This is why we teach.

A few weeks ago school opened and we welcomed around 20 new students to our K-5 building. Since I get to meet nearly all of our new friends before they begin, I make a point to follow up and see how it’s going for them in their new classes. Often it’s a smile and “How’s it going?” Occasionally, it’s an additional reading assessment–an extra chance to hear them read and finish pinpointing a just right starting place. I chat with the children, and their teachers.

It was the first week of school when I met “Fred” for the first time. He arrived to us from a very different community and school. For him the early grades were not a positive experience. He was prickly and defensive.

“I do NOT read,” he declared. “I DON’T do work.” And to make matters more challenging, he constantly expected to be disrespected by peers (and possibly adults), so he lashed out quickly if he felt threatened.

His teacher negotiated with him to read one page of a book during the day’s reading workshop. When I pulled him to my office to get to know him, I managed to coax and cajole a reluctant three pages.

Fast forward.

Last week, his teacher reported that he finished his book, came to her and announced, “This level is too easy for me now. Can I have a harder book?”

That was two days after he laboriously plodded through the entire state-mandated universal screening assessment online, carefully reading and rereading every passage although it was well above where he was reading independently.

Two days after that he finished Andy Shane and asked for harder books again.


This past weekend I was at nErDcampNNE in Freeport, Maine. At the author evening on Friday I came across a few Andy Shane books. I looked up and there was Jennifer Richard Jacobson. We chatted and she signed a copy to “Fred.”

Back at school today I made a visit to his classroom. I pulled up alongside him at his reading spot on the carpet and listened as he worked his way through a page–solving ‘engineer’ along the way. I interrupted him and explained how I’d met the author over the weekend.

“When I met her, I thought of you so she signed this copy of the book for you,” I flipped to her inscription. His eyes rounded. “This one is for you to keep forever.”

He turned to look at his teacher and she smiled at me over his head. “He’s smiling so big,” she mouthed when he turned back to me.

As I moved to speak with her, he got up from his zone. We soon realized that he had taken the book and was showing the inscription to the other students.

“This is for me. The author signed it,” he repeated to each one. Just a few short weeks after he arrived, he trusted that they would be as happy for him as he was.

He came up to me and said, “could a teacher write a note to my mom in case she doesn’t believe me about this book?” I agreed thinking I’d drop off a note before the end of the day. He immediately handed me a pad of sticky notes and his pencil. He wasn’t letting me leave his sight until he had airtight proof.

I’ve lined up at midnight for book releases. But I have never, in my life, seen someone so happy to receive a book.

I’m glad he liked the book. But I’m ecstatic that he now views himself as a reader.

His teacher is wonderful. She’s shown him both respect and limits since he arrived. She’s managed to convince him that our school is the kind of place where we’re all readers. Where we all care about one another.

He believed her, so now he believes in himself.



Geeking Out at Nerdy Author Night

This is an all literacy weekend!

I climbed in the car and cranked up the Hamilton soundtrack (followed by a little Ella Fitgerald) for the drive to Maine. Traveling alone means I’m temporarily not responsible for other human beings, which is liberating in itself. It also means I can belt out showtunes without harming anyone else. I was feeling sassy, singing and swaying to “Satisfied” in my Subaru, then belting blues-y Ella.


Maine- The Way Life Should Be

My anticipation was approaching a fever pitch as I pulled up to Morse Street School in Freeport. You see, authors still feel otherworldly to me. And here’s this little school tucked in behind L.L. Bean. I mean, of course tourist towns must have schools, too, but actually seeing them is a little like seeing through the Mist for the first time.

I wasn’t sure quite how the Author Night would work so I arrived just as it was beginning and took a slow lap around the Gymaterium (new word). I felt my excitement nearly ready to bubble over. Do you KNOW who was going to be here? My nerves settled down to a soft simmer as I glimpsed many familiar book covers around the edges of the room. Some kids were already sidling up to authors, parents in tow. I overheard a few teachers exclaiming over books they scored for their classes (or themselves).  After a full lap at arms length, I was ready to engage.

