Sixteenth and Martindale

Is there a difference between perception and reality?

The story I am about to tell is true. It describes an event that took place early in my teaching career, and it is one that I will never forget.

First, some background.

I taught sixth grade at IPS School #26 beginning in November 1986. School #26 was predominantly Black. I did not have much experience working with Black students; I didn’t have much experience working with any students. I also did not have much experience working with Black teachers and para-professionals–teachers’ assistants, if you will. I had recently graduated from Penn State, hardly a bastion of diversity when it comes to Black and White.

Eventually, though, I became better at recognizing and appreciating the differences between me and my African-American students and colleagues, and an easy symbiosis evolved among us. In the spring of my third year at IPS School #26, I was on playground duty with another staff member, the venerable fifth grade teacher Mrs. Edwards. Mrs. Edwards was at least 70 years old if not older and had more seniority in the entire IPS school system than any other teacher. She was also the most beloved member of our staff, and rightly so–her students were well behaved, her classroom was immaculate and thoughtfully organized, and her bearing was formidable if not intimidating. She dressed each day for work as if she were attending church–sky-high heels and all–minus the hat. And she never, ever was seen without a Bible in her hands. She often used it to beat children who got out of line while waiting for their breakfast, intoning, “Oh, I do so hate to hit you with my good Book!” One swat with the Bible for every word in the aforementioned sentence. I loved her. And she scared the hell out of me.

Mrs. Edwards had a cloak hall in her classroom–not everyone had a cloak hall. Her cloak hall was used to store coats and boots and backpacks and naughty children. Mrs. Edwards also had a paddle–nothing special, just a paddle with her name emblazoned on the handle in perfect Palmer penmanship. If you had a student who needed paddled, Mrs. Edwards was your go-to lady. Don’t judge: This was 1989.

Back to playground duty or, rather, I should call it “parking lot” duty. Because we didn’t have a playground at IPS School #26. We had a blacktop parking lot. We had some balls–a couple of basketballs and a kickball, and in the past we had had some jump ropes, but they were lost somewhere along the way. There wasn’t much for the kids to do, and there were a lot of kids to keep busy. Three sixth grade classes, one special education classroom of fifth and sixth graders, three fifth grade classes, and another all-fifth grade special education class. Remember, it was 1989, just before Inclusion.

What did the kids do for thirty minutes of what was supposed to be recess? Some kids played with the few implements we had available for them, but most of the kids–pre-adolescents–stood around and talked, or stirred some unseen neighborhood pot they had dragged to school, full of hatred, jealousy, and vindictiveness. As you might have guessed, then, on this particular beautiful spring day, a fight was brewing. The antagonist, an African-American student named Glenn, started posturing in front of another male student, also African-American. Mrs. Edwards, heels and all, started toward her student, the one who was being confronted. I managed to get myself between that student and Glenn.

In the back of my mind, all I could think of was, “She’s wearing heels! She’s going to get shoved to the pavement and break a hip! She’s old!” I, on the other hand, was dressed in a t-shirt, jean skirt, bobby sox, and white Keds. I positioned myself in front of Glenn–a young man the same size as me–and held him by the shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, “Not today, scooter.”

Apparently, that pissed him off enough that he decided to take a swing at me–in the ensuing confrontation, he managed to relieve me of a rather sizable chunk of my hair, tore off my necklace, and ripped my t-shirt enough so that my bra was exposed. That pissed me off enough to turn him around, get his arms behind his back, kick him in the backs of his knees, and force him onto his belly. Whereby I sat on his butt, pinning his arms behind him until the paddy wagon came. I am sure I surprised him with my chutzpah.

Between the time I forced him to the ground to when the paddy wagon (IPS Security, not IMPD) arrived, I do remember telling him that he f***ed with the wrong person. Yep, I tossed the f-bomb at a sixth grader. Countless times.

After IPS Security relieved me of my duties as butt-sitter and f-bomb tosser, I found myself in the principal’s office, giving a statement to one of the officers. I did not wish to press charges, but I did want the kid suspended for the remainder of the school year.

After IPS Security left, my principal unleashed a torrent of fury against me that stunned me speechless. I had just saved Mrs. Edwards from a dangerous situation that could have hurt her, and I broke up a fight that would have most certainly disrupted the educational environment for the rest of the day if not for the rest of the school year. And here was my principal ripping me a new one for doing what any sane person would have done. Through the roar in my ears, all I could hear was him saying, “Racist, racial, race, relations.”

