Sunday, January 31, 2010

Virtual Musicians

Way back in the days before Virtual Reality, Garage Band and Guitar Hero, children were expected to develop their musical abilities by learning to play real musical instruments.... like the piano or violin.

It was never too early to start. The hope in many families was that they were harboring a budding Heifitz or at the very least, a Gershwin. This was a fantasy encouraged by many Hollywood screenplays of that era and the fact that Jascha and George had obviously lived with ordinary parents, sensible enough to see the value of encouraging their talents.

The intersting thing here, is that in my childhood, almost everyone took piano lessons. In our family, there was extra onus. My father was a professional musician. The story went that as a young child, he had been beaten daily to practice his violin to eventual renown, and my sister and I were, therefore, suspected by everyone, except him, of deliberately hiding our innate talents under a bushel. Given some encouragement, who knew what we could do?

My dad knew better. He had begun, as did many first generation children of Jewish immigrants, with or without potential, by studying the violin. We heard the Dickensian stories about how his poor father, the tailor, Sam, (not Mottel) sewed pants for the violin teacher in exchange for lessons. How he wasn't allowed to play baseball with the other boys in case he'd hurt his delicate fingers. It turned out, my father actually had a great talent. He was a natural musician who loved his fiddle, but not the nightly floggings he got because his evil stepmother lied to his hard-working father about how little he practiced. Fed up, he finally ran away, at the age of 15, to the North, to work in the mines and forests. He took his violin with him and played 'Mother McCrea' down at the local radio station for his landlady, in lieu of rent. Things were tough, during the Depression, in case you didn't know. (My sister and I became experts on this decade). While living in Timmins, he picked up the sax and clarinet with ease, and returned to the big city to work for one of the leading dance bands of the era. He was to go to New York to play for Glenn Miller when the war broke out and all work visas were cancelled. Ever resourceful, he opened a jazz club and developed an interest in the bassoon. During our childhood, he was steadily employed by every musical variety show on live television, so we didn’t actually see much of him, except on TV, where he was always seated on the far right of the sax section in every variety show on CBC.

With all these instruments lying around the house, you’d think we would have had our pick, but actually, we were forbidden to go near any of them on pain of death, which did not endear us to the pastime, or, frankly, my father. We were not like those cute movie families who gathered around the old fireplace to play in musical ensembles or sing duets for our own amusement. Oh sure, once in a rare while, when practicing at home, my dad would break into “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and we would prance around, paws akimbo, like demented cubs, to indulge him. However, unlike Joe Jackson, my father had no fantasies of his little girls breaking into show biz. On the contrary, he wanted us to stay as far away from it as possible.

Our mother, however, didn’t want us to miss out on any opportunities that children of the fifties were enjoying, so she signed us up for piano lessons at the local church. Although I was only seven, I suspected that something key element was missing but I was assured that I had nothing to worry about. Indeed, on the very first day we were each given a special package which, when unwrapped exposed a folded-up cardboard strip with black and white stripes, which, when unfurled, vaguely resembled a piano keyboard. We spread these out on the floor in front our crossed legs, placed our fingers on the appropriate ‘keys’ and proceeded to bang out our first notes. I immediately noticed that something was strangely silent, but since nobody else seemed to be complaining, I kept my mouth shut. For once. As the lesson progressed, I began to identify strongly with the kid in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” but didn’t quite have the confidence to expose this fiasco at such a tender, trusting age. It wasn’t the first time in my life I sensed that I was in on something that everyone else just didn’t get. It certainly shook my confidence in authority for the rest of my days.

After weeks of virtual paper-pattering, my mother convinced my father that all this dedication deserved a real instrument. Any enthusiasm for actual playing had long been sucked out of me, but we were expected to make the gesture pay off, so had to practice scales and little ditties for a few years. My father had no interest in replicating the teaching methods inflicted on him, so there were no beatings. Without that crucial encouragement, we never really got very far. Eventually, our mother just gave up on us. How long can anyone stand to listen to 'Heart and Soul' or 'Chopstix', after all?

The music gene skipped a generation to my nephew, who, while not a professional musician, definitely has the stuff.
(And the old piano!)

Mind you, he never had to play on a piece of paper.

Don’t Do It Yourself!

There’s an old song, “If you want to get anything done, you’ve got to do, do, do it yourself!”

This is obviously a carryover from the last century, when there was a considerable cultural insistence on individual competence and versatility. Big box home improvement and decorating stores depend on this mindset. Television programs on specialty channels demonstrate various recipes, and inundate us with homemade craft projects and renovations, which all of us watch but, let's face it, none of us do. Of course, we’re used to the usual array of service industries available to sell our houses, mow our lawns and paint our paws.

But have you noticed lately, how many new businesses and services are cropping up which offer to take over even more personal efforts and alleviate this pesky insistence on self reliance?

The future, as seen in on the mothership in “Wall-E”, is closer than you think!

Here are a few new careers, besides secretary and prison guard, for the guidance department to add on that list they have.

PERSONAL TRAINER: Too exhausted (or lazy) to lift your own arms and legs? Join a gym and hire a hunk/hunkette in Spandex to assist you in this arduous task. Better yet, have them come over to your house, saving you the effort of driving over and parking the car. Overcome your reluctance to expend actual physical effort by entrusting your maintenance to these experts, who will design special programs for you and even hold your hand (and lift it up and down) throughout the process.

I'm seriously thinking about it. Is there someone I can get to come over and sign me up?

