On Monday

“Mom, help me review my words because my teacher says spelling still counts.”

That’s what Baker – now a senior in college – said to me as he ran into our kitchen one day after school when he was in fifth grade.

He was pulling me out of a three-day television-aided trance I had been in since the first plane hit the World Trade Center.  Oh, I got up each day, got each child off to school, did most of the work I was supposed to be doing, but then rushed back to CNN to watch again and again what had happened, to try, again and again, to make sense of what this meant our world – my family’s world – would now be.

I’m doing the same thing again.  Since yesterday.  Since Sandy Hook Elementary School locked down and we redefined tragedy.  Again.  I’m listening intently to all the reports, reading closely all the articles, looking for anything that makes this make sense.  But of course nothing will because one can’t apply logic to what was done illogically; one can’t apply reason to what was done without reason.

And I keep remembering Baker’s fifth-grade language arts teacher who each day after the 9/11 attacks didn’t sit home staring at a screen, but instead walked into her classroom to help twenty-two youngsters through the day.  On Thursday of that week, she sent her students home reminding them to study because “spelling still counts.”  I loved her for giving those students (and me) that nudge toward normalcy.  All of the teachers in that school – in schools across this nation – during those first long weeks after 9/11 gave our nation’s children something far more important than what could ever be bubbled in on a state-mandated test.  They gave them security; they gave them time; they gave them ways to process all that had happened; and they helped them learn that each of us has the ability to get through tragic moments even when we doubt we will ever get over them.

That’s what you’ll do again.  On Monday.  And on Tuesday. And on all the rest of the days next week and the rest of this school year.  Parents will hold on to children – of all ages –  tighter, and you will, with firm resolve, assure them you are a professional who knows what to do when tragedy strikes.  Some children will cry and you will dry tears.  Some will lash out in anger and you will know that is fear rearing its head another way.  You will worry and fret and wonder what else you should do.  You will talk with other teachers and principals – who will be doing all the same things you are doing – and together you will decide what is the right plan for your school as you help your students through what will, for some, be terribly difficult days.

Yes, on Monday and for all the days that follow,  you will  prepare lessons, watch for that student who doesn’t quite grasp the point, encourage the student who hesitantly offers an idea, help the shy one make a friend, remind the bossy one to listen more.  And you’ll do what no university class ever prepared you to do:  you will show students that when tragedy strikes, hope lives and goodness can always be found. You will help students recognize that their grief shows their humanity.  You will show them that we all go on, in spite of fear, or perhaps more importantly, to spite fear. And you will, as you nudge them toward normalcy, even remind them that spelling still counts.  You will be in our nation’s classrooms, teaching our nation’s children, and for this we are a grateful nation.

Thank you.  Thank you.  And, again, thank you.



Why I Hated Meredith’s First Grade Teacher: An Open Letter to America’s Teachers

When my first born headed off to first grade, 21 years ago, she held my hand as we walked down the hallway of Will Rogers Elementary School in the Houston Independent School District. We walked into Ms. Miner’s room and Meredith’s steps grew more hesitant. This wasn’t the University of Houston Child Care Center, the place she had gone for years while I was a doctoral student at UH. This place looked different – bigger, more official. There were big-kid desks pushed together in clusters. And though there were centers, they were not the dress-up center or the cooking center or nap center or water play center of the Child Care Center.

The room was filled with children she did not yet know, with books she had not yet read, with a math center that had lost-teeth and birthday charts, and with a big poster by the door labeled, “Our Classroom Rules” that was still blank. “I don’t want to stay,” she said.  I didn’t want her to, either. I wanted her still with me, only me. I didn’t want to give up those first six years of childhood just yet, those years when her world mostly revolved around her parents and new baby brother and a silly dog with big ears and afternoons spent in our local library reading book after book after book or playing in our neighborhood park, sometimes just sitting on the grass, watching the ants march by. With every ounce of courage, I said, “Oh, you will love first grade. It was my favorite year in school. I loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Allen, and I bet you are going to love Ms. Miner, too.” Meredith looked doubtful and so very small. And then Ms. Miner, long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, saw us, came over, and bent down to Meredith’s level.  A first year teacher – the one I had told the principal that if he was willing to listen to requests I wanted – Ms. Miner was full of energy and excitement. She loved books, wanted to be a great teacher, and had obviously spent weeks making her room look inviting to these 22 six-year-olds.

“Oh, you’re Meredith! I recognized you from your picture! Come here and let me introduce you to some others. And let me show you all around the room. And, hey, you brought Corduroy as your favorite book and that’s one of my favorite books, too!”

And then, somehow, without me even realizing, Meredith’s small hand moved from mine to Ms. Miner’s and she was gone. She was swallowed up by the sheer joy this other woman brought into her classroom, into learning, and into my child’s life. “I guess I’ll be going now,” I said to Meredith who was busy putting school supplies away in her desk. “So, I’ll be just around the corner at our house,” I said blinking hard to keep away the tears.” I think she nodded. Perhaps she even paused to wave. My feet couldn’t move and Ms. Miner gently helped me and a few other moms out of the classroom. “She’s really shy,” I said to Ms. Miner just as Meredith sped by holding a new friend’s hand showing her “all these hooks where we can hang our backpacks.”

