The Essence of Commications


I’ve always believed that the lack of communication creates most of the problems in the world. Today’s use of abbreviated texts, character-limited tweets, and instantly reported news challenges my aging brain and supports my theory. It’s like trying to read hieroglyphics without learning the symbols.

I think one of the reasons is the tendency to half-listen. Someone begins a conversation and the listener’s mind fast-forwards to finish the rest of the story or sentence using the person’s own experiences, certainties, and beliefs.

The same thing happens when a news article or even a post on social media is published. Often, the writer presents one version of an issue or event which may or may not be support by facts. Even if both sides of the story are presented, the receiver reads and applies principles, opinions, and prejudices that influence and sometimes distort the message. This can create conflict, disagreements and misunderstandings.

It happens to everyone. I’ll be the first to admit, I sometimes half-listen, or skim articles, and I misinterpret messages from friends and family. I venture to say everyone does it. I’m pretty sure no one is infallible, nor has anyone ever mastered all of the elements of perfect communications. Is there such a thing?

I offer an example of an event that occurred many years ago when my daughter, who had started junior high at a new school, left a message for me at work. I had gone to lunch and when I returned, I found a brief note on my desk that read, “Pick your daughter up at school.”

Before I left for work, she’d told me she didn’t feel well, but she’d insisted on going to school. I immediately assumed her cold had worsened and she needed to go home. My work schedule did not offer me the opportunity to take off on short notice, so I called my husband and asked if he could pick her up, reminding him of her new location and trying to give him directions.

“I’ll find it,” he reassured me. After nearly an hour of searching, he located the school and went directly to the nurse’s office expecting our daughter to be there. She wasn’t. The nurse directed him to the main office and they paged her on the intercom.

Meanwhile, the woman at the desk said, “I’m glad you’re here.” She presented a piece of to him. I can only imagine his puzzled expression as he looked at the blank personal check.

“We can’t accept this,” the woman folder her arms and frowned.

My husband, who does not write checks, advised her that he’d have me write out a new one. Meanwhile, my daughter arrived, surprised to see her father. When she asked where I was, he explained that I couldn’t get off to pick her up. Without communicating any further, they left, but on the drive home, my daughter inquired as to why she was being taken home. His reply, “Because you’re sick.”

“No I’m not,” she adamantly denied, and asked to be taken back, noting that she had an after school meeting with the Honor Society she didn’t want to miss. “Well, you are now. We’re going home.”

Embarrassed about the blank check and upset that I sent him to the school unnecessarily, he refused to take her back. Eventually, she convinced him and she made her meeting.

By the time I got home from work, I received an earful from both of them. I had failed to ask for details regarding the short note. He refused to listen to my directions for getting to the school, and she could have clarified why he was taking her out of school.

The check was another disaster for which I accepted full responsibility. It turned out that in my haste to take care of business before I hurried off to work, I had grabbed a felt marker and had written a check to the school to pay for my daughter’s weekly lunch ticket. When she turned it into the school, it had all the proper information. Unfortunately, all that had disappeared by the time they were processing the check into their system, making it useless. I had used a sewing marker with disappearing ink. It’s a great invention for marking material, but not very good for writing checks.

We all laugh about it now, but it truly taught me a great lesson about asking questions, confirming suspicions, and only using ballpoint pens for check writing. It saves a lot of time for enjoying the finer things in life.

I work hard on my communication skills even today. It takes practice to listen, ask questions, and clarify the messages received, but wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone worked a little harder at it?

In my soon-to-be released novel, The Dahlonega Sisters, superstitions, fear, and miscommunications create conflicts and test the bond between three aging sisters. Until then, I have a few questions for you.

Has someone misinterpreted a text or email you sent?

Did it result in a conflict or broken friendship?

What could you have done differently?

Finding Inspiration


Writing often is a solitary calling, especially in winter months. You’d think I’d flourish when confined indoors with plenty of free time to devote to my passion. Instead, my mind hibernates, shuts down, and refuses to unveil any hint of creativity. Even the ink in my pen coagulates when cold winds blow.

During the other seasons, I have a fantastic (monthly) writing club, Saturday Writers, (saturdaywriters.org) to encourage me with contests, open mic nights, and amazing guest speakers, but they cease meeting for a couple of months, just when I need them the most.