I stood tentatively behind a girl and her mother, waiting for my turn with the author of Piper Green. I shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as Ellen Potter chatted with the girl. How did this work? I knew the books were for sale. Surreptitiously, I tried to figure out how the mother was paying for them. I quietly unzipped my wallet to retrieve the cash I’d brought for just this purpose. I was going to have to say something when it was my turn. I waited without coming up with anything worth saying. I tried to look less awkward by browsing the books on the next table over. But I felt bad scanning the books without saying anything to the author.

Finally I asked, “How did you ever get started writing about the ocean?” It was the start of the most pleasant conversation, not at all awkward and hero-worship-y like I’d feared. She mentioned her underwater photographer who worked with National Geographic, and I thought, “It couldn’t be…could it?” Turns out, we know someone in common. One of her photographers is a family friend. We were both swimmers at Colby. By the end of the conversation I had to know more about giant squid, so I asked for a copy of one of her books. Like a sunken treasure.

By the time our conversation wrapped up I turned back to Ellen Potter and the line was gone. Now there was just one young boy–maybe 7–chatting with her about Minecraft of all things. In his mind, he was the expert here with countless Minecraft achievements. These authors were just people after all.

I continued down the aisle of tables in much the same manner, chatting comfortably with the authors of Andy Shane and Ballpark Mysteries. Jennifer Richard Jacobson signed a book to a third grader who three weeks ago insisted he wasn’t a reader, but recently finished one of her books. (I can’t wait to hand it to him!) She shared that a new edition will be coming out with multiple Andy Shane titles bound into a single volume. Finally, striving readers will be able to carry around a “big book” that looks like everyone else’s! Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but I think it will be powerful for those readers. I also had that third grade friend in mind when David Kelly signed the mysteries.

Let’s be honest, I was awestruck by the authors. But I was gobsmacked by how easily the young readers interacted with them. A post-event conversation with another teacher from Massachusetts made me realize why that was so surprising to me.

Jason said, “We never saw authors when we were kids. Now, I have authors come to my classroom every year, we Skype, I meet them at events like this and we’re friends. But when we were kids those things didn’t happen.”

And he was right. Maybe that’s why the 7 year old could boast at length to an author one Friday night in his school gym, and I’ve seen Lynda Mullaly Hunt three times before I asked her to sign copies of Fish in a Tree  and One for the Murphys. What was I waiting for? When she heard I was a teacher, she sent me off with armloads of swag to share at school. (The swag wasn’t the point, but she was so nice!)

At the end of the evening I was able to catch a picture of all the authors before they headed out and we packed up the remaining books.


Afterward, the event team met nearby for a snack. I got to tag along with my new nerdy friends. Our table was alongside the table of authors. And on the way out one woman extended her hand and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Nancy. Thanks for your work.”

I assured her I was just tagging along, and feeling very lucky.

“Well, thank you for tagging along then,” said Nancy Tupper Ling.

No. Thank you.

Late tonight I am one baby step closer to feeling like authors are real people. People who may know someone I do. People who feel grateful, like I do, for opportunities to share booklove with others who care. People who appreciate teachers for reaching students. People who enjoy a little snack and a good conversation after a nerdy book event.

And feeling like authors are ordinary people, means just maybe I could do that, too…And so can my students.

Unexpected Opportunity and Unexpected Reactions

Yesterday one of our guest teachers (who’s here so often she’s more like family) greeted me, schedule in hand.

“Morning!” I chirped. “Where are you today?”

“Second grade,” she replied. “If you aren’t busy you can come visit us,” she added hopefully.

“”Do you mean it? I could come by and read.”


At this point she showed me her schedule and told me I could come here, here, here, or during the entire math block.We agreed to a time after lunch and off we each went.


