In Celebration of “Random Acts of Poetry Day” . . .

Today is the commemoration of Random Acts of Poetry Day. To celebrate this day, people are encouraged to

engage in moments of guerilla poetry. Take your chalk in hand and scrawl the words of your heart across sidewalks and alley walls, ramble madly, like a sweaty toothed madman, or wax lyrical about the most important love of your heart. Better with word than pen? Then stand on a street corner shouting poetry to the wind, imparting onto all the joy and pain, sorrow and exultation of your soul, heart, and mind. To be a poet is to walk the wild lands of impossibility and imagination, and Random Acts of Poetry Day is your opportunity to, for just a moment, bring others into the world in which you live (Days of the Year).

So, to that end, I am posting an “I AM” poem. I frequently assign students to do this at the beginning of each academic year, but we did something a little different this year to change things up. So, I’ll post it here now for your perusal and enjoyment. Even though I wrote this years ago, it still holds true for me today.



I AM intense and driven.
I WONDER about a lot of things . . . that’s why I read part of the encyclopedia every night.
I HEAR a comic “duh duh duh” when my mom says, “We need to talk.”
I SEE myself as a grown-up Lucy van Pelt from Peanuts.
I WANT just a little more time to myself.
I AM intense and driven.

I PRETEND that I’m having conversations with people while I’m driving so that when we really do talk, I say what I want to say correctly.
I FEEL challenged when I have five things to do at once and I don’t know which one to tackle first at the expense of the others.
I TOUCH heaven just a little bit whenever I hear one of my children say, “I love you, Mommy.”
I WORRY about failing or not “measuring up.”
I CRY when I think about children who are seriously ill, malnourished, or unloved.

I AM intense and driven.
I UNDERSTAND, as Nietzsche wrote, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
I SAY drunk drivers should receive drastically stiffer penalties for their crime.
I DREAM about nightmarishly bizarre scenarios, usually.
I TRY to teach things differently and more effectively with each passing year.
I HOPE that I inspire someone this year.
I AM intense and driven.

— Jenny Rovira
September 2007

Does Nagaina Deserve Any Mercy?

Recently in class, we read a short story called “Rikki-tikki-tavi” by Rudyard Kipling. This tale is about a mongoose who goes to live with a human family in India. In the garden of his family’s house live snakes, including a king cobra named Nagaina. Nagaina and her husband, Nag, like to kill the young of other animals in the garden, such as birds and frogs. Rikki and Nagaina eventually get into a huge altercation. Rikki wants to kill her. Should Rikki show Nagaina any mercy in this showdown between the two of them?

Just as in life — where issues such as capital punishment are nuanced and there are multiple perspectives on the issue — the decision of whether or not to kill Nagaina is a tough one. There would be those that would call for Rikki to show some lenience. They would say that Nagaina was only acting according to her nature, and that she shouldn’t be faulted for that. She is a snake, and snakes are predatory animals. Her natural prey are other small animals — and mongooses. When she is hunting and eating those creatures, she is only doing so to satisfy the will to survive. Another reason others point to as justification for treating Nagaina less harshly is that she has experienced a lot of tragedy in her life recently. She has lost both her husband, Nag, and her babies (due to hatch out of their eggs) in a violent manner. People who experience such a debilitating loss such as that are usually out of their minds with grief. Supporters of Nagaina would say that she should not be held totally responsible for her actions because she wasn’t thinking logically and rationally.

On the other hand, there are some who say that such emotion is no excuse. There is no justification for treating the other animals the way she does — namely, terrorizing and eating them — and for that, she deserves to die. Those who call for Nagaina’s death point to the fact that, at her core, she is an evil creature, and such creatures cannot be allowed to live freely in society. For example, from the very beginning of her interactions with Rikki, she had nothing but ill intentions for him; she sought to kill him as he was kept distracted by her husband, Nag. Speaking of Nag, Kipling describes him as having a “cold heart.” Only another snake with a cold heart, like Nagaina, could be happy with a cold-hearted spouse.

If you would like to read about what Rikki actually decided to do — kill her or let her live — pick up a copy of the narrative to find out.

