Monday, January 27, 2014

Nathan, Future Poet Laureate of Kentucky

I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered. 

Ethan Watching a Storm
Nathan R. Petrie
Purple lightning tears into the night
like thorns tore his shorts last week.
And while the bushes hid poison—spiders
and ivy—this thunder sucks
his fingers to the glass, his head past
the curtain, his eyes through the mist.
He holds his breath
to keep the glass clear and shouts between the brilliance
and the pounding of the storm. His heart drums in time
with the percussive drops. “Wow! Did you see that?”
Watching him hug the window, I see
lightning for the first time. Not electrons, static, or fear.
I see Zeus in his anger, hear God bowl a strike.
How do you write about a writer? As I sit here and try to come up with a way to start this post, I realize that the subject of it will critique every phrase.  This is a difficult task.  I thought that starting it off with one of his poems would make it easier, but...well…this is daunting. I guess I’ll just start.
Nathan is in his second semester, and a Sophomore, at the University of Kentucky.  (l guess AP credits really do help speed up the process.) Let me say that he is one busy person, an English major, writer and editor for a satirical paper, social media director for a literary journal, a member of the Wildcat Marching Band, part of the UK Baptist Ministry, and a member of a three-man literary critiquing team.   I’m surprised he had time to respond to my questions. In reality, he’s living life with 60,000 of his classmates, getting to know people, building his resume, and gaining experience.  

Since Nathan lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he knows that meeting people is not always his strong suit.  However, he’s taken that disadvantage and turned it around to an advantage.  He admittedly gets super involved so he can force himself into making friends, which is commendable.  “Meeting people and making friends, as you probably know, isn’t my strong area. I figure if I shove my nose into enough places, people will have to like me.”

Nathan attributes a lot of his current successes to his parents and the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts.  He claims that his parents worked hard and hounded him about grades from the beginning.  That work ethic paved the way to be accepted into the GSA program.  His three weeks in Lexington during the summer of 2012 changed his life. Not only did this lead to some great scholarships but so much more.

I went in 2012 for creative writing and after three weeks I left a completely different person. Not only did I learn a lot about writing—I understood poetry better, for example—but I learned a lot about people and myself. The 22 writers I lived with at GSA forever instilled in me a passion for honest language and the change that can produce.
Really, GSA is what got me where I am today. Scholarships, community, know-how. It’s all stuff I need, and I use the skills I learned there on a regular basis. I know practical ways to build a career in the literary world now, and I’ve got no one to thank but GSA.

I’m thrilled to know that Nathan also gave me credit for his knowledge of grammar. My previous school pushed grammar hard, using Shurley English as our curriculum. After transferring to public school in 8th grade, Nathan came to realize that he understood the syntax of English much better than his peers.  We also shared some literary love.  Unbeknownst to me, I got him started on the Ted Dekker’s Circle Trilogy, and has enjoyed Dekker’s writing for some time since.

If you know many writers, you know they just feel things and express things differently than most of us non-writers.  I love this response to my question about future plans.

I want to publish a collection of poetry and I want to write and publish a novel. I want to lead someone to Christ (side note, it hurts so much to pray years for someone and see no is painful sometimes). I want to graduate with honors. I want to get accepted into an MFA program and graduate successfully. I want to go to Oxford, buy a drink from the Eagle and Child, open a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and cry. I want to write a screenplay—I’d love to write for TV. I want to be Poet Laureate of KY.

I asked Nathan to participate in this blog series because -- to the best of my knowledge -- he is my only former student who is a published author. He wrote and published a collection of short stories as an 8th grader and he is on pace to do bigger and better things in the future. Ironically, I had no idea till we started this project together that this foray into published writing is actually a source of contention with him. Without going into details, let’s just say that Nathan learned a lot about choosing publishers wisely and came out with a better understanding of the workings of the publishing world.

Nathan was a Christian fantasy writer, but now he writes narrative poetry. While he dabbled in poetry early on, it was really GSA that got him hooked.  It was there that he understood poetry.  “Poetry is simple and honest. Poems can offer novel-type insight in 14 lines. It's challenging and the payoff is tremendous.”
Of course, Nathan is more than a literary wonder. It’s been interesting to invite someone to this blog profile for one thing and learn much more about that person for instance…

I had the joy of introducing him to geocaching, which is a fun and geeky high-tech treasure hunt game. One summer, I hosted a geocaching camp, where a group of 7 students and 2 adults ran all over Northern Kentucky looking for objects hidden in the woods.  It was great fun, and Nathan took that home to his family.  His father is now a cacher and they enjoy doing that together.

As a pastor’s son, Nathan enjoys making his faith his own, and learning in another setting. In fact, it seems that Nathan is always learning and growing.  There is an alarmingly large number of kids who grow up in the church and walk away from it in college or young adulthood. Nathan is dead-set against becoming one of those young adults.  

Getting away from home, where my Dad has been a pastor for almost my whole life, I’m finally getting to discover my faith first hand. There’ve been times where I’ve felt closer to God, but I’m understanding now that as real as it all was, I’m for the first time understanding and applying the Gospel to my life. I’m glad God chose now to show up in a huge way. I never wanted to be part of the statistic of college kids who leave the faith.

As a male elementary teacher, I have always recognized that I had a special place in kids’ lives, but I guess I don’t see and really know it every day.  Nathan and his parents were unaware of his Asperger’s in elementary school, so I just knew Nathan as a somewhat awkward boy who was trying to fit in to school.  (Of course, what 12 year old boy isn’t awkward in some way?)  I was stunned when I read this.

I was a very different person in elementary and middle school. Very shy, very awkward. I’m still learning about who I was. I thought I was funny, likeable, and all that nonsense. I’m understanding now how blind I was. I was sooooo scared of people. My Asperger’s, still undiagnosed, controlled me until high school. I latched onto people that accepted me and who were better than me—Orry especially. I definitely put you on a pedestal too. You were my first male teacher and so one of my first male role models besides my dad. I don’t have local uncles or local involved grandparents so you were a rare role model in my life. Looking for someone to shape myself after, you were high on that list. So, thanks for being you and putting time into me inside and outside the classroom at things like Geocaching week. Meant more to an impressionable, lonely 6th grader than you might’ve thought.

Lesson learned: As a teacher, you never know the impact you may have on students.  Love on all of them!  
Some fun facts:
1. Nathan told me, “I learned the expression, ‘dry humor’ from you, and decided it was my favorite kind.”
2. One of my favorite Nathan memories… We were out caching one day, and he and a friend were in my back seat, when Nathan discovered a tick on him.  He was a bit freaked out and tried throwing it out the window.  Either he was riddled with ticks or he never succeeded in getting it out the window, but he spent about 10 minutes trying to become tick-free.  I dropped him off at home with the recommendation that he run to the shower.
3.  Nathan was my dog Mandy’s last dogsitter. >sigh< Mandy is now in Doggy Heaven, but I don’t blame Nathan one little bit.

I’m really excited to see what’s in Nathan’s future. One day, and probably quite soon, we’ll be able to go to Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of one of his books.  I’ll be in line for a signature!

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