This past weekend my family and I visited San Antonio. It was a very quick trip — less than 48 hours — and we were seeing some friends and generally just avoiding Houston and the news cycle for a while. We love these little getaways, and this was our last one of the summer.
My grandmother was from there, so I spent a lot of time as a child traveling to SA on the weekends, and it’s a city my family and I really love.
For some reason, this song sticks in my mind with SA. Not only because it kept coming magically up on my iPod while we were driving, but because I link it in my memory with my great-grandmother’s house there. This style of music was a big part of my childhood, too; when I was growing up I would listen to KQUE with my dad or grandfather, especially Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” If I had come to such a radio personality now, as an adult, I can’t imagine I would have any patience for him, but when I was a child, I was entertained by his anecdotes. And I have always loved Big Band.
Rosemary Clooney reportedly never liked her novelty songs; she hated singing them. But they allowed her to get to the more meaningful stuff, since doing these for her producer meant she could also sing things that mattered to her.
Sorry, Rosemary, but as silly as this song is, I can’t let it go.
Today is my daughter’s birthday. We have an official teenager in the house now. It’s pretty exciting to watch her grow, as it always has been, but particularly because she is growing into an outspoken young woman, finding peace in herself every now and then and finding purpose in positive activism. She’s aware of the world and knows what she would do to fix the problems with it.
She is utterly baffled by the nonsense around us.
She’s an amazing artist — watch for her Etsy shop this summer, my friends — and she has marched in more protests than I have. She believes in her causes, and they are some very fine causes: women’s rights/human rights, gun reform, climate change correction, anti-bullying campaigns, LGBTQ rights. She stands up for what matters to her, even in her classes sometimes, where she’s not the most popular kid but wow, she knows how to speak her truth.
One day maybe I’ll tell you about how, at the March For Our Lives last month, she posed for a picture with the police chief and led a group of kids in a chant of “Am I next?” until it became just a little too hard to bear.
Anyway, I’m not focusing on those things today, but instead just on my awesome kid and how much I love her and how adorable it is when she video chats with her sweet friends and we have to tell her it’s time to hang up and she rolls her eyes and says yeah okay and we tell her friends good night and they tell us good night and she hangs up and I marvel at how tall she has grown this year and how long her hair has gotten and how incredible and baffling it is that she likes to style it like mine sometimes.
And if I’m honest, I’m also focusing a little bit on the occasional kindness of the random world: on this poem, and how it came to me.
Last year, when I was curating my April series here, I went looking for poems about birthdays and found “How to Spend a Birthday” by Lee Herrick on the Poetry Foundation website. I looked him up and asked if I could use this poem for my series on my daughter’s birthday. I explained that her father’s last name is Herrick, too, and that he grew up not too far from where this poet lives. Not the same family, as far as we can tell, but hey, what a coincidence.
He didn’t get my message in time for me to use it then, but when he did, he was so gracious and said I could, so I saved it for today. The poem is from This Many Miles of Desire (2007).
“How to Spend a Birthday”
Light a match. Watch the blue part
flare like a shocked piñata
from the beating
into the sky,
watch how fast thin
wood burns & turns toward the skin,
the olive-orange skin of your thumb
& let it burn, too.
Light a fire. Drown out the singing cats.
Let the drunken mariachis blaze their way,
streaking like crazed hyenas
over a brown hill, just underneath
a perfect birthday moon.
Lee Herrick is the author of Scar and Flower, forthcoming from Word Poetry Press in January 2019. He is the author of two previous books of poems, Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012) and This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007). He is a Fresno Poet Laureate Emeritus (2015-2017) and his poems have been published widely in literary magazines, anthologies, and textbooks including The Bloomsbury Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation online, From the Fishouse online, ZZYZYVA, Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley, 2nd edition, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed, One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form, and Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice, among others. He currently serves on the leadership team of The Adoption Museum Project.
