Sunday, April 29, 2012


In the movie The Art of Getting By, the main character George has one last chance to avoid expulsion from school his senior year.  He is given one option: make up in three weeks every single assignment he’s ever been given by all his teachers — essentially a year’s worth of work — do it, or fail and be expelled. And, each teacher has to be satisfied with the results.  He's overwhelmed by what he's facing.  

He gets one break.  George's art teacher says — if you make just ONE painting that’s completely your own vision, that’s real and authentic and if you paint that — that’ll be  achieving the equivalent of all my assignments.   He tells him that it’ll take facing some fear you have in you, but, if you look it in the eye, stare it in the face, then what you produce will be great.

When I worried about how what I might write in this blog would effect others or change what people thought of me, my husband told me that if I followed the advice George got and wrote what was true for me (my itals), then that’s what I had to do.  

In other words.  The way I heard that was: DON’T censor.

I have spent my life always censoring — thinking maybe I shouldn't because of this…or that...or her…or him…or a million countless other reasons, but all of a sudden — at this point in my life — I’m asking: WHY?

Who knows what’s next?

Is it worth it to keep postponing your truth for later?

Is it egocentric to speak for yourself — finally?

I'm getting better at processing disappointments more quickly and figuring out what sends me plummeting back to the depths of childhood.  

This censoring’s got to stop.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

All of My Children

I came to teaching in a very backhanded way. I’d always loved my teachers (well almost always) and it seemed to me that teachers made a great difference in one’s life. I wanted to make that difference. I wanted to be in a place where I could do for some children what my teachers had done for me  save me. I wanted to throw out the lifeline that would reel them in and hold them tight and not allow them to feel that they were simply adrift at sea with no anchor, no shore. For a short time I became a teacher and the classroom with the experience of many personalities  all affecting you in some way, many ways  was a place I had always wanted to be. I got that chance in my mid-thirties.
I’d just begun my first teaching job in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side...a job I went to later in life and without the proper training.  I was scared — a class of thirty-one fifth and sixth graders, some bigger than I was!  Still, in my heart of hearts I knew  I was meant to be a teacher.  It was just a matter of figuring out how.

Those first weeks, I came home drained and worried:  their lives were so troubled.  How was I going to give everyone what was needed?  Would I focus on the few bright ones that needed to be challenged to their potential before they were “bored” out of school?  Should I concentrate on keeping the ones who were on-grade-level on-track?  Or should I pour the bulk of my efforts into the struggling, barely scraping by, cohort of kids who seemed to have little chance of ever succeeding? I didn’t know and without any teaching experience to fall back on, I troubled over these choices again and again before falling 
asleep each night. It was making me sick to my stomach.

As time inched by, I grew more confident and less naive. I began to learn more and more about the “real world” my kids l
ived in — a world foreign to me.  Their world (a world I truly didn't know) intruded on us daily  when we had to clear our macadam schoolyard 
of the used condoms, broken glass, and empty syringes before playing kickball.

My education started the day half my class came in bleary-eyed. Why? Because early that morning a SWAT team had descende
d on their building trying to flush out a suspected "cop killer."  Police with machine guns and dogs had roused them crack-of-dawn out of 
their beds, scaring them out of their skins.

I continued to learn about the world of my students through class assignments.

Writing letters to then President-Elect Bush (the first) yielded a surprise when I innocently began sharing them alo
ud to the class: 
“Dear President-Elect Bush, I don’t think mothers should be allowed to use hot irons or hangers on their children…Sincerely, Natalie.”  
That taught me to pre-read their writing before sharing.

The assignment to “dr
aw a picture of a room in your home” produced a believable depiction of 11-year-old Selena being straddled in bed by a male stick-figure (her step-grandfather, I later learned). She'd carefully drawn her younger sister and brother standing nearby, watching.

Or the twin who when it was his turn to answer, "What will you do over the holiday break?" kept insisting tha
t he was going to stay in our classroom, by himself, all vacation. No matter how I tried to convince him otherwise, he told me he wasn’t going to leave our classroom to go home. I had him stay in at recess  trying to elicit what was going on.  On an impulse I had him look in the mirror.  “Tell me what you see, Robert,” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied, “nothing.”

Emotionally, physically and sexually abused faces eagerly greeted me each morning — looking for all I cou
ld give.  No wonder I felt sick every day.  But my husband didn’t buy it.  “This is nuts,” he persisted, “what if you have cancer or something?  You’ve got to 
get checked out.” And so I did.

I didn’t expec
t to be pregnant.  I’d just taken on this new job and had my hands full with thirty-one kids; I didn’t need another.  Still, except for being surprised at the timing, 
we’d both always wanted to be parents and were genuinely happy about it.

My class was delighted.

