Some Seeds of The Tigers of Lents
In the spring of 2011, I was the last writer-in-residence at Marshall High School in Lents, a neighborhood in outer Southeast Portland. A few months prior, the Portland Public School District board had decided to close Marshall at the end of the school year, citing low enrollment and costs. It was a tough blow for the community.
That final spring of the school’s existence was a poignant time, and in the three classes where I taught I was moved by many students’ stories. The kids wrote a lot during each workshop about family, neighborhood, and the complexities of poverty. Some of those stories echoed certain elements of my own family background, and I found myself, only a few weeks into my time at Marshall, taking notes on some initial seed ideas for a possible novel. I would arrive at the school’s front parking lot and sit for a few minutes before my first class, jotting ideas with the nearby freeway as a backdrop soundtrack.
At residency’s end, I published the following short article in The Oregonian. And as for the novel that began to emerge during that especially powerful Writers in the Schools experience, The Tigers of Lents will arrive in the spring of 2024 from University of Iowa Press. Some thirteen years and dozens of drafts after I first started taking notes on it.
The Last Days of Marshall High School
A week from graduation, she walks into her English class, sits down and looks to the overhead screen for the day's prompt: Neighborhood. For a minute she quiets herself, pen in hand. With each passing day, school seems both closer and more distant. Surges of memory—her teachers, her classes these past four years, all the hallway conversations, the languages. The halls used to be more crowded, livelier, but now some of her classmates show up every other day, if that. Her teachers tell them they matter, no one is abandoning them. They can't take it personally, that's the thing. Life's not always fair. And they know it's true, and also, enrollment was on the low side compared to other high schools. Still—this place is theirs. For some kids, it's home, where they can come to know that people will pay attention to what they're thinking. Where they can find a few moments of calm. Where they can eat. I live in the wilderness of the economy, she writes on the first line of her paper.
* He can't seem to stay awake. When his math teacher asks him to step into the hallway, he stands slowly from his desk and pulls up his baggy pants. "How much sleep did you get last night?" the man asks. "I don't know. Four hours." "You need between eight and ten. What did you eat for breakfast?" "Nothing." "Not hungry?" "I don't know. A little." The teacher hesitates, gauging him. "Let me know if you're not getting any breakfast, all right? If you need any help." Face tingling, he avoids the man's eyes and gives a nod. In the fall, he's supposed to begin his sophomore year at a new school in another neighborhood, one he's never been to, and the thought of that makes his stomach tighter.
* She watches her students leave, waiting until the classroom goes quiet. Her eyes rest for a few beats on each place where a kid just sat, and calmly she begins to tell.
The father had an accident at work, no insurance, they lost their house. Alcoholic mother. Runaway. Father in jail. Homeless, living in car. Her voice remains steady, and when she finishes going around, an electric stillness fills the room. "Yet here they are, in class," she says. "Writing."
The brick building stands. The surrounding grounds need mowing. This place, in this far part of the city—a high school drenched with decades of stories, this cornerstone of a neighborhood—awaits its fate. Emptied of so much tenacious hope, it's finally silent.