In the mid 90’s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Kent State University, where I taught, began getting cohorts of students from former Soviet countries. They were all on Soros Scholarships doing advanced degrees in leadership. I was host and mentor to a vibrant, middle-aged wiry man named Valeriy. Val was born and raised in the Ukraine but spoke and identified as Russian. He characterized the change – with the fall of the Soviet Union – as an identity crisis. “I had to stop thinking of myself as Russian. I am Ukrainian.”
Val’s first challenge landing in the U.S. was how many choices he had to make. When he arrived, I took him to TJ Maxx to buy himself a coat. He was overwhelmed there were so many to choose from. When he found one he liked, it turned out to be reversible, and he stood in front of the mirror in the men’s department giggling with delight. “People back home will think I have TWO coats,” he declared.
Val also wanted to buy a camera, so we went to Wal-Mart. Again, he could not wrap his mind around making choices from many different makes and models. The final selection came down to which camera used batteries that would be available back home. Same scenario at the shoe store getting him boots. Then gloves. Then a hat. It was exhausting.
I suggested we grab dinner. We sat in a booth and were handed a twelve-page menu. His head started spinning again. “Order me something, please.” So, I did, but then the server asked him if he wanted baked, mashed or fries (and he didn’t know she was talking about potatoes); then she recited five different salad dressings and asked his preference. Again, he had no idea of what she was talking about. “Give him ranch,” I said to the server.
But, after all this, it was especially telling on another day when we went to a bookstore. It was Border’s books then – a large spacious store with two stories, an escalator, a café, and many, many books.
When we walked through the entrance, he stopped in his tracks, looked all around, and then burst into tears, covering his mouth, aghast. Val had never seen so many books.
“Is it allowed to touch them?” He asked me.
“Yes, of course,” I said.
“Can you bring me back here soon and leave me here for the whole day?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to take in the enormity of what his tears meant.
Val also liked going with me to Sam’s Club.
In the store’s book aisle, we passed boxes of encyclopedias for $20 per set. Val stopped to examine them like rare jewels. “I need to buy these,” he was emphatic.
“Val, the reason they are so cheap is that now everyone uses digital references. They’re out-of-date,” I said.
“Yes, but where I live in Ukraine, these would be very helpful.” I talked him out of buying them.
But, he called the next day. He begged me to take him back to Sam’s club so he could buy three sets of encyclopedias, and soon – before they might be gone. Two classmates from Soviet countries also wanted them desperately. We went. He bought.
One really big deal at Kent State University is the liquid crystal institute which hosts meetings with scientists from around the world. When Val heard of an upcoming event, he volunteered to be a translator. Three Russian scientists attended. Val invited those scientists to his dorm room, where he served some drinks and snacks, keen on the opportunity to make them feel welcome. The three scientists saw the three boxes of encyclopedias in Val’s room and begged to buy them from him. He relented.
Val called me the next day to share all this and express his urgent need to get back to Sam’s club to buy more sets of encyclopedias. We went. He bought more. He was ecstatic.
During Val’s academic year in Ohio, he had an opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. Upon his return, he was eager to share with me two entire rolls of photographs of the “Voice of America” building. There’s nothing at all special about the “Voice of America” building – architecturally, that is. Except what it meant to him.
He explained that he began listening to it in secret to the Voice of America when he was 17. He’d asked a teacher if this was allowed. The teacher did not answer the question. His response was evasive. So, he felt he understood that the teacher was in a delicate position, and could not make a recommendation.
In sharing the photos, he extolled – as if testifying to me, about the role of this radio station in the demise of the Soviet Union. He tuned in and came to understand things – things different from the information being doled out on official Soviet stations. He said all his friends began listening, without sharing with adults, what they were doing.
In his opinion, the Voice of America and the Chernobyl nuclear accident were the two biggest things that toppled the U.S.S.R. “It had been a beautiful day – the day of the accident. People were enjoying the out-of-doors. But suddenly on all television and radio stations, there was no programming – except the playing of classical music.” People wondered what was wrong. He went on to explain when they learned of the accident, they also learned the leaders of the Communist Party had evacuated all their own families to places far away from the radioactive area. That single self-serving act broke the back of the rhetoric that the government cared about its people. There was no way to spin that selective evacuation into something good for all Russians.
Going back to his trip to Washington, D.C. he could not get over that he was allowed to tour the U.S. Capitol buildings as a foreigner, and that Congress was in session, and he was allowed to sit in the balcony, and nothing was being conducted in secret, behind closed doors.
Val’s academic year ended in May, and the Soros scholars prepared to go home. But Val didn’t show up for the ride to the airport. He went missing. This sort of thing happens regularly with foreign students. But no one knew where Val was. Perhaps others in the cohort knew but would not say.
Weeks later, Val telephoned. I was surprised and relieved to hear his voice. “Why are you overstaying your visa, Val?”
“I wasn’t ready to go,” he explained simply.
“What are you doing? No classes are in session.” I probed.
“Oh, I’m staying with a friend, and every day I go to the library, and I read.”
“This is what you have been doing for weeks?” I probed again.