I arrived to the second grade class with my cup of tea and two books under my arm. One was a gorgeously illustrated Water Princess by Susan Verde and Peter Reynolds (of Ish fame). The other was a stack of printer paper folded in half, held together by binder clips (minus the silver parts). I offered a choice.

“Readers,” I began, “I brought two books today. One is by an author and illustrator I know we love. You all just celebrated Dot Day recently. The other one,” I held up the handmade book. “Well I have to be very brave to share this one. You see, I wrote it this summer. I thought maybe, today you could listen to just a little it of it like you were my writing partner.”

I paused and watched their little faces as they took in what I’d said.

A hand went up.

“Do you mean you wrote a whole book?”

“Yes, I did. And I was thinking that it might be the kind of book that second graders would enjoy, but I was also hoping maybe you’d make some suggestions for how to make it better.”

It wasn’t unanimous, but the class voted to hear the first chapter of Will’s World- Capture the Flag. I took a sip of tea and began to read in my most animated storyteller’s voice.


There were times as I surreptitiously watched them between glances at the pages that I thought it was a flop. Eyebrows furrowed over unfamiliar vocabulary, but then smoothed out when a character explained his big word.

I held my breath after I finished the final words of the first chapter.

“So readers, remember when I asked you to be my writing partner? Would you please turn to the person next to you and tell them what you’re thinking about this book so far?”

Bodies turned to talk. Heads leaned close to one another. And voices rose energetically. I crept around the carpet and listened in.

“I really want to know what’s going to happen,” one boy told his partner.

“I don’t really like it that much,” another shared honestly. (I’m not going to lie, that one hurt a little in the soft spot where my courage had been hanging on.)

As I sat back in the rocking chair, I asked for a couple friends to share.

“This should be a whole series!” said one.

“Well I did start writing a second book about Will and his friends.”

“You should add some pictures to it,” added another.

“That’s a great idea. I was thinking maybe it needed a map of Will’s neighborhood.” A few friends offered to make pictures for it and I welcomed their offers.

“You should sell a thousand hundred copies and be famous!” enthused another.

If you’re imagining my heart swelling as I listened, you’re right.

“Well, I tell you what…If I ever become famous, I’ll put a big thank you to your class right in my book. How’s that?”

But the best part of that day was still to come.

As we were wrapping up the share one boy said, “I want to go home and write a book tonight. You’ve inspired me.”

Well that swelled my heart to bursting. You see, this is a boy who works hard to read and who doesn’t like writing.

I probably should have let them get on with math, but they urged me, so we read one more chapter. And I left the book for them to finish if they wanted to.


That was an amazing experience as a writer or as a teacher. My little writing partners were encouraging and enthusiastic. But that wasn’t the end of it.

Today the teacher across the hall from those second grade friends came to me and asked, if maybe, would I mind coming to read that to her class too?

You bet!

If I inspire one more child to want to read, or to write, I’ll consider it a gift. But I’m also energized to write that sequel for them. The book’s still a little hard for most second graders to read on their own. But in just a few months they’ll be the kind of readers who can tackle chapters on their own. If they’re still interested in Will, I’d love to have more adventures to share.

Subtle/Sudden Changes

It’s the time of year when we look back at all those first day of school photos from previous years. We watch as our children turn from chubby cheeked, soft fingered new kindergarteners, to leaner big kids. Every year I posed my boys in the same spot on the front porch. It was stilted and staged, but I could see their height increase against the doorpost. My favorite fist day picture of all, though, is the one that happened by accident as my camera and I followed the boys down the driveway toward the bus stop. They stopped to play in a tree and in that one picture their little characters came through.


Fast forward. More years than seem possible. But really only four.


The boys’ schedules are so full that it seems lately I only get snapshots of them during the week, sans camera. Cheeks flushed red at the end of a cross country race. Hair damp and smell ripe after hockey practice. A helpful, “Sure,” when asked to help clean the kitchen at night. A grateful, “Thanks, Mom,” when delivering urgently needed band music. Carefully coiffed hair after the evening shower “so it will look like hair and not gel tomorrow.” A huge mountain of a backpack disappearing through the door in the still dark of morning.

