Robin Reagler runs the nonprofit Writers in the Schools, raises two girls with her partner, and blogs about art, life … and being the ‘other mother.’
Robin Reagler first heard about Writers in the Schools when she moved to Houston for a Ph.D. program in creative writing.
“When I learned about it, I blinked,” says Reagler, a former public school teacher. “I said, ‘You mean I can teach writing and not math and science and not have to go to faculty meetings? Sign me up!'”
And they did with haste.
Today Reagler is executive director of Writers in the Schools (WITS), a nonprofit organization started in 1983 that sends some 60 writers into 75 inner-city schools and other entities such as art museums, hospitals, community centers, private schools, and juvenile detention centers to teach children and young people to express themselves through creative writing. Once a week, writers arrive with inspiration and creativity to encourage young minds to create poems, stories, and essays. Some students go on to be writers and several of the them are now teaching in the WITS program, sharing their passion for words with a younger generation. But all of them have benefited from the engagement in reading and writing that the program provides. Writers and students form a partnership during the year, one that adds to the teacher’s relationship with the students and encourages them to learn and stay in school.
“We work with the same kids throughout the year,” Reagler explains. “We believe in long-term programs. Writing is just like tennis or swimming. You have to practice it regularly. The students write, revise, and edit and then publish their best work at the end of the year.” That means they leave with a hard-copy collection of their efforts to keep inspiring them.
This month, on May 7 and 8, elementary, middle, and high school writers will gather at The Menil Collection for the Young Writers Reading Series, the annual public reading of some of the students’ inspirational stories, essays, and poems. (More information: www.writersintheschools.org.)
“We take them to The Menil during the year,” Reagler says of the students. “We take them in small groups for a field trip, a writing tour of the museum. They look at the abstract paintings there and get inspirations from the colors and shapes for their writings.”
Reagler herself doesn’t get into the classroom much anymore—only, she says, in emergencies—but she enjoys the challenge of running the program. Having been in the classroom, she knows first hand the benefits of the program on young minds, and that knowledge helps her in raising the organization’s $1.5 million annual budget from dozens of foundations, corporations, and individuals. Reagler has also instituted a business model on the nonprofit during her 10-year tenure so that schools pay a portion of the program, although the funding comes from grants and parent/teacher organizations, not from the kids themselves or school district budgets.
The job keeps Reagler pretty busy, but she still finds some time for her own poetry, which has been published in American Letters & Commentary, Ploughshares, and VOLT. She also writes two blogs: Big Window (www.bigwindow.org)—which she calls a “boing-boing type of blog for art and literature. You might think of it as an inspiration portal. I try to point out cultural wonders, with an emphasis on art, poems, sculpture, books, films, and websites”—and The Other Mother: Letters from the Outpost of Lesbian Parenting (http://theothermother.typepad.com).
Ten years ago, mutual friends introduced Reagler to Marcia Chamberlain, who also just happened to be a writer (and has even written a few pieces for OutSmart). Chamberlain has won Rice University’s Envision Grant while a graduate student, a Woodrow Wilson Foundation Practicum Fellowship, a Teaching Tolerance grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and an Emerging Filmmaker Grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County. Today Chamberlain teaches at WITS two half-days a week. But her primary job is as the biological mother to the two little girls, 3-year-old Pearl and 16-month-old Carrie, who she and Reagler are rearing.
“She’s really a full-time mom,” Reagler says of her partner. “Although I like the fact that she is a writer, it’s nice to have a partner who can look at your work and with whom you can discuss writing.” She adds: “We’re not competitive at all.”
Reagler says they waited a long time to have children, seven years before they had Pearl, and that the new family members have really changed their lives.
“No more summers in Vancouver,” she laughs from their home in the Heights. “Vacations now are spent with relatives. The girls have cousins exactly their ages on both sides, so they love that.”
They also love visiting the neighborhood park and outdoor concerts and playing with their cat, Maria (pronounced as in the song They Call the Wind Maria)—although, Reagler notes, the cat doesn’t necessarily return the human affection.
Now that the girls are getting a little older, Reagler has more time to devote to her poems and blogs, usually writing after they have gone to bed. And she is thinking about turning The Other Mother blog into a book.
“That’s really why I started it,” she says, “but that’s going to take a large block of time.”
What’s been really time-consuming, not to mention expensive, was completing the second-parent adoption.
“We had to go to San Antonio,” Reagler says. “All the family court judges in Harris County are Republican and they wouldn’t do it.” While the state of Texas allows single-parent adoptions by gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, only certain cities will grant second-parent adoptions for the non-biological gay, lesbian, or transgender partner.
But it was worth the added time and travel to protect her family, Reagler says. And as for the future of the little girls, whose two mommies are both writers, Reagler has no predictions.
“They can’t even hold a pencil yet!” she laughs. “Although”—and here she pauses—”Pearl loves to make up stories. She’ll pretend to be an animal or someone else. and she’ll make up this whole story to go with it when playing with us or her little friends.”
Sure sounds like a budding writer.
Marene Gustin reported on the new Salud! Winery in our April issue (Salute to Salud!).
Encourage a Young Writer:
Writes of Summer
Encourage a young writer in your family: Sign him or her up for the Writers in the Schools June 1, 1 -29 Summer Creative Writing Workshop. WITS presents classes this year at Annunciation Orthodox School and Aldine Academy for writers at three levels: kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth grade, and middle / high school. More info: www.writersintheschools.org.