Posts Tagged ‘fate’

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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.

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Blood Wedding

October 21, 2011

It was to be a day of joy, the union of two good friends in marriage. When it began, I didn’t know fate would have my path cross that of a young man of such great ill fortune. I never even knew his name, but his spilled blood still stains my memory of that day.

Charlie and Lucy were to be wed in the chapel at Seton Hall University on the campus where my circle of friends had all met. Since I’d recently returned from overseas, I was in a period of transition, living in my childhood room at my parent’s house in Bergenfield. I had no car and thus was forced to take a complex and circuitous route to get to South Orange. This entailed a bus ride across the George Washington Bridge, a subway to 42nd Street, another bus from the Port Authority Terminal to Irvington, ending in a walk through Ivy Hill Park to the chapel in the center of campus.

The trip began uneventfully enough, but something went terribly awry. As the downtown A train was pulling into the 42nd St. station, it suddenly jolted to a squealing halt with most of the cars, including mine, not yet out of the tunnel. I could see through the window that the next car had made it into the station, so I went there. Since I was running late, I exited between cars despite the posted warning against doing so. As I stepped onto the platform, I saw him right there in front of me. It was an image I can’t forget.

The young man was awkwardly sitting on the floor next to the subway car in a huge pool of  blood. One leg was bent beneath him, the other pinned at the thigh between the platform and the subway car. His face was a ghastly white, his terrified eyes staring down in agonized disbelief, all the while rocking, rocking, and repeating trancelike in a low moan, “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” over and over again.

I stumbled back, both horrified and transfixed by the sight, as a transit cop rushed over and started applying a tourniquet. In numbed shock, I made my way up the steps to head for the bus terminal, peering back as a crowd gathered around the drama that was unfolding below. The bus ride to Irvington was a blur as the horrific scene replayed itself in my mind. Who was that poor guy? How could something like that happen? And so much blood — could he possibly survive?

Being with friends at the wedding was a good salve for my shaken soul, but I remained distracted. The following day, I hurried to the local newspaper vendor to buy a Daily News to see if there was any information about the incident. Indeed there was, buried way back on page 48.

The young man was from a small town in Pennsylvania. He had recently returned home unscathed from a tour of duty in Vietnam. To celebrate his safe return, he decided to go into the Big Apple, something he had never done in his short life. Finding himself on the wrong side of the track to go downtown and unfamiliar with the stairway system to cross over, he had jumped onto the tracks, run across (amazingly without contacting the deadly third rail), and was climbing up the platform wall when my train pulled in, pinning and crushing his leg. The article went on to say that the leg had to be amputated, but he was expected to survive.

As it turned out, Charlie and Lucy’s marriage did not survive, ending in divorce several years later, perhaps another victim of ill fate. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone could get through the extreme travails of war only to be maimed in that fashion back home and the odd manner in which I had come to witness it. I wonder sometimes what became of this young man, if he was bitter about what happened, or did he count his blessings to have lived.

I occasionally told this story to my students in school when discussing the role of fate in the play Romeo and Juliet. There are two sides to consider. The decisions of those involved can be seen as the direct cause of the consequences that followed. However, the series of events that placed them in the position in which they found themselves sometimes seems inexplicable but for destiny. Who knows for sure? Either way, my recollection of Charlie and Lucy’s wedding is forever entwined with the blood of an unfortunate young man on the platform of that New York subway station.

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The Vinegar Monk

October 16, 2011

This is a test.

What?

This is a test.

Whaddaya mean? What’s a test?

This. That. Everything.

Huh?!

Relax. It’s not like you’re Job, you know.

You mean… this… is a test?

Yes. If it helps, just think of it as practice. For the other ones. The harder ones.

Gulp…..

Perhaps if you spent a bit more time on your spiritual development?

Gulp….

In any event, I’ll be in touch.

Gulp….

 

Autumn had arrived. There were many events that signaled it beyond the changing of the foliage.

I had gotten off the phone with the doc, who got results from another round of tests and wanted to start me on another medication. What is this phase of life that we enter when our bodies start failing us?

Before that, I picked up from the shop our new-but-now-violated car ($1,342 violated) that was the target of an attempted theft. In my own driveway.

Before that, installed a motion sensor light by the driveway as a hopeful deterrent to further episodes (with the dubious side effect of shining into my neighbor’s bedroom window every time a breeze blows the surrounding trees).

But before that too was a weekend in the autumnal glory that is rural upstate New York (a long weekend, both of us playing hooky Monday). It was the occasion of my birthday and our anniversary, so we said what the heck and went. It was wonderful.