He has traveled throughout Latin America and Asia and has given readings throughout the United States. He was born in Daejeon, South Korea, adopted at ten months old, and raised in the East Bay and later, Central California. He lives with his daughter and wife in Fresno, California. He teaches at Fresno City College and in the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.
So Spring Break is over now, and re-entry after a holiday from school is always challenging. I’m frequently reminded of the day my mother took me to the parish school where I would be entering kindergarten (for the second time, at this new school, because the diocese didn’t think I was old enough for first grade). I stayed at that school all the way through eighth grade graduation, and their insistence that I start kindergarten with other children my age (despite my academic and intellectual abilities) was perhaps one of the few genuinely good administrative choices I ever witnessed there.
But I’m reminded of it because, that day she took me there to register me, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” had been playing on the radio in the car, and I remember singing the song’s chorus (the only part I could remember) over and over as we walked through the school building, and I kept misplacing the word “inspiration” for “education.” So I was singing, “We don’t need no inspiration…” And I asked my mom what inspiration meant, and she either didn’t or couldn’t really tell me.
I’m sure there are other deeper psychological reasons for my associating that song with the awfulness of my experience at that school, but I’ll leave that for another time.
This morning on the way to school, my kids and I cheerfully sang and danced along with the Bee-Gees’ “Staying Alive” on my iPod. (We are disco fans. They especially love it when I dance like John Travolta at the stop lights. Just the arms, of course, because, come on. No idea what the other motorists think. Not really sure I’m concerned about it, either.)
So in honor of how challenging it is to come back to school after a break longer than an ordinary weekend, I give you this. Enjoy.
One of my Thanksgiving traditions, in place for as long as I can remember, is seeing the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on television. As a young adult, I would wrap Christmas presents while I watched it. Now that I have children and host the holiday at my house, I don’t catch the whole parade, but I do make sure it’s playing so my kids can see it if they want — Dear Husband is indifferent to this one — and so I can drift in and out of the room to take in snatches of it while I’m preparing dinner or getting the house ready for guests.
This year I happened to see Gwen Stefani performing “White Christmas” in celebration of her new Christmas album. I’ve always liked Stefani well enough: I liked a lot of the music she made with No Doubt and on her own, and I’m a fellow red lipstick devotee. It was a cute performance. Nothing spectacular, but the parade’s singing performances often aren’t, seeing as the artists are lip-synching in sometimes frigid weather and moving around on floats. But I was intrigued by the idea that she’d put out an album.
I don’t follow celebrity gossip all that much, but it has been tough the last year or so to go to the grocery store and not see Stefani’s personal drama splashed all over the checkout aisle. Apparently she’s with a country music singer now? And there’s some ugliness with his ex? I try not to get involved. Well, if I hadn’t known that before, just listening to the song previews of her new Christmas album — which did not list “White Christmas,” by the way — would have told me things had changed format.
The album is a mix of traditional and new, original songs. Just listening to thirty seconds of each song clued me in to a new twang in her voice on all the standards and a mention of God in just about every single new song. Ska this is not.
When I was a child, my younger siblings and I fought all the time. So much, in fact, that I’m not sure how we managed to become friends as adults, except that we all live in different cities. And when I began teaching and read my students’ essays about the good times they shared with their siblings and how they cared for and played with one another, I didn’t see how something like that was possible. It felt like my siblings and I had grown up as outliers.
But there was one utterly magical moment, during a December when we were all in grade school, that I hope I never forget. The three of us had gotten out of bed one night, just randomly and without consulting each other first, and all sat down in front of the huge, lit, decorated Christmas tree in the otherwise dark living room, and we just started singing “Silent Night.” To this day I have no idea how or why we started doing it, but there it was, just one perfect and peaceful moment. Then we all went back to bed. It’s the only time, I think, we ever did anything like that, and I have no idea whether our parents knew about it, since they neither interrupted the moment nor commented on it afterward.