Six weeks later the midwife I was seeing told me that she thought I might be carrying twins. “
What would make you say that?”  I asked.  She explained that due to the height of my fundus (whatever that was) I was either a month further along than I thought, incredibly constipated, had fibroid tumors or was pregnant with twins.  “But no one in 
our families has twins,” I protested. “Well, they have to start some place,” she smiled.

I almost didn’t tell my husband, but of course did. He lit up at the possibility, then absorbed the shock on my face.

“How will we know?”

“My sonogram on the 16th.”

We had a month
 to go. Two weeks later for my birthday he gave me this unusual pair of  pins — Scottie dogs: one red with a black bow and one black with a red bow  tiny contrasting satin bows around their little plastic necks.  They were darling.

“Just in case," he said dog-ishly.

I’d never been a parent but imagined it would be hard enough with one, let alone two babies and besides,
 I didn’t think it was possible.  I’d had two abortions in my past and always felt that somewhere along the way God would punish me for them.  No matter that one of these pregnancies was headed for a miscarriage and the doctor who assessed me determined I was in no shape to wait out Mother Nature’s timetable.  Both times I had entered into the sex for the benefit of someone else but to the detriment of me.  I 
pushed the thought of “two” out of my mind.

But much like an American Express television commercial airing at that time, my husband and I received the astounding news during the sonogram. Splayed on a table, in an unfamiliar office, covered with jelly, gauges, and straps, the doctor (unknown to us) asked, “Is this your first sonogram?”

I answered "Yes."

“You’ve never had an ultrasound?”


“You mean this is the first sonogram you’ve had during this pregnancy?”

Skittish and exasperated I barked, “Why do you keep asking me that? This is the first time I’ve had a sonogram. You've asked me THREE times already — why would I lie about it?!”

My husband was gripping my hand gently, hoping I’d calm down. We were both anxious and this klutz wasn’t helping things.

“Well, I’ve got a surprise for you. I see two. I see two in there.”

“I don’t see two,” my husband said in disbelief.  But the doctor just circled on the monitor “Twin A.  Twin B” and we stared with our mouths gaping.

It was funny how everything changed that day.  It was like finding out all over again that you were pregnant.  A lot was gonna change.  We couldn’t stay in our apartment, not enough room.  My salary wouldn’t cover daycare costs for two.  Before, we didn’t want to know in advance what sex we were having. Now, we needed to know.  

We told no one the news until we could get acclimated to it ourselves. 

I was in my mid-thirties and having boy-girl twins.  I took it as a sign of God’s forgiveness.  We were being blessed with an incredible gift I didn’t deserve.  I was stunned by the symmetry of it.

It soon became clear that I could no longer continue teaching. There were consecutive complications, all fairly serious, all pointing to the urgent need for complete bed rest. Though I’d explained to the class that my doctor insisted I stop working, and that the safety of all three of us was the only reason I was leaving, my kids still looked at me with acute disappointment in their accusing stares. Yet one more adult in their young lives abandoning them. No matter what I said, their faces let me know I was making a choice and I wasn’t choosing them. 

The price of my gift became apparent. 

Two for thirty-one: painful as it was, I was grateful for the choice.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rolling My Way Back Home

Manhattan was filled with my Armenian heritage. There is an Armenian cathedral on the corner of 33rd and Second Avenue. There were small grocers that sold Armenian goods and the ingredients necessary to our cuisine. And there were the people, around every corner, on the bus or subway, buying a ticket at the movies, where you could overhear Armenian being spoken and recognize the dark-haired, dark-complected, hooked nose of the ethnicity and ask “Hyeren ga khosas? [Do you speak Armenian? Or more literally, Does Armenian go here?]

Coming to North Carolina  at a time when there were only 200 Armenians scattered throughout the entire state  the lack of exposure to all-things-Armenian was a shock to my system.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------  It was after nine. The kids were finally in bed. I pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and started rolling grape leaves. 

Being Armenian was always something that was just part of me. I'd been raised in an Armenian Apostolic church until I was eight. Heard Armenian and Middle Eastern music all my life.  Eaten Armenian food five nights out of seven, and danced in an Armenian classical folk group that toured the country when I was in high school.

Our group danced at Music Hall in Boston.  Symphony Hall in Philadelphia. Shriner's Auditorium in LA.  At the Felt Forum in New York and twice at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall really stood out for me because I was a senior and somehow I'd sold enough tickets to justify renting a bus that took 75 high-school friends and teachers from New Jersey into Manhattan to see me in this spectacle.  All of them were stacked in two rows in the highest balcony. I doubt anyone could really tell which one was me in that sea of heavy stage make-up, fake long brown braids and flowing veils. Even in the cavaliers number (where I was one of four females dressed like and dancing with the male horsemen), I didn't know how anyone could have spotted me  especially from the fourth balcony! But after the show when they all crowded backstage, they insisted they knew which was me and amid all the hugs and kisses and backslapping, I felt really proud having all those people experience what it meant to be an Armenian.

