Random Observations - Lois Greene Stone

A Tabloid in Braille
            Remember special events shared around a dining room table, and how its “formality” made an occasion more meaningful?
            Many 21st century builders claim it’s passé. House designers suggest, for family and friends, high stools with an island-counter. If more ‘formality’ is wanted, hosts can set a kitchen table, if one is available. How emotionally comfortable is it to entertain among the preparation pots and accumulated dishes in the sink? An island-countertop is a workplace, not a special eating surface.
            Agility left with aging. A high, backless stool seemingly stared at me from its place next to, as my host mentioned several times, the granite counter top. The glare from the drop-down lighting made that surface seem shinier. How would my old body hoist itself onto the stool, and what do I do with dangling legs, and will my back be able to manage without support?
            A deep sink was part of this island, and preparation items were already in it. Heavy black dishes were placed as settings, and, while I was grateful not to maneuver with paper plates, my ‘setting’ was an elbow-distance from the sink. The host said anyone who preferred standing during the meal certainly could do so. I wasn’t sure if standing without surgical stockings, or sitting with my feet far from the floor and my spine unsupported would be worse.
            For me, a real table (in a dining room) is more than just a piece of furniture in a separate space. Active living is performed around it, it invites social activity and face-to-face communication with many people.  Usually, it is a one-time investment, unless one moves to smaller quarters after children have grown. It absorbs the growing, aging, drama of family life; it outlives its owners and goes on to accumulate another set of fingerprints and scars.
            Where else can a family enjoy breakfast with the Sunday papers spread … a dress pattern laid out and cut for home sewing… jigsaw puzzles pieced… flowers beaded.. large posters painted… friends brought home to dinner? Okay. In this century, newspapers are read online or voiced by Artificial Communication, and who sews anymore, or does handcraft? Jig saw puzzles are sometimes done on a roll-up mat so who needs the big wood surface? Are my decades of living showing by my thoughts?
            I grew up in a center-entrance colonial-style house. As I came through the front door from school, the Duncan Phyfe style mahogany table received my books, while my coat caught a gold satin upholstered seat. Certainly I knew it was just as much effort to hang up the coat in the hall closet as to drop it on a chair, and I did have a desk of my own upstairs for my books, but the room was so pretty and convenient! Gold satin wallpaper reached to the dado, and the crystal chandelier’s sparkle was caught in the mirror above a buffet. This was the perfect first-stop place each day after school.
            Sunday scrambled eggs, birthday parties, Michigan rummy games my grandpa played with his sons, religious festivities, food after my father’s funeral, graduation cakes, wedding invitation addressing, and lengthy conversations were all shared in this lovely room. When the house was eventually sold by my widowed mother who took a small apartment on the opposite coast, and a charity carted off the table, my fingers felt the surface. Math equations were etched in, and I touched the rough area where a snow-covered book had lingered too long and claimed some shine. Did I see salty tear stains following human burial or was the ring made from the hot dish accidentally set down? My elementary school graduation dress was hand made on the mahogany. Yes, there were the pin marks. Living room furniture came and went, all but master-bedroom furniture was replaced, kitchen tables were changed: the dining room table was constant.
            My formal dining room, with its all wood French cherry table glowing in the light from an imported crystal and bronze chandelier my mother bought me in 1967 is where I used to put my heavy portable typewriter while my young children played Monopoly across from me. Was the setting incongruous? This room was, and still is, just more beautiful than the others in the house, has the largest table surface of any other, and is still a natural gathering place for family and friends. The very act of eating takes on a social dimension not found in a kitchen nor on a snack tray.
            I cut out dress patterns, addressed my daughter’s wedding invitations, placed texts and graded papers when I taught college English Composition after my children were completely grown, and I constantly now use the table with grandchildren. Even Scrabble seems more special sitting on padded arm chairs, natural light flashing onto a crystal in the chandelier. I can see my sewing-pin marks, areas drier and faded from the sunlight hitting one side, tiny indentations from pressure of ball-point pens…….  My dining table is a tabloid: its story written in braille.