The rest of the day was a blur–I do remember my students’ ooh-ing and ah-ing when I returned to the classroom; I summarily I turned off the lights and read to them from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. None of my colleagues came by to ask if I was okay, no one asked me if I was hurt. No staff member talked to me for the rest of the day.

The next day a fellow teacher who happened to be White pulled me aside and whispered, “You’d better be careful. The paras (teachers’ assistants–all of whom were African-American) have told everyone that you whipped Glenn with a jump rope then tied him up with it.”


It got worse. The para-professionals had spread the lie that I called Glenn a ‘n*****, that I was indeed whipping him with a jump rope, and that after I was finished whipping him, I tied him up. They knew this because they were all watching out the window while it was happening.

Another staff member, also White, pulled me aside and told me that Mrs. Edwards had stated that she was disappointed with me. When this staff member, who had also watched the entire tableau the previous afternoon, asked her why she wasn’t standing up for me since she was right there and saw everything that had happened, apparently she replied, “I will always stand with my race.”

That was my first experience with racism. Moreover, it was a lesson in perception. What those para-professionals perceived and what Mrs. Edwards perceived were one in the same–even though what Mrs. Edwards saw was what really happened. And she knew it.

I’ll never know why Mrs. Edwards’ and the para-professionals’ perception of the incident was so different from the reality I experienced that day. In my mind, the only thing I did that I should not have done was swear in front of a student. To them, though, I did everything wrong. I was the privileged White girl asserting my authority in the way that, historically, they remember White people asserting their authority over Black people.

Why tell this story today? While I don’t agree that the officer who shot Michael Brown in August 2014 was guilty of any wrongdoing, I also understand that others’ perceptions might be different. This is because my experience with Glenn at IPS School #26 located at E. 16th and Martindale on the near eastside of Indianapolis in 1989 was perceived by others as a racist act of aggression when I know in my heart that all I was trying to do was to protect Mrs. Edwards. It broke my heart that she sided with those who made up the story about the jump rope, but then again, I had not lived her life, I had not experienced her experiences, and I had never walked around in her skin, so from her vantage point, what I did was just another instance of a White person beating down a Black person.

I learned that day that you don’t have to agree. Just understand.

How to Teach Your Child About American History With One Weird Trick

fences I can’t remember if I loved history before I had Mr. Chesko in eighth grade Pennsylvania history or if it was his unique brand of teaching that made me love history. It doesn’t matter, though. If I had walked into his classroom already loving history, I left it with an absolute passion for it.

I must admit that I was fairly intimidated by Mr. Chesko at first–well, maybe throughout my entire tenure at Linesville High School. You see, he didn’t put up with anybody’s tomfoolery, shenanigans, or monkeyshines, least of all mine. Which was good, because I was not always a very nice little girl at age 14. But I always knew where I stood with Mr. Chesko.

When he first began teaching at Linesville, I used to hear some of the kids call him “Chico”, which I guess was a play off his last name. Whereas I never called our band director anything but “Touch” (even, shamefully, to his face), I could not imagine calling Mr. Chesko anything but ‘Mr. Chesko’, and if he were sitting here beside me right now, I’d still call him ‘Mr. Chesko’. You see, he did not encourage familiarity. He was not the type of teacher you could walk up to and make ridiculous demands of–like Touch. Oh, no. You did not make demands of Mr. Chesko.

And as a veteran eighth grade teacher, I can tell you that this is exactly as it should be.

So what was so special about Mr. Chesko? For one, he didn’t sit behind his desk and assign a chapter in the book to read and the questions at the end to complete and hand in before the end of the period, even if he had a game to coach that night and a series of plays to put together beforehand. In fact, I never remember him sitting behind his desk–he was always moving, even if he was tired because he was up all night with a newborn baby.  Nor did he fling down with a sanctimonious fury that Rand McNally and expect us on the first try to point to Valley Forge, even if we should have known it was somewhere near Philadelphia. Neither did he force us to memorize speeches, dates, or obscure facts about the Revolutionary War and then chide us about our lack of knowledge when we didn’t get it right. Instead, he inspired us to learn about the substance of those speeches, the significance of those dates and timelines, and the interlacing of facts–the causes and effects of history–all by painting pictures with words, maps, and whatever other media he had on hand.  He taught us about the events that shaped our history–our history. He reinforced his stories by asking us questions that had us on the edges of our seats, begging him to call on us, with questions that began with, “How do you think …?” And “What do you suppose it was like …?” Or “I wonder how …”  He compelled us to become curious by default.