When I was a child watching the Saturday morning animated special movies for kids every weekend…
Okay, so you’re probably either groaning because you remember those or groaning because you’re conflating them with After-School Specials.
Seriously, though, sometimes those animated shows on the weekends were kind of cool. But the only one I really remember now was called maybe “My Teacher Is A Witch” or something similarly creative, and it was about a class of kids who got a new teacher one day whom they believed was a real witch. What tipped them off? The day she erased a really full blackboard full of chalk with a single swipe of her arm.
And I know it was just a cartoon and life doesn’t really work that way, but I cannot tell you how often, especially since becoming a teacher, I’ve wished that it did. I could really, really use that kind of speed and efficiency during the school year.
Especially this weekend, when I’m mired in grading and comments (two-paragraph narratives I write for the report card of every student in every one of my classes to discuss each student’s individual progress). But I don’t have that power, so this anecdote is about as substantive as my blog is going to get at the moment.
But here, to tide you over, have this lovely picture.
Okay, I just sent my daughter off to camp on a school trip. It’s her first time away from home for an extended period without any family members. She’s excited! So am I.
When she first got on the bus, it looked like she didn’t have anyone to sit with, and she started to get sad, and suddenly every ounce of my childhood came back to me in one long sigh of pain. And then one of her friends started waving frantically at her from toward the back. She had cleared the seat next to her so my daughter could sit there!
My girl ran up and hugged me fast and then ran back and sat down and didn’t give me another look, all smiles and relief. So I went back to my classroom, wondering whether I should have stayed to watch the buses leave.
But no, it’s time for her to go on this trip and have her own fun time, and it’s time for me to have my normal work day. As I was walking to breakfast a little while later, she called me to say the buses had left, and she loved me, and would see me in four days.
“We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you?” the cheerleaders yell at one-third of our student body at a time. The children repeat the chant back to them: lower school’s high-pitched squeal as they indulge for a moment in sanctioned hyperactivity; middle school’s thick tenor as they toe the line between wanting to please their beautiful, smiling cheerleaders and practicing disaffection; the seismic grunting of the upper school whose voice is filled up mainly with the dark yell of the football teams.
I grew up and still live here in Texas, where some boys learn to play football before they learn to write sentences with punctuation. And after twenty years in education, most of it in a high school, there are three things I’ve done more of than most people I know: listen to commencement speeches, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and attend pep rallies.
This weekend is homecoming. Yesterday morning’s rally was typical fare: excellent gymnastics from our athletic cheerleaders to some of the most bastardized pop music I’ve ever heard; hilarious relay races performed by selected students; questionably funny/unintentionally offensive banter from the student emcees; cheering from the entire student body, the youngest kids always the loudest. There’s a certain persistent tension between wanting to support my student athletes, whom I genuinely like and appreciate for how hard they work in my challenging English class, and being a little put off by the showy displays of ego, the occasional misogyny, and the weird association some within football culture make between their sport and fighting a war. I find it difficult, sometimes, to reconcile that machismo with the thoughtful, earnest attempts to understand Shakespeare at their tender age, their noble, generous struggle to write the most engaging personal essays and the most thoughtful literary analysis they can. On Fridays, I want to ask them, Who are you, really? Which you is most you? How much of that stuff do you believe? How much of it do they, like Tim O’Brien says, feel in their guts? Which part of them is the most real?
But of all the debatably outrageous things I’ve seen at pep rallies over the course of my life––including, once, seeing a boy rip the water balloon-soaked t-shirt from his body in front of everyone––nothing compares to what we were subjected to when I was in second grade, and every time I attend a pep rally, I cannot help but think about it.
