The diamante final exam: a lesson worth remembering

I taught middle school early in my career, at the beginning of the movement to “mainstream” students receiving special education services, moving them from a self-contained classroom environment into the general classroom population.

Jeff was a sixth grader in one of the classes I team-taught with the Special Ed department chair.  Try as we might, we couldn’t get Jeff to participate in class assignments.  We couldn’t get him to pick up a pencil, much less the curriculum-required blue or black ink pen.

We couldn’t get him to dictate a story or a response to a question.  We tried modification after modification, parent conferences, team conferences.

We worked hard to get a computer so that he could use a word processor. Even bribery (yes, it’s in the teacher bag-o’-tricks).  Nothing.

He wasn’t a bad student, or a bad kid. He just didn’t want to do anything – seemingly because we wanted him to.  We sensed he was probably fairly bright, but we were locked into a “Do it. / I Won’t” cycle that had probably been a pattern for him for years. (Apparently there had been a BIG power struggle – not just for Jeff but also for many of his peers  — with their fifth grade teacher over writing in cursive. )

We could tell by watching him that he was taking things in and had some thoughts about it all.  He just was not going to share and we couldn’t find a way to make it worth his while to do so.

I  experienced many moments of feeling like an abject failure, and if it hadn’t been for the highly skilled, seasoned professional with whom I worked, I might have arrived at that conclusion early on and given up on both Jeff and  on myself.

Although she felt the same frustration, my co-teacher had been through many similar challenges, so we didn’t give up on him. We did come to accept that we weren’t going to get much, if anything from him, but still we tried, hoping that some day something would click, even if we weren’t there when it happened.

Traditional diamante template from

The final unit of the year included figurative writing and formulaic poetry forms.  There had also been a year-long cross-curricular initiative in learning the eight basic parts of speech.

I combined these in one “take home” element of the final exam:  students were to prepare a self-descriptive “diamante,”  a form poem so named for its diamond shape.

For assessment purposes, the final exam diamante differed from the traditional form in that it had to include a metaphor, a simile, three verbs, and a summarizing statement of fact, all describing the writer.  To achieve the diamond shape, the diamante began with the writer’s first name on line one and ended with the writer’s last name on the final line.

Exam day came, and Jeff showed up without a pen or pencil, much less a diamante.  He sat through the entire session with the Scantron (“the bubble sheet”) in front of him.  I don’t recall whether he even bothered to write his name.

He turned in a sheet with a few random bubbles filled in, left the room, and that was the end of our time together.  There wasn’t much for my co-teacher and me to do or say about it. That was that.

Then, at the end of the day, I found a crumpled up piece of paper tossed on my desk at the back of the room.  I opened it to find this diamante, which I have kept ever since in a little frame on whatever desk where I find myself.

Although I’ve altered the names for privacy’s sake, it is written in ink and was signed…in cursive. . . by someone who taught me a lesson worth remembering:

You never really know what’s going on with a person and people will surprise you in the nicest ways.



Diamante links:

Read. Write. Think. (An interactive diamante generator).

University of Oregon


A traditional diamante begins and ends with nouns that are opposites.  The poem can be used in two ways, either comparing and contrasting two different subjects, or naming synonyms and antonyms for another subject.

The subject is named in one word in the first line. The second line consists of two adjectives describing the subject, and the third line contains three verbs ending in the suffix -ing which are related to the subject. A fourth line then has four nouns, again related to the subject, but only the first two words are related the first subject. The other two words describe the opposite subject the lines then are put in reverse, leading to and relating to either a second subject or a synonym for the first.


If a nickel were had by me. . . .

yoda english class

It makes little sense that  I remember her fondly. She was cranky and dour. The thunder of her condescendingly didactic reprimands belied her tiny, withering frame. Very early in our acquaintance, I came to appreciate that she was justified in the less flattering traits. They are the reasons I smile when she comes to mind.

I wasn’t in the habit of giving my professors nicknames, but for whatever reason, in no way intentionally connected to a former First Lady, the name Lady Bird occurred to me and I couldn’t make it stop occurring.  Her husband then was Mr. Bird.

When she couldn’t hear what we were saying, it was Mr. Bird’s fault because he’d forgotten to change the battery in her hearing aid. You got the sense that, unless his hearing were similarly uncharged,  Mr. Bird would be getting an earful when class was over.

Mr. Bird was already retired, while she had to eek out one last lousy semester due to changes in the university’s retirement system. As much as she had loved her work, she didn’t want to be slogging through Chaucer with another group of unappreciative 20-somethings any more than most of us wanted to be there. She had things she wanted to do in life. We were suffocating her.