Meredith was breathless with excitement at the end of that day – every day – and by the end of the first week, our family had a new member: Ms. Miner. Each afternoon and for long into the evening, I had to listen to “Ms. Miner said . . .” and “Ms. Miner thinks . . .” and “Ms. Miner showed us . . .” and “Ms. Miner suggested . . .” and when I slipped and said, “Oh damn” at dinner burned in the oven, I was reminded that “Mom, Ms. Miner would never say . . .  .”  Right, I smiled through gritted teeth.  ”Ms. Miner says that manners are important,” Meredith said as she explained why we must always put our napkins in our laps, something that I swear I had mentioned a million times.

For the entire year I watched my child fall in love with school, with learning, with figuring out, and most importantly, with her first grade teacher, Ms. Miner. Meredith, who had once hated ponytails, now only wanted to wear ponytails. And blue skirts, “just like Ms. Miner’s.” “And Mom, my name starts with an M and Ms. Miner starts with an M. Isn’t that great!! We match!” Yes, Meredith, just great. Really great. Oh damn.

Though I had been a teacher for years before having Meredith, before sending her off to first grade, I had never truly understood the power of a teacher in a child’s life. We give our most precious and priceless to you – dear teachers – each year, knowing you will teach them, but also hoping you will care for them, help them discover how very much they matter, watching over them, and being there when they have been hurt by the ones who won’t let them sit at the “popular” table – and then you do just that and they fall in love with you. It shows up in different ways, as they grow older. But it’s still there, this deep affection and respect. And, certainly, it’s harder to forge those bonds when there are 150 students instead of 22, when the day is fragmented into 45 minute segments, when education seems to be more about the test than the child. But I promise, underneath that bravado of the seventh grader or swagger of the tenth grader you will find that small first grader who wonders, “Will my teacher like me?” And when that child – that teen – knows that you believe he or she matters, then that student will do most anything for you.

To this day, Meredith remembers you, Ms. Miner, and to this day, I so hated how much she loved you that year. And, simultaneously, I am so grateful that she did.

And so, teachers, across this country during the next two weeks, most of you will be opening your classroom doors in a first-day welcoming for your students.  As a teacher I am proud to stand beside you in all that you do. But as a parent, well, as a parent I stand in awe of all that you do.  And to Ms. Miner, thank you.

We Can Be Better

On Facebook, I just saw a photo that someone else posted which I will not repost that was a shot of a sign outside of a McDonald’s in some location that says “We support Chick-Fil-A. Now Boycott Us.”  While I’m not positive of the exact location of this one McDonald’s, since I know who posted the photo, I suspect it was from a small town in east Texas.  On my way to the Houston airport today, I passed two McDonald’s that did NOT have this sign posted.But people are “liking” this photo that was posted, and all I could do was look at it and feel so very sad. Not sad that I’ll indeed be boycotting McDonald’s (haven’t had their high-fat, high-calorie food in a long time, so in all honestly that wasn’t a hard decision); but sad that THIS was the message they felt needed sharing.I saw two parents crying in an airport today because their flight to Germany was delayed and their adult child who is there is now dying of cancer. This McDonald’s could have put up a sign saying we donate part of our income one day a month to cancer research. That would have sent me through their drive-through window.  (I know the Ronald McDonald’s House does much to support families dealing with cancer and I bet if we check United Way giving McDonald’s does well in that area, too.  But that help does not undo this wrong.)

In a school in Georgia two weeks ago, a teacher came to me at then end of the day and thanked me for all the words of encouragement for what will be — in this time of more kids in classrooms with fewer materials — a hard year and said her husband — a preacher of a small church — had just left her for another woman (those good Christian values there) and she was now trying to support her two children and herself on her teacher’s salary and she wanted to get books for her classroom because she knew her students were coming from homes where books weren’t valued nearly as much as football. “But times are a little tough for me right now. Do you know of grants I might apply for?” She wasn’t judging. She wasn’t angry. She was putting the needs of others first. Seems that as school begins, this McDonald’s might have opted to put up a sign about how they will be supporting local teachers by providing in-class libraries of 500 children’s books to go into each English/language arts classroom of the schools in their community. That would have certainly gotten me into a McDonald’s to find something there that at least looks healthy.

Ten miles from my house, a little over a year ago, a fourteen-year-old hung himself one day because he could no longer take the daily bullying he faced each day at his school. His suicide was not singular. The daily roll call of gay teens who are bullied to death is beyond shameful. Bullied by straight kids. Straight kids who think they have a right to be hurtful and mean. Straight kids who call gay kids terrible names and tell others to not sit with them. Straight kids who tell them they are wrong for being who they are. For simply being who they are. Of course, that mindset is learned . . . somewhere.

Sure would have been nice if this McDonald’s — perhaps all — had put up a sign that said, “At this establishment, you’ll find that we respect ALL people. We value ALL people. Chick-Fil-A can choose to hurt others, but here at McDonald’s, we choose to be better than that.” I’d be there daily, probably falling in love with that fish sandwich.