Sometimes the snapshots I collect aren’t even from my boys themselves, but secondhand. At hockey, since the boys are with the team practicing, warming up, or actually playing, most of my time is with other parents instead of my children. And most of that time isn’t even while they’re playing but in the transitions before and after their games. (Hockey is often a nearly four hour commitment surrounding each one hour game–an hour to drive each way, an hour for pre-game warm up, and however long the kids take in the locker room afterwards.) There’s time to chat with other parents.

It’s still early in the season. My older son hasn’t even had his first game yet, so I haven’t seen him skate with this new team. After a recent practice I was standing outside the rink waiting to pick him up. I greeted other parents and one of the dads said, “Daniel is really looking like a captain in there. The team was having trouble with its passing and he was getting them back on track.” *Heartbeeps* He’s a second year bantam, so most of his teammates are younger and less experienced. Daniel had shared that his team seemed unsure of where and how to move the puck in certain situations. As a defenseman who can see the whole action spread out in front of him, he’s always called out suggestions to his teammates. We’d always thought of it as something defensemen do. Apparently, it’s something captains do. There have never been official captains on his teams. But this snapshot showed me a suddenly older and more responsible player.

Much to my son’s chagrin I’ve downloaded the app from school that lets me check his grades from anywhere. Last year was a rough transition to high school–in a new, more demanding district. Last year I felt like I was doing high school again. I had my own schoolwork, plus closely supervising whatever he had. This year, I’ve been feeling lighter. Quick check ins have been sufficient. When I get home, homework is mostly done. (The app agrees.) And when he’s out shooting hockey pucks in the driveway when I get home, he explains what he’s already done and his plan for later. (Who is this?!) Sunday night I thought we’d slipped back to our old ways. He was supposed to read two essays from the Federalist Papers and when I asked him about them what I got was, “Umm, checks and balances.?” with a half question in his voice. So we had an earnest conversation about how to read something as dense and jam packed as these essays. I read one and left mentor notes on post its. Fast forward to yesterday. When I walked inside, after our driveway chat about his very reasonable plan, there on the table next to the second Federalist essay was his notebook, page full of…notes.

Last year he would have argued. He would (probably) have avoided. But here’s a snapshot of my son as a suddenly more responsible (and responsive) student.

It catches me off guard sometimes how much they’ve grown and changed. Sometimes it takes an old photo…or a new snapshot…to see just how much.

We Make Our Own Beginnings

Beginnings are one of the things I love about teaching. Who doesn’t love a fresh start? A chance to do over–or do better.

two roads

Everyone else might only get one New Year’s Day, but teachers and kids have two. And to tell the truth January really plays second fiddle to the start of a school year. New Years resolutions so often seem reserved for body image goals, but at the start of school we reinvent ourselves. We imagine how our classrooms could look. We envision the kind of teachers we could be. We commit to trying new things, generally with a few specifics in mind. Anything feels possible in the moments before the beginning.

After days alone in the classroom, colleagues arrive and our visions shift and expand as they come in contact with one another. Convocation is like the soft start to the year. We’ve begun, but only technically since the primary purpose for our existence has not yet arrived. It’s a time to get situated and sorted…almost. There’s never enough time in this soft start to get fully settled.

Because now the buses roll in and the energy goes through the roof. Those first day smiles and hugs as last year’s friends greet you for the first time are the grand opening. Greeting uncertain four and five year olds for whom this is the first school beginning reminds us of completely new starts.

In October our narrative writing may have blossomed. Then blooms may have begun to wilt. No worries. We’ll have a fresh start in the new unit any day now. Towards November we may feel like our initial burst of energy is running low. But the new trimester is just around the corner. Then there’s the actual New Year. And on and on.