WARDROBE CONSULTANT: Who among us doesn’t have at least ten fashion disasters hanging in our closets? Who among us, could confidently welcome a Gatsbyesque inspection of our shirts, tees and otherwise? More likely, we resemble those women on TV who shlump around in bibbed overalls until they are rescued by ridiculing wardrobe counselors. Take a look around you next time you are in public and it's obvious, most of us simply don’t know what we look good in. Sensing our confusion and insecurity, and desperate to pry that credit card out of our cold poor hands, most of the major department stores and even some malls have set up teams of personal shoppers to hold your hand (and zip you up) while you refashion your image. There are even free-lance ‘dressers’ who will come over to your house and rip apart your closets.

I could go for this if only my insurance covered accidental smothering!

LIFE COACH: For those of you without nagging mothers or best friends, the life coach fulfills an important role. With a wider variety of choices available to us at every stage of life, and the advice to ‘keep all our options open’ burned into our consciousnesses at a formative age by misguided guidance counselors, it is no wonder that many of us find ourselves paralyzed by indecision, at one time or another, in our lives. If you don’t qualify for actual psychiatric intervention, you might want to consider hiring a life coach to guide you through the process of planning your next moves, or even dealing with the consequences of your previous misguided decisions.

As for me, I am available at all hours and my rates are very reasonable.

GIFTERS: Too busy to bother picking out a gift for your mother’s birthday or nephew’s bar mitzvah? There are people who will consult the gift registries for you and even wrap and deliver the goods. There’s nothing like a personal touch, when you care enough to send someone out to get the very best for you.

I wish I had known about this career when I still had the strength to shop all day!

WALKERS: I am not referring to those well-tuxed gents who ferry elegant socialites to parties at the MOMA. These are sort of surrogate parents for your four-legged family members and they can come in handy for busy people. Some of these companies/individuals will walk your dog while you work. (On the other hand, you could always hire someone trying to get landed status to function as a nanny for your pet, if you have the wherewithall and insensitivity). And for those of you who are too pooped to scoop, there are even companies you can hire to come over and clean up your yard on a daily, weekly or seasonal basis. Talk about passing the bag.

I don't need this....I have a husband.

GROOMER: Spa services and hairdressers are old hat. But did you know that you can get your toenails clipped for free at a hospital? Or that there are medical justifications to have your ears ‘dug out’? You may still have to pick your own nose, however.

Anyone out there looking for an career opportunity?

ENDGAME: We live in a time when going to the bathroom has taken on amazing technological significance, and I’m not just referring to the potions available to aid us from the inside-out. There are now toilets for the most fastidious of us (or the most OCD’d, I guess) that have little plastic seat-covers that rotate around to a fresh spot before you lower your bottom! And, of course, someone had to think of this….toilet bowls with built-in shpritzers to wash your tushy! By now, I’m sure you’ve run into (or away from) those overachieving models in upscale restaurants and malls which personally decide when you’ve lingered too long and start flushing themselves, just to keep you on your toes.

Does anyone out there find themselves dancing in front of that red beam to elicit a flush from reluctant 'excusado'? Do you think there is a hidden camera taping this humiliation?

So, if you unlike me, are looking for a new career and are particularly good at these things yourself, you might want to consider taking courses offered by local colleges to get ‘certified’….or is it ‘certifiable’?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Teacher's Pet

Irony: "Incongruity between what actually happens and what might be expected to happen, especially when this disparity seems absurd or laughable".
(my less-than-reliable Microsoft Word dictionary)

When I was a teenager, if anyone had told me that I would wind up spending most of my life teaching in a high school, I’d have killed myself right then and there. I hated high school with such a fury; I swore it would be the last doorstep I would ever darken once I had the opportunity to escape. This vow narrowed my professional opportunities by half, for in those days, yes, way back then, a smart girl had but three choices open to her: teaching or social work. I wasn’t too crazy about either of those and I didn’t like my chances for the third (yes, I can count), to go to university and earn an MRS, as it was commonly called. After all, how could a person who had gone on only three dates, all of them disasters, ever hope to entice anyone into a long term commitment? I didn’t even have much of a chest, hope or otherwise.

But more of that later.

I enjoyed my primary years of education immensely.

Much of this was due to my excellent teachers (up to Grade Seven, I never met one I didn’t love or who didn’t reciprocate my affection and admiration. After that....well, let's save that for another time).

I began in Kindergarten with two little old ladies, Miss Wilson and Miss O’Brien, who, like many women of their generation, were left single by the decimation of the male population in WW11. Now that I think of it, they probably weren’t so old. They just seemed so to me. They were probably in their 30’s…. half my present age, mere babies, or perhaps even ‘babes’ for all I know. Back then, everyone was so tall and ancient, from my diminutive perspective.

Kindergarten was truly ‘awesome’, in the original sense of the word. Not a day went by that I wasn’t amazed by something wonderful. Imagine pressing your little hand on a platter of soggy asbestos and creating a lasting impression of your very existence at such a formative stage. (It may even be the original source of my hacking ‘asthma’, come to think of it). Unfortunately, this precious memento vanished from the family archives, along with many other charming artifacts. Perhaps, it’s just as well, considering the medium.

Most of those early years are a blur of scabby knees and swinging as high as possible, without incurring a concussion, on the overhead bars. A few incidents persist in the memory, refusing to vanish. As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in Grade One, I asked my teacher how to spell the word ‘out’, one of those words we Canadians are often teased about mispronouncing by those who haven’t got a clue. “Oh You Tea, spells Out Goes She”….was the strange and puzzling reply, chanted with a lilt and a backward glance which demanded instant comprehension, but actually left me in a complete fog. I had no idea what she meant.

It left damaging scars on my psyche, for I remember that humiliation to this day. Obviously, in time, I figured it out but it was one of those first, of many occasions to come, especially in Math and Latin class, when something fairly simple to everyone else, seemed completely incomprehensible to me.

