National Writing Project

Taking Stories to Heart: Charles Mazer Remembered

By: William Strong
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2
Date: Spring 2003

Summary: People in the writing project wear their passion for their work on their sleeves. There is always one more lesson to plan, one more institute to orchestrate, one more staff development series to organize. William Strong, author of this tribute to the late Charles Mazer, was motivated to write this piece about Mazer the man who became the educational leader he was because of who he was. Remembering the former East Texas Writing Project director with this essay, Strong reminds us that the more successful we are as human beings, the more successful we are likely to be as educators.

 

Once upon a time, in east Texas, there lived a man whose heart was as big and restless as all outdoors. His name was Charles Mazer, and on Friday nights at Texarkana's Dixie Diner, you might find him working the room—catching up with folks, checking on their kids, trading stories. More often, you'd find him at the East Texas Writing Project, where he was quick to offer teachers a generous smile and a reminder to "keep the faith."

And then there was Charles Mazer's business side. He read with laser-like insight and spoke incisively, sometimes delivering searing critiques of institutional incompetence or posturing politicians. Simply put, he enacted "critical literacy" as an exacting standard for all of us who presume to teach or lead others. His run-ins with authority and his refusal to "suffer fools gladly" were the stuff of local legend.

Charles would have enjoyed the small irony that April 1 was the day of his departure. And on this first anniversary, I want to honor his exemplary twenty-five-year career of National Writing Project leadership in the following reminiscence, a portion of which I presented to the Colorado Language Arts Society a month before his death.

Guys Talking Background

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It's years ago, on a trip to Charles Mazer's part of the country, that we head out for a late afternoon run. I'm not used to the Texas heat and humidity, but Charles and I fall into an easy rhythm on the outskirts of town, running side by side on a quiet back road. One mile, two . . . and Charlie rambles on about growing up in Dallas and his memories of the big old family home where his physician father had an office. He remembers getting his father's checks for a million kisses and being pushed higher and higher in the swings—those images plus lemon custard treats at the park and a stray cat named Patsy that his father let him keep. But before he turns six, his father is gone—taken at age thirty-seven by a massive heart attack. Later, as an adult, Charles will name all of his pets Patsy.

At three miles or so, he checks to see how I'm doing.

He remembers the fallout of his father's death—his mother's bitterness about being left with a small child, no insurance, and an $80,000 debt. Over the next several years, during the cycles of his mother's deepening depression, Charles shuttles back and forth between Dallas and Philadelphia, where his grandfather—a famous physician, author, and sponsor of kibbutz communities in Israel—takes him under his wing. It's during those weeks and months in his grandfather's house, one filled with books and puzzles and the buzz of ideas, that Charles begins to hone his intellect. He and the old man play knowledge games, with Charles earning a nickel every time he can stump his grandfather and give the right answer. Later, he will treasure the letters from his grandfather that praise his academic prowess. And still later, as a teacher, he'll begin to appreciate the cunning of his grandfather's pedagogy—those curious lapses in the old man's memory—and come to see him as the father he never really knew.

What about high school, I ask. What was that like?

At age fourteen, Charles lives alone in Dallas—running the house and taking care of himself, even getting an emergency driver's license for the school commute. There, he's interested in girls and debate and all things academic. But besides being independent and resourceful, he's also a genuine smart-ass, the free-thinking kid who won't kiss up to certain teachers and who pays the price by being blackballed from the National Honor Society chapter. That's his competitive nature coming through, he says—always nosing the top dog from behind, challenging authority.

At four miles, with the sun sinking toward the horizon, we head back. I offer silent thanks and ask Charles about sports.

Mostly running, he shrugs.

Competitive?

Oh, yeah.

It turns out that Charlie's high school is legendary in Texas track competition and that Charles is a force to be reckoned with in the events requiring fierce, obsessive training—the 440, 880, and mile races. His aim is to be the best and to garner the recognition that goes with it. Of course, now with the marathon training, he's more interested in distance than speed, although it's still fun to pick up the pace.

I let the challenge slide by.

On the way back, I tell my own stories. There's the one about my blue-collar father being taken down by polio in 1955 and how, at age fourteen, I also grow up early, working hard to meet expectations. I mention the striking parallels of our mothers' histories—their bouts with mental illness—and the inevitable guilt of sons who try to care for them. I talk about being president of the local honor society chapter and feeling like an imposter.

Competitive? he wonders.

Not really.

It's on this trip that I'm first struck by Charlie's ability to marathon talk—but also to listen to nuance and to ask provocative questions. Running beside Charles Mazer, there's no time out. We're into expectations—those of his grandfather, those of my father—and how, after our respective initiations at the Bay Area Writing Project, they still point us in a direction, taking us down this Texas road toward home.

