Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Hurt Locker

I have a kid in one of my classes. She's a good kid, mostly. She has a good heart. She wants to be successful, deep down. But she's a kid I handle with care. Not like I'd hold a newborn baby or a crystal vase. More like how I might handle an explosive.

In fact, in my mind, I call her "Hurt Locker".

If you haven't seen that movie, here's a clip. It's disturbing and beautiful and bizarre and heartbreaking.



Some days, she's a firecracker. Snappy but celebratory and slightly terrifying. But only slightly. If someone were to light the fuse, the damage would be light. Unless of course you try to grip it too tightly. Then you're bound to lose a thumb, but that's on you.

There are days when you can see all of the trip wires. They lay there exposed, clumsily hidden, just waiting for some dummy to stumble across them, detonating the blast that leaves the rest of us covered in the blood and guts of the moment. Shocked. Gasping. Alive, but glad to not have been caught in the blast zone.

And then there are days when she is an IED, disguised and waiting. Full of the shrapnel made from pain and bad choices and broken promises. Designed for maximum damage. 

Other times, she has the blast pack strapped to her chest. She believes in her cause; she's willing to sacrifice for the fight. She sees herself the hero, the martyr. She's ready. Others might get caught in the immediate explosion, but she will sustain the most damage, done willingly, with reckless welcome, to herself.

Each conversation I enter with her, I find myself suiting up. Helmet, gloves, chest pads to protect my heart. It's not much protection, thin as it is, but it's something. It's my job to disarm her, to decide which wire to cut. 

Red or black? Yellow or blue? Each is wired differently; no bomb seems built the same way. Red or black? Yellow or blue? Why is this wire green? When did we start using green wires? It seems there should be some sort of manual to follow, but with each attempt to simplify the disarmament, it seems a new trigger is introduced. 

The countdown clock does not stop flashing. I can envision the blast, feel its ghost heat upon my face. I shake with its strained energy. 

For a moment, I consider throwing myself upon the blast, absorbing the shock, saving everyone else. But that won't stop anything. There will always be more bombs along the road. And with one less person to defuse them. I lean, with my back against the wall, bracing myself. "I can do this," I reason.

Instead, I hold my breath, steady my hands, and speak a prayer for the color green.

With a snip, I look to my left and see us both still standing, still breathing, still clean.

In her place is a crystal vase, fragile and clear. 

And I wonder, stunned, who in the world leaves something so delicate in a place such as this?


Friday, April 3, 2015

Dreams Do Come True


Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a dream of being a writer. I kept diaries and journals full of bad poetry. I relished essay tests. And my high school English teacher forced me into any journalism event she could, helping me, eventually, into the only state medal I'd ever receive.

I tried for a while, when I showed up at college. I hung around the newspaper kids. I submitted a couple of things to the English department's literary magazine. But what I quickly realized is that you need to be 1) thick-skinned 2) good at promoting yourself and 3) a risk-taker.

Anyone who knew me at 19 can verify that I was none of the above. Anyone who knows me now, twenty years later, can verify that I still struggle with all of the above.

My full-time job is as a teacher. For the majority of the last 15 years, I was exclusively a writing teacher and a coach. Although I have a great passion for working with kids, there were moments where I wondered if I was a walking, talking version of that saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."

I hate that saying.

I tell my students that a writer writes. No matter what, this is true. A writer simply cannot be contained. His words buck against closed lips; her fingers search for just the right pattern of sounds. I am no different. I write with my kids in class. I create stories while sitting in traffic. I compose some pretty killer birthday cards and haiku. I've been published before, but mostly I considered that luck. Nothing more. I blog. I update. I spill in 140 characters at a time on Twitter.

But last weekend, I had the chance to test drive my dream. And, in truth, I almost turned it down. (Refer back to reasons 1, 2, and 3 if you're new around here.)

One of those 140 character friends, Shawn Krest, is an actual, real-life, professional writer in North Carolina, and he was one of the first strangers to encourage my writing. While I treasure the praise and support of my friends, there always exists a small fear that they're just being nice. Strangers don't have to be nice.

