Culture · Education · Poetry

My Most Memorable Teaching Moment

A field of grass

We were studying the stanza from Wordsworth’s poem The Tables Turned which sums up his philosophy. It is so significant a passage that in my opinion every young person should be familiar with it.

One Impulse from a vernal wood
Can Teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.

However, in the middle of my disquisition, the fire bell rang. We all knew that drill. Students immediately arose from their seats and started leaving the room (“walk, do not run”) to the nearest stairwell, followed by me, the teacher, who shut my door. Upon exiting the stairwell, we proceeded to our predesignated spot in the backyard of the school where we waited for the all-clear bell to ring. 

It was a large school—two buildings—so we had to wait there quite awhile. We returned the same way, and when I, bringing up the rear, arrived, all the students were seated. And on my desk was a collection of twigs, leaves, clumps of grass, weeds—whatever my students could manage to find in the backyard to represent Wordsworth’s vernal wood.  

It nearly brought me to tears because it showed me that first of all they had been listening, maybe even starting to understand, and also that they knew me so well that they realized I would relish the joke. 

Today those seventeen-year-olds are grandparents (don’t ask me how that happened!) and I often wonder if any of them, while walking through the grass, are reminded of that time so long ago when they made their teacher’s day. 

Family memoir

One Family’s Journey with Another Deadly Virus

Every summer, during my childhood, usually in July and August, there were polio outbreaks throughout the country. The first reported cases always unleashed a wave of fear because nobody knew what caused it or how it spread. We knew however that it could be fatal and leave a person unable to walk or even breathe outside an iron lung. Large gatherings were cancelled; many people stopped going to the movies, and municipal swimming pools were closed. Between 13,000 and 20,000 paralytic cases were reported each year. The disease usually affected children, but it could strike down anyone. 

On the last day of August of 1946, it struck the strongest member of our family.

After school was over, my father, Sam, decided he would take our family on a vacation—a road trip—something we had never done before. My sisters, G.G. and Neta, were five and two. I assume we planned to enjoy the outdoor beauties of Colorado since not much inside activity was available.

But before we could leave, we all got very sick, and I was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctor advised my parents to just go ahead and he would send me on the train. Of course my family didn’t go, but I didn’t see much of them; hospital visiting hours were strictly imposed then, and they didn’t include visits in the afternoon.  I remember entertaining myself by watching the traffic light outside change from red to green to yellow and back to red. I was told that I was one of the first civilians to receive injections of penicillin—a new wonder drug.

In August, we were all well and finally ready to go. We drove for what seemed to me an eternity—across the plains of Kansas—mile after mile after mile of waving tall grass without a tree in sight, until the mountains finally came into view. We had a brief visit with the relatives in Denver, then back on the road towards home. 

But things do not always go according to plan. The day after visiting Pike’s Peak, Sam could not get out of bed. His legs just collapsed under him. Rather than seek medical help in Manitou Springs, he decided that we should return to Denver where Uncle Floyd could help us. 

Somehow my mother, Grace, and the motel manager got him into the passenger seat and Grace, who had never driven a car before, had her first driving lesson—on the highway, in a car with a manual transmission—under extraordinarily stressful conditions.

Terrified, she managed to follow Sam’s directions, but shortly after we got out of town, we came upon a soldier who was hitchhiking. Sam ordered Grace to pull over and convinced the young man to drive us to Denver. Grace crowded into the back seat with her three children, and from that point on, I have absolutely no memory of what happened. I assume the soldier drove us to Colorado General Hospital where Sam was diagnosed with polio.

Those were the days when nurses wore white dress length uniforms, starched so stiffly they rattled when they walked, white lace up oxfords, white stockings, and a variety of caps depending on which nursing school they had graduated from. Scrubs, I assume, were what they wore in the operating room.

