Archive for March, 2013

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The Mushroom Report

March 24, 2013

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The year was 1986. I had just begun a new teaching position in the small suburban town of Rutherford. It had been a difficult decision to leave the school in Newark where I had taught for the previous thirteen years. However, the move had been necessary, and trepidation and uncertainty filled my heart. I felt as though I was starting over, a task that is never easy. But I met a young man that school year that taught me just how formidable starting over can sometimes be.

Ji Hwon Kwon had just arrived in America. The surprise decision to move here had been his parents, and Ji Hwon was disconsolate. At the age of thirteen when such drastic change is fraught with anxiety, he had been uprooted suddenly from all that he knew and held dear — his home, his friends, his school, his life. Everything he’d grown accustomed to disappeared. He had been plunged into a strange new reality of an unknown town filled with unfamiliar people. He heard the strange gibberish that is English and couldn’t understand. Alien food, curious music, foreign customs ranging from the peculiar to the bizarre — his existence now a swirling madhouse of the unexpected and uncomfortable. Even his name had been altered. He was now Michael.

I had empathy for this somber and angry young man. I too had once felt this crazy shift in my existence when I arrived for my life in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. My experience, as turbulent as it may have been, was at least tempered by the fact that I was older and had made the choice willingly, and I had some preparation for life in a mystifying new culture during my training. Michael had none of these advantages.

Michael’s transition into the school environment in Rutherford bore the burden of his indignation and resentment at having been torn from all to which he had been accustomed. His facial expression and body language reflected this. He made little attempt to make friends. Not that he behaved poorly; that was not in his nature. He simply refused to willingly embrace this new life that had been thrust upon him. Learning this new language and culture became an onerous task, and he approached it with reluctance and disdain. I remember him sitting in class, arms folded against his chest with a look of bewilderment and dismay on his face. He stewed in helpless frustration.

Teaching him English proved challenging. So much of one’s progress in the acquisition of a new language is determined by one’s attitude toward that which was to be learned, and this looked like an uphill battle. I took a gentle approach, fearing that pushing too hard too fast would be both counterproductive and harmful.

Little by little Michael began to pick up some necessary vocabulary and phrases. He slowly made a few friends after communication became possible. He excelled in math class — the world of numbers is a language unto itself — taking comfort in the recognizable material and the satisfaction that comes with success. The other classes must have seemed like torture for him though, sitting for hours on end amidst the indecipherable babble.

In the spring of the eighth grade year, a major assignment in my class, the required nine hundred word minimum term paper, loomed ominously. This monumental task struck fear even in the English-speaking students. How in the world would Michael be able to get through this? His lack of vocabulary and limited syntax could pose an insurmountable obstacle. How would he react to this challenge?

Students could select their own topic, and I encouraged them to choose subject matter they had an interest in. I sat down next to Michael to help him make this first decision.

“So, Michael, do you understand what we are doing?”

“Think so,” he replied in his husky voice.

“Well, first you must pick a topic to write about. Do you have any ideas?”

“No,” he replied in his normal terse manner.

“Well, what do you like? Maybe you can write about that,” I told him in my most encouraging tone.

He paused for a moment in thought and then simply said, “Mushrooms.”

“Mushrooms? So you like mushrooms? Well, that just might be a good thing to write about. Let’s get you started.”

We set about finding sources on mushrooms. The school library had an elementary picture book about mushrooms that seemed perfect. We supplemented this with an encyclopedia article or two. The next step would be the note taking followed by the writing of a rough draft. At this point Michael had a working vocabulary of maybe a hundred words or so; writing a nine hundred word paper seemed a Herculean task. To Michael’s credit, he did not seem deterred.

“Okay, Michael, now you need to get facts about mushrooms. Look in the books and write the information down. It’s very important to use your own words, though. Do you understand?”

“Understand.”

Michael began to examine the material about mushrooms with great intensity as though the future of the world as we know it was at stake. I moved on to help other students, glancing over as often as possible to make sure he didn’t begin to flounder. His focus never once wavered.