And before that was the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the last ever at Waterloo Village in northwest New Jersey (closed due to lack of state funding). It went out with a bang.

And even before that, it was Sidewalk Sale day in Montclair, and we, on our way to a craft fair in a park, stumbled upon it. My wife, an aficionado of such events, was off to the races, so I picked a nice bench on which to wait. Figuring she was good for at least an hour, I strolled over to the church, which was having a rummage sale on its lawn in conjunction with the sidewalk sale, and saw boxes of used books, three for a dollar; how can one go wrong? I thought I could find something to pass the time, and indeed I did, The Best American Essays of 2004. Perfect! I could read some shorter pieces without the kind of commitment I wasn’t ready to give to a novel.

I reclaimed my spot on the bench, flipped through the essays, and spotted an interesting title, “Bullet in my Neck,” noticing that it was by a poet I like, Gerald Stern. It seems that Stern and a female companion, who was driving, got lost leaving Newark airport on the way to a poetry reading and found themselves in the heart of Newark. They were stopped at a light. He looked over at her and saw that beyond her, outside her window, was a young guy with a gun pointed at her, about to squeeze the trigger. The gun misfired, but when he turned his head, he saw the guy outside his window, and his gun did not misfire. The bullet struck him in the neck. They raced off to find help and ended up at the hospital (where a guard tried to stop him from going in the wrong entrance). The bullet was lodged dangerously close to an artery, so the doctors decided it would be best to leave it be (hence the title of the essay). The heart of the essay was the aftermath of this event, the struggle with one’s desire to be understanding of the human conditions that cause such behavior versus the anger over what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-shoot-me-for, as I am now struggling with the milder what-the-heck-did-you-have-to-break-into-my-car-for.

At the Dodge festival several weeks later, I saw on the schedule that none other than the selfsame Gerald Stern was going to be reading. I attended his small-group session (somewhat ironically about poetry and disruption), and when it was over went up to him and told the story of reading his essay (my car not yet having been broken into). He was quite funny for a cantankerous old poet, and ended our brief conversation with, “And you know, the bullet is still  there!”

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

My wife Bernadette, ever the lover of esoteric cooking and food information, saw an article in the NY Times about a Benedictine monk who lived by himself in upstate New York making homemade vinegar (viewed by the outside world as a gourmet item). After it was decided that we would go away for the weekend, she went back to the article, and, Lo and Behold, that very monk’s monastery was in a town not so far from where we were going. We plotted various routes on Mapquest, and we found ourselves driving along country roads near LaGrangeville, NY, looking for the isolated sanctuary of the Vinegar Monk, which most of the locals, having been asked, had never heard of. Finally, in a small roadside convenience store a customer, looking for all the world like a Mountain Man, overheard my query to the clerk and pointed us in the right direction. Several miles later, there it was, a small sign at the entrance of a winding dirt road leading into the woods.

After driving up the narrow road which was punctuated by small religious statuary on posts, we arrived at a farmhouse in a somewhat overgrown yard with dogs barking and chickens and cats running about, suspiciously eying these intruders of their bucolic world. The farmhouse (which had crosses on it; it must be the place) had no public looking “entrance,”  so we found ourselves standing around wondering what to do next when we heard tapping coming from one of the upstairs windows.

Moments later, Brother Victor-Antoine D’Avila-Latourrette appeared, bald headed and wearing a cassock and sandals, one’s very image of a monk. He invited us in, and we sat in his dark and rather musty parlor. He was genuinely hospitable in spite of being busy (“Please excuse me; I was making pesto sauce for the Christmas Festival”). He told us, in his slight French accent,  all about his vinegar making (using a twelfth-century recipe from France), the writing of the Times article, the interns from nearby Vassar who sporadically worked on the farm with him (and from where the writer of the Times article came), how he ended up being alone at the monastery, and what life was like on a small farm in upstate New York. He showed us his chapel, a simple but elegant stone-walled room off the back of the farmhouse, and then came the vinegar.

He had an assortment of bottles, some white, some red, several in “fancy” Christmas bottles (“Oh, they’re so hard to come by”). Bernadette was ready to buy, but he insisted that first we smell (Wow!!) and then taste using a teaspoon from his kitchen. And indeed this was special stuff, each handcrafted batch having its own distinct personality described with obvious love by Brother Victor. On a table were some old and dusty cookbooks which Bernadette discovered were written by him, a 1966 graduate of Columbia University. She bought one of them, too, with peasant recipes from France interspersed with homey religious quotes. Two of my favorites: “For a small reward a man will hurry away on a long journey, while for eternal life many will hardly take a single step.” (Thoms A Kempis) and “Three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes, anxiety over tomorrow’s problems, and ingratitude for today’s blessings.” (William Arthur Ward). One book, which I was tempted to get, was entitled Twelve Months of Monastery Soups.

