Chapter and Verse: Putting my short stories to the test in Baltimore’s public schools

Chapter and Verse is a series where JHU Press authors and editors discuss the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by Jean McGarry

My relationship with the Baltimore public schools began last year, when, out of the blue, I received an invitation from the PEN/Faulkner Foundation to jump-start a writers in the schools program in a new city: mine. As is often the case, I felt so honored (and touched) that high-school students might read my stories, that I failed to ask some key questions: why was I chosen, what kind of class was it, what did they want me to do? I did glean a few, critical details: when to appear, and the name of the school.

So, one day last year, shortly before Thanksgiving, I showed up at Western High School and met an AP English class of about 20 students, all girls, in blue uniforms. I had supplied them with copies of my story collection, Home at Last, and I was to be dazzled by the grip these mostly African-American young women had on the life imagined in the opening story, “The Raft.” The hardship of a depression childhood, coupled with my 9-year-old character’s first-hand experience of his father’s suicide, followed by the hurricane of all time (September, 1938), that turned the city of Providence into a bathtub, did not daunt these readers. Things like this could happen, and they could happen in a series—which is exactly the conclusion drawn by the protagonist, Jimmy McGinness. Terrible things could happen, they do happen, and a child’s job is to enlarge his understanding: not just to cope with such blows, but to master them. What a thrill it was to witness a work of fiction that harked back to my long-deceased father’s time, being channeled, through me, to these eager (and sympathetic) readers.

I heard nothing after this initial venture and visit, so assumed the program had folded, and hoped I hadn’t contributed to its demise.  Then, this year, I got another call from PEN/Faulkner to visit Friendship Academy in East Baltimore. This time, though, the foundation bought enough copies of my newest book, Ocean State, to give each of the students a hardcover copy, at $25 a pop. The liaison, Nate Brown, a novelist living in D.C., delivered me personally to this school. Nate and I waited in the principal’s office until a bell went off, and then mounted the stairs to Sean Martin’s class of about 20 students. I had been forwarded a very good question to ponder. These students—or at least one of them—had never imagined that a single person could write so many different stories, and wanted to know how that was done.

This time, I read “Family Happiness,” the opening piece in Ocean State. The story is set in in the mid-1960s, although it fetches back to the 40s and ahead to the 70s. It is organized around certain red-letter days in the lives of a mother and daughter: two weddings and a funeral. I wanted these students—in their late teens—to imagine what life would be like for Dolly Bergstrom (the mother), married just after World War II, and forced to live with her interfering mother-in-law. As the story opens, Dolly is preparing her own daughter for marriage. Did the students understand that for this wartime generation, there was not much space or time between childhood and adulthood for teenage life? That the old country—Ireland, Sweden, wherever it was—still imposed all of its customs, comforts and constraints? And that Dolly was baffled by the marital (and life) prospects faced by Donna, her soon-to-wed only daughter? That, in fact, Dolly’s only way of coping with Donna’s immaturity and “back talk” was to clean the tenement flat the newlyweds were moving into, until it reeked of Ajax and ammonia, and gleamed with fresh wallpaper and paint? To clean and clean; and then, to clean again, about ten years later, when the marriage founders, and Donna returns to the flat, heartbroken, to live with her own two daughters; and to clean once again, when Donna remarries. What was this feverish housework all about?

I described the literary device—stream of consciousness—that I had used, and told the students that Dolly was a lonely woman, with no one to listen to her, so she talked to herself. I felt it necessary, somehow, to identify moments of happiness—real happiness—recorded in a story where mother, father, and daughter are often at odds, or at least unable to understand each other. Once again, these young readers got it. When class was over, a couple of them walked me out of the building, and recommended Lifetime TV as an option for me, a place where my work might get more attention. A few weeks later, I received a packet of letters, hand-written thank-yous for my visit. I had also signed all their books.

Jean McGarry, surrounded by Meredith Maddox's English class at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore. Photo by Nate Brown.

Jean McGarry, surrounded by Meredith Maddox’s English class at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore. Photo by Nate Brown.

The third visit, about a month ago, was to Paul Dunbar High School, a stone’s throw from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Dunbar students, supplied with fresh copies of Ocean State, with its bright-blue cover (a shot of Lido’s Beach on Narragansett Bay), were more diverse. This was an English class taught by Meredith Maddox, a teacher in her first year who was about to have her first baby. She was nervous, they were nervous, and I was nervous, and there were about 50 of us, all squeezed together in a circle of blonde-wood chairs.  To my astonishment, these students had been assigned all the stories, from the realist stories of old-time Providence to the quirky tales about too many wedding gowns, Poe-like treasure hunts, dates between octogenarian fathers and middle-aged daughters. They had read them all, and they had questions. Which stories were about me? Where did I get my ideas? How long did it take to write them all down? How did I get them published? What was I trying to say?

The hardest query of all was aimed at “Dream Date,” a story of teen-age infatuation, centered on a Catholic high school’s over-chaperoned dance night. The question was: Had I had such a date? When? And, when I seemed to dodge the question, the young man shot back: What was my idea of a dream date?

I spent about an hour under heavy interrogation, and emerged, that day, exhausted and drained, but I also felt that never in my whole writing life had I had such a great audience for my work. They put it to the test. Did it pass? Who knows, but these kids were so engaged that, at the very least, I felt the rare satisfaction that I had indeed written some stories, and by God, some of them were intelligible, they added up, they were a message in a bottle from my long life to these fresh, blossoming lives.

Will I go back? As soon, and as often, as they ask me.

mcgarryJean McGarry teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Ocean State is her eighth book of fiction. Dream Date, Home at Last, and Airs of Providence have also been published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Her short stories have appeared in, among other publications, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, Boulevard, and The Southwest Review.