Monday, July 09, 2007

Turning On The Light

There's a meme going on and thanks to Kerri, I am honored to be a part of it....but not just yet.

The plan was to come home and do my version of the meme after I ate and got a free moment. But first I had to take Son to the library to return a couple of books he read and to take out a couple of others that are going to help us with his project.

He is writing a book for his family project for the summer literacy program he is in. This is his second year. Last year we had to do a scrapbook. I am creative but I hate scrapbooks. This year we have to write a book. More up my alley.

The project is due on the 23rd, which is the last week of his program. "You don't have a lot of time!" you say. You are right. There is just never enough time. But I am much more comfortable with where we are this time around than where we were last year this time - nowhere, with me dreading even starting it.

Nope. Yesterday I had Son think of what kind of story he wants to tell. He has his main character facing a test in school so he builds a time machine to go back in time to talk to the people who can tell him directly what their time was like and he can come back and ace the test.

The criteria for the book is simple - well, maybe not to him but that's why we do this as a family. For his grade level (first grade as of this past year) he has to have a book with:

an about the author page
a dedication page
a preface/introduction
8 - 10 pages with a picture on each page
up to 3 sentences per page, about 150 words or so total

The story is to be historical fiction and will incorporate some understanding about the Underground Railroad and/or the Civil Rights Movement because this is the theme for the program this year - understanding where we've been in order to assess where we are and where we are going and how it relates to them as the individuals they are.

Son has ME for a mother so his book will probably be at least 2nd grade level since the outline we created showed that we would be doing at least a 15-page story, probably a little more.

We went to the library to get books I had looked up on scientists because my thought was to give the two other characters from the past times the same scientific inclination as the main character, thus making a connection that runs through the story. Hey, I'm proud of his little story. All the kids like science. The slave boy lives in Cincinnati (home of the Underground Railroad Museum which the kids will be visiting this weekend) and he likes to watch the stars ever since he followed the North Star to freedom, so astronomy would be his racket - if only he could read. The girl likes bugs. She is also from Cincinnati during the time of real-life African-American scientist, George Carruthers, who built his own telescope at the age of nine and went on to invent a special camera that made a trip to the moon on Apollo 16. The girl would study bugs and such in college - if she ever gets the right to go to the schools that teach it. The MC was a boy named Jake but Son has his own scientific interests so I had him rechristen the character by his own name in order to really bring him to life for my young writer and just maybe get him to see that he could indeed do and be the very things he is writing about.

We sat on the bed in his bedroom, occasionally chasing out Daughter who was only interested in playing with Son's toys and trying to pester him as all little sisters do. He has to do up to 10 pages but I knew that would be limiting.

"Page One." Son writes and we give the summary of that page.

"Page Two." Son writes more as I tell him how to spell the big words mixed in with his little ones.

"Page Four. Let's have Main Character meet...what shall her name be?"

"Umm, Katie?"

"Katie. Katie lives during the Civil Rights time." We begin to write and realize we intended to go further back to the Underground Railroad time first.

"Wait," I tell him. "Erase that four. We'll come back to it. Skip a line and write Page Five. This is where MC will meet the little slave boy first. What shall his name be?"

"Ummm. Cody?"

"No, baby. During slavery time you would not have found a little boy named Cody."

"Why not? Why didn't you name me Cody? I like that name!"

I roll my eyes. "Ugh. I don't. Why would I name you that? Your name is perfect and beautiful. Besides, Cody was not a name for that era. There are names that you just won't find during every time period and Cody was not a slavery time name."

We go on as I think out loud about what the character, now named Zeke, would be doing with and saying to the MC.

"Let's let him go back to his house for hot chocolate!" Son rolls on his bed, giddy and amused by his own 7-year-old wit. I sigh, standing in the kitchen doorway, perpendicular to his own, watching his mirth and thinking of how to explain this between my mouthfuls of spaghetti.