“Yes,” he admitted. “There are so many books I want to read.”
This is where I was forced to explain that he’d put me in an awkward position. As a state employee at a public institution, I really could not condone his overstaying his visa.
“But call me when you need a ride to the airport. Not until then.” I concluded.
As a Professor of Reading, and a book lover, I could not fault his zest for books – and his desire to make up for what learning had been denied to him at home.
It was not a sweet ending to our friendship, however. Still, I am thinking about him now, every day, wondering where he is, and if he’s safe.
Val, if you ever hear this, I hope you know I am thinking of you.
Another Sunday dinner is over – just the two of us. My 90-year old father shuffles down my hallway, then struggles with his jacket and zipper. He picks up the sack I have stuffed with leftovers for his Monday meal, dons his frayed Dutch cap, reaches for his cane, and gingerly totters to his car, every movement in slow motion. With Mom now in a nursing home, this is the best I can do, trying to make his life more normal.
Each morning he gets up at his independent-living apartment, and makes his way to the social café for the breakfast buffet. Every morning, he has his oatmeal, orange juice and coffee. Then he gets into his car in the underground parking garage, just to drive the thirty yards across the parking lot to the nursing home. Then he finds her, his wife, my mother, somewhere in the hallways. Her soft skin jiggles a little as she smiles at the sight of him. My mother’s crisp white hair bounces as she tries to remember how to back up and sit down in a chair. Then they sit together in one of the lounges, doing nothing in particular. He sits with her until they call her to lunch.
Two people come to help her get up. She leans into the walker, takes baby steps, and creeps to the dining room, her oversized pants pulled a bit too high, belying the plastic padding beneath. She says almost nothing, and nothing she says makes any sense. “That is…” and the rest of the phrase is stuck somewhere inside the crumbling mind. “I’m worried…” and she cannot find the other words. “Sometimes you just…” and the remainder is never uttered. Sometimes I try to help her. “You just what, Mom?” “What is it you are worried about?” But no amount of effort can lasso the elusive, the lost.
Dad rises and escorts her to the dining room, and then leaves to go find some lunch for himself. Mostly, he ends up at the Senior Citizen Center where lunch is only a dollar. Dad has always loved a bargain. But the center is not open on weekends. He hates eating alone and so sometimes he just doesn’t bother. Afterwards, he might stop at Walgreens for one of their many prescriptions, or a stop at Urgent Care to have his Coumadin levels checked. Then, Dad returns to the nursing home.
Once again, he finds my mother, sitting or wandering, or sometimes napping in someone else’s bed. Again, he sits with her, or walks with her up and down the hallway. These rituals last until dinnertime, when the staff again call Mom to eat, and Dad goes back to his apartment to fend for himself and read the newspaper.
Tomorrow will be a carbon copy of this.
Another Valentine’s Day has arrived. This February 14th, Mom is in a hospital bed, coughing for her life with double pneumonia. I’d brought her some chocolate, which normally she loves. But in this condition, she’s hasn’t eaten anything much for days. Dad and I are standing at her bed, and she’s so deeply asleep, we decide not to disturb her.
I know for each of the last 64 years, Dad has written Mom a love poem for Valentine’s Day and also their wedding anniversary in June. I don’t ask what he’s written about, or where this year’s poem is. But suddenly it dawns on me that there are at least 130 poems. Love poems to my mother.
“Dad, where are all the poems you wrote for Mom?” He shrugs his shoulders looking quizzical.
“I gave them to her,” he says with resignation. The thought of more than a hundred love poems either hidden or lost troubles me. We discuss cleaning out her things still at the apartment and trying to find them.
On a subsequent evening, I go to Dad’s apartment to start cleaning. Dad has never lived alone, and his housekeeping is dreadful. So, fist I stop in the little apartment kitchen where I collect used yellowed paper napkins, polystyrene cups, and plates that are encrusted with old food, I deposit them in the trash, amidst his admonitions of “Hey, those could be used again.” Or, “That’s still good, I can eat it tomorrow.” I fear he will accidentally kill himself eating spoiled food on unclean styrofoam. Dad’s entire generation never recovered from the great depression. Wasting anything is a sin. I ignore his rants and I make my way to Mom’s drawers.
First, the four drawers of Mom’s jewelry chest. I pull out the top one, set it on my lap as I sit on the edge of their bed with a large trash can poised nearby. What I find instead of jewelry are lots and lots of rusting hairpins staining the velveteen lining; an assortment of toothpicks; an occasional button or penny; old clothing tags with the price still almost visible; name tags from the “Sun and Fun” RV Resort Park in Sarasota, Florida; used up pencils and a crochet hook. The one gem I find is Dad’s U.S. Navy dog tags from the War. He smiles at the sight of them, as he hasn’t seen them for years.
I do this for each of the four drawers, and I find an occasional single earring back, a broken gaudy pendant, a plastic turquoise necklace. But somewhere stashed in one corner of one of the bottom drawer I find four of the love poems, brittle, torn, and mended with yellowing tape. I stop and read them. One of them is titled “May it Never End.”
