Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gifted Handwriting

Memoir III
Karen Durand
July 15, 2008

The Declaration of Independence. John Hancock's famous signature. These are the lofty standards of penmanship that teachers hope to inspire. And even if we can't come close to the handwriting of two hundred years ago and even if computers replace most pens and pencils in the future, everyone needs to have a legible hand. As a second grade teacher in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, I felt good penmanship was important. The lessons were routine, but there were ways to make them less boring. And one of those times comes to mind when I hear a familiar piece of classical music.

My school used the D’Nealian method to teach handwriting. With this program, even printing looks graceful. Most letters have a small up stroke as opposed to the straight lines of the ball and stick form.

Manuscript, or printing, was practiced the first half of the year. Usually by late fall children would begin asking, “When are we going to learn ‘cursoff’?” They could see the lessons coming pages later in their workbooks. After Christmas cursive was finally introduced. This was a big deal for seven year olds, a rite of passage from a kindergarten and first grade skills. Most were eager to make the transition; girls especially, who liked to play school at home were excited. But for others who wrestled with pencils as if they were redwoods, cursive writing was considered a real challenge.

During the lesson I remember, we were a few weeks into the lower case letters of the alphabet. I introduced the letter m on the chalkboard. Forming each letter I chanted, “Overcurve, slant, overcurve, slant, overcurve slant, and upstroke!” The dry scent of yellow chalk dust fell to the ledge of the board. I wiped my hands on my skirt before saying, “Everybody Up!” The children stood to make the letters in the air with arms moving in swells like tsunamis waves as they repeated the same chant. “Overcurve, slant, overcurve , slant, overcurve, slant, upstroke."
After several aerobic m’s it was time to get down to work; the pencil hit the paper. I reminded everyone of writing positions. “Feet on the floor, backs straight, two arms on the desk!” The children snapped to and began practice. First they carefully traced the correct formation in the top lines of their workbooks. Then they practiced writing rows of triple humped letters on lines.

To encourage thoughtful and deliberate work, I played a CD of classical music. These
were famous adagios, which I hoped would become familiar to the children. “The Air on a G String” by Bach and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21” were some. The titles were listed on a chart with each composer’s name. I had glued a pink ostrich feather to a spring clothes pin and moved it as each work was played.

“I’m going to walk around the room to look for the best m’s in America,” I said. Then I circulated with a marking pen. "Marvelous M's!" "Don't forget the upstroke." I slipped to the chalkboard to write a few sentences. It was a simple poem to keep printing skills in good form while we learned cursive.
The rain is raining all around;
It falls on field and tree.
It rains on the umbrellas here
And on the ships at sea.

Robert Lewis Stevenson

Standing at the board with my back to the desks, I first heard a low hum which I ignored. The sound became louder as more voices joined in. I put down the chalk and listened. The class was humming “The Pachabel Canon!” Note for note, a sweet strong melody accompanied the strings on the recording. When I turned around some children were smiling. Some were looking sheepish. Some were still writing and humming. Tears welled in my eyes from the simple beauty, and unabashed, I brushed them away. I had hoped that the music would be a nice touch to enhance a useful but routine lesson. I never counted on a gift being given back.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Seder

Memoir II Place
The Seder
Karen Durand
July 15, 2008

A single event caught my eye on April 25th. It was the observance of the Jewish Passover or Seder on a cruise ship. All a ship's traveler need do to attend was sign up. I gave my name at the reception desk and thought about wearing my silk and sequined dress.
At seven that evening about twenty five people gathered in a small private room on an upper deck. Round tables were set with the ship’s customary white linen table cloths and napkins. Fresh flowers brought the scent of a garden while we sailed at sea. What made this setting different from the main dining rooms was ornate silver trays filled with ceremonial portions of parsley, sweet apples and raisins, and pungent horseradish. Crystal glasses held Kosher wine. The care that the ship took with the preparations made me think that this was, in the words of the Seder, “ a night different from all
the other nights."

I sat down at a table for eight, joining people from the States. Introductions went around and when a man learned that I once lived in Woburn, Massachusetts, he was delighted to ask, “So you know my cousin, Sammy Fleischman! He owns Bond Shoes.”
No, I didn’t know Sammy, although I had bought many pairs of shoes from his store. Perhaps I should have known him, but I wasn't being honest.