My mother was called in for an emergency meeting that year to be told, with some concern, that I was reading at a Grade 4 level and that there might be something wrong with me. Those certainly were enlightened times! Since I had been reading practically since birth, this was no surprise to her, but she was pleased, nevertheless. However, I presented a problem in a system, which, in those days, was designed to accommodate only one kind of student. And I just didn’t fit the cubbyhole.

The strongest memory I have of Grade Two is that I got lost trying to find the facilities in my new school and this occasioned a major disaster, not for me personally, but for a fellow classmate. Living in the rapidly expanding post-war suburbs, new schools were popping up on every corner and rather than cross Bathurst St. to my old school, a block away, it was declared necessary by those powers that decide such things, that I attend a brand new school much further away, but on the other side of that busy thoroughfare. Since the north end of Toronto seemed to stop at Lawrence Avenue, back then, this may have been an overly cautious move, but I have to admit that we did have a spaniel that chose an inauspicious moment to run across that intersection and throw himself, suicidally, in the path of the only oncoming car for miles and miles around. So I now ventured south a few blocks, instead of west, across the street, just to be on the ‘safe side’, so to speak.

Well, anyways, back in those days there were no ‘welcoming tours’ for new students at the beginning of the year, hence my confusion when faced with so many hallway alternatives in my quest for the girl’s bathroom. When I finally did find it, it was so sparkly and impressive that, I must admit, I got a little distracted and took longer than usual playing with the magic fountain sink and admiring myself in the mirror. Suddenly, a contingent of female classmates burst in, displaying that special brand of hysterics demonstrated by budding drama queens, and began berating me for taking so long. It turned out that another pupil, unable to contain herself until my tardy return, had wet her pants in despair. Things were pretty rigid, back then. Only one person could answer any calls to nature at a time. Their chastisements failed to have the desired effect. Quite the opposite. Up till then, I had had no idea that life could not proceed in its natural course without my presence. This single event made me feel pretty important from that point on. I may have even taken on ‘airs’.

In Grade Three, there was the beautiful Miss Blaine, who let us dangle from her hands as she supervised the playground during recess. She was young and still enthusiastic and above all, kind. It was even worth forfeiting your turn at double-dutch just to fasten onto the mitten of the girl whose turn it was to hold this woman’s hand. (If you doubt the power of an attractive teacher over the little girls in her charge, it’s time for you to read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. Or, you can rent the film version, with Maggie Smith, which is even better, but I didn’t tell you this since, as a former teacher of English lit, I’m not allowed to encourage such intellectual laziness.)

Mr. Sutherland followed for Grades Four and Five. He was tall (as was every adult), sandy-haired and very attractive, compared to all the other male teachers, which isn't saying much, but you took what you could from these life experiences.
It was a ‘split grade’, and I was in the lower half, which meant I could listen in to the more advanced lessons after I tossed off my seatwork, an activity that he encouraged. What do I remember about those classes? Nothing academic, of course. However, he frequently addressed some of the older girls in class with contempt because they were following the fashion of the day and smearing on a pale lipstick, which he referred to as ‘pink vomit’. It was sensational, let me tell you, to hear this kind of language in a classroom. Unfortunately, it was also influential to hear an attractive man express disdain for appearance at the expense of intelligence and it reinforced the early psychological warpings of my own father, who frequently praised high marks above those more culturally acceptable feminine virtues of the day, beauty and compassion. My adorable, friendly and big-hearted sister never had a chance, nor did our mother, who, come to think of it, was, in her day, prized for those very same virtues. These men and their ilk, bachelors or misogynists, one and all, invited me to join them on their elevated plain to look down on the rest of my gender as superficial man-hunters, full of frivolity and silliness. Little did they realize they were sowing the seeds of the Feminist movement!

On the other hand, to add conflict and self-doubt, important ingredients in character formation, there was Miss Fedder, a gorgeous, raven-haired temptress who taught Gr. Two, and occasionally visited the little girl’s bathroom to touch up her scarlet lipstick. She was definitely a little less chalk-dusty than the rest of her colleagues, an aberration in a profession that valued plainness, above all else, in its practioners. We little girls would look up in awe at her ministrations and primpings, eager to learn how to emulate that pressing and pursing of a pair of newly anointed lips. Such glamour!

Then, in Grades Six and Seven, along came Mr. Anthony. What can you say about a very neat man, who wore pastel shirts under tastefully colour-coordinated ties, who waved his hands around in the air like he was about to take off and who ‘lived with his mother’?

Back in the 1950’s you couldn’t say much.

He was certainly different. He was also brilliant, inspirational and, god forbid, creative. Once a week for Art class was just not enough for him. He quickly picked up on my passion for all things decorative, and encouraged me at every opportunity. Our classroom looked like it had been attacked by Sarah Richardson, Debby Travis and Oprah’s Nate, a la meme fois! (He also introduced us to what was then innocuously referred to as 'Oral French').
He was way ahead of his time, since this was not on the Ontario curriculum, so he was tempting fate in many ways).

When he discovered my flare, Mr. Anthony immediately exempted me from normal classroom activities; I was destined for ‘enrichment’. Lest you think this meant I got carte blanche on all the treats that were given out, don’t get too excited. For example, I didn’t get to sing the French solo at the Christmas concert. My voice was on pitch but my beauty was not as well developed, shall we say, as the golden-haired Lynnette, who got to wear a diaphanous white shift and arabesque provocatively in front of the whole choir at the annual assembly, creating the illusion of a damsel pining for her lover by the “A la Claire Fontaine” with an amazing effectiveness in one so young, now that I think of it.