You see, what I love about teaching are the new beginnings and they’re everywhere. Some are marked on the calendar. Others are marked in our hearts. A child who has struggled to engage with reading finally finishes an entire book! After reading a new professional book we decide to take on a new challenge or to apply a new strategy. After a Twitter chat or a conference we find ourselves buzzing with energy from the amazing educators we met. So we choose to try something new.

I remember the advice Anne Shirley’s teacher gave her: Tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it…yet.

alwys fresh with no mistakes

Well, if tomorrow is a clean slate, then why couldn’t I try something new? Why couldn’t I grow beyond where I began today? There’s no need to wait all the way to next September. And if I make a mistake, then the next tomorrow will be fresh and new again.

I can make my new beginnings any time at all. We feed beginnings on ideas and our own energy. They start as a spark, but we can fan them into something more. Were you looking for a cheerful campfire? Or are you ready to set the world ablaze?

That’s the thing with beginnings…you decide.


magic of new beginnings

Designing a Learning Lounge


You don’t know it yet, but this is a call to action.

OK, now you know!


The Connecticut Reading Association is planning something new for our fall conference to be held in November. Inspired by the ILA conference, we’re trying to coordinate a Learning Lounge space. The idea is that when we go to a conference we can learn from and be energized by the big name speakers and prominent experts, but we’re also energized and wowed by fellow teachers who are doing innovative and engaging things in their little corners of the literacy world. Sometimes the sideline conversations are as valuable as the main event. After all, we’re surrounded by people who love what we love!

The Learning Lounge is designed to be a less formal space where sessions run about 30 minutes and may even be interactive. At ILA I loved the publishers’ preview sessions, but I also enjoyed the home-grown title talks by a group of teachers who gathered because we all love middle grade literature. I’m imagining our Learning Lounge as a place where we put faces to the names of our Twitter pals. I’ve read about amazing ideas, practices, strategies, and projects in your blogs. You are local experts. And if I love reading what you’re up to in a weekly slice, just think how cool it would be to hear about it in person!


Here’s the Call to Action part:

What kinds of Learning Loungey things can you imagine? Are you headed to the CRA conference this fall and you’d like to participate? (I’m thinking of a certain small town poet. One of the TWT partners who happens to be local. And you!)

I have dreams of my digital PLN (that’s you) and my real world literacy life coming together.

Help me imagine this into a lively, relevant, and successful new feature of our conference. Please. And thank you.

Dear New Teacher,


better cabbage

Dear New Teacher,

You said you wanted a plant for your classroom. Here are three. Don’t worry, I checked. They aren’t poisonous, so no worries if a curious kinder puts a leaf in his mouth. As far as I know cabbages are hypo-allergenic. The girl at the nursery explained that no flowers means no pollen in your classroom. And, she assured me that cabbages are very easy to care for.

“How easy?” I asked her.

“Just put them in a sunny window and water them,” she guaranteed.

It didn’t seem like it could be that easy, though, so I pressed. How much water? How often?

To Grow Happy Cabbages:

Set them up in a sunny place with light and space to grow. Give them ¼ cup of water every other day, or so. Check their soil to be sure it’s dried out before you water again. Voila! You should have healthy, thriving cabbages.

Maybe that advice goes for your students as well.

To Grow Happy Students:

Create a bright room for them with plenty of space. Water them with new things to learn and things to bring joy. But check their little bodies to be sure they’re ready for more before you teach another something new. Signs of oversaturation may include leaking from the eyes or excessive wiggling. You’ll know they’re thriving if you see plenty of smiles and they’re leaning into learning like plants lean towards the sun.

Or maybe we could use a recipe for how to stay healthy as a teacher.

To Keep Teachers Alive and Thriving:

Be sure your environment is both energizing and soothing to your taste. If full sun is too much, consider turning the lights low for part of the day. Water frequently–no seriously, teaching makes you thirsty. Stay hydrated. Also water yourself with things that bring you joy. When you feel yourself starting to dry out, give yourself a dose of what makes you happy–reading books just for you, chocolate milk, a run, whatever it is. Also fertilize yourself with new learning. Consider a time release formula that will gradually bathe you in new ideas to consider or strategies to try rather than a one time application. Mentors and teams are great for that!

