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For the Cutting Girls

She whispered to me about it in the back corner of the classroom while the other kids hunched forward over their desks, taking a test.  As their pencils scratched, she told me she was cutting herself, using a blade.  She told me she was being bullied, that she was afraid.  The counselor wouldn’t care, wouldn’t do anything.  Neither would her parents.  I was the first person she had told.   

I nodded gravely.  Stay after school, I told her.  Then we can talk some more.  And I gave her a pass to the office so that she could call her mom.  She did not finish her test, but she remained behind as the bell rang and the rest of the students poured out the door and down the hallway.

We sat down in desks, side by side.  Matter-of-factly, as though she were an actor in a public service announcement, she told me that she had been bullied in fifth grade.  She didn’t know why, but that was when she began to cut herself.  In sixth grade, she was bullied again, and now it was happening to her yet again in seventh grade.  A group of kids would wait for her after school and in the hallway between classes, chanting her name, tugging at her backpack.

Are you afraid they’ll hurt you? I asked her. 

Yes.  She was very afraid.  She did not want them to find out that she was a snitch.

I got all of the details from her and told her the battle plan.  She was to have a friend with her at all times.  I would alert some of the other teachers, and we would watch for her in the hallways.  She would exit the building with me from now on. 

She showed me her arm, and it was a delicate network of old scratches.  None looked deep, but all had drawn blood.  She went through the list of girls in her class who were cutting themselves.  They were all girls.  They were the ones who drew on their hands with contraband Sharpies in class and surreptitiously dyed streaks of their black hair red.  They wrote in their journals about indie records which had changed their lives.  They were the ones I would have been friends with when I was their age.  But instead of drawing and writing angst-ridden poetry, apparently they were all cutting red lines into their arms.  All of them.  Like the virgin suicides.  They all spoke of it exactly the same way: I don’t know why I do it.  It helps with the pain.  I know I shouldn’t. 

Would I have? I wondered.

I looked into her frightened eyes.  Seventh grade is the worst.  It gets better from here, I promised her.  If you can just get through this year, it gets better and better. 

Tears spilled down her face, and I remembered seventh grade.  I remembered thinking that was how it would always be.

Do you think my life is about to get much worse? she asked, panic tinging her voice. 

No, I said.  The fact that you told me means that it’s about to get much better because I can help you.

As we walked out together, finalizing battle strategy, she said, Do you think some people just let the fear take them over?

What do you mean? I asked.  It sounded like she was thinking magically, like she was referring to an allegorical Fear, which could take her soul, like the devil.  I wanted her to feel the firm ground under her feet again.

Do you think some people just keep it to themselves and never tell?  

Sure, I said.  And they just make it harder on themselves.  It’s much harder when you have to deal with it on your own.

I did not want to give her any advice that sounded etched in stone, mythical, or spiritual.  I wanted her to see the world as mundane.  Not having told me what was happening to her would not have condemned her to a life of fear and misery and razor blades.  It would just have made things more difficult.

The following day went better.  She agreed to speak to the counselor.  She walked through the crowded hallways with a friend.  I watched her and did not see any bullies.  She said someone pushed her, and she was scared.  I didn’t tell her that I saw nothing but an overcrowded hallway filled with seventh graders slamming into each other like bumper cars. 

I will speak to the counselor on Monday because I want her to continue to go.  I believe her about the bullies, but her world is far too magical right now.  Bullies materialize and line the hallway and chant her name.  She has a large red target on her shirt.  Her fear sits on her shoulders like fog.       

I am so grateful she spoke to me.  I can shine a flashlight for her in a dark place.  I can show her how to turn the light on herself. 

Sitting next to me in her desk, she stared straight ahead and spoke solemnly.  Miss, I need you to try to remember exactly what it was like to be in seventh grade.  She said it as though she were the teacher, and I were the student. 

When I was in seventh grade, I was afraid of the dark.  I didn’t trust the ground beneath my feet.  The world was not right, and I couldn’t believe anyone could stand it the way it was.  My friends agreed, and we ripped signs off of walls, screamed at the moon, and locked ourselves up in our rooms listening to dark music. 

But I never cut myself.  I guess I never hurt that badly.

I wish I could shine a light into all of those 13-year-old souls, with their elaborately blackened hands and angry, expectant eyes.

You are beautiful, I want to tell them, sincerely, as sincerely as it is possible to be.  You are special.  You are in my heart.  Please don’t cut your own heart out because you would cut mine too.  You would cut a hole in the fabric of the world, and it could never be mended.

