Here are a series of stories about Satya from my archives.
Satya 1: Tea with Satya
“My mother and my sister had me committed. They got custody of Devi.”
Satya said this the second time we had tea together. By then I’d met Devi, a tall, filled-out girl about sixteen years old. Devi’s eyes were a young egg blue behind black frame glasses.
Satya was tall, too. She gestured widely with her pale arms when she spoke. Her voice was smoky and deep, soothing like ocean waves.
We were drinking tea outdoors on her patio. Satya sat in a peacock fan-back rattan chair. Her black, curly hair looked stark against the white reeds of the chair. Her eyes were like an endless sky. After she spoke those words, she went silent and simply held my eyes unblinking until I had to glance away.
I wanted to know more: why had she been committed? How long? How did she get Devi back? I didn’t ask. Those eyes of hers stopped me. They seemed to be challenging me to ask a better question, a profound one. So I waited instead.
Satya took a sip of her ginger tea and said, “I don’t have any contact with my family now. It was too painful. There was so much bad energy. Easier to cut off contact completely.”
“Mmm,” I said, being as non-committal as possible. Thinking, “It’s not so easy to get someone committed. Or is it? A friend told me a long time ago that in some places, it takes only three signatures.
Satya’s dog pushed her nose through the flap of the dog door. It was a vizla, one of those golden dogs with the racing body, like a greyhound. She padded over to Satya and placed her head on Satya’s knee.
“This is Belle. She is my familiar. My sweet old dog Lazarus died two years ago and came back to me in her. It’s so good to have him back again.” Satya rubbed Belle’s head and traced a symbol on it with one pale finger.
“This is my last lifetime,” she said to me, in the same way she might have said, This is my left shoe. “That’s why I’ve had so much to deal with, you know, tying up all the loose ends.”
I nodded. It made perfect sense on that patio, with Belle waving her slim tail, with the taste of ginger and lemon prickling my throat, with the shifting shadows of leaves on the warm bricks.
“I don’t go out much here,” Satya said. “Too much bad energy out there,” she gestured toward town and the world beyond. “How did you like class today?” she asked.
The studio where Satya teaches yoga is behind her house. This is where we met when I signed up for classes.
“It was good for me. My back is looser than it’s been in weeks. No pain at all,” I answered.
Satya smiled. “You took some furniture out of your bedroom, right?”
I was sure I hadn’t told Satya about rearranging my bedroom. I had finally sold my mother’s oak dresser, after long agonizing days of indecision and guilt. I hated the piece and its memories, but I’d carried it with me for years, for moves all over the country.
“How did you know?” I asked.
Satya waved her hand. “I see things sometimes,” she said.
Available on Amazon and from Handersen Publishing.
The importance of voice, the way a narrator or character speaks, is a topic that writers often discuss. How do we make voice authentic? How do we keep the voice consistent throughout a story? Does the voice go with the character?
Have you ever read a book of fiction, and thought, “No five-year-old child would speak like that?” It’s happened to me. My appraisal of the author immediately drops several notches. Or perhaps you’ve come across a dialogue that sounds stiff and unnatural, or a dull narrator? The ability to write voice well requires talent and skill and a good ear. M.T. Anderson has all three.
In his YA book, Feed, Anderson creates the voice of Titus, a teenage boy, living in a dystopian world. Anderson even invents a futuristic vocabulary for Titus and his friends.
Chapter 1 Your Face is not an Organ
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null, too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off of them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we’d go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel and go dancing.
Here is the ISBN summary for Feed:
In a future where most people have computer implants in their heads to control their environment, a boy meets an unusual girl who is in serious trouble.
In Feed, Anderson has a lot to say about our consumer society and marketing, and the benefits and costs of technology.
In Anderson’s novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,Traitor to the Nation, Octavian’s voice is educated and observant, as befits a boy raised by scientists in Boston during the American Revolution.
I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in apple-trees.
I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flame rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.
Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.
How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.
The book description, in part, says:
… Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M.T. Anderson’s extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
Octavian Nothing, Volume 1 won the National Book Award. Feed was a National Book Award finalist. As well as being a master of voice, M.T. Anderson will also invite you to think.
Here is another teacher story from my archives, dated 2004.
Paloma wept over a picture book today. She came into my office-sized classroom hot and sweaty from recess. First we studied the curriculum lesson, a poster about thermal currents. Then I handed her a book to read: Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie DePaola.
“Read this and then choose from the list and write a response in your journal,” I told her. On the crowded walls is a list of possible ways to respond to reading: What surprised you? How are the people in the book like your family? How are they different? Etc.
As Paloma read, I previewed the lessons for the coming week and made notes about materials needed for the next project. At some point she paused in her reading and said, “It’s sad.”
“Yes.” I said.
We returned to silence and our respective tasks.