If the nursery girl’s advice was right you’ll have healthy cabbages, thriving kiddos, and a green leafy teacher-self. I mean a happy teacher-self.

If she was wrong, or if it is in fact more complicated to keep cabbages alive, no worries. You can always start over with new cabbages…or something else. Every week is a fresh start with your class. You’ll continue to build on the weeks before, but if one week is too wet, the next will dry things out. If your kids (or you) are feeling a little wilted from too much sun (or wind, or whatever) one day, you’ll adjust and bounce back in the days ahead.

An Experienced Cabbage Farmer


P.S. Don’t be alarmed, but not all your kids are cabbages. You may have peas, tomatoes, sunflowers, and more. The seed pack doesn’t come labeled so you won’t know until they start to sprout. Some will need a little more or less of the ingredients in your classroom (stimulus, structure, music, movement, quiet, independence). You’ll have to experiment. But they’ll all thrive on your love.

Searching for Pete the Cat

My first week of school allows me ample time to visit in kindergarten (and be an extra set of hands) while the new kinders are getting used to school.

I greeted shining faces as they climbed down from the busses this morning. Some were bright with excitement, a couple were damp with tears. Still others were cautiously optimistic. Hands were held, heads patted, and backs rubbed. One mom needed a hug and reassurance as she handed off her first child to the unknown.

I helped with unpacking, and buttons, and snacks, and lunch. But the real adventure came after lunch.

The teacher read aloud a Pete the Cat book. On the last page Pete had left a note saying he’d gone to the music room and hoped the children would meet him there.

There were gasps. Hands covered mouths open wide in surprise.

“Pete the Cat is in our school?!”

“He’s here? We have to go find him!”

“I hope we find him!”

They lined up whisper quiet, some of them on tiptoe so they wouldn’t scare away Pete the Cat because, “Cats can get scared” according to one new friend.

As they started down the hall, one taller girl said over the heads of her classmates, “Pete the Cat isn’t real, you know.”

I held a finger to my lips and winked, “But we won’t tell.”

Eager feet traipsed in a lopsided line from one end of the school to the next as they followed Pete’s notes. Alas, we were always one step behind him. Though some eager boys found cat scratches in the carpeted halls.

Returning to their classroom to discover that Pete had been and gone again, one boy melted into tears. Others looked up at me and crooned, “But maybe we’ll find him another day when he comes back.”

Maybe we will.

I was fortunate today to comfort sorrow and witness joy. I nudged along fragile confidence in young readers and encouraged independence for snacks and personal care. “You try it.” I observed as our custodian introduced himself to every single child during lunch. I saw pure, uncomplicated belief and hopefulness. And I saw a couple of prematurely jaded kiddos. I have a sense of who will be resilient and who may need more mindset work. Without a single pencil I’ve learned about almost 40 students and two teachers.

I look forward to tomorrow and the year ahead.

Celebration and Confession

Something wonderful happened last night. I finished a draft of my very first book.

Early in June I set out some writing goals for myself, along with a plan for my writing life. Among the goals was finishing this book. Another of the goals (related to this book) was to work on using dialogue. I have worked on it. How successful it’s been will be up to others.

When I sat down to work on this book, it came pouring out, often in 800 word increments. I could clearly envision the world of the characters. I felt I knew the main character inside and out and his friends started to come to life for me across the pages. We are now six weeks into summer vacation, with a scant three remaining. My draft is a little over 8000 words.

It took a little more than a week’s actual writing. I put the first words to its pages in April, not long after finishing the Slice of Life challenge and deciding to try writing a different book in the same neighborhood. I can see you doing that math. How did an early chapter book take four months if I could write 1/10 of it in a single sitting?

So I have a confession.

