Archive for September, 2012

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Waterloo Memory

September 27, 2012

Gray rainy day.

A red Buick Skylark,

box of tissues

on the back windshield deck,

sorority insignia

on the plastic license frame,

precedes me to the site

where poetry is promised;

a gathering of spirits,

the kindred souls unite.

.

I do not feel

like one of them,

a frog amongst the fish

who needs to rise and gulp

the air for sustenance.

To stay submerged

though curious

and, perhaps, compelled,

would drown me.

.

What do I seek amongst them?

Some kinship born of water?

A thread connecting to a past

shared in unseen strands?

.

I sit in my car

as the droplets streak my windows

and write this poem.

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Dancing in the Dark

September 20, 2012

Two significant and wholly unexpected incidents occurred this week. One involved a rock concert and the other a You Tube video sent to me by a former student. As it happens once in a great while, this confluence of events led to an epiphany.

During the spring, my wife Bernadette announced her desire to go to the Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands. Since her birthday is in May, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to kill those two proverbial birds with one stone. However, since I am rather a dinosaur in such matters, I did not know exactly how to go about purchasing tickets to such an event. Since my experience is firmly lodged in the days of the Fillmore East ticket window or free concerts in Central Park where one simply showed up, I bungled the operation and could not obtain them. My eventual present proved quite lame in comparison to What Could Have Been.

However, I received a reprieve when the announcement came that extra shows would be added in the fall. Armed with information from a friend-in-the-know, I got tickets for the Wednesday night opening show. Bernadette’s desire would be fulfilled, I would be redeemed (better late than never), and we would see Bruce again for the first time since the 70’s when both he and we were still young.

The concert date arrived, and the afternoon began with a harbinger of sorts. We had a late lunch at a funky little spot in South Orange called The Blue Plate Special, kind of like eating in a hip thrift shop. Our waitress, a Russian girl who moved to Alaska at age four and ended up in New Jersey for college, told us that she had recently graduated from Seton Hall University just up the block. We told her that we had too, only four decades earlier.

“Did you meet there?” she asked, eyebrows raised in astonished anticipation.

“Yes, we did. And we’ve been together ever since.”

“Oh my God, that’s so cute!” she exclaimed in honest admiration. “That gives me such hope,” she added.

Bernadette and I spent the rest of the meal immersed in nostalgic recollection of that first chapter of our lives together.

us, 1970

We took the train to the Meadowlands from the South Orange station. It was my first trip to the stadium and my first arena event. I had seen many concerts of varying types over the years, but never one this size. I fretted about how Bruce, almost the same age as I, would perform, and apprehension over how the venue might affect the experience tempered my excitement. Not so my wife. She squirmed in her seat like a teenager at her first Beatles (or, I suppose, Justin Beiber) show. I watched as the people filed in. The huge crowd consisted of mostly older folks. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was unsettling to realize that I am one of them. In my mind I’m still the twenty-something guy going to see Bruce at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic back when he was still “the future of rock and roll.”

My fears proved to be unfounded. The show turned out to be nothing short of fantastic. Bruce did not concern himself with trying to recapture lost youth or relive past glories (as, unfortunately, some aging stars do). He didn’t have to. He did what he always has done, putting his heart and soul into his performance and reveling in the excitement of the moment. Playing old songs and new, he rocked and crooned and told stories and danced for almost four continuous hours. It was sublime. My initial discomfort of being amongst all the balding heads and paunchy bellies of my generation dissolved in the dark, loud, rock and roll night.

The next morning I received a recommendation for a You Tube video of Death Cab for Cutie’s song “Stay Young, Go Dancing.” This came from a former student, one who is an astute connoisseur of music as well as one of the most brilliant young writers I had ever encountered in my forty years of teaching. The theme of the video tenderly reflects a line from the lyrics, “And I’m swallowed in sound as it echoes through me, I’m renewed, oh how I feel alive and through autumn’s advancing, we’ll stay young, go dancing…” It instantly made a connection to what had transpired the night before.

The Death Cab video blew me away. Watching the wistful “Stay Young, Go Dancing” crystallized all of my conflicted emotions about my present stage in life. I have been writing about many of the past experiences of my life in this blog over the last year. I have said I was doing it to occupy my time or to record these stories before I start forgetting them. But I realize now that it is my way of trying to come to grips with this disconcerting period of transition in which I now find myself. As I watched the video, I thought too of my former student and her present place in this circle of life, of how inconceivable it is to think that one will ever really become old. And that is as it should be.

