Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Face of Race

It happened twice during a conference on "moral education in a diverse society" many years ago; it happens every time I wear that necklace.  It’s a necklace I love and have had for thirty-plus years. And yet each time I wear this necklace it brings me to the question of race.

Back in the 1970s, living in Manhattan, walking down Third Avenue as I’d done thousands of times, I saw a young man seated at a small table with about twenty pieces of silver jewelry.  Sidewalk vendors were an every weekend occurrence in Manhattan at least throughout the spring, summer, and fall.  It was the way-of-shopping life and how I bought most of what I owned.  I stopped and looked, as I’d done over and over again  every other Saturday in the city at the 26th Street Flea Market, at the Lexington Avenue Fair, at Union Square.  A discriminating shopper (and not one to easily part with my money) one lovely piece caught my eye  a simple silver rectangular face; an inch wide, eighth-of-an inch longer. A kind of molded impression of a face  nose, mouth and concave depressions for the eyes  a truly simple, yet haunting piece I felt I had to have.

“This is beautiful,” I said to the twenty-something guy behind the table, looking carefully at the piece. “Did you make it?”

He replied yes and seemed glad I was interested.  “It’s silver,” he said trying to be helpful, “see, it’s marked on the back.”  I turned it over to see the 925 and two simple vertical loops on the other side.  “You can wear it as a pin or put it on a chain as a necklace,” he added hoping to cinch the sale.

“I’ll take it,” I said, as I dug around in my over-sized bag to find the cash to pay him.  I honestly don’t remember how much it cost; it’s been thirty years, but knowing me, I wouldn’t have paid more than eleven or fourteen dollars for it. 

“It’s not signed.” I said to him startled that I just realized it.  “You didn’t sign your name on the back.”

He looked at me uncomfortably.

“You know if you’re going to make things as beautiful as this, you really should sign them," I said a bit emphatically, "even if you put just your initials, you really need to, because this is a work of art,” I said hoping to impress upon him the importance of what I was saying.

As I prattled on, he seemed to grow more and more uncomfortable and I took the rectangle that he’d wrapped and taped in a tissue, and dropped it in my bag.  I said thanks and walked away, but I wanted to go back and ask him his name. Ask him so I’d remember years later (when he became famous) or if someone asked, I’d be able to say, “________ made it.”  But I didn’t. 

I didn’t because he was African-American and I sensed that asking him, he might think that I thought he wasn’t really the artist; that I was questioning if these pieces were really his.  He hadn’t offered his name.  I had asked many a struggling artist their name when buying an etching, watercolor, or handmade scarf on the street.  This time, because he was black, I didn’t.

My sister gave me a box-link silver chain that suited the face perfectly. I wore it constantly and every time I did, someone, and often more than one someone, complimented me on the necklace. 

Photo: Jack Edinger
“I love your necklace! Where did you get it?” and each time I would say, “I bought it on the street from this young African-American artist and I am so bummed I never asked his name.”  I said it for a reason.  I identified him as African-American because I was saying, “See?  You really admired this and it was made by someone you didn’t imagine would make this.”  I don’t know if it was racist or anti-racist, but my intention was to honor this young man even though I didn’t know his name.

However, whenever someone African-American would notice my necklace and tell me how much they liked it, then I had a problem.  I pretty much told them the story in the same way, of how I spotted it, purchased it and didn't know the artist’s name, but I didn’t mention that he was African-American.  I wanted to; I wanted to say, “See this thing of absolute beauty was made by a black artist…but I didn't, because I didn't know how it would be heard.  Would the person be offended?  Would they think, “God isn't she racist?  She wouldn't tell me if the artist was white.”  (And that was true.) Or would they be pleased that they might share a sense of identity with the individual who had created this lovely thing?  I didn't know.  But each time it happened it bothered me. 

     Bothered me all around. 

     Bothered me that my assumptions about his identity originally stopped me from asking his name. 

     Bothered me that my perceptions of how to bridge the racial divide “colored” my description of the maker. 

     Thoroughly bothered me that my insecurities about whether or not I would be thought of as racist caused me to react           differently depending on whether the admirer was a person of color or not.