The Time I Thought I Couldn’t Do Something . . . But I Learned Otherwise

Recently we had our first district writing assessment. The prompt that we responded to was a narrative prompt, specifically a personal narrative. The prompt asked students to think about a time they were discouraged and believed that they would not be able to accomplish a specific task; the prompt also asked them to write about how they overcame that initial doubt and accomplished something that they did not think they could. Students have now received their scores back on this prompt. I asked them to type in their response and publish it on their blog. So, in the spirit of being a good model blogger, I am re-publishing my response to that same prompt. Enjoy!


One of the things that becomes obvious to others as they get to know me well is that I am an incredibly pessimistic person. That is, I look at the world from the “glass is empty” viewpoint. I am apprehensive in new and novel situations, sure that something will go wrong. I am able to catastrophize. (This a real word in the dictionary to describe how one can take a seemingly normal scenario and draw it out in his or her mind to a very depressing conclusion — something that, in all probability, would never happen.) For example, let’s say I got sick. Playing the “What If Catastrophizing Game” this is how it might go: I would go to the doctor and find out I had a chronic illness that was not easily treatable. This would cause me to have to take off work. Maybe I would get fired because I couldn’t work. Then I would have no money, and no way to pay for health insurance. I would use up any money I had in my savings account, and maybe have to sell my house to get money for my care. I would be destitute and become homeless. It would be awful.

This is how I think.

So when my husband, who was in the Army, sat me down one day shortly after 9/11 and told me that he was being deployed . . . well, I went into a tailspin. My mind immediately began to race and catastrophize as I began to cry and wonder how I was going to get through the next (scary) year all by myself. I was sure I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to take care of all that I had to do. He was going to go off and he was going to die. Then my baby (because I was expecting) would grow up and never know his dad. And . . . and . . . and . . . This was going to be a long, trying year. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. I was sure I wasn’t.

One of the first things I faced alone was a broken water heater. A broken water heater isn’t the end of the world — one simply calls a plumber and gets a new one — but to me, the fact that I had literally just dropped off my husband at the armory and had come home to a broken water heater was an omen of things to come. It confirmed my worst fears that this deployment was not going to be easy. It was going to take everything out of me. Then, about three weeks after he left, I faced having to fly to New Orleans for his brother’s wedding. We were supposed to go together. It was my first visit there. He was going to show me where he went to college, and it was meant to be a time with family, but I dreaded having to go now. I was afraid to fly, for one thing. What if they hadn’t managed to corral all the terrorist cells? Was there an air marshall on my flight, incognito, ready to subdue any hijackers? I ended up flying to New Orleans without incident. I even managed to enjoy myself. I thought of my husband the whole time, though.

My husband left shortly after 9/11. This was not a regular Army mobilization, where he has advance notice of a year or more that another deployment is in the works. He left very hastily. Because his deployment was meant to be a year duration, he would be missing all the major winter holidays. That was the next thing I had to face alone. I am already a person that intensely dislikes winter. I loathe that the days are shorter — a full four to five hours less sunlight sometimes! — and I abhor the stress of holiday shopping. There is no “getting into the holiday spirit” for me; I merely try to survive the holidays and get through them. I am a Grinch. This holiday season would be doubly difficult. Luckily, I was able to fly to visit him over Thanksgiving. He was stationed in the United States, in Utah, for homeland defense. Though it was wonderful to see him, and I got to see it snow for the first time, it was one of the most depressing Thanksgivings I have ever spent. We were away from home and both of our families. We had nowhere to eat. (He didn’t want to eat on base.) We ended up having a meal at a Denny’s in Salt Lake City because it was one of the only places open on a holiday. I was baby-sick on top of everything, and depressed, so I didn’t eat much. It tore my heart apart for me to say goodbye and go back home, even knowing I could fly back in four short weeks to spend time there over Christmas vacation. It was even harder to say goodbye then.

To help me cope, my husband bought me a dog, which I named Patton. (George Patton was a famous World War II general, so I thought that was an appropriate name.) Taking care of a puppy was good training for taking care of the baby I was expecting. Patton got me busy taking a daily walks, and I was so busy taking care of him that my mind was kept occupied on something positive instead of focusing on all I was unhappy about. I wasn’t crying as much and I started sleeping soundly. I began to feel slightly better. It was especially imperative that I eat well and take care of myself; it wasn’t just me that I had to worry about, after all. I found out that our baby was a boy, and began to prepare for his arrival. My bump got bigger daily, and I spent a little time each day cleaning out and organizing the room that would be his. I enrolled in “Expecting Mother” classes with my mom, who was going to be my coach when it was time to go to the hospital. I didn’t feel as sick anymore. Instead of losing weight, I was gaining weight like I was supposed to. This was turning out not to be as horrible as I thought it would be.

