Write to the Point!

A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

Archive for the tag “Ambriel Johnson”

Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

Anthology cover

This is the cover of the 48-page anthology of work by the Writing Apprentices of Twain Studios. You can see the whole thing by following the link below.

For six weeks in July and August, 2013, a dozen teenagers from diverse backgrounds, different schools and towns, came together as a group at The Mark Twain House & Museum.

This group, the newest of the Neighborhood Studios of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, originated with a great conversation between the arts council and Julia Pistell, who is part of the Mark Twain House communications team.

Led by Master Teaching Artist Jackie Majerus, the teens practiced reporting, interviewing and writing creative non-fiction. They learned about Mark Twain, his Nook Farm neighborhood and neighbors past and present and about each other. Lasting friendships formed. They explored Nook Farm and the state Capitol and learned from an array of guest speakers.

The program was called Write to the Point! and the students, who were writing apprentices, called themselves The Jakes, their shorthand for “Journalism Kids.”

The teens, who ranged from age 14 to 18, worked individually and cooperatively on all sorts of non-fiction writing. They wrote a lot. Most of it is on this blog. Much of their best work was printed in a 48-page anthology – their crowning achievement distributed at their showcase last month, where the youth read their work aloud to an audience of family, friends and others interested in the arts.

Besides the written work, and some artwork of the youth in the studio, the anthology also includes many photographs of these wonderful young people throughout their summer adventure. It is impossible to fully capture a lively group of creative young people on a blog or on a printed page, but this blog, and the anthology, should offer a glimpse into an amazing summer experience.

Thank you for taking time to explore this blog and the anthology.  Comments are welcome, too!

To see the anthology in PDF form, follow this link:

 Twain Studios 2013 Anthology

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Mark Twain’s House Has Always Had a Certain Ring To It

Mark Twain House, July 2013

The Mark Twain House, July 2013

By Ambriel Johnson

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

    Hearing the ring of a telephone has become a regular sound in the American household, something easily taken for granted.

However, in Mark Twain’s time, the Gilded Age, this harsh ring was out of the ordinary. Only the wealthiest of households had these new-age communication devices installed in their homes.

Fascinated with modern technology, Twain himself had a telephone in his Farmington Avenue mansion. He didn’t use the phone much, though he complained about the quality of the phone calls endlessly.

The member of the household who used the phone most was the family butler, George Griffin.

The 25-room home built for Samuel Clemens, his wife and daughters – Mark Twain was Clemens’ pen name – was a showcase.

“They were an up-to-date, sophisticated family,” said Steve Courtney, author of The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

The Victorian Gothic Revival house features a breathtaking grand hall with decorative arts by designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, a glass walled conservatory overflowing with green plants, a cozy library, and a third floor billiard room where Clemens wrote his world-famous novels.

Tiffany supervised the interior decoration of the house and designed most of the glasswork.

Legend says the home was designed to look like a riverboat to mimic the theme in Twain’s masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, construction began in 1873. The house rested on a large parcel of land when Twain owned it, even more than the museum owns today.

“There was a much more rural landscape then,” Courtney said.

The family moved into the house in 1874, three years after Twain decided to build a home in Hartford.

The house in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood had hot and cold running water, central heat, gas lighting and other modern conveniences common in the day.

“Any middle class home had indoor plumbing by 1874,” Courtney said, adding that gas lighting wasn’t new, either.

The Clemens family had all these things.

“In general, it was a time of tremendous change, a very dynamic time,” Courtney said.

Gas lighting, which eliminated the problem of smelly whale oil and weak lights that would damage the eyes, was popular.

“Central heating was pretty new,” said Courtney, as were the speaking tubes the Clemens had in their walls.

Family members used the speaking tubes to communicate with household staff in different parts of the house.

The telephone made communication with those outside the house easier.

Twain’s house was one of the first in Hartford to have a phone, Courtney said, and the listing for Samuel Clemens was one of the first in the local phone book.

Before people had phones, Courtney said, “To talk to someone, they would have to ride their horse downtown.”

Courtney said there were odd noises coming over the phone line, possibly because people didn’t know how to install the wiring.

Twain kept score, Courtney said, of the various noises he heard on the phone. He tallied them as “cannon fire” or “thunder” and subtracted the number of times he heard them from the balance of his phone bill.

“There were definitely things that went wrong,” Courtney said.

Courtney said Twain was always interested in inventing and once invented a game for his daughters so they could learn about British royalty.

Twain also invented a self-pasting scrapbook, Courtney said, that proved quite popular in his time.

Twain invested in items that were familiar to him, Courtney said, such as the typesetter and the Paige Compositor. Courtney said Twain lost $300,000 on the Paige Compositor.