At once, learning our history was thrilling.  It was messy, it was gory, and it was fascinating.

Which brings me to the fences.

One of our assignments was to build a series of fences–fences that one would have encountered in pre-Colonial, Colonial, and post-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. Split-railed mortised, split-railed snake, log fences, stone fences–we were to build models of these fences, and we would be graded upon the historical accuracy of our creations.

I heard some kids grumbling about how fences had nothing to do with Pennsylvania history and that this was a dumb assignment. Those were the kids who didn’t have a recently retired father at home itching to build something, one who also had a penchant for cabinet making and a passion for history that surpassed even his daughter’s. But I knew that Mr. Chesko was wily enough to figure out within seconds of seeing me walk into his classroom with my arms full of fences whether or not my dad had a hand in the building, so I told my dad to chill (no, I really didn’t but it was something along those lines), and I made the fences myself. As a consolation prize, however, I let him help my friend Dede with her fences, much to Dede’s delight. My dad and Dede worked all night on her fences while I furiously flipped through encyclopedia pages to find just the right images to replicate in order to make my fences historically perfect. To do anything less would have demonstrated a deep disrespect for the unique nature of the assignment.

So what did all of this fence-making have to do with my passion for history and my reverence for Mr. Chesko? While making those fences (with my dad hovering over my shoulder giving me mortising tips), I thought about how folks during the Colonial period didn’t have power tools and had to split logs into rails with an ax. I wondered about how farmers in the Colonial period knew where their land ended and their neighbor’s began. I thought about how long it must have taken the Colonial surveyor to determine the farmer’s property lines without the benefit of modern maps. I thought about how, while the men in the community were splitting rails to divvy up their properties, their children were kept busy placing the split rails in the snake pattern formation. I wagered that, at the very least, the Colonial wives, with their aproned skirts waving in the wind, were stirring a big iron pot of something stew-like over a huge fire because their men would certainly be hungry after all that rail splitting. That got me wondering what kinds of vittles the Colonial folks ate–was it all rabbit and squirrel with the occasional deer thrown in? And how did they keep all that meat fresh without modern refrigeration? I thought, and I wondered.

And that, my dear friends, is how you teach American history by asking your students to build fences. Weird, huh?

Mr. Chesko, you taught and coached two generations of western Crawford County kids how to win and lose graciously, how to build character through sportsmanship and academics, you helped those two generations grow into productive and active members of the community, you coached a girls’ basketball team that brought home the first-ever state championship to the little town of Linesville, and best of all–for me–you taught me how to make those fences.

You are loved, you will be missed, but know that you are now, without a doubt, a dear and cherished part of Linesville’s history.

Child of God, I love you.

You are a child of God.  You are precious.  You are mine.

I read again today of the passing of another local teenager who committed suicide. The details of this heartbreaking news are immaterial; instead, what remains incumbent upon us as adults is trying to figure out why a young person on the very cusp of a long and seemingly abundant life would ever choose to end it and, more importantly, how to prevent this from ever happening again.

I can only imagine that parents of teenagers, upon hearing this kind of news, get that sick, I-want-to-throw-up feeling, wondering if their own child could ever conceive of doing something so horribly permanent, so heartbreakingly sad.

And, invariably, we all ask, “Why?”

could jump to all kinds of conclusions about how kids these days are spoiled, and when things don’t go their way, they resort to all kinds of dramatic means to get attention (because some of them do).  I could make asinine assumptions about how today’s kids have no structure at home, no boundaries, always get what they want but it’s never enough, or how drugs and alcohol wreak havoc with a child’s psyche, and that’s what probably caused this tragedy (because sometimes it does).  Or I could foolishly point a finger at these kids’ parents, wondering what kind of home life the children had that would compel them to do this.  Because, truthfully, all of these factors do have merit.  One or all of these instances could be valid reasons why these tragedies have occurred.

But are these instances the cause, or is there an underlying motif playing with our children’s minds? And does sanctimoniously pointing out the faults of other families do anyone any good?  Because whatever heartbreak was happening in these children’s lives has just been multiplied a hundred-fold in the suffering of their parents and families.

No, I believe it’s something more ominous altogether.

