Month: January 2011

Buzios

 

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Use as much description as possible to paint a picture of this place.

Buzios. (This is a hypothetical account, based on experiences I had during a 3 day visit to Buzios in Dec. 2003. I fell in love with this beach resort east of Rio de Janeiro!)

A light morning breeze coming in through the open window brings with it a profusion of sounds and smells, in addition to cooling me with its freshness. Primary among the latter are the smells of flowers, at this time of day overpowering even the diesel fumes emitted from the trucks which rattle down the nearby avenue. Competing with these delightful flowery scents is that of freshly brewed, strong Brazilian coffee that is waiting for me in the kitchen. Bees buzz around the cascading flowers on my verandah and birds sing in the mango tree in the yard. If I decide to take a nap later, the red, orange and yellow cloth hammock on the verandah awaits me.

As I sip my morning caffeine, I gaze out the window at my neighborhood in this seaside resort town. My house is located in a residential area about a 15 minute drive from the famous beaches that tourists and other out-of-towners are already beginning to flock to even though it is not yet 9 am. I chose this neighborhood because it is off the beaten path and because of its small town charm.

Outside mothers call to their children, children call to their friends, husbands say good-bye to wives, dogs bark at everything that moves, and car doors slam as families prepare to go to work and school. I watch children running toward the family car, dressed in the navy and white of their school uniforms, backpacks bouncing behind them. Another group of older students clad in red, gold and white gather at the bus stop on the corner to wait for the city bus that takes them to their secondary school several miles away.

If it is the weekend, these same families will be strolling outside to take advantage of the cool of the morning that gives way to the heat of midday. Kites fly, mothers chat with friends as they push their babies in their strollers, men work on their cars or supervise improvements on their houses, and music can be heard wafting from the open doors and windows of houses.

On this workday, the music I hear is the maid singing as she bustles around the kitchen. She arrives every morning at 7:30 to fix our coffee and breakfast, clean floors, gather laundry, and after washing it, hangs it outside on the line to dry. Later she will consult with me for menu ideas for lunch (the main meal of the day) and supper – usually sandwiches and soup or a pizza, perhaps followed by an ice cream at the closest sorveteria.

Each neighborhood has its own small park, generally at least one church, and sometimes a neighborhood store, if you’re lucky. The houses all have clay tiled roofs and most are white, although the store fronts along the main streets are painted in a variety of colors. People meet their friends for a chat and a stroll in the local park – for the young people it is a place to gossip and to be seen. Nowadays, of course, added to this meeting with friends are long conversations on their cell phones as they walk hand in hand with their boyfriends and girlfriends, who don’t seem to mind sharing their relationship with other friends who are not physically present. These cell phone conversations add fodder to their topics of gossip.

Since I am retired, I no longer participate in the rush to get to a workplace or school. I make a living now by writing an occasional magazine piece and the rest of the time I work on a novel or a children’s book. My heart led me to settle in the country I fell in love with when I was a young adult, so I came and bought a house as soon as my years of service to Chicago area school districts were over.

I love this town because it is one of the most beautiful beach resorts I have ever been in – no huge hotels line the beach front, and the area has become a haven for artists trying to escape the congestion of large cities like Rio de Janeiro. Buzios combines the excitement and bustle of an entertaining night life and good shopping areas where no cars are permitted, with the peace and simplicity of Brazilian country towns.

Being in the tropical zone, the flora are lush and exuberant; colorful hummingbirds and a variety of songbirds entertain me as they flit about outside, pausing at my bird feeders and taunting the local dogs. Although deer are occasionally seen, we do not in general see the type of wildlife associated with typical portrayals of this region. There are too many wild open areas for them to encroach much on populated areas. Of course, there are plenty of bugs of all types. Just imagine the insects and other bugs that exist in the U.S., double their size and quadruple (at least) their numbers, and you get the idea! If you leave my neighborhood and drive south on one of the roads leading out of it, the road soon turns into a gravel, but still adequate road. This road takes you out for miles of grass covered sand dunes and would be completely deserted except that some rich people have decided to build some very large homes on a hill to the west overlooking this area. I took this road trying to find the back way to some of the more remote beaches, but the sand dunes eventually took over the road and it became impassible.