Despite his interest in technological gadgets, Twain remained old fashioned when it came to his work.

Twain had a typewriter, Courtney said, and it made writing faster. But Twain didn’t like using it. He did have other people type his stories for him, Courtney said, but preferred writing in longhand himself.

“It was fashionable to have new and updated technology,” said Courtney, and Twain loved to keep up with the latest trends. “He was interested in fads.”

The Clemens family lived happily in their home until 1891, when mounting debt forced them to leave. In order to pay off his debt, Twain was forced to go on a lecture circuit.

Some of the family went with Twain on his circuit and others stayed elsewhere. They never lived there again.

In the 1920s, the home was sold to real-estate investor J.J. Wall and survived a number of different owners, including a boarding school for boys.

Katharine Seymour Day’s Friends of Hartford campaign ultimately saved it from demolition, restored it, and made it the popular museum that it is today.

In 1963, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Soccer is Just One of Ambriel Johnson’s High School Goals

Rae, Meaghan, Ambriel

Ambriel Johnson, right, connected with other Writing Apprentices at Twain Studios. Here she is taking a break with friends Rae Martin, left, and Meaghan Szilagyi, center.

By Grant Henry

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Fourteen-year-old Ambriel Johnson is a freshman at the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy, just starting her high school career.

She plans to pursue many of her hobbies at the school, like writing and clarinet playing, but she is especially looking forward to joining their soccer team.

Johnson has played soccer since she was six.

“Probably my dad got me into it,” she said. “My dad was my first coach. He coached me till I was about nine.”

Soccer clearly provides a good bond between father and daughter. They watch soccer games together, and he goes to as many of his daughter’s games as he can.

“He still plays, even though he’s like 40,” Johnson said with a smile.

At first she played only recreational games, but began playing varsity once she felt she was ready. She’s already won many trophies in tournaments with her traveling team.

Along with personal experience, she often watches soccer games on the television.

“I always watch the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup.”

Though Johnson has no particular team she roots for, her favorite athletes are Mia Hamm and Lionel Messi.

Johnson’s passion for soccer is clear when you talk to her. She “gets pumped” before every game by wearing an orange prewrap as a headband.

“It’s like my lucky thing,” said Johnson.

On an average week she will have two practices and two games. During tournaments, it’s five to six games. It is unclear how rigorous her high school’s soccer team is, but she plans to attend the tryouts.

If she feels her skill level has advanced far enough, she will join the team of her future college, but that time is far away.

As school gets underway, the athletics department will have a skilled young athlete to bring life to the soccer field.

Johnson’s love of the sport inspires those close to her to find a similar passion for a hobby of their own.

Meaghan Szilagyi and Her Tireless Pursuit of Happiness

By June Tran

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

A bubbly and compulsive 15-year-old born and raised in downtown Hartford, Meaghan Szilagyi was a weak baby born five months premature.

Raised into a family with a rich history rooted in Hungry, her grandfather was a prominent governor there where the family name is both well-known and respected. It was Szilagyi’s father’s trip to the United States after the wake of communism in Hungry that really ties into the story of Szilagyi’s life today.

Meaghan and Ambriel

Meaghan Szilagyi, left, and her Twain Studios friend, Ambriel Johnson, sometimes shared music while they wrote over the summer.

Her Sicilian grandmother cared for Szilagyi after she was born. 

Later, her older sister, Kaitlyn exposed Szilagyi to writing. Often she expressed envy for her sister’s work, feeling that her own work “did not compare.”

The insecurities did not stop there. Entering middle school, Szilagyi began to hate writing prompts and essays. Teachers often assigned ridiculous topics such as essays about “intergenerational relationships” or the reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic.

Boring subjects weren’t the only hurdle. Grades on writing assignments were also a problem.

Although she began to enjoy writing research papers and essays, she said, she “kept getting C’s.”

Szilagyi saw herself as someone who “sucked at writing essays.”

It was during an afterschool makeup session that Szilagyi met Cheryl Ryba, an eccentric English teacher who believed in the idea of “being with your inner self.”

Ryba inspired Szilagyi to keep writing and envelope herself in the art.

She now keeps herself busy with writing journals and poetry. While journaling, Szilagyi writes to an imaginary friend called “Phil.” In this journal, she records her daily activities and feelings.

Szilagyi is indecisive about which career she wants to pursue.

“I do but I don’t,” she said, when asked if she has a career plan for the future. In her mind, there are two paths that she’s planning to take, one that “cannot be written about” and the other a double major in sociology and psychology.

For someone who describes herself as having a “contradictory personality,” Szilagyi possesses an inexorable desire to pursue never-ending happiness.

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