Sunday, May 8, 2016

Food From My Mom

My mother knew food. Good food.  She grew up in New York City in an Italian/Jewish neighborhood where her nickname was Irish.

She ate homemade Italian food made by her friend’s Grandma’s who were “from the old country” all concerned about her thin stature, “Eat,” they would tell her. “You are too thin.”  There was also lox and bagels from the delis, Chinese from the neighborhood restaurants and fresh seafood galore. My mother’s palate was fine tuned on all the delicious the flavors of the world found in New York. Sadly all that delectable cuisine didn’t help her as an adult. She couldn’t cook.

Ok, that is not entirely true, she cooked some things really well. She had for go-to dry spices that went in everything; salt, pepper, onion and garlic and there were others she added as needed.  

Spaghetti sauce was something she did well. She was liberal with garlic, oregano, onion, thyme, sage and of course salt that went in both the sauce and the pasta water. Oh and the 1lb. log of frozen ground beef she would drop in the sauce at the beginning and then continued to smash with a potato masher until thoroughly cooked. We rarely had any other kind of noodles, just spaghetti and it was delicious.

Once a year, usually in January she would spend a Sunday making soup. She would buy a beef bone, canned tomatoes combine them with spices and let it cook for a few hours. Then she would add diced potatoes and let it cook a few more hours before adding a couple bags of frozen vegetables. I loved it. Well not the vegetables that I avoided like the plague, but the rest with tons of saltines that would turn into a mush.

There was also a goulash that she would sometimes make that had her pasta sauce, elbow noodles and mixed frozen vegetables.

No one could beat mom’s mashed potatoes. Best ever. She used the aforementioned masher and she always added a drop or two of yellow food coloring to them. Mom never used instant, she hated them like Joan Crawford hated wire hangers.

And lastly but most deliciously was her clam dip. I didn’t appreciate it until I was older because ...clams...but daaaaamn, is it good!!

Between my mom’s working and lack of cooking skills we ate a lot of processed foods especially Kraft Mac & Cheese which for some reason I once went through a phase of not wanting the cheese, just the noodles. Mac and cheese was the go-to side dish and went with:
  • Fish sticks 
  • Meatloaf
  • Pork Chops 
  • Chicken
The vegetable go-to was either frozen corn (yes) or frozen peas (bleh). There might have been green beans but if there were I blocked them out (gag).

On Sundays Mom cooked. That was when we would have chicken, meatloaf, pot roast or anything that took some time to cook. It was usually mashed potatoes day as well.  We sometimes ate together at the table, not often, but sometimes. Usually plates were filled from the pots in the kitchen and taken wherever to eat, in front of the TV mostly.

Monday through Friday was a different story. Depending on how her day went and how much money there was for groceries it might be Fish Sticks, pasta or breakfast (pancakes, eggs, maybe bacon) or if she was really tired Whatever You Can Find.

Whatever You Can Find  was just that. We could eat whatever was in the house and we wanted to prepare ourselves. There was always canned food. Campbell's soups,  Franco American Spaghetti and Spaghetti O's were my favorites and I usually ate mine cold from the can, don't judge. It was also how I liked to eat Tomato soup.



There could be cold cereal or oatmeal or Creme of Wheat. Hot dogs, sandwiches with lunch meats, PB&J, tuna and my favorite, grilled cheese. Mom made them with a little Miracle Whip inside, delicious! There were few fresh fruits or vegetables due to prices and availability of good produce but we usually had frozen vegetables on hand but those never got cooked on Whatever You Can Find nights. 

Though not a chef mom has some tasty recipes that came from who knows where.

There was Hot Dogs and Beans. She would take Van Camp’s pork and beans, chopped hot dogs and mix with ketchup, onion salt, garlic salt, maple syrup and bake until heated through. It was great.

Her pork chops were also made with ketchup as a base. In a frying pan she added chops, ketchup, onion salt, garlic salt, salt and pepper. She cooked on stove top until chops were completely overcooked then served it with rice (the only time she made rice) with the gravy/sauce over it. It was great too. It took years before I realized how overcooked the chops were.