Does this one sign represent all McDonald’s?  I highly doubt it.  Actually, I can’t believe it does.  I suspect that whoever is in charge of all things McDonald’s has no idea what this franchise owner put on this sign.  I’d like to know, though, that if those in the corporate headquarters did know, what their response would be.  I suppose they could say something about that being the sentiments of one franchise owner.  I’d hope they’d say that this hurtful statement does not represent the company and that McDonald’s does not discriminate.  That’s what I hope.I hope that because in a world in which we could accomplish so much, so very very much, if we told each person “You Matter,” if we helped each person believe they are valued and respected, if we could convince others that loving is always better than hating and that supporting is better than condemning, we might become the country our Founding Fathers had in mind when they penned “All men are created equal.”We can be so much better than we are. And it can start with how we react to signs that appear in our own communities, with hateful words we hear and do not stop, with “that’s so gay” language we let slip by.  We can be better.

It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis

It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

[It seems that the way to solve problems in education, make everyone college and career ready, and probably stop the melting of the polar ice caps is to make sure we have enough rigor in our classrooms. But far too often the synonym for rigor is hard. Below, I share a few thoughts about rigor from our forthcoming book  (co-author Bob Probst), Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, in press).]

“The essential element in rigor is engagement. The rigor has to be achieved by engaging the readers in a process that is sufficiently interesting or rewarding that they’ll invest energy in the work. If they are to read rigorously, students must to be committed to understanding some intriguing character, to solving some problem, to figuring out what a writer believes or values and how those thoughts compare with their own or to understanding how other readers have made sense of a text.

Granted, students should learn over time to cope with more and more difficult texts. We know of no teachers who do not want students to be able to read increasingly complex texts as the year progresses. But students are more likely to do that if they are invited to read texts with which they can become engaged and are lured into the sort of thinking that might be both challenging and enjoyable.

Rigor, in other words, lies in the transaction between the reader and the text, and then among readers. The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment. A classroom that respects what the students bring to it, what they are capable of and interested in, and that welcomes them into an active intellectual community is more likely to achieve that rigor.”

–From Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst

Lexile, Move Over

“What’s this book?” the ten-year-old in the bookstore asked me. I told him the title and he looked as me as if I were from Mars. “No,” he said politely. “I mean the Lexile level. I don’t know if I can read it until I know the level and I have to read 10 books this summer.”

“I don’t know,” I told him, “but I know another way to see if you can read it, a secret way.”

“Really?” he asked. “What is it? Can you tell me?”

“I guess,” I said. “But I can only tell you if you promise to use it at least once a week. You can use it more, but you have to use it at least once a week. If you don’t, then the secret isn’t worth sharing.”

“I will! I promise!”

“OK. It’s scientific, so listen carefully. First, you have to take one of your hands and hold all five fingers open. Yes–just like that. Now, open the book to the first page and read it to yourself. As you’re reading it, every time you come to a word that you don’t know, put down a finger. OK. Give it a try.”

So, this little fellow, with book in hand, began reading. At the end of the first page, he had curled three fingers. “Now what?” he asked.

“Well, think about the first page. Is there any part you need to reread or do you understand what’s happening?”

“Oh, I got it! What’s next? Turn the page?”

“Yep. Turn the page. Put up all five fingers and read this page.”

“And put down a finger every time there’s a word I don’t know? Is that right?” he asked.

“It is,” I told him, and he began reading. This time, he put down two fingers. At the end of the page he asked, “What if I put down all five fingers? Does that mean I can’t read it? And do I do this all the way through the book?

“Well, first, just do it for a couple of pages.” I told him. “And if you find that on the first two or three pages you’re putting down all five fingers, it means you ought to ask yourself if it’s making enough sense to you that you want to keep reading. And if you do, then it means you might have to do some rereading. Or, you might need to read some parts aloud. When I don’t understand something that always helps me. Or you might need to look up some words. In other words, the five-finger tests helps you decide how much you might need to struggle to get through the book. But there’s nothing wrong with struggling a little.”

He listened carefully. Nodded. And then exclaimed, “Hey, my baseball coach said that sometimes when we’re behind in a game, we have to work harder, but we can’t give up. That’s like this, isn’t it. You shouldn’t give up just because some of it might be harder.”

I nodded.

He took his book and started to walk off but then turned and said, “Hey lady, this is a better way than knowing the Lexile number to know if you can read a book. It’s like you get to decide, not just some number. You ought to tell some teachers.”

“OK,” I said. . .

Mark Your Calendars July 11, 2012

Mark your calendars!

To all my Greater Houston Area Friends: I’m the invited keynote speaker at the MD Anderson Breast Cancer Support Group “Breast Friends” on Wednesday, July 11, at 7:00 p.m. at St. Luke’s Hospital, The Woodlands (near highway 242 and I-45) in Conference Room 1 which overlooks a beautiful small lake.

Hoping to see all from this area who are dealing with cancer or supporting a friend in her battle. Spread the words to your friends and let’s have an evening of supporting one another. The evening is open to all at no cost to anyone.

Promise laughter and hope there will be some inspiration as well! If you want more info, please leave a comment here and I’ll be happy to respond.

And if you don’t know the area–some FABULOUS restaurants in The Market Street which is very close to the event area. Make an evening of it!

Voting on covers!


