Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Coward's Peace

In the long-ago days of my childhood, a group of us (consisting mostly of girls) were ritually chased all over the neighborhood by a pack of bullies (consisting mostly of boys.) Those of us who could run like the wind  experienced the intoxication of speed, the exhilarating triumph of freedom . Those of us who weren't quite fast enough would run until there was no more breath in our lungs and then we would double over puffing like a steam train, clutching the side of our bodies where the stabbing pain was fiercest. When the bullies reached us we were already a conquered people, a half-dead quarry.  All that was left to do with our sad remains was to shove us roughly, into the bushes or against the nearest fence or tree trunk and be done.

I could not count myself among the human gazelles. My obsession with confections in ample quantity resulted in my carrying more ballast than I needed. Thus, I was one of the slower ones who would inevitably be caught. I was doomed to suffer the agony of a pounding heart and exploding lungs. I went around the neighborhood dreading the prospect, yet  knowing it would eventually come. I was skittery as a jackrabbit, vulnerable as a fawn in an open meadow.  I lived the whole of  my outdoor life in abject fear of pursuit.

Then one day as I was in the frantic process of making my escape, I  suddenly decided I'd had enough. I stopped, just stopped right there in the center of the sidewalk and waited. I might as well be shoved and pulled and pummeled while I could still breathe, I reasoned. So I waited for the predators to descend on me and in that waiting, that absence of struggle, I discovered an odd sense of peace. It consisted, I suppose, of simply yielding to the inevitable and knowing that, whatever my pursuers chose to do, I would not be killed or even horribly maimed. It would hurt a little, that's all. I would survive and go home to dinner licking my wounds and hoping that dessert would consist of something more tantalizing to the taste buds than canned peaches or fruit cocktail.

I stood in a half-paralyzing, half-liberating state of acquiescence, freed of  that horribly burdensome need to keep running, and watched  as the boypack came closer. And closer.  Then -- to my utter astonishment -- they parted and flowed around me as though I were a rock in the middle of a stream. Only one of them thought to shove me and he did it so half-heartedly that I easily regained my balance before toppling into a picket fence. I stared as the mongrel pack ran on in search, presumably, of more challenging prey.

That incident in my childhood has stayed in my mind as a sort of metaphor which I feel compelled, at odd moments, to pick apart.  Are there times when it is best to cease to struggle, times when the odds are so heavily stacked against you that it is better to yield quietly than continue to fight?

I remember the sense of peace I felt when I realized I could just stop running, a coward's peace perhaps, and yet...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Generations 1954 (Two Perspectives)

Miss Felicity Bryers

No doubt about it, there were certain children one simply could not make oneself like.  Even if one is an elementary school teacher. One must maintain a professional demeanor, of course. Swallow one's irritation. Smile, always smile, even if one's facial muscles ache with the effort.

Miss Bryers inhaled deeply then let out her breath in a long, weary sigh.  Every year of teaching (and there had been almost forty of them at this point), every single year, there was at least one child who tested her patience almost beyond endurance. This year it was Edwina Baker, a loud, big-boned girl with untidy hair who slouched at her desk and scowled openly whenever Miss Bryers reminded her, ever so gently, of the importance of good grooming and correct posture. Edwina wasn't actually fat like poor Junie Bass who weighed one hundred and forty-five pounds at the age of ten. Junie, though, was  quite amicable and had such a sweet dimpled smile that one could quite easily overlook her obesity.

With Edwina it was the way she flung herself about like one of those child-sized rag dolls, a grotesque, jumbo-sized Raggedy Ann. She was simply too big to romp about the way she did . If her big body had harbored a big brain, Miss Bryers might have found her more tolerable but Edwina's work was generally average or slightly above, except in math where she struggled along without bothering to hide her resentment, tapping her pencil against the metal side of her desk until she was told to stop or drumming impatiently with her feet against the floor. On one occasion she'd even dared to complain that she couldn't work the math problems without making some kind of noise.  "Nonsense," Miss Bryers had declared. "Everyone else can do it," she'd said, making a sweeping gesture with her hand around the classroom. Edwina had scowled at her but kept silent.

Then there was that incident of the Friday spelling test.

"And now let's get ready for our spelling test," Miss Bryers had announced, and Edwina had shouted out "Whoopee!" in an unmistakably sarcastic tone of voice.  Well, Miss Bryers had sent her out of the room to stand by herself in the hall -- a reasonable, in fact rather a mild punishment for such an open display of disrespect.  When the spelling test was completed and the papers collected, she'd invited Edwina to come back to class. "You may come in now, Edwina," she'd said, and Edwina had shocked Miss Bryers right down to the soles of her shoes when she answered "No thanks, I prefer it out here in the hall."

After that, things had gone from bad to worse. Miss Bryers had called in the principal,Vera Downing,  who had threatened to call Edwina father. Surely that should have frightened the incorrigible girl but Edwina only smiled -- smirked, actually-- and gazed up at the ceiling. Miss Bryers thought that, in all her days of teaching at Foster-Merriam School for Girls, she'd never witnessed such open defiance. Too bad, she found herself thinking, too bad they outlawed corporal punishment for surely what Edwina Baker deserved was a hard paddle to her backside. That would wipe the smirk off her face. Not that Miss Bryers condoned corporal punishment, but in certain cases such as this one....

And the worst of it all was there were still two more months to go before school let out and she need never come within ten yards of Edwina Baker again.

Edwina Baker

Seated on the bus on her way back home from school, Edwina conceded that she did feel just a little bit apprehensive. By now, the principal would have called her mother. Her father, of course, was permanently  unavailable for such phone calls, something she knew but which Miss Downing and Miss Bryers did not.  Anything to do with children and school was up to her  mother. Her father was much too busy writing books and traveling all over the world giving lectures to be bothered with such trifles.