Mom never fried anything if she could help it. She once had a splat of hot grease almost hit her eye and after that...nope.  Bacon and eggs were it. Needless to say we never had fried chicken. Instead Mom would take a whole pre-cut chicken and then after dredging in milk would cover in Kellogg’s Corn Flake Crumbs spiced with...yes, onion salt, garlic salt, salt and pepper.  She would then bake it until there was no possibility that it would come back to life. Juicy chicken was an oxymoron in our home. It was one of her best dishes and very diverse, it went with mashed potatoes OR Kraft Mac & Cheese.

While mom made sure that most meat was cooked until it was practically jerky, excluding Thanksgiving turkey since it had a pop-up button, she cooked a perfect medium rare steak. Salt, pepper, onion salt, garlic salt broiled in the oven, (top for electric, bottom for gas) and there  always was a lovely, juicy red/pink center. Perfect and delicious. 

While I have no memory of mom cooking dessert if she could afford it we usually had something in the house that was for dessert. Vanilla Wafers, Oreos, generic sandwich cookies, fig newtons, something that to me, signified mealtime was over.


As for drinks, Mom didn’t buy soda or juices, except canned frozen Orange juice on occasion or soda if we were sick or hurt, but there was always Wyler’s in the fridge to drink. Wyler’s was like Kool-Aide but with the sugar already in it. My favorite was the cherry and grape mixed together. 

Milk was a careful commodity. Drinking by the glass was rare, milk was usually for cereal, cooking and most importantly...Mom’s coffee. Like most adults back then, Mom drank coffee all day long and always had a cup before bed. With a cigarette. What can I say, it was the 60 & 70’s.    


Every now and then Mom’s New York roots surfaced and she would buy Chun King canned Chow Mein Chinese food. I cannot tell you how it tasted but it looked awful so for me it became a Whatever You Can Find night. When there was extra money, mom would buy Liverwurst. She would eat it on saltines with mustard. At times she would save aside some raw hamburger to snack on like steak tartare  (without the egg). And then there were the times she craved a fried baloney sandwich, again with mustard. She always had those noshes (as she called them) with an Olympia beer.  


When it came to food, I was lucky. While there were times when money was short and I was hungry for specific things, there were never times we went without food entirely. Mom made sure there was always something in the house, even if that something was only pancake mix and syrup. She taught me that with basic inexpensive ingredients you can make an enjoyable meal and to appreciate the simple things, like a burrito bought from the local bodega with returned soda bottles.  

Mom never forced me to eat anything I didn’t want and allowed me to try whatever I wanted. When she had the money and we went to restaurants where I learned to love French Onion Soup, Bleu Cheese Dressing, Shrimp w/ cocktail sauce, cheesecake, monte cristos, mussels and clams . At home it was liverwurst, med rare steak, raw hamburger, mashed potatoes and Oreos that I came to love. Because of Mom  I learned to try the new and embrace the old. 

Thanks to Food Network, I have moved past my Mother’s cooking ability but thanks to her I have four go-to spices that never fail me. Salt. Pepper. Onion. Garlic.

Thanks Mom.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Mother My Villian

My mother. 
The villain of my childhood for “Not”


Not making me go to school
Not making me do homework
Not attending school performances
Not taking me shopping for clothes past age 15
Not keeping her ear off the phone or nose out of a book long enough to see what was going on with her children
Not making her not-working-not-going-to-school-not-helping-at-home asshole son (my brother) move out before he was 26
Not asking where I was when I would be gone overnight or for days
Not being worried when at 8 I spent the night at a new friend’s home (who had no phone and Mom didn't know where the friend lived) and didn't come back for 3 days.
Not making my ER visits for migraines a priority and making me go by myself
Not helping me before helping strangers
Not making me bathe
Not making me brush my teeth
Not raising me herself but leaving it, by default to my sister
Not leaving the abusive man she was married to, my father
Not keeping the house clean which embarrassed me when friends came over
Not protecting me from my verbally abusive brother
Not telling me no, when I started working at a job that I was suppose to be 21 and I was 15
Not protecting me from the abusive boyfriend after she knew
Not protecting me from dating grown men when I was a teenager
Not asking about report cards
Not giving me a curfew
Not making me, as her child, feel like I was more important than her causes
Not parenting me
Not protecting me from...
...others
...her
...me