When Shawn learned that the Duke Blue Devils basketball team would be headed to Houston for the Sweet Sixteen, he knew he needed someone to cover that part of the tournament. Houston is a long way from Raleigh, and, contrary to popular belief, not every news outlet has ESPN-like budgeting. Somehow, Shawn thought it would be a good idea to send me as his substitute for accsports.com. I could catch a cool game or two, keep his credential viable, and write a little "if I wanted to".

I think his logic was something like this: Wide-eyed Duke fan sees her favorite team in person for the first time ever + nationally televised event + need to maintain professionalism and restraint while in the BEST SEATS EVER on press row = either hilarity or a total meltdown (still hilarious).

My thinking was more like this: OMG + WTF x Where do I go?/ I'm not good enough = Shawn's going to get fired.

Somehow, though, he talked me into it. He was paid back with 987 questions/freaked out text messages. I was paid with a seat 20 feet from my idol and court side seats to a dream come true. I think I came out ahead.

It was a tremendous four days. I was able to stay with one of my grown-up camp kids and see Houston through her eyes.

The sign that Allison posted on her front door
 to alert me that I had found the right house.

When you spend a birthday with a Skrehart, it's chocolate cake for breakfast.
The Beer Can Museum. Sadly, it was only open on the weekends, but here's what we know: a dude covered his whole house in beer cans. It took him about 20 years. We calculated that if he was a six-pack per day kind of guy, there were roughly 43, 680 beers consumed. Although, if you are dedicated to beer enough to cover your whole house, you're probably more than a six-pack a day kind of dude. Texas, y'all.
 

video
It's basically a house-sized wind chime.

And the art car museum. Houston has an art car parade each year. These are a few of the winners. I don't "get" art always, but this little museum is worth the time. It's also free. Definitely going to hit up the whole parade next year.
The Art Car Museum

Phantoms
The curator was also the doppelganger of Pat Garner.

"Hungry"

"Splinter" -- A full-sized Honda covered in wood

And "Lil Splinter": the go-kart version (special appearance by Allison for scale)

 And we even took a detour to look at David Adicke's latest work which Allison found by chance one day. It's a 30-foot-tall version of the Beatles. Because why not? And then we went to "Good Dog" --  a gourmet hot dog joint for a late lunch. Because why not?
When Allison last saw Ringo, he was torso-less. We're hoping John gets his left arm soon.

This is "The Texican". Avocado, black beans, freshly pickled jalapenos and creme fraiche.
Homemade buns, homemade dogs, homemade everything. Just do it, Houston.
And then there was the real reason I was in Houston. You know... that dream thing. I went to the first of four press conferences where I sat, working up the courage to ask a non-shaky-voiced question. I went to a Duke practice. Bucket list: check. I scored my first interview. It was with a 5 year-old.

That's a hall-of-famer, y'all.
From my seat at open practice
The precious kids who sat behind me.
Duke guys signing autographs

The Duke Family from my story.
This is the street I took to the stadium each day.
Duke University is located in Durham, NC. #GoodOmen
 I went to work everyday at an NFL stadium as opposed to going to work everyday across the freeway from one. (I have to say, ours is nicer inside. Yours is nicer, and less bicycle helmetish, on the outside, Houston.)


NRG Stadium
My seat for the Sweet Sixteen. Nothin' special.


The starting five.

I had the thrill of seeing a hall-of-fame coach getting his 12th trip to the Final Four, probably 2 (possibly 3) first-round NBA picks, and my favorite current player earn his way to a banner. Quinn Cook, who took me and every Blue Devil fan on a roller coaster ride for three years. Quinn Cook, who has emerged as a leader in every single, steady way this year. I love that kid. He is why teachers teach and coaches coach -- to see a boy become a man.
The post-game handshake with Utah before the actual end of the game.


Hometown Hero, Justise Winslow

I love you, Quinn Cook.
Coach K, finishing the job.