Unfortunately, weather, health issues, and holiday commitments tend to cancel many of the biweekly critique group meetings, leaving a void in my face-to-face writing support system. Thank goodness for email and Facebook, but it’s not the same. I want and need to see the person’s face light up when a particular phrase I’ve written hits the mark or pay attention when a frown appears letting me know I need to rework a story.

My husband and daughter tend to tolerate my obsession for storytelling, and on rare occasions they provide a nod of approval after being urged to read something I’ve scripted. I get it. Writing doesn’t excite everyone. I try not to take it personally, but it would be refreshing to have one of them ask “What are you working on?” or even better, “I’d like to read that when you’re ready.”

Of course, showing interests goes both ways. Hubby likes sports, especially wrestling, and the weather and gardening. He spends many hours on-line reading about upcoming matches, baseball trades, and the daily forecast. I try not to half-listen when he shares his recent finds, but there are times when my attention fades.

My daughter loves cooking, basket weaving and shopping on-line, especially for shoes and purses. My purse selection is limited to two at any given time, one that’s worn and tattered and the one I bought to replace it. We do share the hobby of basket weaving. She’s an experienced weaver with a basement full of reeds, handles and patterns. She made this amazing basket one Saturday while I piddled with two simple ones.


I’m still an advance beginner. All of my supplies fit in a duffle bag.

My daughter’s also a speed reader and while she will read whatever I send her, her comments are normally limited to pointing out my mistakes.

I’ve found a rather simple, possibly sneaky, way of gaining their attention and giving them a reason to care. We do share some common interests such as nature, humor and a loveable dog named Hammie.

Personal anecdotes and yarns often become part of my short stories. Before I publish anything that involves my family, I make them read it and give their approval. Sometimes they provide a different version based on their memory of the event or they might remind me of another humorous tale.

Now that spring has arrived, my inspiration blossoms like the lovely ornamental cherry tree in my side yard.

 I’ve still not identified its exact variety, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s twisted, gnarled trunk and snowy white canopy bring me joy and signal a fresh start. The ink in my pen flows again.

Ready, Set, Whoa!


I remember the first time I attended a meeting with Saturday Writers, a charter member of the Missouri Writer’s Guild. Most people smiled or greeted me upon arrival and I sensed a contagious energy in the room. General introductions and door prizes were given out, generous amounts of food filled a few tables and coffee, an essential for any good meeting, was available at no cost.

When the President handed out certificates to the winners of a writing contest, the crowd exploded in applause. How fun. Immediately, I knew that giving up a Saturday, once a month, was going to be worth it. At last I’d found a group with whom I could connect, maybe even share my poetry and prose efforts, something I seldom did for fear of being rejected.

When they announced the theme for an upcoming contest, it struck a chord. By the end of the meeting, I couldn’t wait to get home and write. And I did. The next few weeks, I wrote, edited and printed out my story. Pleased with my efforts, I tucked it in my notebook, knowing the chance of my sharing it with anyone was minimal. I lacked confidence, but I was pleased that I made the effort.

At the next meeting, as I waited in line to check in, I watched dozens of people submit their paperwork at the registration table. Excitement and naivety surpassed my shyness. When I got to the table, I pulled out the story, paid my small fee and turned in my entry. Shocked and embarrassed by my impulsiveness, I hurried to find a seat, already regretting my foolishness.

And foolish I was. I skipped an essential part of any contest: Research the rules and guidelines before submitting. I’m pretty sure my entry went straight to the trash can. If it didn’t, it should have.

Who knows what font I used. It wasn’t double-spaced. Didn’t have a cover sheet or bio. Probably had my name typed at the top of my story. I sabotaged myself, but it was a helpful lesson, one I remember each time I enter any kind of contest.

As I attended more meetings, I became familiar with the requirements. They are clearly identified on the SW website https://www.saturdaywriters.org. I didn’t find the courage to submit again until a year later, but when I did, I received an honorable mention. With the help of two critique groups and persistent effort, I’ve entered and won seventeen more contests.

Bottom line, the opportunities are out there for all writers to be recognized for their talents. Just be sure to do your homework and read the rules and guidelines (and the fine print) for whatever contest you enter.