I no longer see my mother through just a child’s eyes, I have come to understand my mother with adult eyes and while all the above is true, I also now have come to know


My mother, my Hero "Who"...
Who suffered from depression
Who suffered from the hidden shame of being illegitimate
Who suffered in an abusive marriage
Who didn't have the resources in 1950-60’s to get out
Who raised her children alone after her husband left in 1965
Who had no car so all work, school, grocery store, doctor and library travels had to be done by bus or the mercy of people with cars.
Who always kept us out of the Social Service system
Who always kept us sheltered, fed and clothed one way or another
Who pulled strings to get us in subsidized housing without the long wait
Who was raised in privilege but ended up raising her children in poverty, and none of her children live in poverty now.
Who never, for almost 10 years never stopped looking for the father of her children to get the child support due to them
Who taught us by example that all humans are equal
Who taught us among those equal humans, some are assholes and there is nothing you can do about it
Who taught us to fight, not just support ….but FIGHT, for the equality of all
Who never made us wear dirty clothes like some of the other kids did
Who made sure we always had new shoes, not second hand
Who made sure we had a warm coats
Who taught us that words can make a change
Who taught us that reading is wonderful and
Who made sure we always had reading material including comic books if the money allowed.
Who swore like a sailor but was still a lady
Who had a wickedly funny sense of humor
Who put her pride on the line and lost friends asking for favors that kept us sheltered, fed and clothed
Who gave us a love of all types of music (except country)
Who showed me how to fight for ...
...what is right
...others
...me.  


My mother, the parent of my childhood who did her best, though it wasn't always enough. I no longer see myself a victim of my childhood needing protection, I only see my unique childhood that was the cornerstone of ...me
 


Addendum
This post brought up a conversation with a friend who has a similar mother who continues in neglectful patterns. We shared a conversation via email that she found helpful, I am sharing my words of that conversation in case it would be helpful to you.

"I struggled in my relationship with my mother right through to her death.  I believe in my heart that if she had the access to birth control we have, she would never have been a mother. The most painful and aha moment for me was how she basically ignored my daughter (her only grandchild). It was so painful to me that I really didn't speak to her. Then one day I realized that she had never been maternal to her own five kids why did I expect her to suddenly become a loving maternal person because I gave birth??

This realization freed my heart. It wasn't about me or my siblings, it was just who she was, as a person. She did her best to parent and while I still at times wish it was more, clearly it was enough. My siblings and I are fine, my daughter is wonderful, our childhood of poverty, abuse and neglect ended once we became adults. 

I am finally able to appreciate my mom on equal adult footing without judgement. Wistfulness yes, but not judgement and the pain that brought me. 
Full Disclosure: I am however still shocked at times with a "What the HELL was she THINKING!" when a new memory pops up. But overall, I am at peace with her. It took a long time, long, long to get through the shame to be honest with my head high, not downcast.

Well that is the rest of THAT story, I hope it helps.  xoxo"

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lunch Time

There was no lunch room at Emerson Elementary School. Built in 1885 hot lunch was something you went home to eat and it stayed that way until it closed. By 1966 however two working parent homes had become common so home lunch was not always an option. Emerson figured it out though.

At lunch time my first grade class divided into two lines. Not boys and girls, which was standard at the time but Home Lunch and Sack Lunch lines formed. Once the bell rang both lines left the small annex building that housed the Kindergarten and First Grade classrooms. Upon exit the Home Lunch kids were free to go have lunch at home and scattered in different directions.

The Sack Lunch kids followed the teacher over to the main building and up the expansive dark stairwell and into a classroom that the 1st-3rd graders ate in. There was another room for the 4th - 6th graders. There the Sack Lunchers enjoyed their food while a teacher watched over them. After finishing they would sit (not patiently) and wait until a set time when they were all release to go outside and play until class resumed. Anyone who had not finished their lunch by that set time was out of luck, eating time was over.