Sadly, even a child growing up in a loving, nurturing, and spiritual home can fall prey to suicide because, unfortunately, we live in a society that has devalued human life.  The horrifying images of Americans being beheaded by the insidious evil that is Isis are broadcast on the internet for our kids to witness.  Women and even underage girls can walk into a Planned Parenthood facility, have their babies viciously sucked out of their bodies, then walk out a couple of hours later after the staff has given them a collective high-five, praising them for their “brave” decision to end their babies’ lives.  The violent nature of many of our kids’ video games doesn’t help lend credence to the sanctity of life; instead, it actually glorifies death, making it appear fascinatingly cool to kill and be killed.

These are today’s hardships, the yoke upon this generation’s shoulders.

Instead, what if our society valued every human being—from conception and beyond.  To this end, we have some work to do.  We must look for signs of depression in our kids and take seriously their anxieties, their worries, and their fears.  We must dedicate ourselves to teaching every child that he or she is valuable beyond measure.  Children must know and understand that God has created them in His image and that however insignificant they may perceive their lives to be, their very existence is a priceless treasure—a gift.  We may not like everything they do, but no matter what, we love them.  When they make mistakes, and they will make mistakes—some of them even colossal mistakes—it’s okay to lay down the law.  To do anything less is unforgiving.

But most importantly, we must make sure that our children know that they are loved.

To our children, know this: You are a child of God.  You are precious.  You are mine.  And I love you with every breath I take, with every beat of my heart, and I will continue to love you long after I am gone from this world.


I swear.

I do. I’ll admit it. It’s one of my worst habits, after biting my nails–yes, my twice-monthly manicured nails.

I’ve had a potty mouth since about 1975, a year after my mother died. She used to have a potty mouth, too, but not surprisingly, when she began getting herself squared away with the Lord, she put aside her swear words, and I have to say that at the time, it was quite unsettling. Not because having a mum with a more evolved vocabulary was a bad thing, but knowing that she was shelving her words in order to be a better person was. And because my dad was the world’s all-time champion swear word utterer, I began to worry about his standing with The Almighty.

My dad took swearing to an entirely new level of intellectual prose. He eschewed the “common” language of the swearer–never, ever uttering the big kahuna of swear words–you know, the one that begins with an ‘F’ and ends with a ‘K’ (unless you changed the verb to a noun, in which case it ends with an ‘R’). No. His swearing was a patois of strung together adjectives; all colorful, threaded together by the occasional swear word. A master of both hyperbole and figurative language, my dad had the innate ability to generate a variety of words to describe one’s mother as well as one’s suspect parentage.

To wit: My dad had an ancient International Harvester Farmall tractor, bequeathed to him by his dad. To start it, he had to crank it, like an old- fashioned automobile. Then some levers had to be pulled, then pushed, then pulled again, and, if the planets were in alignment and the gods were on his side, the thing started. Most of the time, though, it didn’t. As a child, I thought the magic words to start the tractor included his long string of cursing, combined with several rich and vivid adjectives, combined with his kicking of the front tires. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

So yes, I come by it honestly. That damn apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Ironically, as a teacher, I only once made the mistake of swearing in vain: I called a kid a smartass. I meant to say “smart-aleck”, but I was way pregnant with twins, short of breath, short of patience, and had a serious case of cankles, and this kid was such a smartass that the word just flew out of my mouth before I could think. After the collective “Oo-Ee-oo!” of the other students, I got someone to watch my class of fifth graders (Oh, stop it. You’d have done the same thing if you had had that particular class of fifth graders. They were monsters.), marched down to the office, and told the principal what happened. He laughed. It was 1993–a time before principals got their panties in a wad over the shenanigans of their teachers. But I still called the kid’s mom to tell her I cussed out her son. She asked, “Well, what did he do?” I told her he back-talked me. She assured me that when he got home he was in for an ass beating–her words, not mine.

I smiled and triumphantly waddled back upstairs to my fifth graders. Prospective teachers–do not try this today. Times have changed, and you are the one who will suffer the ass beating.

Even before that incident, when I was teaching sixth graders and I had taken them camping for a week, I purposely let a swear word fly. I, along with two other milquetoast first-year teachers, were with the girls in our cabin, lights out, and I was exhausted. Not sure about the milquetoasts–they weren’t saying much–and besides, these were my kids and I was in charge. Naturally, the girls, ages 11 and 12, were all a-twitter with the excitement of being away from home for the first time with their friends. Repeated entreaties of “It’s time to stop talking, girls,” and, “Stop talking please. It’s time to go to sleep,” were of no use. Unless I took drastic measures, no one was going to sleep that first night in the woods. So I did it.

I said, very plainly and loudly, “Shut. The. Hell. Up.”

The rest of the week was just ducky.

