Way back in 1996 I graduated from John Marshall High School in Cleveland. About six months ago I found out that this year I was among the honorees for the school’s Hall of Fame. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to make it to accept the award in person, but I wrote a speech for my sister Dawn to read at the ceremony. Now I feel inspired to post it here, in part because I’ve been far too quiet in the cyber-place, in part because it serves well to illuminate my brain space. Despite the obstacles of the past three years I’m infused with surprising optimism and creativity, and I suspect I’ll have a lot more to share with all of you in the coming months. Thanks again to Dawn for reading this, and to my mom for attending the ceremony alongside her.
“It’s a great honor to be part of the distinguished (and growing) list of John Marshall Hall Of Fame honorees. I’m also grateful that my sister, Dawn, volunteered to serve as my stunt double for the purposes of this speech. As a teacher, she still goes to school every day, so this is kind of her thing. Organizing myself into a speech is a challenge for me, since my preferred topics are rarely casual fair. My favorite subjects in seventh grade were the first Gulf war and pandas. In fourth grade, it was the Holocaust. Once a year I get an email from one former classmate or the other that begins, “remember how you used to always talk about Hitler and the holocaust?” Yes, I remember. Dawn probably also remembers, which is why she’s standing in front of all of you and I’m safely tucked 3,000 miles away.
Still, the instructions on the paperwork indicated that this is an audience that “will be very receptive to almost anything that you may say.” This is a dangerous statement in the wrong hands, and I happen to have two of them.
On one hand: In 2016, after riding on a boat for three shivering hours to the borders of Vancouver, BC, I had the honor of observing the unexpected formation of a super pod of orcas. The resident whales of Puget Sound joined with transient whales from two other pods for socialization; this event was closely supervised by the resident pod’s matriarch, Granny, who patrolled the waters with two sister whales that mirrored her every move. The Pacific was alive, with bold males performing stunts Sea World isn’t ready for, and with baby orcas surfing waves in perfect sync with their mothers, one giant, bold head breaking the surface next to a smaller, rounder head. The orcas surrounded the boat, communicating through sighs and clicks and whistles and sprays of water, and every human fell silent and lowered their cameras and phones to honor this sacred moment with our ancestors of the sea. And I wondered what their means of recording was, what allowed the patterns of sound to be passed on from Granny to the small round babies, and whether their brains preserved and transferred things in a way our brains also could, if we simply lowered our gadgets.
The other (wrong) hand: This year I observed a total solar eclipse through paper safety glasses on a tulip and filbert farm in Woodburn, Oregon. Just before the ring of fire the sky took on a green-grey cast, and every insect and bird fell silent. The absence of buzzing and chirping made space for other sounds that usual serve as static underneath the chatter, like the whisper of wind across grass, the plunk of a dew drop splitting earth. There’s no way to record this lack of sound; you have to simply sit in it. The sun was nearly swallowed and it was safe to remove our glasses, and my eyes searched the ground for the promised shadow bands, and instead I found a bee, unmoving on my sleeve. It was possible to pet it, so I did, before returning my focus to the sky, for the remaining minute of totality. When the sun returned the bee flew away, and silence sunk into noise. Later, a gentleman from the Astronomy Society heard me talking about the bee, and told me, “Oh, that bee was asleep. During eclipses, they go to sleep.” A bee dreamed on me. This is amazing.
Both hands are to tell you what I do: observe and record and dream. These are the ingredients of a writer, to me.
The third hand (when you are the wrong hands, you can have as many as you want) is insomnia, without which I’d be a completely different well-rested person observing different things. Not sleeping creates this black mirror of time where the brain has the ability to notice things, but lacks the faculties to make complex decisions or perform physical labor. Sufferers of this affliction know that 4am is a beautiful hour to craft unrealistic goals that can only be achieved with the full cooperation of a large bank, several startled friends, and the department of public works. 5am is the crossroads, where you either dive deep into a haze of coffee and grumbled conversations with imaginary demons at bus stations, or you like, watch TV or something. My first stint with insomnia happened when I was seven, when I waited until my parents went to bed and then went downstairs to watch televangelists weep and plead with viewers for big dollar donations. The theater of the whole thing was fascinating, the rhythm of their language, the way repeating key phrases functioned as a drum beat to soften the skulls of listeners. I waited for it to seem convincing, and it didn’t come, and I couldn’t tell if it was because they didn’t pick the right word or because they didn’t mean it. So I decided to observe and record the televangelists themselves, and their perceptions about the fate of my immortal soul. I wouldn’t call it journalism, but I would call it my first personal essay.