I’ve said it very many times,
In many ways throughout the years,
Whether straight or set in rhymes,
Whether in laughter or through tears.
It’s been at night and during days,
So it may not sound very new,
Still I do not know other ways,
To once again say “I love you.”
A couple of hours of this type of searching yields a few more poems, some glued to the inside of an old greeting cards. Some are on a scrap of notebook paper, or an index card. Some are typed on an old Underwood typewriter.
I searched for her throughout the world wide,
Crossing each continent from side to side.
Hoping that somewhere and someday I’d find,
The special girl who’d be loving and kind.
Failing I gave up nevermore to roam
To find my Valentine waiting at home.
A corner of the paper is ripped off on this one, so I don’t know the date, but I am guessing it was soon after the War. We are still only up to twenty poems. Over a hundred more to find.
Scouring her dresser drawers yields a few more poems. These, hidden in an old purse, among a dozen pair of pantyhose all with runs, and among the now sticky decomposing nylon prosthesis Mom was supposed to wear where her left breast used to be. Even back then, she said it was too hot and too uncomfortable. “I’m over 70,” she’d said more than a few times after the cancer surgery. “What do I need two breasts for?” When she wanted a left breast on occasions, she’d stuffed her empty bra cup with tissues, fabric, or a sock.
I think back to the last time, in earlier stages of Alzheimers, that I dressed them up for dancing. Dad had bought tickets to a big ballroom dancing event on the campus where I taught. Dad was in the designer second-hand suit that a friend had given him. This was the nicest most dashing suit Dad ever owned.
Mom wore the frilly pink organza dress, also second hand she’d been given by a friend in the ballroom dancing club. My parents got dressed at my house, and I helped Mom with her pantyhose and the buckles on her silver dancing shoes. I had insisted she wear her prosthesis for this event, and so we had spent some time in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to ensure that the fake breast was aligned with the real one, and not four inches higher. We never got it quite perfect, but close enough. I took a snapshot of them that night, together in front of the closed draperies of my patio slider door, like two excited teens poised for their senior prom.
Following Easter weekend, Mom had rebounded from pneumonia, but with a decreased quality of life. Dad and I decided to move her to a different nursing home where there might be a higher level of care. Where her face used to brighten with the sight of us, there’s was almost no reaction now. Yet, in the midst of her decline, there were mysterious moments of lucidness. I never knew what brought them on, but we both lived for them. The day we were settling her into the new surroundings, she turned and looked at Dad as he was leaving and said, “You know, I have never stopped loving you.”
During all this searching, we’d found a wonderful old photo of Mom. The photo was damaged, but it was of a seventeen-year-old, beautiful dark-eyed woman, hair curled around her face, and printed in an oval of light like the “Breck Girl” on the back of the old McCall’s magazines. My brother Tom visited that weekend. He had taken the photo home, scanned it, doctored it, and sent it by attachment back to me. I printed it and gave it to Dad. A tear slipped out of his left eye.
“She really was beautiful back then,” he said as if he needed to convince me.
Another evening, I stop at Dad’s and continue my search for the poems. Even though I knock before I enter, he’s stretched out on his sofa, a crumbled paper napkin from Subway in his hand. He’s been listening to audio tapes of their old dance music. I tell him I’ve got a little time to do some more cleaning of Mom’s things. That perks him up.
I start cleaning out Mom’s nightstand drawers. This time an entire drawer is devoted to over stretched out headbands in a variety of widths and colors. I find one poem on yellowed typing paper. It’s dated 1986.
To My Wife
Now that life is in its downward journey,
When my day of living lies in the past,
I’ll be happy living in memory,
Because you’ve given me love till the last.
I’ll remember your smile and things you said,
I never forget your traits, both bad and good,
I see you laugh with a toss of your head,
As you teasingly in the doorway stood.
Shadows will flee as I think of your smile,
My thoughts will find cheer in the years we spent,
My dreams will travel along every mile,
Lingering on where together we went.
Though material wealth was not my own,
You brought me richness with the love I’ve known.
Pausing to take it all in, I swipe a tear on my cheek. Then I find a good sweater that shouldn’t be in the drawer. So, I go and hang it in the walk-in closet. Mom’s side of the closet is getting empty, as I have been getting rid of clothing she will never need in a nursing home.
The frilly pink organza dress hangs at the end of the row all by itself. The last time Mom wore it, almost three years ago, was at her Grandson Peter’s wedding. This wedding was elegant, in a fine hotel. Dad dressed in the same dashing suit, and Mom in her pink dress they’d worn to the ballroom dancing gala seven years earlier.
While Mom had absolutely no idea who was getting married, she could tell from the setting it was a wedding, and commented how lovely it all was.
“They tell me you are my grandson,” she’d said re-meeting her grandson Peter at the reception.
“Of course, I am, Grandma,” he’d replied in good humor, giving her a hug.
We were at one of the biggest family events in decades and no one had remembered to bring a camera So, earlier in the day I had gone shopping and bought my first digital camera. Throughout the day, I was desperately reading directions, learning how to use it. Once we got to the reception, I kept it handy at my table.