That’s the Silver Bullet I’ve Been Looking For

If you are not a teacher and just want to read a scary story, skip down to the line to find the story.

Teachers:

Here is an assignment I’ve done in the past with 5th graders, and I’ll be doing with my 7th graders if I get the time.  It’s a scary story creative writing assignment.  You can use it to teach paragraphing, using 5-senses details, using details and similes to create mood, and using transitions between paragraphs.

First, I give the students a series of 5-7 events which must occur in their stories (this forms the skeleton of the plot, so that they are focusing more on the other elements of the story, like description and mood).  Each event should take up at least a paragraph.  Each paragraph should have 5-senses details and/or similes to create a creepy mood.  There should be transition sentences between paragraphs. 

(Before they write, I give them a talk about suspense and saving the monster/zombie/ghost until the end to make it scary rather than cheesy.  I also tell them no violence, where violence is defined as someone actually shown getting hurt in your story…otherwise, their stories can get way out of hand.)

Here are the events I’m using this time, followed by my model story.  I would recommend that you write a model story because it’s fun, and it will give you some insight into the challenges your students might face with the assignment.  Also, in my model, I put the transitions in bold.  Anything you want to feature in your model (or in mine, which you are welcome to use), you may want to put in bold.

7 events:

1.) I walked through the yard of the house, onto the front porch.

2.) I opened the front door.

3.) Inside, I saw a room.

4.) I heard a noise.

5.) I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

6.) Something else happened.

7.) I ran back out of the house.

_______________________________________________________________________________

                The large, gray house slanted to the right against the night sky.  The front gate had boards missing, and as I opened it, I tried to avoid the rusty nails which protruded from it like rotten red teeth.  I walked through the burnt grass of the yard, my feet crunching over broken glass.  Large black objects, which looked like automobiles that had been flattened in a junkyard, lay stacked on either side of the path.  I ducked down so as not to hit my head on a thick, dead tree branch which stretched over the path like a giant’s arm.

                After moving beneath the branch, I stepped up onto the leaning porch stairs.  As my feet hit the steps, I heard creaking and sighing, and the wind gushed suddenly like a cold hand against my neck.  I jumped quickly onto the porch, my heart pounding like an executioner’s drum.

                As I landed on the flimsy boards of the front porch, I noticed that wooden chairs covered in plastic sheets, which looked like death shrouds, were scattered across the porch floor.  A large, dark stain had seeped into the wood beneath one of the covered arm chairs.  Looking at the stain made me shudder.

                Still shaking, I turned to the behemoth front door.  Gray paint peeled off of it in strips.  The large brass knocker had been carved into a gargoyle, and its beady metal eyes seemed to follow me as I looked at it.  I lowered my eyes to the brass doorknob and placed my hand on it slowly.  It felt as cold to the touch as a dead body, frozen in a lake.  I closed my eyes and turned the knob.

                When the door swung open easily, my eyes popped open in surprise.  Why had it been left unlocked?  The door had not even creaked as I had expected it to.  It had opened smoothly and silently, as though its hinges had been recently oiled. 

                Closing the smooth-hinged door behind me, I walked forward into the darkness of the house, knocking cobwebs out of my hair as I went.  I moved confidently, because ahead of me, in spite of the darkness, I saw a light.

                I followed the light through darkness, debris, and cobwebs for what seemed like many minutes, until finally, I reached a dim yellow hall light which illumined a gleaming, cherry wood door with a shiny gold knob.  Bright light leaked from beneath the door. Wanting out of the darkness, I turned the knob and walked into the light of the room in front of me.

                Blinking in the brightness, I looked around and took account of my surroundings.  A blood-red velvet couch with gold trimming lounged like a sleeping lion against the wall.  The wall paper seemed brand new, white, covered in red flower petals, which looked almost like drops of blood.  The wardrobe and the tables, made of cherry wood, had been polished until they gleamed gold.  The air smelled like furniture polish and something deeper.  Something earthier.  Something which I couldn’t quite place.

                As I breathed the air deeply, I began to feel suddenly sleepy.  I walked dizzily over to the soft red couch and sat down, barely able to keep my eyes open.  Just as I lay back into the deep folds of the couch, I heard something which made me sit bolt upright.

                Sitting straight up, I listened keenly to the house, ignoring the tiredness of my body.  I heard it again, closer this time.  It sounded like something dripping.  Something like water, but thicker.  It was outside of the room but inside the house.  And it was coming closer.