I remember eating in that classroom and I am sure I must have eaten at home too on occasion, but what I remember most is the days when my Mother gave my 6th Grade sister a dollar and we “ate out”.

My mother instructed my sister to use that dollar and take us to Red Barn for lunch. On those days we would walk the  2 ½ blocks to Red Barn and for $1 we would get 2 hamburgers, 2 orders of french fries and 2 cokes. We would eat, then walk back to school.

One day my sister felt like something a little different…. McDonalds. We walked the 6 blocks where her dreams of something different were granted. For our $1 we had 2 hamburgers, 2 orders of french fries and 2 cokes that we ate at an outside table. We then walked back to school. 

There was just one problem. Walking 12 blocks round trip takes much longer than walking 5 blocks round trip. I knew we were late the minute we came around the corner and the playground was quiet, not a student in site. My sister started running to the main building “Go to class!” was her parting remark. I had to walk in late, alone.  I remember feeling nervous as I walked into the quiet hallway. I stood outside the door waiting for my courage. When it didn't come,  I walked in anyway.  My teacher looked up at me from her desk, which caused my eyes to drop to the floor as I hurried to my seat. “You are late Maura.” she said.  I just nodded in agreement and sat down. Fortunately that was all she said about it. From then on my sister and I ate our McDonalds walking down Colfax on our way back to school.

My favorite lunches were the Gas Station lunches. On Colfax, north of the playground was a gas station and sometimes my sister would take us there on Dollar Day. She would get change from the gas station attendant and go to the candy machine where she would purchase two Nestle’s Crunch bars at ten cents each and hand me one. She would then go to the soda machine where she would buy two bottles of Pepsi for twelve cents each and open them on the side of the machine. We would sit down on the curb by the gas station bathrooms and eat our lunch. We were never late on those days. Years later when I mentioned those gas station lunches to my sister and how fun they were she said “Oh yea, I used to do that and then keep  the rest of the lunch  money.”

Hmmmm...Two Nestle’s Crunch bars, 20 ¢, two Pepsi’s 24 ¢, total 44 ¢, out of $1.00, 66¢, profit to my sister. Upon reflection 33¢, of that was mine, it really was Mom’s, but if it was being kept half of it should have been mine. Technically. It explained how she had money for candy after school.

Emerson Elementary, the oldest standing school in Colorado was the first Denver school to incorporate space for an in-house library and had the first PTA in the Denver district, as well as the first student council. It was also the only school I went to with no hot lunch and no lunch room.  Thanks Emerson for being so progressive and so behind the times, allowing me, on occasion, to “eat out.”


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Father's Face

When I look at my hands I know I am my mother’s daughter. 
I have her hands. And her feet. And her fingernails. I also have her passion for equality and her outspoken nature. 

Recently I was looking at an old photo of my Father, a man whose face is not in my direct memory, whose voice I cannot hear in my mind. 

In the few recollections I have of him I cannot see his face so I substitute it with the face from one of the even fewer photos I have seen of him.

I am looking at photo of my Father from a time when I am not in his memory either. A time before I am born, before my sisters or my brother are born.  It is a time when my Father was a young man, not yet married to my mother. A young man but like all men of that time, he looked older than he was. 

He is wearing his US Navy uniform. Navy blue with 3 white stripes on the jumper flaps. On his left sleeve a white eagle, wings spread and below it a Mechanic’s Mate insignia (a propeller). This photo was taken in the early 40’s, a black and white that someone colored and his eyes are a little too blue, his cheeks a little too rouged.  His hair is parted on the left and has a shine from Brylcreem or maybe Vitalis. He has a small Errol Flynn mustache. 

I look, really look at this man, this stranger, my Father, whom I feel no emotional connection to and for the fist time ever I wonder who I am  to him. I am unmistakably my mothers child and I know this each time I look in the mirror but I am also his, technically I am 50% of him, but where? I study the picture looking for me in him or Him in Me. 

As I look at his small attached ears, I see my sister Tara. 
I look at his broad forehead and see my sister Michele.  
The blue eyes, those are my sister Colleen’s. 
Wavy hair, that would be my brother Richard.