When the Bough Breaks


It breaks my heart everytime I watch or listen to the news and hear of another young person arrested and jailed because of poor decisions influenced by drugs and alcohol. What life experience took them down the path they are walk? Who owns the problem?What is the solution?

So many questions. So few answers.

I welcome your thoughts.

When the Bough Breaks

 

From the boughs of a cradle, much like you and me,

so dependent on others, so innocent and free.

He grinned with a smile that would capture your heart,

no clue that his world would soon fall apart.

 

Left alone once too often; forced to grow up too fast.

The pleasures that warmed him were soon part of his past.

The drugs and the booze became his whole life,

such a sense of abandon, such continuous strife

 

From street gangs to prison, he followed the path.

Consumed by his anger, his hatred, his wrath.

Now death by injection, the sentence he waits.

So hopeless and helpless behind steel gates

 

The cradle is empty, the smile worn away.

No family or friends to protect him today.

He was still just a child when he sealed his fate.

Can a difference be made or is it too late?

 

Is killing the answer for the decisions he made?

Is one life for another a meaningful trade?

Does the slaughter discourage repeat of the act?

Is revenge more important than facing the fact?

 

What lesson’s excluded when just learning to crawl

that leads one man to stumble and one to stand tall?

Is it instilling belief in one’s own self-worth?

Is it learning to love from the day of our birth?

 

What’s missing from life that leads children astray?

When brown bottles and needles can lure them away?

Are they lacking the skills essential to cope?

Have they sunken so low there’s no sense of hope?

 

To own our own actions, to build on mistakes

To take pride in achievements – is that what it takes?

How much is genetics and how much is fate?

Can a difference be made or is it too late?

Hidden Treasures


Sometimes the thing we’re looking for is right where we are. Hope you enjoy this story.

Hidden Treasures

Julie Perkins’ crisp November morning started before sunrise, while nosy neighbors still slept and streets weren’t snarled in traffic. Other than a few boxes stacked near the door of her studio apartment, the room was bare. Julie sold the furniture and anything that didn’t have strings attached to her heart when she received the certified letter informing her of her father’s passing.

With a loud grunt, she hoisted a box of rejected screenplay manuscripts and spiral bound notebooks and carried them to the `65 Mustang that would take her back to Missouri, provided the tires didn’t go flat and the transmission held up. “Shit,” she moaned when she realized her car key was in her hip pocket. She tried to balance the overstuffed container on the bumper with one hand. The minute she popped the trunk, a gust of wind sent papers flying out into the street. “Crap,” she cursed and dropped the box into the trunk.

By the time everything was retrieved and the final boxes were loaded, sweat dripped down Julie’s neck. Now hot and exhausted, she rolled down the windows, put the car in gear and took off.  Screw this town. I wish I’d never come here. Tears stung with the acknowledgment.

As an only child, Julie swore Hollywood whispered her name in dreams. She envisioned walking on stage to receive an award for best screenplay. She wanted fame and fortune. She wanted to be somebody special. Growing up in the rural Ozark Mountains didn’t afford those opportunities. Julie’s mother, gone since she was twelve, would have understood. She took Julie to the matinee every time a new movie came out.

Her dad, on the other hand, fumed and cussed at Julie, calling her a fool for chasing an elusive dream. “Everything you need is right here,” he’d insisted. The more he talked, the more relentless she was to prove him wrong. Julie never forgot his hurtful words the morning she decided to go. ‘If you leave, don’t come crawling back.’ Too proud to admit defeat, she never returned. Spirit-broken and alone, the need to return to her childhood home tugged at her heart.

The man standing by the stoplight went unnoticed by Julie until he reached into the car and snatched her purse from the passenger seat. “Nooo!” she screamed. He took off down an alley with Julie following close behind in her car. “Stop!” The thief ducked between two buildings and disappeared. What the hell am I going to do now?

Julie circled back around determined to find her belongings. Surely the man would dispose of her purse quickly. A trash bin caught her eye and she threw the car in park, leaving it idle while she dug into the nasty metal container. “Got it.” Pleased with her find, she brushed off her jeans and straightened her blouse, just in time to see her car drive off. “Son of a bitch!”

