NaNoWriMo: Help Wanted

It is October 31st, known to most as Halloween, but known to insane writers everywhere as the night before NaNoWriMo.  That’s right, National Novel Writing Month is standing tiptoe at my door and I am, at best, unprepared.

Last year I did all sorts of things to prepare for a crazy month of writing.  This year I have done nothing.  Last year my plot came to me in a dream.  My dream life has been overactive as usual, but nothing worth putting on paper.  In short, I am skint.

Last year I was a NaNoWriMo winner, meaning I cranked out 1,667 words a day for 30 days for a total of just over 50,000 words.  I’m not saying they were interesting words or that my novel was any good, but I crossed the finish line and that’s what counts.

In cycling there is a term for people who do not cross the finish line.  It is DNF, as in Did Not Finish.  It is the most shameful of acronyms.  I know this because I DNF’d  once.  After a nasty sports drink incident, I found myself puking in front of scads of teeny tiny soccer kids, but even that was not as embarrassing as the DNF that appeared by my name.

So as I sit here on NaNoWriMo Eve, I am determined to win again, to outrun the dreaded DNF.  And I need your help.  Yes, you, the one averting your eyes and trying to click away from here.  Here’s how you can help: For the next month I need you to leave stuff in this post’s comments section.  Stuff like:

  • names
  • places
  • snippets of conversations you overhear
  • links to articles you find interesting or entertaining
  • favorite quotes
  • stuff your pet does
  • stuff your parents say or do
  • stories from your childhood
  • weird stuff your friends do
  • words you love
  • words you loathe
  • songs I should add to my writing playlist
  • anything and everything else that comes to mind

I am confident that with your help I’ll be able to pound out 50k words by November 30th and instead of a horrid DNF appearing by my name, it will instead say WINNER.  There’s a certificate and everything.

I. Must. Have.  It.

Top 10 Pumpkin Patch Phrases

Fall is a magical time of year and no day is more magic filled than the day I head to the pumpkin patch with my class.  Yesterday was that day and as I sat at home looking at the mud on my shoes and pant cuffs, I couldn’t help but smile at the things that passed from the lips of my little ones.

10. “We’re finally here!  I’ve been waiting my whole life to get here!”

9. After jumping on the bounce pillow, “I think I bounced all my bounces out.”

8. “I’m picking a pumpkin for my mom because she’s the only one in our family who doesn’t have one yet.”

7. “Mrs. McCauley, it’s starting to rain.” said one of my little boys with a worried look.  “It’s just a little sprinkle.  Don’t let it ruin your day.” I patted his back.  “It would take a lot of sprinkles to ruin a day like this!” he smiled.

6. On being the one of one hundred children picked to wave the bandana that starts the pig races “Farmer Betsy May must have known it was my birthday yesterday and that I wished to do something special.”

5. “Where does corn come from?” asked a little girl. “See those tall stalks growing over there?  Those are cornstalks.” I pointed. “Wait, corn is a plant?!?” she said with her mouth agape.

4. After firing the corn cannon and accidentally hitting a cow “I’m sorry cow.  Do you forgive me?”  Sadly the cow did not respond and so my little one shrugged and said “Well, I tried.”

3. On having fingers licked by a goat “He has the most tickly lips!”

2. One of my little boys patted a rotting pumpkin and said “It’s okay that you’re old.  It’s your turn to return to the earth and make new pumpkins.”

1. Upon seeing ponies in the field, one of my little girls squealed “Oooh, ponies!  I love ponies.  When I grow up, I want to be one.”

Some Kid

Dear Little One,

Yesterday I finished reading “Charlotte’s Web” to you.  The sad part of the book was approaching and I wrestled the lump in my throat until it sat low where it could not possibly escape.  It matters little that I read this book every year, E.B. White’s writing gets me every single time.  I loved this book as a kid and, if it’s possible, I love it even more as an adult.