But just as each stage of life has its pitfalls, each also has its great joys, and this video reminded me of one of the greatest of these, traveling through the years arm in arm with someone you love. Bruce ended his show Wednesday night with “Dancing in the Dark” (he knocked it out of the park), and all the oldsters stood swaying and singing along with every bit of passion they could muster. The next morning I began the day with the gift of “Stay Young, Go Dancing” which soothingly intoned, “As the music plays, feel our bodies sway, when we move as one, we stay young,” so eloquently affirming the passion and beauty that can magically take place at every point during this journey.

So thank you Bruce for helping us to acknowledge rather than bemoan the passage of time and celebrate the present moment for what it is. Thank you Death Cab for evoking this reflective wonder which transcends age, and thank you Cara for being the perfect herald of this revelation. Most of all, thank you Bernadette, for you still keep me alive and swaying as we move as one, dancing together in the dark of the advancing autumn.

us, now

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Paper Boy

September 16, 2012

I don’t remember exactly how the idea of becoming a paper boy came to be, though I suspect it had something to do with the Boy Scouts’ encouragement of self-initiative and productivity. I do remember hatching schemes to make money as a kid, though, mostly with a school friend named Ken Terry who lived a few blocks away.

For a while we collected bottles to return to the supermarket in order to collect the deposit (something no longer done in New Jersey). However, pulling around a wagon filled with clinking glass while digging through garbage cans turned out to be far more cumbersome and dirty than we thought (not to mention uncool), so that was abandoned after a short period. Ken came up with the idea of painting house numbers on the curb using a stencil. I wasn’t sure why anyone would want this no less pay for having it done, but he came up with a pretty good sales pitch, convincing homeowners in our neighborhood that it would be well worth the nominal fee we charged to not have delivery people or important guests miss their house. We did this until we canvassed the entire neighborhood, actually getting a considerable number of customers beyond the initial charity case of my own house (at which the green 208 took many years to fade).

Then came my big opportunity. The Record, Bergen county’s main periodical, needed carriers in my neighborhood, and I contacted them forthwith, convinced I was their man. My area supervisor, a burly but jolly gentleman named Mr. Cimiluca, came to the house to give me my orientation and set me up with my route and the equipment needed. I could not have been more thrilled; my first official job!

My route consisted of a six block area around my house. Having been issued the tools of the trade, a heavy-duty canvas carrying bag emblazoned with The Record on the side and a ring with the cards of my customers for recording payment, I eagerly awaited my first day on the job. The procedure involved picking up the newspapers after school at a centrally located spot, finding your bundle and checking to make sure you had the correct number of papers, and then bringing them to the houses on your route. Sounded pretty simple. But it was here that I learned one of the first lessons of the working world: nothing is ever as simple or as easy as it seems when you’re not the one doing it.

First surprise — the carrying of the papers. Most carriers had sturdy bikes with wire baskets which they used for delivery. I had no bike. Living on a busy street, my parents decreed they were too dangerous. Therefore, I had to lug the papers around the old-fashioned way, bag slung by my side. Being a little guy, this became a huge struggle, particularly on Wednesdays. I hadn’t paid much attention to this facet of the journalism world previously since my only concern with the newspaper was the funny pages. But the size on Wednesday swelled because that was the day for advertising. I learned very quickly the call of the paper boy as I headed for the pickup spot: “How many pages?” Monday was the best, the thin tome easy to carry and then fold into a throwable form, a fine art in itself. Wednesday became the dreaded day of massive editions that weighed a ton and couldn’t be folded, causing nightmarish chases of blowing pages on windy days. My shoulder ached for days carrying that fat midweek edition, barely recovering in time for the next one.

A solution of  sorts came from the back of our garage. I believe it was my ever-practical father who suggested I use my old wagon to cart the papers along my route. I instinctively knew this would firmly cement me in the ranks of the dorky amongst my fellow carriers (not to mention my classmates who would inevitably find out about it). However, the physical stress I underwent overcame any concerns I had about my image, so out came the wagon. The neighborhood must have come to know the unmistakable sound of those old wagon wheels squeaking down the side streets, announcing the arrival of that day’s edition.