I remember the night that my mother was granted a special dispensation to visit the men’s ward because Sam was not expected to survive until morning. Years later I would receive that same phone call informing me that Herb might not make it through the night. Sadly, Herb did not, but Sam did. His doctor was not encouraging. He advised Sam that he would never walk again, at which point a physical therapist did the unthinkable and spoke up, contradicting the doctor. “And what do you know, smart ass that I don’t? demanded the doctor. The therapist’s reply has endeared me to physical therapists forever. “I know how bad he wants to walk.”

And walk he did. He wore a leg brace and carried two canes, but he walked, learned to navigate stairs, and drove to work for the rest of his life.

Since he could no longer play golf, he sold his expensive clubs and took up photography. He had a dark room built in the basement and spent hours there developing prints. Sam was strong and courageous, but he was also very, very lucky.

Uncategorized

Your Move

Life interrupted my intention to resume my posts on Hints and Echoes. Sorry about that to you who follow the site and were expecting to hear from me.
The Chess Game by Sofonisba Anguissola

Have you ever heard of Sofonisba Anguissola? Neither had I before I recently read a brief article in the newspaper about her. She was an Italian Renaissance painter born to a relatively poor noble family. Because of her gender she was not allowed to take live drawing classes, but encouraged by her father, she studied painting with master artists of the time.

She had five sisters who were often her subjects and she is also noted for her self portraits.

Frequently her work was attributed to male painters, but she was rediscovered in the 1970s (by the feminists) and the true body of her work revealed.

I think she is an absolute genius in her ability to convey complex human emotions. In this painting we understand without effort just what these sisters are feeling, because we have all been in that particular emotional position at one time or another. The big sister looks at us directly. She’s utterly confident she’s going to win the game but will do so without passion or gloating because she is simply appeasing the little sister. She’s just a bit bored by it all. Isn’t this how we feel when we pretend to play a competitive game with our own children? And how often have we felt that we have demonstrated our superiority in some matter but come to the realization, like the middle sister, that in fact we are outclassed. Oops. That’s embarrassing. And of course the darling little sister is experiencing the schadenfreude we have all felt on occasion. 

The servant clearly doesn’t quite understand what chess is all about, but she realizes something important is going on here besides the actual game. Other famous painters express human emotion of course, but I don’t think any of them do it better than Anguissola, and I think she should be more well known. So I’m doing my part by telling you. 

Medicine · mourning

ON A PERSONAL NOTE

Herb was a great painter, poet, and reader. He left us all a remarkable legacy.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM COVID

To those of you who may not know, Herb passed away on January 13 from Covid. It is a mystery how he contracted it as we were essentially in voluntary quarantine. He never left our apartment door without a mask and only went to the pharmacy, a little market, and the post office, all across from our back door. He was sick on Christmas Day but we were sure it was the flu and so were not alarmed. But on New Years Eve he was so sick we called EMS and he tested positive for Covid at the hospital. They said he was on minimal oxygen and on the right track, but on the 13th, the doctor called and said he might not make it through the night. He died at 6:30 p.m.

What the Nurse Said

Herb was fortunate to be on a Covid floor where the nurses were unbelievably kind. They loved Herb and he loved them. We all were tested and I was the only one of the family who tested positive. I was cared for by second daughter Sarah in spite of risk to herself. Fortunately I had a mild case. Sarah was allowed to visit Herb for two hours every day. He told her every day as he had told me before he went to the hospital that he wanted us all to leave New York and go to Florida where Sarah and Steven had found a business to buy that made use of their talents, the New York theatre being dead at least for a long time. I was allowed to visit Herb the day he died and I want to share with you what his favorite nurse told us. These are her exact words: “The best way to protect yourself from Covid is to never touch your eye with your naked finger. Always use a tissue.” She said it with such force and conviction that I think it is worth passing on.

First daughter Elly flew from Oregon to share the driving and we arrived in Florida on March 9. It has been four months since Herb died and I feel up to resuming the ordinary activities of my life. So tomorrow I’ll be back with a regular blog post.