Having grown up with a vision-impaired parent, I understood her crankiness born of  her inability to be as fully engaged as she would have liked.

Having things I wanted to do in life, I understood her impatience with having to eek  out one last lousy semester.

One day she stood at the front of the class and recited the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Recited, not read.

I followed along in the text and as best I could tell, she nailed it.  She had every right to be condescendingly didactic. Boy, did she know her Chaucer.

She amused me, fascinated me, and terrified me. These days, I couldn’t recite more than the first line  from the Prologue (something to do with April showers), but the best and worst thing Lady Bird did was to leave an imprint in my consciousness about passive voice.  Whenever I see or hear it, I think of Lady Bird and I wish I had a nickel.

When she returned our first set of papers, she was livid. Livid, I tell you.

In total disgust, she complained at a volume that indicated Mr. Bird had shirked his battery-changing duties yet again,  “If I had a nickel for every time you people used passive voice, I could retire today.”

I was amused. And terrified. And fascinated.

What on earth was passive voice? Was I guilty? What was so bad about it that this diminutive, otherwise harmless academic would be so enraged by it? In those days, you had to find a grammar book or go to the library to figure this out.  Times were tough.

I scoured my paper. No comments about passive voice.  Did that mean I wasn’t guilty, or had she just grown tired of writing about it by the time she got to my dribble?

And so it went with the next set of papers. Same complaint.

. . .If I had a nickel for every time you people used the passive voice, I could retire today.

A professor’s pension

If I was one of the passive aggressors, I was starting to feel a bit guilty about not paying up, thereby keeping this woman from enjoying her golden years. If I wasn’t one of them, I was starting to get indignant with them on her behalf.

She never told us what passive voice was. I don’t know whether that was  because she considered that the responsibility of composition teachers, who had very clearly failed us, or if she just didn’t hear us asking.  Her job was to teach us medieval English literature and to get through this last lousy semester.

I don’t know how many papers we wrote, but every time she handed them back, we got the nickel speech.  Eventually it was more amusing than terrifying.

At the end of the semester, I bought a decorative jar and we filled it with nickels to present to her with a cake and some flowers.  Lady Bird spent that last class telling us about her plans, which sounded more like work to me, but work that she was passionate about.

I like to think that when we wished her well and thanked her for the semester, she heard every word.

He was NotElvis.

From time to time I mention my father, “NotElvis,” often because he’s not around to defend himself.  In an earlier version of Le Cahier, I wrote the story behind the name “NotElvis,” and occasionally I mention it in passing.

Recently I came across some pictures that go with the story and a cassette tape that I can’t manage to convert to an audio file. That story is a post unto itself. 

My father was a teenager during the Elvis Presley years. As was the case for many boys his age, Elvis-mania was good for him in that the girls thought he looked just like Elvis.  I know this because years later one of the parent chaperones on our class trip to Montreal was a mom who had been one of my dad’s great admirers in high school.  She made such a fuss over how much all the girls loved Dad because he looked just like Elvis.

I’d seen his yearbook. He was nice looking, but all this gushing was embarrassing. To me he was Dad. He was not Elvis.

He was also not Elvis, despite the large sunglasses he wore most of the time. They were to protect his eyes and cover his face, both of which had been severely burned in a chemical explosion before he was even thirty years old. He wasn’t expected to live, and in fact for a while was thought not to have survived. If he knew you well enough to think you were open to it, he would tell you that story.

He was in the hospital the first time for months. The first record album I owned was one of the many gifts from Dad while he was away. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized they didn’t come from him. Mary Wells Greatest Hits was really a gift from one of the many nurses who’d developed a crush on NotElvis and sent us kids things to let us know that he was thinking of us.

After he was home, friends that had always been around, baseball buddies, car buddies, buddies of all sorts, stopped coming around.   He’d always had a guitar around, but now it was his best friend.  We lived next to the church and on Sunday mornings while others were on their way to worship, he was sitting in the kitchen playing gospel tunes, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and even some Elvis, as well as some songs he wrote on his own.  That was church for him, and that’s where my love of acoustic music comes from.

When he did go out in public, he wore those sunglasses to protect his eyes which no longer had lashes and brows and to cover a face that had been through multiple skin grafts. He managed to make his way around pretty well.  I always walked on his left and just ahead of him, telling him when we’d be stepping up or down, with his head held high and his hand on my shoulder feeling his way.

So he was pretty good at blending in and held off on a cane for a long time. Many people couldn’t tell he was visually impaired.  But some could. One of the many quirks of human nature is that too many people think a person who can’t see also can’t hear. Frequently, whether they realized he couldn’t see or they didn’t, people would quip, “Does he think he’s Elvis or something?”  

He was blind. He was not deaf. And he was not Elvis.