Perhaps my discomfort was that I initially censored myself because of some assumption about racial identity and that left me feeling guilty.  Perhaps it was shame at not getting his name or of having bought his piece of art on the street, assuming it would help pay the rent. But the bottom line was that I didn’t know his name and I could never truly credit him the way I did with so many other pieces of my pottery, jewelry, and art collected over the years.  It was race and it was racist and yet what was the right thing to do?  Be color-blind about the maker?  Perhaps. 

The conference ended with the session, “What Difference Does Race Make?” and before I got to that session, twice my necklace had been admired, both times by men who were black.  I still didn’t know what I should have said. 

I wish I had asked.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


After my grandmother died, after the funeral and burial at the cemetery, as was the custom, people gathered at a restaurant to eat a meal and anyone was free to get up (often there was a mike) and tell their stories and share remembrances of my grandmother and what she meant to them.

During my wanderings one Saturday, while shopping the indoor “yard sale” at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home on Manhattan’s York Avenue in the high 80s, I came across a ring.  Mixed up in a shoe box of jewelry odds and ends  it was an Art Deco square-faced ring with a small diamond chip set-in a V-shape between the cut-out numerals “1933” on the face.  It fit and I bought it for a dollar.  Later when I had a jeweler look at it, it turned out to be platinum. From the day I first saw it, I always wondered whose ring it was, what had happened for her in that year, and where she was now.

Once I had this ring, I decided to collect “year” rings.   Certainly I didn’t see them often and they would be fun to hunt for.  I always had to have something to look for…first quilts, then posters, next pottery, and now, due to the jammed-packed studio apartment I lived in, I was steering away from the bigger items and looking to downsize my collections.  Reagan cards completely fit the bill.  Not much of an initial investment financially, I was confident that this compact political memorabilia was bound to be valuable one day. Slowly I was amassing quite a stack.  There were the predictable reissued postcards of his movie days, “Bedtime for Bonzo” and the like.  Then the official stuff: White House portraits of Ronald and the family, inaugural ball shots, and of course photo ops during the course of his presidency.  But it was the satirical cards that I liked best.  The comic ones of Nancy selling the White House china on the great lawn for $3 a plate; Ron hurling bombs at Brezhnev; or the not-so-presidential ones from Germany, England, or France  Ron naked in a cowboy hat riding Nancy;  Reagan (or was it his son?) half-naked in leather suspenders holding a can of get the picture.  After collecting close to 200 (not counting duplicates), year-rings seemed a welcome change.

[I would've liked to have shown you some of those Reagan cards but I seem to have misplaced the collection...for the moment.]

Gathered in New Jersey with the family at my Aunt Maddy’s house, my Gramma was admiring my 1933 ring. I explained to her that I was collecting rings like it. 

“I have a ring like that and next time you-come-my-house, honey, I’ll give you that ring.” she informed me.

“No Gramma, you don’t understand." I said to her,  "It has to be a ring with the year on it.  Just the year.”

“And I have a ring like that ho-kee-see (my soul), and I’m gonna give you that ring when you come my house,” she restated.

“Gramma,” I patiently repeated, “it’s gotta just have the year, nothing else.  No other name or school or anything.”

“Yes and I have that ring.” she persisted.  “My brother Hosroff gave it to me and I’m gonna give you that ring next time you come my house.”

I smiled dismissively because I was sure she just didn’t get it.

A few months later, we went down to the shore to see my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Helga and Gramma.  Gramma now lived in an apartment on Ocean Avenue, four blocks from her original house on Ninth Street.  Now Uncle Charlie and his family lived in the house of my Gramma so it was still like being at the Gramma’s I knew.

I walked down toward the beach and rang the bell of my Gramma’s apartment.

“I’m-a so happy to see you honey, I’m glad you come.  Come my bedroom.”  We went in to her small bedroom and she sat down on her bed.

“Go in my closet, hokesee, down in the bottom, you see a purple shoebox?  Bring me that shoebox.”

“You mean this one?” I asked as I dug out the box from the neat stacks on the floor of her closet.

“That’s the one,” she smiled. “You come here.”

As she opened the lid I saw that inside were small bundles of things, each wrapped in tissues and she took out a few and looked inside and replaced them until she found the one she was looking for  a metal ring with a scrolled filigree 1918 on its face.

