staring at september

The day I started school, walking into a kindergarten classroom in Honolulu, Hawaii, lo these many years ago, September became the real start of my year. When I graduated high school in the Philippines, it was only a short time before I started getting children off to school in September. Now, over thirty years has passed and that part of my life is done as well.
But September is not done. Here it comes again, rolling over me with its tinge of fall in the Atlanta air, its sweet sadness as the leaves begin to color and curl on the dogwoods, and its abundance of late-summer crops from my local farmer.

I have more to say about September, but it will wait. Just as September is changing the air and earth, I am changing inside as well. I'm not sure what it's about yet, so I don't want to say too much. I'm requiring a lot of alone time right now, lots of staring time, and very little movement, so I can listen well.
The photos today are of Camp Springs Elementary School in Camp Springs, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., and right next door to Andrews Air Force Base. My dad was stationed at Andrews in the sixties and was chief of safety for the 89th, the squadron that flies the president.

I took these photos a year ago when I went back to Camp Springs to research. Today the school is a senior citizen center. Folks were happy to allow me to roam around, and I was happy to be back. Nothing is the same, of course, but inside my heart, it all came flooding back.

I came from Hawaii to Maryland the summer I finished second grade, and went to Camp Springs for the rest of my elementary school years. It's the setting for Fallout. It's the school Franny goes to. As her class is dismissed for recess -- it is fall 1962 -- Franny writes:

"The darkness of the hallway blinds me -- I am still surprised by the hallways with no windows and the closed-in way people go to school in Maryland. At Pearl Harbor Elementary School, the hallways had no walls. The classrooms had windows on both sides. Sunshine drenched everything. Camp Springs Elementary School feels like a cave."I remember that feeling in September 1962, walking through the front doors of Camp Springs Elementary School. I remember the gleaming floors and the way we had to walk on the right, single file, and the wall where we played a version of four-square at recess and the sidewalks with that tough, sticky grass, the flagpole, the grates we hovered over in winter to keep warm during outdoor recess, the Glee Club, safety patrols, art, music, French! and more.

Perhaps because I lived there so long -- seven years is a long time for an air force kid to live in one place -- or perhaps because I was ages 8 through 15... at any rate, these memories of place are so strong -- what it looked like, smelled like, felt like, sounded like, tasted like -- I remember it as if it were yesterday.
So... I wrote about that. All my books are in some way autobiographical, but this one is the most so. I held back nothing. I poured my ten-year-old self into this book -- a book of fiction, to be sure, but my story as well.. that inside story of what it felt like to be alive in the early sixties, living in that place, within that family and that community, a child of a military family during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a child who, like other children, wanted to belong.
It has been like my little secret: this town, this school, this family, this time period... this book. I've been nurturing it along since 1996. On some level it's surreal to see it beginning to take shape with a lush, full story, copy edited and almost ready for page proofs, with cover comps and inside art and other people's eyes upon it -- other people saying good things.

If I think about it too long, I'm overwhelmed. Maybe that's part of why I need to be so still right now. Come May and publication, there will be no sitting still! And that will be fine -- I will be excited to support this book that is so much a part of me, that has been so lovingly co-created by so many folks in so many departments at Scholastic.

Several of you have written me asking about my editor meeting: it was good, thanks for asking. Very good. We have been inventing a new language for these three books about the sixties -- books that include newspaper clippings, song lyrics, recipes, photographs, and more.
So far, we've been using the terms "scrapbook," "interstitial" and "distillation" to refer to various elements of the book. On Sunday we came up with another new term: "documentary novel."

It seems I've written a documentary novel. Who knew? My editor has been using the term for some time now to describe the novels in the sixties trilogy, and I'm going to try it on for size as well.

I'm not sure what I think about it yet. I'll let you know. But I do have a question: what does it conjure up for you -- documentary novel? Just wonderin'.

I'm going back to my staring now. The work ahead is on my mind. I've got a draft of the 1966 novel, but it needs so much work. And Scholastic would love to have it in February. Maybe that's another reason I need to sit and stare. February! It's just around the corner, really.

I'm re-entering the time of September, when traditionally I sit down at my desk and begin the work ahead with fresh pencils, a rested mind, and the optimism of a new year. That's worth contemplating.


  1. I went to elementary school in HI too! My dad was in the Navy and stationed in Honolulu, maybe I went to your school!! I too remember the outdoor hallways, great memories.


  2. Robbin -- maybe so! I have great memories of those sunny years. Making leis on May Day, outside classes, lots of warm weather.

    I went to Pearl Harbor Elementary School in Honolulu. My dad was stationed at Hickam. My husband, Jim, was in Hawaii at the same time I was (although we didn't know one another at the time), and his dad was in the Navy, stationed at Barber's Point.


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