"Son, he can't go back to his house for hot chocolate."


"This was a time of slavery. Zeke is a former slave who took the Underground Railroad to freedom. You, as the character, are in HIS time. This is called historical fiction because you are basing a made up story in a real time period. YOU are from the present where you have a home and a room of your own, learning what you please and being free. Zeke's family is still hiding out from the possibility someone will take them back to the plantation they escaped from. If someone saw Zeke talking to you and heard you, they would hear your intelligence and in Zeke's time, that could get you killed. He can't take you home. It would be a danger to him and his family and even if he did, and someone found out, it could get them killed and you."

Son sits on the edge of his bed, his mouth slightly open, the light going on. He shakes his head no.

"No? No what?"

"It's not me."


"It's not me." I hear him.

"No, it's not YOU, it's You-the-MC you, not You-the-real-boy. No one is going to kill YOU. This is what your MC is facing. These are the times Zeke lives in."

Son's light mood falters a bit. Over the past few weeks he has been learning about the Underground Railroad and The Civil Rights Movement. What he cannot grasp yet is that they are only about 100 years apart - 1850's-1860's vs 1950's-1960's. He has been learning there have been places blacks could not go and things they could not do. He is beginning to feel some the burden carried by each adult before him who had their own dawning of realization and learned the harsh truth that they would have to someday pass on to their own offspring. It is reinforced as we finish the outline, 2 hours later, and I then call my parents so they can give him a little more Civil Right era background and explain to him their own civil rights experiences because see? It was not that long ago that equality was won - partially, as my father explained.

"What do you mean?" Son asked. But my father chose not to go there. "Let's just say it was a time when we could begin to get decent jobs."

My mother explained about being able to sit anywhere she wanted on the bus. "I was just a girl then but there was a store we would go to to buy dresses and it had a restaurant for white people and a separate section for black people. Now I could go anywhere I wanted."

Of course Son doesn't fully get it right now. When the silliness is temporarily silenced and he really hears the stories, the incredulity takes over and he can barely manage to picture how this happened to people who are still alive today. Out of the blue he may say, "once, black people couldn't go anywhere they wanted and they couldn't ride just anywhere on the bus because it was the law."

He is learning and it's not all pleasant but what the program and I hope to have him realize is that not one of us has made it this far on our own power. He is free to get those books from the library and learn in his school and dream of being an astronaut because of the fights and sometimes deaths of the ones who came before us. And not all of them are in the distant past. It was 1920 before ALL women had the right to vote. It was 44 years later before ALL blacks could freely vote too. It was 6 years after that when I was born and it was tonight that my father still called it, "partial freedom."

Son will come to his own understanding one day, though my charge as a black mother and a Christian, is to help him channel any rage he feels into the promise that God has given him in and for his life so that he can experience the full freedom and joy he was meant to feel, all while grounding him in the reality that is the world we live in. It's a tall order. But I am a believer that God knows what you can handle and He knew I couldn't handle raising twins. He knew I couldn't handle a chronic illness greater then the eczema I often battle. But He must have thought I had what was needed to handle the black experience in America. Not necessarily the worst of it, but bearing the brunt of the result of it.

When that light went on in Son's head as he declined to be linked to his own self-named character who could have been killed with his slave friend just for being himself, I just hope it didn't turn out some other light that I want him to keep on. His book has a little ways to go and there is much to learn in the process to convey everything we wrote in the outline. But I am proud of my little writer and frankly I am proud we are part of this legacy of struggle and strength. It is my job to make him proud too.


Looney Mom said...

Wow. What a lot for the little guy to try to grasp. It's important though.

Maybe he will be a great writer like his mom some day. He's got a great start.

Theresa said...

That is a huge project to work on. I stay with my sister and my neice Emily,age 8, African American, and we worked on a huge Rosa Parks project last month.It was the first time she realized that blacks were treated differently than whites back then.

It sounds like your son is going to do a great job.