Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Teacher

I spent the first 9 years of my life in Bayside Hills, Queens.  The neighborhood was comprised almost completely of other Irish-, as well as Italian- and German-Americans, 99% of whom were Roman Catholic (like us).  I only knew two Protestant families, and there was but one Jewish family who lived at the end of our block.  Their son David and I played together in the sandbox my father had built for me in our backyard.  But that ended in September 1968 when I began attending first grade at our parish elementary school St. Robert Bellarmine.  I was incredibly excited about "big girl" school after a fantastic year in Mrs. Sacks's Kindergarten class at P.S. 123.  First Grade with Sister Lumina and Second Grade with Mrs. Jay were really lovely experiences.  Then I hit Third Grade.  My parents began receiving report cards, and on a score which included "Good" and "Excellent," mine were marked with mere "Satisfactory."  I was puzzled and disappointed.  I began reading at age 2-1/2, and I was very good at Math.What was I doing wrong?  What was wrong with me!?

My father was hired by the Tax Department of Exxon in 1971, and by the summer of 1972, he and my mother had enough saved for a down payment on a beautiful brick center-hall colonial in "the hamlet" of Munsey Park, an incorporated village in Manhasset, Nassau County.  Now, having moved us to one of the best school districts in the country---and constantly reminding us about the taxes they were paying to support this school system--Daddy was set on his children attending Munsey Park Elementary School.  He did not want us to go to our parish St. Mary's parochial school.  So I headed to my first day in public school in Mr. Williams's Fifth Grade classroom.

For several weeks at the dinner table all I could talk about was how much I loved Mr. Williams, and did I tell my parents all that I had learned that day!?  Mr. Williams made me feel good about myself after those two awful years under the tutelage of the lay teachers at St. Robert's.  Since I was attending public school for the first time, I had to take a "special" test given by New York State.  Early in October 1972, my parents had their first parent-teacher conference with Mr. Williams.  They came home in a state of shock.

Daddy:  "Honey, you didn't tell us that Mr. Williams black gentleman."
Me:  "Oh, is he?"
Mommy:  "Yes, he is....but I already explained that God made people with all different skin colors..."
Me:  "Uh-huh, I know.  But what did he say about me!?  Does he like me?"
Mommy:  "Yes, he said you are a very good little girl in class.  You do talk a lot, but he said you are learning to raise your hand first and waiting to be called upon before you speak."
Daddy:  "He told us you did very well on the test you took."
Me:  "Sure, I'm a teee-riffic speller!"
Daddy:  "No, not your spelling test, Sweetheart,  that other test, the special test you took.  He told us you scored 166."
Me:  "Daddy, everyone knows that tests only go up to 100."

My parents were unable to effectively communicate that I had scored 166 on The Stanford-Binet intelligence test, placing me in the Intelligence Classification of "Genius and Near Genius."  Mozart and Darwin are estimated to have had IQ's of 166.  Just 4 years ago my mother told me about my IQ.  I was apoplectic.

Me:  "Why didn't you tell me that before?"
Mommy:  "We did, we told you when we found out."
Me:  "But I was only 9-years-old!  Emotionally, how could I have comprehended what you were telling me! Why didn't you explain it to me?"
Mommy:  "We didn't want you to get a swelled head."

Oh, Irish-Americans, how you are taught to fear and despise the deadly sin of pride.

Thank goodness Mr. Williams did nothing but instill pride and self-esteem in all of his pupils.  I flourished under his care and watchful eye.  Since I was reading at college level, he allowed me to go through the Reading and Language books at my own pace.  I finished that series within a few months.  For the first and--sadly--for one of the briefest periods in my life, I felt that I was a good student in Math and Science.  There was never any sexism in that small classroom.  On the playground, all of us children, white, black, Christian, Jew, played together.  Okay, so maybe the girls were more inclined to play hopscotch while the boys ran around doing whatever it was boys do.  When Mr. Williams saw how much I loved Miss Haddad's music class, he would speak to me about how wonderful it was that I had the gift for music.  (He also knew that my parents had begun giving me guitar lessons.)   

In addition to our regular studies, Mr. Williams would speak to us about our personal hygiene.  "Every morning, you must wash your faces and brush your teeth.  Then gently blow your nose in a tissue so that it's clean."  He also talked about good nutrition.  "If you want to get a really good breakfast, and you don't have any milk in the house, pour your orange juice on your cereal."  No milk?  Who wouldn't have milk in the house?  I didn't realize that some of my black classmates might not have.  I was able to walk to school.  They took a bus from some place called "Spinney Hill."