It was 1981 in Houston. That year, Reagan had entered the White House and survived an assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II had survived an assassination attempt, and we had launched the Space Shuttle program and with it, the collective aspirations of every Star Wars fan I knew, myself included, that one day we would personally explore the heavens. On a more intimate scale, Han Solo had taken the job of Badass Archaeology Professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lady Diana had married Prince Charles in the most Cinderella dress I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, and I’d won my first spelling bee. Our teacher had shown us a picture in the newspaper of a unicorn born in California, cementing my passionate belief that these mythical creatures were real, and no amount of skeptics claiming it was just a one-horned goat could sway my fervor. The world lay at our feet, rich with possibility and promise. I planned to be an Egyptologist and had my father wake me up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning so I could watch the funeral of Anwar Sadat on television, because I wanted to see him entombed in a pyramid.
At my small, private elementary school, we gathered together in the gym on Fridays for prayer service in the morning and a pep rally in the afternoon, festooned in the blue-and-gold buttons and spirit ribbons we could buy for a quarter each week and pin to our clothes to show support for our team. Some of my cousins also attended this school, and one of them, Craig, was in the eighth grade. I loved Craig, who was kind and fun and always had a hug for me when I saw him around campus, even though I was a little kid. He also played football, a fact I hadn’t realized until one day, at a pep rally, he and a bunch of his classmates and teammates were brought up onstage, put onto metal folding chairs, and blindfolded. What was about to commence was a kissing contest.
Now, remember that this was the barely-post-1970s, pre-AIDS era of kissing booths. Every carnival and state fair, on television and in real life, had one. Even our little parish’s church bazaar did, replete with a Farrah Fawcett lookalike inside it.
So the idea that the boys were all going to be kissed at the pep rally was entertaining. They were blindfolded because they were going to judge the kissing on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest. They were instructed to keep their hands on the sides of their chairs. As the principal explained the rules, the boys grinned, huge bracey smiles stretching to the edges of the folded bandanas over their eyes. In their uniform navy trousers and white Oxford shirts, their pimpled faces largely obscured, it was hard to tell them apart.
Then came the kicker. The girls who were going to be kissing the boys, whose smooches would be evaluated by them, were our junior high teachers. That’s right, the middle-aged women who taught these kids grammar, theology, social studies, algebra were now going to plant their puckers on them, too. The one man on the academic faculty, the junior high science teacher, was exempt from this game.
The student body roared with laughter and glee. The boys, now trapped on their folding chairs by blindfolds and the cheering crowd, grinned or snickered or squirmed, but not a single one stood up or yanked off his blindfold or even held up his hand to halt the proceedings or ask a question. A few of them rapidly fidgeted their sneakers back and forth. Their chairs were spaced a few feet apart, so if they were talking to each other, I’m not sure much of it got through between the bandanas around their heads and the noise of the younger students, the children whom they, as eighth grade boys, were routinely told to man up in front of, to set a good example for as the leaders of the school.
The kissing started. One at a time, a teacher would go to her boy and smooch him on the lips. The crowd whooped and hollered. Then the boy would grin again, still blindfolded, and give his rating. Craig got the most laughs when he pronounced his religion teacher––a tall, stocky grandmother with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair––a fourteen. Soon the kissing was done. The teachers moved offstage, anonymous to the football players at least during the glistening moment of the pep rally. The boys were told they could remove their blindfolds, and their faces were red as they observed their fellow students cheering for them, laughter mingling with the yells. They were dismissed from the stage and left the daïs to be consumed by their classmates sitting criss-cross applesauce by grade level on the gym floor. It took a while for the noise to die down.
I don’t know who thought any of that was a good idea, but it never happened again, and frankly, by the time the next pep rally rolled around, no one was even talking about the kissing contest anymore. It joined the ranks of other inconvenient memories, pushed down out of the way like the fraying polyester ribbons we collected from one school year to the next, wore every Friday during football season. They were the things we believed we didn’t have to mention, the tattered flags we pinned to our sleeves next to the shiny new ones, entire outfits made of fluttering blue and gold strips to show that we, yes, we had the most spirit, we were the most dedicated fans, we would do whatever it took to support our team.