Lady, Who Will Teach You?

Hey, kiddo, who taught you?

Did you slide your toes, all socked-up, onto your Daddy’s shiny black shoes, and dance to Frank Sinatra in the living room—Frank crooning, your Daddy grinning, and you feeling just like the princess, your tiny hands engulfed in Daddy’s big ones, your eyes carefully watching watching every footfall?

Did your mama take you out into the backyard and teach you to bat, taking no mercy, her wiffleball whizzing by you until you learned to connect?

Did you have a baking granny, one with infinite patience, who let you grease the sheets and mix the dough and drop glomping teaspoonsful onto slick greased surfaces…carefully let you spatula off the hot cookies, and let you be the first to taste test?

Did your big brother’s girlfriend fuss over you, braiding your hair and rouging your cheeks and telling you that shade of blue, honey, was surely your color?

Did your teacher, seeing you were quiet and bookish, slip you books…whispering, “I think you’ll like this; let me know!”

Or did your school days make you cringe or blush? Was there more silence than guidelines in those young days? Were your big people better avoided than engaged with?

Did you figure things out yourself?

How did you learn, kiddo, how to be a girl?


Who taught you to make the transition?

Did you have The Talk in plenty of time; did you put the accoutrements in the closet, looking forward, with intense excitement and almost equal dread, to the big change that was coming? When the day came, did you celebrate or commiserate, or were you just embarrassed?

Did your mother take you shopping, and out to lunch,–someplace grown up and glamorous?

Later, did that brash freckle-faced kid turn his fingers into man legs and girl legs and show you just how they fit together—kind of like Legos! he said—and crash open the glass innocence door, leaving you let down and disappointed at the blunt anatomy of the thing?

Did your coach encourage you to push yourself, to fight to reach potential?

Did the librarian smile when she saw you, telling you about the new books that just came in?

Did boys hoot and catcall when you walked by; did their comments bring you to tears?

Did someone tell you to reach, to stretch, that you could do it, that success was coming? Did someone tell you seven ways to reach your goals?

Or did someone laugh when they heard your plans; getting above our raising, are we, did they say?

When your dreams floated to the surface, was someone there to pop them, or did someone help you locate a breeze to float them on?

Did you find it in a book, in the advice from a cute but superior boy, or figure it out yourself?

Young woman, who taught you to be a teen?


Who took your hand to teach you?

Did you feel soft palms or brusque bruising?

Did your first shy explorations meet with respect or ridicule, trust or lust?

Did you have a long, evolving relationship that let you bloom and grow? Did you have brief, abrupt encounters that left you a little sick, a little longing?

Did you settle in or turn away?

Lovely one, who taught you how to be a lover?


Did someone feed your dreams and say, of course you’re smart enough, strong enough, brave enough? Did someone point out that you have all the markings of a leader?

Did you find expansive teachers, or did you crash into closed doors, stumble on high hurdles?

Did you reach and reach and reach? Did you have to believe, at last, that the time had come to settle?

Did you try one path only to realize it was heading the wrong way, and then forge a whole new journey?

Did you love the life you chose, or did you nurse regrets?

Who helped you to realize what it means to be a woman?


Did you find true mentors? Did your work satisfy? Did you choose to raise children, tend a home, to open yourself up to fur babies, to the world of nurture?

Did you learn to cook so well that others angled for invitations to your groaning board?

Did your work energize you? Did you stumble with tiredness some nights?

Did you deepen your friendships and spend happy nights dealing out cards, pouring some wine, singing along with the tape deck, confiding over thickly iced slices of chocolate cake?

Were there lonely midnights when you wondered why and why not?

Did you develop the fine art of letting go, of saying farewell with kindness and joy, of waving that dear one off with a grin and a thumb firmly up before returning to a newly solitary place?

Did you have shoulders to lean on, wise guides to whisper truth, faithful ones who let you be you, scars and gifts and all?

Or did you think, bitterly, I guess this is all on me, again?

How did you learn to be the grownup you always wanted to be?


And now, dear friend, how will we learn to age, to wrap up our career dreams and settle into our family realities and cope with our aches and the pains…and our losses? Can we uncover the new joys that a new age brings?

Is there a teacher out there dancing, drawing, painting, singing…one who has gone a ways before us, but who will come on back to extend a hand?

How will we explore this unknown land?

Who will teach us to be old?

Teaching and Learning

Dell pulls onto the highway, past the one-lane wait where the long stretch of road is being re-paved, and she steps on the gas. The car moves forward, smooth and free, and she turns on NPR. What’s interesting this morning? she wonders.

“…they were locked in the hold?” asks the commentator.

The guest, identified as some kind of government inspector, demurs. They are not sure yet, he says; and they are still looking for survivors.

“The five they found,” the commentator presses, “are all crew members?”

“Yes…” says the guest reluctantly.

And Dell realizes only slowly that the others, the ones locked in the boat, were trapped in a fire.

A picture flares into her mind…of people stuck and terrified, of flames and screams and pounding pleadings at a locked door.

She turns off the radio and rides in silence.

She feels gut-punched.


Her first class is on the main campus in a little industrial city. Today is a grammar refresher, and the students sigh and roll their eyes.

“I know,” she always says, “that this is basic and that you know this stuff. But going through it gives us a common language. Then I won’t confuse you when I write comments on your papers.”

She reviews parts of a sentence. What a noun is. Verbs and tenses. Subjects and objects. When to use “I” and when to use “me.”

They groan and shift and they write down every word she puts on the white board.

