We Didn’t Always Live in Kandern

P1070408As often happens, I have words stuck in my head. These ones aren’t the common song lyrics, though. I’m the only person I know who is haunted by lines of prose.

“We didn’t always live on Mango Street.”

Those used to be first words I  read to my students, back at Ingraham, nine thousand miles and almost eight years ago. They are the beginning of Sandra Cisneros’s lovely novella of urban childhood, The House on Mango Street, words that always resonated with my also-urban students in Seattle.

I don’t think of this book often anymore, but my Honors American Literature class is reading just this first chapter, starting with those words. “We didn’t always live on Mango Street,” the narrator begins, before proceeding to retell her last few homes in reverse. Before that it was here, before that it was there, before… and I can’t remember any more.

After they analyze the form and theme, then write thesis statements like proper honors juniors, I tell them we’re being creative. I tell them to emulate the author’s style, as best as they can, picking up her minimalism and childish diction and writing their own version of the chapter. It’s an old assignment, one I usually set to ninth graders early in the year; I don’t expect almost-seniors to have much trouble with it.

“Has everyone moved in here, at least once?” I joke. Seeing nods, rolled eyes and raised hands all around, I continue, “Then you’re all qualified. Let’s go. This is due…ten minutes before the end of class.”

I ask them to share excerpts of their finished chapters in the last minutes of class. We read around the room, hearing fragments of much longer stories. Stories of foreign languages and sudden moves. Stories of loss and exhilaration, of family that came along, friends left behind. Later, as I read through the chapters, I learn more. About a dream house abandoned, the perfect house with a pomegranate tree in the yard. About the family who once lived in a castle. About the day that the gas station exploded next door, breaking all the windows in the house. About evictions and upheaval, sleepless nights shared with insects in frightening new homes.

As I read, I’m struck with longing in between the lines. The pomegranate-tree dream house was number three of seven homes on a long list. There are beautiful homes like it scattered across these pages, places of safety and certainty that my students have mostly left behind. My students are adventurous and curious, infinitely brave and complex, but they long for home. Some of them are still trying to decide–or remember–where it is.

I haven’t lived their lives, I know. At twenty-five, I packed up and decided to live the way they have their whole lives, planning only a few years ahead and hesitating to get attached to this apartment or that piece of furniture. But in their stories I hear mine, too. I didn’t always teach in Germany. I won’t always teach in Germany. There will be a new chapter, someday. I can only know, like my student who always–in China and Bangladesh and Germany–shared a room with her older sister, that wherever God takes us next, we’ll never go alone.

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