Let’s Raise Cane; We’re Able!
            Control. We think we’re powerless. Once any computer network knows our mother’s maiden name, or definitely our social security number, our privacy might be accessed by a keystroke.
            We must age, wrinkle, pay taxes, follow rules of the road, not harass anyone, recycle plastics/newspapers/glass, and so forth. Some businessmen must still wear ties and jackets in 90° weather, and prom gowns held up by spaghetti straps are decreed to be baring: sometimes, we can’t control even our clothing choices.
            But… we do have strange powers. Whenever you’ve just hand-washed your car, doesn’t it rain? If you once elected to put snow tires on that vehicle, didn’t you see a milder winter with little snow? When you’ve undressed earlier than usual and are in bathrobe and slippers, haven’t you had unexpected company? If you’re deciding between two horses at a race and select “A”, doesn’t “B” win?
            So, it seems, we can make things happen. Why, then, in an election year, shouldn’t we realize our vote may make a difference? And why can’t we choose to judge candidates on possible ability to govern and not the titterings which the media and journalists suggest?
            Bob Woodward’s book, The Choice, wanted us to peek into the bedroom of Bob Dole, listen to Hillary Clinton carry on conversations with the deceased, and so forth; what’s any of this got to do with diplomacy, intelligence, leadership? We can consider which candidate seems to have a personality and record we respect, and which hands we’d want responsible for over-age-18 children should a third world war start.
            We would like to assume that politicians would never lie under oath, tarnish the larger-than-life image we give them. We’ve seen, however, that politicians are people with flaws and often use tactics to stay in powerful positions. Our government is not one big summer camp friendship circle; our two parties show this to television viewers during a president’s speech where one group remains seated and the other group applauds.
            Control isn’t always negative. Just think how society has ‘controlled’ quality of life with discovery of antibiotics; harnessing of electricity; invention of air conditioning, television, satellite dishes, computers, airplanes, cellular phones; making ramps available for the wheelchair-bound; setting up drive-in banking; intervention of blocked heart vessels with surgical techniques, and so forth.
            Perhaps we all might stop whining about our powerless position and evaluate the ways we actually do make a difference to others and society as a whole. With COVID-19 we, as neighbors, have choices: will we hoard paper products and dry goods or take what we need so there might be enough for other shoppers? Might we respect the aged who might literally die from infection or comment that they’d lived long enough and not bother to phone those we know in that category and ask if we could do anything. Have we guided children to not loot or destroy closed shops since they might think this is just fun and no more than pranks since schools are closed in most of the country?
            Think about it: if you can make rain merely by washing your car, our actions can help or hurt.

Why Do Some Teachers Drop Out?
            Think the schoolteacher-shortage is because of low salary or crime? There may be a ‘human’ reason. We’ve rationalized about student drop-outs, but faculty-leaving may come from personal creativity-smothering and a system with a goal of conformity.
            When I did my Student Teaching six week requirement for an Education degree, I taught high school English and Art; I allowed my Art students to hum as they painted, and devised English Shakespeare exams in crossword-puzzle and word-search game form. The ‘regular’ teacher negatively graded my creativity, felt I also should not have met with students after classes to hear about their adolescent problems; the Art teacher suggested I was lax with discipline as a room must be quiet. My college advisor received these comments. Yes. It was long ago but my teaching methods couldn’t be suppressed by sour criticism; only my Student Teaching grade was poor.
            I was still that rebel when I taught English Composition in a local college and heard similar remarks about my caring for individuals and creativity with curriculum. The Acting Head of the English Department was upset that I met with my students in the cafeteria to listen to their personal problems. He said conferences had to be in the sterile office setting, and that only academic works were to be discussed. Further, he demanded perfect faculty-meeting attendance defining merit classification as “I think that anyone truly committed to good teaching should be willing to make time for this handful of meetings” …not department faculty meetings, but repeated rap sessions with others instructing the same course. He told me I was “too devoted to students and worked very hard at my classes” and turning out my philosophy of productive, inspired, informed, more aware students has no worth and threatens the others in his department; contract renewal would be in jeopardy unless I conformed. Allowing a visually impaired boy to take an exam in a separate room flooded with sunlight, giving students my home phone number, finding a suicide prevention place for the few desperate, had no place in academics, according to this acting-head.