Before then, my Armenianism only came across in very isolated ways. Once, when I asked a best friend if she wanted to eat over, she said, "Oh good! I love eating at your house. You eat exotic all the time!"  And when I got married (to an odar, a non-Armenian) and my husband's family was ushered into our church, I can still remember the oohs and aahs and people talking about how ornate and beautiful everything was and so foreign. This was a ceremony that I'd always dreamed about — wearing crowns and being proclaimed the "king" and "queen" of a new kingdom. It was an elaborate ceremony.  I'd always taken it for granted, because I had always been surrounded by what was Armenian.

More than folk-dancing, food was probably the strongest link to my heritage. Armenian cuisine is a melange of lamb, squash, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Cracked wheat and rice pilaf. Ground coriander and parsley. Like most Middle Eastern cuisines, the ingredients used in Greek, Arabic, and Turkish foods are much the same, but the seasoning and the method of cooking are often different. For example, keuftah or kibbe is fried by the Arabs, baked by the Greeks and boiled by the Armenians. Dolma, (vegetables stuffed with meat and rice) is a mainstay of Armenian cooking and one of my favorite dishes. Yet, even among Armenian households, there's a wide variety of dolma and yaprah (stuffed grape leaves).

In our house, dried baby eggplant skins, grape leaves, tomatoes, green peppers, and squash were stuffed. Our favorite was yaprah, but it was the most labor-intensive and tended to disappear quickly from the pot. My mother's sister, Aunt Maddy, specialized in an appetizer known as yalanchi or sarma (meatless stuffed grape leaves that were served lemony and cold). My father's niece, Auntie Armenine (AR-men-neen), never made the dried eggplant but only used fresh baby eggplant instead which was a whole 'nother taste.  And my Aunt Arpine (AR-pee-neh) made stuffed and rolled romaine lettuce dolma that was served hot with cold yogurt on top  yum. Even my mom had her variation — stuffed cabbage cooked with peppermint that was totally delicious. As you can see, dolma holds a place of importance in my life.

When I first went away to college, the family joke was that when I came home
 — even before I said hello to anyone — I would say, "Is there any dolma?" Inevitably, it would be waiting on the stove or it would be first on my mother's cooking list. The kitchen table would be cleared — it's quite a project making dolma and yaprah. You've got to get the ground lamb or beef, the rice, the chopped onions and parsley mixed with the lemon juice and tomato paste and pulp (from the tomatoes you've hollowed out for stuffing), all seasoned with allspice, pepper, garlic, and salt.  After everything is mixed, the stuffing and rolling begins. The grape leaves have to be rinsed of brine and carefully separated. If the leaves are broken or too small they need to be pieced together, stem to stem (one upside down above the other) with the shiny sides away from you. I can remember my grandmother telling me to look for too much stem and snip it off with my fingertips before starting to roll. I heard everything she said, but most of the time, I'd just watch the others roll.

When you're rolling, there is a knack. You've got to roll tightly enough for the yaprah to stay together while cooking, but loosely enough so that the rice has room to expand. You never know until you're on your own and forced to roll alone, how you'll be. I've discovered I'm quite a roller, but that didn't happen until my forties.

When I first lived away in Boston, dolma was on the table when I arrived home. Then I transferred to school in New York and I was close enough to my parents or assorted aunts to get a dolma-fix at someone's house when the craving got too strong.

Making dolma 
on my own seemed so intimidating. Even my older sister in California had never tried it. She just waited for my mother's annual visit or the once-a-year church bazaar when you could purchase plates full of yaprah and take them home. Every phone call home she and I kept whining about wanting dolma, and my mother kept saying, "You've got to MAKE it. You can do it. You've just got to try. How can you tell until you try?"

When I had my first children, boy/girl twins, it seemed that getting around in Manhattan with two infants was quite impossible
 — unless you had a car, a chauffeur, or another set of hands. Open double strollers weren't allowed on buses.  The idea of traveling down flights of steps to the subway was terrifying.  The thought of placing them one at a time, from stroller-to-cab, and leaving both unattended on the seat while stashing the stroller in the trunk, was just more than my maternal instincts would allow. It was time to move out of of my beloved city. My husband and I moved to New Jersey, three miles from my parents, to be closer to help. It also brought us closer to a steady supply of dolma.