In spite of my best and most earnest intentions, I haven’t been writing every day this summer. I’ve been less writerly than I’d planned.

I could blame any number of causes: travel, the lack of schedule & routine this summer, numerous commitments for the rest of the family, distractions… Or I could blame myself for not setting aside my sunrises as I’d planned from the beginning. (The thing is that sunrise feels very early when you’ve only just gone to sleep.) I’d fully intended to participate daily in Teachers Write so I’d have a crew and some daily accountability. For the reasons above and none at all–I haven’t. I could be angry with myself. I could belittle what I have achieved because it wasn’t all I’d expected. But I’m hearing a little voice inside…

“Dinna fash yerself lass.”

Ok, so yesterday’s #bookaday was historical fiction from Scotland. But Angus’ advice is sound.

There’s no point beating myself up about how it didn’t all go according to plan. It’s true of my writing this summer. And it’s true for our teaching the rest of the year. If we want to keep our heads up (and the heads of the precious littler writers we’re trying to grow) we need to fully celebrate the accomplishments, no matter how delayed. Because finishing a book (even a first draft) is exciting. I feel more powerful as a writer than I ever have. I hadn’t realized I could do this, and now I’ve proven to myself that I can. I’m feeling confident enough to try again…maybe with this same character, or maybe with the first novel that I started and set aside in favor of something that felt easier. I’m hearing another voice…

“We celebrate hard. Then we get back to work.”

That one is Lucy Calkins’ voice, though I’ve paraphrased.

It is important, though, that I recognize what got in the way of meeting my other writing plans. Being reflective about what was working and what wasn’t in my process can help me set up better conditions, and perhaps devise more effective strategies for meeting those targets next time.

In the end, the books I write are a byproduct. What I’m really working to grow is a writer.

So consider this (and an ice cream–hey it’s still National Ice Cream Month for one more day!) my hearty celebration. Tomorrow it’s back to work on the next set of goals.

May you have your own celebrations this summer and always!


Capture the Flag

#TeachersWrite Challenge 1- Consider your setting from someone else’s perspective + #SOL + #notsleeping = #LateNightFlashDraftforNovel

The Garden– To an outsider.  Jungle like. How can the tomatoes be this big in July? 

Though they wouldn’t be ripe for a few more weeks, the peaches smelled sweet as my face brushed past them. The leaves tickled, too. Softly I dropped down out of the fruit tree. I crouched at the base of the tree until I saw the backyard. Jake would call this recon. The shadows were long as the sun settled into the treetops. I’d have to be careful of an ambush.

To my left was the preschool yard. Emma would clear that one. My job was this jungle. I had to search through the fruit trees and the garden for their flag. I had to be fast.

I hunched and hurried to the cherry tree closer to the fence. My eyes scraped across the branches in the weakening light looking for the red of their flag. Cherries would be a good camouflage. But there were few cherries left and those were high in the upper branches where no one could reach. Well, Jake could have reached them, but I didn’t think anyone from this side could climb like him.

I retraced my steps to the peach tree and its companion. Again I scanned around the trunks and through the branches for any telltale flash of red. There was nothing. My heart beat faster in my chest. Seconds were ticking by. I forced myself to move further down the row. It was like searching across the summer from the June Cherries past the August peaches to the autumn apples. The infant fruits were small and still mostly green. Still no sign of their flag.

I had reached the far edge of Frank’s yard. This was the boundary of the game. If the flag wasn’t hidden in these trees, I’d have to venture further in.

The grass brushed the tops of my socks. The fresh cut smell wafted from Jake’s yard reminding me of our failed plan. But this grass was tall. Not quite tall enough to disguise me if I tried an army crawl. It would be faster and better to run across the small clearing to the garden fence.

I craned my neck to get a better view of where the gate was. It would make sense for the gate to be on the side facing the house. Whoever was growing this garden would want the easiest way in. But easy for the gardener just meant it would be harder for me. Instead of slipping up the outside edge, I’d need to cover open ground.