The restaurants here serve food as good as the best in Rio, and the churrascarias are inexpensive and always entertainingly noisy, because most have open air bars where local musicians – mostly amateur – come to jam on weekends, bringing their guitars, chocalhos – gourds covered with netting of beads that rattle when you shake them, harmonicas, drums, and agogôs. Along the beaches are many open air bars, most of which serve some kind of food – and that serve as meeting places for people. Everyone has their favorites, usually those located alongside their favorite beaches. In the evening, a stroll along the avenues in some of the beach areas provide not only plentiful people watching opportunities, but also plenty of live music, mouth-watering smells of fresh fish served in coconut milk, beef cooked on a spit, garlic and other spices used on almost everything, and the refreshing salty ocean air accompanied by the unceasing rhythm of the waves. If you are in the mood for any kind of cuisine, from Thai to German, it’s available here. I prefer the restaurants that serve Brazilian food, but I have my favorite pizzeria where you can get almost anything you could possibly imagine on crispy paper-thin crust pizza, loaded with spices, cheese, and tomato sauce.

I have never considered myself a beach obsessed person, but the beaches here are truly the most spectacular on Earth, and so many of them along this small strip of peninsula that surely there is a beach to satisfy any taste. Ferradura is a horseshoe shaped beach with a gentle surf. It attracts families with small children who play in the sand and wade in the shallow water without fear of large waves. Kids paddle on large inflatable rafts, and more adventurous types kayak. José Gonçalves and others that face the open ocean are wild, usually with cold winds blowing, and often rocky. Signs warn people to stay out of the water when the sea is rough (actually the English translation of the sign says, “…when the sea is ruffle” but its meaning is clear), but these beaches are popular with surfers and “non-swimmers” – those who like to watch the violent waves crashing against the rocky shore. At José Gonçalves, the land rises high above the beach, so one can safely sit on a lounge chair and have a caipirinha with friends, singing or listening to music being played on a poor quality stereo at the thatched roofed bar.

Praia Azeda and Azedinha are twin beaches, the latter being a miniature version of the former. Azedinha is reached by taking a path and scrambling over rocks from the main beach. Praia Azeda is a great place to meet foreigners. There are several small hotels here, more like Bed and Breakfasts than real hotels. There are lots of things for sale, and especially if you look foreign, vendors will harass you unmercifully, showing off their wares. Tattoo artists will give you just about any design you can imagine, and paint the temporary tattoo while you sit sunning yourself, charging way more than they ought to. These tattoos are not permanent, and rub off within a week or so. If you’re hungry you can buy a rectangle of fried cheese on a stick and wash it down with a variety of tasty drinks made with vodka or cachaça, the national strong sugarcane liquor. There is a boat which sits just offshore, within wading distance, where drinks can be purchased – caipirinhas, made with cachaça, can be had with lime (the classic), strawberry, banana, mango, papaya, and others, or for something a tad less strong, you can get a caipiroska – the same flavors but made with vodka. People wade out there to order their drinks and return to shore, their arms up in the air with colorful drinks in each hand.

I love to hang out at Praia Azeda. It’s so relaxing to stay there for hours, and if the sun is too hot, you either use a beach umbrella or move off the sand and sit under the shade of a nearby building. From there it’s a short walk through leafy side streets and past intriguing art boutiques and benches where you can sit and people watch, to the main part of the central shopping area and dozens of restaurants, all crowded. To avoid the crowds, I sometimes get my exercise walking along the length of the beach and over to Azedinha.

Poverty is pervasive in Brazil, and Buzios is no exception. I usually take public transportation into town if possible, because parked cars are often broken into, often by the people who are paid a few reais to watch them. Although some areas of the town are unsafe due to gang activity and petty crime, most areas are safe, and most poor people are respectable and hard-working. Once at Azedinha I met a man who was walking barefoot on the beach, wearing faded shorts and a stained shirt. He was unshaven and several teeth were missing. Even so he was respectable. He was selling oranges. I bought one and invited him to sit and share it with me. He was reluctant at first, but we eventually began conversing and he told me how he had fallen on hard times when a work accident forced him to quit his job. He and his family had lived on the edge of a parking lot for a time, where his wife made a fire to cook rice in the one cooking pot they had. Now his wife was working at a hotel and his son went door to door in middle class neighborhoods, cutting their grass for a meal and a few reais. He used a machete and slashed the grass, rather than cutting it uniformly with a lawn mower, which he couldn’t afford to buy. By combining their incomes, they could now afford a small shack in a slum area on the edge of town. Although there was no running water and electricity was intermittent, he was proud of the vegetable garden he had cultivated, growing tomatoes, corn and beans. These the family ate; the oranges he bought wholesale and sold them to people on the beach for a small profit. I bought the whole bag and scrambled over the rocks and along the path back to the main beach.

