Friday, October 26, 2012

Making Do

Making do. I have no idea where that phrase came from, but it was my favorite game to play when I was young. My mother loved dolls and saw to it that my sister and I had many. I even had a boy doll. I called him Donald Eugene. I don’t think my mother ever was able to play with dolls. You see, she was the eldest girl and instead of playing with “doll” dolls, she got to play with the babies that followed. And her family was poor. Interesting, for her ancestors on her father’s side (both paternal and maternal) came to this country long before the Revolutionary War and they were all wealthy landowners. Nicholas Gassaway who arrived in 1764, ended up being the Provisional Governor of Maryland in the 1770s.  His will declared that at his death all but one of his slaves were to be freed. That one was to spend the year teaching Nicolas’s sons how to manage the plantations and then was to be freed. But by the time my mother was born, the money and land had long ago disappeared. And so my mother made up for her lack of dolls as a girl by indulging my sister and me.

Mother was an amazing seamstress and as a result, we were not only the best-dressed girls in school, but we had dolls that were “dolled” up royally. Mother even made Halloween costumes for our dolls. She knit little mittens on toothpicks (if you can imagine!) and they even had thumbs! And she got Daddy in on the act. He made small steamer trunks for us, with drawers, and tiny hangers. He even found labels from other countries that he pasted on the black fake-leather sides. One of the costumes for my dolls had a hoop skirt. Daddy made the tiny wire circle that Mother pulled through the hem. Oh, my dolls were indeed fancy.

I loved the dolls and played with them until I was ten. But I had read “Huckleberry Finn” and fallen in love with the idea of “making do.” That meant that you took what little you had, and you made it do. So I would take my dolls, and a few pieces of clothes for them, pile onto my bed and float on the raft down the Mississippi. I don’t know if Mother knew what I was doing. She left my sister and me to our own devices. But now I hope that she didn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the clothes and the trouble. I think I did. But I also was somewhat embarrassed by my beautiful clothes and my dolls. Most of my friends were wearing hand-me-downs. Once one of my friends, Marion, make a comment, complimenting me on a dress, and I said, “This old rag.” She turned on me and said, “Don’t you ever talk like that again!” Marion deserved nice clothes for she was the prettiest girl in school and the boys all had crushes on her. It was a good lesson for me. I never referred to my clothes again. I also never said anything to my mother about her making my clothes. It became like the war fields that were mined during the war. I walked carefully.

And now I’m watching a show about Alaska on TV. I love it. They are constantly having to “make do.” Throughout my life, I’ve found ways to re-use and re-cycle things. My grandmother taught me how to unravel old knitted pieces, wash, dry, and rewind the yarn. I made mittens and scarves for my little ones. Made me feel frugal, like a pioneer. I have a friend who carries that to the extreme. I don’t.  But I hold in highest esteem those who have to seriously “make do” in life. I’m impressed by their courage and resourcefulness. I think we need more of that. A little “hardship” isn’t such a bad thing if it makes us pay closer attention and appreciate more what we have. But I must be honest here, like with my dolls of old, I have a closet full of clothes, a pantry that is filled, and a warm and cozy home. Making do? Who am I kidding?

