I haven’t known Callie Feyen long, but I think if we were to meet in person, we’d spend our entire time discussing books — for grownups and for not-yet grownups. We’d each introduce each other to new things. We’d laugh over how much we both enjoyed Stephenie Myer’s Twilight series. I wrote a column on the subject, and she mentioned it in an essay at the beginning of Tweetspeak Poetry’s new edition of Romeo & Juliet: the full play–includes essays and annotations called “The Making of Heroine.”
“I’d treated myself to a French manicure after earning my MFA in creative writing, as an inside joke I had with myself: You can lead a girl to Gerard Manley Hopkins, but you can’t make her put down Stephenie Meyer. I liked what I liked.”
I started reading The Teacher Diaries on what seemed like the worst possible day. My 19-year-old daughter needed me, but she lives 1,747 miles away. At that moment I was not thinking wistfully or regretfully about my own teenage years, and I didn’t feel ready to immerse myself in the tragic teenage years of Juliet and her Romeo. All my thoughts and feelings were centered on a current teenager’s experience. Really, I thought, I don’t need this right now.
Turns out I did. And even more than I needed The Teacher Diaries, I needed Romeo & Juliet. Not Stephenie Myer and not Gerard Manley Hopkins (and I’m a fan of both) but the Bard.
One of Callie’s occurs right below the prologue, which is a sonnet. Callie asks, “How does telling a story mend?” All I know is reading this story helped me mend. And I would never have had the courage to read it without reading The Teacher Diaries first.
Callie and I visited over the phone shortly after both books were released and discussed both books, other books, and more books. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Megan: You just got back from a retreat.
Callie: Yes, there were 60 different women. We did blackout poems.
You choose a word that might dazzle or resonate with you, and it might be different next time we do it. It could be how they interpreted the heart of a psalm or a poem or a song. There are not a lot of rules to it. After you’ve written a rough draft, you look at what the heart of the piece might be. I don’t recommend anything more than the size of a page of a book. Take a pencil, read through it, put a circle or a square around a word that dazzles your or resonates with you or challenges you. Go back and see if there’s some sort of a message. Take away a few words or add a few more, but only use words in the text. Then cross everything else out and see what you have left. Some people make a figure through the blackout poem. With some of them you can see a staircase or a silhouette of somebody.
I find it helpful for students who are at-risk because it’s a close-reading activity, so they have to pull the heart out of the text. Like poets, right? Their words, they know how to use them so well. They’re very careful with words, like surgery.
Megan: Are you still working as an at-risk literacy specialist?
Callie: Still plugging away at that. It’s a public school, a community next door to Ann Arbor, in Ypsilanti.
Megan: I’ve been reading your blog. On the day the books released, you had a quote and an illustration from Romeo & Juliet that was so good.
Callie: That I believe was a student that did that. [Looks up the blog post.] Yeah, that was a student. Because they freaked out with Romeo & Juliet: ‘I can’t read Shakespeare!’ We took small pieces and looked at them very carefully.
That line comes after they consummated their marriage (there are so many tricky things about this play!). What I wanted to do was not focus on the snickering but look at the language. I gave them strips of paper, 2-by-3 inches. We read that scene, but then they picked lines from a hat or something. I said, ‘I just want you to focus on 4-6 lines and illustrate them.’
From there we talked a lot about light/dark and also love, about what love is doing, because love really is a character. A lot of the truth was in the dark parts of the play more than when [Shakespeare] was talking about light. In this scene, [Juliet] didn’t want — neither of them wanted — the sun to rise because he’ll have to leave. So I asked, ‘Is it okay to stand in the dark? And what kinds of truth can we see in the dark?’
Shakespeare was making these teenagers, even though they die, they are in a murky situation, as are so many teenagers. They’re the ones who change the way the adults look at the world. Even though they’re going through some dark times, they have a lot of power and can see a lot of truth and shed that truth on us too.
This student [who did the illustration] was a poet and an artist. She was a really good student. Even her handwriting is beautiful. She was quiet but mighty people.
Megan: What are the years you were teaching Romeo & Juliet?
Callie: The first is 2014-‘15, the first year I went back to teaching after having kids. The next was the following year, 2015-‘16. I taught [R&J] three times to three sets of eighth graders.
Megan: I read it in ninth grade.
Callie: Mine was ninth too.