“GRAMMA,” I exploded, “it’s a 1918 ring!  It’s exactly what I'm collecting!  I'm SO happy!”

“I told you I had that ring,” she said pointedly looking me in the eye.

“But I didn't think you’d knew what I meant!  I can’t believe you have this ring  it is SO perfect!  Where did you get this ring??”

“Well, when I’m gonna be eighteen, I’m gonna graduate school and then I’m gonna get married to Grampa, so my brother, Hosroff wanted me to have something. Something to make it special for me cause I’m the first in my family to graduate eighth grade.  But don’t tell anyone I gave you that ring, honey.”

She always said that whenever she gave you something. “Don’t tell the others. I don’t want them to know you’re my favorite.”

So, while I don’t remember all the wonderful things people said about Gramma after the funeral, I heard my sister tell the story of how she was Gramma’s favorite because when she and cousin Bobby came home summer nights past their curfew and the fathers were waiting to give them the devil, Gramma always positioned herself in-between to keep my Dad and Uncle John at bay. 

Then I listened to my cousin Linda who said that SHE was Gramma’s favorite because she was the one who lived with Gramma while she went to college and having spent all that time together knew Gramma’s loved her best.

And then, I got up and said, sorry, but I was Gramma’s favorite and I had the ring to prove it. 

Years later when our home was broken into and the 1927 ring with the initials B.A.D (Bucky Dean’s ring acquired from his estate sale in North Carolina) and the 1933 Art Deco  platinum ring with the diamond chip were taken, I thanked my stars I had the 1918 on my finger that day.

My Gramma made each and every one of us feel that we were her absolute and only favorite   and that is what was so very special about her.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

If You Only Had Three...

Whenever I would start dating someone, by the third date I’d always ask this question: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only have three movies to watch over and over again for the rest of your life, what would they be?

The answer to this question can tell you quite a lot about a person.

Usually the first two choices come easily but the third, that is the tough one; when you realize it’s your last choice  then it’s a struggle.

My number one has stayed the same for as many years as I’ve asked the question.
There is no competition:  The Best Years of Our Lives.

Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it.   Black &White, 1946, with Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and a host of other familiar faces. It’s the story of three guys thrown together on a military plane returning home after the war and how they adjust to life back in their Middle-America hometown. They span the socioeconomic gamut:  Al (right), the upper class banker married with two kids; the solidly middle-class high-school football hero Homer (left in the photo) 

who was poised  to marry Wilma-the-girl-next-door; and Fred (center), the working-class-poor guy from the wrong side of the tracks who met and married a blonde bombshell in basic training just before he shipped off for  years.  It is beautifully shot,  beautifully scored (Hugo Friedhofer won the Oscar for it) and tremendously acted by everyone in it, including Harold Russell, a real-life veteran who lost both hands in the war and whose role portrays how Homer’s life and future is forever changed.

Choice number two: Reds, an epic story that takes us through the rollercoaster love affair of American bohemians Louise Bryant and journalist Jack Reed.  Their passion for one another is at odds with the causes that entangle them in “isms” and world events from Manhattan to Moscow. Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty play the pair that are caught in the extraordinary events that became the Russian Revolution of 1919 (and the material for his book, Ten Days That Shook the World). Interspersed with their story (and the poignancy of their struggle against middle class norms of love and marriage that draw them together), are real-life characters Eugene O’Neill, Emma Goldman, and Trotsky.  Warren Beatty pulled an Orson-Welles by writing, producing, directing, and starring in the film.  I know, for this kind of film, I suppose most people would pick Dr Zhivago, but for me, it’s Reds.

And now to the tough one, the last I’ll get, movie number three.  For ever so long it was Splendor in the Grass (ironically Warren Beatty again, in his first film) for so many reasons.  It was William Inge, a sensitive writer. It was a story of tortured first love.  It was hauntingly and beautifully scored by David Amram.  And it was Natalie Wood, my favorite.  [For my sister, it was Elizabeth Taylor. For my sister-in-law, it’s Audrey Hepburn. For me, it’s Natalie Wood   forever.]

But recently when I watched it for the umpteenth time, and sad to say, it felt a bit dated and a bit forced and remember  this a film you’d have to watch over and over and over again. SO reluctantly I have abandoned  my teenage angst for another.  But which?