As the light conversation continued, people talked about trips to Israel and their local temples. Men wore dark suits and Yarmulkas; the women were dressed in their best and adorned with lavish gold jewlery and diamonds. While my silk dress was appropriate, it was obvious to me that I made a mistake at the introductions. I wasn’t Jewish, and for some reason, I didn’t mention it when we exchanged names. Later, the timing never seemed right. I couldn’t come out and say, “By the way, I’m Christian.” Perhaps I was afraid they would ask if I ever contributed to Jews for Jesus. (I had.) I really liked these people and had many Jewish frinds. That is why I signed up for the dinner. I wanted to be with them in community, and not as an outsider, so I stayed silent.

When a few other couples came to the Seder, I was asked to move to another table. The new tablemates were all from Israel. They spoke English to me, of course, but the conversation was a little different. Now we were talking about families living on a Kibbutz and strict rabbis. I was surprised to learn that orthodox teenagers weren't allowed to go to rock concerts in Tel Aviv because boys and girls sat together.

When it was time to for the Seder to begin, the Haggadah, or booklet of liturgy, was given to everyone. I was relieved to see that it was written in both Hebrew and English and felt semi secure knowing that one starts at the back of the book. I had been to Seders in the homes of friends, and my church had often done teaching Passover meals. This will be authentic and even familiar, I thought.

The rabbi who wore and dark suit and a yalmakawelcomed us. “Tonight everyone will share in reading the story and prayers. We’ll begin with the table on my right.” That was where I was sitting, with the Israelis. The first six people who stood up read in Hebrew. I was motified as my turn to read came closer and closer. There was nothing to do but to read in English. I did, and the ship didn’t crash into Peruvian rocks, although I thought it might. And to my great relief, the folks at the next table from the US continued reading in English as well.

Together we observed the traditions of three thousand years and remembered God’s deliverance of the Jews from bondage in Egypt and his presence through history. Wine, the fruit of the vine, represents God’s blessing of his people. At one place in the ceremony, each person dipped his finger in the glass and left a drop on his plate to remember the plagues of Egypt and the tears. Matzohs, or unleavened bread, was taken to recall the haste in which the Israelites left their homes on the night of the first Passover.

We tasted the condiments on the silver trayas well. I followed the lead of everyone at the table and felt comfortable hearing the familiar story told. After taking some horseradish from the tray and putting it on matzohs, the man next to me, who spoke little, asked if I liked it. Wanting to be a good guest and eager to please, I said, “Oh, yes! I love it.” It wasn't a favorite taste, but it's peppery sharpness didn't bring tears to my eyes

He answered indignently in his thick accent, “Ve do not like ze beeter herbs! Zese represents our pain and suffering for zo many years.” I thought of the Holocaust, persecutions, and pogroms which the Jews have known. Whatever ease I had was gone, in its place was the same anxiety I felt not knowing Jewish families in my hometown.

Following the ceremony, a traditional dinner with roasted chicken was served. The cruise ship kitchen did not disappoint. The chicken was golden brown and juicy. We all tucked in enjoying fresh vegetables and salad as well. Taking pleasure in the meal put us on common ground. They talked about their children and grandchildren in Tel Aviv; I told them about mine in Charleston along with our having the first synagogue in America. Dessert didn’t disappoint anyone. It was macaroon cookies, sweet with almond, just what would have been served at home.

After coffee everyone joined in singing. Most tunes sounded like lively folksongs. Some of the “li, li, li" choruses slipped into rousing hand clapping that went on and on. I noticed that the man at my table, who had little to say, loved to sing! I was able to join the chorus of “Dayanu”, but I had to mouth the words to the verses and all of the other songs.

When the last note had been sung and no one could eat another bite, it was announced that we would gather for a photograph. As everyone stood close to one another and smiled, the woman next to me said, “This is just like family!”
I knew what she meant. Here were people who found each other among strangers aboard ship to celebrate a tradition together. They shared the same heritage and faith, a bond that easily unites. But it wasn’t my family, and I felt a little sad.