At night I often sit on the verandah and enjoy the moonlight while sipping a demitasse of coffee, um cafèzinho. I admit I’m hooked on the 8 o’clock soap opera, and sit on my sofa with a lightweight blanket over me (which I bought from one of the obnoxious vendors at Praia Azeda) to ward off the evening chill. To the sound of the crickets and tst, tst, tst of the fruit bats, I turn off the TV and spend the rest of the evening with a good book.

Creation Stories

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of commentaries about the Bible. I start at the beginning, and am reading the Revised Standard Version, which is the one I prefer.

Genesis Chapters 1-2
     This is, of course, the Judeo-Christian creation story. It has been passed down for thousands of years and was part of the compilation of inspired verses that went into the anthology we now refer to as the Bible. I believe, however, that this story is a lot older than the original written version of the Bible, and no doubt the words have evolved to take on different meanings than they have today – true of much of the Bible, I think.
     Anyway, if Genesis is the “inspired Word of God”, it bears great resemblance to the creation stories of other cultures. Humankind has always had the need to explain our own existence and how we came into being. Our dominance over the Earth seems to be a common theme, as the species which emerged to be the most intelligent and creative of all. Many of the beliefs of early Judeo-Christian tradition are incorporated into this story, and by including this story at the very beginning of a book that professes to be the Word of God, makes holy and provides justification for cultural norms, beliefs, and taboos.
     For example, in Genesis 1:26-27, God makes man “in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The idea of God as a being who has a form similar to ours and who thinks as we do – this is common in all creation stories, I believe. We naturally endow our supernatural beings with human characteristics, at the same time elevating our status above all other creatures on Earth. Verse 28 goes on to say, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God is here commanding man to reproduce abundantly so that he “fills the earth” and furthermore “subdue(s) it.” He tells the humans he has made to dominate all other creatures and in verse 29 gives them all the plants for food. Therefore, man is God’s most important creation and he has made the earth to be in man’s service.
     As must have been the custom by then, there was a day of rest from one’s work in the culture of the people who wrote the Bible; and this is made sacred by being the day in which God rested from his labors – the 7th day: to some, Friday, others, Saturday, and for modern Christians, Sunday. Indeed, even today there are orthodox people who take this very seriously. Orthodox Jews will not even ride an elevator (causing a mechanical object to work) on the Sabbath. The Puritans, early settlers in North America, believed similarly, and they spent Sundays reading the Bible and praying. Playing, laughing, partying and even thinking “frivolous thoughts” were not allowed on the holy Sabbath!
     Chapter 2 is more interesting than Chapter 1 – Chapter 1 seems to be a summary of what God did, while Chapter 2 zeroes in on his creation of human beings. Here we learn that God, after creating the Earth and the heavens above, created a mist to water the ground so that plants could grow. Then he took dust from the ground and formed man, “breath(ing) into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Then God gave the man a garden filled with food to eat, rivers to sustain and nourish life (which were four rivers in the Middle East, including modern day Iraq), and animals to populate the land. He told the man that he could eat any of the food except from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. The man named all the animals, which means of course that man had language already. Most likely, people in the days of writing this story or passing it on through oral tradition had no idea about the development of language. The language these people spoke and maybe a few others were all the known languages, so it was expected that the first man would speak that one. All creation stories are very ethnocentric!
Meanwhile, the man wasn’t yet happy because he had no other human being to share his life with, so God made woman – the original love story: man’s helpmate, made from his rib. The man declares at this point, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Womb + man? Or, as I like to think of it, “Woe + man” – Man is woman’s woe!!). Interesting though – I wonder how this read in the original language Genesis was first written in; because surely the words man and woman in English were not as close in that language. In Spanish we have hombre and mujer, for example, which are nothing alike.
     These last verses of Chapter 2 also symbolize and provide the moral obligation of marriage: “A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (verse 24). This chapter ends with the first couple in their pure and naked state, with no shame. For why should they feel shame? Covering of the body is not culturally universal, by any means; although the reference to shame here certainly alludes to the taboo in our society of being naked in front of others, yet it isn’t taboo to be naked in the presence of our partner – was it then?