There are some movies that no matter when, where, or how many times I have seen them, if I see them on TV, I am drawn to watching them.

It surprises me to say this but, Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen (of MI-5 fame).  In spite of the fact that these roles have been played over and over by so many others, they each do such a touching job that they make the story feel new. And the musical score by Dario Marianelli is enchanting.

Serendipity with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as star-crossed protagonists with Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon as their quirky best friends who are along for the ride.  This charming film keeps them (and us) tripping past each other until years later they finally end up together  another one of those happily-ever-afters.

If I were cheating, I'd pick The Godfather: Part I and Part II, but perhaps I’d better pick a comedy  something that will make me laugh and laugh and that could be Tootsie or The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. 

So, as predicted, I'm struggling over my final choice.  Get me off the hook here  if you only had three, what’re your three movies?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

At Random

I learned the word “chutzpah” after living in New York but it was something I always had.  It surfaced whenever I felt unsure.  In college, when I needed to find a part-time job, the woman I was baby-sitting for said she’d get me an interview for an editorial position at Random House.  Random House.  It sounded so important.  It sounded wonderful. I imagined someone asking: "Where do you work?"  "I work at Random House." While I loved books and the sound of it all, I wasn't sure what qualifications I had to offer or what I would actually do at a publishing house.  “Anything they ask,” she replied.

Getting ready for the interview, I imagined I'd be sitting across from an older, graying-at-the-temples, pin-striped-suit, wing-tip-shoes kinda guy.  Those types were familiar to me — they usually wanted to protect me so I wasn't nervous.  But I got nervous when I was facing the brown afro and beard, plaid flannel shirt, brown suede-fringed vest and jeans of a 30-something Jewish guy in an office with a huge arch and a red wall filled with a display of over-sized Eschers!

“So,” he said plunking his work boots atop his desk, “tell me, what’re you looking for?”

“Well," I stumbled, "I don’t know exactly.  You see I’m putting myself through college and babysitting’s not enough — I was hoping to find some kind of part-time job…” I trailed off weakly.

“In the School Division, we develop educational materials for the K-12 market in reading, language arts, and social studies, though K-8 is our predominant focus.  We produce basal series, textbooks, multi-media learning units and filmstrip programs in all those areas  does that sound interesting to you?”

I had no idea what a “basal-series” was — the only basal I knew was a cell-carcinoma.  “I love teaching and learning. I always thought I’d be a teacher some day but now I’m not so sure.”

He started shuffling through some papers in his hand while he talked.  “Well," he said a bit distractedly, "how about  you start here as an editorial assistant, say 10,15,20 hours a week — whatever you can swing with your schedule.”

“You’re offering me a JOB?” I asked in shocked disbelief, the energy draining from my body.

He looked up from his papers.  “Well, yeah.  Don’t you want one?”

“Well, I don’t know if I can do the job you have in mind." I was waffling.  "I mean my grammar’s not that good  

“Whaddaya mean your ‘grammar’s not that good’?” he said sitting up in his chair.

“Well, I mean I know when something’s not right and usually I can fix it, but I’m just not certain why it’s wrong.”

“Well you can learn can’t you?” he asked incredulously leaning forward over his desk.

“Well, yes but  well, I’d hate to disappoint anyone...why don’t we try it out for six weeks? That way you can see if I’m good for you and I can see if this works for me.”

Steve Brown leaned back staring at me with a blank look on his face. I don’t think he quite knew what to say but he gave me the job.

I loved, loved, loved working at Random House, “the house that Bennett Cerf built.” It was a treasure trove of everything I’d hoped Manhattan would be for me.   After working in a drycleaners most of my young life, streaming into a skyscraper on 50th and Third, filled with floor-to-ceiling window-filled offices with executives and row after row after row of books, was a dream.  Minions of worker-bees crammed into elevators to ride up to their cubicles with IBM Selectric typewriters and our wonderful reference books to read and refer to  the Chicago Manual of Style, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Random House College Dictionary.  

One of the projects I was assigned to was a copyright renewal for the Random House School Dictionary. It required a minimum of 10% updating before the copyright could be changed.  I was instructed to look at the front and back matter and only make changes there.  At first, I did just what I was told.