Because they don’t all know this stuff: they have gaps and empty knowledge spaces, some of them. They guard their borders fiercely, but every once in a while, a student will sit back with that look on her face—the look that says, “Now I get it. Now I know how THAT works.”

She puts them in small groups—it’s an English class after all,–and they come up with nouns and verbs and create sentences. They add ridiculous strings of adjectives and adverbs, words and phrases; they craft sentences a whole page long. They forget their coolth, and they get silly.

They work so hard, and they finish so much, that she lets them loose ten minutes early.

On the way out, one of the young women, one of the most languid and bored of all the students, stops and shows Dell pictures on her smart phone. Her dog has just had its first litter. She’s thinking, this student is, how hard it’s going to be to give the puppies up. She’s talking to her mom about maybe keeping one, the little one with the white spot on its nose.

Dell comments on the sweetness of the puppies, and the student smiles. Then the veneer slides back into place, and she nonchalantly says goodbye and saunters away.


Dell’s next class is on a satellite campus, thirty miles away. She’ll drive on the four lane partway, veer off onto country roads, wind up on a four-lane again just as she gets to the satellite.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The tires thrum. She decides to see if there’s anything uplifting on the radio.

She turns it on to hear about another mass shooting. Semi-automatic rifle; seven people dead, including the shooter, who had lost his job that afternoon.


The students at the satellite campus are unabashedly NOT city kids. They are enthusiastic and cheerful. Dell starts going through the grammar review. “I know you know this, but…” she begins.

She writes the definition of a sentence on the board. They talk about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs.

“Wait, wait!” says one student in back, busily taking notes, so Dell pauses. In the quiet, one of the students slaps her hand on the table in front of her. She is a senior in high school, taking college courses through a special program the state offers.

She says, “I am SO GLAD we’re doing this! I forgot all this stuff!”

“Exactly,” says the young man next to her.

The students eagerly break into groups. They work up until the very minute class is over, and they stop on the way out to tell her what they’re doing on the weekend. One, an older student, waits until the others are gone.

“I think,” she says to Dell, hesitant and nervous, “I might want to be a writer.”

Dell can see how hard that was for the student to say, and they talk for a bit about some of the joys and the challenges of a writing life.


The next morning, Dell heads—a true Road Scholar—to another satellite campus, this one in a suburb of the large city. The radio is filled with news of a devastating hurricane, of the dead and the missing, of whole cities flattened, of people stranded with no food or fresh water.

Dell grips the wheel, white-knuckled, feeling sick. So much pain. So much tragedy. Chaos reigns, and she is helpless. People suffer, and she is powerless and sickened.


Many of the students in this class were born in other countries. They wear, some of them, ethnic dress, and they talk with various lilts and inflections, and they are, many of them, very, very anxious about succeeding in this class.

This is a lab session and they work at computers, answering questions about Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay. The students have many questions, both about the content of the assignment and about the computer, and Dell works her way as quickly as she can through the raised hands, directing and reassuring. She smiles at Nadja, a tiny young woman with a gauzy head wrap and a soft, soft voice.

Before she answers Nadja’s question, Dell rolls her head and stretches, and she realizes that Edwina, the tall, elegant Ghanaian with the warm British accent, is working with the students in the front row. As Dell cracks her neck, Edwina shows Deanna how to access the submission portal on the class website. Deanna sees it; her eyes light and she sits back and grins.

Dell bends down to listen to Nadja’s question. She explains how to complete the assignment, and she helps the student open a Word document.

“But I don’t know,” Nadja says, “when I am done, how to get it to you.”

Dell tells her not to worry. Just concentrate on getting the work done. Then they’ll submit it together.

Nadja nods, troubled, but she peers at the screen, pauses, and begins, slowly, to type.

All heads are bent over keyboards, all fingers flying. Dell gives Edwina a thumbs up thank you, then retreats back to the instructor’s space. She keeps an eye out for raised hands as she grades discussion board posts.

Just before class ends, Nadja raises her hand. “I am done,” she whispers, and she asks Dell to check her work. Her answers are thorough and thoughtful, and she has nailed the MLA format.

Dell tells her that, and Nadja smiles.

Then, together, they save the file and close it, open the college website and click onto the class page. Dell shows her how to open the assignment submission link, and suddenly Nadja brightens. Her fingers fly; she attaches the documents; she hits submit.

The class packs up to go, and she waves them off, reminding them of Monday’s work, and wishing them a restful weekend. They say goodbye and hurry out the door.

Dell turns to gather her things, and then she realizes that Nadja has turned back. She is standing, uncertain, in the classroom doorway, and Dell hurries over.

“What is it, Nadja?” she asks. “Can I help?”

But the girl is not troubled. She turns her face to Dell, and it’s illuminated, glowing, kindled with hope.

“The computer,” whispers Nadja. “I understand now. Teacher! Thank you.”

And she bows just a little, a head-nod really, and hurries off.

Dells watches as Nadja wrestles the big door open, a tiny woman in beautiful flowing clothes, a strong, determined woman who is going to succeed. And then Dell turns and hurries to the instructor’s desk, her back to the door as she packs up her things.

She climbs into the car for the forty mile trip home. It is a sunny day, and she cracks the windows open just a little, letting a breeze dance as she drives. She leaves the radio off.

She is not in denial. Dell’s eyes are open; she knows what’s out there. But just for today, she’ll ride home on the power of hope.

Fifth Grade Fire; Fifth Grade Ice


Martin’s House of Books

Most days she loved her work. She loved the ‘standing on the threshold’ tentative bravery of the sixth graders she taught: their readiness to explore new territory. She liked searching out accessible translations of classic works–a modern Odyssey, perhaps,– and sorting through the latest young adult offerings to find the finest, most meaningful, most compelling pieces to share with her class. She even liked grading their essays, although with two a week, it was a never-ending chore. But she saw their growth, in thought, in craft, in expression.