Bob Probst and I have narrowed our choices of covers for our new book “Notice and Note” to two.  Now we’d love you to weigh in!   Which cover do you like best?  Respond here or on Twitter to @KyleneBeers with Cover 1 (The one with “Notice and Note” on 2 lines) or Cover 2 (The one with “Notice and Note” on 1 line).   All votes due by 9:00 a.m. Thursday, June 14.

So many teachers from across the nation let us into their classrooms or taught the lessons for us as we were developing these strategies that it seemed only natural–and right–to extend the collaboration to this level of the process of moving from idea to book.  Thank you dear teachers for all that you do.

Lifetime Reading and Series Books

Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Little House on the Prairie, Hardy Boys, Narnia Chronicles—these are a part of my reading history.  My daughter would say The Baby-Sitter Club Books and the Boxcar Children.  My son would say all the Animorph books, Harry Potter, Narnia, and of course all things L’Engle.  And I bet if you’re a reader you can name your series.  Perhaps you were hooked by the Beezus and Ramona books; or was it Encyclopedia Brown?  Dear America books?  Redwall?  Take a look at the series books listed at Goodreads and I bet that somewhere in that list, you’ll find a series that makes you nod your head and say, “I loved those books.”

That seems to be the power of series books:  we love them.  And because we love them, we get lost in them; we turn page after page; we wonder if Nancy will escape from the hidden attic even though the fact that the next 5 Nancy Drew books sit beside the bed is a clue she does.  Perhaps it’s the comfort of knowing the characters that makes them so enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that make us need to stay up for just one more chapter.

If you’re looking for information on the importance of series books in the development of lifetime readers, the go-to source is G. Robert Carlsen and Anne Sherrill:  Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1988).  Though this book is hard to find, it’s well worth your time to read.  In it, Carlson and Sherrill show the strong correlation between series books and lifetime readers.  He makes a similar case in Books and the Teenage Reader .

Other sources—some sited below—continue to make the point that no one becomes a lifetime reader without discovering a joy of reading, an intrinsic joy.  Almost always, one step in that joy is the reading of series books.

So whether your series was Harry Potter, the Dark is Rising, Frog and Toad, the Prydain Series, the Madeline books, The 39 Clues, the Ender books, the Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Borrowers, The Lost Years of Merlin, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Wizard of Oz, Curious George, George and Martha, or…well, you fill in the blank, those books made a difference in your lifetime reading.  As summer comes, here’s hoping many other young readers will find delight in those books that make us want to stay up late and keep reading.

“A Fresh Look at Series Books”

Motivation: Going Beyond Testing to a Lifetime of Reading

The Mystery of Nancy Drew

Catherine Sheldrick Ross, “If They Read Nancy Drew, So What? Series Book Readers Talk Back,” Library and Information Science Research (LISR) vol. 17, 1995, pp. 201–36. This research won the American Library Association’s research award in 1995. A shortened version appeared in School Library Media Quarterly, Spring 1996, pp. 165–71.

1926 American Library Study of over 36,000 students sheds some light on series books and reading. Reported in: Only Connect, Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 41–61.

“Can you hear us, Mr. Duncan?” Some Comments on Assessment

“What are you going to say about assessment in your new book?” the teacher asked Bob Probst and me.
“What do you mean?” we asked her.
“Well, are you going to come out against it? Hope you are. So much of education now is all about teaching to the test that assessment has really ruined teaching for me and ruined learning for a lot of kids. Just hoping that you two might take a stand against it,” she explained.

Well . . . no. We won’t take a stand against assessments in general. We’ll take a stand against ridiculous assessments; against assessments that reduce the complex act of learning to a multiple-choice test; that measure the value of a teacher by the score a student makes on a state-mandated test; that limits what is learned in a classroom to what is checked on a test; that casts students as “pushables” or “slipables” or “bubble children” or “proficient” or “below-level.” We’ll take a stand against assessments that become the whole point of education. We’ll take a stand against linking a teacher’s pay to how well a student performs on a test. We’ll take a stand against the very high-level administrator who told us that “It’s all about the test.” No, it’s not. It’s all about the kids. Any assessment that causes us to forget that is one we’ll stand against.

That said, we do think that teachers have an obligation to know how students are progressing and to share that information in meaningful ways with students and their parents. We think that there are many ways of assessing progress—and some of those ways include teacher-made tests. We also recognize that scores on a high-stakes test give schools some information, but that information doesn’t tell a child or a parent much about the child’s growth as a learner, a contributor, a collaborator, a helper, an evaluator, a creator, a thinker. And, we believe that we don’t have to teach to the test to actually improve performance on the test. We think if we can get students engaged, if we can make learning relevant, if we teach students to consider issues deeply, critically, and thoughtfully, if we can teach students the strategies that help them become highly skilled readers, writers, and speakers, then they’ll do better on the tests. Any tests.

We’ve been saying it often, but perhaps not often enough: Better tests don’t improve learning. Better teaching does. Or perhaps we should say it louder.  Perhaps if we say it all together:  Better tests don’t improve learning. Better teaching does. Can you hear us, Mr. Duncan?

How Cancer Helped me Find my Superficial Self

This is the text of a speech I delivered a few months ago at a breast cancer awareness luncheon. I’m posting it today, April 13, which marks the two-year anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy. It is for all those women just beginning their journey with cancer. You are not alone.