At that point, Brother Victor, almost apologetically for what he seemed to consider his lapse of social grace, asked what our names were, and when he heard “Bernadette,” he became nothing short of ecstatic. It turns out that he was born not far from Lourdes, and his grandfather knew THE Bernadette. He ushered us back into the chapel to show us the special shrine he had for Saint Bernadette as well as other very old religious icons including an eleventh century statue of Mary. We then went outside to view the Grotto of Bernadette in front of the farmhouse, followed by a tour of his little farm (“Oh, I’m so glad I came out here with you; I left the water running in the hose for the sheep!”). He showed us the vegetable garden and the herb garden, all the while telling us stories of the difficulties of running the farm on his own and trying to make vinegar as well as keep up his religious life. He had been selling vinegar through the nearby Millbrook Winery, but it got to be too much. Once a prominent restauranteur from California had found out about him and wanted to fly him out (“But I’ve never been to California, I told him. I’m a monk; I don’t get out much”).

We finally bid him adieu and drove off in wonderment over the unexpected and magical interlude we had just experienced. Miles from New Jersey. Light years from Newark. The next two days were filled with walks through the beautiful autumn woods, drives past pastures with mellow cows and meandering stone walls, my upcoming rendezvous with medical consternation still days away.

Yes. The three enemies of personal peace: regret over yesterday’s mistakes (attempted car thefts, bullets in the neck), anxiety over tomorrow’s problems (the ever-increasing medications and the encroaching old age it symbolizes), and ingratitude for today’s blessings (Bernadette’s mysterious and ceaseless love, the golden leaves blowing about).

Ah, the connectivity of Life.

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Ruth, Imogene, and a Simple Twist of Fate

September 10, 2011

I don’t think I ever really had girlfriends, at least not in the traditional sense. There were, however, girls whose journeys through life became entangled with mine for brief periods through, I believe, fate (I was far too inept to have accomplished it on my own). This is the story of one such girl that had an odd twist to it. This is the story of Ruth.

I met Ruth during my freshman year at college. Our relationship was quite unexpected and totally inexplicable. I think I was pretty much of a dorky guy. She was, to put it simply, a knockout. If we were cars, I would have been someone’s beat-up old nondescript brown Buick. Ruth was a sleek new Lamborghini. How I ever ended up with her is beyond me.

We met through a friend that knew her from high school, and the details of our initial encounter are foggy at best. But there are several episodes of our time together that are still crystal clear.

I had been newly exposed to the world of jazz through my roommate, who was a jazz drummer. I listened to every album I could get my hands on. New York City was a hotbed of jazz, and it was just a short ride away. I read that Thelonious Monk was playing at the Village Vanguard, so I asked Ruth if she’d like to go.

Now, I was not a “dater” in any sense of the word, nor was I very sophisticated about what a night in the city entailed. I had never been to the Vanguard, either, so each step of the way was a new discovery. Like paying an exorbitant amount to park. Like realizing there were such things as cover charges and minimums. The show itself was terrific, and I even had a chance encounter with Monk in the men’s room. Of course Ruth looked fabulous. But when the check came, I didn’t have enough cash. It was beginning to feel like one of those scenes in a Woody Allen movie with the bumbling protagonist stammering his way through excuses and being physically tossed out of the joint. Ruth, however, immediately perceived the quandary I was in and, in her cool manner, slipped me the necessary money. She had saved my hide, and better yet, didn’t even make a big deal about it on the way home. What a gal!

Another memorable evening occurred during New Year’s Eve. My parents, quite uncharacteristically, decided to have a party in our decidedly 1950’s Goodwill decor basement. I was living on campus, and my life there was quite separate from that of home, so no one had met Ruth or even heard of her until I announced that I was bringing her. The “guests” were an odd assortment of relatives and neighbors, mostly older, and when I walked in with Ruth, mouths literally dropped (and perhaps a drink if I remember correctly). I even heard a “Va-va-voom” uttered by one of my rather intoxicated uncles in the back. Ah, the stories that must have been told far into the night after we departed.

Later that spring, Ruth suddenly moved to Florida. She wrote to me sporadically. Once, in a creative attempt to keep the flames of our relationship burning, I wrote her a poem/letter on a napkin. That was a big hit, but after a few months, I didn’t hear from her again.

