Jasmine in the Air

We are knee deep in magazines in Room 204; we’ve been studying  feature writing.   My third graders have written articles on bullying, dealing with siblings, the Gulf oil spill, and the Strawberry Street Festival.  We’ve worked on ads, advice columns, puzzle pages, and layout with stamina, enthusiasm, and skill.  This is a new unit and this class helped me write it.  I will teach it every year.  We are loving it.

A new writing unit means an old one has to go, so I decided let go of memoir.  And now I don’t know what I was thinking.   Memoir, after all, is the great writing teacher, but it took reading a memoir this week for me to remember that.  I’ve been reading Kai Bird’s memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate.

Memory is a storyteller with a style of her own.  She nudges the present moment with the past tense.   Her whisper is constant, like rustling leaves on palm trees in a breeze. Memory can be loose with the truth to get her story to come out right.  My memory is working with details on a continent thousands of miles away and a time that was long ago.  I am the oldest of four children, and the oldest of four storytellers. We have not always agreed on the details.  My brother was fond of saying,

“Ah.  Annie’s idyllic childhood… where were we?”

My sister wrote about my memory in her blog:

My sister has a good memory, but she shares a way of looking at the world with oh, say, Aesop, for instance. Somehow, being processed through her brain turns the most mundane event into a little vignette with a beginning, middle, end and most of all, a point.

That makes me laugh, but I know it’s true. Memory leaves me wondering: Did I really ride a horse named Carema across the Sahara sands?  Did I eat mango ice cream under palm trees with the scent of jasmine in the air?  Did I really swim across the Suez Canal with my father?  Did I really attend school in a former Egyptian palace with bathrooms made of alabaster and faucets made of gold?

Memory is a storyteller, but memoir checks the facts and writes them down. When I opened Kai Bird’s book,  I didn’t know the author.  But as I turned the pages, I realized that we both boarded ocean liners with our families in 1965 (along with our family station wagons) and sailed to Casablanca on our way to live in Egypt.  We were both the children of United States diplomats. We went to the same church, went to the same school, and both belonged to the Maadi Sports Club.   Our parents went on the same pilgrimage to Sinai and rode camels to St. Catherine’s Monastery.  His best friend was the older brother of my best friend.   We both were evacuated from Cairo as the Six Day War was starting in 1967.  And we both thought we would return to our houses, our pets, our belongings, and to our lives in Egypt.  Neither of us did.

It is rare for a memoir to give the reader the story of his or her own life, but this is not why we read memoir.  We read memoir to look through a lens that affirms the universality and the individuality of the human experience.  We write memoir  to write our side of our conversation with the world.

It turns out I did ride a horse named Carema across the Sahara sands.  I did swim across the Suez Canal with my father. I did eat mango ice cream under palm trees with the scent of jasmine in the air.  And I did go to school in a former palace.

And it turns out I will be teaching memoir this year, after all.  I want my students to have the lens.  And I want them to learn to write their side of their conversation with the world.

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified third grade teacher and loves her work. She especially enjoys teaching children how to be enthusiastic readers, writers, and problem solvers. Every year, she hopes to inspire her students to be committed citizens who know they can make a difference in the world around them. When she is not teaching, Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Jasmine in the Air

  1. Melissa Oliver says:

    Thank you for taking the time each week to give us a taste of what our children are learning in your class, and I’m not talking about SOLs.

    I read the blog with great interest and know that each week when I begin I’ll laugh out loud or well up with tears. This is a bonus week with with the comment about your idyllic childhood and the realization that the school year is rapidly reaching its end.

  2. Monica Peters says:

    I agree with Melissa in all she says… and wonder what these little people will do in the future with all the amazing things they have learned this year. I can hope the love for writting and learning will stay with them just like it has with our daughter Cristina…

  3. elliott says:

    Well, I don’t need to tell you that nothing will bring me back like a google alert that you linked to me! Could we have imagined, when we were eating mango ice-cream under the palms, how we would relive those moments 45 years later, linked together still, but in a way that hadn’t been invented yet? The most sophisticated thing I could come up with back then was Rosie the Robot, but here we are. Fabulous post.

  4. Debele says:

    Way to shut me down! One difference between Kai’s memoir and yours: only you know the real reason the Six Day War started when it did. Love those photos.

  5. mag says:

    Love it….. some of us don’t think of ourselves asm story tellers until a special teacher opens the way… and I’m pretty sure you open the way for your students on so many levels.

  6. Stacey says:

    “We read memoir to look through a lens that affirms the universality and the individuality of the human experience. We write memoir to write our side of our conversation with the world.”
    This is truly the lens from which everyone should teach memoir.

  7. Lorna says:

    Our side of a “conversation with the world” is a great way to think of memoir writing. Ever since I read your post, I keep hearing Emily Dickinson– “This is my letter to the world”…Thanks for a wonderful post!

  8. Kristin says:

    Wow, now I have a different outlook on why writing memoirs are so important.
    “It is rare for a memoir to give the reader the story of his or her own life, but this is not why we read memoir. We read memoir to look through a lens that affirms the universality and the individuality of the human experience. We write memoir to write our side of our conversation with the world.” I love that line!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s