Spring came, and the days lengthened. That alone brightened my spirits. Then, at the beginning of June, I called my mom. “Mom,” I said, “I think it is time to take me to the hospital. Can you come get me?” Thing 1, our son, had decided this was the day! My mom raced to pick me up at work, take me home to get my things, and then take me to the hospital. I called my husband, “The baby is coming! I’m going to the hospital!” He said that he would try to catch a flight into Los Angeles as soon as he could, but he wasn’t promising anything. I arrived at the hospital and things proceeded rapidly from there. It was finally when I was in the hospital having a baby that I realized I could do anything — even survive a deployment I was sure was going to mean the end of my world and all my happiness. I was having a baby on my own, for goodness sake! (My mom was more interested in taking pictures than being a coach.) If I could do that, then there was no limit to what I could accomplish.

In the end, my husband made it just in time. His sister brought him straight from the airport to the hospital, and Thing 1 arrived 30 minutes after my husband did. This whole experience, though, taught me that I am much stronger than I think I am. I don’t give myself enough credit when it comes to getting through the tough times. I am far more resilient than I feel. This realization was tested not two years later when my husband sat me down again and told me the Army was deploying him AGAIN, this time to Kosovo in the Balkans and for a longer length of time. I cried, and I was upset. (I was also expecting again!) But this time, even though I knew the next two years would be difficult, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would be okay.

A Good Deed (Unfinished, In Progress)

I have been told that I am unusual and “not like other people” by several I have encountered over the course of my life. I don’t take this personally. Sometimes, actually, it is a point of pride — to be different. I like being the one that has blue and purple streaks in my hair, for example. It’s edgy and non-conformist. I am definitely a rule follower, but I like to push the boundaries a bit.

One rule that many seem to follow in the United States is the one about the holidays — namely, that one just has to love Christmas. I am supposed to love baking holiday sugar cookies; I am supposed to love heading off to the shops to find and purchase just the right Christmas gifts; and I am supposed to love decorating my house, both inside and out. I am also supposed to love the singing of Christmas songs on the radio. (There is, after all, a radio station here in Los Angeles devoted to the playing of Christmas music twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all throughout the month of December.)

Well, I don’t. I don’t like any of it.

I am a Scrooge, if one wants to label me as such. I loathe baking sugar cookies. It takes too much time an energy, especially the frosting of them. I will admit I like the lights. I would have my house lit up like Las Vegas, if I could manage it. And I do have a Christmas tree that I like to put up, trimmed from top to bottom in nothing but Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and other Peanuts Gang ornaments. But I hate shopping, and having to fight for a coveted parking spot at the mall. If I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t celebrate at all. It has always been this way, even when I was younger. I just find the whole thing depressing and anticlimactic. Except for one year.

(More to come . . . )

Valentine’s Day Bonus Opportunity

I will never offer “extra credit” to just one person. (And I usually ask you about your missing assignments first. Doing those and getting them turned in sometimes makes a world of difference.) Anyway . . . Whenever I offer a “bonus” opportunity, I offer it to everyone — to be fair.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, and because I love candy hearts, although I am very particular about which kind I like (see this post where I briefly explain the difference), I am offering a Candy Hearts Writing Bonus opportunity.

Here’s how it works:
(1) I will give you three candy hearts. They each (of course) will have a message on them.
(2) You connect one heart’s message to something in history (for a history bonus) in 250 words posted on your blog.
(3) You connect one heart’s message to something you are currently reading (for an ELA bonus) in 250 words posted on your blog.
(4) I am giving you three hearts just in case . . . it gives you a little more to work with.
(5) You may do the ELA bonus, the HSS bonus, or both.
(6) You may eat the hearts when you are done.