When I taught eighth graders and the subject of connotation and denotation came up, I would proffer this lesson about swear words: Use them judiciously. You never know when you might need them. Why?
If you’re not a habitual swearer, when faced with a seemingly critical situation, you can throw in a ‘damn’ or a ‘hell’, and you’ll end up getting everyone’s eyebrow-raised attention and maybe even a little bit of respect. Swear all of the time, and those same folks will brand you as no better than the wheelman of a canal barge or some such low-life occupation. I try to remember this bit of counsel that I’ve offered to others when I, the world’s current champion swear word utterer, swear out of habit.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to remember my own damn advice.

Next month, I’ll tell the story of when I told the parents of one of my students, “Every time I try to have intercourse with your daughter, she doesn’t respond.”

Stay tuned.

You Can Call Me Bossy

Citizens of the world unite!  Avoid the word ‘bossy’ because it might lower a young girl’s self-esteem!

Here we go again.

My niece Jacqui has grown up knowing that she is bossy because we use every opportunity to remind her of how bossy she is.  My two daughters Julianne and Caroline, too, have bossyness running through their identical DNA. Furthermore, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary beside the word ‘bossy’, you’ll see a picture of my sister Becky.  In fact, ‘Becky’ is oftentimes a euphemism for ‘bossy’, as in, “Quit being so Becky!”

Incidentally, all three young women’s respective self-esteems are solidly intact.  Becky’s self-esteem was never in question.

beyoncebuttI visited the “Ban Bossy” site, and I was intrigued to see that one Mrs. Z (neé Knowles) has served herself up as a spokeswoman (not a ‘spokesperson’; she’s a woman for crying out loud) for the campaign to ban the word ‘bossy’.  Hm.

Then my ADD took over, and I decided, since I have some of her earlier stuff on my playlist, that I’d listen to some Beyoncé just to see if I wanted to download anything else of hers.

I Googled “Drunk in Love” since it’s a duet with her husband, Jay—you know him as Mr. Z.  I gave it a listen, and, like most popular music, (even the music I listened to back in the 70s), I had to look up the lyrics, although all we ever had were the album notes and only if they were included.  Once again, I digress.

Anyway, this is what Mrs. Z rhapsodized about her husband:

“I’ve been drinking, I’ve been drinking,
I get filthy when that liquor get into me.
I’ve been thinking, I’ve been thinking,
Why can’t I keep my fingers off it, baby?  I want you, na-na.
Why can’t I keep my fingers off you, baby?  I want you, na-na…”

Okay, so Mrs. Z got a little tight, a little wound up, went home, and made frisky fun with her husband, I get that.  But, because it’s a duet, Mr. Z obviously had to weigh in:

“Foreplay in the foyer, f*cked up my Warhol.
Slid the panties right to the side, ain’t got the time to take drawers off.
On sight, catch a charge I might,
Beat the box up like Mike in ’97 I bite.
I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby, no, I don’t play…”

Then he finishes off the third verse with this gem:

“Sleep tight, we sex again in the morning
Your breasteses (sic) is my breakfast, we going in, we be all night.”

Oh, my.  Well.  I can see why she doesn’t want to appear “bossy”—her old man might beat the crap out of her just like Ike Turner did to his wife Tina “What’s Love Got to Do With It” Turner, or maybe he’d bite off her ear  á la Tyson v. Holyfield (props to Jay-Z for not mentioning the rape conviction).  And, you know, I’m not so sure I’d care for my husband talking about my panties like that or having my “breasteses” for breakfast.  He normally has an Egg McMuffin™ or a large coffee from Dunkin Donuts, but not my breasteses.

Furthermore, my man might be bigger than I am, but I guarantee he’d never think of laying a hand on me or even joke about it.

In all seriousness, I don’t give a fiddler’s fart (my nod to St. Patrick’s Day) what Beyoncé and Jay-Z do in the privacy of their foyer or any other room in their castle, nor do I care about their song lyrics.  They have a right to sing whatever they wish to sing, regardless of how silly, misogynistic, sexist, or offensive it may be to some people.  Doesn’t bother me.  For the record, I like Beyoncé’s music.

Why don’t these lyrics bother me?  Because I respect their right to create song lyrics, even ones that are, on their face, tasteless and crude like the ones I’ve pulled out of “Drunk in Love”.  However, though I’m not a billionaire hottie with a voice like hers, I, too, reserve and deserve the right to use the word ‘bossy’ or any other word I want to use for that matter.  I’m a big girl.  Let me take the heat if what I say is stupid, offensive, jerk-like, or otherwise unseemly. You’re not the boss of me.