As the work continued over the following days, the students converted the notes they had taken on the index cards into a rough draft as they became ready, applying the citation method they had just learned. I circulated to check on their progress and troubleshoot any problems that emerged.  When I got to Michael, I asked to see what he had written, nervous about what I’d find given his limited ability in English. He gave me his paper, and I saw the following:

‘One mushroom is Black Trumpet mushroom. It grow in France. Black Trumpet mushroom is brown. Black Trumpet mushroom is ugly. Black Trumpet mushroom very good to eat.

Next mushroom is Fly Agaric mushroom. It grow many places. It very pretty mushroom. It round on top and red and white. Fly Agaric mushroom not good to eat. It kill you.

Another mushroom is Shiitake mushroom. It grow in my country Korea. Shiitake mushroom is round and pretty. Shiitake mushroom is good to eat. Shiitake mushroom is medicine too.’

And so it continued, paragraph after paragraph, each one simple and precise and, to be sure, in his own words. I never imagined so many kinds of mushrooms existed, but Michael had them all, with names both exotic and descriptive — Death Cap, Pig’s Ear, Shaggy Mane, Pom-Pom, Enoki, Blewit.

He had accomplished the improbable, completing his nine hundred word term paper despite his limited vocabulary. He handed it in on time with no sign of jubilation (something some of his classmates couldn’t resist). The grades for this assignment included content, mechanics, and effort. I gave some leeway for Michael’s deficiencies in grammar, but none was needed in the other areas, especially effort. Though Michael didn’t have any visible reaction upon getting his project back, I know that I was brimming with pride. I wondered if the magnitude of his accomplishment fazed him at all.

The school year ended in the usual flurry of activities for the eighth graders — class trip, dinner dance, award ceremonies. Michael graduated from eighth grade and four years later high school. I saw him only rarely during this time, and not at all after he finished high school.

One June day years later I stopped into the local barber shop for a trim before that year’s graduation. Both barbers were busy, so I sat in one of the chairs with a newspaper. I became absorbed in an article and hardly paid attention when someone sat beside me to wait for their haircut. Then I heard a deep voice coming from next to me.

“Mr. Daborn?”

I looked over to see a young man who I did not recognize.

“Yes, I am Mr. Daborn. I’m sorry, do I know you?” My mind raced trying to place his face.

“Yes, you do. I’m Michael Kwang. Do you remember me from Pierrepont School?”

My mouth must have dropped open so total was my surprise.

“Michael! Of course I remember you! How are you? What are you doing now?”

He told me — in near perfect English — that he was an engineering student at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He was doing well. He asked me how I was and about the other teachers he’d had, and we had a pleasant chat. The transformation from the reticent boy I knew into this articulate and confident young man filled me with joy, and I couldn’t help but think back to the triumph of his mushroom report all those years ago. I remember feeling even at that time that perhaps it may have been a turning point in his metamorphosis. The barber summoned me to his chair, so we had to discontinue our conversation, and by the time I was done, the other barber had taken Michael. I caught his attention and said goodbye.

As I walked out of the shop, I reflected on the wonderful journey this young man had made. I thought about the obstacles — placed in his path first by fate and then himself — and the determination it must have taken to overcome them. The brightness of the late afternoon sun that day was no match for the glow that emanated from my heart.

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Microwave Blues (Dedicated to the memory of Lisa Walsh Chesloff)

March 10, 2013

Growing old isn’t easy. Even the simplest of actions can take on an additional dimension of obstacle or burden. That seems like it should be obvious enough, but it has become reinforced for me since I have been helping out my elderly neighbors across the street, Arnold and Lisa. I am thinking about it even more today, for Lisa has just left this life.

Arnold is coping. He is ninety-four. He has survived cancer and the deaths of a young son and his first wife, so he has experience in that area. We just walked over to visit with him, bringing brownies that my wife made (his favorite) and condolences. We asked if he needed anything. He said no, he was fine. As I left, I looked around at all the things that were reminders of Lisa, and I wondered.

