Drama and happiness

September 18, 2014 • Posted in blindness, memoir writing, questions kids ask, Uncategorized, visiting schools, Whitney by

Yesterday Whitney and I enjoyed a magical morning in a classroom in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side: the

The class at Oglesby.

The class at Oglesby.

Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. Fourth, fifth and sixth graders in a Montessori program at Oglesby Elementary are writing essays for a book they’ll publish in November, and their teacher asked me to come talk about memoir-writing.

The kids and I had to talk about other stuff first, though. Like what it’s like to be blind, whether I can blink or not, does my dog sleep with me in my bed, how I play piano if I can’t see the keys, how come I open my eyes at all if I can’t see. Then a thoughtful fifth-grader asked, “Do your eyes hurt?” Such a sweet, caring question. “I can’t see anything,” I said. “But no, my eyes don’t hurt at all.”

That answer prompted a question I’d never been asked before. “Can you cry?” For a quick moment I considered explaining what tear ducts are, telling the kids how they work, but then I thought about Jamal, a sixth-grade boy in class who’d described the memorial t-shirt he was wearing — it had photos of a cousin who’d died on it. Another boy in class told me he gets angry sometimes because his father is in prison. I kept my answer simple. “Yes, I can cry” I said. “And sometimes, I do.”

Jamal describes his memorial t-shirt for me.

I pictured the kids nodding their heads, understanding. The class was still for a moment, but then a boy in back broke the silence. “Would you win in a staring contest?” We all had fun with that — his question led to a heavy discussion of staring-contest rules. Do you have to look right into someone’s eyes, what if you’re close but not looking right in their eyes, is it just all about who blinks first?

After the Q&A came the writing exercise. We all took a minute to write a few sentences that define our lives, then we read our sentences out loud. I learned that Jamal is new to the Montessori class, but his little sister Shamiya has been at Oglesby Montessori for years. Jamal wrote: “I seen too much drama in my life. I wish I had a dog for a best friend and happiness.” A fifth-grade girl wrote this: “I’m oldest. One brother, 1 sister. Mom raised. Grandma died. Auntie baby died when came out. Happy that I am happy.”

We went through an editing process to cut our stories down to six words, then to three words. The fifth-grade girl decided on “I’m oldest. Happy.” A boy in class ended up with “I am awesome.” Jamal’s three words were downright poetic:” Drama and happiness.”

The classroom teacher had asked me to come up with a writing prompt for the kids to work on after Whitney and I went home, so I told them to finally cut their piece down to one word. “That one word is your writing prompt for today,” I said, and as Whitney and I left to go home, they all squirreled away to start writing on their topics. The kids promised they’ll read their stories out loud if Whitney and I return to Oglesby Montesorri, so among other topics, I can look forward to hearing essays about:

Getting down to one word.

Getting down to one word.

  • twin
  • oldest
  • angry
  • grandma
  • youngest
  • awesome

A teacher-aide told me later that Jamal settled on “drama” as his one word, but then found that topic difficult to write about with all his classmates there in the room with him. “I asked if he thought he could work on writing his memoir at home, and he said he thought he could,” the teacher aide said, adding that she’d suggested maybe he could write about something happy while he was still there at school. “He and I thought he could write about what it has been like to experience Montessori class as a new kid.”

A 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization called Oglesby Montessori Foundation supports and advocates for the Montessori program Whitney and I visited yesterday. The Foundation is looking for help funding chess and yoga classes and camping trips to Wisconsin, the Nature’s Classroom Institute, and Camp MacLean. Please consider donating.

christena On September 18, 2014 at 1:03 pm


Bev On September 18, 2014 at 1:20 pm


Sheila Kelly Welch On September 18, 2014 at 1:35 pm

I loved this, Beth.

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 7:37 am

Thanks, Sheila. And Bev and Christina, too. You’re right about Jamal and goosebumps — it gave me goosebumps to write about all that. And your comment, Sheila, tells me I got it down on paper the way I’d hoped. Thanks for letting me know.


