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Writer of the Month: Corinne Lestch/"A Teachable Moment"

We returned this month after our June hiatus to our favorite spot for outdoor readings, the patio at Colony Club. It was a warm <read: sweaty> summer night in DC <read: just how we like it>, and the sounds of sirens, helicopters and neighborhood kids made the evening somehow even more artful. Here we were, lucky to be gathered together, sharing words, sharing art, sharing community in a time when it seems our world so desperately needs it.

Tara Laskowski kicked off the event with readings from her new book of short fiction, Bystanders. She was followed by seven more local writers -- some new, some returning -- in fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

As soon as you read the selection from this month's Writer of the Month (a newcomer to TIL), you'll know why we chose to feature Corinne Lestch. The short fiction piece that she submitted and read with us at our July 12th event strikes a beautiful balance between cynicism, humor and depth -- a line not easily drawn, especially in so short of a piece. If Corinne's "A Teachable Moment" is an indication of what this writer is capable of, we're sure this is not the last the world will hear from her.

About Corinne Lestch:

Corinne Lestch received her degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and went straight to work for the New York Daily News, where she frequently chased crime, celebrities and crooked politicians. She was the recipient of a Front Page Award from the Newswomen's Club of New York for her beat reporting on city schools, and won two fellowships from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is from New York, but currently works as a reporter in D.C., and she can often be found at the Bethesda Writer's Center.


A Teachable Moment

Corinne Lestch

My English teacher, Ms. Trudy, came to our house last night. I could see her through the window, nervously swatting at her stringy brown hair, flattening it down and then teasing it up again as she made her way up the drive.

At first I couldn’t place her, it was so jarring seeing her outside of our classroom. She was wearing a red polka dot dress that was tight over her large frame, with a button missing somewhere between her nipples and her navel. Then it hit me. The keys almost falling out of her purse. Her pantyhose bunching in the back, visible as she waddle-walked. Her mouth frozen into a set pucker from years of holding her tongue, when she probably wanted to explode at us.

My mother was taking a bath, so I wriggled down from the oversized armchair where I was reading and walked up the stairs to intrude on her luxury, soaking in the tub with bath salts and cigarettes. The door was ajar. I poked my head in, even though I hated the smell. I could see the cigarette smoke mixed with the steam from the water curling out above her head.

“Mom. Someone’s at the door,” I said.

“Is it Chuck? He’s early,” she said.

“No. It’s not Chuck.”

“Well then, who is it? Coming at this hour? Don’t tell me you invited a boy over.”

I rolled my eyes and backed out. I waited until I heard the water stop running, and then went back downstairs.

Ms. Trudy rang the doorbell three more times, probably counting slowly between each elongated chime. I sat low in the armchair until I was almost horizontal and watched her. I liked her class well enough, though everyone gave her a hard time. The first time she showed she was a pushover was when she gave John Maloney detention and then changed her mind after he started jumping on his desk. And she was always disheveled. One sock didn’t match the other, or her panty lines showed through her big, flowy dresses, making herself a target for the boys who would shoot gum through straws, trying to hit her ass. I imagined she often went home and cried.

Now, my mother came down with her thick, black hair piled high on top of her head and a bathrobe, and opened the door to face Ms. Trudy. My mother gave her a quick once-over, her eyes lingering a second longer at the spot where the button was missing.

“Ms. Rocault?” Ms. Trudy asked, timidly at first. Then, more firmly, “Ms. Rocault, can I come in for a minute? It really won’t take long.”

“You’re…Angie’s teacher? Right?” my mother asked uncertainly.

“Yes, her English teacher, Ms. Trudy. I really promise this won’t take long. I just wanted to stop by and talk.”

I could tell my mother was confused, and wondering if she should put on clothes, and then she was annoyed, and then she was really annoyed, and then she let Ms. Trudy come in.

She sat on a patch of the sofa that didn’t smell so strongly like whiskey mixed with coffee, and cleared her throat for what seemed like hours.

“Ms. Rocault,” she started again. “Angie is obviously a gifted writer, I just want you to know that. I mean, I hope you already know that. She will probably end up with the Honors Award at the end of the year…”

“That’s nice,” my mother said, blowing a loose strand of hair out of her face.

“Well, but I do worry sometimes about the…subject material,” Ms. Trudy said, fidgeting with the hem of her dress. “And I just want to make sure everything is alright. I hope I’m not coming off too strongly, but I just think that concerned teachers can change lives.”

My mother looked at Ms. Trudy like she was a water bug that had just emerged from the dank recesses of a drain. I waited, the anticipation in my chest ballooning.

“Well, what does she write about?”

Now Ms. Trudy had my mother’s full attention. She glanced at me, as if telling me with her watery eyes that she was sorry to betray my trust like this. I responded by boring my eyes into her skull.

“Well, for starters, every single character chain smokes. If chimneys could talk, that’s what they would all sound like. There are addictions to drugs and alcohol that are so pervasive that even the pets get drunk and high from being around the characters.”

Ms. Trudy stopped herself and looked around her crossed legs like a madwoman, as if there were cats and dogs she hadn’t noticed in a drunken stupor beneath her feet. She couldn’t see him, but I saw our very sober turtle, Hermit, wander behind the couch. She continued.

“And, well, I don’t know how to really put this, but there is just a lot of very promiscuous sex. I mean, I don’t even know all the positions that she…for an eighth-grader, I mean…to know that, I just wonder…”

I pictured the other buttons popping off her dress while she talked, but she kept sitting there, crossing and re-crossing her legs, fidgeting with the hem of her dress, stammering on about promiscuous sex. My mother gave me a quick flick of a glance, and the skin around her lips was taut and I knew she was about to kill either me or Ms. Trudy, whomever she was closest to. Me.

“Ms. Trudy–”

“Some, many of the themes are just worrisome, and I just want to foster an honest, open dialogue with her parents, and while most of the students are not writing anywhere near her level, her stories still deal with very adult subjects in my opinion. Very dark subjects…” Ms. Trudy paused, looking like she badly wanted to say something else, but stopped herself.

“Ms. Trudy.” I didn’t remember the last time I saw my mother’s face so red, like she had a fever. I could tell she was itching for a drink, and the kitchen was so close she could feel the chilled blast of the open fridge on her face as she scanned her options. But, like me, she had to endure. In this moment, she was an extension of me. Or I was an extension of her. Or something.

“I’m not sure where Angie gets her ideas from” – she shot me an ice-cold look – “but it’s certainly not anything going on underneath this roof. She’s exposed to the same things as all the kids are now, I suppose. But isn’t this creative writing? A way of expressing yourself? Having an imagination? It’s not like you found her diary.”

“Well, all the same, writing can be very personal. So I just wanted to bring it to your attention.”

They both looked at me.

“In my opinion, the worst is the smoking,” I said, looking at my mother. “Smoking can kill.”

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