Here are some other creation stories from around the world:

Navajo (Diné, as they call themselves):
     According to the Diné, they emerged from three previous underworlds into this, the fourth, or “Glittering World”, through a magic reed. The first people from the other three worlds were not like the people of today. They were animals, insects or masked spirits as depicted in Navajo ceremonies. First Man (‘Altsé Hastiin), and First Woman (‘Altsé ‘Asdzáá), were two of the beings from the First or Black World. First Man was made in the east from the meeting of the white and black clouds. First Woman was made in the west from the joining of the yellow and blue clouds. Spider Woman (Na ashje’ii ‘Asdzáá), who taught Navajo women how to weave, was also from the first world.
     Once in the Glittering World, the first thing the people did was build a sweat house and sing the Blessing Song. Then they met in the first house (hogan) made exactly as Talking God (Haashch’eelti’i) had prescribed. In this hogan, the people began to arrange their world, naming the four sacred mountains surrounding the land and designating the four sacred stones that would become the boundaries of their homeland. In actuality, these mountains do not contain the symbolic sacred stones. The San Francisco Peaks (Dook’o’oslííd), represents the Abalone and Coral stones. It is located just north of Flagstaff, and is the Navajo’s religious western boundary. Mt. Blanco (Tsisnaasjini’), in Colorado, represents the White Shell stone, and represents the Navajo’s religious eastern boundary. Mt. Taylor (Tsoodzil), east of Grants, New Mexico, represents the Turquoise stone, and represents the Navajo’s religious southern boundary. Mt. Hesperus (Dibé Nitsaa), in Colorado, represents the Black Jet stone, and represents the Navajo’s religious northern boundary. Pictures of these sacred mountains can be found by clicking here.
     After setting the mountains down where they should go, the Navajo deities, or “Holy People”, put the sun and the moon into the sky and were in the process of carefully placing the stars in an orderly way. But the Coyote, known as the trickster, grew impatient from the long deliberations being held, and seized the corner of the blanket where it lay and flung the remaining stars into the sky.
     The Holy People continued to make the necessities of life, like clouds, trees and rain. Everything was as it should be when the evil monsters appeared and began to kill the new Earth People. But a miracle happened to save them, by the birth of Ever Changing Woman (Asdzaa Nadleehe) at Gobernador Knob (Ch’óol’í’í), New Mexico.
What Genesis and the Navajo creation myths have in common:
1. Landscapes and creatures that were familiar to the people of that area.
2. There is a “first couple” (man and woman) in both stories.
3. Deities made the first people from natural materials.
4. The origin of animals is included.
5. There is explanation of cultural beliefs, norms and traditions in both.

Nigerian creation myths:
Efik
     (Nigeria) The creator, Abassi, created two humans and then decided to not allow them to live on earth. His wife, Atai, persuaded him to let them do so. In order to control the humans, Abassi insisted that they eat all their meals with him, thereby keeping them from growing or hunting food. He also forbade them to procreate. Soon, though, the woman began growing food in the earth, and they stopped showing up to eat with Abassi. Then the man joined his wife in the fields, and before long there were children also. Abassi blamed his wife for the way things had turned out, but she told him she would handle it. She sent to earth death and discord to keep the people in their place.
Ekoi
     (Southern Nigeria) In the beginning there were two gods, Obassi Osaw and Obassi Nsi. The two gods created everything together. Then Obassi Osaw decided to live in the sky and Obassi Nsi decided to live on the earth. The god in the sky gives light and moisture, but also brings drought and storms. The god of the earth nurtures, and takes the people back to him when they die. One day long ago Obassi Osaw made a man and a woman, and placed them upon the earth. They knew nothing so Obassi Nsi taught them about planting and hunting to get food.

     In these brief accounts, we also see some similarities. How the gods introduced evil to the people, for example (the Navajo creation story also begins to talk about this where I left off). The gods taught them everything, but forbade something (for the Efik, it was procreation, for Adam & Eve it was eating the forbidden fruit). Man in both cultures fell prey to evil for disobeying the Creator’s orders. In these Nigerian stories, we also see how the gods are portrayed in very human terms. The Judeo-Christian tradition does not generally see God as humanlike, even though in Genesis it says that God made humans in “his own image.”