But then, my new training kicked in and I started thinking about what I was working on.  Things were changing.  The country was becoming more sensitive to the growing diversity within our schools. The word "multi-cultural" was surfacing. We worker-bees were being trained to do a “sex-ethnic count” on whatever manuscript landed on our desks.  How many males? How many females? How many Native Americans [a change from American Indians], African-Americans [or should they be Black-Americans?], Asians [did this include people from India?], Hispanics [Latino/a were not yet in common usage] ?”  I started looking in to the body of the dictionary, looking at the words and their definitions and  to my surprise — I couldn't find “Mexican-American,” “Hispanic,” or “Chicano.”

Thinking about all those schoolchildren who wouldn't see in their dictionary the terms that others used to refer to them upset me. I went to see Steve.

“Steve, there are words missing from the dictionary that we have to add.”

"Excuse me?"

"We need to include the words Chicano, Mexican-American, and Hispanic as part of this revision. I can’t imagine that we’d do a revision and not add these words.”

“Are you crazy? Do you have any idea of the costs you’re talking about incurring? You add one new entry and it changes pages and pages of type! Entire sections would have to be reset — at minimum! What're you thinking?  We can’t spend that kind of money on this revision!”

“These words are MISSING from the DICTIONARY, Steve! We HAVE to. Think of those kids — how can we NOT?”

Steve just shook his head angrily and shooed me away with his hand.

I left his office tears streaming down my face.  I couldn’t go back to my cubicle (no privacy) so I ran to Lee Kosmac’s office in Marketing because I knew she’d let me hide there and I knew she’d listen to what I had to say. Even though I was in overalls and saddle shoes and not yet out of college, she always treated me as a person of value. Still crying, I told her what happened.

“You can’t argue with him about doing what’s right. The only way to convince him is to show how it effects him in the wallet. How is it hurting their bottom line? How are they losing out financially by not doing this? That’s the way to get through to him, not because it’s right, but because it’s costing the company money.”

"But that's wrong." I looked up pleadingly, hoping she would see it as I did.

"Not in business, honey." she said soothingly.

I took a deep breath.  “How can I do that? I don't know how to do that.”

“Well, I’d start by seeing how our competition, Macmillan and Harcourt Brace — who are outselling us — are doing, and if they include those words in their dictionaries.” 

I checked the five top-selling school dictionaries for those words.  I called the Texas Book Depository (one and the same) to get the sales figures for each of our competitors’ books. I worked on a memo that Lee guided and reviewed to spell out how much we were losing in sales. I went to the boss.

Steve read the memo with his cowboy boots propped on his desk. He looked up at me, scratched his Afro-ed head and said, “So, we’re losing sales?”

“All of Texas,” I replied.

“And you think it’s because of these words?” he asked.

“Well, it can’t help.  Look at the student population.  I can get you figures on the percentage of Hispanic kids in the system if you...“

“I think you’ve gotten me enough,” he smiled, and the next thing I knew, editors more knowledgeable than me were working on the revision of the Random House School Dictionary.

With Lee’s generous mentoring I won that battle and used the lesson she taught me to win many future battles throughout my career: in business, money matters.

Looking back, I should've told Steve we needed to include the word “chutzpah” in that edition.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Write Your Life

In April 2011 I took a course at a local continuing ed center  “Write Your Life.”   The very first in-class assignment was to write your life story in three pages (in about 20 minutes)...this is what I wrote.
Television was my family. The first thing I did when I came into the empty house was turn on the TV and then the dark and scary room was filled with company — people talking, laughing, singing, selling — comforting words and sounds from Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show. Each show provided a family that was always there.

Years later when I was taking the National Teacher Examinations (now called Praxis)  I had to answer this essay question: “If you had to choose only one object for people to find 100 hundred years from now that would give insight to our society, what would it be?”  People wrote many things.  Often the answer was “a television” but I knew that wouldn’t work.  In a hundred years the technology would be so changed that no one would know what a "television" was or what it was used for.
[Remember this was in 1988 pre-digital, pre-EVERYTHING.]  
My answer? A TV Guide   that small, compact, thick volume that used to come in the mail once a week or could be purchased at a newsstand or even borrowed from a neighbor next-door.  The TV Guide was a window on our world and it wasn't a very flattering picture.  Future generations could read it and know how we frittered our time away on game shows, soap operas, detective stories and more. Like some people read the Bible, for years and years I read the TV Guide from cover to cover. And then one day it disappeared and was replaced by those onscreen channel guides.

