Archive for October, 2012

h1

She Said, “Hey, Boo.”

October 28, 2012

Earlier this week I watched an episode of the PBS series American Masters entitled “Hey, Boo.” It told the story of Harper Lee, her writing of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and the making of the subsequent movie version. This book, one which I believe lays as great a claim as any to be the Great American Novel, is one with which I am intimately familiar having taught it in my eighth grade English classes for many, many years. As I watched her story unfold and listened to lines of the book¬†read by a host of authors who had been influenced by this masterpiece, waves of emotion washed over me, and I realized that teaching this book may well have been the finest hour of my teaching career.

Countless students told me that this was the first book that had ever really meant anything to them (and for a few the first they had actually read). There are those students who now as adults have told me it is still the best book they’ve ever read. There can be no greater testament to the power of a work of literature than when it affects its readers permanently. The plaudits of authors such as James Patterson, Wally Lamb, James McBride, Richard Russo, and Anna Quindlen as well as the likes of Roseann Cash, Tom Brokaw, and Oprah merely affirmed what I already intuitively knew. This is a great book.

Some might take issue with the relevance of a story set in a small town in the deep South in the 1930’s, but I believe otherwise. The relevance lives in the heart of the story and its characters and the universality of the experiences and themes. After all, what kid growing up in an American town didn’t have that one spooky house in the neighborhood inhabited by someone who struck fear in small hearts? What kid didn’t spend at least some time living in a world dominated by imagination? We all needed to discover that there are some folks (maybe even you) who are simply different from everyone else. We all felt the tremendous impact of finding out that some people are not at all what we thought they were. Most importantly, every one of us as kids must go through the struggle of trying to figure out this odd adult world with all its injustices into which we must one day grow.

To Kill a Mockingbird, after years of revisions and additions to the original manuscript, finally got¬†published in 1960. I was twelve years old at that time and knew little of the turmoil of the civil rights struggle in our country. Reading this novel helped put the pieces of this complicated puzzle together for me as it did for many others. It did so quite effectively, not by pontificating, but rather through the magic of the author’s wonderful story-telling ability and the marvelously enchanting voice of the narrator, Scout. What starts out as a young girl telling how her older brother broke his arm ends up being a complex tale of intertwined lives and social upheaval.

I have such vivid memories of my classes during the reading and discussion of Mockingbird during those years. One time I re-enacted the scene of Tom Robinson getting shot seventeen times as he tried to “escape” in an attempt to impress upon my students what was really going on here. My room was attached to the next one, my friend’s math class, connected by a small hallway that had old-fashioned doors with window panes in the top half. My door was located in the center of the front of the room between the two blackboards. This door became the wire fence against which I absorbed, with great dramatic spasms, each of the seventeen shots which the class counted aloud. So involved was I in the heat of the moment that it took more than a few “shots” for me to notice that the entire math class in the other room had swiveled around to witness this travesty of justice as it came to its tragic end.

As the novel came to its conclusion, something I always hated to have happen, I often would read some of the singularly beautiful and moving passages in the last chapter aloud. This was (and still is) one of my favorites:

“We came to the street light on the corner, and I wondered how many times Dill had stood there hugging the fat pole, watching, waiting, hoping. I wondered how many times Jem and I had made this journey, but I entered the Radley front gate for the second time in my life. Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”

It always took a supreme effort to will myself not to be overwhelmed by the emotion that welled up inside me as I read. The classes would sit there as if mesmerized. I believe they too did not want the story to come to an end.

Later we would watch Gregory Peck’s brilliant portrayal of Atticus in the movie. Together we would laugh at Scout rolling in the tire, hold our breaths when Jem and Dill appeared to be in harm’s way in the Radley yard, and marvel over how transparent Mayella’s frenzied testimony and denial seemed. One year I had a student who was the spitting image of the young actress who played Scout (something she must have tired of hearing me say). But each year, as good as the movie version is, the classes would concur that the book was even better.

The discontinuation of the teaching of this novel is one of my greatest regrets as a teacher. This became necessary for several reasons. Our eighth grade English curriculum, already bursting at the seams, had Romeo and Juliet added to it, moved down from sophomore year. The increased emphasis on standardized testing further swelled the load with the need for more and more specialized preparation. Another unfortunate element emerged when less and less of the students kept up with the reading at home for various reasons. The de-emphasis and then ultimate phasing out of Mockingbird resulted. I cringe at the thought of all the bright young minds that followed not getting the opportunity to be enriched by Harper Lee’s gift. I hope that they came to read it by some other means.

Yesterday as I prepared for the arrival of the impending Hurricane Sandy, I heard the melodious song of a mockingbird perched on the highest branch of a tree in my neighbor’s yard. It made me think anew of the documentary and all my memories of teaching this novel. I thought of Atticus’s words to Jem about not killing a mockingbird. I thought of all of the trials and tribulations involved in learning this and all the other life lessons that Jem and Scout encountered. I thought about the elation of having shared with so many this story of facing adversity and eventual redemption through courage and integrity.