There are many reminders for me as well. I had become quite familiar with Lisa since Arnold fell and broke a vertebrae in his neck two Christmases ago. His mobility became severely limited. Lisa, who suffered from several incapacitating conditions herself, became his caretaker. Whenever she needed assistance, I became her “knight in shining armor,” as she put it. Lisa would call and ask me to pick up their many prescriptions at the pharmacy, and since she had a sweet tooth, side stops for Dots or Lifesavers became commonplace. Taking out the garbage and recycling twice a week became part of my routine. Once inside their house, Lisa always had many small chores that needed tending to.

I would often drive them to doctor appointments and medical tests. These undertakings required considerable time. The only  means to get downstairs from their bedroom was a shaky spiral stairway. I would gingerly spot them as they slowly made their way down. We then had to navigate our way through the narrow garage, and getting them both into the car frequently proved to be a harrowing ordeal. After I loaded their walkers into the trunk, there would be a final checking and rechecking of necessary items — garage door opener, cell phone, water bottle, medical identification information — which usually resulted in a trip back inside for a forgotten item. But in spite of all the logistical problems, they enjoyed these trips, for it was basically the only time they got out of the house. Lisa would chat away in the car, Arnold joining in occasionally, his hearing difficulties accounting for some unintentionally humorous exchanges. Once at the doctor’s office or hospital, more tricky maneuvers with the walkers ensued until we situated ourselves in the waiting room, Lisa insisting I sit right by her side.

I have fond memories of Lisa during this time, many of them lighthearted in spite of the duress of her situation. One particular experience still makes me chuckle every time I think of it.

Late one afternoon the phone rang, and it was Lisa sounding a bit desperate.

“Lisa, what’s the matter?”

“Oh, Donald, it’s my microwave. It’s not working. I don’t know what to do. I have to get supper ready for Arnold.”

“Okay, Lisa, I’ll be right over.”

I went over and took a look at the microwave. It was a monstrous old hulk of a thing, a Litton from years ago, and it indeed showed no signs of life. Since Lisa could no longer lift pots and pans to cook on the stove, the microwave had become essential to their existence. She needed to go buy a replacement.

“Okay, Lisa, where would you like to go?”

“Bed Bath and Beyond!” was her immediate response.

“Uh, I’m not so sure they have much in the way of microwaves, Lisa.”

“I’m sure they do,” she replied. “Besides, I like that store.”  So the process began of getting Lisa and her walker into my car and driving off to find a new microwave.

During the ride to Springfield, Lisa told me she wanted the same kind of microwave and that she didn’t want to spend too much. This didn’t look promising. I explained that they probably didn’t even make Littons anymore, and that prices of appliances had gone up.

“Well, all right, but it has to at least be the same size.”

Once at the store, I got the walker and Lisa out, but the ramp that led to the entrance proved to be too steep for her to handle.

“Wait here, Lisa. I’ll run in and check it out.”

I found a sales guy who looked like he would rather be anyplace else on earth rather than working in Bed Bath and Beyond. I asked him where I could find a microwave.

“Microwave?” he asked with a puzzled look. “Do we even carry them?”

I told him I was sure I didn’t know, so he directed me several aisles over to look in the kitchen section. There I found another salesperson. I asked again.

“Yes, but we only carry one model, and we’re out of it.” Wonderful.

I returned to Lisa and relayed this news, subduing any hint of “I told you so” that might in other circumstances have crept into my voice. I suggested we drive to Maplewood to the mall where both Home Depot and Target were located. She agreed, and I got her and the walker back into the car just as the sun began setting.

I pulled into the parking lot in front of Home Depot. Since it was getting late, I had Lisa wait in the car while I did some consumer reconnaissance. The Home Depot had a decent selection, but nothing special. I sprinted over to Target and into the appliance department. There I saw it.  A Panasonic, same capacity as the old Litton, and on sale to boot! Perfect!

I ran back to the car and drove up to the Target entrance, got the walker, and helped Lisa out. I quickly parked and escorted her into the store.

Now, this particular Target is the size of three football fields, so getting Lisa over to see the Perfect Microwave was no small task. Plus she kept stopping to look at other items along the way.

“Oh, these gloves look nice, don’t they?”