                As my heart hammered at the dripping that moved ever-closer, my eyes were still strangely heavy.   “Go back to sleep,” my mind offered me, seeming to tug me further into the plump cushions of the blood red couch.  “Sleep is what you need.”  In spite of myself, my eyes began to droop.

                Just before my eyelids closed completely, I thought I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of silver on the table next to me.  I reached out a weary hand and clasped my fingers around the silver object, but I was asleep before I could see what it was that I held in my hand.

                As I slept, my dreams were strange and nightmarish.  I dreamt that a giant she-wolf, so monstrous that she was forced to bend over in order to get through the door, lumbered into the room where I slept.  As she moved, her mouth dripped blood heavily onto the floor.  She saw me sleeping on the couch and began to laugh in a low, rumbling way.  She crawled over to the couch, opened her mouth with its layers and layers of blood-stained teeth, bent over, and swallowed me whole. 

                After being swallowed, I noticed something odd about this dream.  In the past, when I have had nightmares, I have always been able to wake myself up at the moment of death.  But with this nightmare, such was not the case.  I felt myself swallowed.  I smelled her breath, like countless corpses.  I felt her hot saliva.  I tried to scream, but I could not.  Out of terror, I dropped the object in my palm, the one which had flashed silver on the table next to me before I had fallen asleep.

                As soon as I dropped the object, the nightmare was suddenly over.  The wolf was gone, as if she had never been there, and my sleep continued, uninterrupted, for the rest of the night. 

                When the night ended, I woke up to sunlight trickling in through a window high in the white and red wall.  I blinked my eyes groggily.  Why had I spent the night in this nightmarish place?  A dare?  Why had I been stupid enough to accept it?  Well, either way, I had won, I thought.  I had survived.

                Smiling from my success, I sat up and glanced around the room. But when I saw the place, I began to shake. Large red drops lay scattered across the floor. Lying in a heap beside the couch where I had slept was the gray but empty skin of the wolf from my dreams. And lying next to her was the silvery object I had picked up from the table just before falling asleep. The object that I had dropped in terror and which had landed inside of her guts as she was swallowing me. The object which had saved me. I saw now what it was: it was a silver bullet—the only way there is to kill a werewolf.

                Knowing now that my nightmare had been true, I dashed out of that house forever. I still carry the bullet with me, though. Always in my hand. Because, sometimes, in dreams, I still hear the dripping.

The First Two Weeks of Jewish Summer Camp

At Jewish summer camp, it was always the same.  I would show up, ready to make best friends who would be like sisters to me, to have the “summer of my life,” and to maybe talk to a boy for at least five minutes without blushing.  My expectations were always inexplicably high when it came to Jewish summer camp.  But somehow, in spite of these high hopes, I always, always managed to get off to a rocky start.

One summer, the airport pickup van entered the wooden gates of the camp and stopped on the white gravel path which led to the cabins.  A quick moment of indecision entered my head: the oversized Looney Toons t-shirt I was wearing–should I tuck it into my khaki shorts or leave it out?  Out, I thought, after a moment.  I won’t have to worry about proper tucking methods if I do it that way.

And so, t-shirt out, giant trunk in tow, I was led by a busy counselor to the wooden building which would be my cabin for the next four weeks.  I met some of my cabinmates, all of whom were busy unpacking and getting things organized and not quite ready to solidify their friendships with me.  I found my bed on the bottom bunk and spread out my sheets and sleeping bag.  And so began the first two weeks of camp. 

Every year, without exception, the first two weeks of camp went the same.  I was nice.  I followed people and tried to join the conversation.  Then I was quiet.  Then I was nice again.  But I could not get anyone to talk to me for longer than a polite hello.  Sometimes I would cry myself to sleep.  Sometimes I would tell a counselor.  But always, it was the same.  For two weeks, I was completely alone.

Occasionally, as the two weeks wore on, the other campers would drop crumbs.  One day, I said something funny, and people laughed.  “I knew you’d be cool,” said Aliana, a blonde girl who bought her flower-covered denim shorts from 5-7-9 and would occasionally lend them out to a member of the pleading masses.  She hadn’t laughed at my joke.

“What?”  I said.  “What do you mean?  How did you know?” 

“Oh, I could just tell,” she said, cryptically, before walking back to her bed. 

And one day, in the third week, we had the cabin outdoor camping retreat, and suddenly, I was in like flint.  Hannah, the queen bee of our cabin, walked arm in arm with me around the soccer field.  We were collecting onion flowers and eating them.  Aliana and Janine flocked to us.  The four of us laughed.  We told dirty jokes about tampons. In short, we spent the entire evening in friends ’til the end mode.