Here’s the Norse Creation Myth:
Muspell
     The first world to exist was Muspell, a place of light and heat whose flames are so hot that those who are not native to that land cannot endure it.

     Surt sits at Muspell’s border, guarding the land with a flaming sword. At the end of the world he will vanquish all the gods and burn the whole world with fire.

Ginnungagap and Niflheim
     Beyond Muspell lay the great and yawning void named Ginnungagap, and beyond Ginnungagap lay the dark, cold realm of Niflheim.

     Ice, frost, wind, rain and heavy cold emanated from Niflheim, meeting in Ginnungagap the soft air, heat, light, and soft air from Muspell.

Ymir
     Where heat and cold met appeared thawing drops, and this running fluid grew into a giant frost ogre named Ymir.

Frost ogres
     Ymir slept, falling into a sweat. Under his left arm there grew a man and a woman. And one of his legs begot a son with the other. This was the beginning of the frost ogres.

Audhumla
     Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. Four rivers of milk ran from her teats, and she fed Ymir.

Buri, Bor, and Bestla

      The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she freed a man’s hair from the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri, and he was tall, strong, and handsome.

     Buri begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.

Odin, Vili, and Vé
     Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin was the first, Vili the second, and Vé the third.

     It is believed that Odin, in association with his brothers, is the ruler of heaven and earth. He is the greatest and most famous of all men.

The death of Ymir
Odin, Vili, and Vé killed the giant Ymir.

     When Ymir fell, there issued from his wounds such a flood of blood, that all the frost ogres were drowned, except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a lur [a hollowed-out tree trunk that could serve either as a boat or a coffin]. From them spring the families of frost ogres.

Earth, trees, and mountains
     The sons of Bor then carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from him.

     From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.

Dwarfs
     Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. By the decree of the gods they acquired human understanding and the appearance of men, although they lived in the earth and in rocks.

Sky, clouds, and stars
     From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides.

     Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.

     The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds.

     Then they took the sparks and burning embers that were flying about after they had been blown out of Muspell, and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to give light to heaven above and earth beneath. To the stars they gave appointed places and paths.
     The earth was surrounded by a deep sea. The sons of Bor gave lands near the sea to the families of giants for their settlements.

Midgard
To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves an inland stonghold, using Ymir’s eyebrows. This stonghold they named Midgard.

Ask and Embla
     While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman.

      Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask [Ash] and the woman Embla [Elm?]. From Ask and Embla have sprung the races of men who lived in Midgard.

Asgard
     In the middle of the world the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold named Asgard, called Troy by later generations. The gods and their kindred lived in Asgard, and many memorable events have happened there.

     In Asgard was a great hall named Hlidskjálf. Odin sat there on a high seat. From there he could look out over the whole world and see what everyone was doing. He understood everything that he saw.

Odin, Frigg, and the Æsir
     Odin married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. From this family has come all the kindred that inhabited ancient Asgard and those kingdoms that belonged to it. Members of this family are called the Æsir, and they are all divinities. This must be the reason why Odin is called All-Father. He is the father of all the gods and men and of everything that he and his power created.

Thor
     The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor. Might and strength were Thor’s characteristics. By these he dominates every living creature.

Bifröst
     As all informed people know, the gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst. Some call it the rainbow. It has three colors and is very strong, made with more skill and cunning than other structures. But strong as it is, it will break when the sons of Muspell ride out over it. The gods are not to blame that this structure will then break. Bifröst is a good bridge, but there is nothing in this world that can be relied on when the sons of Muspell are on the warpath.

Yggdrasil
     The chief sanctuary of the gods is by the ash tree Yggdrasil. There they hold their daily court. Yggdrasil is the best and greatest of all trees. Its branches spread out over the whole world and reach up over heaven.
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     I have italicized the part in which humans are created – before that are giants, ogres, exploding brains, dwarfs, maggots, lots of fire – wow! Note the violence in this story, quite different from our idyllic origins in the Garden of Eden! Also interesting are the settings – frost, cold, mountain, lakes. This reflects the landscape and climate where the Norse lived and with which they were familiar.

     It is hard to imagine the “Garden of Eden” existing in a place like the Holy Land, which is more of a desert landscape. However, there are very green and lush areas, so perhaps this is what the early writers of the Old Testament imagined as being like paradise.