My husband commuted into the city to teach and I'd be home with the babies. Almost every weekday morning m
y dad would come over so I could run errands — but he wouldn't stay home alone with them.  He didn't feel he could handle them on his own (he was in his 70s), so with the twins strapped in their car seats, I would drive all over — to the post office, supermarket, bank, shoemaker, or discount bread store while my dad stayed in the car with them.  It was great having a built-in chaperone.  After we finished running errands, in the middle of the day he'd go back to his house to nap and then around 5:00, he' d come back, but my mom would be with him and they'd stay with the kids while I drove to the train station to pick up my husband. The trunk of their car would open and inside would be the meal for that night. Gouvage, baked lamb chops, keuftah, or dolma would waft into my kitchen and when we got back from the train station, dinner would be waiting. It was heaven.

But when the kids were two-and-a half, all that quickly changed.  For a set of reasons, we quite quickly left New Jersey and (new-jobs-in-hand) relocated to
 North Carolina. The lifestyle was better, the housing cheaper, the weather was great. But all was not great.  Besides not having our families, the other big problem was: no Armenian church, no Armenian grocer, no ARMENIANS!  It was going to be a long stretch between dolmas. 

My mother mailed her recipe to me but it sat on the counter for months.  Sheer desperation to have dolma gave
 me the nerve to dive in and finally try to make it on my own.   My husband was supporting me all the way because even he was missing the taste of dolma. My first solo pot of dolma was not a failure. My husband and children alike praised the outcome and even I couldn't stop smiling at the taste of my first attempt. Okay, so it wasn't exactly like my mother's, well, actually pretty far from my mother's the whole top layer was plagued by partially cooked rice, and all the geenj (liquid or juice that you got to sop the bread in) disappeared. Still, it was worth repeating!

At first it was really hard. I was frustrated by how difficult it was to find ground lamb and by how expensive it was. When my parents came to visit, my father would search the supermarkets and be perplexed when he couldn't find ground lamb. "Buy the whole leg," he instructed, "that way you can tell him how you want it and you know what you're getting." Then he'd bemoan the price of lamb. "Don't buy it unless it's $1.99 @ pound or LESS!" he'd yell.

"But Daddy, if I wait for it to be $1.99, we'll never have lamb! I've never seen it for that price. It's $2.99 and $3.49 and even $3.99!  I'm lucky if I get it for $2.69 and at Easter, I might see it for $2.49."

"That's ridiculous!" he'd holler.

Once I adjusted to the price of lamb, I had the problem of getting the sumac. The sumac was really sumac berries (not the poisonous kind, I have always been assured) that had to be boiled in water to create the geenj that was poured over the dolma and in which it cooked. Sumac created a delicious lemony-sour liquid that was absorbed into the rice and made the taste of the dolma what it was.  You had to have sumac.

Someone told me to ask the upscale grocery store to get it for me and they did — to the tune of $9.00 @ lb.! (I didn't dare tell my father.) But I did commiserate with my sister and when she heard what I was paying, she began sending sumac in the mail because even with the postage, at $1.49 @ lb. it still less by half.  Now there was little standing in my way. 

So late last night, sitting at my kitchen table, handling the mixture, rolling the leaves, I thought about all those women who endured and survived the massacres.  They survived to roll grape leaves.  Smelling the sumac boiling on the stove, I felt the loneliness of being here at a table
 — in a kitchen far removed from the time and the place and the circumstance of my childhood.

Though the dolma would be finished at 11:00 pm, and I would "steal" yaprah to taste, even that taste wouldn't fill the emptiness I felt — being here alone among the odars.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Losing My Religion

My world was filled with all things Armenian.  My parents spoke Armenian, we ate Armenian, we listened to Armenian music, went to Armenian "affairs," we went to an Armenian Apostolic church every Sunday  the hub of Armenian life But all of a sudden when I was eight years old, we just stopped going to church. No explanation. No acknowledgment of this great change in our routine, our social life, and the loss of many things Armenian.
I was in the office working on a manuscript when someone ran in to my cubicle and said, “Hey there’s a big parade down Third Avenue and it’s the Armenians!” because they knew I was Armenian and so I took the elevator down five flights to the street where hordes of people were massed on the sidewalks, waving banners and flags and shouting 

        “Down with the Turks!” 
        “Make them admit it was GENOCIDE!”

In my overalls and saddle shoes I was swept into the frenzy of people cheering and waving on the marchers  men, women, children, some very old covered in black like old ladies in mourning, carrying posters with enlarged grainy black-and-white photos of swarthy men who reminded me of my father and my uncles and my Grampa Joe.  All seemed united in this march to have their voices heard, to make the world listen to their pleas, to speak out for those for who were silenced so many decades ago.

I had grown up hearing stories of the Turks massacring the Armenians. It was a mantra throughout my childhood:

Turks are barbarians.
Turks are murderers.
Turks stole everything in their culture from someone else.

