Monday, June 12, 2006
Los Alamos, 1944-1947Toni Michnovicz Gibson
The Writing Project changed my life. It is impossible to see it differently. I came in very green and although my writing consisted of more than letters and birthday cards, it didn't feel like it. My 2002 inquiry letter for the Meadowbrook Writing Project Summer Institute was a combination of pleas and questions. Would they even want me as a preschool teacher? Would the experience be transferable to other teachers? Other classrooms? Improve test scores? Would you let me try, I expressed with some fears as I would be learning alongside those who are far more gifted and experienced?
Well, they let me in and I was so happy. Putting pen to paper came easily. I didn't struggle for words although the quantity always outweighed the quality. There were fearful moments. As Institute colleagues, we read our most precious pieces. We juggled words and feelings and gave them a voice. We became more than a group . . . it was a team really because we rooted for each other.
The summer and the Institute ended and we headed back to the classroom. My preschoolers scribbled their way to letter formation and my attempt to start a teacher's writing group fizzled. During that school year the challenges of collapsing bathroom ceilings, unruly kids, flooding water fountains, an absent principal, a bomb threat, and winter mornings without heat taxed everyone's mental health. Survival was the mode. Usually, I could express my frustration in my weekly Friday journal. That slowed. School was too overwhelming. All the high fives I gave and got during the Summer Institute faded away and my writing stopped.
To maintain a perspective on life in this discouragement, my thoughts turned to a personal project that had been on hold. I traveled several times to the Land of Enchantment...beautiful New Mexico. There, my dad and I were reviewing his collection of photos that he had taken as an Army photographer during the Manhattan Project in 1944-45. The assortment of photos was spectacular. There were beautiful scenic photos and dazzling portraits of Nobel Prize winning physicists. The photos of the mission churches of Taos and Chimayo did not show any sign of their 60 years. Together we sorted photos and recorded hours of conversation to identify the people and places for approximately 1000 photos that he had kept in boxes for decades. About this same time I attended a retirement party for a colleague of my husband. There, with friends, we discussed the extraordinary collection of dad's photos. One said, "That sounds like an Arcadia book!"
Arcadia publishes local history photo collections and so I made an inquiry that was well received. A submission of the book proposal was next. My good intentions to move toward publication slowed as the mixing bowl of my family's life got stirred up. But finally in late 2003, my brother and I began in earnest to the complete the book.
I didn't realize it then, but I had been given the gift of time with my dad. He went through a first cancer surgery a couple of years earlier and we all hoped for complete return to health. That prayer was answered, but one never knows the future, especially with cancer. When then dad had a second cancer surgery in December, 2003 time pressed in. After the book proposal was accepted my brother and I made decisions about photos, text and layout. We talked for hours face to face and on the phone. We wrote, arranged, changed our minds, changed our words and changed our photos. He printed negatives, and I read and researched and read and researched some more. On November 20, 2004, I sent the completed text and pictures to Arcadia. My finished work was accompanied by a simple request. Would they mind prioritizing this project? My dad's cancer had returned with a vengeance and was spreading. Our editor, who sensed the value of the photo collection and the urgency in my voice, graciously responded. The proof was ready in two weeks. By Dec. 7, it was on its way to Great Britain for production.
We waited, and waited and began to feel nervous. A congratulatory e-mail arrived in a few weeks. March 15, 2005 would see the release of our book. Could my dad last that long? On January 10 I called the publicist hoping for a miracle. Was there any copy of the book available that could be sent to my dad? Amazingly, the answer was yes and on January 13th at 7 am, the first copy arrived via UPS extremely urgent overnight delivery. Dad heard the doorbell. The book was here. He held it in his hands, thrilled at the sight and with tears in his eyes said, "Now you can lay me down to rest."
But the book that he had waited for seemed to revive him. During the next week we enjoyed a renewed and energetic dad. He shared the book with many, and more importantly shared himself with all. He wrote letters, birthday cards, and talked and laughed with his family. There were deep belly laughs, and hours of conversations and stories. He began to look forward to seeing the book in the stores. However that last burst of energy was really his last fight and eight days after he received the book, he passed away. I'll always remember that last week with my dad. The time was precious and how I enjoyed the thrill of seeing the book for the first time and sharing it with him. It was a dream come true.
Teaching still dominates my life. Exhaustion reigns at the end of the school week. There is still a soul's struggle with the chaos of the urban school system. I scribble journal entries and pour out frustration. No matter how raw the words may be, I now see them as my friends. The experience with the Meadowbrook Writing Project gave me the vision and encouragement to use my words to write a book. My colleagues believed that I could be a writer. They and my new friends, my words, are my team now and I love 'em all!