The sun glared overhead as she stomped her way to the nearest police substation. In her furor, she hadn’t noticed the reporter standing within ear distance and armed with a camera. “Don’t you dare,” Julie protested in vain. The headlines would read, Free-Lance Writer Robbed Twice in One Day. The black mascara streaming down her tear-stained face was just the type of photo the sleazy magazine loved to print and not the kind of fame Julie imagined.

“Just doing my job, trying to make a dime. You know how it is.”

She plopped down on a park bench, distraught and homeless. On the following day, the police recovered Julie’s stolen car. Wanting no more delays, she dropped the charges against the teenage joyrider, withdrew the last of her money from the bank and with the warm California sun to her back, she headed east.

November winds had stripped the trees of their leaves, still the rolling Missouri hills brought nostalgia and a sense of peace that had escaped Julie for many years. She’d cherished the memories of picking fresh vegetables from the garden and the endless hours in the kitchen helping to snap the beans, shuck the corn and fry the chicken in preparation of the next meal.  When the sun went down, Dad would come in from tending the fields and give her a big hug.

As the Bloomsdale exit came into view, Julie noticed the addition of a large truck stop. Bet all the farmers love that. She wound her way through the back roads, past quaint little towns, and across low water bridges, in giddy anticipation of seeing the two-story home that held so many treasured memories. She hummed to the music on her radio as the miles clicked away.

The euphoric mood imploded when the house came into view. Abandoned for years, the deteriorating home mourned for attention. Not a window pane survived the solitude. The roof barely provided shelter for intrusive squirrels. Even the front door succumbed to the gravity of its unattended wounds.

“Oh my God,” Julie moaned as she shook her head in despair. The words echoed across the barren yard. Gone, the prized rose garden her mother tended to as if it were an innocent child. Gone, the field that once bore acres of corn, now overgrown with weeds. Gone, the man who protected it all. Puddles filled Julie’s eyes and she blinked to clear them. In the distance, an image appeared. Frozen in disbelief, she watched the man walk toward the house. “Dad?”

“Good, you’re finally home. Follow me.” His firm command, a faint whisper in the wind, wrapped around her and caused a shudder.

Still in command. That’s my dad. Julie smiled to herself. She reached out to touch him just as he disappeared and was met with the hard surface of the wood siding. “Dad?” Julie stepped toward the front of the house peeking through the collection of spider webs, brushing them aside as she stepped through the opening. Her father stood near the bedroom he’d shared with her mother.

“Should have given this to you sooner. Your mother wanted you to have it. I think it’s what you’ve been looking for.”

At the foot of the bed was a slat of wood, slightly ajar. She bent down and dusted off the area before removing the board. With both hands, she wiggled the old cigar box from the snug hiding place. “What is this, Dad?” She glanced up just as her father faded from view. “Dad! Don’t go!” Julie clutched the box close to her chest and hurried outside. Her father was gone. Julie collapsed to the ground sobbing.

***

Dr. James Howell escorted Julie to the front row of the theatre just as the lights flickered, indicating the play was about to begin. She glanced at her handsome date and smiled. Who would have thought I’d be here tonight? The journey had taken her thousands of mile and years of struggle, but the rewards exceeded her greatest expectations.

Her father had been right. The treasure she sought had been there all along. Had he shared it sooner, he might have celebrated with her. Inside the box had been a love story like none she had ever read. The handwritten journals provided Julie with the foundation for an award-winning screenplay and more. She’d never expected to find a family member.

The search to find her brother, placed for adoption years before Julie had been born, had taken longer than writing the screenplay but had been worth it.

Jimmy touched Julie’s hand and whispered, “I’m so glad you found me. We’re finally home.”

“Me too. Finally Home. I thought it was the perfect title for a play.”

The Threads That Bind


quilt

The Threads That Bind

My leisure retirement, often spent writing or accompanying my husband to a local casino, left a significant void in my life. I yearned for a sense of purpose. As I skimmed a list of volunteer opportunities in my local newspaper, my eyes settled on two words, Story Keeper. I paused to read more. Story Keepers capture the meaningful moments of a patient’s life. The simple description intrigued me as I’d always dreamed of writing life stories of other people.