Once when I was in Studio 54 or Bond’s in a fiery red halter top and black shiny leggings with black strappy high-heeled sandals dressed to the nines for a night of dancing, I spotted a young handsome dark-haired guy — very good looking and very short; reminded me of my Uncle Onnik with his black curly hair and his bright white grin. I thought, “This guy really wants to dance but he’s afraid to ask because he’s short and doesn't want to be turned down.”  So I marched right over and I yelled above the ear-splitting sound, “Do you wanna dance?” and he lit up like a 1000-watt bulb and we danced onto the floor and in a flash we were both smiling and laughing, having a great time.

Over the blasting music I leaned into his ear and shouted, “So where are you from?” and he replied, loudly, “Istanbul, Turkey” and I had to laugh.  In a city of eight million people I asked a guy to dance who was a Turk. 

I shook my head, leaned back and yelled, “I’m ARMENIAN!” and his animated face drained of color, the smile slid from his mouth, and he frantically gestured while yelling back, “I am NOT Turk!! I am NOT TURK!  I am Kurd!  I am KURDISH!  Do you know Kurds??  We hate the Turks!"  And I gestured to him to move from the dance floor into a hallway where the music wasn’t quite so loud and you could hear each other without screaming.

“Of course, I know what Kurds are  you're mountain people from the eastern part of Turkey.”

And then looking somewhat relieved he said, “I only say Istanbul because in America most people don’t know Kurds or what Kurdish is.  I say Istanbul because that is all they know of Turkey."

"So where are you from?"
"I am from Diyarbakir.”

And then the color drained from my face.

“MY grandparents were from Diyabekir. I can’t BELIEVE that you are TOO!! That’s CRAZY!  Out of all the places in the universe, how could it be that you’re from Diyarbakir?” and he smiled broadly and began to tell me about himself and how he ended up here.
“In Turkey I was conscripted to Army so I moved to Istanbul where I became surgeon.” he explained in his heavily accented voice.

“A surgeon?”  I asked.

“Yes. Surgeon, I was surgeon in Turkish Army for two years!" he told me proudly.

“But did you go to medical school?” I asked incredulously. I mean I knew the Turks weren’t to be trusted but still, making someone a surgeon who was going to operate on their own kind  in less than two years?  That sounded really unbelievable.  Even for the Turks.

“No.  No medical school. Just Army.”  He didn’t get why I was reacting the way I was.

“I can’t believe you were a surgeon,“  I insisted in disbelief.  “Well, how was it when you operated on people?”

“Operated? I don’t understand this word.”  he said with a perplexed face.

“You know,"  I said gesturing with both hands in a slicing motion, “when you cut people open to fix them and sewed them back up?”

He looked at me in horror. “I did not CUT people, I was SURGEON!”  he insisted emphatically.

I just shook my head.  “Then I don’t know what you mean, because in our language, a surgeon is a doctor.”

He just looked at me with his black eyes wide and repeated, “I was not doctor. I was SURGEON!” and then all of a sudden I laughed out loud and said, “OH  you were a sergeant, a SERGEANT in the army  ” and he smiled and beamed, “Yes, I was Sergeant in army!” and that was that.

The crowds on Third and 50th pushed me blocks away moving downtown and as the crowd continued its march, my eyes were filling with tears, my throat was stifling cries and I knew I needed to get back to work.  I rode the elevator up to my floor still overcome with emotion, unable to control the flood of feelings welling up inside. I burst from the elevator (to the astonishment of those nearby) and ran to my cubicle past my coworkers, surprised at my obvious state of distress.  They bombarded me with questions:

“What happened?!”
“Are you alright??”
“Did someone hurt you?”
“What’s wrong???”

I couldn’t answer.  I couldn’t get any words out. I just continued sobbing uncontrollably and then Susan, came up to me.  She worked around the corner from my cubicle, was more senior, so we didn’t know each other well, but she simply wrapped her arms around me, hugged me fiercely while repeating, “It’s alright. Everything will be alright.” She gave me great comfort without asking a thing in return.

It was a day before I could explain to Susan what came over me, how the sight of all those Armenians, all those voices rallying to be heard made me feel ashamed  that I didn't go to Armenian church; that I didn't speak Armenian; that I wasn't out there protesting. This parade was to commemorate the deaths of hundreds of thousands who were forced to endlessly march through the desert until they dropped from thirst and starvation.  And yet the only thing Armenian about me was the food I ate.     What kind of an Armenian was I ? 
Did this family survive?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

From One Stove to the Next

April is a month of significance for me, for many reasons  one of which is the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.  As one cousin said, " we are coming up to the 100th anniversary of a genocide that nobody remembers. Everyone remembers the Titanic perhaps because of the wealthy individuals on board? doesn't pay to be poor."   

