Remembering Advice

As mentioned in an earlier post, I used to read the newspaper advice columns religiously. As regularly as I attended daily mass at my Roman Catholic grade school, and with a great deal more religious fervor, I read Ann Landers in the morning paper and Dear Abbey in the evening news.  And because I have a quirky, persnickety memory, some of those columns have remained in my head forever.

I particularly recall one that related to a young couple who had requested that no very small infants be brought to their wedding. This was a hot topic at the time: Do babies so young that they will likely cry and disrupt the wedding service actually belong at a wedding, or not?  This young woman and her fiancé had chosen “not”, and she and her husband had been paying for it ever since.

The husband’s sister, it seemed, had borne a child  just shortly before the wedding, and was resentful of the young couple’s decision. She’d contrived a very specific revenge.  Since the sister’s home and yard were the largest, all family gatherings and holidays were held there.  Her brother and his wife had been excluded from every get-together since their wedding.  The angry sister refused to have them in her home.  Being continually excluded from his own family gatherings broke the young man’s heart, and his wife was wracked with guilt, blaming herself for their ostracism.

I don’t recall now what the advice columnist’s response was, but I certainly knew what my own reply would have been, and to this day I wish I’d sent in my retort to the newspaper regarding the vengeful sister’s behavior. It might have gone something like this:

Dear A,

In response to the young woman and her husband who were excluded from all family gatherings after requesting that no small babies be brought to their wedding ceremony, my question is: Does no one in this family have a spine?!

Here’s the salient point: Babies are a surefire draw for attention, and Little Sister just couldn’t STAND the thought of not stealing her brother’s thunder on his wedding day. I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that Little Sis has been the spoiled darling of the family her whole life.  She just couldn’t abide not being the center of attention, even at her own brother’s wedding.

But to make him and his new wife pay for her petty narcissism by ostracizing them from every family gathering from thence onward is taking spitefulness to an entirely new level! How long does the average wedding and reception last?  Four or five hours?  And how many times has the young couple been excluded from family events, times the number of hours?  Every July 4th, every Memorial and Labor Day celebration, every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner?  Four or five hours each,  multiplied by the years that this nastiness has gone on, equals what?  The spoiled little princess has gotten her payback with a vengeance, along with thousands in interest.

Someone in this family of spineless wonders needs to stand up to this narcissistic little shrew and say, “Enough already! You’ve gotten your revenge.  Now act like the adult you supposedly are and make up with your brother and his wife.  Otherwise, the next family gathering will be held at MY home, and the only one not invited will be YOU. And don’t give me that ‘you have the biggest home and yard’ crap.  There isn’t any home or yard large enough if love is absent.  Or have you never heard that proverb which begins,  ‘Better a dinner of herbs where love is’?”

All these decades after reading that advice column, I still do wonder if someone in that family group ever got up the gumption to smack the spoiled princess upside her nasty, narcissistic, vengeful little head. Knowing families as I do, though, probably not.  They were probably united in their resentment of the outsider who had upset their precious darling, and never forgave her brother for wanting his wedding day to be focused on him and his bride, rather than his spoiled sister.

But I do wish I’d written that letter.

Agony Aunts

I was intrigued by the Downtown Abbey episode in which the Dowager Duchess’s butler begins anonymously writing a popular “agony aunt” column for Edith’s magazine. That episode delighted me, because I grew up reading both of the daily newspaper columns, Dear Abbey and Ann Landers, and it’s likely that they shaped much about my understanding of the larger world outside my little Midwestern niche.

I was perhaps 11 when I first began reading the advice columns, finding them both instructive and sometimes shocking. I read about teen pregnancies and unfaithful spouses, family spats, cruel in-laws, and the heartbreak of parents who had lost a child.  I read about indecision regarding which of two potential spouses a person could choose, and the difference between infatuation and love.  I read about mistreatment of the elderly and the bitterness of those who had grown up as abused children, and how those two situations were sometimes linked.  I read of alcoholism and drug abuse and sexual perversion and racial prejudice.

The advice columns were, I now think, part of my social education, teaching me a myriad of things that would never have dared been touched upon either at school or by my parents.