English and Grammar

A lot of people (myself included) bemoan the fact that kids today – and adults too – cannot spell and have terrible grammar. Some call it laziness. Some say it’s because of social promotion. As an educator, to me the issue is more complex.  Here is a short piece that I wrote in 2009 in reply to someone on another blog site.

     I am a “grammar guru” so the misplaced apostrophes and misspellings that have become commonplace are very irksome to me.
     As a teacher, I see another side of it also. First of all, “invented spelling” has become the norm – it’s what kids do in Kindergarten & 1st grade when they can’t spell correctly yet. In the later grades, most schools have a spelling program which generally comes with workbooks of lists and activities to do. I have tried to do more with a spelling program than this, but there isn’t enough time. It’s more important for students to be able to express themselves coherently and have them correct their spelling as they go along. In an hour and a half, I’m expected to teach reading which includes shared reading (students read with teacher and discuss the reading), guided reading (students receive instructional reading at their level) and independent reading (students read books on their own, with set goals and monitoring necessary); spelling & grammar, and writing (it’s a process and very time consuming). 90 minutes a day may seem like a lot of time to do this, but believe me it isn’t! Guess which is the first thing that doesn’t get taught enough? You guessed it – spelling and grammar. It’s hard to teach these things in a vacuum but unless you tailor your instruction to each student’s needs (which is very time consuming), that’s what you end up doing, and students don’t always apply what they can easily do in grammar and spelling workbooks.
     With my students (English Language Learners), there’s the issue of phonics. Many of them don’t know the rules of English phonetics, but in the intermediate grades (3-5, which I teach) there is little emphasis on phonics in the curriculum because the people who write the curriculum assume it’s been taught in 1st-2nd grades! So we have to do it on our own as well as try to fit in all the grammar instruction as well.
     My experience is that, with many children, the more the read, the better they can spell because they see the words over and over again while reading. Others don’t make the connection. Still, good readers are in general better spellers than poor readers. So the emphasis is to help students read more and use strategies that good readers do.
     Another problem – and this is one I don’t have an answer for – is that in most school districts students are promoted to the next grade whether they are ready to go to that grade or not. We keep kids with their age-group peers. Why do we do this? It has a lot to do with lawsuits, I think. You fail a child, their parents may sue the school for “not doing its job” in educating the child properly, even though this is usually not the case. High stakes testing, even more important now with No Child Left Behind, has added to this problem. In the writing tests for these standardized assessments, there is less emphasis on spelling and grammar (conventions) than on focus, content, organization, etc. So we don’t emphasize these things either. (I say “we” in a broad sense, not necessarily what I or any individual teacher does).
     If we think a child should repeat a grade, we have to jump through hoops to get it done. There is a lot of paperwork, everything must be done far in advance to give parents fair warning, then we have to present documentation showing why the student is not passing and all the strategies we’ve tried to get him/her to succeed, etc., etc. It’s so difficult that most teachers don’t even attempt it. In some schools, principals don’t even allow it! (My husband taught in a school with a principal like this – it was very frustrating to watch kids graduate from high school when they hadn’t even gone to class for half the year).
     What is in place, therefore, is differentiated instruction, meaning that at each grade level, students are supposed to get the kind of instruction that is appropriate for their level and meets their needs. So they may be grouped in the main classroom, they may be pulled out for extra reading or writing instruction, there are special ed classes, ESL and bilingual classes, etc. Even so, there are plenty of kids who “fall through the cracks” – partly due to lack of funding so that class sizes are increased and you have to “meet the needs” of every one of your 25+ students in a 5 1/2 hour school day!!
     Teachers are some of the most caring, compassionate, dedicated professionals in this society. They get paid less than most professionals and often are not even treated as such. But it is a labor of love – we do it because we want to help kids grow and succeed. I am only saying this because many people think we aren’t doing our jobs, because kids seem to come out of school as semi-illiterate. This is not true for the majority. Teaching is a very complex and often frustrating profession, but as I said, we do it because helping students is our main concern.

Memories of my father

The Farmer’s Almanac

My father was a calm and gentle man. He was an intelligent and successful attorney, as well as a good husband and father. I hardly ever saw my father get REALLY mad. My mother was a yeller, and we often argued, but my father was slow to anger. I remember once he chased me brandishing a hairbrush, a memory that has carved itself on my mind as the angriest I ever saw him get. What I did to deserve his wrath has been completely forgotten! (By the time he caught me, however, he had calmed down enough not to use the hairbrush!)