My father sounds interesting, someone he'd like to meet.

Okay, I'm thinking. And we pick up the pace.

Guys Talking Skunks

Red Lick, Texas—with lots of pines and small lakes and red clay soil—is the green, rolling country where Charles and his wife Pat have settled in. We're headed in from the airport, and Charles drives through a development of massive custom homes, each with its triple-car garage and acres of lawn and attendant fleet of vehicles and lawnmowers. It's farmland turned yuppie residential, scraped clean by big equipment, enhanced by engineering.

Near the bottom edge of the neighborhood, we roll down Quail Hollow Road, where the land remains uncleared—still thick with pine, oak, redbud, and other native trees—and then we're headed down the Mazer driveway, set far back off the road. The home is modest, unobtrusive, an almost nondescript low-slung structure, with broad eaves and plain, simple lines. Sited deep within the many trees that make up the acreage, it is privacy personified—a combined nature park and game preserve. This is more like it.

Inside, the house feels bigger than it looks, each art-filled room opening to a courtyard of light yet turning inward to an embarrassment of cultural riches—stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers, plus amazing collections of music and film. On later trips, I'll get acquainted with the incredible range of Charlie's library, the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that line the halls, the big chairs and couches into which one sinks with a book on a quiet weekend.

Wildlife? I ask.

Oh, yeah. We got wildlife.

From the wooden deck, Charlie takes me on a tour of the big backyard and names the critters that inhabit the surrounding woods—all kind of birds, of course, but also deer, raccoons, squirrels, armadillos, abundant opossum, and an occasional bobcat. Meanwhile, I'm wondering about snakes.

Well, you have your rattlesnakes, your moccasins, your copperheads.

I was afraid of that.

But not up here in the yard—not usually.

Not usually?

We keep it mowed. Of course, there was that one in the garage—and every now and again, the cat drags one up.

Uh-huh.

You watch where you step.

At the distant edge of the grass, under a big spreading oak, stands a fifty-gallon barrel. Maybe it's for burning trash, I'm thinking, but then I notice a long plank that stretches from the ground to the barrel's rim.

What's that for?

Well, that's for skunks.

Once again, Charles and I seem to lead parallel lives. He points back to the house and tells the story of skunks nesting under the deck, a problem whose enormity cannot be understood by those uninformed urban folk who haven't experienced it directly. The skunk, a nocturnal feeder, emits a viciously offensive odor when startled by household pets, provoked by noise from above, or simply when marking its territory.

You don't negotiate with skunks, he says. You take action.

I know. How well I know.

I tell Charles about an artist friend who's learned about skunks the hard way—after remodeling and recarpeting his hilltop home. One night, a wandering skunk gets into the house through the pet door, tangles with the family dog over food, and takes off through the open-design rooms, wreaking skunk havoc. Charles shudders at the thought.

The barrel, he explains, is filled with water. You stretch tough plastic film across the barrel's top, then cut a slit in the plastic and bait the trap with something irresistible—say, tuna. The plank provides access to the bait. Of course, the skunk's weight can't be supported by the plastic film, so in it goes. That's the theory. In the real world of Charlie's experience, the skunk gets out. But word travels fast in the world of skunks, just as it does among polecat politicians, and the big barrel stands as warning to others that Charles Mazer means business.

I'm impressed by the Mazer Method because I too have known skunks. Mine is also an under-the-deck story, and its denouement occurs in May, as the scent of flowering plum mixes with the stench of nesting skunk. Under the blossoms, not far from the deck, I'm astonished to find several newborns exploring a shady stretch of lawn. At two inches long, they're perfect skunk miniatures, with black-and-white markings, little uplifted tails, and beady red eyes that stare up at me, curious and unafraid. If one skunk is a problem, a family is a catastrophe.

I get a flat shovel from the garage, and one by one the little skunks walk up onto it. Then I transport each to a new home, out beyond the blue spruce and Japanese maples and aspen along the Logan River. Each makes a small, lovely arc across the fast-moving water. On this spring morning, the little guys will have to swim for it.

What about mama skunk?

You don't want to know. It isn't pretty.

It never is.

That's one of the many things I like about Charles, the way he wants to know the truth, straight up, without equivocation. Yes, he's an unreformed romantic and a fierce champion of social justice and a passionate protector of wildlife, but he's also a realist who understands the necessity of death, its inevitability sometimes.

And so I tell Charles about finally trapping the big mother skunk and covering the wire cage with a tarp to protect myself and finally carrying it to the river. Charles is with me all the way, feeling the fierce spring current and the skunk banging against the top of its cage, wild with fear. The waterfall across the way offers the background, the white noise of dying.