There are three things about me that, if you know me well, you know are very true.

First, I am the eternal optimist, seeing in each person, including myself, the ability to do anything. I believe that our greatest failures are when we fail to try, when we fail to believe in ourselves. That belief let me have a one-on-one conversation (albeit short) with President Clinton when he and I ended up in the same restaurant in NYC. While everyone else watched the President and his buddy Kevin Spacey sit at the bar sipping beers while watching a basketball game, I walked up to a secret service agent and asked if the President was welcoming visitors. The agent said no, absolutely not, but Bill—we’re friends now so I can call him that—heard my question and he said, “Certainly young lady,” and waved me over and so I smiled at the agent who glared at me and made my way to the bar where for the next five minutes or so we talked about education (my favorite topic) and basketball (his favorite topic of the moment).

That belief in possibility lets me sit beside tenth graders who read at a third grade level and tell them with sincerity that if they will trust me and try even a little I am sure they can become better readers.

It lets me tell teachers in Texas and many other states that in spite of state and national legislation that is making their job all but impossible, I believe in their ability to help the students in their classrooms. I stand in schools that are surrounded by high fences with barbed wire across the top, where police arrive to tell a student that his father has shot his mother, where 90% of the students arrive for a free breakfast, their first meal since yesterday’s free lunch, and I tell teachers I believe in them and their ability to positively affect a child’s future because I do. Ever the optimist, I do.

Along with being the eternal optimist, comes my second trait. I am also a world-class worrier. If you say you’ll call me at 9 and by 9:30 I haven’t heard from you, I’m pretty sure I should start calling hospitals. You’re in no pain, (my worries cause me pain but never you), but you’re obviously now paralyzed because you can’t manage to hit the “call” button on your phone and additionally your trachea has probably been crushed because you can’t even whisper my name and phone number to the paramedics. I try to image life without you and can’t and as my heart races and palms grow sweaty I wonder who should be notified first. And then I realize that I don’t have the names and cell numbers of those you would want me to call to inform them of your trachea-crushing, spinal-cord-severing injury. When you do call, you are a bit confused when my first request is that you send me the phone numbers on your “favorites” list so that the next time your trachea is crushed and your body is paralyzed I can let others know. And because I’m the eternal optimist, I’m positive you’ll do that so when the accident happens, I’ll be prepared.

My kids gave up trying to convince me that a slightly late call doesn’t have to mean immediate disaster. It could mean the cell phone battery was dead; or it might mean a meeting ran late; or it might mean, heaven forbid, one simply forgot to call. I suppose each of those is true, but when you are a worrier, those rationale thoughts aren’t your first ones. And when the late caller finally calls and I realize all is well, I justify my worry with “But, you could have been hurt, lying in a ditch, unable to crawl to your phone, needing me to wonder which ditch you are in so I could come to your rescue; so aren’t you glad that someone in the world was worried about you?” My children simply sigh.

Trait number three. I am a procrastinator. Because of that, I love deadlines. I believe they exist for a reason, a single reason: to meet them. Not to beat them. Deadlines don’t race against you. They merely loom. Waiting. Patiently. Tauntingly. I won’t miss a deadline because then if you are also a worrier, you’ll think I’m in a ditch someplace and I wouldn’t want to put you through that. So if you tell me the article I’ve agreed to write is due by close of day, I’ll double check the date and I’ll ask you which time zone and then I’ll get it in, seconds before the deadline would pass.

So there you have me: I’m a procrastinating worrying optimist. My family and dear friends—many here today—are all saints for loving someone so strange. My doctors—also many here today—are super saints. You have earned that label because you were thrust into my life, my quirkiness, with little say. Once I arrived in your office, you found yourself treating a patient who simultaneously believes she has conquered this horrible disease called cancer while knowing that each new ache means it has spread, but then pushing the limits of how many times an appointment might be rescheduled. Surely the doctor I need is an analyst and not an oncologist.

And so, all three parts of me—optimist, worrier, and procrastinator—entered a new phase of life on March 12, 2010.

On that Friday, I was home working. I’m a writer, so working means sitting at a computer trying to get words on a page—or rather on a computer screen. A deadline was swiftly approaching and I was in a zone I love—words were flowing; ideas were crystallizing; and adrenalin was surging, meaning mornings started early—4:30 a.m.—and nights ended late—12:30 p.m. It’s that creative burst as the deadline brags, “You won’t make me” that I feed on and when it hits, no deadline has a chance. But this day, Worry raised its hand and begged to be heard.

“Go away,” I said to Worry. “Step aside as I do not have time for you today.” But Worry is jealous and kept tugging at me until I finally admitted to myself that something didn’t feel right. Something deep inside my right breast felt odd. Ached. I tried lowering my desk chair then raising it; I put a pillow behind my back; I changed bras. I stood and stretched. Pulled back my shoulders. Breathed deeply. Rolled my neck. But by noon, Worry had settled in for a stay and I decided I had breast cancer. Probably with only hours left of life. Rare type, most certainly never recorded in AMA journals.

Before I could play out what would happen next, Optimism arrived and nudged Worry out of the way. “Don’t you remember?” Optimism shouted. “Breast cancer doesn’t hurt. Fibroid cysts hurt. They come from caffeine and you’ve been mainlining caffeine for several weeks now. You’ve got fibroid cyst disease. Stop drinking caffeine.”

