The House on Teacher's Lane
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The bestselling and highly acclaimed author of Riding the Bus with My Sister returns with an illuminating and tenderhearted memoir about the unexpected ways a home renovation can change a life.
Rachel Simon’s historic home on a charming tree- lined street was hardly ideal. It was too small, too dark, and there was a gaping hole in the dining room ceiling. So when the house is burglarized, Rachel and her husband, Hal, agree it’s time to sell. But in a difficult housing market, and with Hal being an architect, they soon realize: Why leave when they can renovate?
Rachel prepares herself for the disagreements and disasters that can accompany a major home renovation. But what she isn’t prepared for is the emotional journey that will blow open the seal around everything she thinks she knows about herself, about family, and about the misunderstandings and resilience of love. From Hal’s first design sketch to the last stroke of paint, memories of a difficult childhood, friendships left behind, challenges with siblings, and an improbable path to marriage come bursting out. Once the dust settles, Rachel is astonished by the many gems revealed along the way—and comes to discover profound insights about the construction, demolition, and renovation of personal connections.
Featuring beloved characters from Riding the Bus with My Sister and written with Simon’s signature breathtaking prose, Building a Home with My Husband is a wise and poignant reflection on love’s endless possibilities and the extraordinary endurance of the human spirit.
Rachel Simon is the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling memoir Riding the Bus with My Sister. Her other books include the novel The Magic Touch and a collection of short stories, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams. In addition to writing, she is a frequently sought-after speaker on disability issues and the steps people can take to improve their lives. She lives in Delaware, with her husband, Hal, on a street informally known as Teacher’s Lane.
- Site Selection—House
Why is Rachel hesitant to embark on the renovation with Hal? How does her hesitation evolve into her coming to view renovation of the house as a life journey? Discuss the symbol of the trees that grow over the no parking anytime signs. Discuss the role of community in Rachel making her decision. Have you ever made a major decision reluctantly, and then come to see it as a transformative experience that was actually helpful to you?
- Design Phase—Love
Rachel describes her “Search for Life Purpose 2.0.” In what ways does this search change over time? What does she discover her Life Purpose 2.0 to be? Have you had your own version of a Search for Life Purpose 2.0? What answer did you reach? In this chapter, Rachel also explains her struggle to understand love. How did she envision love during the first relationship with Hal, and how did that change over time? Has your own understanding of love changed over time? If so, what had it been and what made it change?
Rachel realizes she finds packing to be so difficult because it involves a reliving of the past, and in many cases, grief for what has been lost. To what extent does she come to terms with this realization? How does her experience packing compare with yours? What emotions has packing brought up in you? Discuss an object you’ve had trouble parting with because it embodies important memories.
- Moving Day—Family
On moving day, Rachel expresses that, although the past cannot be reversed, “we can choose whether we keep plodding the same rutted road, or take a turn we’d never thought was ours to take.” What leads her to say this? She also recounts her decision to forgive her mother. Was this a good decision? Have you ever forgiven someone whose actions hurt you deeply? If so, did you make that decision on the spot, as Rachel did, or did you come to it more slowly? Do you agree that on moving day, “stuff happens,” and if so, can you share some “stuff” that happened on a moving day?
- First Mornings—Self
When the door in the rented house locks Rachel out of the bedroom, she finds herself in a seemingly impossible bind and has only minutes to find a solution. What lesson does Rachel discover that allows her to rise to the occasion? How does it relate to her experiences in the disability community? What does she learn about herself in the process, and how is that reflected in the anecdote about the archaeologist and King Tut’s tomb that closes the chapter? How have you solved an impossible problem that needed an immediate solution?
Rachel comes to acknowledge that she is mourning the lost opportunity to have children. To what extent does she ultimately come to accept the decision to not have children? Do you think she comes to terms with her feelings, or is there no complete resolution? Why do you think Rachel weaves images of light into this chapter? What are the various kinds of love that Rachel reflects on in this chapter, and how do they affect her journey from “house sickness” to the final image of her stepping onto what will become a new foundation? What effect did this chapter have on your own feelings about having children, and the people you know who made a different decision than you?
- Roughing-In—Brothers and Sisters
What factors contribute to Rachel and her siblings falling away from one another? Rachel initially attempts to help Beth’s boyfriend, Jesse, but comes to see that her first responsibility is to her sister. In what ways does this realization strengthen her relationship with Beth? What are the challenges that Rachel attempts to overcome with Laura? Rachel does not discover a way to repair her relationship with Max. What does she conclude about relationships that cannot be restored? How does Hal’s discussion of how he worked with Dan, the mechanical contractors, and the engineers relate to the theme of repairing bonds in families? The final scene in this chapter takes place at a Halloween block party in Rachel and Hal’s neighborhood. How does this moment give Rachel a reason for hope? Did this chapter lead you to reflect on your own relationships with your siblings? How?