When I was just out of college and working at Random House and thinking of how I’d change the world, I came up with the idea for an educational program for schools — TVS: Television Viewing Skills.  No one seemed focused on teaching kids to be active watchers instead of passive viewers. I’d spent so much of my time watching TV that I worried how it was influencing children.  

Another idea on how-to-change-the-world, was a program to help women in prison learn the basic life skills they’d need when they got out — buying and cooking nutritious foods, balancing a checkbook, managing a household — all the skills I’d been taught in home economics but it seemed these women had missed that class.  I even wrote to Dr. Jean Harris (of The-Madeira-School-Dr-Tarnower-Scarsdale-Diet infamy) while she was imprisoned at Bedford Hills and working with incarcerated mothers. I asked for her advice on my proposal.  She graciously wrote back that the idea was a good and necessary one but gently suggested that I might want to rethink the name, as prison officials were unlikely to respond positively to anything entitled Break-Out.

I became a classroom teacher.  I loved that first class of mine — all thirty-one 5th and 6th graders at PS 145 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  Not the fashionable Upper West Side but the gritty, crack-neighborhood-projects-with-drug-dealers west side where half my kids came to school asleep and hungry because they’d stood outside on the street until 11pm.  When I asked "Why"? they said, "cause the customers don't want no kids in the apartment while they buy their drugs."  Like me, once school was out, they came home to an empty place and day in, day out, night after night, they too were losing themselves in television. It was then that I told them, Turn Off the TV. Open a Book. Write Your Thoughts. Talk About Your Dreams. Someone is paying attention.

Our next assignment (that same night) was now to write your life story in one page, no more, no less.
I was born in Jersey City, the youngest in a family of five. Working middle-class parents with a dad who had been abused and rarely showed us any emotions other than bitterness and rage; a mother who loved us unconditionally, kept us together and going; a sister who often ran away and gravitated toward boys; and a brother who started with petty thievery that escalated to juvenile detention centers, jails, and ultimately, prisons — usually around the holidays.  I became a Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes  and when all my good behavior got me nothing at home  sought the attention of my teachers.  I learned to ingratiate myself to others and always did for them what I would not do for myself — anything and everything.  This way-of-being became a second skin that now, fifty years later, I am trying to shed.

I have been an editor, teacher, video producer, assistant director, program coordinator, daughter, wife, sister, mother-of-twins, thrift-store shopper, collector of unlikely treasures, and creator of a program that gets kids to be more honest, compassionate, reflective students who value civic-engagement and service.

One day, when I finally grow up and this past is behind me, I’m going to take my program on the road and make a difference in how we educate students by giving them an intentional, repetitive, and frequent focus on how to build their character  because to me, it's just as important as the reading, writing, and math.

At the same time, I’m going to tell my stories and see if there’s an audience out there who might be listening.

Tales From Denise James

A series of creative non-fiction pieces written over time, 
reflecting on the episodes of my life.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Sometimes it can be the simplest thing, like putting on a certain lipstick — the case and the smell will remind me of my mom as she sat looking at me quizzically while I carefully applied lipstick to her 83-year-old lips.

“How can you leave the house without lipstick?” she would say to me decades before.  I can hear her voice catching me as I headed racing for the door.  Unlike other mothers who were scolding their daughters for wearing too much make-up, mine was chastising me for not wearing enough. Starting in 9th grade she didn't let up.

“Your face looks half-done,” she’d say. So I quickly stopped at the mirror by the front door and slapped on some lipstick, hoping to appease her. “Now, you need mascara.”  I sighed.   I’d never be my beautiful-along-the-lines-of-Elizabeth-Taylor gorgeous sister.  An absolute whiz at hair and make-up, she didn't need any enhancement. I on the other hand did.   

Mine, not my Mom's
I never cared much for make-up, even though I’d endlessly watched my mother at her bathroom mirror, curling her eyelashes, applying powder and shadow, and carefully coloring her lips with one of what seemed to be fifty choices.  Her lipsticks   a virtual rainbow of pinks, corals, roses, reds, and plums; all bought on sale or at a discount store.  I loved watching her do her make-up, getting “all dolled-up” to go out.  

