Garn Press Interviews Esther Sokolov Fine, Author of “Raising Peacemakers”
(Esther Sokolov Fine book signing. Esther, left.)
Esther Sokolov Fine is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, in Toronto, Canada, where she has taught since 1991. Before coming to York, she was an elementary teacher with the Toronto Board of Education. There, she taught in downtown public housing communities and alternative programs, including four years at the Downtown Alternative School (DAS). The book Children as Peacemakers (1995), which she co-authored with teachers Ann Lacey and Joan Baer, presents a history of the Downtown Alternative School and tells about the early years of peacemaking.
Reflecting on her own early life, Esther writes: “The best part of school was when librarian Mrs. Barnes and some of our homeroom teachers read aloud from wonderful books. The worst part was the long walk home from school, crossing the vacant lot by myself on a narrow path that led to Lilac Street.”
Since 1993 Esther has been engaged in video research with the same group of students, teachers and parents. In this research (largely funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada—SSHRC) she and filmmaker Roberta King have watched these children grow up and filmed and interviewed many of them, their families, and their teachers across this 20+ year period. Details and edited film from this work can be seen at www.childrenaspeacemakers.ca. A feature documentary, Life at School: the DAS Tapes, was launched in 2001.
Esther teaches pre-service and graduate courses in creative writing, literacy, adolescent and children’s literature, critical pedagogy, and models (alternative models) of education. She was born in Detroit and attended the University of Michigan where, in 1968, she won a Hopwood Award for fiction. Esther completed her doctoral studies in 1990 at the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) and her MFA in creative writing in 2003 at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Esther has lived in Toronto since the 1960s. She has an adult daughter, Keira, who possesses outstanding social skills and makes her mother proud and grateful every day.
On Early Reading Experiences
Garn Press: What are your earliest memories of words and books?
Esther Sokolov Fine: I spent many hours of my early life bound by the gray-blue walls of our modest Detroit house. Scattered on the living room rug were library books and a few treasured first editions that belonged to me; some I still have. My nostrils would widen with expectation when I cracked open their spines. Even now, I can almost catch the fresh aroma that filled the air. Luscious words seeped into my brain and leapt to my tongue. The oldest texts may have lost their newness but not their zest.
GP: Did you have a favorite author when you were a young child?
ESF: Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem My Shadow still follows me. Wanda Gag’s The Funny Thing and Nothing at All have stayed with me. Marjorie Flack’s Walter the Lazy Mouse gave me existential questions that I still ponder, while A. A. Milne continues to tease me with rhyme, with rhythm, with notions of rebellion and liberty. I enjoy the challenges of social struggle and negotiation. I adore the poetry of teaching and learning. I relish spaces in between genres and worlds, where multiple possibilities intersect and spark imagination.
GP: Do you remember your first books?
ESF: Milne’s poem Halfway Down with its drawing of a child sitting mid-staircase uttering the final four lines of the poem, got me to thinking at an early age.
It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else
This deceptively simple poem from Milne’s collection, When We Were Very Young (1925), was the head of my trail of imagination to the outside world. As a young child, I counted the stairs in our home on Lilac Street, counted them carefully, so that I could sit at the halfway place and be fully and completely elsewhere. It wasn’t I who disliked the house on Lilac; it was my mother. It wasn’t the house I wanted to escape; it was other things, the tension, the silences, the noises. It was from that stair, that halfway place that I first began to consider my life, contemplate my options, and strategize next steps. “Come down,” my mother would say, “It’s time for lunch.”
“I can’t,” was my answer, “I’m not here.”
“Where are you?” she would call.
“I’m somewhere else.”
On Early Writing/Drawing Experiences
GP: Do you have memories of learning to write an essay, a story, or a poem?
ESF: I entered a poetry competition when I was in about the 4th grade. I entered because my “almost cousin” Judy had entered the same competition, and I thought (for the very first time) why not write a poem. I didn’t win, but it got me started. To this day, writing poetry helps me synthesize and understand some of the more complex material of life. It helps me get started.
GP: Did you like to draw? Did you paint as a child?
ESF: Failure, humiliation, punishment by the art teacher – 4th or 5th grade – who banished me from the art room for trying to draw a picture of her, which she saw as mockery and I saw as trying to draw a portrait. Sad. She was paranoid. I was not an artist. A double failure, I guess.
On Testing Experiences in School
GP: What about taking tests – can you remember taking them?
ESF: Tests were never beneficial for me. They were timed, and I always found alternative ways of interpreting the questions. If I tried to talk about my thoughts during the test or ask a question – do they mean this? Or this? Or this? Time would be up. Tests work for certain kids. Certainly not for all. They do not help adults understand children’s thinking or appreciate what and how they learn. Tests are probably more “effective” with those fast superficial readers I spoke of earlier. What do they actually measure? I think they measure the value systems of the cultures that design, fund, mandate, grade, and use them to stratify a population.
On Authors and Their Books
GP: Do you have a favorite author?
ESF: Four favorite writers whose prose techniques woven into story have had a strong influence on me: Henry James, E. B. White, Alice Munro, Carolyn Coman – and of course many others.
GP: If you could express one thought to all your readers what would it be?
ESF: One thought for readers: Slow down and read more than the story line. Notice the technique of the writer and how it resonates with the content. I think that many people mistake reading quickly as accomplishment and impose that view on children, to their detriment.
On Writing as Part of Daily Life
GP: What does it mean to be a writer in troubled times?
ESF: I think my writing is often connected to present day events. Things occur. The morning, the noon, the evening, the night. In each moment there are infinite whispers from the past that intersect with the present to trigger memories and inspire narrative and dialogue – what was said, what might have been said, what could still be said. My head is always writing
GP: When do you write? Do you have a routine?
ESF: Often, my best writing happens early in the morning, on those rare and special occasions when I awaken from a dream with a finished idea for a piece in my head.
GP: Do you mix up writing instruments? (Oliver Sacks never wrote on a computer. He started with hand written notes and wrote on a typewriter.)
ESF: I write it fast on the computer to get it all down, and then I spend many hours editing to shape and refine and re-think what it is that my dream is trying to tell me to try to write for myself and others.
By: Esther Sokolov Fine
Hardcover, Paperback and eBook
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Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-19-3
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-12-4
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-13-1
Garn Press Imprint: People and Society
Hardcover: $24.95 USD
Paperback: $17.95 USD
eBook: $9.99 USD