The first day it was raining, not hard, but steady, and there was a chill in the air. It rained the second day too. But on the third day the sky began to clear. A few holes poked through the clouds that were changing from grey to white and always moving east to the Chesapeake. These holes were round and the blue behind them hard and almost radiant. They could have been eyes peering out of the sky.
I had learned how to unlatch the front gate on the picket fence this third time and I knew to walk around the child’s chariot coupled to a bright pink bicycle—the old kind, like a Schwinn, with balloon tires and coaster brakes. A comfortable looking bike, settled in to its ways.
Michele Young-Stone answered the door and almost immediately we were down on the floor and she was showing me all these truly marvelous collages she had made, many of which were visual renditions of her writing and some of them had writing in them. I could have looked at them for hours, examining them. I like things like that. But I was there for words from this woman with curly brown hair and eyes the color of raw honey.
Those collages would stay with me even after we talked this third and last time in the living room of the cottage she shares with her husband and her son. Those collages reminded me of the novel Michele wrote called “Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors”. Like the novel, the collages were made up of a lot of separate parts in different mediums. And these collages seemed to cross boundaries of the time captured within themselves, which is what the Handbook does. This to: the collages had both writing and painting on them. So naturally they reminded me of Michele’s hero and heroine, Buckley and Becca, the stars of the book.
Big Bill Faulkner once wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Exactly. And that’s what I like about the Handbook. Michele whisks us from past to present when it’s needed, because the past not only informs the present it is the present. At least to a degree. My mother, God love her, has Alzheimer’s and I’ve watched the sap of her memory drip from her skull so that now she is living truly in the present. And the present lasts for a nanosecond and then it’s all a clean slate. Her brain’s become an Etch-A-Sketch and you don’t even have to shake her to clear the screen.
Now all things start with a question. So I asked Michele about time and how it figures in to her telling of a story.
“I jump around in time as long as I don’t confuse my readers,” she says, and her eyes get bigger. “There are things that happen in our life that are always happening, really. They’re so important and pivotal to who we are that they’re constantly occurring. And people are connected in ways that are not linear and I try to show those connections between people that aren’t linear, because that’s the way my world operates.”
Michele came into the world in Norfolk, Virginia, but her parents moved around quite a bit when she was very young until they finally settled in Chester. “I lived there from the age of seven to seventeen when I moved to the city,” she says. “Peter Bogart Young is my father and he’s quite a character, one of four brothers. He was a school teacher when I was growing up and then he worked for Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. He has a master’s degree in industrial arts. And my mom’s always been a nurse.”
Michele swipes her hair back then gets us a glass of water, iced. She has just finished working out at the gym and while she’s in the kitchen I wander around the common rooms and look at a host of Madonnas made of ceramic. Each one is a different manifestation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On her return with the water, Michele says, “My mother Rosemary was from Ridgewood, New Jersey. That’s where she met my dad when she was eleven and he was fourteen. They went to the same swimming pool and she was actually friends with his older brothers which is how they met. My father was born in Lebanon Pennsylvania but then grew up in New Jersey. I always write about New Jersey. My second novel that I’m finishing now takes place in New Jersey outside of the Pine Barrens in a fictional town.”
Michele and her sister Desiree were latch-key kids when they were coming up in Chester. “So I would be alone every morning from I don’t know what time until nine o’clock when school started,” she says.
Even back then Michele had a penchant for putting things together, mixing them up, blending them to make one new thing out of a number of other things. “Secretly I always liked to bake,” says Michele. “So I secretly would bake brownies every morning. I would get out the Hershey’s cocoa and the sugar and the butter and the flour and everything and almost every day I made brownies.”
Now she didn’t use them all. Not by a long shot. She’d take a few squares in to school to share with her friends. “And then I had to hide the rest of them so no one knew what I was doing,” Michele tells me. “I would wrap the brownies up in aluminum foil and hide them in the big freezer where my mom kept meat and stuff and I would just stick them underneath everything so nobody would see them.” A year later Michele’s mom, as she cleaned the freezer, unearthed layer after layer of brownies, stacks of them neatly wrapped in aluminum foil, dozens of them like the strata of limestone. “My mom frosted them,” Michele remembers. “We had desert for a year and my mom was thrilled.”
She spent a lot of time alone during those early years and like many of us felt out of synch with her classmates in elementary school. “I wrote a lot during that time and ironically my parents didn’t think I was really writing it,” says Michele. “That was really strange too because they praised me so much which was a little unusual in that they were really busy all the time. My dad worked and my mom worked. And sometimes my mom worked three to eleven because she was a nurse so we didn’t see her and my sister was five years older than me so I was just kind of a pest. We didn’t spend a lot of time together.”
At the age of seven or eight Michele began developing a skill that would later serve her well as a writer. “It sounds like a weird goal, but I wanted to make people cry,” she says. “I was overly empathetic and really sensitive as a kid and I cried a lot and it sounds weird but I wanted to make other people feel the world as deeply as I felt it.”