I don’t know why at this point in my life, when I am over half a century old I care, but suddenly I do. What parts of me did I get from this stranger-to-me who left when I was 5 never to return?  

What did I get besides the few brief snippets of memories that are my own, not stories passed down. So much time has passed that when I hear his voice, it is not his but my own voice saying his words. My Father, this stranger, what did I get from him?  

I search his face again.

The nose I realize is mine. Not the new nose I got at 21 but I see my old nose on my father’s face. The nose I now see on my daughter’s face as well. 

My square chin, that is from him. 

I start looking more closely, his ears sick out, as do mine. Deep set eyes, yes I got those but bigger, like Moms. Strong jaw, me too. His hair looks thin, that I got from him as well.

I wish there was more to this photo. I know that in addition to hand and feet, I have Mom's knobby knees, her neck and her collar bones. But what about my arms? My legs? My shoulders and back? Should I assume that anything not Mom’s is his? I wish I could see more of him, find other similarities to tie me to him. 

There is no more though and I realize that however limited the image I have of him in this portrait is, I am indeed connected to this man physically but what about personality or traits? 

Was he funny? Did he like to read? Did he like art? Music? Did he love to dance? He loved motorcycles and owned a Harley, I love... Sons of Anarchy?  I know he was a mechanic and I do have a natural aptitude for mechanical things, that must be from him, but is that all I share with him?

One trait I know he had was drinking, or rather his inability to walk away from one. I luckily do not have that. He also had a quick temper something I once had but learned to control, but maybe that was a nurture not nature thing. But maybe his was too??

I have felt family poor much of my life. All around me people had family outside their immediate nucleus. Uncles. Cousins. Nieces. Grandmothers. Aunts. Grandfathers. Nephews. My mother had no living family and because my father was so completely gone, so was my extended family. Even before my father died, when asked about my family I use to say that there were 6 members, my mother and us 5 kids. Such a small family and all I had.

While putting his picture in a frame, my Father has come to life in me. I see now that I am part of this man that I do not know, this man who I have for the most part given little thought to throughout my life. However, when I look in the mirror now I will see his chin, his protruding ears and jaw. When I look at my daughter I will see his nose passed on to her, through me. 

By looking at that photo and seeing parts of me in it,  I now see that I am not family poor. Though I do not have any “family memories” of him I now see that he is just like the Cousins and Aunts and Uncles and Grandparents that I never got to know. They are still MY family. They are a part of me and I am a part of them.  In hundreds of seen and unseen ways I am part of the family collective because no matter what, my father's lifeblood, his DNA gave me this nose and chin and jaw and stand-out ears. Next time I look at my Fathers picture, I will see me and know that I am family-rich. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Lie

I have told a lie for 35 years.
I have told it numerous times, so many in fact that I had almost forgotten the truth.

Here is the truth.

When was 15 we moved to a new neighborhood. Again.
I was in 9th grade and I was at my 3rd school that year having left the friends had managed to make the past 5 months. There was only 3 months of junior high left and I missed my friends.

Since we had no phone at home I spent a lot of my time at the convenience store half a block away using the pay phone to call my friends. This continued through the summer until we moved that fall.

Because of my spending so much time at the store I got to know not only the employees but the regulars as well. There was one guy that used to came in often, for cigarettes mostly. I have forgotten his name now but he was in his mid twenties, 5’9”-ish, thin. He had a beautiful face and an intense presence. I was interested right away. Over time we came to smile say Hi and learned each others names.

One summer day he asked me if I wanted to get high. Without delay I agreed, I loved getting high. I love the distance it created between me and the world, I was happy for the invite.

We walked the three and a half blocks up 6th Ave to his apartment. He lived on the third floor of a building that was built in the 60’s, the kind than looks like a motel. His apartment was at the top of the stairs. During the walk he I learned that he had been in Vietnam and that he chain smoked.

His apartment was a one bedroom with a galley kitchen, and as I expected, had cheap not matching furniture. What did surprise me was how clean his place was. Everything had its place and was in it. His decorations were mostly mementos he had brought back from Nam.