After saying good-by to everyone, I went to the last show of the evening in the ship’s Starlight Theater. An Italian pianist was performing when I found a seat in the light show illuminating the stage. He had all the flair of Liberace. Popular tunes were pounded out with eight finger chords as his hands raced up and down the keyboard. There in the medley I heard Amazing Grace. As he improvised the old hymn, memories of the song sung from baptisms to funerals flooded back. I realized that the theology of these words is who I am in the world stew of faith. Tonight I was a visitor at the Seder, and here, four thousand miles from Mt. Pleasant, in this hymn, rests my true home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mr. Lee and the Dishwasher

You and Yours Memoir I
Mr. Lee and the Dishwasher
Karen Durand
July 10, 2008

In the 80’s the idea of being environmentally green was just emerging. Global warming was a concept still in the future for most people, and energy conservation was a choice. We respected the planet on Earth Day by picking up litter and planting trees, and there was new awareness of potential problems.
While there was no Al Gore to rally support on a national scale, the children at the James B. Edwards Elementary School where I was teaching did have a leader to look up to right there in the building. And it was not just because he was over six feet tall. Mr. Lee, the principal, was both friendly and stern. He knew every child’s name and expected the best of everyone. His coming up with an idea for my class was not unusual; that it made a difference is memorable.
The cafeteria at school during lunch time had a noisy din, despite the traffic light which monitored talking. If the green light was on, the sounds of voices and utensils hitting plastic trays filled the space. Yellow signaled a warning; it’s getting loud. Red Light! no talking was allowed. Only the whoosh of the dishwasher’s swirling water was heard. The machine ran constantly at the back of the cafeteria. When the meager time allotted for lunch was up, the students would line up by class in front of the window to hand their tray to a worker who fed the garbage pail and the dishwasher. Plastic trays and silverware went through the cycle several times each day.
One day when I took my second grade class into the cafeteria to eat lunch, the children were pleased to see that the light was green. The scent of corn dogs and French fries, a favorite choice, wafted from the kitchen. But there was a difference in the noise level. The dishwasher was silent. The children already seated were eating off of white Styrofoam plates. The usual yellow plastic trays were no where in sight because the dishwasher had broken down. For the first day it was a novelty. Everyone dumped their entire tray into the trash can instead of handing it to the worker at the window. The line moved faster and children were glad to skip out of the cafeteria to recess.
The second and third days there were still no familiar yellow trays on the serving line. “We were told that the broken part in the machine isn’t easy to locate in Charleston. It’s on order. In the meantime everyone has to use these foam trays,” said the custodian.
The use of disposables was wasteful to my thrifty mind, and it was not an example of good ecology. After lunch the class talked about Styrofoam not breaking down in the landfill for many years; those trays would be there long after the children were grown and gone. We hoped the dishwasher would be fixed soon.
Soon I was telling Mr. Lee about our discussion. I said, “The children see a problem in the cafeteria that has a ripple effect. We can’t repair the dishwasher ourselves, but we want to make sure that something is done soon.”
He listened carefully taking care to treat our concern with respect. I knew that this was a small matter compared to the work of running a large school. Mr. Lee didn’t disappoint, He gave me a suggestion that made perfect sense. “Write a letter to Dr. Davis, the district superintendent of schools,” he said. “Have your class explain why the dishwasher should be repaired immediately.”
His idea was one of empowerment. Most second graders have little awareness of the authority of the written word, but this experience showed them that giving voice to a problem can make a difference. They had an opinion, and writing a letter was one way to express it. The letter was crafted with the whole classes’ input. A student with neat handwriting made a final copy which was sent in the mail.
Dear Dr. Davis,
Please repair the dishwasher at James B. Edwards School as soon as possible. We are using Styrofoam trays everyday. These are thrown away and then become a landfill problem. We want to respect the Earth and not turn more land into dumps.
Mrs. Durand’s Second Grade Class
Not too long after the letter was sent, Mr. Lee came into the classroom. “Boys and girls,” he said, “you’ve really made a difference in our school. Today the dishwasher is repaired! We won’t be using disposable trays any more. Thanks for writing that letter. The superintendent said that she rarely gets mail from a second grade class and she was impressed to see that you care about the environment.”
When we went into the cafeteria for lunch later that day, the familiar swishing of water layered the sounds of children’s voices. We knew that one small section of land was spared more trash.
The letter had personal consequences as well. From then on Mr. Lee called me Mother Earth. I always tried to live up to it.