celebrating ireland with a virtual Facebook parade of authors

Facebook-based book groups The Write Review and Sue’s Reading Neighborhood teamed up with six other book groups to create a virtual, day-long St. Patrick’s Day “parade” of authors. Since we can’t stand on the sidewalks to watch live St. Patrick’s Day parades anywhere due to the coronavirus, this was the next best thing, plus it gave us the opportunity to speak with authors who are in Ireland right now, while we’re stateside. The Irish Echo even ran a feature story about the unusual, COVID-era event.

I appeared on a panel where the writers discussed the “Irish DNA” in our work. The night before the panel, I looked over my four books and discovered that there’s Irishness deep within the bones of each, in one way or another.

The only explicit reference to my Irish connection (via my father’s father), was found in my collection of humor/parenting columns in my book A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum where I included a piece called, “Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with All-American mutts.” In it, I talk about how my husband and I served our three young kids the same corned beef, cabbage and Irish soda bread my family used to eat every March 17 (full disclosure: my husband almost always made the corned beef.) While Scott took care of the corned beef, I’d have the kids create shamrock-themed crafts while I blasted U2 and the Dropkick Murphys (“Shipping Up to Boston” of course) as Scott and I enjoyed Guinness. That was usually followed by the kids’ consumption of super-sweet shamrock shaped cookies with sprinkles set atop their shamrock paper plates. One year, Scott and I took them to South Boston, where my brother lived at the time, to watch the famous Southie St. Patrick’s Day parade, not too far away from the L Street diner, which was featured in “Good Will Hunting.”

My next book, Mortified: a novel about oversharing, didn’t explicitly have Irish references, although the main characters were Irish. You had Michael Kelly who married Maggie Finn, whose mother was Molly Mahoney, whose mother Emily had lace curtains in the window. The novel was set in a suburb outside of Boston, an area where Irishness is deeply felt. When I was a newspaper reporter for a brief time, covering Boston City Hall in 1998, I was frequently asked, “What county are you from?” I’d wrinkle my brow, recall the western Massachusetts county where I was raised (Hampden), but then realized they meant from which IRISH county did my family hail (Cork).

Years later, my two works of narrative nonfiction included Irishness not only because the second one, Uncomfortably Numb: a memoir, was my story and I have Irish heritage, but because both books made frequent reference to Jamison Clark, the main character of Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. He not only was the hero in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, but he appeared at the beginning (and the end) of Uncomfortably Numb as he was there when I first experienced numbness in my left leg. During one of my first long interviews with him (the one with the numbness), Clark told me about and showed me his Celtic necklace with the “triple Goddess” that he wears, saying it symbolizes eternity and rebirth, this from a man who married a woman named Colleen O’Brien (no relation) and who, before they had kids, would spend the entire St. Patrick’s Day in the Black Rose in Boston.

While a recent DNA test told me I am 53 percent British and Irish (designating County Cork as a likely ancestral location), Irish influence has always been strong, particularly because of that O apostrophe at the beginning of my last name.

Watch the panel discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/1367330023/videos/10225035457138085/

2017-2018 southborough middle school group continues in ‘mr. clark’s big band’ tradition

The current Big Band members at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass. — led by the larger-than-life music director Mr. Clark, of Mr. Clark’s Big Band fame — are continuing to carry on the school’s tradition of sharing their music with their unique brand of unbridled enthusiasm.

33784860_2243272132366728_5795502403910369280_nThe Trottier Middle School’s Facebook page recently featured a video of the 2017-2018 Big Band playing “Uptown Funk” during a school assembly. Seeing the joy on the faces of the middle school students reminded me of the Big Band students I observed during 2012-2013 school year, whose journeys I chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. I really miss the time I spent in the Trottier band room observing Mr. Clark and those students hone their skills and tell really bad jokes.

However …  I’ll get an opportunity to revel in Big Band tunes during their June 14 Jazz Night performance at the Trottier Middle School at 7 p.m. Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Cancer Society.

You can get an audio preview of this year’s Big Band repertoire by listening to the middle school musicians perform on WICN 90.5 FM Jazz+ for New England on Howard Caplan’s “The Saturday Swing Session” on Saturday, June 9 between 11 a.m. and noon.

*To watch the video of “Uptown Funk” performance, click here*

 

signing sneakers & arms at a massachusetts middle school

ac82ea3d-b0de-4adb-b1d4-4a76ff1c0fd6It was in Monson, Mass. where I autographed my first arm.

And my first sneaker.

And a slightly sweaty palm.

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Students from the Granite Valley Middle School — where I spoke in March about Mr. Clark’s Big Band — were full of questions, energy, and requests for me to use my green Sharpie to sign … their various limbs and footwear. (They SWORE their parents would be totally okay with this. For the record, I remain skeptical.)

Before I spoke in the auditorium, I visited the Granite Valley band room where students assured me that their Mr. Clark — who goes by the name of Mr. Topham in Monson — is just as lively and off-center as the lead character in my book.

a012dafb-8c38-4c57-9cb9-84193fa88e57Later, I shared stories about how and why I came to write Mr. Clark’s Big Band about a middle school jazz band about an hour’s drive to the east, told them tales about Southborough’s Mr. Clark, and read passages aloud while a PowerPoint presentation behind me showed various images of Mr. Clark (including one of him in a goofy pink wig during a performance), and of the Trottier Middle School band room.

The image that got the loudest response? The one of chicken-in-a-can that was on screen as I read a segment from the chapter called, cleverly enough, “Chicken-in-a-Can.” At least the presentation was AFTER lunch so it didn’t spoil anyone’s meal.

a1e0c588-b981-4df5-a402-4b3fc295c218I also got the opportunity to catch up with my friend from West Springfield (MA) High School, Granite Valley’s Principal Mary Cieplik (above, on the right), who generously invited me to address her students.

If you’d like me to visit your students, or your book club, send me an email: mereditheobrien@gmail.com.

Images from Granite Valley Middle School’s “In the Loop” newsletter.