For a long while, ten years or more, I took the guidance handed out by the Abbey and Ann duo as gospel. But as I began graduating to other advice columns, the ones I discovered in a dozen or more women’s’ magazines, I also found my own voice.  Shocking as it seemed even to myself, I began arguing with the columnists.  I dared to think that perhaps, given this question or asked to make that judgment, I could have given better counsel.

I would have told the young woman who complained about her husband’s predilection for sex in the shower (in which he got the warm stream of water and she only the cold steam) that the real problem was his lack of interest in her comfort and pleasure.

I’d have advised another young woman whose boyfriend always found fault with the gifts she gave him, and the exasperated family of a grandmother who did the same, that these people were toxic recipients and were never going to be pleased, no matter what accommodation one made to their taste and preferences. I’d have suggested an intervention, facing the fault-finders with every unappreciative remark they’d made for each gift given them for as long as anyone could remember.  I’d have advised the gift givers to state flat out that they were weary of trying to please someone so critical.

I’d have told many, many questioners that they were presenting their story to the wrong person; that what they were saying needed to be said not to a columnist but to their spouse, their friend, or their family member. Face it, I would have responded: stop hoping that “they” will read your complaint in the column recognize themselves.  For heaven’s sake, just get up the gumption to say it, I’d have advised.

And for those who were determined to verbalize a problem, begging for advice on how to soft-pedal an approach, I’d have said outright that there was, sadly, no chance that what they planned to say or do wasn’t going to create a rift between family or friends. But I would have added the solace that,  if they had the courage to stand up for themselves, they also had the courage to survive the upheaval that would follow.

I would have told the young couple who could not afford the big family birthday dinners (at which they ordered the least-expensive entrees, but were forced to ante up for everyone’s meals when the single bill was divided by all those present) that they were absolutely right.  They should explain to the family that their finances forced them to begin paying only their fair share for the dinner of the birthday person and for their own selections, or otherwise, sadly, stop attending these family functions.  They, and they alone, knew what their financial situation permitted.

But the truly important factor in all this, in finding my own responses to the questions asked in advice columns, was not that I was intrinsically right or wrong; it was that I had begun sifting through my own sense of morality and my understanding of human nature to make what I deemed rational and informed choices.

Although I’ve often asked advice from my circle of friends, especially when faced with a difficult choice or a situation that involved the possibility of hurting the feelings of others, I’ve never felt the need to write to a total stranger requesting guidance. And for that fact, I tip my hat to all those authors of all those many advice columns that I read over the years.  I thank them for teaching me how to think though a problem from all angles, consider multiple solutions and probable results, and finally reach my best decision.

It was an significant life lesson, but one I doubt I would ever have learned without them.

The Illuminati

How, exactly, and when, did the Illuminati become the bad guys?

I’ve seen them now portrayed in novels, movies, and television shows, and they are inevitably depicted as malevolent, secretive masterminds, hovering in the shadows and moving heads of state about like chessboard pieces. I’ve read about their plans to overthrow all government and establish a new, presumably evil and dictatorial, world order. I even read – tried to read – a website by a purportedly “released” Illuminati member.  He lost me at the description of how Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated, but lived out his life in one of their secret bunkers; I was sure he didn’t intend to be hilarious.  But, in general, the Illuminati are always portrayed as really nasty guys, something along the lines of the fictional Hydra. They lurk, they conspire and collude, they weave plans of Machiavellian complexity and pull the puppet strings of world leaders, dancing them about at whim.

Huh.

That’s really strange, because the Illuminati, at least at their inception in 18th century Bavaria, were sort of the good guys. The original goals of the society were to oppose and defeat religious influence over public life (sounds a bit similar to a certain country’s First Amendment to the Constitution, doesn’t it?), to defeat superstition, and to end the misuse of State power.

In their original general statutes, they wrote: “The order of the day is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice.” Translation: Stop the people who do wrong.

Not a whole lot wrong with that. Arguably a very solid, laudable goal. Although it may have been what got them blamed for inciting the French Revolution.  (Personally, though, I’ve always thought that the abuses of the ruling class, coupled with the Marquis de Lafayette’s return from fighting the American Revolution and “Declaration of the Rights of Man” actually had much more to do with turning France on its head – yes, dreadful pun intended.)

