Related Articles: Literary, All

A World of Suburban Tales

In the former farmlands of Contra Costa, a big-city teacher finds a global village of writers.

Three years ago I devised a course called "Writing Your Wisdom," a memoir-writing class that I presented to two local adult schools in the East Bay suburbs. I admit that I worried I'd only get white bread and bologna with sentimental "little stories" about when this area was once farmland. After all, let's face it, the burbs out here in Contra Costa County are not the city, I narrowly thought, but a "safe place" where one doesn't make waves and votes conservative. How wrong I was!

My classes are at the Acalanes and Pleasant Hill/Mt. Diablo Adult Centers and at the behest of the directors are marketed toward "life long learning." Why, I'm not sure: I think it was something to do with state aid, which lowers enrollment fees considerably. Or possibly because they're located close to retirement communities housing some very bright people.

At first, mostly women attended, but little by little, the classes evolved. More men showed up who had just retired and wanted for the first time to try something different from their work. Tall, white-haired Bill McCormack, a Concord contractor, grew up in "da Bronx" and had total recall of his troubled and impoverished youth among street gangs. He made the late 1940s and early '50s come alive. He'd had only a technical high school education and worried about his spelling and grammar -- I told him not to let that stop him. There was something in him that ached to write, and with his total recall, I suggested that he send one of his tough New York stories out. It will be published this year in Portrait, a small journal out of Burlington Flats, New York.

Once I scratched the surface, I saw that almost everyone in the class had grown up "somewhere else." They knew stories that I, in my former urban provincialism, didn't. Newer immigrants brought their stories: a woman from India had a stunning piece about watching at age five her grandfather's body on his funeral pyre; a retired architect from Iran drew a smashing "Persian" cover for a class book we put together; the daughter of a Polish Catholic woman who suffered through World War II wrote a piece on how she and other Polish women and children were sent to Iran. As she read it aloud, the Iranian architect, normally a silent fellow, grew increasingly animated. "Yes, I remember convoys, I remember them!" he shouted. Later he brought an old photo of the convoys to class and told how a few of the women eventually married Iranian men.

The incredible stories from so many backgrounds kept flowing. An African-American woman with Cherokee blood remembered her Oklahoma childhood. A first-generation Italian-American woman wrote about the fear among the long-time residents of Chicago Heights who hid in their basements because they didn't understand why the newer immigrants, "uncivilized ladies in black," rushed around with kitchen knives (for digging mushrooms, not for human harm). Yes, even locals who remember when this area was farmland show up in my class. One woman from Clayton, an old ranch town tucked into the foothills of Mt. Diablo, talked about how she was one of the first girls around who wore "dungarees."

Some of the most interesting moments come when backgrounds collide. Reactions can be revealing as well as tense. Once a man from Germany burst into tears whenever he read, especially when one former member of the Women's Army Corps (better known as the WACs) hit him with, "What did you do during the war?" He meekly answered, "I was 13; I hid under my mother's bed. We put out a white flag at the end of the war."

Moments of discomfort between Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans have reared up, with painful histories prompting sotto voce grumbles, cold shoulders and nasty glances. When old antipathy toward the Japanese arose in a story about World War II, one woman simply spoke out, "What about our years in the internment camps, everything taken away from us?"

I hope that in my classes, enrollees loosen their preconceptions of "the other," just as I, a former Chicagoan, have softened my reverse snobbism toward living "out here." It's never too late to realize that creativity is contained in our heads, not in our neighborhoods.

Elaine Starkman has been teaching writing for 25 years. She writes in all genres. For information about her classes and her recent poetry chapbook, send her an <a href="mailto:[email protected]">e-mail</a>.