Friday, October 19, 2012


People didn’t travel a lot when I was young. They had little reason. Most had their families nearby. There was no Disneyland. No Branson, Missouri. Vacations were usually spent at home, fixing up the house, taking day trips to the beach, or just lying around in the shade. But we had a new house that needed little fixing, lived at the lake, and Daddy was never one to “lay about.” So we did road trips and camped.
            My sister Mary Ann and I had the backseat. Mother and Daddy in front. About an hour into a trip (before the “are we almost there” began), Mary Ann and I started the sibling thing. “She’s got her foot on my side.” “She’s looking out my window.” Daddy once tried piling the luggage between us. Didn’t help. And so we sang and the squabbling ended. I don’t recall if Mother sang. She might have, but Daddy was the star.
            In his high quavering tenor he always began (in a German accent): “Oh, Dunderbach, oh Dunderbach, how could you be so mean. To ever haf invented that wonderful machine. Where dogs and cats and mice and rats would never more be seen. They’d all be ground to sausage meat in Dunderbach’s machine. One day there something happened, and the machine she would not go. So Dunderbach, he climbed inside the reason for to know. His wife was having nightmares and was walking in her sleep. She gave the crank an awful yank, and Dunderbach was meat!”
            I’m sure Mother shuddered. Not Mary Ann, nor I. We begged for another and Daddy always had more. College songs, drawing-room melodies, songs he ‘d learned as a boy. One of his favorites was: “One evening when the sun went down and the jungle fires were burning. Down the tracks came a hobo hiking and he said, ‘Boys, I am yearning. I’m heading for a land that’s far away beside the crystal fountains, so come with me and we’ll all go see the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there’s a land that’s fair and bright. Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night. Where the boxcars all are empty and the sun shines every day, on the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, on the lemonade springs where the blue birds sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
            Second verse, worse than the first: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs. The bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs. Where the brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind. Oh, I want to go where there ain’t no snow, where the rain don’t rainy, and the wind don’t blow in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”
            And can you believe it? Another verse: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks. And little streams of alcohol come atrickling down the rocks. Where the farmers’ trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay. There’s a lake of stew and a gin lake too, you can paddle all around it in a big canoe in the Big Rock Candy Mountains.” A true song for the Great Depression.
Another favorite was Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. Thirteen verses! He sang them all. It began: “The sons of the prophet were brave men and bold and quite unaccustomed to fear. But the bravest by far in the ranks of the shah was Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. The heroes were plenty and well known to fame in the troops that were led by the Czar. But the bravest of these was a man by the name of Ivan Skavinski Skivar.”
The last verses: “A tomb rises up where the blue Danube rolls engraved there in characters clear. Oh, Stranger, in passing, please pray for the soul of Abdul D’bulbul Ameer. And a Muscovite maiden, her lone vigil keeps ‘neath the light of a pale Polar Star and the name that she murmurs so soft as she weeps is Ivan Skavinski Skivar.” Always brought tears to my eye.
When daddy was a boy, his family sang. They gathered in the living room, Grandma played the piano, and they sang songs of the Victorian era: “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” “Bicycle Built for Two,” and “After the Ball was Over.” Of course, the boys weren’t content to sing the proper words. When alone they sang, “After the ball was over, Katie took out her glass eye, hung her peg leg in the corner, hung out her wig to dry, put her false teeth on the mantel, took off her bustle and all. Not much was left of Katie after the ball.”
A singing game my sister and I played was to count to three and then start a song. Our challenge was to sing our song all the way through in time and on key (in the style of Charles Ives). However, we often started with the same song and then dissolved in giggles. Long trips were boring so Mary Ann and I invited other ways to sing. One rainy trip, we sang “Bicycle Built for Two,” by singing one word each time the windshield wiper hit the dashboard. “Daisy…Daisy…give…me…your…answer…do…” Drove our parents crazy. We finally told the secret, and then Daddy joined in.
Mary Ann and I sang while we did the dishes. (You can’t argue while you’re singing.) We took turns doing the alto parts. One of my favorites (one sung years later by granddaughter Sarah when she was in high school): “I heard a bird at break of day, sing from the autumn trees, a song so mystical and calm, so full of certainties. No man I think could listen long, except upon his knees. Yet, this was but a simple bird, alone among dead trees.” Still brings tears to my eyes.
With Daddy, we sang love songs (Bendemeer Stream, Danny Boy), sentimental songs (My Ole Kentucky Home, Beautiful Ohio), and crazy songs (My Old Shanghai Rooster, St. Olaf fight songs). Our most vigorous singing was on a return trip one summer from camping at Rice Lake, Wisconsin. A fire had started deep in the woods and by the time we packed and left, it was blazing. Our escape route was a narrow rutted dirt road through the forest. I remember my father’s back hunched over the steering wheel, my mother’s handkerchief clenched in her fist. At one point I looked out the back window and saw a tall pine flare up in seconds. Daddy had us sing every song we knew, all the verses. Our car was covered in ashes, our faces too, but we were safe. I smile when I think of how I knew that Daddy would never let anything bad happen to us.
Often, when Daddy heard my sister and me arguing, he made us face each other and sing. Didn’t take long before the giggles started. I think everyone should sing. If countries got together and sang, there would be no wars.
I’m sure you have your own songs. So, with your loved ones, find any excuse and sing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Esteeming Scott