It is notable that the Roman Catholic church in Bavaria felt threatened enough by the Illuminati to encourage Charles Theodore, the ruler of Bavaria, to have the group banned by edict. I suspect that whole ‘defeat religious influence over public life” didn’t go down at all well with most churches, and the Catholic church hadn’t been happy about that sort of thing since the time of Martin Luther.

However, if the transition from Good Guys Opposing Suppression to Bad Guys and Their Evil Plan was present from the early days of this secret society, it can probably be seen in their recruitment tactics.  Adam Weishaupt, their founder, encouraged the participation of wealthy young Christian men, but specifically excluded Jews, monks, women, non-Christians, those of limited means, and members of other secret societies, such as the Freemasons.  Although the society later reneged on the “no Freemasons” thing, it still remained in conflict with Freemasonry, alternately trying to recruit from their ranks, malign them, and copy their degrees and orders.

Actually, as secret societies go, the not-so-secret Illuminati basically managed to infuriate and annoy almost everyone, from rulers of various countries to church leaders, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and their own members. Splits in their ranks and dissension seemed to follow them around like a bad smell, and, deviating far from Weishaupt’s original concept of defeating superstition, they devolved into various forms of mysticism, ritual and secret rites.

I suppose it’s no wonder then, that the Illuminati of modern understanding have transmuted into little more than a conspiracy theory of evil lurkers in the shadows, manipulating public policy and infiltrating governments to establish a New World Order (which, when described, actually sounds a whole lot like an old world order called Nazi Germany). Groups now going by the name of Illuminati and claiming descent from the original order are almost certainly no such thing, unless by descent they mean from the original group’s fascist notions of appropriate membership.

That would certainly explain how The Good Guys became The Bad Guys.

A Cultural Heritage

Decades ago, in the Lifestyle section of a local Sunday paper, I read an interesting series of articles about African Americans who were rediscovering the cultures of their heritage: the clothing, the music, the foods, even the religious beliefs of the tribes from which they had been stolen before being sold into slavery across the ocean.

The article described and pictured the magnificent, colorful woven cloths used in making African clothing, and the intricate music and dances which celebrated festivals and religious feasts. It discussed the complex oral historical traditions of various African tribes, and those which used written or pictorial histories.  It explained cosmetics and herbal medicines and child-rearing philosophies and recipes for cooked foods. It pictured beautiful works of sculpted wood. I found the entire series fascinating and instructive until very nearly the end, when one young woman was quoted.  She had committed to fully rediscovering her lost heritage, but finished by saying (and I don’t precisely remember the quote, but this is it’s essence) “I don’t think white people even have a cultural heritage.”

I put the newspaper down in dismay. Did it, I wondered, increase this young woman’s sense of self-worth to denigrate the cultures of other races; to blithely dismiss them, and to even deny their existence?

All these decades later, having taken DNA testing, I can confirm unequivocally my own cultural heritage. I know that the wild blends of color and fine weaving in the tartans of Scotland are part of that heritage (as is, god help me, haggis, surely the most ill-conceived dish ever to grace—and I use the verb flippantly—a table.)  I know that the astounding skirl of the bagpipes—agony to some ears, heart-stirring to others—are mine to claim.  The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Titian are tucked into another corner of that heritage, as are the marvels of many delicious pasta dishes.  I know that Marco Polo is not a swimming pool game, but possibly the reason that I have forever been an armchair explorer.  And I know that, sadly, the British genes I carry were quite likely those of people enslaved to the Roman conquerors who overran their land.  Slavery was once the cultural heritage of all people, everywhere; it was the norm.

In short, although I have not a single strand of DNA extracted from any black ancestor, I have just as rich, just as wildly beautiful and complex a cultural heritage as any of that stolen from enslaved Africans, dragged from their homes to the cruelty of western countries.

But my initial reaction to that long-ago quote in a newspaper article remains: Why was it necessary for the young woman to denigrate an entire group of people in order to bolster her own sense of self-worth and belonging? Why could she not rightfully reclaim her heritage without belittling that of others?

I still occasionally wonder if that young woman perhaps went on to explore the cultures of other countries, places outside those of Africa–especially those of people who, like her own, had been degraded and murdered and enslaved. Did she discover the photographs, some even carefully hand-painted, documenting the lost, rich cultures of the Native American tribes?  Did she learn about the horrors of Angel Island and how the Asian peoples emigrating to America were mistreated and vilified, right up to the shame of internment camps?  Did that young woman ever, in fact, realize that every race, every people, has a story, a past, a history of slavery, and a rich and fascinating cultural heritage?