At one point, the band did a cute number and had all married couples get up to dance. As each segment of the song passed, the bandleader would announce to have all the couples married less than 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and so on to sit down. As the crowd was mostly young, I could see where this was going.
And so it went. Soon Mom and Dad were alone on the dance floor. All eyes were upon them, the lights were dimmed, with the glittery ball spinning above them made prisms flit around the floor. Dad forgot his aching knees, and led Mom in a waltz. Mom could follow Dad. They smiled and swirled and dazzled the crowd. At the end, the bandleader presented Mom with a nosegay of flowers. She had no idea why someone was giving her flowers but thought they were very lovely. Dad beamed radiantly. I took the picture.
I returned to the nightstand and cleared out the last of the garbage. A few dozen pens that didn’t write. More hairpins, rollers, dirty tissues, rusty paper clips, safety pins, an occasional name tag, receipt, and a brochure. In this session, I only found a single poem in a faded pink satin cosmetic bag.
My love is yours through good and bad
It’s with you when you’re glad or sad.
A truer love will never be,
As everyone can plainly see.
Our love has stood the test of time,
For I am yours and you are mine.
When all the drawers were cleaned out, there were still a hundred poems to go. I wondered where to search next.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep feeding Dad on Sundays. I’ll keep visiting my mother, watching her walk back and forth in the hallways with no destination. Dad will keep sitting in the nursing home with her for hours at a time. Until the next crisis when the next infection appears, or until the coughing resumes and we’ll go through all of this again, not knowing each time if we should be saying our goodbyes. Each time as I’m leaving, I kiss her cheek, and tell her to sleep well, and to remember she has a family who all love her.
Mom passed first in 2006 at age 89. Dad was in poor shape with a heart barely pumping. His doctors had instructed us to take away his car keys. He learned to get around his neighborhood on a scooter. But, he was in agony without her, especially when Valentine’s Day came around. I think he didn’t know how to cope with their special holiday alone. So, he wrote Mom a poem, addressed the envelope to her, but sent it to my home address.
When I took in the mail that afternoon, an envelope addressed to my mother in my father’s handwriting made little sense. I sat down and stared at it for a few moments before I could bring myself to open it. There was just this inside:
You finally left this earth missing me,
To me, you and I shall remain just we.
Dying is a part of living and life,
Through all eternity you’re still my wife.
In all and everything I do each day,
Our togetherness will forever stay.
Dad passed a few months later. I only ever found 29 poems. His final request was that their ashes be mixed together and scattered in Vermont, where their married life had started. Tom and I fulfilled their wish the following summer. My brother read the last poem at our little ceremony. A fitting end to a very long love story.
Before there was Zoom, Microsoft teams, Go-to-meeting, Webinars, and all these exciting new tools which enable remote experiences, there was (and is) Australia – a country of large, wide spaces, very long distances between people. Some Australian ranches are larger than some U.S. States. Families live on them, and often, children are raised in these settings. Australia has been practicing distance learning long before Covid-19 came along. While I lived in Australia, I learned much about how they operate. In these models, there are ideas to meet our new demands of teaching children who may not be able to physically come to school.
In earlier times, when these far-away homes had children, instruction was accomplished with two tools – the two way radio, and the mail (and sometimes materials were delivered by airplane). Periodic packets arrived. Some learning was self-directed. Other learning required adult assistance. But a key element was the appointment each child had individually with their teacher – sometimes once every two weeks for about 30 minutes. For ranches (and actually they don’t call them ranches, but you get the idea) without electricity to the outside world, those two way radios were run by someone pedaling them.
Even when I lived in Australia in 1992, distance learning was alive and well. University (called “uni’s in local lingo) researchers were beginning to add some computer instruction in instances where families had desktop computers, and fax machines which enabled assignments and feedback to reach students more quickly than only through mail.
One of my university classes I was assigned to teach was a distance learning class (through the Burwood Campus of Deakin University). An office at the campus was dedicated to assisting with distance learning. I would prepare the packet of instructional materials for teachers seeking an advanced diploma. Those were mailed. My teacher ed students returned assignments by mail, which arrived to the distance learning office, and where I would go and collect them.
Three times during one term, teachers met in person with me for an entire Saturday. For them, it meant a long drive. A location was selected that suited most. Others had to come Friday evening and book a hotel room, and maybe stayed Saturday night as well. Each teacher had to pack all their own food, as there were no food services in even the semi-remote location where Saturday classes were held. These sessions were enjoyable, social, and packed with learning to make the most of the opportunity.
All in all, you could say these “Uni” classes were a hybrid model. They mixed remote and in-person learning.
Not all students in rural Maine have computers and internet. But they probably get mail and have telephones. Maybe even facetime, or skype, or facebook messenger on a family telephone.
Throughout this pandemic, people the world over have had to get creative and resourceful and consider other ways of doing things. That’s been one of the redeeming qualities of an otherwise dismal period of time for businesses and education. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this crisis will not be over until we are all vaccinated against this dangerous organism in our midst. SO we need to continue to innovate to do what we need to do, and to do it safely.
