Thursday, April 15, 2010

Walk a Chalk Line

I took a ride out to a rock and gem shop the other day. It occurred to me that chalk was a good talisman for a retired teacher. You see, I've been working on a writing workshop I'll be doing at a big conference next week that just happens to be in Portland. My workshop revolves around writing about a personal talisman that helps us "re-member," that is put the pieces back together. It's based on Alice Walker's short story "Elethia," where a young African-American girl keeps a small jar of ashes as a talisman. The ashes are from the burned racial stereotype of an extremely racist portrayal of a character called "Uncle Albert." It's similar to the Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima stereotype.
I'll be asking the participants, in this case teachers from around the country to think of a talisman they could keep to "re-member" something from their past. Here's where the chalk comes in. As I drift in and out of classrooms observing student teachers these days it's quite clear that chalk belongs to another era. Chalkboards and even in some cases white boards have been replaces by computer projections or Smart Boards. The technology enables teachers to easily access the Internet or other electronic files, from photos to films. It's quite an improvement.
But it had me thinking about my old classroom and the role of chalk. My chalk board(s) were al prominently placed along the front and side walls of my classroom. It's where both students and teacher wrote everything from definitions, to quotes, to assignments, to important messages. If it went in your notebook, it probably originated on the board. By the end of the day my hands and sometimes face always bore the results of working with chalk. I once told a class while doing a lesson on working conditions in coal mines that teachers suffered from "White Lung." We all had a good laugh but ask a teacher about dustless chalk-it isn't.
Chalk is weather resistant, it's porous, makes great lines on baseball diamonds, and useful for many other unintended things. Just like a teacher. Chalk also comes from limestone. That's what brought me to the rock shop the other day. Just looking for a small piece of limestone suitable enough for a talisman. Like so many folks here in Portland, the people at the shop were extremely friendly and helpful.
"You know the limestone I have mostly has fossils on it." the owner said.
He showed me some beautiful prehistoric fish preserved on limestone. I saw the $25.00 price tag and asked if he didn't have just a little piece of limestone. He returned with three brownie size pieces.
"Here's 50 cents worth," he said. "And this one here has a little piece of a fish fossil on it."
Now I have the perfect talisman. Some natural "chalk" with a permanent reminder of life in another time.
The next day I got an email from a former colleague of mine who still works at the newly rebuilt El Cerrito High School where I taught. "Your heart still beats in the halls of El Cerrito High," she began.

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