If learning about her own stolen legacy did not, in fact, enrich and enlarge her mind, then everything she learned about her African heritage was, in the long view, an exercise in futility. For no form of learning is of value unless we can find a way to apply it to the world at large.

The Slave Cabin

When I was in my mid-twenties, I first visited and then lived for three years in Charleston, South Carolina. There was much I loved about the city; always a history buff, it was wonderful to live in a place where so much of U.S. history was tangible in just  walk down the street.  Battery Park, carriage rides, ancient graveyards, the city market, and Fort Sumter; gigantic ancient live oaks, Magnolia and Middleton plantations, Drayton and Boone Hall, flower-sellers in the streets, hearing the lilting, deep tones of the “gullah” still spoken by the descendants of enslaved people…  For one who loves history, it was a glorious place to dwell.

But the darker history of Charleston, from the indentured servitude of its earliest settlers to the hell that was slavery, was (at least in those decades ago that I lived there) rarely on display, especially to tourists. In the 1980s, racism was still casually accepted and rife throughout the city.  The large insurance company for which I briefly worked had to be forced by the head office in New York to hire its first African American agent.

History, as is often said, is written by the winners. But the truth is still out there, if one is open-minded and willing to search, to look.  And the truth of Charleston’s history came home to me in one swift and sickening moment when I was still just a visitor to the lovely city.

My soon-to-be mother-in-law and I had gone on a tour of one of the larger plantations—possibly Middleton or Magnolia, I think, although I don’t now recall precisely which one. Entranced, we moved from room to room in the mansion. I recall comparing in my own mind the luxury of modern, expensive homes to this gem from a previous century: admiring the beautiful, hand-crafted furniture and ceramics, the jewel-toned carpets on polished wooden floors; marveling over the cloudy, bubble-filled antique glazing of the windows; cringing over the lack of sanitation and the primitive facilities for preparing meals.  Our tour guide was a wealth of detailed information, and I was enjoying every minute of sightseeing until the moment when she took us through a door out into the nearby grounds of the mansion.  There, with a casual wave of her hand, she indicated the adjoining cabins—the homes, she explained, of the house “servants”.

Slave cabins.

Side by side with the main house, just a few steps away so that (one assumes) the occupants could quickly to enter the mansion each morning, stood a row of rough, log-walled, earth-floored shacks.

Coming from the relative luxury of the plantation house, the dichotomy was shattering. I felt physically ill as, separating from the tour group, I walked to the door of one of the slave cabins and looked inside to the gloomy darkness.

Never had the ugly reality of American slavery been brought home to me more forcefully then it was in that moment, standing in the dark doorway of a slave cabin on the plantation grounds. I reminded myself that in the unspoken caste system of slavery, the house slaves considered themselves a cut above the lowly field workers. But this—this was their reality.  A decrepit shack, smaller even than the log cabins of the first American settlers.  Four walls, a shake roof, a stone fireplace, an earthen floor. This was the home of the highest caste of slaves.

Each day, they walked from that degrading housing to the carpets and china and silver and glass of their owners’ mansion, to serve according to the whims of those lucky enough to be born Caucasian. Each day.

I’ve experienced many other sudden revelations of truth in my time on this earth—possibly, probably, just as vital, just as powerful, as that eye-opening moment of revelation of the unbearable ugliness of slavery.

But (perhaps because of my youth on that long-ago day in Charleston), few of those revelations stand out as powerfully, or as painfully unforgettable, in my memory, as the experience of standing in the slave cabin outside the door of the plantation manor.

The Best Revenge

Their names were (I think) Emily and Linda. Since the events that I recall transpired 50 years ago I may, perhaps, be forgiven for my uncertainty over the names of these two young women–especially as the only reason I have to recall them is that they bullied me—cruelly, continually, mercilessly, and without reason–throughout my first year of high school.

