Things that go Bump in the Dark

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One thing I resolve to do more of each year are things that frighten me. I worry (I’m an excellent worrier, really, I could win trophies) about letting scary things hold me back in life, so I tend to force myself through them whether I enjoy them or not. I just like to know I’ve done the thing, whatever the thing might be.

This year so far, I’ve done a few scary things. I’ve given a talk in front of a room full of highschoolers, I’ve been accepted to do a podcast this summer on a horror show, I’ve had a couple of short stories I wrote that pushed me way out of my comfort zone accepted into anthologies. And there are more scary things on the horizon.

I was doing a book signing at a book store in Flint ( yes, THAT Flint, the one with the water) a couple of months ago, and during a lull in traffic I was wandering the store, checking out the shelves. Came across a shelf chock full of Stephen King novels. Now, I read horror, sure, and I’m a great lover of weird Tim Burton films. I write horror and dark fiction, and readers often feel comfortable telling me my brain is twisted and bizarre. I can’t disagree. But there are some lines even I can’t cross, and one of them has always been the Tommyknockers.

I picked it up that day in the bookstore and stared at the cover for a minute. Then I bought it. Hey, it’s important to do the things that frighten you, right?

I first tried to read the Tommyknockers when I was about fifteen. I remember reading the poem at the beginning, somehow immediately memorizing it, and then taking it back to the library. The poem, just that tiny little poem at the front of the book made me sick with terror, and I can’t even express why it did. The lines just ran through my mind on a loop, infesting my waking hours with things better left to the night. Over the years, I have thought about trying to read it again, but even decades later, I’ve never forgotten that poem. Something about it just makes my spine shiver.

Late last night and the night before

Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers,

Knocking at the door.

I want to go out, don’t know if I can

‘Cause I’m so afraid

Of the Tommyknocker man.

Honestly, I can look at the words of the poem and see there is nothing even inherently scary in them. That doesn’t make me feel less scared, though. It’s not something I can explain. But I’m all grown up now, nearing up on forty-one and with adult children of my own. I’ve braved my way through marriage, parenting, family deaths, chronic illness, job losses, appliances breaking, bill money shortages, and one night this year I let my husband drag me to a wild game dinner where I ate a piece of kangaroo. I decided this was the year I would go back to that old fear and smack it in the face. So I bought the book, brought it home and shoved it up on one of my many (many, many, many) bookshelves, and there it sat. Laughing at me. Mocking me. For more than a month. I read a couple of the other books I’d picked up that day at the bookstore first, Dreamcatcher and Bag of Bones. And then, despite my lingering reservations, I picked up the Tommyknockers.

I’m a pretty heavy reader, truth be told, and generally a fairly fast one at that. But this book has taken me about a month to read, and I’m not certain why. Adult responsibilities are one thing, I suppose. With a daughter nearing the end of her senior year, there’s been prom, graduation, and the open house to get ready for, and that’s time consuming. There have been deadlines for the anthologies I’ve agreed to be part of, and all the other things that go along with being a parent. Dishes, laundry, bills, work, chauffeuring, etc. But those things are always there, and I usually read about a book a week. This one just took me longer. I like King’s style, and I liked the book. It’s not my most favorite book of all time, but still a good read.

The weird thing is, I’ve always thought this book was about men in a mine. I don’t know why. I’ve read so many books in my life, it must have just gotten mixed up in my head with something else I’d read. But it’s not about that at all. And it isn’t that scary of a book, really. At least to me. All this time, I’ve been afraid of it, but I was much more terrified reading The Things that Keep us Here by Carla Buckley. So the book, itself, is just not the giant terrifying thing I have always believed it to be.

It’s just the damn poem.

I would read it for a bit at night before going to bed, and then lie there in the darkness, with the words again repeating on loop around my brain. An insistent train on a neverending track. Over and over and over. I’d try counting backward from 100, or focusing on the new book I’m writing, or planning costumes to sew for Ren Faire, but the words of the poem simply echoed louder and louder until that was all I could hear.

I finished the Tommyknockers last night. FINALLY. I picked up The Night Manager from the library yesterday and was itching to start reading it. But I had to finish the Tommyknockers first. So I did. It felt a little anti-climactic, like everyone should notice I’ve done a BIG SCARY THING and applaud me, but I didn’t even feel that excited about it myself.

Life is that way sometimes, I guess. These frightening things we make up in our minds just keep getting bigger and bigger and eventually become a mountain so enormous it seems impossible to ever climb. And then we are left with a choice: either we let the mountain of fear continue to grow, or we summon our courage and decide to start climbing only to find it was really just a little hill, after all.

So I’ve conquered the Tommyknocker hill. Now I’m on to the next mountain.