Megan: In that same blog post you mentioned going to Starbucks and playing with the idea of teaching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to middle-schoolers, thinking that might be fun. I have teacher friends who work at the middle school. They are a special breed.
Callie: Middle school was particularly painful for me. I’m particularly fascinated by what else is there besides the pain and struggle and awkwardness. A lot of times going back to middle school is restorative or redemptive for me.
Last night my family and I were watching E.T. There’s this one scene toward the end where the older brother is watching E.T. get taken away, and they’re kind of jerks about it. They’re swearing and not respectful at all. But then Eliot asks, ‘Can you help us?’ and they’re ready to help out. That’s exactly what middle school is all about.
If you can just take a deep breath — don’t ignore the disrespect. Whatever these kids are going through, it’s so strange, and they can be so awful, but they’re also just as confused as they make us feel too.
The schools that I’ve taught in, there’s a lot of beauty in what it is they’re going through. I want them to see that too. When I was that age I watched The Wonder Years
Megan: Me too.
Callie: That title always baffled me because I was that age. I’m like, ‘What’s so wonderful about this?’ Freaks & Geeks too. They say, ‘They know we think that they’re beasts.’ If you just give ‘em a chance.
Teaching middle-schoolers has to be much different than high school or fourth- and fifth-graders. [With middle-schoolers] I did a lot of stuff a kindergarten teacher would do. We’d do 20-minute stations, and we’d use manipulatives and go outside. They needed to move and do something different. They’re not high-schoolers yet. They’re in this strange, in between place — they’re molting!
I remember how scared I was of it. There were days I’d go home crying because they’re brutal. I always went back. Thanks to social media, I’m friends with a lot of them and to remember who they were and see who they are now. It’d be nice if didn’t try to teach them like either high-schoolers or elementary kids.
As much as I like the job I’m doing and it’s important, I miss teaching sixth, seventh, eighth. I get to see fifth-graders once a week, and things are much different during that hour. I feel like I’m in that unnatural space when I’m with those kids.
Megan: Your girls are a little younger than middle school, right?
Callie: Hadley goes to middle school this fall. Harper’s in third.
I remember one class [of middle-schoolers] I had — they were so hard. One of the substitute teachers gave me a special nut. It would only crack under very very tough circumstances. The inside was the most precious. She gave me one as a symbol that that’s what I was doing right now. Her kids are wonderful and she loves them, but those are the years we do not name. They’re the Voldemort years.
Megan: I ask because you’re in an interesting phase, where you can remember your own teen years, but your girls haven’t started theirs yet.
Callie: I do think it was good that I could write about this. It helped me remember what it’s like in middle school. I see Hadley and Harper headed straight for it. I have something now, tangible, to say, ‘Okay, we can go there because we’re gonna come out of it.’ I’m capable of helping her through this. She’s capable of going through this. My belief is that stories — I have such a belief in stories that we’ll read them together and talk about those together. We do that now, and I don’t want to stop that. I guess I have a belief in stories.
Megan: What are some of those stories you want to read with your girls?
Callie: Eleanor & Park. [Rainbow Rowell] gave hundreds, maybe thousands of people a story to guide themselves by. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead (also Here When You Reach Me) — it focuses on social media and girls’ friendships. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry [by Mildred D. Taylor]. When they’re in eighth, going into ninth, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson — the teacher and parents are three-dimensional. It has a wonderful art teacher and uses a tree a metaphor.
Megan: Sounds like another book I’d recommend, also with Shakespeare tie-ins, Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston.
Callie. I haven’t read that one.
[Katherine Patterson’s] Bridge to Terabithia — definitely want to read with them; Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons (also has a great teacher), also Absolutely Normal Chaos. Anything Kate DiCamillo. We go to the library and pick off a ton of the shelves. I taught Lightning Thief to sixth graders. I loved the idea that quirks could actually be strengths.
Megan: Well, Rick Riordan used to teach sixth grade in San Antonio, so I’m not surprised. I heard him one year at the Texas Book Festival.
Callie: Really? That makes sense.
I don’t want to give up reading with my girls. It’s so much easier to talk about things through a story. I told Hadley, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing because I have no backdrop for the world we’re living in. I’m parenting scared and I hate parenting scared because there will be times that I flinch.’
Megan: I appreciated that you dealt with that in The Teacher Diaries, especially in that scene with your mom in ‘At the Door.’ That’s my favorite chapter.
Callie: I can still see that memory, and I can still hear her tweezers clink on the sink. I did mean I’d never do that. I had no idea how important that was for me to say that to her.