That was most days. Some days nothing clicked and many things grated. The students snickered and tweeted; parents complained; the school administration badgered her with reminders of soon-due reports and the necessity of administering state-mandated testing during precious class time.

On those days, she looked at her students, who were not looking back, and doubted she was even making a dent. She pondered how to respond civilly but cogently to the note from the parent who thought her son’s English homework was taking precious time away from his basketball participation. She got out her big paper calendar and tried to see how she could fit the damned tests into the schedule of lessons and still cover all the essential topics. And she wondered why she was pouring herself into this thankless, thankless job.

On those days, she wished life came with a backdoor which she could just walk out for a while, leaving all the hassling behind.

On those days, she packed up her things after the school day ended and went to Martin’s House of Books.

She’d leave her car at home, dumping the heavy bag of schoolwork in the corner by the china cabinet, and put her canvas shopping bag, neatly folded and waiting on her desk for just these excursions, into her purse. And then she’d walk the half mile to Martin’s, down the hill, past where the neatly creepy gothic manse perched, and onto Alder Avenue, a working class street with bars and resale shops, automotive supply retailers, convenience stores, and sturdy old family homes.

It was in one of those sturdy, broad-porched houses that Martin Dempsey had his bookstore.

She always stopped on the porch to look at the clearance books; they stayed on the little shelf centered in front of the picture window until they sold. Some had been there since the day she discovered the shop. She’d open one of them–a vintage copy, say, of James Michener’s Hawaii–and hold it up to her nose: musty and crisp all at once. The pages were yellowed with age, and finely spotted.

She’d pull on the screen door and go inside. The house had no vestibule. A step through the door took her right into the first common room. The stairs stared right at her; Martin sat at his desk just to her right. And everywhere there were books.

The cookbooks lined the facing wall, and she always browsed through those first. She could spend an evening with a good cookbook, and if it was a cookbook memoir–well, she’d turn off her phone. She loved the classic food memoirists–MFK Fisher, Gladys Taber–and she liked the sassy new blogger-type writers–I Loved I Lost I Ate Spaghetti; Lunch in Paris: a Love Story with Recipes.

She’d say hello to Martin and survey the cookbooks, checking to see what was new. Well, new to Martin–all of his books were used, of course; rarely did he offer anything printed in the last year.

While she looked, Martin would slide off his stool behind the desk, and, as he put it, “pop into the kitchen.” He’d put the tea kettle onto his gas stove. This was Martin’s actual kitchen; he lived in the bookstore, and often she could smell a delicious roasting dinner. He lived alone, Martin did, —alone with thousands of books— but he believed in what he called “real meals”, and he made good use of the cookbooks on his shelves.

By the time she had explored the cookbooks–maybe setting aside a Jacques Pepin or something by Alice Waters–the tea was steeping in Martin’s little turquoise ceramic pot, a pot which had been his mother’s. He would bring out two sturdy mismatched mugs from the local pottery–one might have hand-painted pansies, the other a rustic plaid pattern,–and a delicate china plate. One of the things she liked so much about Martin, one of the things they shared, was a reverence for everyday objects with history. He used his mother’s dishes, things he’d eaten from as a child, that reminded him of that special woman. He made his living sharing the literature from the past century–sometimes, his books were even older than that.

There’d be two cookies on the china plate, large flat cookies, golden, sugar-studded, crispy brown on the edges. The cookies crunched and exploded; they were all butter and sugar, outrageous flavor. Martin made them once a week and shared them, he assured her, only with his most cherished customers.

They would settle in, with their mugs of Earl Grey, for a chat; she sat on a folding chair on one side of the counter, and he climbed back onto his stool behind it. One of the cats (there were two; the other was a woman-hater) came and curled up under her chair. It would yowl softly, hopelessly, wanting a chunk of cookie, knowing that would probably never happen. The tea and the food sat next to the adding machine he used for a cash register. He took cash and he took checks, Martin did; he didn’t deal in plastic. She could leave her credit cards, her debit card, at home.

Martin, who was cranky, opinionated, and very, very kind, would prompt her. “What,” he would ask, “are the little shits up to now?”

She would talk it through; Martin had taught high school history for 25 years, and he would guide her so that she didn’t stumble down into the land of misery. She would start out bemoaning the woeful receptivity of modern children to literature and thoughtful inquiry. And he would agree. But by the time she was finished, she’d be acknowledging that the latest project, in which the children wrote letters to characters or illustrated book jackets, was actually working quite well.

Martin would listen carefully. He was an odd looking man with parts that didn’t quite match. He was tall, but his face was round except for a jutting chin. He had slender shoulders and strongly muscled arms. His eyes were the piercing blue found in the Irish isles he loved so much. He had straight lank hair, gray and brown and white, and it fell, a limp bang, into his eyes.

These days, he seldom left his shop; a friend came in on Wednesday mornings and spelled him so he could take his big old muscle car out, do his shopping, pay his bills,– which he did in person, not by mail, if possible. He went to St. Nicholas Church’s 8 AM Mass on Sundays. In his youth, he had served in Viet Nam, and afterwards, he had not come home; he had gone to Ireland, to the Pacific Northwest, to Nova Scotia, back to Ireland. Had there been someone special there?

She wondered.

He came home finally, got married, got his schooling, took a teaching job. They’d never had children, and somewhere in that net of years, his wife had left. He retired early to care for his mother; she had left his father, too, but she moved into a house–this house–two doors down from the old man.

