of the week preparing the guest room and the house for my mother-in-law’s move, the second half lesson planning. When NJ’s governor closed schools in March, intending to reopen April 20, my classes were all mid-way through units whose foundational lessons and skill practice we had already completed together. Thus, transitioning my content from classroom to online formats wasn’t terribly difficult. But then Gov. Murphy extended school closures through at least May 15. 

I foundered like a first-year teacher.

Twenty-nine years ago, my then-principal handed me a list of books and said, Go teach. I had neither answer keys nor annotated books. No mentor, no curriculum, no unit outlines, no tests or quizzes or lesson plans. Nothing. Twenty-nine years later, I have a file drawer full of self-annotated books and a closet full of binders, each of which contains units I’ve created for the books, essays and projects I use within my rotating teaching assignments, each of which is backed up on three different computers and two different Google drives. Among them are two, three-inch binders filled with my Kite Runner resources, none of which would work in an online learning environment.

I had to redo everything. Not only for The Kite Runner, but for my elective courses’ poetry and drama units. I could have shortcut the process. I could have gone online to one of the many valuable, wonderful resources available to thousands of other educators in similar circumstances and merely copied their units. It would have certainly been easier and less time-consuming. But I couldn’t do it, particularly with my beloved Kite Runner.

Why, you wonder. What’s the big deal about a book? About any book, in fact? 

Great questions. My students often ask me the same. And honestly, sometimes the answer is absolutely nothing. Sometimes students refuse to read for one of the millions of reasons any of us give for refusing to do what we don’t want to do. And sometimes stories that resonate with one reader leave another reader unmoved.

But this book is one of those marvelous exceptions. Although it is an AP Lit-approved title, The Kite Runner is an engrossing page-turner that even struggling readers enjoy. Sure, I’ve encountered students who read the book and just don’t like it: Amir’s central conflict is intense. But they are the minority. Instead, the majority congregates in the nurse’s office during lunch and read, comparing how much they hate Amir. I’ve had kids tell me it’s the first book they ever read all the way through, the first book they’ve ever loved, the first book they’ve ever reread. Some kids race ahead of our schedule and pop in my room because they cannot wait until class to chat. Once, a PE teacher told me he had to break up an argument in the boys’ locker room that became pretty loud–they couldn’t agree on who was the bigger jerkface, Amir or his father, Baba. 

So what is it about this book that speaks to my kids? Like Amir in 1975, they are young people navigating a world whose rules were set long before their birth and input. Rules over which they have minimal control. Soon, they will exit their childhood and become adults, an exciting transition but as nerve-wracking as crossing a minefield. What if they screw it up? And how can they impact a world increasingly determined to define the human experience as Us versus Them?  Amir’s struggle to find “a way to be good again” provides a road map of sorts toward the world they hope one day to create. 

I want my kids to have that map. Considering how much they’ve already lost of senior year, I didn’t want to take away one more thing. I wanted to keep my promise.

Maybe one book isn’t that important.

But maybe it can be. That’s why I spent much of the break redoing my unit plan, recreating materials and writing lessons before heading upstate once more.

This time through a snowstorm.

The normally six-hour trip became nearly eight Friday as we inched across icy roads. One ten-mile, unplowed stretch snaked along steep, mountainous drops. Emergency workers extracted two people pinned when their mini-van flipped on its roof. Farther down, police and firefighters uprighted a jack-knifed tractor trailer, its driver mercifully unhurt. At least three cars slid into ditches, warning flares blood-red against the snow. Thanks all to my husband, we arrived safely. Saturday, we repeated the trip eastward, his mother cushioned by pillows and dozing up front.

Pathetic fallacy notwithstanding, I hope the weather does not foreshadow the next chapter of our lives.

*****

After Rahim Khan’s phone call in chapter one, Amir ventures to a nearby park and contemplates his childhood. Blue and red kites soar against a brilliant summer sky, and Hassan’s voice rises like a ghost from the past: “For you, a thousand times over” (2).

And therein lies the heart and soul of this remarkable story: What obligations and responsibilities do we have toward our families and friends?

Neighbors?

Those whose paths may never cross our own?

Hmmm. Do you see where I’m headed with this?

Good.

Our right-now normal exists in a strange and unsettling world, but this too shall pass.

And there IS a way to be good again.

Now go read chapters 1-4 so we can chat about how next week.