As enticing as the opportunity sounded, the thought of volunteering with a hospice care organization weighed heavily on my mind. The pain of watching my mother die a slow, difficult death made me question my ability to keep my emotions under control. I wasn’t sure I was ready for a task involving the potential death of a loved one. I cut out the contact information and let the thought simmer.

The clipping remained visible near my laptop for the next two weeks, tugging at my heart and urging me to act. Finally, I picked up the phone and called the manager of volunteer services listed in the ad.

“I may be interested in the Story Keeper position. Can you tell me more about it?”

“We’re looking for someone to record the life story of a hospice patient for their family to keep as a legacy after the patient passes.”

“Oh,” I felt a hint of disappointment. “I’m not adept at electronic things, more pen to paper.”

“Why don’t you come in and talk further about it? It’s a new position. We can work through the details. And while it doesn’t involve writing, you never know where the journey will lead you. Maybe it was meant for you.”

The charismatic manager’s reassuring words urged me to make a leap of faith. I met with her to learn more. Within two weeks, I’d completed all the prerequisites: TB tests, study guides about working with hospice patients, and Hepatitis injections.

It wasn’t long before I was assigned my first visit. I studied the manual that came with the small, hand-held recorder. Since I was the first person to fill the position, training had been minimal. The anxiety and nervousness I anticipated never surfaced. Instead, an unexpected tranquility about the process made me excited to get started.

“The patient is hesitant to make the recording.” My manager warned me on the drive to his home. “The wife is urging him to make the recording. I thought you should know before we get there.”

The patient’s wife greeted us at the door and invited us in. The man, already seated in a recliner, extended his hand and nodded as he studied my face.

My manager made introductions and a brief explanation for our visit. The man frowned and grumbled, pursing his lips. Then it was my turn to speak. I wanted to help him relax and feel comfortable about the recording.

“We’re just going to talk today. I’d like to get to know you and your wife.”

“Ok.” The tense lines around the man’s eyes eased.

“Did you grow up in Florissant?” I smiled and tilted my head awaiting his response.

“Jennings. I went to Corpus Christi grade school.”

“I know that school. I attended St. Paul the Apostle. We were practically neighbors.”

“I went to St. Paul’s!” His wife announced with excitement. “Oh my goodness! You’re Diane Hootselle. I saw the resemblance to your mother when you first arrived, but couldn’t place who you were.”

My eyes welled with tears at the mention of my mother. I was unable to say anything for fear I’d start crying.

“I’m your grandmother’s niece. We’re cousins. I grew up two blocks from you.”

I realized that I knew her parents well, but because of our age difference, our paths had not crossed except briefly at funerals or weddings. The emotional journey over the next hour was overwhelming and rewarding. The wonderful stories about my mother, who was an only child, and her distant cousins with whom I had lost touch over the years, brought such joy to my heart, I left the visit feeling like I was given a gift, one that I would treasure for life and share with my siblings. I even learned that my grandfather saved my cousin from drowning in the Mississippi River when she was a teenager.

Over the next few visits, I recorded heartwarming and memorable stories told to me by the patient and his wife. From their heritage, to their marriage and their many life experiences, we worked together to create a treasured gift for their children, grandchildren and future generations. I completed the project and presented the audio recording to them on their 65th anniversary.

I’ve always believed that a common thread connects us all. That belief was again reinforced during my second recording, another male patient unsure about telling his story but encouraged by his daughter to do it. As he talked and became more comfortable with the idea, he shared stories of bar-hopping with a group of friends when he was much younger. The stories sounded familiar, much like some told by my first patient. It turned out that my cousin’s husband was one of this man’s best friends with whom he made the tavern rounds. They had lost touch over the years.

The validation that I was exactly where I was supposed to be filled me with joy and anticipation of where my journey would take me next. And then it happened. On my initial visit with another patient, the opportunity to achieve my dream presented itself. I remember it was a sunny Friday afternoon. A middle-aged woman invited me into the quaint, senior-living apartment. A bouquet of flowers scented the room. A young girl sat on the floor doing cross-stich.

“This is my daughter. She likes to sew. Her grandmother taught her.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“This is my mother.” The woman who let me in directed me to a robust woman who was busy rearranged a large stack of assorted papers and clippings.

I smiled and extended my hand. “It’s so nice to meet you. How are you feeling today?”