The next morning, at the breakfast table, a girl named Rachel told me that she and her friends had not spoken to me for the first two weeks of camp because of what I had worn on the first day.  “You had on a long t-shirt, and I couldn’t tell if you were wearing anything underneath it.  I thought, this girl is weird.  She’s not even wearing shorts.”  And so, I realized, I had made the wrong wardrobe decision on that first day.  And how it had cost me!

The last week of camp, girls sat on my bed after lights out, and we told dark secrets.  We told each other what we knew about boys and kissing and sex.  Everything I know, to this day, I probably learned from those girls. 

When the girls of my cabin gathered together in a circle for cabin time, everything I said was met with shrieks of appreciative laughter.  When we went around and gave each other compliment beads, I got a bracelet full of yellow “funny” beads (with a sprinkling of pink “crazy” beads thrown into the mix).

I had everyone sign my pillow case.  “You’re crazy!!!” they wrote.  “Never forget scary pillows!  Haha!”  “I’ll miss you!!!”  “Keep in touch!!!”

And when it was over, I cried. 

But that first two weeks just kept popping up.  Every year.  Even long after Jewish summer camp.  It seems I’m someone who has to put in my time before I’m seen as a funny girl rather than as a pantsless wonder.  Maybe that’s true for all of us.

All I know is, for every job I’ve ever held, it was only when I showed up on that first day of the second year that people suddenly greeted me like they were actually happy to see me.  Year one is like the first two weeks of summer camp.

So now, as I whittle away at year one at my new job and try not to cry myself to sleep at night, I’ll just have to keep that in mind.  Before I know it, these dismissive glances and accusatory tones will turn into late night sleeping bag chats about tampons.  Or something like that. 

And man oh man.  I can’t wait.

Potential Energy

The anaconda at the Houston aquarium,
kept safely behind thick panels of glass,
sits coiled in its own rolls of loose skin,
never moving, except for its black eyes
and black tongue,
its slack body terrifying
for its potential energy.

And now I, walking into this building,
take one quick glance behind me,
at the morning air
and the dignity I left behind me in the car,
before I open that glass door.
It seals behind me, and, head down,
I move slowly to my place.

I sit, biding my time,
my clothing loose, my necklace clasped in my hand like a rosary.
I no longer wear eyeliner
because eyeliner
doesn’t matter
in a place like this.
Just survival. Just survival.
I am still, behind glass.

I do my job. I do my job.
I do what must be done.
I search and search for beauty, connection,
an answer to my question.
But what they need me to do
is do my job.
I am not a teacher.
I’m a prison warden.
I do my job.
They have ways
of making sure that I do.

And so I sit,
moving rarely,
doing this job
which must be mine.
Trying not to claw and struggle,
like the others,
just to stay in one place.

But what I do know is
this place
does not remove
the power in my coils,
does not render me
so low
that I am no longer deadly.

Slide back that glass,
just for a minute.
I’ve held so still all this time,
you must think you’re safe.
You must think
I’ve forgotten how to strike.

Beautiful Things

I can’t sleep, so I figure I’ll come up with a list of things that are beautiful about my life.

My boyfriend listens to me and gives me pep talks every day when I’m upset.

My dog is soft and orange.

I have fun with all of my students some of the time and some of my students all of the time.

I am doing the best that I can.

I am doing the best that I can.

I get to hang out with my boyfriend every evening and every weekend.

I have dozens and dozens of people I can call on the phone for support at any time.

I have some fun new friends that I’ve made here in Houston.

I have a very good reputation at all of my past jobs.

I have made at least one close friend already at my new job.

I have found several allies already at my new job.

I have a large number of current/ex-teacher friends I can call on the phone for support at any time.

One of my writing assignments this year caused a father and son to effectively express their love and respect for each other. The father now carries the assignment around in his pocket.

I have a carton of chocolate almond butter in my refrigerator.

I like Houston.

I get to see my family soon for Thanksgiving.

Halloween is coming soon, and my neighborhood gets hundreds of trick-or-treaters. My boyfriend is thrilled about buying enough candy this year and wants to make a special shopping trip where we can pick it out together. (Last year, we were caught unawares and ran out of candy and had to start giving away Cliff Bars.)

I think my boyfriend is going to propose soon. It’s taking everything in my power not to ask him when he’s going to do it. Knowing him, he is probably wanting to plan something completely huge, but is so overwhelmed by how huge he wants it to be that all of his plans will come crashing down around him. Which means it may not actually happen for a while after all, since he is probably waiting for the stars to align. I never thought I would be so impatient about this! Must keep quiet!