But I’m not bitter.

Let’s just say, that years later, I truly felt for that little girl who did the voice behind the lip-synching cutie at the Beijing Olympics.

Thus, I was destined to develop my special talents for more ‘behind the scenes’ efforts. For example, I was assigned the task of illustrating the poem, “The Lady of Shallot” on the massive side blackboard, in colored chalk, while Mr. Anthony taught it to the rest of the class. I felt like a mini-Michelangelo, or would have, had I yet known of his existence. Several times that year, I was to be found in the school corridor, perched on a ladder, arranging an ostentatious Christian seasonal display on the huge bulletin board outside the Principal’s office. These were the days well before ‘multiculturalism’, when all colonial children were instructed in the ways of the motherland and the Anglican church…. diversity be damned!
And it was little me who was allowed to stay after school and wash the paint trays and bang the chalk dust out of the brushes. Such perks!

Gender equity was not yet part of the culture in Grade Seven. There was great social upheaval when I unexpectedly won the class election for Junior Red Cross President, so I willingly conceded the position to the second place contestant, Stanley, a pre-pubescent boy with flair for impersonating Elvis. My gender and outstanding penmanship unquestionably marked me as a natural for the more appropriate job of Secretary. (Or so it was explained to me by my beloved Mr. A., who knew, only too well, about hiding your light under a socially acceptable barrel). As a great consolation, I was allowed assume the role more traditionally assigned to females, of 'the woman behind the man', to do all the work of the President, anyways, organizing the weekly Friday afternoon class meetings, in order to free him up to perfect his impression of “The Pelvis” for his weekly performance. (Elvis was not yet anointed, “The King”, to keep things in their historical perspective here).

Order in the Great Chain was momentarily restored.

These privileges only served to further inflate my sense of self-importance and contributed to my comfort level in the classroom. I felt like the whole place existed just for my edification.

There was nowhere to go, but down.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Part 1: The Spirit of Charity

Teach Your Children Well

Oh to be young, naïve and full of faith in the so-called ‘milk of human kindness’. Instead, I find the older I get, and the more informed, my milk, metaphorically-speaking, of course, has dried right up, along with my skin and eyeballs. I know I sound like a curmudgeonette, but I can’t help it. The more I see and read about the millions of dollars being thrown at yet another disaster, the more I tear out what’s left of my hair (hopefully, just the grey ones).

As a teacher of the young, a great deal of time, both personal and institutional, is spent trying to inculcate them with the concept of charity, both the kind that begins at home (share your toys with your siblings and friends) and the kind that looks farther afield (save the world and all the suffering people in it, the animals that people kill for pelts or, even worse, food, and, of course, the rivers, forests, oceans, skies….you get the idea). It’s a full curriculum and it’s not even on the curriculum!

I began my teaching career in a huge high school, located downtown, subsequently referred to as 'inner-city' and recently renamed 'a priority neighborhood', full of immigrants (or New Canadians, as they are now, more politely referred to). Although I'd like you to believe so, I did not take this job purely for humanitarian reasons. At the age of 20, marooned in suburbia without a car in a city where most public schools are inaccessible by public transportation (thank you city planners) I jumped at the opportunity to commute with an old, dear friend who had already landed a job, the previous year, at this decrepit shrine of learning. Should you think otherwise, I am not casting aspersions….this school was SO OLD that many of our parents had attended it in their adolescence and I was constantly asked if Mr. or Miss So-and-So was still teaching there or had they died? The frequent reply was that they were, indeed, still teaching there and having lunch at the next table in the ‘staff-cafe” every day! (Very few of us ever die in teaching….for as we all know, what doesn’t kill us, makes us strong….eat your hearts out, dentists). All I had to do was pay for my friend’s gas and I got to ride to work with her in her shiny new Mustang (the best name for a car, ever!). Her car cost about half of her first year’s earnings, but since we all lived at home until we got married, in those days, it was money well spent. By her. But I digress (which I am allowed to do since this is my very own blog and if you don’t like it, start your own blog, dear reader!).

About a month before Christmas, in a flurry of excitement, the students began the annual holiday homeroom project of making gift boxes for ‘the poor’. Somehow, these kids, with so little of anything of their own, were able to imagine that there were children even less fortunate than they were and they were going to give them the best Christmas ever. As an ‘educator’ this was not a ‘hard-sell’, believe me. Being so close to the situation themselves, I guess they really understood how the ‘kindness of strangers’ could be life-altering. In the education game, the term ‘empowerment’ gets thrown around a lot, too much, if you ask me, but when you actually see it in action, it is something to behold. And beholding is what most people like to be doing, especially around Christmas.

Of course, being as how we were at an institution of, what is mistakenly referred to as ‘higher learning’, there had to be a competitive element to this whole endeavor. Whatever god you believe in (or not)-forbid, this heart-felt thoughtfulness could not go unrewarded! So the entire event was orchestrated as a contest, with recognition at a school-wide assembly and a tacky prize (probably a pizza lunch) to the best gift box/most creative home form. You have to remember that no money was involved in this event, since the students and their families had none, so creativity was key. Making things out of other things, toys fashioned from old stuff, was the idea. This would never pass the quality/safety standards review boards that hover over our society nowadays, but back then, life was simpler, if more dangerous, and we all took our chances.

I wish I could describe the fantastic objects d’art that spilled out of the elaborately decorated cardboard boxes lined up on the stage of the auditorium during that assembly. My sporadic memory fails in recalling specifics but I definitely remember the incredible upheaval in my heart, of admiration and amazement at the pride and joy felt by those children. (There is a reason those two words appear together so often in life and literature). Although they never saw the faces of the recipients of their efforts, the act of thinking of them for so long and wanting to share something of themselves with them, was enough. The pizza lunch wasn’t even the icing on the cake of their generosity, if you don’t mind a few mixed metaphors. ( I don’t, especially when it comes to food).