“Fine.” Her voice as firm as her handshake.

“Looks like you have some important papers there.”

“When can we get started?”

The abrupt response surprised me. “It sounds like you’re ready. I don’t usually start recording on the first visit. It helps if we prepare for it by getting to know each other a little first. That way I can be sure we meet your wishes and make the best recording we can. Would that be alright?”

“What I really want…” she hesitated before continuing with tears in her eyes. “I wanted to write my life story, but I don’t know where to start and I don’t have enough time.” Her eyes pleaded for understanding.

I felt the corners of my lips turn upward. I touched her hand in reassurance. “I love to write. I’ve always wanted to write someone’s life story or help them write it.” I drew in a breath while contemplating my offer. “Perhaps that’s why I’m here. God works in mysterious ways. Maybe I can help you.”

Her eyes beamed with excitement. “Really? Would you? I can’t do it by myself.”

“I’d be happy to. How exciting! I can’t wait to get started.”

“Will you take these with you and read them, if you have time?” She pushed the pile of papers in my direction.

“I’d be honored. How about 1:00 p.m. on Monday? Will that work for you?”

“Oh, yes. That would be fine.” She reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure. I’ll see you Monday and we’ll jump right in.”

I spent Saturday, reading the scribbled notes and brief stories, trying to place them in chronological order. The woman’s parents had owned a 350 acre farm in South Dakota and in the menagerie of papers, I found an essay written by her mother. It described the challenges of feeding twenty-five farmhands during harvesting in the 1900’s. It was a piece of history that had been entrusted to me.

On Sunday, I received a call from the volunteer manager telling me that the woman had passed away. My heart ached knowing her wish went unfulfilled. I planned to return all the paperwork to the family, but before I could, I received another phone call from the hospice manager. “The family asked if you could help write the book for the patient. They want to meet with you to discuss it if you are interested.”

A couple of meetings and two months of emails between family members allowed me to piece together the information. Additional stories were shared and incorporated by her children and surviving sister. The woman’s wish had been fulfilled. I have no doubt that a greater force brought us together for that very reason.

The simple act of giving my time returned ten-fold, not in money, but something much more gratuitous. I admire the people who share their life stories to create the audio recordings. They allow families to continue to hear their voice after they’re gone and by filling a void in their lives, they’ve filled the void in mine.

How has volunteering blessed you?  I’d love to hear your stories.

Diane How

 

A Flash of Hope


I thought the timing was right for this first place short story.

The news too often is filled with suicides, gang wars and school shootings. Most of us feel helpless to make a change. But I believe it all begins with family.

We teach children values and morals through our words and actions. Bullying, rejection and hurtful words last a lifetime. But, so do acceptance, friendship and love.

I hope that no matter where you are in this world, you show compassion for others by your words and actions. You never know the crosses they carry or how your words will affect them.

I invite you to share your thoughts and stories so that we can join hands in making this school year a great experience for all of our future leaders.

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A Flash of Hope

Lakeisha cursed to herself as she gripped the blank notebook with one hand while using the other to push a divergent black curl out of her face. The January winds whipped furiously as she waited for the bus to arrive. The English assignment, due Friday, wore on her mind. Normally, she’d be finished by the time she got home from school. Not this time. For two days she’d stared at the paper, the words refusing to bleed from her pen.

“What is your dream?” Ms. Lowery made it sound as if every student lived a normal life, complete with options and the financial support to achieve them. “College? Career? Travel? Write what you want to happen Did she have any idea what my life is like? NO! The question seemed cruel to the new transfer student.

I have no dreams. Lakeisha lived in the real world, filled with responsibilities and hardships, drugs and booze, bill collectors and angry people. Her days left no room for dreams. With a mother imprisoned for selling drugs and a father killed when she was five, the chance of having a successful career was improbable. College was out of the question. A high school education, if she were lucky enough to finish the year, would get her a minimum wage job.

Many of her classmates had applied to numerous colleges and waited anxiously to hear from each. Her goals? The first, survival, avoiding gang fights that erupted into gun battles at any given time. Walking from the bus stop to her front door involved risk. The second, keeping the electricity on. Dreams? How am I supposed to write about such foolishness?