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Nibbling Books

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I remember Mrs. Lolly’s first grade classroom. Our little desks all faced the west wall of the room, and we practiced daily with “Dick and Jane” books.  I’m not sure if my memories are so vivid because of Mrs. Lolly herself, who was quite a unique woman, or because of her unusual style of teaching. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Mrs. Lolly was a former nun who had changed vocations. When the song, “Harper Valley PTA” came out, I thought it was written about her. I remember hearing parents and staff whispering about her and the way she dressed. Most days, she wore a short black miniskirt, a dress blouse, stiletto heels, and really big jewelry. Her makeup was heavy with lots of pink, and when she smiled, her white teeth sparkled against her bright lipstick. Her hair was a cloud of black swirls that framed her face and fell down her back in soft waves. I always thought she resembled Wonder Woman (as played by Linda Carter). In fact, I remember at some point thinking that maybe she really WAS Wonder Woman, hiding out at our school to protect her identity.

Mrs. Lolly was a talented artist. Each week, she would design a persona for the sounds we would learn and draw it on a large poster board, which would then be hung on the wall in the front of the classroom. We were allowed to help add details to the character and this became an exciting weekly ritual. Of course, I didn’t realize it then, but now I can see how this technique appealed to children of every learning style; visual, auditory, and tactile. Letter sounds became so easy to remember once I learned what each character stood for. “Mrs. A” was a woman formed from a capital  A, and we glued a tissue to her hands, because she was always sneezing and saying, “A-A-A-A-ACHOO!”. My favorite persona was “Ms. Double O”. I think she was supposed to be a spy. She rode a motorcycle and the wheels were shaped like the letter O. The sound her motorcycle made was, “VROOM, VROOM!”.

Once we learned the letter sounds, we would make up a story and put the letters together to form words. “Class,” Mrs. Lolly would say, “let’s see what story our letters will take us into today”. Then our little hands would shoot up and suggestions would be called out until we had enough letters to make a word. For instance, “Mr. R” (who had a kicking, dancing leg) might call up “Mrs. A” and together they would go out dancing with “Ms. T”, and we would have learned the word “rat”. Spelling and reading became a discovery to be anticipated, rather than the rote memorization that is so typical in many classrooms today.

I strongly believe that such creative literacy beginnings set the stage for a lifelong love of words and books for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have become the voracious reader that I am if this fire hadn’t been lit inside me at such an early age. If, like my son’s teacher, Mrs. Lolly had simply written the words on the board and instructed me to “write, say, and read” the words, would I have become so thrilled with learning to spell and read every possible word I could think of as a child? If I had learned to read by memorizing small paper books, as my children have, I would likely still enjoy reading to some extent, because I think I am just hard wired to do so. But, I wonder if that hunger, that passion, that I hold for the written word today would be so insatiable if my early literacy experiences had not been as joyful as I felt they were. It is rare that I have met another person with an appetite for reading such as myself. I was never a child who could merely nibble a book as an after school snack, I had to devour the whole thing in one sitting and that hunger is with me yet today. I once read a poem by Mark Strand (Eating Poetry), and in this phrase, “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth, There is no happiness like mine, I have been eating poetry”, I clearly saw myself. However, I have never been limited to just poetry and would happily read just about anything in ink: fiction or non, poetry, magazines, and, lacking anything else, I’ve even been known to read the back of a cereal box for entertainment.

As a child and teen, there were a few teachers who made a difference in my life, educators who gave their job everything they had, because they wanted to make a positive impact on the children they taught. I recall a middle school teacher who let us call her by her first name, which made us feel so grown up, and my high school English teacher, who went the extra mile and then some to help his students be successful in whatever they were doing. But, what would my junior high and high school years have been like if I hadn’t developed such a solid foundation in my first grade classroom? Considering this, I have to believe that the educators of the early elementary years, the teachers often disregarded as “just” a kindergarten or first grade teacher, may have the most impact on a child throughout their life. One fantastic teacher, like Mrs. Lolly, or conversely, one boring, apathetic teacher, could set the tone for a child’s success in learning long after that child has left their classroom.

Some days, I find myself nostalgic for that first grade classroom, for those tiny desks and the feeling of excitement and empowerment that learning to read gave me, and I wish that I could somehow contact Mrs. Lolly and let her know that she made a difference in my life. I’d like to tell her that, thirty-some years after leaving her classroom, I remember how hard she worked to teach us and how tirelessly she gave of herself. I know she was aware of the rumors and whispered innuendos that circulated the school about her, but I’d like for her to also know that to the children she taught, she was a hero. Maybe not Wonder Woman, but a hero to us nonetheless, and I’m thankful for being fortunate enough to have been in her class.