“Uh, yeah, Lisa, they do, but we really need to move along here.” It seemed that Lisa had found a new favorite store.

We arrived at the appropriate aisle, and I showed her the Panasonic.

“See? Same capacity as the old one. And it’s on sale.”

“Oh, good! Let’s get it!”

Both of us felt quite relieved as we drove home. Once back at the house, I had to remove the old microwave and take it outside for disposal. I tried to lift it, but it wouldn’t budge. A quick look underneath revealed the reason. Twenty years of caked up grime had fastened the old Litton like cement. A good deal of prying and grunting followed, but I finally freed it. Carrying it out turned out to be another Herculean chore, for the thing weighed a ton. That done and the counter reasonably cleaned, the project seemed about to be finished.

Not so fast. The power cord from the Panasonic was situated on the side farthest from the outlet which was behind the refrigerator. It would not reach. Not to worry, I told Lisa. I had a three-pronged extension at home.

As I rushed in the door, my wife, who by now had prepared supper, asked if I had finally finished.

“Not quite,”  is all I managed as I hustled back out with the extension.

Back across the street, the connection reached successfully, and the last step began: instructing Lisa on the use of the new microwave. I showed her how to set the power and the time and turn it on. I repeated the demonstration several times. She tried it. Nope, not quite.

“Well,” I said, “all you have to do is follow the instruction manual.”

“No,” she replied frowning, “I can never understand those darn things. Just show me again.”

Fifteen minutes later, she thought she had it. I returned home for my now-cold supper. Part way through my pasta, the phone rang. Lisa again.

“Donald, something’s wrong. I tried to heat up the meal, but it isn’t going, and a light keeps flashing.”

“OK, I’ll be right there.” My wife just rolled her eyes.

She showed me what she had done, and I pointed out that she had mistakenly hit the “child lock” button instead of the “on” button. I showed her again how to do it correctly and prepared to leave once their meal was spinning merrily in the now-functioning Panasonic.

“Oh, Donald, what would I do without my knight in shining armor?” Sigh.

Several weeks later when I went to get the garbage, Lisa told me there was a problem with the microwave. I thought perhaps a refresher lesson was in order.

“No, it’s not that. I don’t like the way it opens. The old one you didn’t have to pull open. And besides, I can’t see the buttons. I think we should return it.”

“Lisa, I really don’t think you can return it now. Let’s see what we can do.”

Not seeing the buttons turned out to be the result of poor kitchen lighting because of a small wattage bulb, easy enough to remedy. I slid the microwave closer to the edge of the counter to change the arm angle needed to pull it open. Lisa didn’t seem convinced, but she never brought it up again. I assumed all was well since subsequent dinners reached Arnold sufficiently heated, so that was the end of the microwave blues. It is just one of the many memories that will stay with me.

In Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout said, “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between.” Lisa always let me know how much she appreciated those “little things in between.” I hope she knew how much I appreciated those things that made her who she was, her undying love for Arnold, her can-do attitude in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, her indomitable spirit. Although her passing brings us sadness, I choose to remember her with joy. I will continue to go over and help Arnold as much as I can, and I’m sure he will share many of his stories of her with me. People become a part of you, and they stay a part of you even after their departure. Lisa became a part of me as I did of her, and I celebrate her memory because of that.

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Finding Faith

March 2, 2013

Faith is a word. It is defined as a strong or unshakeable belief in something, especially when there is no proof. Some people have a great deal of faith, and some have little or none. One can have faith in other people, in a religious belief, in government, or in a principle. In many ways faith is a concept that is not so easily defined for it is something that resides within the heart.

Faith is also a person. In this case it is a remarkable young woman who is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand. I have never met Faith, but she has been a revelation for me. She has helped me to regain some of my faith.

I encountered Faith early during the course of my latest obsession, Project 365. This is a website on which participants post a photograph each day for a year. These photos may be of anything, though most tend to reflect the ordinary stuff of the daily life of the person. As I browsed through them one day, I came across photographs that transfixed me. They carried me back four decades into my own past.