It's not only that the Armenians were a poor people, they also came from a land that the rest of the world didn't and still doesn't need or want.  They are resource-poor. This first genocide of the 20th century has been swept out of the halls of history like so much unnecessary sawdust.  

Adding salt to this staggering wound, not only did the world stand by and allow this massacre, it is still unacknowledged in a universal way because it would offend those of greater geographic importance.  You know how it is these days in human rights, countries only get outraged and act when there's a risk to something or someone they value as important.  

But at least the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum underscores the genocide's importance by including the following on an opening wall of its exhibit:

"...I have placed my death-head formations in readiness -- for the present only in the East -- with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" [Source: Adolf Hitler, Obersalzberg, August 22, 1939, speech delivered by Hitler to the Supreme Commanders and Commanding Generals; as stated by Former Bureau Chief of the Associated Press in Berlin, Louis Lochner in his book, What About Germany?]

So to underscore the importance of the Day of Remembrance or Genocide Memorial Day  [From Wikipedia: The Date commemorates the Armenian notables deported from the Ottoman capital in 1915, of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, most of whom would be executed, which was a precursor to the ensuing events.] leading up to April 24, I'll post three pieces that connect to my heritage.  I hope you enjoy them and the importance of "Armenianism" in my life. 
While single in New York, I lived three blocks from an Armenian grocer, Karnig Tashjian's. There, a short walk up Third Avenue, I could purchase any ingredients I needed and peruse a refrigerator case filled with ready-made goodies. True, it wasn't exactly like what I got at home, but the little old ladies were in the back of shop chopping and mixing and filling, and whatever I bought was enough to satisfy my taste buds until I'd made it home.

It was then while I was single that I started to cook some Armenian things because I just wante
d to have them more often. I can remember having a terrible craving for luleh kebab (LOO-leh-ka­BOB — a torpedo-shaped ground lamb hamburger). I checked through the only Armenian cookbook I had from an aunt who'd given it to me as a Christmas present in 1977; it was even signed by the author, Alice Antreassian. I looked up the recipe for luleh kebab, went to the store for the ingredients, and dove right in.

I followed that recipe religiously and made 40 lulehs! I hadn’t realized I needed to cut back on the quantities because I wasn't cooking for a family of four. Still, I was happy  lulehs for now, lulehs for later!  I hovered over my wall oven (an oddity in-and-of-itself in a New York studio apartment) anxiously awaiting the buzz of the timer with salivating mouth. 

Finally it went off, I pulled the rack out of the oven and before they could even cool, bit in to taste my first attempt  to savor the delicious mouthful and...and....and...they were...AWFUL!!  Unbelievably awful!  So awful that I spit that mouthful out! They did not taste a thing like anything I'd ever had, and in fact, they tasted so distasteful that I threw them away, all 40 of them. (Throw food out?  People who know me will be shocked.)

Dumbfounded, disappointed, devastated, I called home. I got my dad. He interrogated me.

"Did you use a recipe?" he barked.

"Of course, I did Daddy!" I said incensed.

"Did you get the meat ground twice and have the fat trimmed?" he queried.

"Yes, I did," I answered smugly, thankful I hadn't skipped over THAT part of the recipe.

"Whose recipe did you use?" he finally asked puzzled and running out of mistakes I could make.
"I used the one from the AGBU cookbook, the one... "

He interrupted mid-sentence, "You can't use THAT cookbook!" he snorted.

"What do you mean? It's an Armenian cookbook... I

He cut me off, "THAT'S not OUR kind of Armenian cooking! You have to use something with Dickranagertzie cooking!  No wonder it doesn't taste right!" he yelled in satisfaction at having discovered the fatal flaw in my attempt.

I burst into tears sobbing that it was the only Armenian cookbook I had. It was given to me by his niece!  How was I to know? 

Disgusted, my father told me he'd have my mother call me when she got in and hung up. I pitched the luleh kebobs (sacrilege in an Armenian household) and gave up trying for years.

Then when I (finally) got engaged to an "odar," (aw-DARHD = outsider or non-Armenian), my Aunt Vic (sister-in-law of my mother's sister) gave me an Assyrian cookbook that had been compiled by the ladies of an Assyrian church. My father nodded approvingly, "Now that's a cookbook."

"But Daddy, this isn't even Armenian," I protested.

"Never mind; never mind...that's what you need. The Assyrian way is the closest to our way of cooking."

Sure enough when I checked the index, there were three versions of luleh kebob, none of which resembled the one in my Armenian cookbook, so I was prepared to give them another try. Now, many triumphant batches later, I've got luleh-kebab under control.

This past Christmas I was looking for something unique and lasting to give our now 22-year-old twins and I thought about a family recipe book. They were living away from home and had been calling frequently with,, “Mom?  How do you make...?” or “Mom, if I’m making ___ what do I do first?”  I’d compile the recipes that they loved and save them from the mistakes I’d made.  