Judy Roth On September 18, 2014 at 1:53 pm

As often happens, your blogs leave me tearful. You are so wonderful at communicating with all kinds of kids and making them feel that what they have to say is worthwhile. Come to think of it, you make adults feel that way, too!

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 7:41 am

You know, I find that pretty easy to do. The things thoughtful people (whether they be adults or children) have to say *is* worthwhile. And you, dear Judy, are one of those thoughtful people. Thanks for taking the time to leave this sweet comment.


Linda Miller On September 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm

What a great experience for all of you. Glad to read about it!

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 7:42 am

You’re right. It definitely was a great experience for all of us. Especially me.


Leone Anderson On September 18, 2014 at 5:37 pm

My heart’s with those kids…and with you, Beth.

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 7:43 am

Thanks, Lee. That makes me feel good.


Sheila A. Donovan On September 18, 2014 at 5:51 pm

I love the staring contest comment!

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 7:43 am

Yes, and I loved the staring contest question! PS: I do think I’d win.


Jamie On September 18, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Lllllooooovvvvveeee this story

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Thanks, Jamie. I loved being there at Oglesby Montessori. Glad it shows.


MePaleo On September 18, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Awesome, indeed!

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 4:46 pm

I thought of you immediately when this kid ended up with that word.


The Empty Pen On September 18, 2014 at 11:31 pm

I enjoy editing, but cutting down to three words seems cruel…and genius.

bethfinke On September 19, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Cruel, perhaps, but see what beauty came of the editing? I immediately thought “Drama and Happiness” could be the title of Jamal’s collection of essays. Come to think of it, “I am Awesome” wouldn’t be a bad title for that other kid’s book, either!


Charlotte Poetschner On September 19, 2014 at 10:23 am

Cool. Very cool. So much going on here woven from real life. A few words…and somehow so many of us out here are right there with you and Whitney and those kids. Thank you, Beth, for being there with them, for clearly doing what you do with such care and fun and love, and for telling us about it. One word?…WOW!! [All caps, exclamation marks included!]

bethfinke On September 20, 2014 at 7:23 am

Okay, Charlotte, you’re on. Your assignment: write 500 words on the topic “WOW!! [All caps, exclamation marks included!] PS: Thanks for the sweet comment.


Mary coffey On September 20, 2014 at 8:17 am

Beautiful, Beth.

Marilee On September 20, 2014 at 8:39 am

Can’t wait to read or hear the essays- what a beautiful way for the students to get started on this assignment. Talking, sharing, writing, sharing…. Sounds like an amazing school! Always love to read about your school visits. You never know what a difference you might make for one student.

bethfinke On September 20, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Thanks, Mare. I wonder if those kids know what a difference they make in *my* life, too. Gee, maybe when I return with Whitney to hear them read their stories, I’ll let them know.


Mel Theobald On September 23, 2014 at 11:40 pm

Beth, the Tribune has been doing a series on the New Burnham Plan for Chicago for a year. You’ve managed to do it in one essay. It isn’t that hard is it? My friend Patch Adams said, “We change the world one person at a time.” You are living proof of that.

Mel Theobald On September 23, 2014 at 11:41 pm

After though…maybe I should have said one word at a time.

bethfinke On September 24, 2014 at 8:43 am

Aha! Maybe I should have titled the essay that way: Changing the world, one word at a time. THANKS for your comments, Mel. Always makes me smile to know you are out there reading our blog.

Deborah Darsie On October 7, 2014 at 11:21 pm

I love reading the questions the kids ask. Some never change…but a staring contest. I wish we could find out what that kid ends up doing in the future.

And I am in awe of Jamal!

bethfinke On October 8, 2014 at 7:30 am

I’m hoping to return to that school later this year, so at least we’ll know what happens to that kid in the *near* future….


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