I almost didn’t write that. I was working on something else, something more flip about Mercutio. It wasn’t working because there wasn’t as much urgency. I was walking into his death, so I couldn’t do a schoolboy prank because it wouldn’t match. I wasn’t really interested in wading through it. That was a terrifying, sorrowful time for the whole high school. I really wanted to do it right. That was the one I was most nervous about.
Megan: I appreciated it because it’s so hard for kids that age to look outside themselves and realize what the adults in their lives may be feeling, and you and your mom had that moment of connection.
Callie: Part of their growing up is incredibly self-centered. You see it in Romeo when he’s having a tantrum on the floor with the Friar, and the Friar is like, ‘Cut this out,’ and Romeo’s like, ‘You don’t know what this is like!’
Megan: Going back to that blog post on the book — you and I have something in common. L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water played a big hand in both of our books. How did your dad find out about the book to give it to you?
Callie: My dad is like the book whisperer. He’s always given me books at random times. He sent me Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner when it first came out. My life didn’t exactly parallel Lauren’s life, but it was a slightly irreverent take on her relationship with God, and I liked that.
I was always a terrible reader and a terrible student. He always gave me books. It was just, ‘Here’s a book I think you might like.’ I think he found it through Books & Culture. He knew I really wanted to write, and I couldn’t see where all those pieces were going to fit. This was about a person being a parent and being creative, and they fed off each other. It was like, ‘Look, Callie you can do both.’ That book was important in changing how I viewed the rest of my life. I went back to graduate school and learned everything I could.
Some might call it stalking, but I tried to put myself in front of [L.L. Barkat] online. I participated in those poetry days [on Twitter]. She asked Laura [Lynn] Brown to ask me if I would do the Makes You Mom.com contributions. From there, I was in a staff meeting and shouldn’t have been checking my phone but those suck the life out of me. It was from [L.L. Barkat], and the title was ‘About a book.’ That was just a dream!
Megan: Was the plan always to simultaneously publish Romeo & Juliet too?
Callie: She told me, sometime in January, ‘Here’s the launch date.’ That was on a Saturday. And then it was that Monday, I got into work and I was going through my email, and she says something like, ‘Here’s my idea, can you pull this off? Three new essays and annotations on the entire play?’ I was like, ‘Uh … yes, I can!’ When she asks me to do something, I’m gonna do it! There were two essays that were not in the book, so I spruced those up. Then ‘The Making of a Heroine’ is the new one that I wrote.
One thing I’ve learned about [L.L. Barkat] is that the stuff that I’m nervous to write about, those are the ones she’s excited about. The more over the line I go, the more reckless and scandalous I am, she likes that. Like the first chapter, ‘Kissing a Dragon in His Fair Cave,’ I was in this funk when I wrote it. I thought, ‘She’s probably gonna say she won’t like this, but she said ‘This? This I’ll take.’ She said that was worth the price of the whole book.
Megan: Have you had a chance to teach the Making of a Heroine class you mentioned in the essay?
Callie: Not yet. I’d do a mix of classics, Newbery’s. Eleanor & Park would be there. It would be so much fun to study the female role. My husband and I were talking, every season around this time I start getting reckless. I’d love to do it with maybe ninth- or tenth-graders, a whole year of studying female characters.
Megan: In that essay you mention that the ‘Kissing a Dragon’ chapter came after of a run, and that’s how the thing that needed to shake loose did so. When I interviewed Glynn Young about his Dancing Priest series, he said something very similar about being stuck before he wrote Dancing King, and then a long 4 1/2-mile walk literally gave him the opening line of the book in a particular character’s voice.
So what is it about writers’ need for movement and to get outside?
Callie: With writing for me, it’s a reminder, the first mile is so hard. Anything that’s negative for me in my life or anything negative physically with running, it comes out in that first mile. There’s always this small voice that says, ‘It’s not gonna be like this at mile 2. You’ve done it before, so you can do it again.’ That’s why I keep running because the juices are going to get really good at mile 2 and mile 3.
When I sit down to write and when things are just flowing, I might get 25 minutes into it and I’m just stuck — ‘I hate this, I’m a terrible writer’ — but I can sit through that because I can run through that first mile. I know I won’t always feel like this. It might be five more minutes, and I’ll be writing again. Or maybe my writing session is done for that day. Sometimes you have to get up and walk away.