Here’s how it might work for ELA:

It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m celebrating by eating candy hearts. All candy hearts contain a message, and one of mine reads “Got cha!” This makes me think of what I am currently reading with my students in literature. It is a book entitled Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang. It is more of a personal narrative or autobiography, rather than a novel, and it tells about the author’s personal experiences living through the Cultural Revolution in China, which started in 1966. Ji-li was a model student whose world was turned upside down when she discovered that her family (and those of some of her friends) had skeletons in their closet, according to the Communist Chinese government. Ji-li’s grandfather had been a landlord, and her family was accused of having bourgeois tendencies. Because the government was encouraging a campaign of getting rid of the four olds — old habits, old ideas, old traditions, and old culture — families were encouraged to destroy anything that fit that criteria. Old china, old photo albums, old traditional clothing . . . all had to be thrown out. Of course, some families didn’t want to give up these precious family heirlooms. So they hid them. At the same time, though, bands of youth known as the Red Guards, took it upon themselves to search various homes, ransacking them for evidence of “four olds” stashes. Drum and gong sounds alerted neighborhoods that the bands of Red Guards were coming. Whose house would they visit this time? Ji-li and her family lived in a state of nervous anxiety, wondering when their family’s apartment would be targeted. Days passed. “Got cha!” It finally happened one night. The Jiang family was subjected to the dreaded search; after the Red Guards left, it took two days to set their house back to rights. I thank goodness this is nothing I have ever experienced, nor am likely to experience here in the U. S.

Purposely Failing — Is it Ever Okay?

Recently in class we read a short story called “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze. It is about three men who find themselves trapped in a lighthouse on a small key off the coast of South America. They happen to get trapped in the lighthouse when hordes of man-eating, ravenous rats manage — with the help of a derelict ship, whose crew they already ate — to crash upon the key, swarming off the boat en masse, making a beeline for the scent of fresh human. The men close themselves off inside the lighthouse, but begin to wonder how they might get out with their lives. They decide upon a solution. The narrator writes

“There was only one thing left to do. After debating all of the ninth day, we decided not to light the lantern that night. This is the greatest breach of our service, never committed as long as the tenders of the light are alive; for the light is something sacred, warning ships of danger in the night. Either the light gleams a quarter-hour after sundown, or no one is left alive to light it.”

The question is, then, were the men justified in committing the “breach” of their service (purposely not lighting the light for the lighthouse)?

In my opinion, the men were justified in not lighting the lighthouse. That is, it was okay for them to purposely NOT do their job. The human will to survive is strong, and these men wanted to survive. It is true that the consequences of not lighting the lantern could have been disastrous. After all, as the text mentions, this is a lighthouse that does not welcome mariners to safe harbor, but instead warns them away from treacherous shoals. If the men did not light the lantern, and if there happened to be a ship passing nearby, the loss of life could have been tremendous. What is worse? The loss of three lives, or the loss of 80? Most would say the loss of 80, but isn’t each life precious? Isn’t the tragic death of even one soul something to be mourned? If even the slightest opportunity exists to save a life, it should be seized. These men took the opportunity to save their lives. There have been other instances in life where people have purposely not followed the rules when the situation called for it. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person; the rules said she needed to move to the back of the bus. She refused. Mohandas Ghandi defied British rule in an attempt to inspire others to fight for Indian independence. We celebrate those people today for their daring and how their actions inspired others. Society changed for the better — and many people’s lives became arguably richer — because of a simple act of disobedience. Yes, it went against the lighthouse guidelines to leave the lantern unlit, but that was a chance the men needed to take. It was worth it, if it meant that the men would have a chance at living the rest of their lives as planned. In the end, we know that one of the men went insane because of the experience and one eventually died from infected rat bites. But at least they got a chance to die with dignity, rather than to be eaten alive twenty miles off the coast of South America in a desolate tomb of a lighthouse.

My Most Terrifying Experience

In class, we recently read a narrative called “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze. In it, the narrator describes a particularly terrifying experience of his. Have you read it? It is a thrilling narrative about three men who find themselves trapped inside a lighthouse, on a small key off the coast of French Guiana. A derelict boat carrying a cargo of writhing, man-eating rats has crashed upon its shoals; the rats jumped off and scented the men. The men had nowhere else to go but inside their lighthouse. Now they are trapped there. If they go out, they face a certain, gruesome death. How will they survive?

I certainly would find a mass of man-eating rats surrounding my residence terrifying. But other things have terrified me in my life. I asked my students to describe their most terrifying experience. Here’s mine:


One rainy winter day in January, I found myself at a bus stop in West L.A. I was waiting for a bus to take me to Union Station in downtown L.A. The reason why I needed to take a bus is because, as a freshman at UCLA, I couldn’t have a car on campus. I wanted to get home because I was sick, and I just wanted my mom’s TLC.