He didn’t say anything about this and I didn’t know that the comparisons to Elvis registered with him, until one day when I was living far away with a family of my own and I opened the mailbox to a videotape that Dad had put together, apparently with the help of a friend whose cat played a starring role.

I put the tape in the player and saw a sleeping cat stretched across a bed, with Dad playing and singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” in the background.  The end shot was of Dad….in an Elvis costume, with the headline “Not Elvis.” 

He taught me to laugh. He taught me to sing. He’s the reason my storytelling goes on and on and on. He taught me to smile even when I didn’t feel like it because my problems weren’t the world’s problems.  He was smart and funny and kind-hearted, creative and wise and strong. He was my father and he was NotElvis.


Sunflowers on a rainy day.

One of the first assignments you get in Journalism 101 is the obituary.  I suppose everyone knows that obituaries for the famous and notable are held on file, ready to be published upon the news of the subject’s passing.

In the few years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve thought several times about writing this one. I knew the day would come and I knew I’d want to offer a genuine goodbye. I didn’t attend the official farewell.  I knew my goodbye would have to be done my own way and that would probably mean it would be written.

I’d sit down to write, turn on the music, think about some stories and about how maudlin he would find it to be, look at my favorite picture of him, think about sunflowers, and decide to go out and enjoy the heck out of life the way he did.

I thought about him earlier this week — we all did — when I walked into a music venue and the musician played one of his songs, one (of many) that had particular significance for me. Before the song, he said, “This is for my friend, who I miss,” and I thought I’d missed the very sad announcement we all have expected for years.

I was afraid to ask, but  no one said anything afterward, so I decided he meant that he missed him the way we all miss him, only more so because of their deep friendship. The tall, lanky goofball in the porkpie hat and the silver lame jacket. Kid Folk.

Thinking back it was that night that my stomach started to turn and I had that “hit the wall” feeling that I couldn’t get past all week.

Sunflowers have been on my mind all week, too. They’ve come into my consciousness in no fewer than four seemingly unconnected ways.  One of my “hippie-ish” ways is to believe that everything is connected.  I kept wondering what it was, because it’s not sunflower season. The fifth came this morning when I decided to play my iPod for the first time in months, hit shuffle, and an Alice Peacock song played: “Sunflower.”  Something was up.


If you don’t know him by name, then you don’t know the beautiful, zany, supersmart, kind-hearted, amazingly talented spirit that was Eric Lowen. But you probably are familiar with one of his many fine professional accomplishments. Together with his equally superlative partner Dan Navarro, Eric wrote Pat Benatar’s 1984 hit song “We Belong.”

If you don’t know his name, then you probably never witnessed that song with its Spanish verse and chorus, performed by its creators,  unplugged, strolling through a crowded room, complete with silly improvisations and add-ons from the evening’s accompanying musicians.  I saw it done with a cello once. I’m trying to remember how they did that.  I don’t think the cellist strolled, but with Eric and Dan, anything could have happened.

Unplugged at its best. — Outpost in the Burbs.

Lowen and Navarro, Eric and Dan, were based in Los Angeles, but perhaps their largest following was here in the DC area, where a DJ named Neci played their song “Walking on a Wire” and it became a local hit.  As Eric and Dan said on many occasions, thank you Neci.

Eight years and one week ago, Eric Lowen was diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  His own words in a 2006 article in “Performing Songwriter” naturally  tell his story better than I could repeat here.  He married his fiancee and they blended their families and he continued to be Eric for a very long time. At first he sat to perform instead of standing and bouncing around the stage.  (I will  never forget seeing him change a guitar string while continuing to play an amazing riff one night. He didn’t even break a sweat and he laughed and sang the whole time.)

Then he used his electric wheelchair.  I never went on one of their famous fan cruises, but I heard stories of wheelchair races. I believe the stories and I still laugh at a memory I was not even part of.

When he couldn’t play the guitar anymore, others filled in. And then he couldn’t sing. In occasional updates, Dan, now touring solo, would report that “Eric is still Eric.” When he could only speak, and Dan was giving Eric a hard time, Eric told Dan to guess which finger he was holding up.  In a later update, when he had lost speech, he was using the computer to communicate and could contribute to the daily family business with such things as ordering the family groceries online.

A couple of years ago, a cd came out with some names you might know covering some of Eric and Dan’s songs, to celebrate their music and to raise awareness of ALS in conjunction with the ALS Association of Greater Los Angeles,  Augie’s Quest, and the Eric Lowen Trust. Contributors include this guy named Severin Browne and his brother Jackson and another fella named Keb’ Mo’. They helped to keep the light alive.