I no longer hate Emily and Linda, although achieving emotional distance took me at least 25 or more years. As adolescents, we are at our most fragile, most sensitive, and the distress induced by viciousness during that period is more telling, and harder to cope with, than it would be later in life.  As mature adults, we have usually learned wisdom, detachment, and survival skills.  Nevertheless, I’m sorry now that I wasted so much precious emotional energy on hating Emily and Linda.  Nothing I ever thought of them—none of my fury, none of my hatred—ever harmed them;  none of things I wished upon them (pain, anguish, failure) did anything more than keep me emotionally bound to my torturers.

And torturers they were.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” we used to chant as children when taunted by another child.

It’s a brave, wise shield thrown up in the face of unspeakable cruelty, but it isn’t true. Words hurt.  They wound.  They scar us, less visibly but just as deeply,  as physical assault.  And those wounds and scars can last a lifetime.

I began high school already at a psychological disadvantage, coming as I did from the household of a Borderline Personality Disorder parent.   I had begun developing acne at the early age of 11, and (although I was perfectly proportioned, as I now know from looking at old photos) was told repeatedly by my mother that I was fat.  Neither pretty nor ugly, I might have been called average.  But at 12 and 13, one doesn’t want to be average.  One longs to be pretty, and to be popular, or at least accepted, among one’s peers.

Added to the burden I would carry was the fact that I was just leaving an 8th grade in a parochial school where we girls wore uniforms; I needed all new school clothes.  This was during the height of the hippie era.  Clothes were “psychedelic”, in hot pinks and shrieking lime, and paisley; skirts were short, boots were “go-go”,  and dresses were A-line.  In the midst of all this very definitive and silly fashion, my mother decided to clothe me in my grandmother’s used Chanel knit suits. Those suits were the height of fashion—for a 40-something working woman.  On a 13-year-old teenager, they were the kiss of death.

Plain, covered in acne, in clothes that made me a laughingstock, I entered high school. And Emily and Linda, popular girls leading their clique of sycophants, made the most of it.

There is no point any longer to recalling the things they said, they did to me; the degrading tricks they played on me, the humiliation and mortification piled upon me. day after day . There is no longer any reason to recall how hard it was for me to hold my head up and pretend to ignore their bullying, nor the bitter, gulping sobs that engulfed me when I was alone, nor the many, many hours I spent plotting and visualizing terrible revenge and promising myself that it would happen.  There is no point to any of that, because I was fortunate.  In that era, the local school system considered 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to be “junior” high school.  Emily and Linda were a year younger than I.  When I began my sophomore year in the 10th grade, I was stationed across the street from them, in the high school building.  I no longer rode the same bus.  I moved on, and they were left behind, to torture some other sad victim.  And by the time they arrived at the high school, we were worlds apart, absorbed in a school of almost two thousand young people, in different classes, different rooms. I never saw them again.

Except that I did. For decades,  Emily and Linda lurked in the corner of my mind’s eye, at the periphery of my inner vision, undermining my confidence, dimming my achievements, continuing to torture me–but only, I understand now, because I allowed it.  Trapped in the memories of those painful days, continually rehearsing old grievances, I remained a helpless fly caught in their spiteful web.

Forgiveness, I have learned, does not mean forgiving what was done, but forgiving only the person. Decades later, I realized that Emily and Linda were, in a way, just as trapped in their own web as I was.  Frightened; angry as all adolescents are angry, they chose to victimize me in order to make themselves feel less vulnerable and more whole.

I wonder how well it worked for them.

I was able, eventually, to forgive Emily and Linda, and in doing so, I moved on. And yet I have finally had the revenge I promised myself all those years ago.

The best revenge, after all, is in living well.

You Dirty Wop!

Having read my post “And Speaking of Prejudice”, about his mother, my grandmother Marie Gregory, my now 88-year-old Dad called me with some memories of his own experiences with anti-Italian bias in the early years of the 20th century.  Unlike Grandma’s, though, Dad’s experiences were, shall we say, a bit more, hmmm, prosaic.

He recalled, for instance, a childhood incident in which a handyman walked into their home on Southern Avenue, chuckling. It seemed that one youngster frequently rode his bike past the house and, if Dad’s father, Charles Sr. (best known as “Pop” or “PopPop”) was out working in the yard, the boy would yell, “Dirty Wop!” as he pedaled past.