Any educator who wishes to discuss this with me further may leave a comment and I will respond. Perhaps a good conversation can generate idea and solutions.
Wendy C. Kasten, Ph.D.
School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies – Literacy
March 1982. I was a new grad student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona. I worked for Dr. Yetta M. Goodman, who would also direct my dissertation during these years (81-84). Yetta had, some years prior, initiated the Arizona Young Author’s Conference, in which hundreds of local school children, grades k-8, would come to the Tucson campus, with something they had written in hand, and meet a guest author – in this case, Tomie de Paola. I was in charge of that conference. Yetta assigned me to spend the day with Tomie prior to conference day, and take him out to the Tohono O’Odham (Papago) reservation schools for a visit. It’s a long ride there and back, and so it began a friendship.
Tomie was an entertaining and energetic guest for the Arizona Young Author’s Conference the next day. And when I left for my first professor position in 1984, and was asked by my new Dean at the University of South Florida to begin some young author’s conferences for gulf-area Florida (which became the Suncoast Young Author’s Conference), I booked Tomie as our first guest author (and a few other things over the years). I saw him now and then at events, but then, we discovered this weird sort-of family connection between us.
My uncle Anton was married to my Aunt Mildred (Aunt by marriage). Aunt Mildred was an only child, and so formed a sibling-like bond with a cousin named Kay. Kay and her husband ran an Inn in new England (was it Vermont or NH?), and happened to live next door to (and became best friends with) Flossie – Tomie’s mother!
When Kay and her husband passed away, it was Aunt Mildred who had to travel to New England to clean out Kay’s things and settle their estate. She was helped by Flossie in the process. Aunt Mildred contacted me. “I have all these books I don’t know what to do with. They’re from someone named Tomie DePaola. Do you want any of them? The neighbor says he’s quite well known.”
I replied YES I would take any or all of them, as we were friends, and I taught children’s literature, and who wouldn’t want more books by Tomie? The real gem that arrived in the package is pictured below. It was Tomie’s thesis at Pratt. He chuckled when I told him I had it. He said that was fine, he didn’t need it (there were multiple copies). Here it is.
I’ll miss him in the world. No more Strega Nona books. No more new editions of Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs. No more Christmas cards. Here is the last one!
I am over the moon happy. Today is day 2 of no-longer-needing-eyeglasses. My first cataract was removed last Tuesday. By Sunday, I noticed my glasses no longer worked. That, and noticing how colors are so much brighter ( to the point where I need sunglasses often). My glaucoma was also treated in the process, and a teeny tiny stent means that I will not need so many eye drops any time soon. My vision went from 20/80 to 20/25 in my right eye. Unbelievable!!
Monday is cataract surgery number #2! Left eye-my weaker eye. Cannot wait for more “re-vision.”
I’ve been an educator since 1973. In that time, I taught elementary children, middle school students, and teachers. Mostly teachers. Once I was in higher education, the opportunities to experience and visit different countries and cultures fed my intense curiosity about peoples of the world.
I visited 50 countries (so far). But, moreover, I visited schools in many parts of the US, but also Canada, Thailand, the Bahamas, Denmark, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Kenya, South Africa, Cuba, Italy, India, Turkey, Jamaica, Barbados, Australia, and New Zealand (so far).
Additionally, over the years, and enjoying working with international colleagues and students, I have made friendships or have mentored folks from Japan, Taiwan, Trinidad, Korea, the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Ecuador, Brazil, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
All these experiences inform what I am about to say.
How we raise our children and young people, both in homes and in schools, matters greatly. I don’t mean just what they learn, but how they learn it. And, how the curriculum and instruction reflect the deepest and underlying values of a culture.
If you sit all your children in rows, and they are wearing the same thing (uniforms), and their hair is cut the same way, and you teach them the same things, and test the exactly the same way, and discourage dissent, disagreement, or “standing out,” then what are the chances of having a new idea? An inventive thought?
Many schools around the world believe strongly in uniforms. It’s said that it ‘equalizes” the children, economically and socially. Chuckle if you must, because it does not work. In the Bahamas, children wore the same uniform, but then they were seated by their test scores from one corner of the room all the way to the other.
I feel certain in any setting the children know their hierarchy, whether it is economic or academic. When I was in 7th grade in a large urban junior high school, we were tracked academically, using test scores. The administration had scrambled the 16 section numbers to hide the hierarchy. We’d all figured it out by the end of day 1.
If you think, in the name of fairness or equity, all children need the same lessons at the same time in the same way, then where is the room for creative thinking? Questioning? The room for invention?
If you think all students need to read the same books or stories, chosen by some “other” authority, then where is the space and the attention to “grand” conversations – one in which readers see the mirrors of themselves, and find their identities in what they read?
If the most important thing in your culture is tradition, and honoring the past, and honoring the ancestors, and fitting in, then isn’t too much emphasis on tradition an antidote to invention? Can you want something your ancestors never had? Does it dishonor them? Does it violate some dearly held ideas? Can you have a new, radical, revolutionary idea (I don’t mean like a war, but more like a cellphone or a computer)?