Call it artistic temperament. Or call it something else. But it works through her today as much as it did when she was a kid, and that may be why her prose possesses such power. “The book I’m working on now the characters actually wrote me letters and they made me cry,” Michele says. “And I know it was really me writing the letters but you have to get really deep into the character to feel what they feel. Right now I’m writing the last scene which I’ve rewritten and rewritten and it’s hard to write really emotional scenes because you know the characters so intimately at that point and you do you cry.”
Michele pauses for a long time before she speaks again. She’s going back to those childhood times and really seeing them. “I think I wanted people to feel things more so than they did,” she says. “I wanted them to feel how I felt things very deeply. Like when I was a kid I was always worried about everybody. If my parents went out at night and we had a baby sitter I would wait up until they got home because I was worried that something bad might happen to them. I was very sensitive. I still am.”
And that aspect of her disposition may be an inherited trait. “My mom’s dad died when she was fourteen and she broke her arm the same year which is when she knew she wanted to be a nurse,” says Michele. “So my mom is really sensitive. She’s always apologizing to me for giving me that sensitive gene, the one that makes it hard to sleep at night sometimes.”
After the blur of middle school, Michele attended, kind of, Byrd High School in Chester. “I went to Byrd High School but I didn’t really go,” she says. “I was just bored out of my mind. I’d come by on test day and take the tests. One year I missed 63 days of school.”
By then Michele had discovered the wonders of the Fan and Oregon Hill. She’d hang out with friends in the alley behind Marvin’s and down Black Labels and Mickey’s Big Mouths. She knew a lot of the band members of GWAR. And she still baked brownies which she sweetened with additional ingredients.
“I was really drawn to the city and I really wanted to go to college and learn more,” Michele says. “I was going to drop out of school in tenth grade but my mom made a deal with me to finish my junior year. And that summer I spent every day from seven-thirty to five p.m. at JR Tucker in Henrico. I took English and government to get out a year early. So that same year I finished summer school in August and I started VCU in August. I was seventeen.”
Michele’s life had started in earnest. She was torn between studying English or art. “I majored in English,” she says. “I didn’t do art. I was too lazy to do the portfolio. I still paint and do collages. I like writing and I like painting.”
Her first creative writing teacher, Greg Donavan, told her one thing, so Michele did something else. “He told me that I would be a better poet than a fiction writer so of course I had to go with fiction writing.” With bachelor’s degree in hand Michele went hunting for a real job.
“I worked for a chiropractor and I worked at Movie Time across from Willow Lawn,” says Michele. “I was trying to figure out what to do. I had no skills except reading and analyzing books.”
So two years later Michele went back to school and earned a master’s in teaching secondary English. Fresh out of VCU again, Michele began to look for work. She finally landed a position as a teacher at Nottoway High School, an hour commute each way, and it was a trial by fire.
“They told me I was going to be teaching learning disabled English,” she says. “I didn’t know what an IEP was or anything. So the first day I’m in this classroom and I’m all of twenty-three years old or so with kids who are about a year younger than me. And I’m teaching twelfth grade English.”
Michele soon learned that she had signed on as a sort of gatekeeper. “I had no textbook and I had no curriculum and my job was basically to keep everyone inside the classroom so as not to disturb the rest of the school,” she says. “It was insane. I had to make everything up from scratch. But I learned a lot.”
For instance: students can have carnal knowledge even in a classroom. “It turns out I had kids having sex underneath their desks,” Michele says. “They were using their hands. And then I had a whole group of white girls who dated men from Nottoway Correctional Facility and wrote letters to them.”
Michele reels off story after story and I’m seeing it all with her words. “I had two students who were cousins who both had babies who ended up starting at the elementary school which was two buildings over,” she says. “And I had another student whose best friend slept with her boyfriend and got pregnant. So that was her goal all year: To get pregnant too by the same man, which she managed to do so the kids could grow up together. It was crazy.”
Michele had eighteen kids with special needs in one class, and a number of them were nineteen and twenty years old. “It was the hardest thing, but I became a seasoned teacher very fast,” she says. Michele learned to improvise. She remembers a tenth grade class made up entirely of girls. “Every time I would like turn around away from the class they would call me bitch and stuff like that,” she says. “It was a pretty tough school. Most of these girls had children already and I was supposed to teach them Julius Caesar so I said forget this. Instead I taught them how to shop economically and I taught them how to write a check and I taught them how to fill out a job application. Teachers had ten sick days and two personal days. I took every one of them and I drank a lot too.”
There were other things going on, personal things that were ripping Michele apart. And then too her dream of being a write of fictions seemed to be dissipating like a drifting smoke. Yet her passion and compassion were still very much alive.
And then several things happened that would change the course of Michele’s life.
It all started when she read a book.
(To be continued next month)