When I went to school to share these opinions with a teacher who always seemed startled by me, she told me that she could see me getting somewhere, but that I wasn’t going to get there in a straight line – it would have to be spirals and circles. And insomnia is what coaches me through the spiral, because at 6am you are back where you were at 1am, and by 1pm, there you are. Tired.
My senior year at Marshall, which was also my only year at Marshall, was heavily defined by insomnia, which directly informed decisions to leave early or not enter the front doors at all. There was a lot of eating sloppy breakfasts at Denny’s, wandering around city parks, and then watching Gullah Gullah Island and napping. Sometimes I talked to my Internet boyfriend, who I only knew as Hideo723. It should go without saying that I did not go to prom. All this behavior might have been acceptable if we were stoners, but we were just tired nerds.
The only thing that startled me awake was Mr. Wasowski’s European history lectures, which included a lot of detail about Katherine the Great’s questionable romantic decisions. Mr. Wasowski was also the basketball coach, and had an animated teaching style that was half on the court, half in the classroom, which meant he was basically yelling historic anecdotes at us for forty minutes a day. It was awesome. An extra credit question was introduced with “ding ding ding ding dong dong” which seemed to activate some dormant brain chemicals capable of immediately producing the desired factoid. I salivated over the return of my papers and tests, which would serve as evidence that I remembered everything this dude said. I wanted to be his history MVP. My final grade in the class bordered on absurd, since I scored 100% on every test and also managed to snag every extra credit point. At the year-end award ceremony, Mr. W gave me a trophy for this, and let me tell you, the best introduction you could hope for comes from someone with a gravely voice who shouts as their default communication, grasping the podium and leaning forward to emphasize the spectacular nature of your academic achievement. The only thing missing was a drumroll; I wanted to run down the aisle like Rocky with my fists in the air. Instead I just walked up and accepted the award, and spent the evening pleased that I was graduating from a high school that actually gave awards for such things.
In fact, I often tell people that I only really had one year of high school, and that was my senior year at JMH. My original high school, John Adams, closed at the end of my junior year, and even though I felt connected to the people there, it had a puzzling way of operating, and if there was any encouragement to pursue academic excellence, I never saw it. I arrived at JMH having been in the top ten of my class, and had no idea. JMH never let me forget I was in the top ten, or that I wrote for the Plain Dealer, or that the SATs were coming up, or that a scholarship application was due. If I was willing to walk a little, they were going to push me to run. So I did, all the way to a full scholarship I never would have received if not for the assistance of the guidance counselors and teachers.
And I never would have survived college at all if it wasn’t for Mr. Lakovic (sp?), the first English teacher to ever give me a C on a paper. He told me in terse language that my writing was overly emotional and that I’d failed to answer the question. He asked where my thesis was, and I asked him, “what’s a thesis?” Then he threw my paper in the air. That’s my kind of teacher. A surge of glee rushed through me as it dawned on me: my writing was going to improve, and this guy was going to help me. He did, and my work in that class crafted a strong foundation for my future academic writing. And he did not get in the way of my preferences to observe and record and dream.
I live in Portland now, but when you grow up in Cleveland and attend Cleveland Public Schools, you never forget where you came from. For these reasons, I’m probably the least passive aggressive person in the Pacific Northwest, which is useful when bargain shopping and in parking situations. I can see Cleveland in my Polish nose, my suspicious eyebrows, and my affection for the underdog. Continuing to create, to achieve, to help others, feels like a commitment I agreed to honor a very long time ago. Again, I think of the pods of orcas, joining together from three different places, whistling and chirping and groaning to one another, each asking to be witnessed. Language and story reaches all of them, generation after generation, while every human witness takes a different something from the collective agreement to simply listen, and watch, and wonder. To observe and record, or just remember.
This is story. And it’s 3:15am, and I am tired, but not sleeping.
Thank you again for including me in the Hall of Fame. Buy thousands of copies of my book. (I really mean this part. We all need to get paid.)