One summer, colleagues and I had a short conference in Denmark. The Danes were wonderful hosts and I think we loved every minute of getting to know them. We were housed in a type of school building where students board. We ate our meals in the sort of cafeteria where students ate.
We came from a long session, hungry, to find a wonderful buffet of meats, cheese, and breads. We were all Americans or Canadians. We took a plate and picked things we liked and went to a table and made ourselves sandwiches.
We were not the only folks staying in the facility and eating there. Some were local. The Danes stared at us. We didn’t know why.
Later, we learned from an American who had lived overseas, that we were not supposed to make sandwiches. We were supposed to eat those things separately, AND in a pre-determined sequence. She showed us a Danish child’s lunch box, with individual trays stacked inside a box, each for the correct part of the meal. Of course, we didn’t know.
If you have to eat your meals in a certain order and there are rules attached to how you eat (other than manners), how does this influence thinking? Invention?
Let’s mention China. I greatly respect the many Chinese colleagues I came to know in my career. We know many world inventions came from China, like silk making and gunpowder.
BUT, all those were very long ago. What sort of inventions are coming out of China since the “cultural revolution” and under Communism. What happens when during a political event, your academic elite are …..missing? How does that influence national and cultural thinking for the next century?
I believe there are indeed intersections of culture and invention. I think under closer examination, one would find that the countries with lots of inventions value diverse thinking. Value new ideas. Value positive changes. These are expressed in their systems of education. These shape the people their children become.
I would dearly love an academic conversation on this topic. It’s been on my mind for decades!
By this time of life, people my age have already said goodbye to all members of the older generation in their families. That’s true for me and most of my friends. We all have tales of woe cleaning up after the life of parents, aunts, and uncles. Every single thing must be liquidated, assigned, sold, placed, or donated. Of course, generally we are all doing all this while grieving for whomever has passed on. And those belongings can be a mine field of emotions and memories. And, fortunately, a few laughs.
My mother passed first. She’d had Alzheimer’s, and her remaining belongings were just as odd and bizarre as some of the things she would do and say during those last years. Like the time I visited her during the evening in the nursing home and found her sitting in the lobby near the entrance.
“Oh, I am so glad you are here,” she began, unable to recall my name, but certain I was familiar. “Have I missed my train?”
“No, Mom. You have plenty of time. I’ll check the schedule.”
“Good,” she said, relieved of her agitation.
After she passed, I sent all her clothes to a thrift store. But cleaning out her drawers and closet was difficult. I tossed pantyhose with runs, stained cosmetic bags, rusty hairpins, and the pink rubber rollers she had once used on my hair when I was small. There were pens that had been out of ink for decades, broken pencils, brochures, dirty tissues and stretched out headbands. But most amusing was an entire drawer full of prostheses for her left breast following a mastectomy when she was 70. Medicare provided a new prosthesis every two years. She lived to her late 80’s. So there was an entire drawer of fake boobs.
“Why don’t you use them, Mom?” I’d asked her once before Alzheimer’s had entirely set in.
“Oh, they’re too hot,” she replied, explaining it was easier to stuff the empty bra cup with a sock. “And I don’t want to wear them out,” she’d added. “Besides, I’m over 70, what do I need two breasts for?”
My father passed a few months after Mom. Then it was important to vacate his two- bedroom apartment before the end of a month, or we’d be charged another month’s rent. I found a Mom with 6 adopted kids that could use all the furniture. Little stuff like dishes and knick-knacks all went to the thrift store which supported a local hospital.
Dad had a lifelong love of books. He’d culled books when he’d left his last house. But not enough. He was adamant that the remaining books were valuable, and that I should get a good price for them. He thought he had something very precious because he had every book Jack London had ever written.
A kind man, a specialist in antiquarian books, graciously agreed to peruse Dad’s collection. After half an hour, he pronounced that the books were still good for reading, but that they had no monetary value.
Most of us are not privy to the romantic side of our parents. I always knew my folks had a strong love story. But I got a good laugh when I found a stack of vintage Playboy magazines in Dad’s closet.
The process of cleaning out someone’s stuff is tedious and dreadful. But what I learned is that in the end, it’s all just stuff. Just stuff. What someone values has little to do with money.
Now, I try to look at my home this way. Everything I have, everything I will have by the time I die, it’s just stuff. My stuff. Stuff that means something to me, and probably not to anyone else. I will try to remember not to collect so much stuff. Because, in the end, it’s just stuff.
(This is a response to a darling play I saw last night titled “The Seekers” written by Kristin Frangoulis and produced at “Elbow Room” at the Waterfall Arts building in Belfast, ME.)
The 70’s were my “granola” days. I cannot claim to be part of the “back to nature” movement which took place in Waldo County in the 70’s, because I had a job teaching 6th grade. I lived in a shabby little house in Frankfort, Maine, which was purchased by a spouse and myself for only one reason – we could afford it. It was situated at the major curve in the main road, Route 1A, between Stockton Springs and Winterport.