I was doing a fine job of keeping that lump down and my eyes were only watering a little bit as I read about Wilbur leaving Charlotte to die alone.  Hang on a sec, I just need to stop typing and get a tissue.  Ahem. Anyway, I was doing a decent job of keeping things under control until I heard a sob from your direction.  I looked over and saw tears dribbling from your brown eyes, down your cheeks, and onto your desk.  In a quivering voice you said, “It’s just so sad, Mrs. McCauley, it’s just so sad.”  I could not agree more, Little One.  You got up to get a tissue and several girls followed, dabbing at their eyes.  The little boys wiped their eyes on shirtsleeves and for a minute we just sat there in our sadness.  I waited, pushing that lump back down, brushing my tears away with my fingertips.  I waited until we were all done blowing our noses and wiping our eyes.  And then I read on until we reached the happy end when the spiderlings hatch and life renews itself.  We talked about the book and moved on with our afternoon, but you were too sad to sing, too sad to do math, too sad to read any other books.  You put your head down and I rubbed your back when I walked by your desk.  Later you took out your notebook and drew spider webs.

Today we watched the movie Charlotte’s Web.  Before we watched it, we talked about how it’s okay to cry when you’re sad.  You and some of the others pulled out wads of tissue before the movie began.  And just in case I needed it, you stuffed a tissue in my hand, too.  The movie made us laugh and cry.  And it was good.  During the movie, you wrote in your notebook.  You wrote about how much you love Charlotte.  You drew her dangling from her web and told me about how she still lives in your heart.

Little One, I love that you wear your heart on your sleeve.  I love that you are moved by the written word.  I love that you work your sadness out with a pencil and paper.  To paraphrase a certain spider, you are some kid.  Long after you leave first grade, long after you graduate high school, long after you raise children of your own, I will remember this day because you, Little One, will still live in my heart.


Mrs. McCauley

Cursing Clyde


The words bounced off the spines of books carefully shelved in our school library.  I stood frozen, considering how the year had led up to this exact moment.

My classroom had a small hole in one of the windows.  In the span of years I taught in that room, it was never repaired.  The winter wind whistled through that hole, a faint sound I only heard during moments of peace before school or after I’d zipped my little ones into their jackets and sent them home for the day.

That year my students were particularly noisy, there was not a timid voice in the whole bunch.  They were hard workers, but in their work they were noisy, talking aloud to themselves, reading with enthusiasm, counting in booming rhythms.  Even their whispers were deep and throaty.  The constancy of their voices was the running monologue of our classroom.  And it was loud.

Clyde was six years old and his legs grew quickly, stretching out his kindergarten belly, inching his pants up above his ankles.  He face was milky pale, with only a hint of color gathering in the hollows under his eyes.  His brown eyes were wide and his forehead wrinkled into folds under his shaved head whenever he asked a question, which was all of the time.

Clyde’s mother was deaf and his primary language was sign language.  In class he constantly searched for the words to voice the thoughts he could so fluidly convey with his hands.  When he heard a new word, he snatched it up and added it to his vocabulary regardless if he knew the meaning.

It was this voracious hoarding of words that brought Clyde to words like sh*t, holy sh*t, to be exact.  When he was excited about something, that pair of pungent words flew out of his mouth.  The first time I heard him curse, my mouth fell open.  His face belied the fact that he didn’t know what the words meant.  I pulled him aside and explained their meaning and we came up with a list of phrases he could say instead like “Oh, boy!”  or “Wow!”  To his credit, Clyde did his best to use the substitutions and only slipped up now and again.

Clyde was a meticulous artist.  He could draw anything and everything in exquisite detail, but most of all he loved to draw cars.  He drew convertibles with sleek lines and monster trucks ready to rumble off the page.

Every week our class went to the library to check out books and each week the librarian handed out library awards.  There were two things a class had to do to earn a library award; keep the library clean and remain quiet.  My class excelled in keeping the library tidy, but we’d never earned a library award, because try as they might, my little guys just couldn’t keep their voices under wraps.

That is until one particular trip to the library.  Every child was quietly checking out books, quietly reading them at tables, quietly poring over the pictures. I grinned as I watched the librarian pen an award for us.  I pictured it hanging front and center in our classroom, a monument to the day we’d finally, finally quieted ourselves.

The librarian mentioned that there were some new drawing books over in the corner.  Clyde’s ears perked up and he walked over the corner.  The new drawing books were on display on top of a bookshelf.  There were books with sketches of horses, cats, dogs, and carton characters.  And there was a shiny new book about drawing cars.

I watched Clyde flip to a page demonstrating how to draw a race car.  I watched his eyebrows shoot up.  I watched as he hoisted the book above his head like a trophy.  And I watched him search for the words to describe his jubilation.  I waited for one of the phrases he’d been practicing in class.  As I walked over to share in his excitement, he let fly.