 One of my favorite careers, second only to being a mom, was as an educational therapist. I had bought a successful learning center (Educational Resources) in San Marino, California. (I sold it after ten years and it still flourishes.) In the summers I had only six tutors, but winters had about a dozen. They were retired teachers and master/PhD students from Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology) and Fuller Seminary. “No analyzing, no psychology,” I told them. “Just straight tutoring.” They enjoyed the work as it gave them an opportunity to work one-on-one with a real live child.
I did the testing, conferencing, and wrote the prescriptive course, but the tutors and kids did the rest, and they were inventive. I worked with the more difficult cases. I loved it for I was constantly challenged.
Scott was one of those challenges. Referred by his teacher, he was a puzzle. His learning disability was not severe. He was an intelligent, strong, handsome nine-year-old who was successful on the sports field. And yet, he was failing in school. I decided I would be his tutor.
When he arrived for our first session, Scott could have slid under the door his self-esteem was so low.
“Scott,” I said. “Why do you think you’re coming here?” (I always asked that question and usually got frank answers. The kids were actually relieved to find someone who might help.)
“I’m a failure in life,” was his answer.
I was stunned. “But, Scott, you’re good at sports.”
He shrugged.
“And your parents love you.”
He sighed. “They have to.”
“And you believe you’re a failure?”
He nodded.
Here is a boy who is drowning and I’ve got to rescue him, but how? I gave him something to work on while I frantically thought about what to do. A failure in life. How do you deal with that? And then I got an idea. I took a piece of paper and laid it lengthwise on the table between us. I started on the left side and drew a line from top to bottom. I wrote the word "soccer" in the space. “Are you a failure in soccer?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I scribbled over the area. One by one I drew a line and labeled the spaces: at home, recess, lunch time, walking to and from school, math, social studies, and at each he said "no." Finally there’s only a slice of space left and I wrote in “language arts.” He sighed and said, “Yes.”
I sat back and studied the paper. Then I looked him squarely in the eye. “You’ve been lying to me,” I said.
He looked surprised.
“You told me you’re a failure in life. Well,” I held up the paper. “Here’s your life and you’re only a failure in this one tiny place. That’s not your whole life. You’ve come to the right place, for I’m the Olympic coach of language arts. Do you think I’ll be easy on you?”
He shook his head. “No-o-o.”
“You’re right about that. Now let’s begin.”
And so we began.
            Scott’s parents and teachers had been generous in their praise, so much so that I saw he no longer trusted the happy faces or “good work” I put on the work pages. We had to restore his esteem of himself and only he could do that. Scott needed to learn how to honestly evaluate his own work. I designed a graph, dates on the bottom, percentages on the left side from 0 to 100. Every piece of work was given a numerical grade in percentage. (Ten problems with five wrong was a score of 50%, etc.) I stopped making comments about his work or making happy faces. I had him record every percentage on the graph.
            After several weeks, I asked if he thought he was getting better. He shrugged. So I put the graphed chart on the table between us and laid a ruler along the tops of the lines. Then I drew a line along the ruler. I asked Scott what he saw. He studied the chart and then looked at me, his eyes wide.
“It’s going up.
            “Yes and you did that.”
The very next session he added a GOOD at the top of the page and eventually happy faces showed up. I knew we had been successful on the day when he did a difficult page and got only a 60%. He looked at me seriously. “That’s not too bad. That was a hard page.”
I knew my work was done. We had two more sessions and then said our goodbyes. At the end of the school year, I got a note. “I did good and got good grades. Cood I come on summer as next year we are doing hard gramer. Your friend, Scott.”
We welcomed him and added spelling to his prescription.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Teaching 101

Well, I’d made it. Gotten my degree, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Batchelor of Science in Child Welfare and a minor in History. And now what?