Without sitting down he reached under the couch and pulled out a shoebox lid with loose weed and a couple of already rolled joints. He plucked one out lit it, took a couple of hits and handed it to me where I sat on the couch. Without sitting down, he began showing me all his Vietnam memorabilia. He was moving around non-stop, chain smoking, unable to be still. I realized that he was already high, wired on something else. He was agitated and manic and I was immediately uncomfortable and knew I needed to get out of there.

I waited a few minutes then said I had to go. He quickly said no, that he wanted to show me something and went off to the bedroom muttering to himself. I stood up and stared to the door. My intent was to have the door open so I could leave as soon as he was back. As I started to toward the door I heard a sound from the bedroom that I recognized from the movies, it sent adrenaline through my body, my new plan was to just leave. No goodbye.

I didn’t make it to the door, he was back in a second and had a sword. A long curved Vietnamese sword. The sound I heard was it coming out of its sheath. I stood there admiring it as he told me about its easy capabilities to do physical damage to the human form.

Once more I said I had to leave, again he said no and that he wanted to show me something in the bedroom. He grabbed my wrist and still holding the sword, took me to the bedroom. Again everything was cheap, clean and in its place. Again everything was decorated with items from about Vietnam.

I was standing by the door, at the foot of the bed, he had let go of my hand and pointed out a flag on the wall and told me a story about it, a story I didn’t really hear since I was desperately trying to think of a way to get out of his apartment.

He suddenly turned and with his free hand grabbed me around the waist and kissed me. Now mind you this was something I wanted to do for some time, kiss him, but not his way. Not with me feeling trapped in his apartment, not with him holding a sword, not with me feeling scared. There was nothing nice about this kiss, it was hard and demanding. I could feel his erection pressing against me, I couldn’t think of a way out. As long as he had the sword he had an additional 3 foot reach that prevented me from getting away. I knew there was no way to outrun the reach of that sword.

Still holding the sword he pushed me to the bed. The edge of the mattress hit the back of my knees, and feet remaining on the floor, I fell backward onto the bed. He was next to me in an instant. The sword was still in his hand, on the bed just above my head. My objective changed, I knew there was no way out of the sex, I just wanted out without getting seriously hurt or even killed, which had became my immediate fear.

He then pushed his running shorts down to expose himself and rolled on top of me. He slid the crouch of my shorts to one side and raped me. It was over quickly and he rolled off of me onto his back to catch his breath. At some point he had finally let go of the sword.

I immediately stood up and said I needed to go to the bathroom. As I headed out of he room I heard him tell me to wait. I didn’t. I ran to the front door, unlocked the bolt and threw the door wide open and started running down the stairs. My fear was exploding in me and and adrenaline was now pumping through my body, all I could hear was my own pulse thudding in my ears. I ran all the way home.

Although I have told parts of the story before, I had never told about the rape. Never. Not to anyone. “MY” story is a cautionary tale of what could happen. In “MY” story I escape. In “MY” story I am my own heroine. “MY” story has always been the cover-up for the guilt I felt for having been somewhere I shouldn’t have been. For going into a stranger’s house to get high with him. For not being as grown as I thought I was. Mostly, for not protecting myself.

Recently I was watching a movie in which a 14 year old girl was rapped in a situation similar to mine. “MY” story fell apart in my mind and for the first time I cried about what had happened to the the 15 year old girl I once was.

Although I had intellectually known I didn’t “deserve” it, I had still believed that some of the blame was mine for being where I was at the time. I had never said no to him since I as afraid that it would escalate the situation dangerously. Seeing that rape acted out of film, for some reason, freed me. Seeing her innocence and trust, understanding my innocence and trust, I was finally able to forgive myself for not saving myself from being raped. My relief is immeasurable.

Looking back with adult eyes, I am now confident that even though I did nothing to stop it, it was rape. He silenced my voice through intimidation as completely as if he had his hand over my mouth. I was my own heroine in that I played the best cards dealt at the time and I got out from what had all the potential of becoming a much worse situation. Finally, 35 years later, my guilt, shame and embarrassment are gone.

Thirtyfive years later, my truth is back, my lie is gone.