Eventually, my rescue from this indignity came in the form of my Uncle Emerson’s offer of his now-grown son’s bike for my use. I had been deemed old enough now to negotiate the mean streets of Bergenfield, so my parents approved. It seemed too good to be true. And it was. The fly in the ointment turned out to be that the bike was a fancy-pants English racer, not at all what one would want for the task more suited to a good ol’ American Schwinn or Husky. But we adapted the bicycle as best we could, and the wagon rejoined the garden tools and spider webs in the garage.

Next, how to deal with the customers. I never realized how particular some people were about how and where their newspaper was placed. Unprepared for the acrimonious complaints from little old ladies and acerbic comments from housewives, I learned firsthand about the old expression, “the customer is always right.” At one house, I had to place the paper inside the storm door, at another in the mailbox, at another between the flower-pot and the wall. Yikes! The resulting extra time this took made me late for supper on more than a few occasions. Especially on Wednesdays.

Finally, the critical matter of the collection of money. This took place on Friday afternoons, which we looked forward to almost as much as we dreaded Wednesdays. Delivery cost thirty-seven cents a week. The paper boy made a mere pittance from the Record and depended on tips to add to the old savings account. The accepted norm seemed to be for the patron to give two quarters and say, “Keep the change.” Those houses kept us in business. Very rarely a particularly generous soul would bestow an extra dime or so upon us. Those houses renewed our faith in human kind.

But then there existed the cheapskates who insisted on the thirteen cents change for the two quarters they so unwillingly forked over. These Scrooges lived right there amongst us, we discovered, cleverly cloaked in normalcy to others in their everyday lives — but we paper boys knew. Then the matter of the folks who never seemed to be home, or, as the more jaded of us intimated, that just never answered the door. Luckily for us, after repeated weeks of nonpayment, Mr. Cimiluca came to the rescue with a visit to the recalcitrant consumer to extract the overdue fee and enforce the strong arm of The Record. He never failed to leave with a reminder in the vague disguise as a pep talk not to let that sort of thing happen if at all possible.

In order to promote an expanding readership, The Record constantly prompted us to sign up new customers. As motivation, a catalogue of cheap yet enticing incentive rewards promised all manner of entertainment and creature comfort for which the brotherhood of paper boys easily fell. I eagerly sought new customers solely for the prizes. My favorite was the kerosine-fueled  pocket-sized handwarmer I earned (which would probably be banned now because of the danger of conflagration). I believe I still have it stashed somewhere in my basement.

I now live in Essex County, which is Star Ledger territory. I don’t have a paper boy but rather an unknown faceless adult who drives by in a car and flings my morning paper, supposedly on my front walk. Normally it lands either in my flower bed or under the car, but I don’t complain. Collection is done through the impersonal method of easy-pay charging.

Perhaps I live in a Norman Rockwell past, but I think I would like to have the interaction of by-gone days with a paper boy. I could give him guidance and help him develop the kind of good work ethic that had been nurtured in me back when I was a boy (though in a kinder and gentler manner, of course). And to be sure, he would always hear me say, “Keep the change.”

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Rescued

September 9, 2012

The day after Labor Day I attended the annual luncheon reunion of the retired teachers from the last school in which I taught. It is held on the day those still in the classroom return for their first day back. This was my third reunion, and I enjoyed seeing former colleagues and old friends once again. Much reminiscing transpires at these gatherings (though no gloating, as claimed by some of my still-teaching friends), and I always end up hearing many behind-the-scenes stories that I had been unaware of previously. I have one of my own, though I’ve never shared it at this particular gathering. It’s the story of how fate brought me to my final teaching position, one which lasted twenty-five years until my retirement.

My Newark students hard at work.

The new school year of 1985 found me beginning my thirteenth year teaching in the city of Newark. Throughout those years, I had the opportunity to hone my skills and learn much from those with whom I worked. In spite of numerous difficult socio-economic circumstances beyond their control, some of my Newark students still stand out amongst the very best I ever taught in my forty years in the classroom. But that year would prove to be the low point of my career, the result of a critical culmination of various negative forces.

The revolving door of superintendents during this period created constant instability, not to mention a crisis in confidence. My first year started with an outgoing superintendent replaced by an acting superintendent succeeded by one who was then removed from power four years later. The next one lasted three, followed by a short-term interim. Another highly touted replacement took office only to be suspended after three years and supplanted with yet another acting superintendent. The eighth of the series ascended in what proved to be my final year.