And with that new thought, I poured out my fourth cup of coffee for that day and vowed never to drink caffeine again. To rid my body of the toxic stuff, I stood at the kitchen sink and drank eight 8-ounce glasses of water, in a row, to flush the caffeine out of me. And then I peed for an hour.

But the deep ache didn’t go away and Worry whispered in my ear that something really was wrong and it wasn’t a fibroid cyst. It wasn’t caffeine.

And so, Worry beat out Optimism and Procrastination and I called the imaging center at St. Luke’s here in The Woodlands and asked how soon I could get a mammogram. Told a kind woman that something didn’t feel right. She said I should come on over. “Next week?” Procrastination asked. “Nope.” she said. “Come on over now.” I called Brad and told him something didn’t feel right but said he should stay put at his office downtown. Be he, knowing that my ability to procrastinate on everything meant I rarely went to the doctor, understood that if I had interrupted a writing day then I was concerned. I’m rarely concerned about me. I’m much too busy worrying about others. He began driving to The Woodlands from downtown while I was donning a gown at St. Luke’s.

I told the technician who was doing the mammogram that my right breast hurt. She asked if I had felt a lump. Not at all. Just deep inside, it hurt. She nodded and began taking a series of images. First this breast, then the other. When was your last mammogram, she asked. During the previous century my procrastinating self slowly admitted. But late in that century, my optimistic self added. She withheld judgment, finished taking images, told me to wait just a moment while she asked if the radiologist wanted more. Sure enough, a few minutes later she returned and said if I didn’t mind she’d take just a few more images. She looked at me and my eyes filled with tears.

Not too long after that, Dr. Ghobashy, an angel parading as a radiologist, appeared and told me that I didn’t need to go home wondering, that wondering can lead to worrying (indeed!), but that I did have a mass, very small, in my right breast and she couldn’t believe it hurt but she was nearly 100% certain it was cancer. And then she told me what I never expected: I had cancer in the other breast, too. “No.” I told her. “Just the right side; left side doesn’t hurt. No cancer there.” “Yes,” she said. “Look.” And so I looked at the computer screen at the image of the left breast and saw a cluster of white—she called the cluster calcifications and said that while calcifications often aren’t cancerous, she was sure mine were, and she said something else but I wasn’t listening because I knew that whatever she wanted to call it, it wasn’t good and wasn’t normal. “And here, in the right breast,” she said, pulling up that computer screen image, “you’ll see this black mass, right here, very small. Cancer. Invasive.” White mass in left breast. Black mass in right. Nothing grey anyplace; no ambiguity at all. No grey area. Cancer. Two kinds. One in each breast.

She reached out and touched me and I was back from wherever I had gone. Around me were women, nurses, angels, who stood close and for a moment we all shared the same air, shared the same fear, shared the same dread. We were one and for a moment we were invincible. “We should do a biopsy,” she said. I nodded. “When?” she asked. Procrastinator shouted at me, “Later. Never. When pigs fly,” but when I opened my mouth what came out was, “If we do it now, I can probably still be home in time for the dinner party at my house at 6:30.” She offered me a Xanax, quite sure I wasn’t coping. I took two.

Brad arrived; my dear friend Suzanne arrived. I called other friends Catherine and Linda. They convinced me the dinner party wasn’t important. I was surrounded by nurses who told me they were there with me, covered me with warm blankets, and while lying on a bed with a very long needle being pushed once and then twice and then a third time into one breast and then the other, I found myself remembering an incident with my son, Baker, when he was 4.

At that age, Baker loved to run through the house naked. Well, naked except for a crib sheet that he liked to wear as a magic cape. That yellow crib sheet turned him into Superman, made him invisible, let him become a roaring lion, and, when tired, served as immediate blankie for a nap any place. But he was naked and his older sister was quite tired of that especially when her friends came to play. “Mom, you have got to make him put on clothes. I do not care if he thinks he’s invisible; he is not.”
I thought that was a reasonable request, and so I called Baker to my bedroom and explained that if he wanted to run around naked in his room all the time, that was fine, but he was old enough to understand that when he was outside of his room then he really should keep his private parts covered. He listened intently and nodded seriously and announced, after some mulling of this idea, that he could do that. He headed toward his room, for clothes, I presumed. Five minutes later he zoomed through the den and Meredith shrieked, “Mom he’s still naked” and I heard Baker tell her he was not, that his private parts were covered and she yelled they were not and he yelled they were too and I arrived as quickly as possible to see my four-year-old wearing nothing but his birthday suit and his magic yellow cape standing up on a chair with his arms crossed against his stomach so that each hand could hold—an elbow.

Where are you clothes?” I asked. He told me he didn’t need any. He said I had told him to cover his private parts and he had done that. I told him he was holding his elbows. He said that was right; that he had thought about it and decided that of all his parts, his elbows were his most private parts. Meredith said Oh good grief and left me to figure this one out. Baker continued, “I don’t look at my elbows too often because they are hard to see and I figured that anything that is hard to see is probably your private part.” And with that, he jumped off the chair, and went running after our dog, yellow cape flying and elbows carefully covered.

