Writing

Rock Skiing

“And how stands the city [on a hill] on this winter night?…After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

— From President Ronald Reagan’ Farewell Address, 1989

 

Of the many things I don’t understand about the Executive Order banning refugees, there is this: how can you look at a photograph of a family fleeing Syria and say that they cannot come here? It is easier to discriminate against people you don’t know. Is it possible that President Trump has never met a Muslim, never met a refugee? I doubt it. I think he’s just racist.

I, on the other hand, have met Muslims and refugees. Many of them. I have worked with various refugee populations on and off for most of my adult life. In 1994, my first year out of college, I lived in Denver for 5 months.

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While there I held an assortment of paid and volunteer jobs. I worked as a teacher’s aide at a day care center, and did some babysitting on the side. I wrote and edited articles for Colorado Women News magazine. I wrote a grant proposal for a group of lawyers doing pro bono work on affordable housing. And I was a tutor for a “talk time” conversation practice group for ESL students.

Our talk time group met in a dilapidated classroom of an old building in downtown Denver. The students were refugees and immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, Mexico. Each session, we divided into groups and were given conversation topics. At the start of our first meeting, the lead teacher made a skiing analogy. Here in Colorado, she explained, the snow is plentiful and forgiving. The sun shines over 300 days of the year.

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The best skiers are the ones who learn to ski in other parts of the country, like New England. There, you ski in unforgiving cold. It’s common to ski on ice, or encounter rocks that poke up out of the snow.

 

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“Learning English is like skiing on rocks,” she said. “Everything is easy after this.”

One conversation prompt that I remember is when we discussed the phrase “pet peeve.” I was partnered with a teenaged girl who’d recently arrived from Vietnam. She was in the advanced class, and seemed like she’d been rock skiing for awhile. I struggled to explain what a “pet peeve” meant – something unimportant that bothers you. I thought of the two men I shared a house with, friends of a college friend of mine.

“After they get a dish out of the cupboard, they leave the cupboard door open. It drives me crazy.”

“Oh,” she said. “Like when my sister leaves a light on after she leaves the room. I hate that. It’s a waste of electricity!”

Did we talk about other pet peeves, so that my student understood they weren’t limited to housekeeping irritations? I don’t remember. I do remember that Talk Time volunteer was my favorite of the positions I held while living in Denver. I loved the energy exuded by everyone in that class. They were so excited to learn English well enough that they could get jobs, go to school, conduct the various transactions of their new American lives. As a volunteer, I knew little about the situations that had led them to come to the United States, and nothing about all of the hoops they’d jumped through just to be allowed to board the plane.

I wonder where that woman is now – does she still live in Denver? Did she become a citizen? Does she still have family in Vietnam, or anyone trying hard to get to the U.S.? Maybe she has children, and admonishes them to turn off the lights when they leave the room. Maybe they’ve become skiers there in Colorado, where the snow is champagne powder and the sun shines all winter long.

[photo courtesy of UNHCR.org]

 

Parenting, Writing

The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Single Mom

Katherine Arnoldi, author of the powerful graphic memoir THE AMAZING “TRUE” STORY OF A TEENAGE SINGLE MOM, is a champion of teen mothers everywhere. Originally published as a zine to distribute to teen Moms near her home in New York City, the book was published by Hyperion in 1998. It has just been reprinted as a paperback by Graymalkin Press.

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As a teen services librarian in the early 2000’s, I observed this award-winning book in constant circulation. Our library’s copies were often marked in the system as lost or stolen, a sure sign of a popular book. It wasn’t until a few months ago, though, that I had the chance to be introduced over email to Katherine through a former library patron (thank you Dana!) and to read her book. Arnoldi’s story is indeed an amazing story and inspiring example for teen moms and others. It’s also a sexual assault survivor story, and gives support to the (too many) people with similar experiences. Above all, it’s a story of tenacity in the face of many obstacles.

Below, my interview with Katherine. I continue to remain inspired by all that she’s done in her life, through writing, art, and beyond. Thank you, Katherine, for your time, for sharing your images, and for your book.

JB: Please describe your original intention in creating and publishing this book, and what subsequently happened with its publication. Can you talk about the different experiences of working with a large press, a small press, and self-publishing?