The next year, my little head was hunted by a former teacher/mentor and I left the inner city and the free-ish ride to teach at a suburban school in a new middle class neighborhood. At the end of the November staff meeting, during the aptly named "good and welfare' item on the lengthy agenda, I raised my trembling hand to ask a question. (You know I am making up the ‘trembling hand’ part since I am never nervous about asking questions, but it does make a more effective picture, don’t you agree?)

“What do we do, at this school, for Christmas charity?” I inquired. “At my previous school, we used to make gift boxes for the poor."

“Oh, the poor get too many gift boxes at this time of year. We don’t do anything,” came the snappy response.

Meeting adjourned!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Primary Numbers

In Grade 4 a whole new world opened up to me. It was somehow discovered that I was as blind as a bat and that I’d probably been missing a lot more than anyone realized. My mother’s friends tried to console her, as if I wasn’t standing right there, telling her that my handicap was going to significantly diminish my beauty and ultimate marketability. (“Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” was a well-known homily, which proved to be prescient.) I was warned that I would henceforth forever be labeled a four-eyed intellectual. I didn’t mind much. The pickings in Grade 4 were lean and romantically unappealing to me. Besides, once I put on my specs and everything came into sharp focus, I felt an instant kinship with the girl on the TV show “The Millionaire”, whose eyesight was instantly restored through a revolutionary operation paid for by her ugly fiancé (played by the young Charles Bronson). My mother, in a misguided attempt to glamorize me, encouraged my choice of frames, shiny black ones with pointy, diamond-encrusted wings that threatened to take off on either side of the head, (later immortalized by Dame Edna). I thought I was stunning.

Little suburban schools like mine were just starting to get scientific back then so the need to gather statistical information became important. By Grade. 5, we were being ‘tested’ for various things beyond the usual times tables, vocab tests and spelling bees. I loved taking these new tests once I understood that the requirement was to colour in the little dots in the booklets rather than actually answer the questions “in words”. I often finished well ahead of my classmates and drew cute little designs around the borders of the pages to kill time.

After one such examination, my mother was called in for an urgent meeting with my teacher and the principal. There were a few issues that needed to be addressed immediately. She was sworn to secrecy since it was suspected that if this kind of information fell into the wrong hands, there would be some dire consequences.

First of all, was she aware that she was the parent of a ‘genius’?

No, she wasn’t, was her reply. Were they sure they just didn’t mean a ‘smarty pants?”

No, not at all, they assured her. I had scored some impressive figure on the I.Q. test which they felt somehow reflected well on them, personally. Back then, such children were not considered ‘gifted’. There were no presents for exceptionality in those days. Just shock and trepidation. After years of taking me for granted, they suddenly didn't know what to do with me.

They told her that even though I qualified to be the first guinea pig for grade acceleration, they had decided that I was simply too well-adjusted to move away from my friends (none of whom I remember to this day) so, instead, they were going to experiment with a nerdy little boy named Robert. He was the social outcast whose desperate mother had invited the whole class over to his house one night to view the constellations through his high-powered telescope. (No one went.)
It was agreed that he was riper for the picking.

My mother was torn. She was happy that I was considered bright and socially adjusted, but confused that this should work against my promotion. But then there was that poor child, Robert, who aroused such sympathy. She brought this whole matter to my attention, breaking her vow of secrecy. Back then, parents didn’t question the opinions and decisions of teachers the way they do today. Nor did they worry about their childrens’ self esteem. So, not for the first time, was I confused and irritated by the education establishment. My ‘gifts’, though grudgingly acknowledged, went unrewarded and a pattern was clearly established. I started to lose any trust in school.

Soon, another issue arose, which confounded them further, and my mother was, once again, summoned from her household chores and “The Guiding Light”. Could she possibly offer an explanation why her “super-child”, whose score in math aptitude tests put her in the 99th percentile of the whole province, was failing that very subject? No, she couldn’t, but her solution was to come right home and reproach me for my poor showing in class, given my newly discovered advantage of intellectual resources. She didn’t consider any vow of silence to be relevant especially when the content could be wielded to her advantage. Her attitude was more like, “Well, Miss Know It All, how do you explain this?”

Frankly, I was not surprised at either piece of information. I had two reactions. One was that I was terribly insulted that Robert had gotten the go-ahead instead of me. I vowed to stop doing anything I didn’t feel like doing from that point onward. The other was that I finally realized that I was right all along. I was smart and everybody else was clueless!

I had long suspected that I was way beyond my impressionable classmates in most departments of life. I had an early sense of skepticism about most matters, driving my elders to distraction with my ‘negative attitude’ (ie: not just ‘going along’ and following orders, any orders). I'm sure my grandfather was behind this, a man who would lure Jehovah's Witnesses into his parlour to challenge their beliefs until they begged to be let go. It was his version of the Inquisition and they were lucky to escape with their lives, if not their faith, intact.

I, too, tended to question anything that seemed a little too certain.

A couple of examples:

I was especially concerned about the heroic attempts of the Jesuits to ‘civilize’ the indigenous inhabitants of either Upper or Lower Canada (or maybe both - I never get those straight) and the subsequent, inhospitable reaction. This information is now considered politically incorrect, so impressionable readers, be warned!