As I said, my mother and I often argued. Both of us are possessed of a opinionated and passionate nature and a fiery temper, so we argued about anything that we felt strongly about. My father didn’t understand the need for these frequent arguments, since his temperament was the opposite of ours, and when we started in on one of our shouting matches, he would first try to mediate and get us to stop. Usually that didn’t work, however, since we were both so into our argument that nothing could stop it from accelerating. Exasperated, he would give up and leave the room. Upon returning, he would shake his head uncomprehendingly as he witnessed us, near tears, hugging each other, apologizing, or having a calm and pleasant conversation.

It didn’t always end that way, however. Often, my mother and I would simply go our separate ways. After one particularly loud argument about politics or some point about world affairs, (this being the cause of a great many of our arguments once I became more aware of such things during high school), my dad once again was forced to leave the room. These arguments really distressed him and he could not stand to see us fighting, the harmony of our household so disrupted.

When he returned still holding a section of the newspaper – no doubt he had gone upstairs to read it, and once the noise had died down decided to return to his more comfortable chair – he found me sitting alone in the living room, quiet but still agitated and irritable. I thought he was going to say something about the argument, tell me not to fight with my mother or to control my temper or something like that, which he sometimes did. Instead, after a few minutes silence, he said, “Have you ever read the Farmer’s Almanac?”

I looked up at him. He was standing in front of a small bookcase on which were stored an odd assortment of reference-type books – the National Geographic world atlas, U.S. road atlases, a dictionary and a thesaurus, Field Guides to birds and other animals, booklets about the lakes and fishing of northern Wisconsin, and a Farmer’s Almanac.

“No, not really,” I replied.

“It’s really quite interesting,” he said, taking it off the shelf. He got a new Farmer’s Almanac every year, or every time a new one was issued. He brought it over and sat down next to me.

My dad enjoyed facts and statistics – sometimes he would quiz us by asking if we knew what the largest lake in the world was, the longest river, the largest city, etc. The Farmer’s Almanac had this type of information, and a lot more. We started looking through it together, and I found myself quite engrossed. There were a lot of weather statistics – temperature, climate fluctuations, tornado data; and many population statistics and short articles about hog farming, wheat futures, etc. Eventually, while I was examining a table of statistics that were especially interesting to me, my father got up and left. I stayed there reading the Farmer’s Almanac for quite a while, and found that it had a calming effect on me. I forgot my anger, my political passions, and my mother’s old-fashioned opinions as I thumbed through the atlas and stopped to read more closely whatever caught my interest.

Later I reflected on what had happened and realized that perhaps my father had done this on purpose, although it had seemed quite spontaneous. Perhaps he had been looking for something on that bookshelf that would calm me down, or perhaps he was looking for a statistic he had become curious about while reading the newspaper. He found something that he thought might distract me and cool my temper, and it worked! After that, I often looked for the Farmer’s Almanac when I visited my parents’ home. There was always something interesting to read, some fact to learn, when I had a few moments and nothing in particular to do.

Games
My father enjoyed playing with his five children, and had no preference in terms of gender. He had four daughters and one son, and enjoyed us all equally.

What I remember most about my dad was playing games with him. He loved to play board games, games that were competitive but also stimulated the mind. We had a lot of board games and often played Parcheesi, checkers, Scrabble, Anagrams, The Flag Game (put out by the United Nations, it had all the flags of the member nations), Game of the States, and others. Because of these games, I increased my vocabulary, learned a lot of countries’ flags and where they were located in the world, and all the state capitals – when I took a test on this in elementary school, I got all 50 correct!

Dad thought the competition and good sportsmanship promoted by these games was important, but it was also important to have fun and be fair. Because I was the youngest, my siblings often had an unfair advantage over me, especially in word games. When we played Anagrams, I had a hard time guessing other people’s scrambled words, but they could always guess mine. Once I got really mad about this, and asked my dad if I could find a word in the dictionary. He thought about this and decided it would be fair, since my vocabulary was not as advanced as the others’.

I found an unusual letter – X – and looked for a good, long word. I found one – xanthochroid. No one knew this word or what it meant, but I did, and I remember it to this day! Xanthochroid = a person of fair hair and complexion. This in fact described several people in my family, including myself.