They were photographs of a world I had once inhabited, the world of the Peace Corps Volunteer. This is a world like no other, an invigorating, frustrating, magical, frightful, and absolutely incomparable procession of experiences and adventures that alter your life and your view of the world, and she brought it all back to me.

Faith’s photos of her life in Thailand remind me so much of mine in the Philippines all those years ago. The ones of the rice paddies and the colorfully decorated three-wheeled motorbikes. The ones of the once-unfamiliar foods that become a normal part of your being. The ones of the old women waiting by the side of the road and the long narrow boats plying their way down the rivers. The ones of the school activities both familiar and new, and most of all the smiling faces of the children.

But even more impressive than the images are Faith’s words. The caption to one photo entitled “good morning world” read: “What silence looks like. Sometimes in the early morning, you can walk down the stairs that lead to the Mekong River and stand and not hear anything. Slowly the village starts to come to life, the monks start drumming at the nearby Temple, the birds start singing, the kids are getting ready for school, and the ‘yais’ (elderly women) are making their way, slowly, to the Temple to feed the monks. There are a few moments, though, when the silence is all you can hear.”

These words mesmerized me and transported me to that riverside in the silence of that morning, and to the riverside of another day when I once listened to the silence in a far-away land. I looked back spellbound through Faith’s first year in Thailand, and it stirred my soul.

Faith shared something she wrote in her blog. It is a brilliant and beautiful piece called “It’s like waking up.” In it she speaks to those back home, those friends and family to whom she wants so badly to communicate the heart of her experience, not just the highlights and the moments captured in a picture, but something deeper, something far more meaningful. I remember this well, too, in the letters I mailed, numerous at first, then dwindling under the weight of the impossibility of sharing what Faith so perfectly describes as “what is boiling below,” failing to say what I really wanted and needed to say.

Faith found these words, though, words that I could never quite arrive at. She said, “We struggle to share the confusion, anger, perplexing loneliness that comes and goes and the peculiar struggle that comes with it all. We find out early on the handful of people back home who actually want to know about those things. For everyone else, we talk about the baffling school system, the sweet kids, the gentle grandmothers, and the quaint villages. We talk about the things that are easy to describe and easy to relate to. We talk about the uncomplicated things. Not that those things are not real, it’s just not all there is.”

She spoke too of how those of us who go through this, no matter where or when, no matter what age or gender or background, all understand, all have  a bond that unites us in this understanding of what it is below. We get it. But Faith is not discouraged in spite of her struggle to communicate the essence of this most singular experience to others. Anything but. She ended her piece with the following:

“Whatever is happening, it is good. It feels like I’m waking up from a long, restless sleep. I’m reading more, listening more, observing more, running more, eating right, taking care of my body, as well as my mind and soul. It only took 24 years, but I’m finally awake. My understandings are shifting, my perspectives are sharpening and I’m seeing what is around me with a clarity I’ve never felt before. Clarity doesn’t mean knowing something or anything completely or thoroughly. There’s no way that can be. It means knowing that despite how much I do or learn, there is always something else waiting underneath that for me to absorb. Through this lens, the following is clear to me: this life is precious. So let it take you, let the days surround you and let the minutes define you as you recognize that those minutes and those days, they are all you really have. They will fly by you, so don’t waste them. Work to understand, and learn to accept. Laugh and love those around you. Try today — try right now — to be the person you always said you would be. Make no excuses. Practice patience. Don’t wait, there’s really no time for that…”

And it is exactly this that restores my faith. Though I do not know this young woman, I have come to believe in her. In spite of her own doubts and fears, she has retained a faith in her life — indeed in life itself with all its possibilities along the unknown path that lies before her, before us all. Reading her words and seeing the images of her time in the Peace Corps, I feel a goodness in my heart replacing some of the pessimism that has crept in as I’ve grown older. Someone I’ve never even met has rekindled some of my lost hope for the prospects of real self-reflection and altruism in a time of seemingly rampant and superficial egocentrism. In this modern world where we are bombarded by stories of the Snookis and Lyndsay Lohans of this society, where so many seem so lost so much of the time, I am reassured, for I found Faith.