Although I didn’t mind taking out my new Laurentians and drawing pictures of the natives burying the Black Robes in the ground with just their bald heads in their hoodies sticking out for the ants to devour, or pulling off their arms and legs and exhibiting other ungracious behaviors to the 'New Canadians", I wondered about the presumptuous expectation of hospitality of the French (something that still exists to this day in our fair country). The teacher would ask why couldn't the Iroquois just welcome an entirely new religion into their longhouses? This nagged at me, a little Jewish girl sitting in a class of many others of my faith, in a suburban public school in Gentileland. Did that mean that if we didn’t warmly welcome the theological ramblings of the local minister who visited us from his church each Friday, no less, loaded down with copies of the New Testament for us to read aloud together, that we, too, would be digging our own pits in the playground before you knew it? For some reason, my concern went unnoticed by my elders. As usual.

I was also terribly concerned that my parents, whose job it was, as I saw it, to take good care of me and my little sister, were neglecting their duties by refusing to build a bomb shelter in our basement. At least they could provide us with a little crawl space or a storm cellar, like Dorothy had in the Wizard of Oz. Didn’t they see the little animated film from England on Ed Sullivan’s show a few weeks before? The one that forewarned that all children should be removed from the room during its transmission? (I stayed, of course). All that was left at the end of the cartoon atomic explosion was a little black fly, buzzing around in a radioactive cloud. (It was most likely from northern Ontario…those particular blackflies could definitely survive a nuclear Armageddon). Anyways, I was pretty dismayed when they scoffed at me. One day, I thought, you'll see.

Yes, I was quite a little worrywart. No apocalyptic foreboding escaped my attention for long. I was surrounded by others too immersed in their own personal little dramas, totally oblivious to the bigger issues of the day and their effect on moi.

As for the Math part, I have an idea why I developed what I considered purely a ‘mental block’ against the poor subject. I loved numbers, the whole visual pattern thing, like the special effects in “A Beautiful Mind”. Later, I actually came to enjoy, if that’s not stretching it too much, Algebra and Geometry, but not enough to excel and only enough to pass out of high school when graded on a curve, thank god.

Somewhere, back in my early years, I got a D for not quite catching on to my 12 times tables and I just threw in the towel.

Who could blame me?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Meet the Creature

This is the affectionate term used by many of my colleagues to describe Parent/Teacher Interview night. I, personally, never used such a term, of course. First of all, it is too vague, leaving too much open for interpretation. For example, who, exactly, is the ‘creature’ in this encounter?

During the primary years, there is great interest on the part of most parents, in the academic and social progress of their offspring. Meetings with the teacher are highly anticipated and usually well-attended, for two reasons. First of all, the school is able to communicate reliably with the parents of its ‘clients’ by sending home invitations to attend, with the assurance that they will be received and read by the intended recipients. Secondly, all involved feel there is still hope.

By the time a student reaches high school, however, he/she has developed into a cautious editor of all homeward bound paperwork from report cards to permission forms, so it is a foregone conclusion that many parents will never find out what they are missing. Anyways, for many of them, all hope has been abandoned when adolescence set in, transforming their formerly eager-to-please children into hostile aliens, or, if they are really lucky, simply indifferent zombies.

So here you have a delightful encounter between adults who are supposed to care and adults who are paid to care about a young person who doesn’t care. Sounds like fun, no?

The Set-Up

Whoever invented Speed Dating must have once been a teacher. Ten minutes to establish significant rapport and convey important information and instill mutual interest and a wistful hope for the future, while offering some stale cookies and weak coffee, is a long established tradition at interview night at any high school. Parents rush around the school, from class to class, consulting maps, looking for the right rooms, worrying about being late for their next appointment, with much more haste and concern than is ever drummed up by their kids on any given school day.

Sometimes, a considerate administration will figure out that it is more convenient to herd everyone together in several large spaces, like the gym or library, than to abandon staff in their own classrooms, unsupervised, tempting fate. Teachers will be positioned at tables around the perimeter of the room, and parents will no longer have to rush back and forth from one end of the school to the other, depending on how many teachers they wish to see, of course. (This method also discourages personal and physical attacks from either side, since hardly anyone wants to lose it in a public arena with so many witnesses!)

What to Wear on Parents’ Night

Just like the aforementioned Speed Dating archetype, both parents and teachers are encouraged to ‘dress up’ for this occasion. First impressions are important, after all, so abandon the casual wear. Track suits are only really suitable for gym teachers, in spite of the advancements made by ‘weekend wear’ and yoga togs in recent years.

It says a lot about a mom, when she shows up in a hot-pink, spangled, velour athletic outfit with the word ‘Juicy’ emblazoned on her tush. What it doesn’t say is ‘ a real grown up in charge of young person with over-active hormones’. Dads who show up in business attire look impressive, but that illusion can be quickly shattered if you are unfamiliar with your son or daughter’s name.

As for teachers, dust the dandruff off your shoulders and chalk dust off your back or that is all anyone will remember about you. A little tooth-whitener never hurt anyone either, even if it isn’t on your dental plan (if you are lucky enough to even have one).

What Not to Say - Parents

You can be confident that whatever you say is wrong and will cause a great deal of disgusted eye rolling on the part of your child if it ever gets back to him/her. It isn’t really necessary to justify your child’s lack of progress with lurid stories of your messy divorces or emotional breakdowns. Yes, the school needs to know about relevant ‘issues’ in a timely and appropriate manner, but this is no time to go in for lengthy therapy or a heart-pounding confessional. And for everyone's sake, try to hold back the tears!

What Not to Say - Teachers

Don’t say anything that can be held against you in a court of law.

Gone are the good old days when parents were on your side and the kids were expected to make an effort. Rest assured that your every comment will be held up to scrutiny, examined for ulterior motives and summarily discarded, if not up to the usual standard of adoration and appreciation.