My dad loved the challenge and kinetic aspect of Charades. He was so funny to watch as he acted out various words or parts of words. Somewhat klutzy and not an improvisational actor by nature, he was however, quite a ham! Once he was acting out the word “Christmas” and no one could get it! He divided the word in two and for the first syllable, Christ, he walked slowly and pensively up and down and made a pulling motion under his chin with his fingers, coming together in a V – it was supposed to be Jesus’s beard! For “mas” he tried to imitate a Catholic mass, which he did by waving his arms – I think he was supposed to be the priest holding up his hands or the communion elements, or maybe swinging a cup of incense, I’m not sure! Anyway, no one could figure out what he was doing!

Bad jokes were another hallmark of my father’s personality, and we got used to the groaners he would often tell. We knew when Dad had a new joke to tell because he would get this big grin on his face – he couldn’t wait to tell us! After a particularly bad joke or one my mother considered bad taste, I remember the look on her face – a half-grimace as she tried to suppress a smile or chuckle.

After I married my second husband, also a punster (and far worse taste than my dad’s), his coworkers made a dollar bet that our marriage wouldn’t last for more than six months due to his bad jokes! After six months, they extended it to a year, then they gave up. They didn’t realize that I had grown up with a man who told bad jokes!

Map Folding
There were certain things in life that my dad considered necessary life skills. One of these was learning to swim. Another was driving. It fell primarily to my dad to take each of his kids practice driving. Mom couldn’t do it – she was too nervous. The cars we had to learn on were stick shift because, Dad reasoned, even if we had cars with automatic transmissions, you never knew when you would be in an emergency situation in which the only car available would be a stick shift. Dad had a pragmatic way of thinking.

I remember going to the high school parking lot to practice driving. He would make me practice parallel and lateral parking, every type of turn, parking on hills, and driving up and down hills using a stick shift. He found out how many four-letter words I knew during those sessions, but always remained calm and didn’t scold me for using them. He was very understanding in that way.

When it came time to go for my driving test, my dad’s car had a little problem: it would sometimes stall after slowing down or stopping, but my dad knew what to do – there was a loose connection and it was easily dealt with by opening the hood and wiggling a couple of wires. He showed me how to do this, which I learned to do with some trepidation. Well, of course, it happened during the driving test! I had been parked on a hill, and was pleased with myself because I had not only parked well, but had remembered to turn the wheels toward the curb before stopping. Coming out of the space, the car stalled. I told the examiner I knew what to do – it was just a matter of wiggling a couple of wires, but he wouldn’t let me get out of the car to do this. He told me I needed to take my test in a car that worked properly and flunked me!

Six months later, when I was home from school, I took the test again on a different car (my grandmother’s this time – automatic transmission!) and passed. Having been the passenger for the first 16 years of my life, I was already somewhat adept at being a navigator, reading maps and telling the driver – especially my mother – where to turn. When I was 18, I got full use of my grandmother’s car because she couldn’t drive anymore and I had a summer job that I had to drive to. In my car were an assortment of maps, and it was imperative that I learn another necessary life skill – the art of map folding.

Of course, I had been learning this already, having spent a few car trips with maps spread out on my lap. Dad took it upon himself to show each of us how to get the most use out of a map by folding it carefully, either to display the portion of the map that represented where we were currently traveling to, or to store it neatly in the glove compartment. There were efficient and inefficient ways to do this, and the better you were at it, the longer your map would last before completely falling apart, and the easier it would be to navigate without having to have the map completely open on your lap.

The maps in my father’s glove compartment certainly had had many years of extensive use, and had to be dealt with very carefully to avoid increasing the length of rips along the worn folds. Since his philosophy was, why buy a new one when the old one was still useful, the maps were generally a decade or so old. Even though highways were being expanded, the routes were still the same, and he would sometimes draw in corrections on the maps himself. However, his philosophy would be hard to follow today with new maps being issued every year to keep pace with suburban sprawl and completely new routes being created. Still, I have to say I did successfully pass my father’s course in map folding, even as I now periodically purge old maps from my glove compartment when they become so tightly packed that new ones can no longer fit.

My father died at age 71 when attempts to control his heart fibrillations failed – soon afterwards, new medications and treatments were discovered that allow people to live longer with congestive heart problems. That was in 1988, and I still miss him!