Years went by. I graduated, went overseas in the Peace Corps, came back, and began both my teaching career and married life. Years turned into decades. Ruth was firmly and irrevocably in the past. Or so I thought.

Each June at the school in which I taught an award was given to one graduating student, second in prestige only to Valedictorian. It’s in honor of a legendary principal of the school (the one, as a matter of fact, who hired me–another exercise in fate those who know of my life are familiar with) who was known for her kindness to all and an intense belief in the betterment of oneself through education regardless of the obstacles. Not a stray dog or cat would go uncared for in the vicinity of the school, and she had a special place in her heart for those who exhibited such kindness themselves. I had been in charge of this award since its inception years ago, and one of my duties was to write and deliver the presentation speech at graduation.

This particular year when the staff met to nominate students for this award, one name came up immediately and repeatedly. She was an extraordinary young lady, the sweetest, kindest, most genuine kid you could ever imagine. As soon as Imogene’s name came up, there was little further discussion needed. Everyone loved Imogene. Everyone admired and respected her for the humble way she had risen to the top of the very tough mountain she had to climb. She had been raised by her grandmother because of a difficult situation within her family. Imogene won the award, and I was glad, for it would be a pleasure to write and deliver this speech.

Graduation night. The students marched in. Imogene was in the front row, directly in front of the podium on the stage. It was time to present the award, the students not knowing ahead of time who had won. As I delivered my speech, I saw Imogene, listening intently as she always did to everything. I saw her grandmother sitting in the parents’ section. And when I finally announced her name, I watched the stunned look on her face as she sat there (someone so pure as she never would think she is the winner). Her fellow students cheered from the heart, for they knew how worthy she was even if she didn’t. As she walked up in disbelief, the auditorium spontaneously stood in an ovation. I could have swept her up in my arms and hugged her.

The scene after the students marched out to Pomp and Circumstance was always a madhouse as parents, faculty, students, and assorted relatives and friends packed the hallway on the way to the cookie and juice “reception” that followed in the cafeteria, so I didn’t get to speak to Imogene or her grandmother. During the course of the year, I had gotten to know her grandmother, who in her own quiet way watched over Imogene like a mother bear over her cub. I remember the first time I met the woman at Back to School night for the parents in September. She came up to me after the session was over and introduced herself (not by her name, but as “Imogene’s grandmother”) and exhorted me, kindly but with an unmistakable inner strength, to take good care of her little girl. The day after graduation, she sent an e-mail thanking me.

I e-mailed her back, thanking her and telling her again how strongly I felt about this wonderful kid she had raised. The secretary had told me that she wanted a copy of the speech I delivered, so I included that. School ended, and off I went to my annual Cape Cod interlude. Once home, I checked my e-mail to find this:

“Dear Mr. Daborn:

This is something I want to share with you: I have a sister-in-law whom I adore.  She is beautiful and brilliant.  She means so much to me.  It’s not often that you get an in-law in life that you love unconditionally.  I e-mailed her your speech.  Life is so strange.  And at times we do see that  we are spiritually connected.  She happens to love Imogene a lot. I know you like Imogene too.  My sister-in-law, Ruth, told me that she dated a young man that was a Freshman in Seton Hall University who went into the Peace Corps  and he was one of the nicest men she ever met.  Why he even bought her tickets to a jazz concert because he knew she loved jazz.  She remembers going to his home on New Years Eve. She would not be surprised if he became a teacher.  He had it in him so to speak.   She moved away to Florida.  Her last name was Francis, Ruth Francis.  Ring a bell? She said your speech was eloquent and so well written.  Since she is a very good writer, take that as a compliment.  Imogene getting you as a teacher was not only luck but meant to be.  Thank you so much. “

I nearly fell out of the chair! Fate had woven this pattern with such an intricate and surprising design. I wrote her back, telling her that indeed I was that freshman at Seton Hall, and that I remembered Ruth clearly. I asked that my regards be sent along and concurred that fate is often at work in strange and unusual ways. Grandmother responded one more time, giving me a brief history of the forty-some years since I had known Ruth, how she moved to Florida, married the grandmother’s younger brother and became part of a husband-wife comedy team (this sounds like a Vonnegut novel) but then realized the financial instability and went into advertising, ending up as executive vice-president of a big agency (she was responsible for the Verizon “can you hear me now” campaign). At one point the grandmother was thinking about having her come in to school and speak to the class on how to make TV commercials.

“Wouldn’t that have been something!” she said.

Yes, indeed, it would have.