This time, though, the situation turned out a bit differently, as witnessed by the handyman..  “Kid,” he told Charles Jr., “your old man just picked up a brick and lobbed it and knocked that little snot right off his bike.”  (Pop was, after all, a fireman, and accustomed to handling heavy equipment accurately!)

Fortunately for my grandfather, it was a less litigious era. At any rate, the boy was apparently undamaged, since he scraped himself and his bike off the pavement and made his escape, never again riding by to scream epithets at PopPop.

Dad had his own encounter with anti-Italian prejudice when, as a sophomore in high school, an older boy chose to repeatedly shove him and repeat the “Dirty Wop!” sentiment. Consultation with his friends resulted in a possible solution to this problem.  It appeared that someone in his crowd knew Big Sal, who, for $25.00, specialized in handling these delicate situations.  In the mid-1940s, $25.00 was a ton of money, of course, but Dad was already working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore and had his own funds.

As it turned out, though, Dad didn’t need to divest himself of all his earnings. The next time he encountered Bully Boy, Dad explained that he was going to send Big Sal and his henchman after him.  Scoffing, the bully decried the idea that Dad even knew anyone named Big Sal, but Dad’s cohorts, eyes widening, backed Dad up. “$12.50 each, for Sal and his helper,” they explained, “and”,  jerking their heads in Dad’s direction, “he works,  he’s got the money.”  Dad further explained that Big Sal specialized in removing those body parts which would ensure that the bully would not be siring future generations of racist morons.

Apparently, this final threat did the trick. A coward, as all bullies are cowards, the moron backed off and never bothered Dad again.

Oddly enough, the druggist for whom Dad worked throughout high school–just as much a part of the Italian-American community as Dad–always greeted him with, “Hey, you dirty Wop!” Dad always replied jovially with the same sentiment–thereby proving (as if proof were needed) that it is not our words themselves that ever have any real meaning; it is the intent with which they are spoken.

What I Really Learned in School

As mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most important lessons I learned in school were not in any way part of the curriculum. But when I consider the many subjects I studied throughout my school years,  I have to say that about seventy-five percent or more of them were pretty much useless to the life I would someday lead.

The most basic lessons – those which I completed within approximately the first six years of school – were also the most valuable. Reading was the most significant skill I ever learned, and coupled with it, the standard rules of grammar, composition, and  basic sentence structure and punctuation.  Oddly, though, it was not through the lessons taught in the classroom that I actually absorbed those rules of grammar, or learned to punctuate my sentences or the art of composition. I gained that knowledge through reading – reading voraciously and constantly.

General mathematics,  up to the point of long division, has always been a valuable skill, no matter how much I hated (and still do hate) it.  I was apparently cutting class on the day that math brain cells were handed out.  Despite that fact, when checkbooks were common and a even a very cheap calculator cost more than $100, I could still balance my checkbook using just  a pencil and paper, and did so every month.

And then there was the most useful physical skill I ever learned: typing. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, accurately, quickly, slapping the carriage return lever at the end of each line.  It was hard work.  It took genuine effort to punch those mechanical keys–not the light whisper of a touch for today’s keyboards.  Mistakes had to be erased by hand–even White Out hadn’t been invented–and the only spell check or grammar check was via a paper dictionary or one’s own head.  Compositions were drafted in longhand and then carefully edited with red pencil  before being finally typed out.

But what of all those other subjects – geography and world history, algebra, U.S. government, physical education, U.S. history, humanities, foreign language, shorthand, geometry? Oh, I remember bits and pieces of some those subjects, enough to, say,  place into context  my reading of the daily news. I know, theoretically, how the checks and balances of the three branches of U.S. government are supposed to work (and I know that they don’t really seem to work very well any longer, especially under the current administration).  I can pick out many of the countries on a map of the world, but I’m often confused by my memories of the globes I once studied, which bear so little relation to the demarcations of modern countries, or even their names.  Burma, Siam, Czechosloakia??  I can recall the dates of the great wars, but I’m still a little fuzzy on the reasons they were fought, which I don’t believe weren’t ever fully or accurately explained in the texts I studied.

The great majority of the learning that was shoved down my throat in my school years is mostly gone. I had no real need for it, so I shed it in favor of things more useful to my daily existence: How to read a bus schedule.  How to placate an unreasonable supervisor.  How too to fix a leaky toilet or dripping faucet.  How to soothe a teething toddler. How to survive pain and tragedy.