            To him, ‘good’ teachers ante up for United Way and teachers’ organizations, attend all meetings without question, go to semi-annual faculty parties, grade best class essay B+ and worst F and undecided C, do whatever peers do, request teaching courses that may be scored with number 2 pencils and computers. Right? I wanted to continue to be the instructor for English Composition as I got to ‘know’ the person who fills blank pages with thoughts and fears and hopes. Few ever want to teach that subject.
            There have been proposals for rewarding ‘good’ teachers with pay hikes. How is ‘good’ defined at any school from kindergarten through the college graduate programs? What’s ‘bad’ about approaching students as individuals?  Why, also, is a preference for teaching composition rather than any other English course met with amazement? Shakespeare or Modern American Literature or Fiction is the goal after new instructors have served freshman-English-teaching time.
            English 101 is a dreaded college-level course, and adjunct faculty are generally ‘stuck with it’. Innovative instructors devise clever ways to lecture persuasive technique and narration; a sensitive lecturer remembers the pain of homesickness and requires students to transmit their own to blank papers. Trust to never embarrass or humiliate allows the student’s real feelings to be exposed. Opinions re health-spa fitness or why one sport may/may not be more dangerous make stay-awake lectures for logical vs. emotional arguments.
            That department acting-head felt that if one English 101 instructor attempted to make every one of his/her pupil’s feel like real writers, other instructors might have to do the same. Conformity is one of the basic goals of society. What’s incorrect about finding something positive in each composition, grading a student against himself and not the best in class? When a D writer improves concept, grammar, organization, and so forth, issuing an A on an essay (as a means of praise and success) does make the student work harder. There is satisfaction knowing one has improved both a student’s skills and confidence. Certainly, this grading method means an instructor has to spend more time scoring each essay, refer to each student’s prior essays, write how a current one was better/worse than previous, and so forth; if he/she chooses to spend the time, why wouldn’t this be regarded as ‘good’ teaching? Science is exact, not writing.
            Nearly any educated and well-read instructor can help students capture Chaucer and others… but a writing-course teacher can share a bond of trust with a student who pens private attitudes on paper. A weak writer may become stronger, a frail ego inflated, a pupil might be better prepared for skills needed daily… whether it is a letter of complaint or a shopping list. Under an armload of essays that cannot be scored by computers and number 2 pencils is a stack of feelings. These can be rated or humiliated! What pay-hike rewards this type of ‘goodness’?
            The movie Dangerous Minds showed that teaching a student rather than a course can actually educate. But too many people in positions of authority can be compared to the principal in that film who felt it was mandatory for students to learn manners, specifically knocking on a door before entering, and he sacrificed listening/helping youth for his ‘order’.
            Isn’t it frightening to also know that one may actually have no background to teach a subject yet be hired to instruct it? Private schools, including universities, don’t require state licensing. Before judgment is passed, remember a license doesn’t mean qualified nor does it mean teaching subjects for which one had been trained.
            Another aspect of ‘qualified’ can’t be scored and stamped official. These teachers are often the ones that find the level of frustration with the system that thwarts innovation and caring such that, as in the old movie Network, they open windows and shout, “I don’t have to take it” when personal philosophy and job satisfactions are jeopardized.
            Currently, teachers must deal with possible gunshots, special needs students that may also be violent, licensing exams that are more than a single test, paras who are with one-on-one needy pupils also in classrooms, and the constant conformity. Might some educators ‘drop out’, still, because some prefer to teach a person and not just a course, and can’t?

Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard and softcover anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.