And so, fifteen years later, I lay on that bed, robed in a hospital gown that bared my breasts for all in the room to see, with images of a white mass and a black mass in my mind’s eye, trying to remember if I had already set the table for the dinner party that I kept forgetting would not be happening, praying that my husband would arrive, that my friend Suzanne would get there immediately, and I looked down and realized I was clutching my elbows.

The next few weeks took me to a surgeon named Redwine (Redwine and Beers—of course) and to a plastic surgeon who was the first person who ever made me happy to have that middle-aged-I’ve-had-two-children-tummy-fat. “Ah, you’re a perfect candidate for a type of breast reconstruction that uses stomach fat,” he said, and I was suddenly vindicated for loving pasta and wine more than I loved broccoli and sit-ups. I fell in love with him for seeing me as perfect for something. He’s the same doctor who would not tell me that I could not go to Winnipeg, Canada, fourteen days after surgery but strongly suggested I might not be up to it. He was right. Fourteen days after surgery I could not walk from one end of the house to the other without stopping to rest. Fourteen days after surgery I had not yet looked at my naked self in a mirror. Fourteen days after surgery I sat in his office, clutching my elbows, and crying.
Do you hurt someplace, he asked. I shook my head no and gripped my elbows more tightly. Have you talked with other women with breast cancer, he asked. I cried more and again shook my head no as my nails dug gouges into my elbows. Can you tell me why all the tears, he said, and I knew then that my private parts had nothing to do with breasts or belly buttons or any other body part. Baker had it right all along. Private parts are the parts that we barely ever look at because they are so damned hard to see.

My most private part was deep underneath the procrastinating, worrying, optimist woman. My most private part was named Fear. I was afraid. Not afraid of the word cancer. That’s not the scary word. The scary word is spread. And underneath that was an even more basic fear: what if the person I loved, the person I the most wanted no longer found me attractive? What if I wasn’t pretty to him any more? At one level, I knew better than that. Love isn’t shallow; love isn’t skin-deep. The problem was, since the surgery, I was shallow; I was skin-deep.

As I sat in Dr. Schusterman’s office, I remembered the weeks right before surgery walking through the mall, looking at women in an all new light—I checked out breasts and watched when a perky pair caused men to stop and stare. Those breasts are her breasts, not reconstructed ones. I thought of the woman who asked me if cancer meant I had lost my breasts. Lost them? As in they were misplaced? No, I had not misplaced my breasts. They were taken from me. By a disease named Cancer. I thought of the day the phone rang and a nice man asked if I would make a donation to help support breast cancer. What? I said. “We’re collecting money to support breast cancer,” he repeated. No, I told him, I don’t support this disease at all. I hung up. All I wanted were real breasts. My breasts. For years, I realized, I had lied to my children telling them that what mattered most was what was on the inside. Not true. What mattered were nipples. And boobs. And mine now looked funny. Odd. I didn’t look normal. I couldn’t be loved. I wasn’t sure who I was any more.

And so I sat in Dr. Schusterman’s office, clutching my elbows, and whispered that I was afraid I wasn’t pretty. I was afraid I wasn’t loveable, wasn’t worth loving. I uncovered that most private part of me. My most private part was named fear and once I realized that as long as I held on to my fear, then I would struggle. But when I looked at fear and shared it, then what seemed hard became doable.

“I don’t feel pretty,” I said. And as I said it, I was embarrassed at this superficial revelation. He sat with me and listened. My fear at that moment wasn’t that some stray cancer cell was making a bee line for my liver. My fear was my breasts, still healing, didn’t look normal, didn’t look sexy. “You are healing great,” he said. “No I’m not, “I said. “I feel broken. I don’t feel pretty.” As I told him my fear, I noticed my elbows no longer throbbed because my hands no longer clenched them quite as tightly.

He nodded and then told me he thought he knew what would help. “Xanax?” I suggested. “No,” he said. I waited. What would this man, this lauded surgeon, who was rebuilding me one bit at a time, tell me? I nodded at him, urging him to go on. “Go buy a pretty bra,” he said. “Excuse me?” I said. “You want me to go buy a pretty bra? That’s it. That’s your advice?” “Yep,” he said. “Go to Top Drawer over by the Galleria and buy a pretty bra. You have pretty breasts, and you need to just feel pretty again. In fact, buy two and call me next week.”

I left and Brad drove me to the most expensive lingerie store I had ever visited. I stood looking at the white cotton no-nonsense 18-hour support bras and thought how much I liked the idea of a garment promising me support for 18 hours. But I pushed past that sensible promise and eventually stood staring at the skimpy black lacy bras. No tag promised support of any sort. A saleswoman approached me. Can I help you? she asked. I looked at her, let go of my elbows, and explained that I had just been sitting at my computer working when I felt a pain and instead of having a dinner party I had a mammogram and then a biopsy and then a bilateral mastectomy and then some pretty serious reshuffling of body tissue for reconstruction and now my plastic surgeon had recommended a pretty bra when I told him I was sad and I thought that was ridiculous because there was nothing about me that felt pretty and on top of everything I had missed my deadline and I never miss deadlines . . . I paused for air and she ushered me into a fitting room, probably to get me away from the sane people in the store, and while I stood there crying she undressed me, put the black lacy bra on me, and turned me to face the mirror.