Martin kept his father updated throughout his mother’s illness. The old man brought the dog to visit and took care of his wife’s garbage and yard work. She slipped away in the middle of one night, without fuss or bother, as Martin nodded beside her bed.

He started sorting through her things, through her hundreds and hundreds of books, and then just gave up, moved into the house, built shelves, and opened a used bookstore. In the beginning, he closed on Thursday and Friday and traveled the state, going to sales and thrift shops, collecting even more books; now, people brought their books to him; his inventory grew and shifted, ebbed and flowed, and he stayed closer and closer to home.

She’d learned all this through the course of several visits. He would also tell her of some specific teaching disaster that would make her laugh–one time, he said, his students were so angry at a pop quiz (given because he had been so angry at their lack of preparation for his class) that they stormed out of the school when the bell rang and somehow hefted his Volkswagen Beetle onto the roof. It made a fetching sort of hood ornament, he allowed now, but in the day, he had failed, pretty much, to see the humor.

They had, he said, a helluva time getting it down.

He had refused, of course, to press charges, and some of those ‘boys’ visited the shop monthly now, small children, older children, grandchildren, in tow.

As they talked, they would savor their cookies, crumbs bursting onto counter and books, and she would lick her fingers and pick the crumbs up and eat them. The cat would sigh. When the tea was gone, Martin would clear his throat and clear their dishes away; conversation time was over. She would prowl through the shop.

Children’s books rested in and around and above the fireplace on the wall to the right of Martin’s desk–lots of Beatrix Potter, and an odd jumble that delighted her–every episode of the Babysitter’s Club; Anne of Green Gables; Lois Ehlert picture books; a series she especially liked by a British author about a boy named Tom and his stuffed monkey, Pippo; a random copy or two of a Hunger Games volume. The classics–Black Beauty, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Secret Garden,– were jammed onto shelves right inside the fireplace itself, paperbacks, hard covers. She often chose her next class read-aloud from inside Martin’s fireplace.

Then, ignoring the really old books and first editions housed behind Martin’s desk, she’d move back into what must have been his mother’s dining room. He had shelves from floor to twelve foot ceiling, and the room was a cave of fiction, with one wall of nonfiction and biography. She always found something there to soothe her–a Rosamund Pilcher or a Marcia Willet, Maeve Binchy, Jane Austen–something light and faraway, with likable, believable people and troubles that resolved by the end of the book.

She would take the books she’d chosen and leave them on the counter; Martin, who was reading, would grunt. And she would head upstairs, to where the paperbacks waited, in two old bedrooms, on wire racks that turned. High, unwieldy stacks crowned each rack, so that she didn’t dare actually turn them; she would snake through. She had a couple of mysteries she liked; Lord Peter Wimsey was a good read, and she liked the exploits of Dame Frevisse. There was a contemporary series about knitters in a seaside village that seemed to be a breeding ground for murders; those were fun and required no literary criticism or unraveling of symbolism on her part.

The back room held spy thrillers, cowboy series, military books. She didn’t usually go in there. Through a door on the back wall, always cracked open, she could see Martin’s Jenny Lind style bed, gleaming wood, chenille bedspread tightly pulled and tucked under the pillows. On the wall above, two pictures hung: a red toned Jesus with his sacred heart; the blessed Mother all in blue.

And then she would go downstairs, put her paperbacks on top of her other finds, and Martin would tot up her costs. She’d pull out her canvas tote, and they’d pack up her loot and say goodbye.

At the door, she’d always turn slightly and Martin would give her this funny little salute, first touching the index finger of his right hand to his right eyebrow and then pointing at her. She would smile and let the door slam gently behind her, swinging her bagful of books, swinging down the porch stairs, out onto the sidewalk.

Those were ‘can of soup’ nights; she’d heat one up on the gas stove, and eat at the table with a book splayed open next to her. She’d forgo doing any schoolwork, instead running a hot bath, soaking while she read. Often she’d finish the book in bed.

She’d think about Martin and his students and wonder–she, who was a relative newcomer to this town–if any of her sixth graders had descended from those boys who muscled that little car up onto the high school roof.

The next day, she’d walk back into her life, and always it turned out to be better. She was relaxed, the kids were in tune, the obstacles and irritations were bearable. She loved her work, even knowing that a different day would roll around, maybe next week, maybe next month. Knowing, too, that Martin’s House of Books was there, a doorway into a different world, an escape hatch when she needed it.

Musing About Food and Cooking, Again: Apron Memories

Quick—who and what first comes to mind when you think of an apron?

I’m thinking about aprons because Terri Mercer, in her role as executive director at a very special organization called First Step, sponsored an activity, asking folks to write and share their apron stories. Terri challenged us, on Facebook, to think of our own apron memories.

(First Step, by the way, addresses domestic violence, but its practice is unique. It works with men as well as with women and children, looking at the family as a unit. It employs female and male counselors. It was the first program in Ohio to design and build a shelter to meet its clients’ needs, rather than trying to adapt a house. It was one of the first organizations to help males who were victims of domestic violence, too. Ground-breaking, brave, fascinating work–I shouldn’t be at all surprised that this organization has fascinating workshops and activities. I discovered they have a great website, too, if you’d like to take a look:

But. Aprons.

I am a lover of metaphor, and aprons, in my lifetime, have been a metaphor. In my earliest days, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, every woman needed an apron. As I grew into young adulthood, and the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s rocked and changed our world, aprons began to symbolize ties to an unfair bondage–as in ‘Untie your apron, Sister, and fling it aside! Embrace your independence!’ I picture a woman going in one door wearing an apron, and coming out the other in a pinstriped suit, her rolling pin traded for a briefcase.