I'd really like to see your place, he says afterward.

Okay, I'm thinking. And we head back to the house.

Guys Talking Travel

In early August 2001, I phone Charles to finalize plans for the Utah trip that he and Pat will soon make, the one that will introduce him to teacher-consultants from across the state, not to mention my father and his new handicap-accessible apartment and the turquoise blue of Bear Lake. It's a trip that's long overdue—and my chance to repay the Mazers for their many years of hospitality and friendship.

How's it going? I ask.

Not so good, Charles says.

After the East Texas Writing Project's Summer Institute, he and Pat have spent a wonderful summer in the Colorado mountains near Keystone, his favorite place on earth, but now there's very bad news. He doesn't sugarcoat the bitter truth—the prognosis is grim—and with chemotherapy treatments scheduled in Houston, he'll be too sick to travel in mid-September. It's just like Charles to apologize for his change in plans. There's nothing he'd rather do than travel to northern Utah, first to meet my father and then to see the place he's heard about.

Charles already knows the story of the apartment's construction, a saga following my travel to Portland in the late 1990s. It's on this trip that I find my father out of his wheelchair in a narrow, old-fashioned kitchen, one leg over the open oven door of a freestanding stove with glowing red-hot coils, his body wedged within the chrome cage of the wheelchair frame. Except for the fact that I happen to be in town for the first time in months, there's no way he can free himself. For me, it's a wake-up call—and the apartment in Utah becomes my answer.

Charles and I stay in touch over the months that follow. He wants me to visit Texarkana the following spring, even though he might not be around, so that Pat and I can plant some new shrubs that we hope will grow this time. There's a story behind that, an inside joke. And he tells me about his own plans to visit Mt. Evans in the Colorado Rockies, a place where he'll spend the foreseeable future and beyond. It takes me a moment, but then I understand even before he explains that Charles has asked to have his ashes scattered in the mountains there.

Throughout the fall and early winter, Charles continues to meet his classes, even after giving up on the cancer treatments. After all, his is a life of teaching and storytelling, and he's a true master of both. His attitude is resigned but upbeat, his knowledge of the disease grounded in his own research. He monitors his body's deterioration with clinical interest, makes jokes about his weight loss. Throughout the ordeal, he remains a scholar to the core, curious about his dying.

Meanwhile, I'm working on the speech I've promised to give to the Colorado Language Arts Society; I'm planning to use the conference's theme, "Taking Stories to Heart," to explore the idea of narrative knowledge. In the end, my talk, which introduces Charles and his thinking to a host of new colleagues, also honors Charles. It's also my way of helping him make his pilgrimage to Utah—if only in a spiritual sense. For if words help us travel, as both Charles and I believe, I want him to follow a path of stepping stones among gray boulders and red maples—to cool down after his run on a redwood bench across from green willows—and then see the brown trout wavering like shadows in the deep pool below the waterfall. It's the least—and most—I can do.

And so I give the talk, saying at the end that it's in the telling of our personal stories that we come to know what we really know. What I don't say is just how little my words convey about Charles Mazer's generosity of spirit or his lifetime of good work in teacher education. All I can do, finally, is read a simple poem, one from my book Coaching Writing.

I Knew a Teacher Once

I knew a teacher once
  &nbspWith words as soft
As moths on summer screens.
  &nbspBrittle bright and
Cruel was not his style.
  &nbspAs others barked,
His whispers touched the dark
  &nbspInside your soul
And seemed to echo there.
  &nbspThe way was sure.
He always took the time:
  &nbspRefused the rush
Of world report for poems–
  &nbspAnd pushed aside
The weight of dusty tomes
  &nbspTo scratch his nose
And pass around the mints.
  &nbspHe seemed alive.

You couldn't put him on.
  &nbspHe'd take a book
And make it yours and his
  &nbspIn magic ways
That made your breath come quick.
  &nbspHis wink was slight.
The eyes were bright and clear,
  &nbspA hush of greens.
You'd watch the pause of smile,
  &nbspA patient blink
That let the question hang.
  &nbspHis tease would make
You more than eyes and ears.
  &nbspIt often made
Your insides twist and think.
  &nbspI guess he liked
His work enough to make
  &nbspIt play for us.

(2001, 112)

And then I ask my audience to honor, with the applause of one hand clapping, the spirit of Charles Mazer—and to wish him well in Colorado.

References

Strong, W. 2001. Coaching Writing: The Power of Guided Practice. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. Poem originally published as "A Coach Remembered."

About the Author William Strong teaches at Utah State University. He has directed the Utah Writing Project since 1979, the year following his Bay Area Writing Project conversion.

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