She pulled back my shoulders, stood behind me, and whispered, “You look good. Very good. You have boobs a 25-year-old would covet.” I looked. Cleavage. Smooth skin peeked over the top of the lace. No scars showed. I turned sideways. No tummy. I smiled. “Maybe you have this bra in red, too?” I asked. “Maybe I do” she said smiling. “And maybe some panties, high cut in the leg?” She nodded, “I do.”

I left there an hour later explaining to Brad that the $350.00 lingerie bill was doctor’s orders.

In the many months since then, I’ve embraced my new superficial self. I linger over lipstick colors. I buy perfume on a whim. I’ve become a vegetarian and if any one asks why, I’m happy to report on the studies that link good health to vegetable protein. I carefully choose which mushrooms we eat. I grow tomatoes. I’ve taken up running, or at least I’ve bought the right Nike Barefoot shoes that proclaim I’m a runner.

I am learning, little by little, to find those private parts and, when needed, uncover them. I’ve learned that even the most private parts, at difficult times in our lives, have to be made at least somewhat public, accessible to those who need to know, not as intruders or spectators, but as allies and friends. Some matters just can’t be handled completely alone. None of us is an island. We need other people, and never more than when we would most like to retreat and withdraw. But there are, if we are lucky, people there, like these nurses and doctors and lingerie saleswomen, who can be welcomed into private places, private moments, and help us through them.

And so now with my doctors—plastic surgeon, oncologist, and now an orthopedic surgeon for a newly torn rotator cuff—I arrive wearing my sexiest bra and more likely than not I’m wearing something sleeveless, elbows bared, my own personal reminder that sometimes our private parts, those parts so hard to look at, need to be uncovered. I ask questions. I argue. I don’t say yes immediately. I do things in my own time. When I asked Dr. Nelson, oncologist extraordinaire, what questions I had failed to ask after one near two-hour visit, I believed him when he said he was sure there was no question I had not posed. And I am most grateful for the ways family and friends, doctors and nurses stand with me, with all us women who face each day with cancer somewhere in our minds.

When Dr. Nelson told me he wanted me to start a drug, an aromatize inhibitor, to squash any remaining estrogen in my body, but that drug might cause joint problems, and perhaps hot flashes, and maybe mood swings, and perhaps a loss of bone density so I’d need a bone density test and if that came back showing problems, I’d need to start another drug that would fight bone loss. “Haven’t I heard that that drug causes fractures?” I asked. “Well yes,” he conceded, “it does that and it has been known to severely weaken jaw bones so we’ll have to be careful with any dental work.” Of all that he said to me what I remember the most is his comment that “We’ll have to be careful.” He was in this with me. Me and my oncologist. Facing cancer together.

Surely a partner in this quest would understand my request: “Ok, but this sounds dreadful and I feel anxious, so I’d like a prescription for some Xanax. OK? I just want the constant gnaw of anxiousness gone.” He shook his head no. “Why not?” I asked. “It might be habit forming,” he responded.

“Are you kidding me,” I said. “My breasts have been removed, my cancer might return, my estrogen is gone, my bones might disintegrate and you think I’m worried that I might come to rely on this magic pill that takes the edge of anxiousness? Are you kidding me?” “Nope,” he said. “You will be fine without it.” Will not, my worrying self thought. He read my mind. “You will be fine,” he repeated. My hands were by my side; my private parts were showing. I looked at Dr. Nelson who was willing to go on this journey with me, quirky me, some days optimistic, other days worried. Together we were facing my fears. He had my back.

I dressed, putting on my sexy, lacy, black bra and I walked out of there, into the world, elbows showing.

Thank you, each of you, for the journey you take with all of us who live with cancer. You give us the courage to face our private parts.

Bio information:

Kylene Beers is an award-winning educator and the best-selling author of When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do and Elements of Literature, the literature textbook read by the majority of middle school and high school students across the US. She began her teaching career in 1979 in the Alief School District. Since then, she has become an internationally-known and respected authority in literacy education. Kylene works tirelessly to help parents, teachers, and national policy makers understand how to best help struggling readers. In 2008-2009, she served as President of the National Council of Teachers of English and in 2011 she received the Conference on English Leadership Outstanding Leader Award. She was the editor of a national literacy journal, taught in the College of Education at the University of Houston, held a reading research position in the Comer School Development Program at Yale University School of Medicine, and currently serves as an as-needed advisor on secondary reading to the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University.

In late March 2010, Kylene was diagnosed with two different types of cancer, one in each breast. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy on April 13, 2010. Since then, she’s become a vegetarian, found a Chinese massage therapist, finished writing another book, given 54 keynote speeches, called her college-age children one zillion times, convinced her husband that Sonoma wines are more healing when sipped in Sonoma, taken up marathon running (well, she’s read Born to Run and bought the right shoes), and discovered the joys of lingering over new lipstick colors, growing tomatoes, and smelling all the roses.

You can follow Kylene on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/KyleneBeers where she mostly comments on things educational or on Facebook where she expands her remarks to include bragging about her children or here, on her blog, which she recently found and is pleased to have dusted it off and is using it again!