I listened. I didn’t hear anything in this yard. From two yards down, I could hear the bigger kids splashing in the pool. Their laughing rolled across the yards and tangled up in all the trees and plants around me. Just then I heard a squeal from beyond the path. It came from my yard. Or was it closer?! There was no more time to waste. They sent me because I’m fast. It was time to prove it.

Looking over my shoulder along the treeline, then glancing along the edges of the fence that I could see from here, no movement. It looked clear. I pumped my legs until I was racing across the grass. My arms pumped in time with my heart. Now I pulled up short at the fence, groping for a latch or a gate. My fingers gripped wire. I skimmed my fingers across the top until they reached a gap. Urgently, I felt with both hands for a way to open the gate. The latch slipped open in my hands and I slipped inside. I left the gate ajar so I could slip back out.

With an ever quickening beat in my ears I sidestepped through each row of the garden. Once I was between the tomato plants, I was hidden from view. How was it possible that these tomato plants were already up to my shoulders? It was barely July. Our own tomatoes in a pot o the deck were only up to my waist. I scanned each plant for signs of red. Tomatoes would make another good camouflage.

I’d been focused at eye level where many of the fruits were swelling. I almost missed the knot of red behind the lowest arms of one plant in the very center of the garden. It wasn’t tied like a flag or spread out like a bandana. The perfectly round clump resembled the fruits that harbored it.

Gently, very gently I reached down and removed their flag. I was careful not to damage the plant. These were somebody’s project. They must have started in the winter to have such big plants already. I didn’t want to be caught with their flag. But I really didn’t want to explain why I’d ruined someone’s sauce garden either.

I shoved the flag into my shorts pocket and poked my head above the tops of the leafy stalks. Was that a shadow moving near the far fence? I’d have to make a break for it. Once I left the garden gate, there’d be no time to look back. I’d race back past the fruit trees to where I’d found Frank’s gate. Then straight through and into Jake’s yard where I could declare victory.

I reached the edge of the garden row and angled toward the gate. Here I go!

I launched myself out of the gate and across the lawn. There it was again. Movement near the preschool yard. There was no way to know if it was Emma or Frank’s crew. I pumped harder. My hair ruffled against the lower branches of the orchard. The back gate was only steps away.

A shadow filled the opening of the gate.

I swerved to the right back toward the peaches. The figure at the fence pointed at me and yelled something.

With my pulse pounding in my ears I couldn’t hear what he said. I pulled myself up into the branches of the [maple] tree. If I could get high enough, I could jump over the fence and onto the bike path. From there I’d try to run toward’s Jake’s.

Leaves flapped in my face as I climbed. I squinted to keep any twigs from poking my eyes. I was moving too fast to be careful. My left arm stretched above me and gripped the smooth bark. I lifted my right foot and tried to hook it up onto the next branch. For a moment I hung there by my hands and feet. I opened my eyes wide and caught a glimpse of the nearly full moon through the leaves. I inched farther out on the branch until it started to sag. With a quick glance down over my shoulder, I unhooked my feet and dangled by my fingers. Then I dropped onto the pavement of the path.

I started to run toward Jake’s. But three steps in I saw the shadowy figure blocking my way. Just as Frank had stood in my path this morning. He came toward me.

I remembered my brother’s signature dodge from lacrosse and tried to imitate it. I took a stutter step to the left, then rolled away to the right. I rolled until I was facing  away from my pursuer. Then I opened up and ran like I was chasing down Dan with the ball. I streaked up the path toward my own yard.

With each step I pulled further ahead. By the time I pulled to a stop at my own gate the footsteps behind me were at least two bike lengths behind me. I’d opened this latch hundreds of times. It could be tricky, but I knew just the trick. Come on! There.

The latch popped open and the gate swung out to my left, nearly hitting the one chasing me. I leapt through the gate and yelled as loud as I could, “Olly olly oxen free! We have the flag!”