She was a real fashion plate, my mother, and a seamstress to boot.  She’d made two of my three prom dresses — both from the same pattern, but different fabrics, colors, and trim.

“Ma-a-a-om” I’d protest as she pinned more of a plunge in the neckline. 

“If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” she advised. “Why not show a little more cleavage?” she said, and I watched her cut the V-neck even deeper.

Lipstick was about the only make-up I’d use in any regular way, most bought for a few bucks or less; always trying to find the perfect shade of cherry red.  Though so many looked “perfect” in the tube, somehow all morphed on my lips into shades too orange for my skin.  Once my friend Lynnie insisted we go into Bloomingdale’s to find the “right” shade.  With the help of a Chanel salesgirl we did find a berry color that seemed good for me. 

“I’ll take it,” I smiled and headed for the register…only to be dumbstruck when she said, “That will be $23.60.”  TWENTY-THREE DOLLARS for a lipstick ?!?  I must have looked so shocked that Lynn quickly intervened and insisted she buy it as “an early birthday present.”

When my mother came to live with us, changed by dementia, and not really herself, I did make every effort to carefully make her up before she left for Charles House, her senior daycare destination three days a week.

“Go like this Mom,” I’d remind her as I pursed my lips and she’d copy me and smile.

Today I was wearing Estee Lauder’s “Rosewood” from a fluted blue plastic cylinder they no longer make.  Found in the bottom of my summer bag, it was really too old and too stale to be wearing.  With most of its moisture gone, it went on like a sticky paste and left an aftertaste in my mouth, but at 99 cents, it was a priceless ticket to where my mother used to be.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Traveling Alone

“My doctor says I need to stop working and can’t manage all these stairs and subways,” I said to my principal, Ms. Budd [This Budd's For You 1-15-12] with a look of sheer despair on my face. I did NOT want to leave my classroom.  I did not want to leave the 31 fifth- and sixth-grade students I had worked so hard to bring along.  True, some were still off track (James) and disrespectful Taneesha) and insolent (Rudy), but for the most part they had all come so far!  If I left I wouldn't get to finish what I started.  My classroom was on the third floor.  But if things continued the way they were, I would be endangering my pregnancy.  I was struggling to figure out how to manage.

“I have an idea,” said Ms. Budd.   “What if in the morning you got your children from the schoolyard, brought them up and then didn’t come down again until the end of day?”

“How could I do that?  What about down to lunch and back again, gym, and math lab?” They can’t go up and down three flights by themselves.”

“Why not?”  she asked me plainly.

“Because it’s not allowed!” I said with a bit of frustration. If anyone knew the rules, it was Ms. Budd — she was the principal; she was the one who set them!

“What if we made an exception to the rules?  What if they were allowed to travel as a class, without an adult escort?” she said with a smile on her face.

The idea of it was slowly dawning on me…it would be something unheard of in PS 145. Let my class of 31 kids out of the entire school travel up and down throughout the building with NO adult? What would they think?  What would they DO?

“We’d tell them together,” she continued with a wrinkle of her brows as she thought through the logistics, “we’d give them a trial period.”

“…and there would be line leaders  front and back.” I added, realizing that for it to work everyone would have to take responsibility.  “And the leaders would rotate every day so there was no favoritism about who was ‘in charge.’  Do you think it can work?” I asked her hopefully.

“We’ll only know if we try,” she said grinning. “Let’s do this first thing tomorrow morning,” as she scribbled in her calendar, “and have your leader line-up in place.”

For a moment it actually seemed possible.  Perhaps I would be able to stay onboard awhile longer.

The next morning when we got into the classroom, Ms. Budd was already there waiting.  

The kids anxiously took their seats trying to shoot glances and figure out:  What had they done?  What was wrong that Ms. Budd was there?  Some of the girls, Carolina, and Selena looked as if they were going to cry.  Mia and Rudy looked defiant.  James had that “I’m-the-class-clown” look on his face.  As Ms. Budd began talking and explaining why I’d need to cut down on taking the stairs and what we were proposing to do, face by face their eyes widened, their mouths gaped, and as they realized what she was saying, they got excited.