Edwina was no more afraid of her mother than she was of her principal and teacher and, in that respect, she differed from most of her classmates who were completely cowed by the idea of scoldings, spankings and loss of privileges. In order to excel at being bad -- and Edwina did excel at it -- you had to live inside a cold hard anger. That way the words people threw at you were like those baby marshmallows propelled by a slingshot. Even if they stuck to you, all you had to do was brush them off.

Edwina reflected that she had been angry most of her life:  angry at her father for ordering her mother around like a servant, angry at her mother for letting herself be bossed around, angry at her grown-up sister who carried a list in her head of all the bad things people were always saying about Edwina. She was angry at Miss Bryers, too, or The Little Red Hen as Edwina preferred to call her. Miss Bryers was such a prim, fussy hen-like presence in the classroom, always offering advice that no one had asked for in the first place. Whenever Miss Bryers moved about the room glancing at every one's paper to see how they were doing, Edwina would mutter "pawk, pa wk, pa wk," under her breath. If one or more of her classmates overheard, they would smile ever so slightly. Though the other girls didn't like Edwina all that much because she was big and bony and they were all -- except for Junie Bass -- small and dainty at least they admired her fearlessness.

The reason Edwina was apprehensive wasn't about fear; it was about that sad look her mother always got whenever Edwina landed in trouble. Sad and confused.  Like she couldn't understand how Edwina  could act that way and maybe she really couldn't. In the days of her mother's childhood practically everyone  did as they were told. In her mother's day, if you weren't good, you had to sit in a corner wearing a cone-shaped cap that had "dunce" written on it. You could even get beaten on the backs of your legs with a switch. These days you just got sent out of the classroom to stand in the hall which was no big deal.  In fact, standing in the hall was better than sitting in the classroom which was why Edwina had refused to come back in. In the hall she could think her own thoughts, make up stories in her head, stories in which she put on armor and entered a tournament pretending to be a knight. In the end after she'd unseated every contender, she would pull off her helmet and shake out her long hair while all the spectators would gasp. Then Sir Julian, the Intrepid would ride forward on his palomino horse, dismount and, taking her hand, beg her to join his elite group called the Knights of the Burning Blade and she would gladly accept.

Edwina sighed. It wouldn't work indefinitely, of course -- standing out in the hall all day with no book to read or paper and pencil for writing and illustrating stories. If only she could make time jump forward two months. Then fifth grade would be over and she wouldn't have to be anywhere near Miss Bryers ever ever again.

Monday, August 6, 2012



When you were a child, did you have a special hideout in your house, your backyard or somewhere in your neighborhood?  A place nobody but you knew about? A place safe from bullies, parents, pesky siblings, disloyal friends?

I had several of these places. The first one I remember is Wisterialand.  During my childhood we lived in a large colonial-style house in Washington, D.C.  My bedroom was built over the kitchen and over the kitchen porch was a roof lavishly covered by a wisteria vine. In spring an explosion of purple clusters sent their intoxicating perfume into the air. I was captivated and so were the bees -- thousands of them swarming over the blooms.

It was because of the bees that no one expected me to venture out onto the roof. What they didn't know though  was that the bees and I were entirely compatible. They never stung me and I never, for a moment, feared they would. Their business was to harvest the sweet nectar of the wisteria; mine was to sit quietly leaning my back against the outside wall of my bedroom, concealed from view both from inside and out. I would close my eyes and inhale deeply, filling my lungs with the blossom-infused air and my ears with the low-pitched hum of the bees.

Sometimes I would think about flying, taking off from the roof, rising on the updraughts over the roofs of neighboring houses, soaring ever higher, my face caressed every now and then by fragments of  cirrus clouds.

Or I would imagine myself the same size as a bee, perhaps even disguised as a bee, another long-term denizen of Wisterialand. My parents would search for me in vain and the police, whom they would eventually call in, would fare no better. I did not think about what would happen when autumn came, followed by winter.  I was a child and winter was about as far into the distant future as adulthood or old age.

The only thing imaginable past spring was summer and then I would leave the city and go either to our farm in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia or else to Aunt Elizabeth's cottage on the Maine coast.

In both those places I had several hideouts.

I am an old woman now and still a product of my childhood obsession with hiding places. It has occurred to me that Wisterialand represents both my need for safety and my craving for adventure. Daring to climb out on the roof and remain there surrounded by bees is the adventurous part.  Being hidden from those I wish to avoid is, of course, the safety-seeking aspect.

Even now, wherever I happen to be, my eyes will naturally seek out hiding places:  the hollow trunk of a tree, a shallow cave in a rocky ledge, a  small opening in a clump of bushes, an abandoned house or barn, a narrow space between two buildings...

In harboring two seemingly conflicting impulses I am, I suppose, no different from most other animals. My summons, their summons, is simply this: go out into the world prepared to hide.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Poem for Educators

Sad Lonely Child

What happens to the child who knows the tune
But can't remember the words to the song,
The child who can shinny up any pole
But kicks the ball in the opposing team's goal?

What happens to the child who knows the names
Of all fifty states at the age of ten
And their capitals, too, but can't tell time
Or be able to tell you if two words rhyme?

Child Climbing Wooden Column
What happens to the child who'll take apart
a watch or a toaster and fix it like new
But can't read the words in his third grade text
And two-step directions leave him perplexed?

What happens to the child who wants to know
If kittens believe in the afterlife
Or if presidents have to follow the law
A child who can't write but who loves to draw?

What becomes of the thrush in the eagle's nest,
The gazelle  in a herd of wildebeasts
The pony who bucks and won't take the bit
Eccentric, maverick, oddball, misfit....

The child you'll never find multitasking?

Maybe these are some questions we ought to be asking?