It seemed a good idea but I never thought through how much time it would take.  Retyping, reformatting the recipes, printing them and then organizing them in scrapbook-type albums with 8 ½ x 11 sleeves I could insert the pages in, making a table of contents, etc, etc.  It was hours and hours and hours of work.  Christmas was looming closer and our son was due home the next night, so I worked late to finish, get them wrapped and hidden at the back of the tree.  These presents were my pièce de résistance gifts.  They would be given out last.

When they opened them, their faces showed that they did realize what I had done, but they just stashed the albums and went on to the next thing.  I tried not to show my disappointment at their not making the connection that this was my heritage that I was passing on something important and meaningful.

But the other night, while wandering through a museum exhibit, when I least expected it, I received the following text message:
callout rounded rectangle center

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mister Burson Wasn't a Nice Person

To My Readers: 

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I know it’s going to sound as if I was a real rebel in high school but honestly I wasn't.  Most of the time I was running around from activity to activity like Little Mary Sunshine except I was miserable inside. 

I always had a hard time with math.  In some part I attributed this to a change in schools when I was in fifth grade.  In my new school they had already covered fractions and I missed the foundations on that and thereafter struggled with certain basic concepts.  This was before there were calculators available on every device in your life. You couldn't avoid math.  You had to take algebra and geometry if you planned to go to college so  algebra and geometry it was.  My algebra teacher, Mr.Viglione, was a kind-hearted easy-going guy who coaxed me through the class and was always encouraging.  My experience with geometry was quite the opposite.

Mr. Burson was a short uptight Pee-Wee Herman-looking guy who had slicked-back hair, wore a suit and had this precise character about him.  Everything FIT.  Except for me.  Those angles and planes never seemed to add up and he was annoyed each and every time I asked a question in class — which was frequently.  He always answered, but in a way that didn’t always help me get to the answer and he replied with such disdain that eventually I stopped asking.  Still I had to pass and it was looking doubtful I’d get by with more than a D.  

Now for someone who is used to A’s a D is a blow.  And I had the kind of father who ONLY saw the misses.  If I brought home a report card with all A’s except for one C in Algebra, he’d bellow, “What’s this C?”  If the next marking period that C was a B and I had a C in Phys Ed, he’d say, “Well, you know gym is important TOO.”  I couldn’t win.  Not with my dad and certainly not with Mr. Burson.

One particularly difficult class (could it have been cosigns and tangents or are those not parts of geometry?) I kept asking questions because I knew we’d have a test and these would be on it.  I guess his limit was reached when he shouted (and if I’m not mistaken, threw a piece of chalk at me), “What’s the matter with you, are you stupid or something?!”  Well that did it for me.  No matter how I looked at it, he was the teacher and it was his job to teach me and it certainly wasn’t to humiliate me.  In my 10th grade superiority I gathered my books and notebooks, got up and left the class, went straight down to the Assistant Principal’s office, fuming and furious. 

Mr. Herold tried to get me to calm down but I had one thing in mind: I wasn’t going back in there until the weasel apologized.

“Be reasonable,” he said.

“It’s not my fault he can’t do his job.  HIS job is to teach me and if he can’t find a way to make the subject understandable — then I guess HE must be stupid!” I shot back.

“You don’t mean that.  This is a simple misunderstanding,” he entreated, trying to get me to calm down.

“Oh no, it’s not.  He called me stupid in front of the entire class!  I AM NOT stupid!  AND he needs to apologize to me in front of everyone or I’m not going back.” I stubbornly dug my heels in, hugging my books tighter to my chest.

“Well, let me see what I can do.  Take a seat outside in the office until next period. And work on your Geometry!” he nudged smilingly.  I really liked Mr. Herold. He was a real adult but a straight shooter with kids.  Not all that huff-and-puff authority stuff like the principal, just a real guy who seemed to like kids and want to help them.  

“Come see me after last period.”

After all these years I don’t know if it’s just a figment of my imagination but in my mind at the end of that day Mr. Burson was in Mr. Herold's office and apologized for losing his temper —  begrudgingly — without ever looking me in the eye.  I felt the satisfaction of having HIM a bit humiliated in kind, but it wasn't in front of the class.  Still I knew there were limits to what I could demand — even when right is right.

When I was a teacher you’d think I’d have learned the lesson that humiliation was not an appropriate strategy in the classroom but there was a time  once  when my patience was tested, when nothing else had worked, and so, I resorted to humiliation. Immediately after I'd done the deed, I wasn't proud of it. 

James Walker, wherever you are, I hope you’ve forgiven me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

You Is Important

Aibilene tells little Mae Mobley…

You is kind.
You is smart.
You is important.