 I had to watch the dreams end for some kids, and I got to watch the dream continue for others. I watched as the media (including me) ignored Matt Jones in the press conference on Saturday. And then I watched him hide a smile on Sunday night as a reporter asked him how it felt to be the "Three Point Assassin". I saw these kids flip from playful to poised in an instant. I saw a coach defend his team with kindness and admiration and love.
Matt Jones, Quinn Cook, Coach Krzyzewski, and Tyus Jones


And I got to be a writer -- a "real" writer -- with all of the lavish accommodations you could dream of. Like the women's restroom for the female journalists. It was outside. As in, outside the stadium. As in, "go outside alone so someone can kill you and hide you in the Astrodome next door" kind of lavish.
For real.

The creeptastic Astrodome
But truly, I was in awe of the reporters surrounding me. They were in constant movement: keeping stats, tweeting, writing game stories, and lining up interviews -- all while the game was going on. The most I could manage was not yell at Jahlil Okafor to block out or stare, open-mouthed, at Grant Hill the entire time.

Then today, I came home to my very own name, spelled correctly and everything, in a newspaper. In print. That I can send home to my mom so she can read it to my dad.

Like I said, a dream come true.

Dreams don't happen just because they're dreamed though. They're usually the result of one person with a crazy idea (Shawn) and a hundred people somehow agreeing with that lunacy. I said while I was on my trip that if you ever want to measure how loved you are, announce that you're going to attempt a lifelong goal that could end in total ruined failure. People come out of the woodwork for that kind of stuff, man.

Here are my woodwork people. The list is long, but I don't have time for individual thank-you cards. I am seriously so very blessed. And I mean that in the most non-sarcastic way imaginable.

Shawn Krest -- Proof that not everyone you meet on the internet is an axe-wielding lunatic. Or at least not yet. I hope you're enjoying your first Final Four, buddy.
ACC Sports Journal -- Thank you for this opportunity. And thanks for not thinking Shawn had lost his mind.
Duke University and Mike Krzyzewski -- Thank you for finding one another and then for finding that 10-year-old kid one CBS Saturday afternoon.
The 2014-2015 Blue Devils -- You've made this season one of the best and most entertaining in a long, long time. You are a band of brothers.
Allison Skrehart -- Thanks for being such a great kid/adult and for letting me invade your home for 4 days. I am so grateful for your friendship. And for that cake.
Roommate Kelly -- You're the coolest. Give Hazel and Zelda a massive hug for me.
For my 140 character friends -- Twitter is allegedly full of racists and trolls and dumbasses. I wouldn't know that for sure because I hit the Twitter jackpot -- talented, funny, and kind. #ACCTwitter is truly, truly the best.
My school friends -- You told me things would be fine while I was gone, and you made them fine. Not just last weekend but for so many times this year. It's always a great day to be alive and a Mustang.
My camp friends -- There is no greater support network. Camp is the only place I knew I could fail and be just as loved as if I had piloted a spaceship to the moon and back. You are my touchstone.
JD and Tammy and Hunter -- You have always let me be who I was meant to be and loved me as intensely as I'd let you whether I saw you yesterday or last year.
Becky, Isaiah, and Jaxson -- Thank you for bringing such joy and kindness into my life. You amaze me.
Jim -- You've put up with my Duke passion for the longest, always having to share the VCR as it taped endless games or listen to me shout at my television as if they could hear me. You were the first person to recommend my writing to anyone else, telling Mrs. Hayes, "If you think I'm good, wait until you see what my sister can do." No compliment has ever been more treasured.
Mrs. Estlack and Mrs. Hayes, my junior high and high school English teachers -- You were my first guides in what to say and how to say it. You cracked open my skull and heart and out came my soul. Thank you for helping me scoop all those words into neat little piles. And these are just two of my dozens of life-changing teachers. I hope I make you all proud.
My parents, Dean and Wanda -- Daddy, you taught me how to tell a good story, but I'll never be as good at it as you. I miss them more than anything. Every story I tell now, I tell for you. Mom, you gave me power and strength to put on a brave face even when I'm terrified. Thanks for teaching me all about sports and not ever letting them be "just for the boys". I love you both.
And to my tribe, LJ, Courtney, and Heather -- There are not enough words in the world to ever tell you what you mean to me. You are the stars in my sky, the sun on my face, the prayer on my lips, and the solid ground under my feet. You are what every friend should be and what every person should be lucky enough to have.