Author’s note:

I know some of you were uncomfortable hearing my story.

According to a poll taken by the Colorado Dept of Health, 24% of women and 7% of men admitted being victims of sexual violence. That is in line with the rest of the United States.

What do those numbers really mean?
Colorado’s population is about 5 million. So over 1 million people in Colorado have admitted to being victims of sexual violence.

One million people. That is the is populations of Denver, Aurora and Centennial combined. 
And we know that only 40% of sexual assaults are reported. Yet the subject of Rape is still a taboo topic not meant for “polite” company. Much like Breast Cancer once was.

My goal in sharing my story is to begin making change. I want to start opening communication and bring this topic that affects so many people out so we can begin to help those who's voices are silenced by the shame that secrecy brings.

It is my dream that one day “shame” is longer listed as an effect of rape and that no one else ever have to lie about their truth again.

If you or someone you know is in need of someone to talk to about a sexual violence incident, please contact National Sexual Assault Hotline - 1.800.656.HOPE (4673)


Thank you

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Miss Substitute

One of the best things about school was substitute teachers.

Especially in elementary school where you had them all day. But you never really expected to learn much when a substitute was there. The days with substitutes were like free days, especially if your teacher was out unexpectedly. No lesson plans prepared, no instructions to follow, that substitute was on her own.

Her own. Not HIS own. Aside from gym teachers or principles, I never had a male teacher in elementary school. Not once. I remember having male teachers for the first time in junior high at Smiley. It was so strange and kind of fun, something new to the old mix. Until I realized that they were just the same as the female teachers. Some were nice, some were strict, some enjoyed teaching, some were unfair, some were funny and some hated their jobs. And like all teachers, some days they were "absent" and those days were usually a bit more fun.

When I was in 5th grade at Wyatt Elementary we always knew when our teacher Ms Silberberg was going to be out because she told us ahead of time. She always let us know that she expected our best behavior while she was gone and wanted the hear good reports back from the substitute teacher. And for the most part we did our best to make her proud. But there is always an exception.

One morning when we arrived to class Ms. Silberberg unexpectedly wasn't there. No teacher was. After the tardy bell rang someone from the office came and told us that Ms Silberberg wouldn't be in and that a substitute teacher was on the way. We were told to sit quietly, to start studying our spelling words. Also the classroom door would be left open and there was not to be any noise coming out of the classroom. The office assistant then left.

"Study your spelling words."
This was probably the worst thing we could have been asked to do.
We didn't all study the same spelling list but had individual lists according to our ability that were kept in folders in a bin behind Ms Silberberg's desk.

These simple instructions, that must have sounded great to the office assistant as she said them to us, created a flurry of activity and caused 30 students to try to cram themselves into a 3 foot by 2 foot area all trying to simultaneously go through a stack of folders looking for the one with their name. It would have been more accurate if the office worker had yelled "LET THE GAMES BEGIN!" We were smart enough however to be quiet during all the pushing, shoving, blocking and teasing that went on and eventually we all made to desks around the room. Literally.

When we did well as a class, we were allowed to put our desks anywhere we wanted in the room and sit by whoever we wanted. As a class our preferred placement was around the perimeter of the room, against the walls. This allowed for the rug that Ms Silberberg had brought to be placed in the middle of the room. Some students faced their desks into the center of the room, some faced the walls. If we misbehaved our punishment was being placed into rows alphabetically "old school" style.

On this day are desks were around the room and we were sitting everywhere, but where we belonged, "studying" when the substitute came in. She was white, older (30's), short, had a small frame and a towering red beehive, my first thought was she just came off the show Hee Haw. She was clearly uncomfortable in this Black and Hispanic school. Her nervousness was palatable to the class and looks shot around the room immediately. This would be fun.

Miss Substitute came in and went directly to Ms Silberberg's desk in the back of the room and started looking for a lesson plan as we watched. No luck, there was no lesson plan. Her eyes briefly went around the room and she asked what we were supposed to be working on. Everyone answered at once. Some said what we normally worked on at that time, some answered spelling like the office assistant told us, some lied different things just for the fun of it. One enterprising classmate said recess.