Immediately acknowledge that you are aware that in the vast scheme of things, you are privileged to have this brief encounter with genius and to engage with one of the most delightful children on the planet, perhaps to have some transient influence on him/her for the betterment of future civilizations.

Then you can go for the throat.

Parent Interview Styles

Parent Confrontational (PC)
The worst for first. Leave the litigation skills at work. You may be able to bully the clients and underlings at the office or even at home, but realize that men and women who, by choice, face over 30 teenagers per class, several times a day, are not going to be impressed by some adult’s self-important posturing and attempts at intimidation. The best result you can achieve for this kind of behavior is possibly some sympathy for your kid who has to deal with you on a daily basis.

This is the situation. You must make it abundantly clear that your child has special needs that are not being recognized, let alone met, that any missed work or inattention is due to family exigencies, like unavoidable extended vacations or social events, and that it takes a very special kind of teacher to reach this child who is, of course, a latent genius, fragile, unofficially ADD or simply, creative. So there!
Then quickly leave before there is time for rebuttal.

This is an approach which gains a great deal of empathy when finessed with the proper style. Hands must, at all times, be thrown up, and both eyes filled with tears of frustration, as you describe your futile attempts to get your son out of bed in the mornings, to do his homework or even communicate with you at all. We all know that your daughter holds you in total contempt; it’s a foregone conclusion. Since the teacher is very familiar with this behavior already, you can both commiserate for ten minutes, give each other a hug of appreciation, and leave each other in peace.

Easily Distracted
Park those cell phones. It doesn't reflect well on your parenting interest/skills if your iPhone keeps ringing during the interview. And you keep answering it! It explains a lot about your priorities and where your child falls on your list. Somewhere near the bottom, after 'pick up the dry cleaning'? No wonder you are here tonight.

My favorites are the parents who simply cannot believe that their child is doing well, is charming and communicative, co-operative and successful. They keep asking if you are both talking about the same person as the one over whose head they put a roof.

Heeding "The Call"

Teaching is definitely what they call....a "calling".

I came to teaching naturally. From early childhood, I was bossy, opinionated and loved to draw on the little blackboard my parents bought for me to encourage me to like school. It worked. I put all my dolls and stuffed toys in a little circle and began pontificating as soon as I could speak. Although I didn’t actually get to attend school until I was five (those were the days before pre-school, when mothers stayed home and took care of their own children because no one else would), I was more than ready, having learned to read and even play a little chess, by then.

I found school to be a mystery, in many ways. There seemed to be a lot of lining up and rote drilling in between the more exciting moments when the paint trays were trotted out or the pitch pipe was tooted at us. When I asked my Grade 1 teacher how to spell ‘OUT’, she chanted “ohyouteespellsoutgoesshe”. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. I felt like an idiot and never asked her another question. (I later taught a very bright girl who never raised her hand in class, although it was obvious she knew everything, even before I asked. She confided to me, in her journal…not out loud, of course, that a teacher had mocked a response she had given in Grade 3 and she had never talked in class again. I immediately empathized and we worked it out so she could offer her ideas without fear, in that class, at least. I felt I had corrected some imbalance in nature with that one.

In case you are concerned that I too, hovered in some quiet corner, hoarding my wisdom to myself, nurturing a grudge, don’t worry. I soon recovered to the extent that my Gr. 3 teacher felt the need to add the comment on my report card to my parents that “I talked too much”. Somehow they were not shocked at this revelation. I, however, was mortified that someone would brand me a chatterbox and not appreciate my enthusiasm and friendliness.

By Grade 1, I loved to read and it was soon discovered that I was doing so “at the level of a pupil three years and four months in school”. Not three months or five months. Exactly four. There was a flurry of excitement at my house at this news, but then the fuss died right down when my father complained about me not bringing up the empty garbage pails from the curb, and that was that.

Over the years, I was a challenge to many of my own ‘educators’. I judged them harshly when they insisted we line up in the gym with our toes on the red line, when they insisted on calling on the pupil who obviously didn’t have a clue instead of acknowledging my wildly waving arm, and especially when, in Grade 4, my favorite teacher, Mr. Anthony, rewarded Angela Smith with the opportunity to be the first in the class to abandon her pencil and use pen and ink from an exotic inkwell embedded in the top right-hand corner of her desk. This was just because her cursive writing was prettier than mine! Cursive writing….another skill down the inkwell of progress.

I was a natural in primary school. I could fold and cut paper snowflakes like the wind and loop together endless paperchains for the annual Christmas tree faster than anyone else. I pressed my little hand into a saucer of sticky grey asbestos to make a charming plaque for my parents to treasure always. Although this primitive work of sculpture was nowhere to be found in their bungalow after their demise, I still have the mysterious cough I picked up around that time. I loved the smell of the toxic chemicals on the ‘dittoed’ handouts, relished the fine line of a freshly sharpened pencil, and saw unlimited potential each time I started a new notebook. Would I be able to keep it neat all the way through and not just on the first few pages?

I always hoped so.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Pretty One

A mere 14 months after my arrival, my mother left me in the care of my grandparents to go off and disappear somewhere for a week. Those psychologists among you can verify it was not the best thing to do, timing-wise. I was quite simply traumatized by her absence and spent the rest of my childhood dreading another sudden disappearance. (It didn’t help, of course, that she had a tendency to threaten to walk out on us, whenever my sister and I gave her provocation, but let me not get too far ahead of myself).