DePaola’s story is about a five-year old boy, Bobby, and his Grandfather, Bob. Bob teaches Bobby to walk. They have a loving, special relationship that DePaola depicts with an economy of words. Then Bob has a stroke and loses his speech. Bobby helps his grandfather learn to walk again.
When she finished the story, Paloma chose to write about what impressed her. We were quiet again as she wrote a page in her notebook, and I organized my notes in my daily log.
“Done,” she said.
“Do you want to read it to me?”
“No, you read it.”
I read aloud a passage about Paloma and her grandparents in Mexico. She told how they taught her to take care of the animals and feed the chickens.
I finished reading and looked up. Her eyes were shiny with tears. We talked about missing grandparents and I told her about growing up with only my grandmother, who was not a warm and fuzzy grandmotherly person. She asked about my mother and father and how they died. We talked quite a while past her lesson time.
After she left, I felt an angel had passed over. Something magical happened there. I sensed it but I couldn’t say what it was. A heart was touched by a simple story; a connection was made between a 10-year-old Mexican immigrant girl growing up in the year 2004 and a five-year-old Italian boy growing up sometime before World War II.
It’s a tribute to Tomie DePaola that he writes so well, and also to Paloma that she allowed so much of herself to be present and sensitive. As for me, I think I witnessed a small miracle today.
I wrote this article over a decade ago, but the ideas presented are just as relevant today.
In the time I taught English language learners, I was daily intrigued by the differences in their backgrounds, their stories, and their learning behaviors as they struggled to master the vagaries of our language.
Along with their material belongings, many of these children brought emotional baggage with them to their new schools. A child’s emotional state can impact the manner and speed with which s/he learns a new language. Researchers in language acquisition call this factor the “affective filter.” The filter can be loosely meshed and let in a lot of new information, or it can be almost a solid wall of resistance and shut out communication.
The concept of the affective filter originated with Stephen Krashen, an expert in language acquisition. It is one of five hypotheses Krashen developed about the process of language acquisition. (The other four are acquisition-learning, monitor, natural order and input) The affective filter addresses the socio-emotional variables that impact language learners. According to Krashen, the most important affective variables that encourage new language acquisition are: low anxiety learning environment, student motivation to learn the language, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
Learners of a new language may not only lack motivation, they may also be downright resistant. I experienced this first-hand when I lived in Israel. The summer after I finished sixth grade, my parents sold our home in Los Angeles and took me to Israel with the intention of emigrating. For almost half a year we lived on the outskirts of Tel Aviv and I attended the local public school, where all classes were taught in Hebrew.
My parents found a tutor who tried to teach me Hebrew. Six months is plenty of time to pick up the basic functional communication skills of a new language, especially if you’re young. But I was uprooted, pubescent, lonely, and sullen. My affective filter was on high and I determinedly learned as little Hebrew as possible.
Fast forward thirty years to the summers when I worked with high school age migrant students. One boy from Colombia was a continual behavior problem. From his writing, we learned how angry he was at being taken from his home, and how desperately he missed his grandparents and friends. He was passionate about his country. The longing he had for his home was heartrending. And yet, amidst all this turmoil, he was supposed to learn English.
Another time, a classroom teacher and I met with the parents of one of my ENL students. This little kindergartener refused to speak in school, in English or Spanish. Our inspired principal arranged for the parents to record their daughter at home. In her own house, the little girl rattled on in both languages, teaching her younger sister all the stories and songs from school—in English.
During the conference, the child’s mother said that, a few days before, her daughter had asked her, “ Mami, should I talk like you or should I talk like my teacher?”
What amazing discrimination for a five-year-old! We teachers could only wonder at the way this child chose to deal with her conflicting loyalties. How to choose between her mother, and mother tongue, or her new teacher and English? Silence was her answer to the problem. Her affective filter was tuned to let everything in and nothing out unless she was safe at home.
Teachers who interact with ENL students need to be aware of the power of the affective filter. Emotional issues can strongly influence the rate of English acquisition. Cultural conflicts can impact students’ learning as well. Children can find themselves caught between the traditional or religious practices of their family and the freer American lifestyle of their peers.
A child who seems unresponsive, lazy, slow, or sleepy may be showing just the tip of the iceberg. If we have ever traveled in another country, we know how tiring it is to keep trying to decipher the speech. Eventually we may shut down in self-protection, just to get some rest.
It’s up to the teaching adults to inform themselves about each child’s country, culture, and customs. Were they willing or reluctant immigrants? How did they come to our country, and whom did they leave behind? The more teachers can help to lower that affective filter, the more comfortable the child will feel when tackling our rather complicated English language.
I suppose I saw the ENL students as being a little more fragile than our homegrown kids. Sometimes enormous sacrifices are made so that these children can take advantage of the opportunities offered in this great country of ours. Families often endure long and painful separations, not to mention stressful living conditions. Listening to their stories, I was constantly reminded that this kind of fortitude and aspiration is what built the United States.