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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Contributor Spotlight: Stephanie Barbé Hammer

Why I write about school

I write about school because I remember kindergarten at the Central Presbyterian Church. It was great: purple finger paint swirling over taped-down paper, dancing with scarves to the church piano, story telling.

And butter making.

One day, while the other kids were working on projects, the teacher took my friend and me into the kindergarten kitchen. She poured cream into a yellow bowl, and we went at it with our child-size eggbeaters. We turned and turned the handles as the little blades whirled, and then the mass inside the bowl became whipped cream.

“Don’t stop,” said our teacher. “It will become butter.”

This seemed preposterous, but it was very fun to work on that whipped cream. We spun those cranks like crazy.

Then - suddenly - the whipped cream looked very different.

“It’s butter now,” my friend whispered. We each took some home and served it at dinner with the rolls.

This miracle in the kindergarten kitchen made me fall in love with school. School was the place where cream was transubstantiated into butter, where your hard work and persistence made that metamorphosis happen.

But I have learned subsequently that school very often is not the place where amazing changes occur. So, I write about how education both enthralls and disappoints me. How it fascinates and enrages me. How much I care for knowledge, despite the managerial offices that both determine the fiscal means of acquiring it, and often – perhaps unwittingly – impede that very acquisition through an array of procedural hoops that would daunt (and do daunt) the people who need the knowledge the most.

The piece that appears in the forthcoming issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review tries - in a fantastical way - to show how the educator’s struggle to preserve knowledge is doomed by misguided beaurocratic imperatives and by the ways in which teachers themselves – in this case, a professor – internalize the very procedures they should be rebelling against. The piece also features and – hopefully - pays homage to the most crucial and most invisible workers at any school – namely the staff. In this sense “Our Friend the Professor” is an odd sort of valentine to the office personnel, IT professionals, bus drivers, and cleaners who helped me when I was a pupil and student and who help me now as a tenured professor.

The fact is that many people make it possible for me, the teacher, to slip into that educational kitchen of miracles. That’s why I write about school. To whip up the impossible, and dish it out as something surprisingly spreadable.

“Yes,” I say. “I made that. “Before it was butter, it was cream.”

“But then it changed entirely.”

Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in The Café Irreal, Square Lake, NYCBigCityLit, CRATE, The Red Rock Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Argestes, Soundings, and The Bellevue Literary Review. A two-time nominee for the Pushcart prize, she teaches comparative literature and creative writing at UC Riverside, and is a student in the MFA program at Whidbey Island, Washington. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, a knitting project, a sometimes-at-home 20 year old daughter, and 12 tiny cacti. Find her online at


David Bar-Cohn said...

I like the butter story! It's a lot nicer than dissecting a frog -- which starts off dead and pretty much stays that way. Not to mention it's harder to spread on a roll.

Keep up the great writing!

Judy B said...

I always wanted to go crazy with one of those hand held egg beaters. You had a fun kindergarten teacher. Now you'll have to write a story about frog butter.