- Kitchen Cabinets—Kindred Spirits
What were some limitations of Rachel’s previous “not-seeing” state? To what extent does Hal show her how to see and appreciate the design of buildings? How does Simon’s use of the Detroit airport tunnel link the themes of design and kindred spirits? Have you had a similar experience of finding a kindred spirit in an unseeing crowd? How does Rachel describe design in this chapter? What does the concept mean to you? Rachel encountered Hal by chance and felt a sense of familiarity with him even before they spoke, but at the same time she made the extra effort to speak to him first. What do you make of this beginning to Rachel and Hal’s history together? Does it give any one answer about how we find kindred spirits, sometimes in an unexpected location? In what ways does it demonstrate that we are truly not alone in the universe? Do you believe that we are meant to find our kindred spirits by chance, by our own efforts, or by a combination of both?
- Insulation and Walls—Mothers
In what ways does Rachel’s history with her mother, Rosalie, contribute to her reaction to Rosalie’s health crisis? How does her current inability to feel a bond with the house relate to her relationship with Rosalie? Discuss Rachel’s attempts to reconcile with Rosalie years before. How does Rachel manage to resolve her conflicted feelings toward her mother? The color orange is discussed as being Rosalie’s favorite color. What does it represent and what emotions does it evoke? What does Rachel learn about herself as she helps Hal to build the backyard wall? Discuss the importance of perseverance when confronted with challenges. How do bliss and grief come together in this section? Have you ever had to provide support or be a caregiver for someone with whom you have a conflicted relationship? What have you learned from that experience that overlaps with what Rachel shares here? Are there other lessons you would add?
Rachel feels that “anger, judgment, and their ilk roam through so much of American culture” (169). What are some examples of this negative aspect of American culture? Do you believe it’s true that those who forgive someone who did them harm are considered to be unsophisticated by many Americans? How does Rachel’s decision to see herself as a student help her cope with the disaster at hand? When Hal and Rachel realize that they are both students and in the same situation together, the situation seems more bearable. What challenges are made easier by their sense of solidarity? How does Simon define a student in this chapter? In what ways can individuals in any stage of life benefit from being a student? What emotions does the description of the surviving baby tree evoke? Have you ever experienced a sudden disaster, and if so, did you approach the aftermath as an opportunity to be a student?
In what ways are Hal and Dan allies in this chapter? How does Rachel become their ally as well? What uncertainties must she first overcome? In this chapter, Rachel remembers how she felt “as bruised as our house” (184) in the years following her breakup with Hal. In what ways does the state of her life at that time mirror the current condition of the house? What is the turning point for her? Discuss Rachel’s relationship with the therapist Robin. How does Robin’s encouragement strengthen her and give her a sense of hope? How is having a professional ally different from having an alliance with a friend and family member? How are the various types of allies similar? What does it mean to be an ally? How can having an ally make a difference in a person’s life? Can you think of a time when having an ally helped you in some way? What about being one?
- Insulation and Walls, Again—Time
In what ways does Hal put up walls in this chapter? What is the conflict about Rachel’s speaking engagement in Florida really about? Why did Rachel avoid asking her mother about her lighthouse trips in the past? What makes her change her mind? How do lighthouses relate to the theme of time in this chapter? Rosalie tells Rachel the story of the famous lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis. How does Ida’s attempts to be there for her family and strangers in need relate to Rachel’s struggle to be there for both Hal and Rosalie at the same time? Do you agree with Simon’s assertion that “time . . . can be love’s friend” (201)? In what ways does her newfound appreciation for the lighthouses help Rachel to improve her relationships with Rosalie and Hal? Have you ever felt a lack of interest in the passion of someone you love, then pushed yourself to learn more about it? Did that help your relationship?
Rachel brings up the point that being in a marriage is more than just loving and being committed to someone; it also means to “act on my commitment” (225). What does it mean to act on commitment? What, in Rachel’s understanding, is the link between love and commitment? How did her previous lack of knowledge of this link damage her early relationship with Hal? What resolution do Rachel and Hal come to in this chapter, and how do they get there? What is the value of the formula she and Hal decide on, “taking actions that not only respect our differences, but accept our different proficiencies” (233)? Can you discuss what commitment means to you?
- Wrapping Up—Purpose
What does the anger Rachel deals with at the end of the renovation process ultimately stem from? Why do you think Rachel’s encounter with her neighbor ends up being a turning point? How does Simon tie together renovation of the house with love in this chapter? Do you feel that she comes to accept the difficulties in both? Rachel returns to her search for meaning, and finds that she doesn’t yet have the answer to what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Does what she realizes about herself feel like enough for her? What does Rachel learn from the renovation process? Does it make her life more complete? What are some things she gains? In what ways is Rachel and Hal’s relationship different from the way it was at the beginning of the renovation process? At the end of the chapter, Simon returns to the story of archaeologists discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb, and of the recent discoveries that had been overlooked for years. What, at this point, does Rachel realize about herself that she hadn’t realized earlier? If you have gone through a home renovation or other major life experience with a romantic partner, how did you change by the end?
According to Simon, how can renovation affect a person? What does it really mean to come home? The final image Simon leaves us with is that of the baby fringe tree, which survived despite the explosion, and blossoms in the spring. It endured, and even thrived, in spite of its past. How does this relate to Rachel and Hal’s past, and to the theme of renovation? What does this image mean to you? Lastly, this house is on Teacher’s Lane. Rachel is a teacher, but over the course of the book, the renovation teaches her a great deal. If you had to rename the street on which you live, what would you call it?