Nibbling Books

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I remember Mrs. Lolly’s first grade classroom. Our little desks all faced the west wall of the room, and we practiced daily with “Dick and Jane” books.  I’m not sure if my memories are so vivid because of Mrs. Lolly herself, who was quite a unique woman, or because of her unusual style of teaching. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Mrs. Lolly was a former nun who had changed vocations. When the song, “Harper Valley PTA” came out, I thought it was written about her. I remember hearing parents and staff whispering about her and the way she dressed. Most days, she wore a short black miniskirt, a dress blouse, stiletto heels, and really big jewelry. Her makeup was heavy with lots of pink, and when she smiled, her white teeth sparkled against her bright lipstick. Her hair was a cloud of black swirls that framed her face and fell down her back in soft waves. I always thought she resembled Wonder Woman (as played by Linda Carter). In fact, I remember at some point thinking that maybe she really WAS Wonder Woman, hiding out at our school to protect her identity.

Mrs. Lolly was a talented artist. Each week, she would design a persona for the sounds we would learn and draw it on a large poster board, which would then be hung on the wall in the front of the classroom. We were allowed to help add details to the character and this became an exciting weekly ritual. Of course, I didn’t realize it then, but now I can see how this technique appealed to children of every learning style; visual, auditory, and tactile. Letter sounds became so easy to remember once I learned what each character stood for. “Mrs. A” was a woman formed from a capital  A, and we glued a tissue to her hands, because she was always sneezing and saying, “A-A-A-A-ACHOO!”. My favorite persona was “Ms. Double O”. I think she was supposed to be a spy. She rode a motorcycle and the wheels were shaped like the letter O. The sound her motorcycle made was, “VROOM, VROOM!”.

Once we learned the letter sounds, we would make up a story and put the letters together to form words. “Class,” Mrs. Lolly would say, “let’s see what story our letters will take us into today”. Then our little hands would shoot up and suggestions would be called out until we had enough letters to make a word. For instance, “Mr. R” (who had a kicking, dancing leg) might call up “Mrs. A” and together they would go out dancing with “Ms. T”, and we would have learned the word “rat”. Spelling and reading became a discovery to be anticipated, rather than the rote memorization that is so typical in many classrooms today.

I strongly believe that such creative literacy beginnings set the stage for a lifelong love of words and books for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have become the voracious reader that I am if this fire hadn’t been lit inside me at such an early age. If, like my son’s teacher, Mrs. Lolly had simply written the words on the board and instructed me to “write, say, and read” the words, would I have become so thrilled with learning to spell and read every possible word I could think of as a child? If I had learned to read by memorizing small paper books, as my children have, I would likely still enjoy reading to some extent, because I think I am just hard wired to do so. But, I wonder if that hunger, that passion, that I hold for the written word today would be so insatiable if my early literacy experiences had not been as joyful as I felt they were. It is rare that I have met another person with an appetite for reading such as myself. I was never a child who could merely nibble a book as an after school snack, I had to devour the whole thing in one sitting and that hunger is with me yet today. I once read a poem by Mark Strand (Eating Poetry), and in this phrase, “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth, There is no happiness like mine, I have been eating poetry”, I clearly saw myself. However, I have never been limited to just poetry and would happily read just about anything in ink: fiction or non, poetry, magazines, and, lacking anything else, I’ve even been known to read the back of a cereal box for entertainment.

As a child and teen, there were a few teachers who made a difference in my life, educators who gave their job everything they had, because they wanted to make a positive impact on the children they taught. I recall a middle school teacher who let us call her by her first name, which made us feel so grown up, and my high school English teacher, who went the extra mile and then some to help his students be successful in whatever they were doing. But, what would my junior high and high school years have been like if I hadn’t developed such a solid foundation in my first grade classroom? Considering this, I have to believe that the educators of the early elementary years, the teachers often disregarded as “just” a kindergarten or first grade teacher, may have the most impact on a child throughout their life. One fantastic teacher, like Mrs. Lolly, or conversely, one boring, apathetic teacher, could set the tone for a child’s success in learning for long after that child has left their classroom.

In writing this essay, I find myself nostalgic for that first grade classroom, for those tiny desks and the feeling of excitement and empowerment that learning to read gave me, and I wish that I could somehow contact Mrs. Lolly and let her know that she made a difference in my life. I’d like to tell her that, thirty-some years after leaving her classroom, I remember how hard she worked to teach us and how tirelessly she gave of herself. I know she was aware of the rumors and whispered innuendos that circulated the school about her, but I’d like for her to also know that to the children she taught, she was a hero. Maybe not Wonder Woman, but a hero to us nonetheless, and I’m thankful for being fortunate enough to have been in her class.