My dreams had been vivid those last weeks before graduating. I’m standing at the edge of a precipice and need to get to the other side. The chasm below me is so deep I cannot see the bottom and yet I know I have to get across. I always woke in a cold sweat. And so after the ceremonies, I went home with my parents. They had moved while I was a senior to a town where I knew not one soul. I spent my days reading want ads and lolling about. One day, my mother rushed up to me and said she’d heard that a number of small town superintendents were hiring teachers. They were meeting at the local high school. I dressed and made my way to the school.

I have absolutely no memory of any interviews. I only recall coming home with a contract to teach first grade at an elementary school in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. My entire salary for the nine months was $1700 (this was 1946). The following Sunday, I packed my bags, took a bus to Fond du Lac, and rented a room from the local butcher. The rent was to include breakfast, which usually consisted of toast, jam, stale cake, crackers, and coffee, which I didn’t drink. The butcher was on a diet.

The school was over a mile away and I had to walk, as there was no bus service. And my walk fronted Lake Winnebago, one of the largest inland lakes in the country. So along with the (often) below zero temperature, there was wind. And so I dressed for it. I wore wool slacks under my skirt (yes, we had to wear dresses), a wool ski cap, two pairs of mittens, and air corps boots over my shoes. The boots were warmer than galoshes as they were lined with sheepskin. I also covered my face with baby oil so it wouldn’t freeze.

My school was the oldest school building and was in the poorest part of town. One of my favorite professors had always warned us to save pictures, poems, stories, anything that might be of interest to children. I had taken her advice and when I walked into my classroom sent up a prayer of thanks. My classroom was bare, the walls dire, dark. It would take a small miracle to illumine that space. I spent the morning doing what I could to brighten the grim walls.

Our reading books were the Dick and Jane series. They were stacked neatly in the corner, their pages covered with little grubby prints. I remember feeling a sense of awe as I realized I was going to help the children learn to read, to open up the world of books. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility and the privilege and I was terrified that I might fail them. An inventory of my room listed boldly: 23 library books. There were no library books on the shelves. I looked everywhere. I finally opened a low cupboard and there found 23 little pamphlets of Mother Goose, printed as an advertisement from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

I was furious. These were the poorest children in town. How dare someone claim these tiny pamphlets were library books. I had to do something. And luck was with me. The janitor. I wish I could remember his name. I can see him in my mind’s eye as clear as anything. He was old, ancient, wore bibbed overalls over a flannel shirt. He always wore his hat and smoked a smelly pipe. Raised and cured his own tobacco, he boasted. He called me “Missy” and invited me down to see the furnace room. It was cozy, foggy with smoke. A handmade rag rug covered the floor. An old rocking chair with a worn pad and a crooked wooden chair were separated by a turned over box. His ashtray was large and overflowing. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling lighted the room. On the table was a violin. He played the fiddle. And I was a ready audience. I sat and drank tepid tea and listened while he performed. I felt I’d made a friend.

But back to the 23 library books. As I said, I had to do something. These little first graders needed to have books, lots of them. And so I found an empty box, tossed the little pamphlets inside, and sealed the box. I took it down to the furnace room and handed it over to my friend. “If you’re smart,” I said, “you won’t look inside.”

He smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “Just some trash you need to get rid of, I take it?’ I nodded. He opened the furnace door and tossed the box inside.

The following day, I approached my principal. My heart ached for her, for you see she was very worried about her position. Women were not principals in those days. Only men had that privilege. However, there had been a Second World War and many men had not returned. Marie had been given the position of temporary principal until a man could be hired. So she was not about to do anything to upset anyone. Ever.

I explained that I’d looked everywhere for the 23 library books I was supposed to have and couldn’t find them. She rushed into my room and spent an hour searching. I was right. There were no books. Reluctantly, she filled in an order and sent it off to the library. It took two weeks, but we got books, colorful, exciting, and fun. And I learned there was more to being a good teacher than I had ever dreamed. According to the definitions, education’s history began with the classical Greek philosophers and sophists, and today it is spoken of in terms of reflective theorizing about pedagogy, andragogy, curriculum, learning, and education policies, organization and leadership. Educational thought is informed by various strands of history, philosophy, sociology, critical theory, and psychology among other disciplines (I copied this out of several heavy books.)

Where are the words for hope, using your smarts, being savvy, and love?