“Now you will be the only class traveling on your own but every teacher in the halls will be watching,” she cautioned. “This is a privilege and if there’s any problem, any cutting up or fighting, ANY disturbances, you won’t be allowed to do this again. Do you understand?”

They all nodded mutely.  After she left, the room was oddly silent.

The next morning, when we got to the classroom I’d posted a list of the daily line leaders. I’d chosen my most problematic to be first.  If they weren’t invested, it wasn’t going to work.

They rose to the occasion like little soldiers going to do battle.  The first time they left the room to head down to the gym, I waited and then went to peek out the doors to the stairwell and this is what I heard.

“STOP!  You’re going too fast!”

“No one should be TALKING!”

“Everyone needs to stay in LINE!”

They were marvelous.  And that is how they behaved for the rest of the time I was there. 

They walked taller, straighter, more intently.

They looked dead ahead. They looked purposeful.  Everyone was shocked.

Overnight their status changed.  They went from being the “dregs” to being stars. They were the envy of every class.   

One of my coworkers reported overhearing one of the girls being a mini-me as the kids were frozen on the steps:

“I’m sorry class, we’re just going to HAVE TO wait here until EVERYONE is READY.”

Every day they went up and down those stairs their faces were filled with pride.    

I learned an invaluable lesson from that experience and one every teacher should learn in their career. 

Traveling alone they didn't just rise to the occasion — they rose to our expectations.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Art & Copy

A great movie for me is one where I see the world through someone else’s eyes — I mean really through their eyes, in their shoes.  Recently I’ve seen a string of films (thank you Netflix) that I want to share — not to review, but to give you an inkling of why they were meaningful to me.

Another Earth takes us in two completely different directions at once: one is a story that is somewhat familiar to us about mistakes that change one's life and others innocent, about loss and readjustment; and the other is a story totally unknown and hard to imagine.  A mirror-image of Earth appears in the sky and upon that planet is a mirror population of us. Brit Marling (an actress I never saw before nor heard of) is remarkable in the role of Rhoda, the young woman whose tragic mistake defines her life. (2011)

Speaking of outer space, Nostalgia for the Light is a stunningly shot documentary about the Atacama Desert where Chilean astronomers are searching the sky and Chilean mothers are searching the sands for bone fragments of relatives who disappeared during the reign of Pinochet.   And if the beautiful slow pacing and out-of-this world visuals aren’t enough, you’ll get an understanding of how scientists view the world — that for every two questions they answer, four more questions take their place.  I can't imagine working in a field where things are continually and perpetually unresolved. (2010)

A Better Life takes you into the world of a hard-working, good-hearted but illegal immigrant from Mexico trying earnestly to make a life for himself and his teenage son in Los Angeles — invisibly.  Think of what it must be like to live invisibly: No driver’s license. No bank account.  No credit card. When something goes wrong, you can’t go to a hospital; you can’t call the police.  And all while trying to keep his son out of the clutches of gang life with its easy access to money and drugs and inevitable violence. Demi├ín Bichir, the lead, has been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor in a Leading Role. (2011)

In our world, advertising is EVERYWHERE. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our planet is permeated with advertising and Art & Copy will teach you more about advertising than Mad Men. I love advertising, always have. Through interviews with key players of the 60s and those still working today, we learn of the breakthrough innovators in the biz, including the guy who first brought the art and the copy people into the room at the same time. (2009)
And another film, I'd mention in an aligned field is Helveticaa glorious 2007 documentary about how this typeface came to be the most popular in the world. If you care about the look of the printed word, you'll enjoy this film! 

Speaking of art, The Art of Getting By (2011) is a surprisingly sweet and engaging coming-of-age film with an edge. George is a high school senior in Manhattan with intelligence and talent who's just barely skimming by in every way imaginable  no matter how his mother, teachers, and principal threaten, cajole or plead with him.  George (Freddie Highmore) has no meaningful connections with anyone (adult or peer) and is on the verge of being kicked out when he's taken under by a smart, pretty classmate, who is a huge leap in the right direction.  Against the backdrop of New York, how he manages to navigate his crumbling home life and missed opportunities with Sally (played by Emma Roberts) is an absolute pleasure to watch.