In February 1973 we celebrated "Black History Month."  Mr. Williams became very serious and explained what segregation was.  Black children used to have to attend separate schools from white children.  He told us that just 9 years ago--when we all were babies--President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I remember how his facial expression was a mixture of both sorrow and outrage as he told us that our town Manhasset was the last town in New York State to be desegregated.

While I was only 10, I knew that Mr. Williams had imparted something very important, and historic, to us.  My admiration and respect for him grew even more than I thought possible.  I paid special attention to the lesson play that February.  His stories about Crispus Attucks, Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, E.B. Dubois, Lorraine Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were utterly fascinating.  The most important lesson I learned from Mr. Williams was that all children deserved to be treated as equally special, and that meant we all deserved to be treated well.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Charles Dickens: All Is Grist That Comes To The Mill

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known. "  ~A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The celebration of February 7th, the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of world's greatest and best storytellers, has already begun in parts of the world. Given my moniker, I place a great deal of emphasis on how we are deeply influenced and largely formed by the period of history into which we were born.  1812 marked the official beginning of The Regency Era in the United Kingdom.  I refer you to Alan Bennett's 1994 film adaptation of his play "The Madness of King George."   You'll remember that the Prince of Wales was appointed Regent of England as his father, George III of the United Kingdom was thought to have become severely mentally ill and unfit to sit on the throne and rule.  Then the son, George IV,  ruled until his death 1830.  This just is what was occurring on the homefront.

Abroad, the British Empire was waging war with its former colony, The United States of America.  We, ever looking inward, refer to this as The War of 1812.  However, closer to home, England was also fighting the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte.  Most importantly, the Industrial Revolution, the watershed of Modern History had begun.  It was the busiest of times.

But back to Mr. Dickens.

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 on the British island of Portsea, just off the southern coast of England.  Charles's father was clerk who had 8 children to support. Charles, the second-born, was an outdoorsy boy, and he was able to attend private school for several years.  Then, when Charles was age 12, his father John's habit of spending far more than he earned, landed John and all his family in the barbaric Marhsalsea debtor's prison...all save Charles.  He had the remarkable good fortune to be taken in by family friend Elizabeth Roylance and escape this hellhole.  But he did have to leave school and begin working perilous 10-hour days at a boot-blacking factory. Dickens memorialized the dilapidated blacking warehouse  in several of his novels, especially his second, Oliver Twist (1838).  The factory and its surrounding warehouse was a dangerous place, filled with vermin, lacking sanitation, and populated by other poor souls and their brutal, abusive counterparts.

Charles eventually went back to school, and became a student at The Wellington House Academy in North London--which was an institution of learning on par with the blacking factory.  At 15, he became a junior clerk at a law firm for a period of 18-months.  In the brief hours when he wasn't working, Charles taught  himself shorthand, and then landed himself a job as a freelance reporter with a focus on court proceedings for 4 years.  He later plumbed from these experiences to write The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839) and (one of my favorites) Bleak House (1853).  

When his story "A Dinner at Poplar Walk" was published in 1833, Charles Dickens, age 21, officially became a published writer of fiction.  However, he was already making a name for himself as a political journalist, concentrating on Parlimentary proceedings and traveling the country to cover elections.   Dickens's his first novel The Pickwick Papers (pubished in 1837, but initially serialized in 1836) is about four members of a gentleman's club who undertake a journey all over England in order to report on their observations and discoveries to the rest of the club.  (Shades of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell tour of The Hebrides in 1773 here!  But I digress...)

Charles's novels continued to be received with great success.  He married and had 10 children of his own.  Yet whether you know the rest of the personal history--and I encourage you to learn more since his life continued to be as fascinating and heartbreaking as his books--Charles Dickens was tutored by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and schooled by the hegemony of its descendant, the Victorian age and its extremes of class and economic status.  Charles Dickens the writer emerged the champion of the poor, the downtrodden, and  the disenfranchised.  He paid them consistent and constant homage in his work.  He railed against moral, legal, and economic injustice.  Dickens did so with incomparable plots, unforgettable characters, unbelievable prose style,  huge doses of sentimentality, bountiful wells of good humor, and wise observation of human nature.   I count myself among many for whom their first knowledge of the inequities of Victorian society--inequities which continue in our current global society--were learned from the  pages of Charles Dickens.