I love him so much. He is so perfect. And so annoying. And so absolutely perfect.

I have a bearded dragon. My boyfriend adores him, but feels that the bearded dragon does not feel the same way about him. He is probably right.

I have two turtles. The smaller one which we thought was anorexic is finally eating and growing noticeably bigger.

I am, of my own free will, not running competitively for the first time since the 8th grade. I am not worried about it at all. Maybe someday I’ll get back into it, but that day is not today.

I am not worrying about my body for the first time since the 4th grade.

I am getting sleepy. My eyes are getting heavy.

Shopping for a House of Worship? Try the Quakers.

Since we moved in together almost a year ago, my boyfriend and I have been “shopping” for a place of worship where both of us can feel comfortable. I am a Jew, and he is from that breed of Christian-born agnostics who secretly like to think about God a lot.

We started with the Unitarian church, and though we liked how open and welcoming they were, we were looking for a little more spiritual searching and depth than they seemed comfortable with. “God” appeared to be a term that they used seldomly and with great fear of stepping on someone’s toes. We decided that many of the older Unitarians had probably been scarred by overly strict Bible-thumping upbringings and were therefore seeking a haven where they would never have to hear the word “Jesus” again. (Since I’m from the Bible Belt myself, I can’t say that I blame them.)

After the Unitarians, we tried out the Quakers, and we have been going to Quaker meeting almost every Sunday morning ever since. Open-minded and welcoming like the Unitarians, the Quakers (aka the Friends) add a much more solemn and serious sense of spiritual purpose to their worship. They have no minister, and instead of listening to prayers and a sermon, Quakers sit in silence as a community for about an hour. Occasionally, someone will stand up and speak words from the heart (in theory these words should be “spirit-led”), but in our Quaker meeting, the vast majority of the time is spent in silence.

The idea is that each human being has a direct and personal relationship with God (or the Spirit, or the Light, or whatever you want to call it). No intermediary is needed. By sitting in silence, each person is opening him or herself up to communication from God.

And you know what? I like it. I’m not always great at it. I often let my brain wander to stressful and poisonous topics. But every now and then, I get it right. And I get the kinds of spiritual insights that I only ever used to get in synagogue when I was zoning out and completely ignoring what was going on with the rabbi and the prayerbook.

So I think that I may very well be a Quaker. Even though Quakerism began as a very strict form of Protestantism, the word “Jesus” seems to have all but slipped from Quaker usage, at least at my meeting. In recent history, Quakers have been staunchly pacifist, some even going out onto the battlefields during WWI and WWII and helping tend to the injured and dying enemy soldiers. The modern Quakers I have met take their commnity service seriously.

So, if you’re one of those “shoppers” and you happen to find a Quaker meeting in your town, definitely check it out and see what you think.

Why Do Women Pay More Than Men Do for the Same Haircut?

This is the e-mail that I just sent to the salon I’m going to about one of the most blatant examples of gender discrimination that still exists in our society. I would love for more people to raise a stink about this. Maybe the salons would stop this madness.

Dear CutLoose,

I have a serious concern with your business practices which I wanted to relay to you. I looked on your website and noticed that you charge $20-$30 more for a women’s haircut than you do for a men’s haircut. This pricing is based solely on the customer’s gender and not on his or her hair type, hair length, desired cut, the difficulty of the cut, the time needed for the cut, etc.

As a woman who has very easy-to-cut hair and simple tastes (I will be getting a quick trim which can usually be knocked out in under 10 minutes), I don’t understand why my gender should cause me to have to pay $20-$30 more than a male customer who may desire a more complicated, difficult cut.

My issue is not even with the actual price…it is with the price discrimination. I would have no trouble paying $70+ for a haircut if I knew that every other customer with similar hair needs were paying the same amount.

Your price difference by gender has the potential to lead your stylists into some uncomfortable situations. For example, what is your policy for transgendered customers? Do they pay the average of the two cuts? If I walk into the store and insist to the stylist that I am a man, will I receive a cheaper haircut? Along similar lines, would you charge separate prices for individuals of different races who have different hair types?

I understand that this policy is not only in place at CutLoose but is standard for the industry. In fact, this gender discrimination is the sole reason that I never get my hair cut by a professional. (I will be coming to CutLoose because someone gave me a gift certifcate and otherwise would not even consider it.)

However, if CutLoose were willing to take the lead with this issue by eliminating gender discrimination with haircut pricing, I can assure you that I would become a loyal customer.

Thank you,