And now…at least in my life, at this stage, aprons are back–not a symbol of a return to some kind of domestic drudgery, but as a badge of practical, protective warmth and nurture.

I remember ratcheting into my mother when I was very young, three or so, short enough that my head bounced against her apron. It must have been a Sunday; I clearly remember Mom’s dress, one I loved–navy blue with white dots, long sleeves and white collar and cuffs. It was classy, and it was protected by an apron because she was, no doubt, cooking Sunday’s chicken dinner.

I got a swat for my careening, and a revelation–bouncing off Mom on Sunday was like bouncing off a basketball. The apron hinted at softness, but underneath, all was firm and bouncy at the same time. It was Sunday, so of course Mom had on her panty girdle. It held up her stockings; it held in her stomach.

Mind you, I don’t think my 5’4″ mother ever tipped the scale at more than 125 pounds in her life; she was not (unlike, sadly, her daughter) in need of that kind of restraint. But girdles and aprons were part of a woman’s wardrobe, and that was what she wore.

I think the panty girdle is a much better symbol of a time when women were tightly conscribed than an apron ever was.

My mother made her aprons, mostly, cranking them out on an old Singer treadle machine, a machine outdated already in my childhood. She said she liked it because it could handle heavy duty jobs, like patching the knees of our jeans. I suspect she liked the ease of it and that it was a piece of furniture, always ready. Unlike a portable electric machine, the treadle didn’t have to be dragged out of a closet, set up on the dining room table, taken down again in time for dinner. Projects in ‘mid-sew’ could be left on the treadle and returned to when a hole opened in a busy household schedule.

Mom’s aprons were of the lap variety, tying in the back, covering from waist down to knees. She made the ties of one color, and the rest from bright prints. She added matching or contrasting pockets. Her aprons were colorful and fun.

I, of course, did not like them then; I wanted a full body apron, one you had to stick out both hands to slide over your shoulders. My Aunt Annie wore that kind. My mind’s eye sees her in a blue calico print apron with navy blue trim–whether that’s an apron Aunt Annie ever owned or one embroidered by memory, I’m not sure.

We moved from my comfortable little home town to the grindy little city next door when I was in fourth grade, and for a time, nothing–especially me–seemed to fit. I remember the art teacher in my new public school telling me to bring in an apron for art class. I brought in one of Mom’s half aprons.

“What’s THIS?” the teacher asked, holding it up by its waist tie, and then, seeing my crestfallen look, she backed off. She got me an old shirt and had me put it on backwards. It was soft with age and covered with paint splots; it smelled of talented, oil-based, creation, I thought. I folded up the apron and put it away at school. At the end of the year, I took it home, unused. My mother washed and ironed it, and used it again immediately.

In junior high home economics, we made our own aprons. Mine was clumsily sewn, but I liked the colors and the style.

And then came high school. I walked into high school in a carefully selected skirt and blouse, with panty hose (still, at that time, a fairly recent innovation) squinching my waist, Mary Janes on my feet, and a purse that matched my outfit slung over my shoulder.

I walked out of high school four years later in torn jeans so long my heels walked wear spots in them, wearing a faded army jacket, and carrying a backpack. Why would I need an apron? My classmates predicted jokingly that I’d take over the reins of Cosmopolitan from Helen Gurley Brown.

Stuck in the kitchen? Please. I had, you’ll excuse the expression, bigger fish to fry.

Funny, though, how Life turns around and smacks one in the head–sometimes with a nice, nerf-y bat, and sometimes with something a little bit firmer.

I will not, I proclaimed, teach or type for a living–I will not be stuck in a job reserved for women by a patriarchal society. I will not go willingly into that oppressive female ghetto.

Five years after college graduation, I was happily teaching middle school Language Arts at a wonderful little intercity parochial school. During term breaks I painstakingly typed final exams on my portable Olympia typewriter, index finger stroke by index finger stroke, for other teachers and for extra money.

But I still didn’t have an apron.

Well, I did have one, but I never wore it for cooking. It was a gift from a friend so close to the family she could have been an aunt, Mrs. Mary Muench; she sewed the apron in a tiny flower print in shades of peach and brown. It fell below my knees and tied around my waist, and was so dress-like it covered my butt in the back. It had ruffles around the bodice, and it looked like a GunnySack dress. I loved GunnySack dresses, and I wore Mrs. Muench’s apron like a funky tunic.

In those days of trendy handmade and repurposed clothing, I could wear that beautiful apron over jeans and a deep brown turtleneck and look like I was making a fashion statement. I would not have dreamed of getting food splatters on that beloved garment.

So there I was, in my ‘second wave of feminism’ passion, teaching school and typing; then I married Mark and cooking joined the list of darned-near daily occupations. We had a close galley kitchen in our first house with an enormous old seventies brown earth-tone stove. In that tight space, on that vintage appliance, I cooked family meals and company meals, baked birthday cakes and everyday cookies, experimented with wondrous dishes like eggplant pizza and a haphazard quiche or two for the real men in my household.

I will not be chained to the kitchen, I allowed, and then I enjoyed the artistic and creative challenge of trying to take our budget and stretch it to feed a family with tasty, attractive dishes. Not owning a single item of daily worn clothing that couldn’t be thrown in the washer, no apron was needed.

Matt grew toward teenager-hood; Jim was born. Time flew. We moved, and moved again. We invited family and friends to celebrate milestones, and I did a lot of cooking on those celebration days and washed a lot of dishes. I remembered my brother Denny, always man enough to help, shlepping into my kitchen on Orchard Street and starting the water for a sinkful of suds.