A combination of incompetence, corruption, nepotism,  and a “boys’ club” mentality crippled the administration of the largest school district in the state. Much lip service but very little actual meaningful attention was paid to the real needs of the kids. A constant shortage of supplies as well as an overabundance of disrespect for the professional nature of the task plagued the teaching staff and resulted in frequent labor strife. A fire that partially destroyed my hundred year old school building didn’t help matters much, either.

But the most critical problem became my mental state. I always held the belief that my classroom was my kingdom, and what happened outside its walls would not affect what I did within, which was to teach the children before me to the best of my ability. I slowly came to realize the error of this vision, for the continuously changing and often inexplicable policies and requirements of each new regime and a disheartening de facto acceptance — and worse — expectation of poor achievement pierced my castle walls and eventually crushed my spirit. I knew inside that I had to leave in order to survive as a teacher.

During that school year, I must have sent resumes and applications to scores of districts in five different counties in an effort to rescue myself. I felt bad about this, something akin to being a rat leaving a sinking ship, but in reality that abandonment was essential to my survival. And, after all, I hadn’t been the one to sink the misguided vessel. However, in district after district, at least in those that actually bothered to interview me, I got the distinct sense that my status as a teacher was simply dismissed. In their eyes, as a Newark teacher all I could possibly be was a cop or a baby-sitter. By the end of the year, my anger over this turned into frustration and then resignation. I felt destined to remain where I was or else leave the profession I loved. Then one day near the end of July, I received a phone call from my good friend John.

“Hey, are you still looking for a new teaching position?” he asked without any of his customary introductory chat.

“No, I kind of gave up on that. Why do you ask?” I replied, curiosity rising.

“Well, I just finished up with one of my patients. She happens to be a school principal and mentioned that there’s an opening in her building for an eighth grade English teacher. I told her I knew someone who might be interested.”

“What?! You’re kidding me!” My curiosity instantly morphed into anxious excitement.

“No, I’m not. But the search is closing tomorrow. Call her right now, and she’ll see you then.”

He gave me the number which I immediately called. I would have my interview the next morning at a place called Pierrepont School in Rutherford. I tried hard to temper my high hopes, remembering what had happened in all my previous interviews. I nervously reviewed the questions I’d fielded in those and some possible responses that would best capture my teaching philosophy. I had experience, excellent observation reports, and a proven track record, but self-doubt kept creeping in.

The next morning I entered the front office of Pierrepont School, an old but well-kept building on a tree-lined side street in Rutherford, for the first time. After a short but tense wait on the couch, I walked into the principal’s office. Ann Marie Amorelli greeted me with a pleasant smile, asked me to sit, and then got down to business. The directness of her no-nonsense questions surprised me a bit, quite a departure from the pedagogical obfuscations I had to wade through in so many other principals’ offices. Most of her inquiry concerned what I would do if and when certain situations occurred, and I answered as honestly and simply as I could. We ended the session talking in a friendly manner about our mutual connection. What were the chances that my friend would turn out to be her doctor? How improbable that she see him the day before and mention this opening? I left with a good feeling about this job.

Shortly thereafter I got another call, this one an appointment to see the superintendent. What I thought would be another interview turned out to be an offer of employment. Elation filled my very soul. I felt validated and pledged to myself to prove to them beyond any doubt that their decision had been the right one. I wanted this to be the school in which I would finish out my career, one that I’d be able to look back at with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Twenty-five years later, that mission had been fulfilled, and I stepped out of Room 26 in Pierrepont School for the last time as its eighth grade English teacher.

Pierrepont School, my home away from home for 25 years.

And now, two years farther down the road, I still marvel at how it all came to pass, how my despair had turned so rapidly to hope, how my career became resurrected. I know many would attribute it to mere circumstance, nothing more than an unusual chain of events, but not I. There have been far too many people who have had experiences in which events beyond the simple explanation of coincidence changed the shapes of their lives, some for better, some for worse. This is not the only instance it happened in my own.

So yes, I believe that every so often, when lost and adrift in the sea of life, one can indeed be rescued by the mysterious hand of fate. It is not something upon which to count, for it seems to happen when it’s least expected. Nor is it something that can be proven. Some think they can never accept this even as a possibility. But to those I say be aware; keep your mind open. It just may happen to you.