And, finally, long after I left school, I learned how to learn.

When  the Internet was non-existent and Google not even a faint ray on the horizon, I learned how to research any subject that truly interested me, not just through books and encyclopedias,  but through magazine articles and discussion with knowledgeable individuals.  I learned that history is mostly written by the winners – but that the truth was still out there, if one looked hard enough.  I learned to doubt, and question, and make informed decisions.  I learned that the gods of the old religions often become the devils of the new, and that this cycle has been endless throughout the eons of history.  I learned that cults are only effective if they can make one forget to be a grown-up.  I learned that if it seems too good to be true, it unquestionably is.  I learned that people are onions to be unwrapped, one brittle layer at a time.  I learned that evil is real, and ever present, and requires constant vigilance to be kept at bay – even in one’s own heart.

Education, I finally learned, is not something one gets, nor something one is given, but something acquired for oneself through struggle and effort: a hard-won gift one gives to oneself.  I learned, too, that if an individual is willing to do the endless hard work, education goes on for a lifetime.

And that was my greatest lesson of all.

Teachers, Good and Bad, Part 2

As I mentioned in a previous post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block.  I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like our current Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1

We all have memories, both as students and as parents, of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Inevitably we felt sad when the school year ended and we said farewell to a beloved teacher; we sighed with relief when we finally walked out of the classroom of a teacher we totally loathed.

As a mother, I found that I rarely had strong feelings about my daughter’s teachers. If she liked them, I was pleased for her.  But when she disliked a teacher, I found that, unlike her, I could often see the logic behind what appeared to her to be unreasonable demands or “mean” behavior.

There were exceptions, however.

During her final year of middle school, in the midst of enduring her parents’ divorce and all the attendant anguish, my daughter Amanda encountered her teacher Waterloo in the form of a home economics teacher.

Let it be said right here that the gene for domesticity, if not having done a complete flyby, is not exactly strongly represented in the DNA of my cherished daughter. For instance, while trying to learn to how to operate a sewing machine, she ended up chasing the threaded bobbin straight across the classroom floor; to this day she cannot sew on a button, and iron-on hem tape is her friend.  She rose to the challenge of preparing instant pudding, but that just about concluded her culinary skills until she reached college.  In short, my beloved offspring was never going to be a domestic goddess. To place the cherry on the cake of household incompetence, the school guidance counselor arranged for her to attend an in-school support group for children enduring trauma, so she often missed home ec class to attend counseling sessions.

One afternoon Amanda stormed home and, with a face the picture of wrathful self-righteousness, told me that Waterloo Teacher had pulled her aside and advised her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

That did it. Whatever other genetic material I myself might be missing, the Mother Bear Protecting Her Cub Gene is not among them! Before the clock had fully ticked over to the start of the next school day, I was on the phone to the class guidance counselor, reporting Mrs. Waterloo’s unfeeling pronouncement. “My daughter needs those group counseling sessions,” I raged.  “And frankly, there is absolutely no class that I care less about her passing than home economics!”  The guidance counselor assured me that she completely agreed with my viewpoint.  Amanda could continue her group counseling sessions, and, yes, Home Economics was the least important of all the classes she was taking that semester, which was why the counseling sessions had been scheduled at that time.  Waterloo Teacher’s attitude would, she assured me, be dealt with.

It seemed it was. No more was said on the subject of counseling interfering with classes.  And despite everything, Amanda passed home economics.

Throughout the semester of turmoil, though, I offered the solace, “This won’t last forever. Class will be over and then you’ll never have to see Mrs. Waterloo again.” And the school year having concluded, I consoled her and myself with the reassurance, “Well, you’re sure to have other crappy teachers, but at least you’re finished with middle school.  We’ll never have to put up with Mrs. Waterloo again!”

Amanda charged off into the unknown territory of high school and engaged upon the State-required “track” of a program centered around studies in psychology. Still domestically challenged,  she also expressed to me the fact that  “little kids freak me out”, but accepted that one of her required classes during her sophomore year would be Child Development.

Which, as we learned, was taught by none other than Mrs. Waterloo.

Who had transferred to the high school faculty.

I am happy to report that both Amanda and I survived.