“Got an apron?” he asked, and I didn’t; he wound up tucking a dishtowel around his waist.

Fast forward to today; if Denny were here now (and how I wish he was!) I could offer him a choice of aprons. Now, Crisanne, with whom I work–although she will retire this summer–has a gift of cloth creation, and thanks to Cris, I have an everyday apron and a holiday apron. They are things of beauty, but I don’t hesitate to let them be splattered with food.

I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In fact, when I done with this essay, I am going to try a new recipe in my quest to make a peanut butter cookie as tasty as the ones I can get at Starbuck’s in Erie, PA–a Reese Cup cookie that I really do go far out of my way for–and that the Starbucks in Ohio don’t seem to carry. But today, in 2014, it is trendy to be ‘cook-y’, to think about the food we eat, to craft our meals from fresh ingredients.

Feminism–in its third? fourth? wave– has embraced nurturing…with the stipulation that men can do it, too. It’s okay to cook and bake and play with grandkids, to plan and execute company dinners, to sew, and to decorate tastefully. It’s okay to focus on home.

Of course, all those things always were okay; we may have done them apologetically; we may have gone about them in a clandestine way; but we never once considered not doing them. And the apron is the perfect metaphor for that, so ever present in the fifties and sixties; lost or hidden in a drawer during the social revolutions of the last part of the 20th century; proudly rediscovered in these latter days.

Terri’s simple challenge–tell us your apron stories–delves deep.

I’ll bet you have an apron story, maybe about the early sensory memory of cookies baking and a warm lap; about your first cooking experience; of hefting that turkey out of the oven the very first time you plated a Thanksgiving dinner. Is there, in a drawer somewhere, an apron sewn by hands so dear to you that you just can’t part with it at all?

Oh, here’s to our aprons; to the meals and memories we’ve shared; to the meals and memories yet to come.

Oh, the sayings we say…

James and I were navigating a Walmart parking lot shrunken and obstructed by huge piles of snow. I nudged the car around a last drift to see a peace officer outside of his car talking with a woman who was waving her arms and yelling.

“Oh, dear,” said Jim.

“Oh, DEAR,” I echoed. Then without thinking, I added, “Bread and beer. If you were dead, you wouldn’t be here.”

There was a silence as we crept around the cop and the angry woman. Then, “What the heck was THAT?” Jim asked.

He was referring to the bread and beer, not to the police situation.

I started to explain that we used to say that, back in Dunkirk, New York, when I was a child in the 1960’s. And then I thought, wait. Is that true? Maybe that was something my mother used to say, something that came over from Scotland with her.

I don’t remember, but the singsong rhyme was so deeply entrenched that it came loping out of its own volition, triggered by the right words, the right tone, the right situation.

The words we use don’t always come from our thinking minds.

The week of the bread and butter intonation, my colleague Susan Markel was teaching a sociology class. It was the first session after an unexpected day off–a snow day, of course–and Susan was explaining that the class would NOT have the exam scheduled for that session.

“Good!” piped up a happy student. “Can we go home?”

Susan gave him the look. “Wouldn’t that be a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” she asked.

The class looked at her in horror. Who throws a baby out with bathwater?

The session surged on, and the last hour approached, and the hopeful student raised his hand. “Do you think we’ll get out early today?” he asked.

“We are staying,” replied Susan, “till the last dog is hung.”

The students froze. Not only did this professor throw out babies, she hung dogs. Susan took a little segue to talk about language. The dog expression was one her mother always used, and it just came hopping into consciousness when the situation called for it.

Isn’t that interesting, I thought when Susan shared that with me. If only those phrases survive our reign on earth, imagine what the future’s archaeologists will think of us. Beer-drinking lunatics who threw out their infants and terrorized their dogs!

I decided to ask other colleagues if they had ever run into sayings that were, in their minds, appropriate, but fell short of impressing their students.

Executive Dean Mike Whitson remembered introducing a fascinating bit of information to a college class made up of mostly of high school students. “Look THAT up in your Funk and Wagnalls!” he told the group, and the young students, Mike said, got that deer-in-the-headlights look. Not only did the expression come from Laugh-In, a show that was popular well before the students’ time, but most of them had never heard of Funk and Wagnalls. For that matter, any dictionary in book form is not really a tool in students’ repertoires, these days.

Math instructor Sam Griffin shared a story about trying to get his thirteen year old daughter to move a little more quickly. He advised her to get the lead out, and she looked at him askance.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard that before,” he said to her, but she hadn’t. Sam, a scholar as well as a gentleman, decided to find out where the expression came from. His research showed that it is from an old horse racing custom. All jockeys were required to weigh the same amount; the lighter riders were weighted with lead. Around the corner, where the judges might not see them, they’d pitch the lead weights so their horses could soar even more quickly. And ‘get the lead out’ quickly came to mean ‘move faster’.

Another colleague, Karen Jones, warned her students against beating a dead horse, grossing them out completely. That saying goes back to horse racing, too, where jockeys would drive their poor nags to the utmost exhaustion, then use their crops to exhort them to get up and go further. Sometimes, though, the horse couldn’t get up; sometimes, it was dead.

Oh, the things that we say without thought and from habit!

I used to make my English comp students write their own metaphors after examining the ones we use all the time. Fill in the blank, I’d say. Happy as a ________.

LARK! They would all reply, and I’d ask them what they knew about larks. Hmmm. They didn’t know what larks looked like, or whether they were particularly happy birds. Someone thought they sang a happy birdsong, and that kind of made the saying make a sort of sense.

