CERTIFIED, a teaching tool

hey friends,

sorry I missed last week. between a freelance editing gig, NATURAL ‘STACHE revisions, and life in general things got away from me!

a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity, and honor, to visit my good friend Liisa Blackwell’s 9th Grade English classes. it turned out that “Open Window” (you know, the short story my film is based on) was a part of their literature book! that’s right, it was required reading. and what’s more, one of the “core education” requirements is to study how a work of fiction is presented in different medium.

in other words, the perfect opportunity to read the story, show the film, and discuss with the filmmaker!

it was quite an experience. first off, I have new found respect for the work that Liisa does. well, all teacher’s I suppose – but especially teachers that deal in abstraction. in math there is ONE right answer. in English there are a MULTITUDE of right answers, and the process of guiding students to them can be challenging. there’s no “formula” for understanding if a narrator is trustworthy, or deciphering subtext, or making sense of a metaphor. it takes practice and patience!

since I am very, very, VERY familiar with the story it was an interesting experience to see 100+ kids get to know it for the first time. it’s not the easiest story in the world. there are multiple shifting points of “truth” and the last line requires that the reader reprocess everything they have read before. plus it takes place in a world that is new to them. for example: most of the students didn’t know what “bog” was.

it was fascinating was how easily the student “got” the film. the story may have been confusing, but then when they saw it on the screen… all of a sudden it made sense. I wonder if CERTIFIED would have worked on its own, or if they needed the primer of reading “Open Window?” either way, it was still pretty great to see the students get “scared” as the zombies approached.

this is actually the second time that a teacher has used my film in their classroom. the first was a little over a year ago when Rebecca’s (aka “Alice’s”) aunt incorporated it into her lessons. one of the projects was to write the “origin” of Alice. the students got to imagine what happened to the character that made her so creepy?

all the stories were rather grim… in my mind Alice was more playful & mischievous than she was psychologically damaged… but still fun to see what they came up with. here’s one short story entitled “Of Letters and Lies.”

There was three successive knocks on the door: one, two, and three with the perfect pause in-between. I glanced at the analog clock mounted on the wall. It was a quarter to one, far too early for it to be mother back from shopping or the mail carrier. I hopped up from the overstuffed parlor chair and made my way to the large wooden door.

I used both my hands to pull it open and looked up at the tall man who stood before me. He was dressed in a formal service outfit typical for a soldier. His face was solemn and his mouth was a straight line. I cringed as he looked at me with eyes harder than any bullet he had ever fired.

I bowed my ten year old head and curtsied politely. “How can I help you, sir?” Suddenly his face softened. His eyes didn’t look cold, but sorrowful. Still looking down at me, he shook his head. “Is your mother home?”His voice was cracked ice.

This all seemed so strange; so out of the ordinary. This man likely worked with my father in the army, that much was obvious enough, but why was he here? Why did he need to see my mother?

“She’s out picking up a few things and won’t be home for a while. Would you like to come in?” I stepped to the side to clear a path for him to enter. He nodded but didn’t say anything more until we sat down in the parlor.

Again, it felt so out of place. He was a 6’ 2 soldier dressed in a muted uniform and he was sitting in a cream and rose-colored embroidered chair. I smoothed out my common blue dress and apron as I took a seat across from him. I took a deep breath and tried to look as mature as a petite ten year old girl could.

“I’d really prefer if your mother was home…” he repeated. I ignored him and pointed at his hand. “What is that? Do you want me to give it to mother?”

In his left hand, partially concealed by his coat, was a small square envelope. I couldn’t see it clearly but it looked like it had an intricate military seal on it.

Finally, the soldier gave into my request, but I immediately wished he hadn’t. He soberly explained how my father wasn’t coming home as he handed me an official casualty notification. My father would not be returning, not now; not ever. I could tell he was trying to soften the blow as he explained how my mother would have to contact them in order for the body to be dealt with. He was doing his best, but I didn’t really hear him as he talked. I burst out sobbing and crumpled the soldier’s letter.

I screamed, I thrashed and I pounded until finally I couldn’t anymore. I stopped and looked at the man through bleary eyes. “I’ll tell her,” I said, void of emotion. “You don’t have to stay, I’m sure you’re very busy.” Ruining lives and delivering news to crush families, I added silently.

Reluctantly, the soldier left and I knew he regretted telling me. I stood in the doorway and watched him get into the car with another officer and a medic, all the while shooting daggers at his back with my eyes. My bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes…

I slammed the heavy oak door on impulse and leaned against the wall. Blankly, I stared at the mirror across the hall, but there was no one in it. There was only the empty shell of what I once was.

After that I went upstairs and cleaned myself up. I had no idea why, but I couldn’t tell my mother; I couldn’t bear to watch her break down exactly the way I did. That’s why I didn’t tell her… because I just couldn’t.

She came home later that day. I told her that dad was fine, and that his service had been extended. Also, that he couldn’t receive letters at the current time.

I couldn’t believe it, but she ate that lie up as if I had spoon-fed it to her. It was amazing. If I kept it up… my father wouldn’t be dead. He would never, ever die. At least, I had thought I could keep it up and convince myself and the world that he lived on.

Unfortunately, my fantasy didn’t last long. My mother received a call later and it was unbearable to her. She could not handle it and broke just like I had, except she didn’t have the means to fix herself like I had.

My mother was forever broken that day.

The woman who came later was from social services. Without consideration for my opinion, she ruled that my mother was no longer fit to care for me. That’s when they separated me from my mother. They took me and stuck me with my Aunt and her husband who lived in a rural area of the country.

They weren’t bad people, they treated me as if I was their own daughter, but I didn’t like them. I began to lie to them, just as I had lied to my mother. For five extensive years they believed me, and that was more than enough time for my white lies and facades to become tall tales.

That day with the soldier was always fresh in my mind. It changed me; it put gravel in my gut and made me stronger. It taught me how to lie and be strong…

And how to hate anyone with a letter.

not bad at all! the one detail I thought was amusing was the “analog” clock… since the story takes place well before “digital” was a thing.

do you remember any favorite short stories from school? any lessons that stuck with you?

-Luke

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