There had been much controversy between the districts when the decision was made to transfer students from failing inner city schools to academically successful ones in affluent neighborhoods. At first, Lakeisha felt a tinge of excitement, holding out hope that she’d make new friends and learn useful skills. Hope faded quickly during the first week. The long commute added more stress to her day and limited the hours she could work.

Cliques of girls that didn’t look like her, didn’t speak like her, and didn’t dress like her, whispered and giggled as she walked alone through the long hallways. Even the boys said lewd and offensive things, much like those in her old school, just in hushed voices.

Lakeisha knew why she’d been unable to complete the assignment. She wanted to tell the truth, not lie or pretend her future held magnificent opportunities. Dreams required more than just imagination. She wanted to respond to the snickers as they pointed to the same pair of shoes she wore every day. Her threads came from nearby dumpsters or Goodwill, hardly the place to find a dress for the upcoming prom.

It hurt to watch the students snub their noses at lunch menus and throw away perfectly good trays of food, knowing how many times she’d stood in soup lines waiting for a meal. Their spoiled, over-indulgent lifestyles sickened her. The anger boiled inside her head as she squeezed her pen. Suddenly, the words spilled across the paper. One page filled, she flipped the notebook and began another without pausing. The furor didn’t’ stop until ink seeped to the edges of a dozen pages.

With trembling hands, Lakeisha slammed the notebook closed, pressed it against her chest and glanced around to reassure herself of the private moment. The corners of her lips turned upward in acknowledgement of her decision. I’m done! And I’m going to turn this in, no matter the consequences.

Sleep evaded Lakeisha as she tossed and turned in bed, bits and pieces of her essay inching through the protective wall that normally kept her worries at bay. Did I share too much? What if I have to read it out loud? Would it be worse than it already is? Fear rose in her throat and she jumped up from the bed. I should rewrite it.

She picked up the spiral-bound notebook and studied the cover that was filled with her favorite words. Words like dauntless, temerity, indomitable. Words never spoken in the world she lived in, but so inspirational to Lakeisha. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, a quote from the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

The frantic doubt that had unnerved her earlier settled down to a vibration. She placed the unopened notebook on top of her coat, convinced the words had needed to be written and now they must be heard. I’ll be a voice for others.

***

Lakeisha held the papers tightly on the twenty mile ride to school. Silently, she repeated her conviction. I have a voice. I can make a difference. It took hold and by the time the bus arrived at school, she held her head a little higher than normal and smiled as she strode down the busy hallway.

“Sorry for the thumbprint, Ms. Lowery.” Lakeisha mumbled as she laid the assignment on the paper-free desk, aware the rest of the class had submitted their stories electronically, not scribbled on lined paper.

“Don’t worry about it.” The teacher smiled as she accepted the paper and stuck it in her drawer, out of sight. “They’re still trying to get a computer for you. Hopefully, soon.”

Her words rang like an empty promise, one she’d heard for months. I’ll be gone before it gets here.

The essay lingered in the back of her mind the rest of the day and throughout the weekend. Her emotions rode the wave from excitement to fear. One minute proud of her courage. Then next, kicking herself for lowering the wall. Upon arrival in English class on Monday, Lakeisha was greeted by Ms. Lowery.

“Before you take your seat, the principal would like to speak to you.”

“Mr. Hackmann? Why? I didn’t do anything!” The announcement rattled in her brain. Oh, Crap. My essay. They’re going to send me back to my old school.

“You can put your books down first.” Ms. Lowery looked at the blackboard as she spoke.

Lakeisha left the room on trembling legs, stopping at the water fountain to sooth her parched throat. A bright light shined on the metal object, her mouth agape at the brilliance as she searched for the source in the windowless hall. Suddenly, the place she’d dreaded walking down every day took on a significance she’d not previously considered. My ancestors were never allowed to walk this hall, much less quench their thirst from this fountain.

The unexpected affirmation filled her with renewed courage. Changes were made by brave people who dared to speak up. I have a voice. I can make a difference. She repeated the mantra as she walked through Mr. Hackmann’s office door.

“Good morning, Ms. Washington. Please have a seat.” The tall, gray-haired man gestured toward a round table aside his massive oak desk. He reached for a file folder and joined her. “How are you today?”

“I was fine until I got called to see you. What did I do?” Lakeisha’s voice sharp, but respectful.