I told them we used to say “Happy as a clam,” and they hadn’t heard of that. I told them about one of my glamorous jobs (the kind of job that keeps you in college, hoping for, someday, the kind of job that doesn’t support you through college) in a supermarket meat room. My early morning opening task was to see if the clams were still alive. They’d be sitting in the meat case, shrink-wrapped in plastic, wide open. I’d go down the line, tapping lightly on their little shells.

The ones that closed were still alive. The ones that stayed open–well, those went into the bin. But honestly, the dead clams looked just as cheerful as the live ones. Happy as a clam, indeed.

So let’s write our own metaphors, I’d exhort my students, instead of relying on sayings we don’t even think about. And they’d come up with good things:

Happy as a kid on his birthday.

Happy as a girl who gets what she wants for Christmas.

Happy as the class when the bell rings for summer vacation.

Happy as a dog with a nice meaty bone.

Happy as a hunter walking home with his catch.

Excellent, I’d encourage them. Keep using that kind of creative language and you’ll make me so happy!

Yeah, said a student from the back–happy as an English teacher with a pound of good chocolate!

Oh the power of good language. That would be happy, indeed.

Prompt 1: Remember a favorite teacher…

A technique learned in Grade Six

Vaguely heart-shaped, definitely ‘wreath-y’:
A technique learned in Grade Six

I am lucky enough, at the College where I work, to have forward-thinking colleagues like Dr. Terry Herman and Ms. Susan Markel. Because of them, I am involved in a rich and rewarding community of practice.  We meet on Wednesdays, our varied group of faculty and staff—full time, part time, program-specific, general education-related, new to the College and ‘seasoned’,—and we focus our discussion with our reading of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.

 Susan, dynamic, creative, and organized, has unearthed a discussion guide that accompanies the book, and this week she proposed a few questions from that guide as sparks for our upcoming discussion.

One of the prompts is this:  Think about your favorite teacher(s).

Favorite teachers, I mused when she first sent me the prompt, and was surprised at how hard it was to quickly respond. A name did not leap to mind; I put the challenge aside to let it percolate.

That night I took the little dog out for a walk.  It was a crystal night, clear and cold, and as we wandered back from our neighborhood meander, I considered the wreath on my front door.  Vaguely heart-shaped, its white, pink, and red tones shimmered in the light of the sconces on either side.

I made this wreath, part of my New Year’s recycle/get ‘er done self-challenge.  I bent a wire hanger into a heart shape, and then I sliced and diced plastic bags—pink bags that our papers were delivered in, bread bags with red markings, white bags with red lettering from the supermarket. I cut them into strips about a half inch wide and approximately seven inches long, and then I tied them onto the heart-shaped hanger, pushing and shoving till they formed a fluffy, pom-pomming kind of effect.

It was a static-cling endeavor, leaving me vainly shaking off plastic scraps and the wreath so puffed it mostly lost its heart-shaped connection. But, determined to persevere, I filled every iota of hanger, fluffed the strange looking thing, and hooked it onto my front door.  If nothing else, I thought, the colors were right for Valentine’s Day.

Walking home with the dog that night, I noticed the transparent plastic strips shimmering as they caught the light; the pink and the red stood out.  It DID look like Valentine-y.  And then I thought about where I’d learned this technique: in Mrs. McGraw’s sixth grade classroom.

That was back in (I think) academic year 1966-1967; I hadn’t thought about Mrs. McGraw or her class in years.  Not since I used to tell my youngest son “Stories from Real Life,” and one of his favorites was called ‘The Sixth Graders Build a Rudolph Statue.’  The story, which could not deviate in the telling, and which I told hundreds of times, detailed how the long-ago sixth grade class was charged with making a statue of Rudolph the Reindeer for the holiday concert.  The students could only work on the project when their classwork was all done, and they strove diligently for the honor.

Some built the chicken wire and wood frame, some ripped strips of newspaper—hundreds and hundreds of strips, —some mixed the messy mash paste, and some dipped and spread the newspapers onto the frame.  There was the shaping; there was the drying; there was the painting; and there was the very exciting electrifying of the statue’s nose.

The story ended on concert night, with the sixth graders on stage, parting their ranks to reveal Rudolph, nose gloriously shining.

‘Tell me about how the sixth-graders built Rudolph,’ three year old Jim would demand, and I would comply…so many times that my actual memories are lost in the oft-repeated details of the story.

I taught sixth grade back when I was younger and more energetic—in fact, I have the distinction of having taught The Best Sixth Grade in the World, several years running—but it never occurred to me until right now how much work that Rudolph project must have been.  Sixth grade boys with hammers and saws; sloppy messy buckets of stinky mash; stacks of newspapers and scraps of their ripped up aftermath. I suspect it must have taken weeks of work to get that reindeer completed.

Add to that the wreath project—each of us made a wreath from a hanger and green garbage bags cut into staticky strips that clung to clothes and desks and shoe bottoms; wow.

I remember Mrs. McGraw, with her curly gray hair pulled back in a bun of sorts, her flowered dresses with their tight bodices—Mrs. McGraw was an ample, matronly woman—and I don’t remember her getting flustered. There we were, racing through our work to get reindeer time—Mark, MJ, Debbie and Debby, Mike and Mike, Kathy, Donna, Christopher…—and there was Mrs. McGraw, calming us down, slowing us down, keeping us on track.

The reindeer was a huge success—just as it was in the story—and my mother liked the wreath so much she set us to making them at home, to the muttered “…garbage bag wreaths!” sneering scorn of older brothers.