“HOLY SH*T!!!”.

My entire class, my entire formerly quiet class, let out a collective gasp followed by an explosion of voices all calling out.

“Mrs. McCauley, Clyde said a BAD WORD!”

Realizing what he’d done, Clyde quickly plugged in one of his substitute phrases, stammering out an embarrassed, “I meant, ‘Oh boy!’”

But it was too late.  I smiled at his effort, smiled at his enthusiasm over a book. I even smiled at the librarian who tore our library award right down the middle before throwing it in the trash can.

A day or two before Christmas vacation, I sat at my desk after school scrawling lesson plans.  The Good News Club was meeting in my room and I listened as they sang Christmas songs.  Clyde was a regular member and he sang along happily with the CD of carols.  When Silent Night came on, he excitedly told the club leader he knew how to sing this song in sign language.  I put my pen down and watched as Clyde stood in front of thirty or so other kids, signing each word, each verse with small hands still dirty from the playground.  The other children began to sign with him, copying his motions with their own hands.

I was captivated.  Clyde’s version of Silent Night was so beautiful that it both broke my heart and filled it at the same time.  His hands moved through the air, telling the story of Christ come to Earth, telling it in a way that brought me to tears.  The stunning story of the holiest of nights as told through the hands of a six year old was breathtaking.  After the song, Clyde sat back down on the carpet without ceremony.  I sat dabbing my eyes.  For a moment there wasn’t another sound in the room.

We never did get a library award that year.  And that’s okay.  On the last day of school, I fingered the hole in the window, feeling the hot breath of summer leak into my classroom.  There was no wind to blow through and in the silence of my empty classroom I found myself wishing for the voices of my students.

As I think about the most profound thing I’ve heard a student say, I think of that loud group of children.  But mostly I think of Clyde.  I love knowing that the kid who peppered the year with profanity was also the child who used his hands to speak what words cannot.

Things I Learned Last Week

I’m reading “Living the Questions: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers”.  (Don’t worry, it’s way better than it sounds.)  And no, this isn’t another post about teaching.  Anyway, I’m responsible for reading chapter 4 in the next couple of weeks.  I had every intention of just skipping ahead to chapter 4, but in the same way that I can’t jump into a novel at chapter 4, I can’t just skip over the first 3 chapters.  The authors put them there for a reason, right?  So this afternoon I was reading the first chapter and stumbled across this odd little poem:

Things I Learned Last Week

by William Stafford

Ants, when they meet each other, usually pass on the right.

Sometimes you can open a sticky door with your elbow.

A man in Boston has dedicated himself to telling about injustice.  For three thousand dollars he will come to your town to tell you about it.

Schopenhauer was a pessimist, but he played the flute.

Yeats, Pound, and Eliot saw art as growing from other art. They studied that.

If I ever die, I’d like it to be in the evening. That way, I’ll have all the dark to go with me, and no one will see how I begin to hobble along.

In The Pentagon one person’s job is to take pins out of towns, hills, and fields, and then save the pins for later.

Naturally, I had to stop reading chapter 1 and create one of my own because if I didn’t, I’d never get the image of ants passing on the right out of my head.  And then there would simply be no chance of ever making it to chapter 4 because I’d be thinking about those darn ants all day.

Things I Learned Last Week

by: Alicia McCauley

Birds automatically empty their waste before taking off in flight, so it’s nothing personal when I leave my front door and the birds living in my Morning Glory let fly as I run in terror.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can pierce the heart.  And there’s no cast to fix that kind of injury.

The kid who one day only produces a title and two words of the first sentence is the same kid who will crank out two pages the next day and run up to me beaming, “Mrs. McCauley, you just gotta read this!”

The old movie theater now only costs $1 on Tuesdays.  Tuesday nights just got a whole lot more interesting.

Splitting and doubling down are not the same thing.  At all.

For the bargain price of $900, 24 friends and I will be spending the night at the planetarium and environmental camp.  This is the same camp I attended in 5th grade where I was mistaken for a boy.  Let the PTSD flashbacks commence.

Before you go, I’m curious to know what you learned last week.  So go ahead and drop some nuggets of newfound knowledge in the comments section.  Now I have to go make a sugar trail in my kitchen and observe the traveling etiquette of ants.