birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


Money? Nope.

Prestige? Unlikely.

Security? Stability? Maybe.

It's hard to say what draws someone to become a teacher, given the significant hurdles and inherent limitations of the job. But when you encounter a great one, you know it. And you know it almost instantly.

I was a shy, anxious kid, and my first view of kindergarten scared me. At least half the students, maybe more, on day one were in tears, frightened of the new surroundings and being left at the start of the day by our parents. My mom can recount how I took one look at Sister Dawn Louise, a heavyset woman in dark brown nun's garb, thick glasses and booming voice, prompted me to exclaim, "She's too big!" and then cower, crying. But looking at me, she wasn't put off by my insensitive observation. She bent down, knelt and opened her arms, putting us eye to eye. She offered a hug. And she held the attention of the 20 or so kids in her class with ease all day. That first half-day was a breeze. I exited the school doors chattering with excitement about all the things I'd done, all the possibilities of the new, the learning that might be.

Mrs. Moone, a lay teacher, was hip and cool and so naturally at ease talking to her fifth-graders and engaging them. She cranked up WLS-AM on the radio when we did art projects. The tinny but resonant pop melodies of "Seasons in the Sun" or "Rhinestone Cowboy" passed the hours with focus and pencils or crayons tapping on our desktops. She kept a bin of wrapped objects, everyday items but rich with the unknown, to spur our creative writing efforts upon unwrapping. She read her favorite stories among those submitted alound, emphasizing just the right line readings and caught up in the tales as much as her audience.

Ms. Teta, seventh-grade, came alive with English classes. Diagramming sentences at the board was a game of shared effort, students racing to take their turn and fill in a piece of the sketch when their turn came up. She read stories of Greek and Roman mythology, pointing out the variations in how a god in one culture was adopted, their personalities and names tweaked to fit the needs of the other. Her phrase to explain the origins of so many titans born of mythological hook-ups — "And they united in love and begat ..." — was a warm refrain. The cadences of her speech etching new words and phrasings as writerly patterns in my brain.

Later on, it was the high school English teachers who laid the foundations of my own love of language and storytelling.

Herb Hrebic, my freshman-year composition teacher, was co-author of a seminal book series on the teaching of writing. The first, "Stack the Deck" laid out the building blocks with humor and inviting hooks. On day one of his class, and frequently thereafter, he'd throw a Nerf football around the room as he got to know each student's name and called on them to answer a question. Stumped for an answer, you tossed the football back and he engaged someone else. No stigma. Everyone involved and eager to get their shot. I became one of his senior teaching asssistants three years later, helping newbies with their in-class writing exercises and doing first reads on papers. I honed my own skills as a writer, and the volume of other students' work built my emerging muscles as an editor.

Mark Wukas, junior year, American Literature. He must have been in his 30s, and not to far removed from his own college reading and high-school lit experiences. He clearly loved digging into the readings and talking meaning and technique. He loved a debate, even a heated one, as long as the points were well observed. He took up the prevailing passion for Ozzie Osborne and countered with Traffic and some of his pop favorites. The lyrics, you know. He dubbed me "CB" for "cynical bastard" for my frequent slamming of poets I didn't yet understand why I was critiquing. He laughed when I submitted bad limericks and first-person riffs from the point-of-view of the shark in "The Old Man and the Sea." When I took to writing snarky little news parodies about school issues and despised faculty, he handed me articles about Ben Franklin's use of pseudonyms and Revolutionary-era political tracts. He encouraged me to explore starting up an underground newspaper. I still have a copy of his post-class suggested summer reading list somewhere.

All those creative nudges, the word play, the tolerance for and encouragement of my constant questioning and parsing of words and intent, they were building blocks. I had the appetite. Those teachers knew how to channel and feed and grow it.

It couldn't have been easy, given their workloads and the long days and minuscule Catholic-school pay scale. Some of my classmates had other teachers, vastly less engaged ones. Detentions were handed out for challenging authority. Rote, mediocre homework assignments were their norm. Students dozed off or passed notes and hurled spitballs.

I had it good. Those teachers brought out my best, such that I aced the AP English test, and then later was one of the few students to be able to waive Freshman Composition in college on the strength of my test essay. So much of what I am today was shaped by those initial creative forays with teachers that got it right.

Those first impressions counted, a lot.

The daily opportunity