Monday, March 5, 2012

introducing. . . . miz marni campbell

la push--second beach

disclosure and editorial notes:  marni campbell is one of my best friends in the entire world as well as my sister-in-law.  but if i weren't related to her, i would still think she was completely rad.  when i got my first teaching job, fresh out of an m.f.a. program with zero training in how to teach, marni midwifed me through the ordeal (that took about 5 years of panicky calls and questions and patient coaching).  i still call her when i face a tough classroom problem.

she's a beautiful writer, as you'll see, and her essay about her student teaching days ("night: feed my lambs"--think stand by me meets freedom writers  meets dangerous minds) is one that i frequently use when teaching personal narrative, and it's always a student favorite.  

most importantly, as a school administrator, she fights the good fight every single day for justice and equality in the schools.  she makes the tough, unpopular calls on behalf of students with disabilities, students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and works harder than anyone i know to create a better system for all children. 

i'm in awe of her.

Tell us about yourself—and are you in a tight place?  If so, what are you trying to do about it?

Last week on President’s day I drove and ferried with my daughter to LaPush, on the far western side of the Olympic Peninsula.  There is not much there but a few cabins on the Quileute reservation, the generously named “Oceanside Resort,” sitting on the edge of the mighty Pacific.  The very edge.  When you’re there, your senses are filled by the presence of the ocean.  Your ears and eyes and nose are mostly busy taking it in.  Conversations, books, food, music, memory—all fade and flatten in the great greyness.  My husband says I love it because I want to be at land’s end, the edge of nothingness, perched on the verge of escape.  I don’t know what I think I’m escaping, but I know that I am drawn to these places—escarpments, diving boards, fences, waterfalls--where I could fly or leap or leave and forget myself altogether.

My earliest joyful childhood memory is of walking through our suburban neighborhood in the middle of a hot summer weekday afternoon, alone.  I was probably four years old.  I remember the heavy sound of cicadas, the sun burning my shoulders, walking barefoot along the edge of the street to catch the water running off of lawns from sprinklers.  I was alone but not lonely, lost but not scared.  A garbage truck drove by, slowed, and stopped.  A man on the back of the truck called out to me to put the straps of my terry-cloth romper back up on my shoulders (did they slip?  Did I pull them off?). I was so embarrassed, and probably bothered by his intrusion into my adventure. 

I have been thinking about the tight places in my heart and mind, places where I am stuck, places I feel I must escape.  I have been thinking about thresholds and adventures and shame.  My instinct when I reach these tight places is to run or hide or leave myself altogether.  I have, for a tangible example, a closet full of untidy purses, filled with receipts and lip glosses and coupons because when they become too full, I replace them with new, pristine purses.  From Target. 

My daughter flew to Bulgaria two weeks ago where she will stand in the streets and ask people to listen to her message about God, speaking with an awkward new tongue.  When she was in seventh grade and I was just beginning to work as a school administrator, she would come into my bedroom late at night and ask me to blow dry her hair.  I would be so, so tired, but I would lie in bed, raise my arms, and brush and blow dry her hair until it was a smooth coppery curtain.  This hair was essential to her in the seventh grade. 

In that same four year old suburban neighborhood, my father used to say, I spoke my first poem, skipping down the street on a bright morning.  He claimed I opened my arms, looked at the sky, and said, “O beauteous day!”
I didn’t write much poetry until I was pregnant for the first time, when suddenly it seemed absolutely essential that I begin to write with rich, redolent words.  That baby is now in Bulgaria.  I need to write again.  I am still a busy school administrator, responsible for supervising 19 schools in northwest Seattle and my work words are brisk, commanding, precise.  I am still exhausted.  My kids still need more from me than I can ever give them.  I still feel embarrassed by public intrusions, rules, and expectations.  I don’t yet know how to mother a child who is now perched on the edge of the Black Sea and I don’t know if I ever will know how to let my children go.  I don’t know how to be entirely public, as is so often required, and not be ashamed of my failings and messes—but I know that I can’t run away now.  Not entirely.  So I feel trapped and I blame this for my neglect of poetry.

What do you want to get done this year?

This year I want to write a poem every day, practice music every day, and exercise every day.  In this way I believe that I can overcome shame, uncover bad habits, stay honest about who and where I am.  I’m trying for incremental goals that focus on process rather than product. 
And I need to find a focus for my PhD—that’s a process, right?  

What inspires you?

Lara and Julie have inspired me with their beautiful and ambitious daily writing.

Sherman Alexie inspires me with his daily e-mails (from Falls Apart Productions, alas, not from him directly) and general brilliance.

 I am inspired by my mother, who lives alone and makes a list every day on scrap paper, a t-chart with “today” titling the left column and “ends” titling the right.  She has “practice piano,” “write,” “lunch with Sylvia,” and “International Cinema” on those lists, and when she has completed each one she rewrites it under “ends.”  Product, not process, interests her most.

I am inspired by the Lupita, a Kindergarten student I met on the first day of school this year.  She had been dropped off early, a tiny little thing, and could not tell anyone her name.  I happened to see her hiding behind a shrub and when I bent down to say hello she started to silently weep.  I spent the morning with her on my lap, clinging to me like a starfish.  We finally found out her name.  By lunchtime she could sit up to the table by herself, with her class, and shyly smile at the other kids.  I go back to her school every few weeks if I can, and she runs up to me every single time, jumps into my arms, and then wiggles to the ground and tugs me by the hand to show me her writing, her book bag, and her cubby.  I am inspired by her courage, her trust, her brilliance, her resilience.

appropriate for a district official?  you decide.

What is your favorite legwear?

I have been wearing tights religiously since high school.  I had a bright red pair that I took to BYU and would wear with a black corduroy mini-dress.   Not the red lipstick my mother constantly advised me to wear, but the siren call of those red tights I believe drew my first heart-breaking BYU boyfriend to me.

I pulled out a pair from the clearance bin at Fred Meyer a few months ago, not realizing that they had a flamboyant black and grey zig-zag pattern.  I feared they might be too wild for a district official, but I love them!  With striped skirts!  With all-black ensembles!  With boots of all kinds!  Tights are private and public, warm and cool, comforting and liberating.  They are the perfect gear for taking leaps, going underground, getting lost, or being found.


  1. Marni is marvelous. And excellent. Beautiful writing, indeed. And I really need to read Sherman Alexie.

    1. stephanie, i teach diary of a part-time indian to high schoolers and just finished reading indian killer, which was great if a little less characteristic of his writing.

      marni, thank you so much for guest blogging. i'm reminding you again to do more writing, girl!

  2. Lara--I am inappropriately crying in my office right now. Thank you for the beautiful introduction. I don't even know what to say--but thanks.

  3. NIneteen schools...and making time for poetry! That's inspiring!