It was an awesome Christmas at school, and at home, during the wonderful break, I was thrilled to get Mrs. McGraw’s handwritten thank you note in the mail—thanks for a gift I can no longer remember giving, but I can easily see the holly-bordered parchment paper on which she wrote, in flowing Palmer method script, in my mind’s eye. (I put that note in a scrapbook and kept it for years, until a flooded basement said ‘done’ to that particular box of mementoes.)

It was in Mrs. McGraw’s class that we debated communism; one side representing the United States and the other, the USSR.  I was on the Russian side, and my teammates and I discovered the beauty of a ‘share the wealth equally’ philosophy—that and the chandeliers in Russian subways undergirded our choicest debate points.

The competition was conducted by debate team rules; I can’t remember which side won, although I suspect it was not me and my comrades.  I have often thought, since then, that if a young long-haired hippie teacher had proposed that activity, s/he would have been met with shock and resistance.  Motherly Mrs. McGraw with her calm matter-of-factness challenged her students to think critically without challenging the administration’s sense of propriety.

Mrs. McGraw said to me, offhandedly, “You’ll love studying English when you get to college,” and I knew without questioning that a college career was a decided part of my future.

In Mrs. McGraw’s class we wrote poetry, collated it into books, and created artistic covers. We hung them on the bulletin board for parent visitation night (which the students did NOT attend.  I remember my mother coming home and saying to me, “We walked in the room, and your father said, ‘That’s Pam’s booklet,’ and he walked right to it.” He’d never seen me working on it, and it gave me a shiver of pride to think my work was that distinctive.)

Mrs. McGraw chose several of our poems, put them on a special overhead projector, and projected them onto big sheets of lined paper taped to the chalkboard.  We were allowed to trace the letters in smelly, alcohol-based magic markers; the poems were decorated and hung in the school’s main hallway where everyone could see.

I decided to be a poet.

We had a student teacher in Mrs. McGraw’s class, a calm and lovely young woman named Miss Burkholder.  She helped us with Math; she plunged into our projects.  Mrs. McGraw never pulled rank and often allowed Miss B to lead classes.  I remember wishing my oldest brother, then in college himself, would fall in love with Miss B and marry her.

I decided I’d be a teacher.

I was shocked when I overheard an adult conversation about Mrs. McGraw—I don’t remember who the adults talking were, but I remember what they said.

“Do you suppose they give her all the handicapped kids on purpose?” one asked.

And the other replied, “I don’t know, but she’s really good with them.”

Handicapped? I thought.  Who in our class is handicapped?

Granted, we had Deb, who had a prosthetic leg, but Deb’s glare if you suggested she was handicapped would have sliced you into tiny, sad pieces.  Deb was (and is) whip-smart, musically gifted, and a cracker-jack swimmer.  David, whose hands and feet were different due to birth defects, did everything, played everything the rest of us did. Christopher, who was born with his heart on the wrong side, was sweet and funny. If he didn’t take part in our more athletic activities in quite the same way the rest of us did, he was always a part of things—the coach or the scorekeeper, maybe—integral, always; lesser, never.

Our classroom was on the second floor, up a flight of stairs, in an old-fashioned building that had no elevator.  What a challenge that must have been for Mrs. McGraw, but under her tutelage we saw the gifts each student brought and not the deficits each of us carried.

We danced the Tinikling, banging together bamboo poles for the Spring Frolic as nimble classmates hopped in and out between them; we had our sixth grade graduation at a fancy, dress-up restaurant, and there was an account of it in the paper.

We all said, “We LIKE Mrs. McGraw,” but none of us said—at that point in time–, “This is a great teacher.”  And we moved into junior high, a big, confusing place with fourteen homerooms and kids sorted by academic abilities, and the old classmates drifted and made new friends, and the brunt of the sixties bore down on us.  Christopher died; we went to his funeral and knew that death could find us.  One of our sixth grade classmate’s brothers was the first casualty of the Viet Nam War in our little city.

I could easily have gotten lost in those times, but underneath crazy risk-taking behaviors, there was grounding.  When I think back, I think Mrs. McGraw helped provide that. She didn’t yell—the only time I remember her getting angry was when Michael pulled out the seat as Bridget went to sit down.  Bridget crashed into the floor and was hurt.

Mrs. McGraw yelled at us to be careful, to be thoughtful; what were we thinking?  And then there was a flurry of emergency care-taking with all of us frozen into shocked fright.

But when the class met again, I remember Mrs. McGraw telling us that Michael was such a good person, that this must be so difficult for him, to have a thoughtless act result in a semi-serious injury.  I could see Michael blanching, and knew that this gentle expectation of good behavior was harder for him to hear than angry shouts of blame.

The calm and the expectation were Mrs. McGraw’s hallmarks, I think; and the expectations came back to me, to us.  I did go to college; I did become a teacher; if my poetry only emerges for silly family birthday cards, well, I keep a book of poetry by my bedside.  Its music rocks me to sleep some nights.

I remember having a horribly intense and self-conscious talk with a colleague after I’d started teaching myself.  We are not so much imparters of wisdom, I said earnestly, as planters of seeds; we can only hope that the seeds we plant take root at some later date.  My colleague was kind and did not laugh.

But—new teacher intensity aside—there is truth there.  I look at the silly shaggy wreath hanging on my front door and think it’s a tangible symbol.  Years later the things a great teacher imparts—the facts, the theory, the process,–will surface when needed.  Mrs. McGraw was a great teacher, and though she’s been gone many years, there are many of us, still, who carry her lessons into our daily lives.