I did identify with many of the traditions of the time. The little house was heated with wood, using a Scandinavian wood stove we had purchased from Frank Raftery’s wood stove store on High St. in Belfast. By necessity, I learned to bank a stove for all day coverage, because teachers cannot run home for lunch. I had some propane backup, but it was bloody expensive to use it, so I rarely did.
The picture that follows shows the house before we bought it. My father, the carpenter, arrived a few times with tools and doors and wood and cabinets. Dad made the place more livable. He installed a front door without a hole where the knob was missing. He added a mudroom and porch on the front. He enclosed a back deck making a place for firewood storage out of the weather. He added a bathroom with running water and a place for a washing machine. I had not been fond of the “inside outhouse” at the far corner of the woodshed.
He arrived with lovely cabinets he’d made to make a real kitchen where there was just a sink and small gas range. He’d made them from American Chestnut, his favorite wood, which he’d hoarded whenever it could be found. He gave me bright red counter tops, and I was delighted with how bright and cheery they were. I loved how the red counters looked with my white and black Bennington pottery and my red placemats from Willey’s General Store in Greensboro, Vermont.
The little house sat close to the Marsh River, too close for a septic system. We settled on a composting toilet called an ecolet. One had to mount two steps to be seated and so it stood like a throne in the new bathroom. It was far better than the outhouse.
In those days, being dirt poor (teachers did not earn enough to make sends meet), I made my own yogurt, baked my own bread. I joined the newly formed Belfast Coop, and had to put in my hours once a month working there, meting out one pound bags of prunes from a large cardboard box, weighing bulghur, rice, and oats.
I ate lots of tabouli and soybean soup and lentil loaf back then. My many bulk foods were stored in large jars on the top of the cabinets, and they added interest and color to my red kitchen.
The little house had once been a general store. So the layout was odd. Local people remembered sitting around a potbelly wood stove, and scooping bulk foods like flour and rice from barrels right about where my kitchen table sat. The owners would have lived upstairs, which explained why I found a dry sink in my upstairs hallway. There had been stairs once upon a time on the outside of the building to the second floor quarters.
My favorite time there was when my good friend Martha, another teacher, moved in with her toddler, dog and cat (I had one cat, too) It took two teacher salaries to cover the basic bills. I managed the inside of the house. Martha managed the outside. She enjoyed mowing the tiny lawn. She planted a few flowering bushes, and cultivated a small vegetable garden. We were over the moon delighted when we heard that the green onion plants we had been given came from Scott and Helen Neering’s garden!
Our only Thanksgiving there was memorable. I had a good table with two leaves. I made the splurge purchase of a harvest gold tablecloth, which I still have. I had a set of china but no silverware to speak of. Martha, who had no china, had inherited a service for 12 of sterling silver, never before used. Between the two of us, we had created a wonderful looking table. We invited a few friends to dinner.
The most memorable part, though, was the atmosphere. You see during the summer prior, I had gone down to MDI to work for the summer as a waitress at the “Head of the Harbor” restaurant in Southwest Harbor. Teachers didn’t get summer pay, of course. So summers meant finding work. With the house empty for two months, mice had moved in.
I had an awesome cat then, who’d gone to Southwest Harbor for the summer with me. Once we returned, she went to work. While the house had been empty, mice had moved in. My cat honed her mousing skills. Each night I would hear her hunting, I would hear a squeak and a pounce, and then find a dead mouse in the morning. This went on through the autumn. The last time I heard her hunting at night, I had never found the dead mouse. I looked everywhere, emptying the woodpile, behind cabinet drawers -I pulled the house apart.
I may not have mentioned that I didn’t cook much in those days. Especially things that required an oven. Turkeys require an oven. So when I preheated the oven for our Thanksgiving turkey, I located the dead mouse.
The smell of dead burning mouse was unforgettable and unappetizing to say the least. Once removing the carcass, we tried to air out the house. But, it was 5 degrees outside that day. Opening the door could only last a few seconds. And the wood stove was working overtime to heat up the house. So we found some scented candles, and that made it all bearable.
The following year, the chicken industry folded in Waldo County. I was laid off along with two other teachers after many families with children moved away. I went off to grad school; Martha found a quaint cottage home in Stockton Springs. She still lives there. I rented out the house in Frankfort. The tenants never told me the ecolet stopped working. They used something, maybe a camper potty, and buried the waste in the tiny yard contaminating the well. I got back from school to find a letter that my property was condemned.
I gave the house to the town for the tax deduction. It was the only course I could think of. They sold some contents, then let the volunteer fire department burn it down. Now there’s something far uglier there than my little house.
So much for the 70’s!
It took me until 2009 to get myself back to Maine except for visiting. As much as I loved the place, I was so sick of being poor. So I accepted jobs elsewhere, and returned to retire. In a sense, I had to leave in order to afford to come back.
I loved it when I went to get my Maine drivers license again. They gave me my old license number and said “Welcome home.” I was home, truly, and I still am.
[The picture that follows in the little house on Route IA in Frankfort. The photo at the start of this piece is me, while working in Bar Harbor for the summer, sitting on the rocks of Acadia National Park near Thunder Hole.]