“I understand you wrote this essay.” He passed the lined papers to Lakeisha as he spoke.

“Yes, sir. I did.” Lakeisha straightened her back and look directly at Mr. Hackmann, prepared to defend her assignment.

“Ms. Lowery was kind enough to share your story with me and my staff.”

“And?” Her question blurted out more defensively than she’d intended.

“Your words stung. Painfully.” He furrowed his brows and shook his head side to side, looking down at the floor. “I’ve always prided myself on being in tune with my students.”

Lakeisha stirred in her chair, unsure how to respond.

The man drew in a long breath that filled his chest, then looked at Lakeisha with moist eyes. “I’m sorry. I was wrong. So very wrong.” He choked as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes. “You have shown me how much I have to learn, how much we all have to learn.”

“You’re not mad at me?” Lakeisha tucked a curl behind her ear and leaned forward.

“Of course not, Ms. Washington. You were brave enough to share intimate details of your life and by doing so, you educated me and my staff in more ways than reading a thousand books. I want to ask a favor of you.”

“A favor of me? What could I possibly do for you?”

“Share your story with the entire school. Every teacher and student needs to hear what you have to say.” Mr. Hackmann raised a brow and waited for her response.

Lakeisha paused, her eyes flashed toward the door. “Share with everyone? Do you really think that’s a good idea? I’m not very popular with my classmates.”

“Teenagers can be hurtful, but I’ve seen the same students rally to support injustice when an issue is brought to their attention. Everyone needs a reminder of the things we take for granted. Your essay delivers a lesson they won’t soon forget. I hope you will give them a chance to show you.

***

The gymnasium buzzed with questions regarding the school assembly.

“So what’s the assembly for?”

“Just Black History Month. Boring.”

A voice loud enough to be hears across the room drew Lakeisha’s attention.

“What she’s doing up there?” One of the students glared at Lakeisha who sat on a folding chair a short distance from the stage.

You’re not going to rattle me today. This is too important. Lakeisha directed her attention to the hundreds of students taking their seats. Ms. Lowery worked her way through the crowd and settled into the chair next to her, gently touching her arm with a reassuring nod.

Mr. Hackmann called Lakeisha to the podium. She stepped forward, forcing her shoulders back and raising her chin.

She inhaled slowly, repeating her mantra in silence then began. “I’m Lakeisha…Jackson…a transfer student from Roosevelt High.” She glanced down at the ink filled pages for reassurance, then raised her head and continued. “I’ve been asked to share my story with you today.” Quiet murmurs buzzed the room.

“More than 50 years ago Dr. King addressed the sacred obligations of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in his speech, I Have a Dream. His words inspired significant changes, changes that I’m privileged to experience today, just by being in this school.” Lakeisha paused, searching the room for reactions. “He also spoke of the ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism.’ I didn’t understand what he meant until recently.

“He was saying that while America has made tremendous strides, there‘s more work to be done. Ms. Lowery assigned an essay, ‘What is your dream?’ I’ve been asked to share my response. This is what I wrote.” Lakeisha spoke slowly, deliberately as she read her essay, allowing the words time to penetrate. When she finished, Julie, the cheer leading squad captain, stood and clapped slowly. Joshua, a football quarterback followed, then another and another. Soon the entire audience joinrf in a deafening applause.

Mr. Hackmann stepped to Lakeisha’s side, a smile spread across his face. In a hushed voice, easily drowned out by the cheers, he said, “Thank you for taking the risk.” He nodded toward the assembly that continued to cheer. “I think you’ve made some new friends. Can you forgive our ignorance?”

“I can do that.” Lakeisha stepped away from the podium, moving toward her seat.

The principal stopped her and motioned to the students to sit. “Ms. Washington, we are grateful for the wisdom you’ve shared with us today. Ms. Lowery has something for you.”

Her teacher came forward carrying a package. “Lakeisha, this laptop is a small token of our appreciation for your eloquent presentation. I think I speak for the entire school in saying you’ve touched our lives in ways that will continue for years to come. Thank you.”

Lakeisha’s eyes widened and a smile spread across her face as she accepted the gift. “Thanks.” The room exploded in another round of applause. Maybe I did make a difference.