I read The Help but I hadn't seen the movie and just watched the DVD after spotting it at the library.  So it surprised me when I heard Aibilene say those words over and over — instilling self-esteem in that little girl.  I hadn't remembered those words from the book. I hadn't reacted the first time I heard her say them to the little girl in the film — but all of a sudden it struck me.  She was brainwashing her in the most positive way and I only recognized it as such because I’d used brainwashing myself when I first started teaching.

My first class of thirty-one kids.  Everyone told me how slow and low the class was — low in scores, slow to learn.  As a rookie alternative-route teacher,  I troubled over how to turn that around.  I didn't start out thinking about brainwashing.  I just knew they had a sizable hurdle to get over academically and while I’d try the best I could to advance their skills, as a newcomer, they were each going to need something more.

At that time in New York, there were end-of-year tests, much like the End-of-Grade (EOG) tests in North Carolina and everything rode on how well you did on that test — for both student and teacher.

One morning I faced my class and said, “I want everyone to follow me and do what I do.”

I held up one finger (they held up one finger) and said out loud:
“I will stay calm.” And they repeated, “I will stay calm.”

I held up two fingers and they did as well.
“I will do great on this test.”

“I will do GREAT on this test.” They repeated.

Three fingers: “I believe in myself and so does my teacher.”

“I believe in myself and so does my teacher.”

They looked around at one another, their eyes questioning, their faces puzzled, their thoughts quiet.  "Do it again and do it louder.” I instructed.

“I will stay calm!” They called out.

“I will do GREAT on this test!”  Their voices rose.

“I believe in myself and so does MY TEACHER!”  It was a chorus.

We continued to do this the first day and then every day, at random throughout the morning and afternoon.  They thought it was a game.  They thought I was crazy, but for whatever reason, it made them smile.  Whenever I just held up my fingers and then called out “I WILL stay calm!”  “I will DO great on this test!”  “I BELIEVE in myself and so DOES my teacher!” they followed me in unison.

The next week I switched the order around and I stopped saying the words.  I just held up two-three-or one finger and they had to respond. And respond they did.  In some ways it was like a religious call-and-response.  We kept on with this practice, their smiling faces singing out the words of reinforcement.

Then I told them they had to NOT say the words out loud but only think them.

I held up my fingers, they held up their fingers and no one said a thing. At times some faces crinkled up as if they were thinking hard, other faces were calmer and still had their smiles.  They were building a belief in themselves.

Finally it was time for the only one to be holding up any fingers was me and no one said a thing.  They just THOUGHT the thoughts.  I had resorted to brainwashing.

We did this silent ritual before each spelling test every week.  Before the science quiz.  Before the reading comprehension tests.  Kids that never did well started to do better.  Kids who did well did better.  It seemed crazy but I saw them improving. After report cards came out that quarter pretty much everyone had done better than before.  
Unexpectedly, after school, Carolina (pronounced caer-o-LEENA) came back into the classroom with her father. She said he wanted to see me.  Carolina had to translate for her father because he didn't speak much English.

“My father says he wants to know what you’re doing here.” she said shyly looking away from me.  This was indicative of her Hispanic culture, children did not look adults directly in the eye.  I didn’t know this when I started teaching but one day in the teacher’s lounge, complaining loudly how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get some students to look at me when I was talking to them, one of my colleagues explained that this was how they were taught — it was considered disrespectful

I knew why Carolina wasn't looking at me but her father wasn't either.

Carolina was a pretty, shy girl, with pierced ears and a gentle manner. She never gave me any trouble in class and just came each day and sat at her desk and tried to do her work.

“I don’t understand the question Carolina,” I told her, ”Does he mean the subjects we study?  Does your father want to know the schedule of subjects for the day?”  She translated in Spanish and spoke in her usual soft voice.  

“No,” she told me looking at her father while talking to me, “He says that he doesn’t understand how I am getting A’s in spelling when I’ve never had them before. He wants to know what you did.”

“Well tell him you’re working very hard,” I said smiling at her through the translation, “and that we’re practicing how to do well on our tests.   Tell him I’m very proud of the progress you’re making.”

As she turned toward her father, and prattled in rapid-fire Spanish, her beautiful white teeth began to show through her lips and I could see that he saw that she was happy and then he looked straight at me and I was happy and as he put his hat back on his head and rose from the too small chair, he was smiling and happy, too.

When Aibilene in The Help is forced to leave the household and her heart breaks at leaving sweet Mae Mobley with a detached mother who shows her little love or affection, she focuses hard on Mae, squats down and holds her at the shoulders and says firmly “Do you remember what I taught you? I need you to remember what I taught you.” and the little girl responds back:

“You is kind.  You is smart. You is important.”

I hope my thirty-one kids (wherever they are) remembered as well.