Around 2006, I was invited to lead a delegation of Literacy Educators to a conference via People to People (the organization started by President Eisenhower). About 20 teachers signed up for the excursion.
As is often the case, the conference of international speakers (mostly Chinese, speaking Chinese with occasional translation) of talking heads was dull. But other activities were planned for the week, such as a visit to the Great Wall, a silk factory, shopping, and of course school visits. We were all most looking forward to the two school visits.
In the way of context, Chinese children in Beijing are grouped into schools by abilities based on their score on a single uniform test across the city (as it was explained to us by our guide). Therefore, we would be shown only the top schools with only the top scoring students.
The first visit was a high school which began with a welcome orientation by a school administrator in a sort of conference room. He was warm and welcoming. One of my teachers asked how they deal with struggling readers.
“We don’t have any,” was his terse reply.
The rest of our visit was orchestrated and escorted with no interaction with either teachers or students. We got back on the bus, and began talking.
“I didn’t see a library,” one teacher brought up. Hmm, we all thought. Indeed we did not. American schools always show off their library to guests. We had asked our guide earlier if the schools have libraries.
“Yes,” he’d said immediately, and he recited the ratio of books to students in each school.
So, we resolved on the second visit, a school with younger children, to ask see the library. We arrived at the second school.
“We’d like to see the library,” I asked respectfully via a translator. There were heads nodding and we were escorted to….a lunchroom. At one end were a few magazine racks with age-appropriate magazines. We looked at each other. Hmmm.
By this time, my international travel had been extensive. So I was thinking there had been a translation error. Translation is a tough thing, especially between languages that are so very different.
So, as delegation leader, I asked again, trying in earnest to be more clear. “We would love to see your library – the room where all the books are, where students might find a book to read, or to check out for a report or project.”
There was quiet talking and mumbling and of course, we had no idea what they were saying, but clearly there were conferring about our request. We were then directed to the two elevators, and in each case, a Chinese person selected the basement button.
From the elevators were were led down a long hallway. The ceilings were lower than in the rest of the building. In the hallways were also planters taken in for winter, and broken chairs and desks, being stored there. Lighting was dim, and winter chills seeped from somewhere.
A Chinese man stopped us in front of a metal door with a padlock on it, We stood there for a good 10-15 minutes. Clearly this man did not have the keys. Finally another man arrived with a ring of keys, and opened the door. We filed in quietly.
There were books all right. Rows and rows of metal stacks. We went up and down the rows looking at what was there. BUT, nearly all the books were still in shrink wrap. No book showed any signs of use. Everything was too clean and untouched. There was no card catalog, no windows, no place to sit and read, no desk for checkout. Many titles were Chinese translations of British literature – classics. We saw no picture books. No evidence of cataloguing.
We stayed quiet, not wanting to be disrespectful. This time we were given a tour which was more personal. We were brought to a large room where children were seated with their teachers, and they demonstrated for us a Chinese art of paper cutting. It was interesting and enjoyable. We were invited to answer questions of the students. Some raised their hands. Translators helped. One asked what we thought about the “One child” rule, and didn’t we agree it is a good thing? We decided to steer away from that one. I said something about how we really don’t know much about the rule, so we cannot comment.
Afterwards we were paraded into a lovely art room. The thing was, however, there was no evidence that art room was used. Nothing smelled like art supplies. There was nothing drying, or in progress, or hanging, or displayed.
We were brought into a science lab. It was a large and well equipped lab with bunsen burners, beakers, flasks, and lots of sinks and benches. But, there was a fine veil of dust on all the glassware. There was no evidence that this room had ever been used.
As we passed classrooms, we smiled at the children who were stuffed wall to wall into rows. A teacher upfront would not be able to walk anywhere but down and row and back as desks went all the way to the back wall – I counted 36-40 students. Children had all identical haircuts, wore uniforms, and the rooms were quiet.
“May we go in?” I asked the escort. He seemed unsure what to say, but opened the door. We trailed in, said hello to the teacher and greeted the students. We encouraged the teacher to keep teaching, but that wasn’t going to happen. Children broke their stoic stance and popped up like jumping beans, wanting to shake our hands all at once. We felt like rock stars amid momentary chaos. We said our goodbyes and then left.
I don’t think that part of the visit was in the Chinese plan.
We were taken to visit the “counselor” who was called the “Teacher for Morality.” She was talking with a few students in an attractive and comfortable setting with chairs and a table. Of course, we do not know what they were talking about.
Our guide had been the assistant principal. We learned the principal was not an educator. He was a member of the Communist Party there for enforcement of whatever they needed to enforce. The assistant principal, a woman, was the real educator.
Subject area textbooks were Party approved, and uniform. We saw no child interacting with books other than the approved texts. We saw no books anywhere, other than those magazines in the lunchroom.
We had lots to talk about back at our hotel. I still think about this visit. Still unpacking what it means to have a locked library that no one uses. Still thinking about a country where children have no access to books – by design, not because of poverty.
I find myself so very thankful for American libraries, and the fact that they are so incredibly important, and that we sometimes have to defend them, and I for one, will always support libraries. A world without libraries is a very different sort of place. Not one I wish to live in.