But above all else, this is a story of discovery — discovery about oneself, about those around you, about the world. Perhaps this is best captured in Scout’s simple utterance when she first saw her unknown benefactor. She simply said, “Hey, Boo.” Anna Quindlen called these “two of the best words put into any book by any writer,” and I agree with her. Those who have not yet read the book should do so, and you will discover why. I especially hope young readers continue to make their own discoveries through the eyes of Scout in this wonderful and eternally fulfilling novel. If this happens, Mockingbird will live on, and the world will better for it.

h1

Watching My Father Die

October 25, 2012

From the kitchen I could hear the TV.

He sat before it for hours,

not watching.

The TV just passed the time.

He had no choice.

.

The shows paraded before him

in a fog of partial comprehension,

and he, unable to change the channel

even if he wanted to, sat,

waiting to die.

.

I too had sat alone before the TV,

paralyzed by my fear,

trapped by my anxiety.

The shows paraded before me,

but I comprehended all too well,

I, who had a choice.

.

So I went to his house

and busied myself with jobs

trying to fashion a farewell

that he’d understand.

I’d look in on him,

his eyes dazed

as the TV chattered on.

.

There was so much I wanted to tell him,

things held inside for years,

at first chased there

by the storms of my youth,

and later because

I knew no way

to let them out.

.

I didn’t know how to tell him

I loved him,

at least not in words.

Instead, I mowed the lawn,

I patched the porch cement,

and still I held it all inside

as I watched my father die.

h1

The Girl with the Shirt That Said Blah, Blah, Blah

October 21, 2012

I watched her

from across the room,

a smile rising on her lips,

wry at first,

starting in one corner

as the ideas made their way in,

then spreading widely,

brightly,

unafraid to show

understanding.

h1

When I’m Sixty-Four

October 7, 2012

“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…” This line is from the famous Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-four” which came out in 1967. I was nineteen years old at the time. It is 2012, and I am just days from sixty-four, so the “many years from now” part no longer applies. What once was inconceivable has come to pass.

Sixty-four. How could this possibly be?

Oscar Wilde once said, “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.” I think I know what he meant. When I look out upon the world, I do not see a balding, gray-haired old guy, for inside I am still the me that always was, just with more experience and hopefully some additional wisdom. Whenever I see photos of my high school classmates, I think to myself, “Man, does he look old!” not thinking of myself in that way. But each time I look in the mirror, I am forced to face the shocking reality: I, too, am old.

One piece of wisdom on which I still need to work is that which Henri Frederic Amiel voiced so well: “To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” I am finding this out first-hand; aging gracefully is a far more challenging pursuit than I had thought.

Lately I think I often act like a cantankerous old coot in spite of that ever-youthful internal image I continue to entertain. I can no longer run because my knees and hip object quite adamantly. Watching Saturday Night Live is out of the question, or if I do manage to attempt it, I am snoring on the couch by the end of the opening monologue. This same guy who got as close to the stage as possible at CBGB to listen to Richard Hell and the Voidoids now had to retreat to the back of the balcony at the Wellmont because he couldn’t handle the volume of The National. My lifelong role as a teacher has changed radically from a full-time professional to a part-time volunteer. I get senior citizen fare on NJ Transit. Well, okay, that last one isn’t so hard to take. But these changes snuck up on me, and what once seemed slow and almost imperceptible is now quite obvious and unavoidable. But in spite of this, I cannot ignore this ageless me that dwells within.

Several of my closest friends are in the same leaky boat as I. Recently I burned a CD mix for one of them (at least I am still conversant in that arena) composed of pivotal songs, benchmarks along the way of our many years together. Though several of the artists I included met their untimely demise before their time (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones), many others such as Neil Young, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Bob Dylan, and of course Bruce are still out there, vital and creative to this day despite their years.

I think of my father, too. When he was sixty-four, I was twenty-eight. He had arthritis and a heart condition, but he and I put a new roof on my house (or rather, I helped him put it on; he did twice what I could manage). The clear conclusion: age in itself is not necessarily the obstacle some (me?) make it out to be.

I had a difficult time deciding on which Neil Young song to put on that CD for my friend. It turned out to be “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black).” I’m not sure whether or not my subconscious meant to slip in a subliminal subversive message by including lyrics that proclaim, “It’s better to burn out that it is to rust,” though I choose to content myself with the idea that rust is not necessarily an aspect of age but rather disuse. As I long as I make myself useful in some way, I’ll at least retain my immunity to that particular fate.

I prefer to focus on a different line in the song which says, “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.” Although the picture may only look like that of a sixty-four year old man to most, perhaps it really does contain more than meets the eye. Look inside for a bit. Just maybe you’ll see a glimpse of that young guy still in there.