KA: This was first a “zine” that I would copy myself and take with me, along with FAFSA forms and college applications, to GED programs, neighborhood centers, homeless centers and at Charas Community Center on the Lower East Side of New York City where I ran a College Mom Program. My idea was that, if I told my story of my own struggle to find the way to college, that the teenage mothers would understand that I had had similar experiences as they were having.

It was so fun to go to the 24 hour Kinko’s on Astor Place in New York and spend the entire night putting together a new copy of the zine. Actually, the manager and employees would join me on the floor in putting the zine together. It was a blast. When it was published, I took a copy to the manager to thank him for his support.

Of course, Hyperion is a big publisher and so they arranged for me to appear on the Today Show, the Nightly News, CNN Entertainment Today, the Lenny Lopate Show and many others, which allowed me to say my soundbite, that “teenage mothers do not have equal rights to education.” Also, I do not know if it would have been chosen as One of the Top Ten Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly without a big press. The fact that it won two American Library Association Awards meant that it was in all of the 6,000 plus libraries in the United States.

[Then] David Zindell, of Graymalkin Media, contacted Binghamton University, where I took my Ph.D, to try to find me to ask if he could publish The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom as a paperback. I am so grateful for the courage and support of Graymalkin Media. Now that it has been updated and re-released as a paperback by Graymalkin I am focused on contacting libraries in hopes they will order it. Robert Clough also bravely wrote a review for the Comics Journal. http://www.tcj.com/reviews/the-amazing-true-story-of-a-teenage-single-mom/

JB: The graphic memoir seems to be the perfect format for this story. What was the process of creating it like?

KA: Fun! My undergraduate degree is in Art, my Master’s and Ph.D. are in Creative Writing, so this form allowed me to combine those degrees with my increasing awareness of the political implications of my own experience.

JB: To sum it up in the most basic terms, your book tells the incredible story of your path from single motherhood – truly unable to rely on anyone – to your starting college and finding a supportive community. Looking at your resume, it looks like the incredible story continued. Can you give a brief synopsis of what you’ve been up to since your early college days (including your scholarship for teenage moms who go to college)?

KA: I would work, then go to school, then work, then go to school. Finally, I now have a Ph.D. But the highlight was my Fulbright Award in 2008-9 to Paraguay. I am an adjunct Professor at CUNY and Fordham University in New York City. In 2005 the Kennedy/Marshall Film Company bought the film rights to The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom and I took some of that money and opened a Calvert Foundation Giving Fund Award. It gives a scholarship each year (from $400-500) on the interest it earns. The most recent recipient in 2017 was at John Jay College in NYC. This award will go on forever.

JB: Even though this is a serious topic, and a lot of terrible things happen to you over the course of the story, there are touches of humor in the book. Can you talk about using humor in writing about serious subjects?

KA: For example, someone gives me a small tip at a restaurant and tells me to “buy something to wear for myself” but my thought bubble says, “But I wear the same clothes all the way to the end of this book.” The humor is often very self-reflective. Thanks for noticing!

JB: Why is “true” in quotation marks in your title? Is that part of the tribute to superhero stories? Do you consider it to be any less true than any other memoir (beyond the disclaimer at the beginning)?

KA: I was making fun of the first issue of superhero comics, such as the Amazing Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk but, in my case, all I wanted to do was go to college, a very simple desire. Everything in the book is true, and happened to me, but I am not a cartoon character and those huge events are not completely portrayed in such a short book. I chose the events that would move the story forward and tell about my struggle to find the way to college. Much is omitted, of course.

JB: How old is your daughter now? What does she think of the book?

KA: My daughter recognizes that the book helps to inspire teenage mothers to go to college. She is in her late 40’s.

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JB: What advice would you give to your younger self at the outset of the project? Advice for readers who want to tell their own stories?

KA: My advice to myself and others would be to be bolder, to realize the significance of our own experiences and to understand how they apply to many, many others.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

KA: Because of the book, I was invited to New York Civil Liberties Union and we started a class action lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education for coercing teenage mothers to leave school. Now, things are better. However, there are 12,000 new teenage mothers each year in NYC and only 700 slots in the child care program in the high schools. What happens to the other 11,300 mothers? I urge everyone to find out how teenage mothers are faring in your community.

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