Even though it was a rainy day, I had no umbrella. I had loaned the three I had out to classmates from my dorm. Now that I needed one to use as I walked to the bus stop, none existed. I waited in my dorm until the rain had stopped a bit, and then I set off for my walk through Westwood to the bus stop.

Well, of course as soon as I started walking it started raining again. I was drenched!

I approached the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Westwood in West LA. The bus stop was right across the street. I had a red light, so I waited on the corner until the streetlight told me it was my turn to cross. While I was waiting, I saw the bus I needed drive up to the bus stop across the street, get passengers, let passengers off, and drive away. My bus! Now I would need to wait another half an hour until the next bus that I needed came.

And the thing was, the bus stop across the street had no cover! So I had to wait there for at least another half an hour in the rain.

There were two busses that ran the route down Wilshire Blvd. — the 320 and the 320A. The 320A went to Union Station, where I could catch the train home to Anaheim. The 320 came every few minutes, but the 320A came only every half an hour or so. Of course, I had no watch, either, and both busses said 320 on their placard instead of 320 and 320A. There was no distinguishing between the two, except to ask the bus driver. So I waited for (what I thought) was about 20 to 25 minutes. The next bus pulled up to the stop. I thought it must be right about the time the special bus that went to Union Station was due to arrive, so I stepped up to the bus and asked. The driver replied that I wanted the next bus, the one that was behind him a few minutes. I said my thanks, stepped back from the bus, and waited while other passengers got on and got off. A few minutes passed until all this was complete, and then the bus pulled away.

Then things got scary.

I had resolved to wait a few more minutes in the rain until the next bus came. While I was waiting, I heard the most vile swear words being yelled at someone. A stream of filth was coming from someone’s mouth. I looked around to see who could be using such language, only to find that it was a man — dressed in a nice suit and a fedora, complete with an umbrella — and he was yelling that trash at me. I started crying.

I had no clue — and still don’t, to this day — why he was yelling what he was at me. I could only guess that he was upset about not getting on the bus that drove away? But he had plenty of time to get on, even after I stepped back from the curb.

Did he not like the fact that I was white? Racial tensions were high in Los Angeles, after all. We had just had the ’92 Los Angeles Riots six months previous. Maybe I symbolized for him something that made him angry? Did he lose something or someone important in those riots?

At the time, these thoughts were racing through my mind. Was he going to pull a gun? Or, was I — at 17 and on my own in Los Angeles — just oversensitive and overreacting? Crying still, and terrified, I looked wildly around at the others who were standing on the corner, just like I was. None of them came to my aid. None of them even moved closer to stand next to me in solidarity. None of them told him to cool it. My heart thudded as I waited desperately for the next bus to arrive. Any moment now . . . any moment now. Please arrive soon, I thought. As soon as the bus arrived, I would get on and drive off to Union Station. Crisis averted. Back to safe ‘ol Orange County I would go.

Except when the bus arrived, he got on too.

I was horrified. I tried to sit right next to the bus driver. Surely the driver would tell him to hush up because, believe it or not, he was still uttering that stream of profanities. It had not abated, but rather the decibels had diminished somewhat. We were on a bus now, after all. He had no respect for me, but was courteously lowering his volume for the comfort of the other passengers. Perversely, on some level, I was even pretty amazed that he could continuously mutter and swear as he was, without seeming to even take a breath. I’m not sure I would have the wits to carry on as he did, before running out of steam. He never ran out of steam. He never once paused in his condemnation of me. And the bus driver didn’t say a darn thing.

For the next 45 minutes, until the man finally got off the bus at Figueroa in downtown, he mumbled. He. Never. Let. Up. It was with a huge sense of relief — almost indescribable by the human mouth or imagination — that I watched his back recede from view as the bus pulled away from the curb further east down Wilshire.

I made it safely to Union Station. After that, I made it safely home to the homey comfort of my childhood residence. It has been twenty years since this incident occurred, and I still remember it to this day. Panicked, terrified — naive in Los Angeles. That was me. I’m older now, and wiser. I wonder about that man. Is he still alive? Is he still so angry? I hope he hasn’t terrified any others.