During this particular hiatus, I recall sitting on the landing in the hallway at my Bubi’s, talking to my mother on the telephone. She tried, unsuccessfully, to reassure me that she was all right and that she would soon be returning home with a very special surprise for me. Being all of fourteen months, I was not impressed. This opinion didn’t change much when she arrived, a few days later, with my new sister. Even though, much later in life, I grew to regard this individual as my better half, at the time, I was not so appreciative. I had been the first grandchild, the focus of a large, over-extended European family, who enjoyed the enthusiastic attention of all my relatives, crammed, as they were, into a downtown ‘semi’ in the heart of the immigrant district of Toronto, (where homes now ‘go’ for hundreds of thousands of dollars – my Zaida must be spinning in his grave with astonishment).

Suddenly, there was a division of doting and I was expected to be thrilled and proud and to instantly shape up as a role model. Not only that, but I had to share my room with this baby, who developed quickly into a finger-sucking, fussy child with huge blue eyes and golden curls and a very strong mind of her own.

It also didn’t help much that she would henceforth always be labeled, “The Pretty One”.

Room for Dessert!

As a person who feels that a meal without dessert is a tragically missed opportunity, it is difficult to keep my personal mission focussed and my spirits up in a society hell bent on depriving everyone of everything that makes life worth living.

Lately, I have come to a time in my life, grandparenthood, where I begin to appreciate the true meaning of life and the essential enjoyment of it. The icing on the cake, as the saying goes. It should happen to you, if it already hasn't.

Things they said were good for you but didn't work out that way:

Putting babies on their tummies to sleep
Indiscriminate sex
Getting a suntan
Jogging/ Exercise
Fur coats
Joint custody
Tough love

Things they said were bad for you but make life worth living and aren’t so bad after all:

Saying no

Sunday, January 24, 2010

No News

I am probably one of the few remaining people on the planet who watches the evening network news with dinner. It is a sorry habit ingrained in my youth when watching Walter Cronkite deliver the day’s events from a behind a TV tray in the living room (I’m behind the tray, not Walter) was the best way to keep a watchful eye on important things. And back then, things were very important. The world was always on the brink of some historical event, when it wasn’t busy coming to an end. Walter let us know if the Russians were coming, which world leaders were being cut off in their youth, when the National Guard would strike innocent students next and whether or not we made it to the moon that day. The moon, for god’s sake!

Well, things on the news front have definitely changed. And not for the better. Walter is gone from TV, of course, as have all people with any credibility and gravitas. Now I sit at the kitchen table with my husband, the saint, who suffers and groans through countless ads for ED and prostate troubles, rapidly losing his appetite for his pasta carbonari (we are on the Mediterranean diet). Eventually, a perky (her word, not mine) Katie reappears briefly, to inform us that we, as a nation, have voted for a story on a dog with no back legs, and we settle back, mouths agape, to watch him fetch his way into our hearts, balancing daintily on his two front paws.

I suppose this national voting for what’s “news” is a desperate attempt by TV news producers to involve the audience in what is, nowadays, mistakenly called ‘interaction’. I call it: ‘losing whatever is left of your journalistic integrity’. This kind of thinking also panders to that whole ‘feel good’ supposition that audiences will only watch what makes them feel better. If it makes you feel better to watch a canine tippy-toeing around on its forepaws, tail-up, with a ball in its mouth, you are on the wrong anti-depressants. For me, it’s not such good news. Stuff like that is better left to the you-tube quickie fix, which is the place where the audience that appreciates this kind of story is fixated. Those ‘folks’ will never devote their precious dinner table conversation time to watching network news.

Oh sure, I know all newshounds can’t wait to pounce on the latest disaster. It’s money in the bank. Ratings soar and so do donations. And, let’s face it. The opportunity to dispatch their most expendable reporter, to cling desperately. by his fingernails, to a palm tree during a hurricane, comes too infrequently, even in this age of global meltdown. Major upheavals are even rarer. How often does the chance occur to helicopter Katie, herself, to a visit a shambles, devastated by an earthquake, to pat a suffering child, (who will be, we are later informed, airlifted to Miami, to join the majority of its population on the critical list)? Misfortune like this simply cannot be counted on, on a daily basis.

I expect more from my typical evening update. A little factual information, some journalistic investigation, a hard-hitting interview with questions more probing that a polite request for a reading list. I can’t help it. I was brought up on Watergate! Something must be going on in between the RLS attacks, COPD and Sally Fields futile attempts to ward off the inevitable osteoporosis she inherited from her brittle mother. No, Sally, you are not going to tell me something about my bones that I don’t already know. But I do like your dog. And the green screen shot of the ocean behind you. Nice touch. If I take Boniva, do I get to sit around in the sun on a dock throwing sticks for my retriever?

So what do I learn from watching the nightly news? I learn that news directors are a lot less squeamish about showing piles of bodies littering the streets than they used to be, especially during the dinner hour. I learn that I am not less squeamish and that I get the point without the pictures, thank you. I learn that someone decided that Katie would look a lot less perky if she chopped off her bob and went for a ‘helmet-head’ look. (I don’t ever remember noticing what Walter was wearing or what his hair looked like, if he had any). I learn that I can do a much better job at eye makeup than whoever is painting her fresh face with that “I’m an angry teenager so I’m going to outline my eyes like a raccoon”-look. I learn that if I switch to Diane Sawyer, I can only tolerate her condescending tone and sugar blonde locks for so long. I know she is going home to Mike Nichols, the funniest man ever. I know she used to write speeches for Richard Nixon! Why should I believe anything she says?

Most of all, I learn that aging is no picnic, what with all the breaking and the shaking, not to mention the gasping for oxygen and constant nighttime peeing, and that I’m going to age a lot faster if I continue to watch network TV news with my dinner.