Miss Substitute looked nervously back to the desk, most likely hoping that magically the lesson plan had appeared when Maria pointed out roll hadn't been taken yet. Grateful to have something concrete to do Miss Substitute got the Attendance Book and started down the list of names. This became another fun game for us as she mispronounced most of the names. Trujillo became True-jill-o; Belia became Beel-i-a, by the time she came to Maura, I yelled out the correct pronunciation before she said something that would become a nickname that I wouldn't be able to shake. We were laughing and teasing and enjoying roll like never before.

With attendance finally over and she asked again what we should be working on, Armando pointed out we didn't know her name. Miss Substitute walked up to the blackboard at the front of the room and as she went past him, Armondo shot a spit wad at that big red beehive, and it stuck. Everyone burst out laughing, Miss Substitute wrote her rather unmemorable Anglo name on the board, then turned and asked again what we should be studying. Marylin then said that Arthur wasn't in his seat.

That information brought forth even more commotion as Miss Substitute started trying to get everyone to his or her correct seat. After more time than it should have taken, everyone was in their own seat and Miss Substitute had amassed a sizable collection of rolled up pieces of paper and pencil erasers in her big red beehive. As she had gone around the room getting students to move, the boys had picked up on Armondo's idea and it became open season on big red beehives. No licence needed. Finally everyone was at their desks but there was just one problem, Randy was sitting on his desk, back against the wall feet on the seat, not in it. Miss Substitute walked over to Randy's desk and told him to sit down. "I am." he replied while looking at her straight in the eye.

Randy was tall in 5th grade, about 5' 5" a good two inches taller than Miss Substitute, and even while sitting on the desk still taller than her. Miss Substitute told him to sit in the seat. Randy didn't say a word, he continued his eye-lock with her, folded his arms across his chest, and tilted his head to the left. His body language screamed "Make me". For the first time since Miss Substitute came in the room it was quiet. Really quiet. No one moving a muscle quiet.

Miss Substitute gathered all her authority and asked in her most threatening voice "What is your name?"
The room erupted in a chorus of "Randy!", "His name is Randy!", "That's Randy!"
But Randy didn't answer, he just continued to stare at Miss Substitute and when it quieted down he slowly started spelling, "R-A-N-D-Y."
Miss Substitute started trembling, just a bit, and as Randy continued spelling she was either unable or unwilling to take her eyes off him, she stood there staring at him as he finished.

I was sitting next to Randy, my desk facing into the room, so I could see Miss Substitute's face, and just as Randy finished spelling his name, I saw Miss Substitute's complete fear and watched as her eyes fill with tears. This was no longer funny, I knew it and from the shift I saw on Randy's face, he knew it too. The class was now officially out of control.

Without losing face in front of the class Randy broke the stare down by laughing and plopped into his seat. The class, not having seen the fear or potential tears, or realizing Randy's conceding, started laughing too. Miss Substitute regained her composure as she walked back to Ms Silberberg's desk. Randy and I were the only two not laughing at that point. We looked at each other silently acknowledging that things had gone dangerously too far.

As Miss Substitute got to the desk I called out the subject we were suppose to be working on, by then our fourth subject of the day, and just as Miss Substitute was finally going to teach us something, the classroom door opened and Ms Silberberg came in. There was a spontaneous cheer from all the students and some of the girls rushed up to hug her. It seemed Randy and I weren't the only ones feeling things were out of control.

Ms Silberberg looked around the room a little shocked at the reception. "Well hello everyone." she said.
She then looked down at the girls and while smiling asked, "May I come in the room?"
During this time Miss Substitute had gathered her things and with no delay, goodbye or even a glance at us, she headed out the door.

I never really expected to learn much on a day with a substitute.
But there is always an exception.
On that day, though I already knew the word, I learned compassion.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The non-musical sounds that I love

Train whistle at night
Clock tower striking
Breathing of a sleeping baby
Sheets gently blowing on the clothesline
Wind chimes
Heavy diner plate being set on a Formica table
Puppy grunts
Wind blowing through the trees
Rain on the roof
The lack of sound on a snow covered night
Ocean waves