Eric Lowen (sitting) Dan Navarro, Jackson Browne, The Bangles, Freebo & Mike Gormley.
Credit: Markus Cuff Photography

I never got around to writing that post . . . until about an hour ago when a friend called with the news because she knew I’d be out of the Facebook loop.

I didn’t get the sunflower connection (which I’ll keep to myself)  until I was mid-way through writing that third paragraph.

My stomach didn’t stop hurting until just now, when the post I’ve known for years I would write is now written and it is time to say goodbye in my own way to a beautiful soul whose music and life have touched so many people in such a meaningful way.

And now you know his name. Eric Lowen.  In addition to being one of the writers of the megahit “We Belong,” he was a husband, father, friend, substitute teacher, musician, goofball, light in the world who struck a chord in many a heart.  Not necessarily in that order.

A scan of an old photocopy of a pre-digital photo. Still my favorite picture of Eric Lowen.

A scan of an old photocopy of a pre-digital photo. Still my favorite picture of Eric Lowen.

Like most Lowen and Navarro fans, I couldn’t even begin to pick a favorite song or even a favorite album, though there are personal favorites that will go with personal memories forever. This is Eric’s final performance of  “If I Was the Rain,” kind of fitting since it’s been raining all day today. . . . maybe he was the rain.

My First Marathon (and Hers)

My first marathon is coming up in the middle of March.  I’m really looking forward to it. Yesterday I started getting ready by looking around for clever ideas for the sign I’ll be holding as my lovely and talented daughter runs past.

What? Me run a marathon?  That’s crazy talk.  No, I’ll be standing with Team Katy, cheering for my daughter, the one who’s going to law school in the fall.

I would be just as proud of her if she weren’t going to law school in the fall or running a marathon in the spring.  Those are just two examples of the kind of person she is and has always been. She sets goals and makes them happen. When the things she sets out to do don’t go exactly as planned, she figures out a different way.

She works hard and volunteers for worthwhile causes and is a great friend and a fun person and she puts her heart into everything she does and everyone she meets.  She crinkles her nose when she giggles, which is one of the reasons people have said we look exactly alike, despite the fact that she is blonde and twenty-something and I have never been either of those.

She can be playful and silly or hard-nosed and laser-focused, the former is a joy to be around, the latter an awe-inspiring marvel to witness. I am proud to know her, even prouder that I get to say I’m her mom.

Her given name is spelled the way Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham spelled it. I’d hoped she become a strong and independent woman, which, I have said on many occasions, especially since her teen years, has come back to kick me, but in the balance, it’s worked out well.

I was in the office  when she called just before Christmas with the news that she’d been accepted to law school and as you might guess, my end of the conversation was effusively peppered with “Yay, you!’ kind of blather.  My colleague in the next office, the mother of a three-year old  who is currently in princess-ballerina stage wanted to know what the fuss was about.

When I went in to share the news, I struggled with the incongruity of what I was saying with  images of a sweet little girl in the pictures on my colleague’s desk. My story ended with, “It’s funny, just last week she was in her princess stage and I was painting her bedroom purple – everything had to be purple –  and there were unicorns everywhere – because everything had to be unicorns.

“It was her ‘stoven’ Christmas.  All she wanted for Christmas was a ‘stoven.’ All I wanted to know was what a ‘stoven’ was. . . .  Isn’t it amazing that a three-year old could get into law school?”

Then we both got all misty at the thought of our little princesses growing up.

A stoven, for the uninitiated, is a combination stove/oven, or more specifically, the Little Tykes kitchen that was popular at that time. It came with a built-in phone.

Taking a break from Torts to enjoy her new stoven.

Yes, Katy, if you dig deep enough into the recesses of your mind, you may recall the concept of a phone with a curly cord attached to the wall.  In fact, you used the real one quite a bit, including that time you called 911 to complain that you were trying to call your grandmother but she wasn’t answering, so could they please call her for you.

See what I mean about figuring out a different way? Fun times.

Somewhere around here there’s a VHS tape of four-year old Katy in pigtails and pink corduroy OshKosh overalls, trying with all her might to push a wheelbarrow up a hill of rocky New England soil at Grandma’s house.  She didn’t know tape was rolling as she huffed and puffed, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. . . . ”  Any time she’s wondered if she could do something, I’ve tried to remind her of that little girl.

When it comes to running a marathon or taking on law school or anything else in this world, not only do I think she can, I know she can.


This is one of those posts that took a direction of its own.  I set out to write about marathon motivational cheer signs. I guess I’ll save that for another day. Today’s the day that I tell you that my princess ballerina is running a marathon in March and going to law school in the fall and that I am a terrible mother who has not converted my children’s VHS tapes to digital format.