In fact, I’m going to go a step further.  I submit to all of you who appeared in the “Ban Bossy” video:  To Beyoncé, to my favorite comic actress Jane Lynch, to my diplomatic role model Condoleeza Rice, to Mrs. Affleck who was so adorable in 13 Going on 30, and to designer of the timelessly stylish wrap dress Diane Von Furstenberg, quit being so bossy and don’t you dare tell me what words I can use and what words I can’t!  Again, you’re not the boss of me!

Fair enough?

I don’t know about you, but I get a sick feeling in my gut whenever I hear someone invoking the word ‘ban’.  Read up on The Nuremberg Laws.

There was some big time banning going on in Nazi-controlled Europe in the first half of the twentieth century…

Conneaut Lake Park

clp midway  Tucked into a quiet corner of Pennsylvania lies what used to be a gem, a treasure, a fun-filled and exciting destination for so many Western Pennsylvanians and Eastern Ohioans that throughout its long lifetime it has evolved into an iconic symbol of the natural beauty and majesty of Northwestern Pennsylvania.  That historic, shiny, colorful, noisy, sometimes messy, but always extraordinary place was Conneaut Lake Park.

I say “was” because the last time I drove past the park, it was a shadow of its former self.  The Blue Streak was still there, but little else recognizable remains, or rather, little else was visible from Route 618 the last time I drove past.  In my youth, driving through the park with the radio on CKLW (800 on your AM dial) was a summertime Friday night ritual—the late 70s version of cruising.  And, yep, I was quite the badass in my dad’s 1975 red and white Ford Maverick, later traded in for a 1977 beige Maverick—and when I say beige, I mean the ugliest shade of beige on the planet.  Think oatmeal.

Never mind that the boy I was chasing at the time drove a black Trans-Am like Smokey’s and the boyfriend I was supposed to be going with had jacked up the back end of his car, added chrome wheel covers, and attached some gadget to the exhaust that made it loud when you revved it.

We were young.

Before that, I remember boogie nights (not those kinds of boogie nights) in the Dreamland Ballroom dancing to Les Wheeler’s collection of Donna Summer, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, and the ever-popular Commodores.  The disco ball rotating in the center of the dance hall’s ceiling illuminated a floor full of giggling girls only because the boys were too cool to get up and join us—maybe because they were only 13 or 14 and girls, to them, still had cooties.

But the Conneaut Lake Park that I remember best, and the Conneaut Lake Park that I long to see again was the Conneaut Lake Park that sponsored Ride-a-Rama every spring.  Ride-a-Rama meant that you bought a bracelet—the kind that could only be fastened to one’s wrist by an adult and would never come off, ever—that granted its wearer unlimited turns on any of the parks thrilling rides—from the Tilt-a-Whirl to the Blue Streak (even though only babies rode the Tilt-a-Whirl).  But you could only ride the Blue Streak if you were a) this tall, and b) courageous enough to do it “hands-free”.

As kids, we lived for each spring’s Ride-a-Rama.

My mother died unexpectedly in the early morning hours of Friday, May 10, 1974.  Later that morning, as my father sat in a stupor and my brother and sister lay crying quietly in their rooms, I watched as one of my mother’s friends swept through the house, readying it for the company that would soon be coming in from out of town.  She began by cleaning out the refrigerator to make way for all of the beige, oatmeal-colored casseroles and Jello desserts that would soon be arriving, and then she proceeded to clear out my parents’ bedroom of any trace of my mother—her clothes, jewelry, shoes, accessories—of which there were many—and perfume (the 17 full bottles of Chanel No. 5 she never wore and the nearly empty bottle of White Shoulders she always did).

She also snagged my Ride-a-Rama bracelet for the next day’s event, purchased well before our family had any inkling of how our hearts would be destroyed by the gut-wrenching pain of losing a wife and mother.  Mum’s friend told my dad that since I wouldn’t be needing the Ride-a-Rama bracelet that she’d take it into town and sell it.

Thankfully, in a gesture that has been long remembered and has endeared her to me forever, another one of Mum’s friends,  Mrs. Ferraino, bought back the Ride-a-Rama bracelet for me, just like a young bride’s wedding ring that was hawked the day before and sat bereft and all alone in a pawn shop window.  Having four children of her own, she knew that the next day’s Ride-a-Rama at Conneaut Lake Park— that seemingly endless day of being loose in the park with your friends and riding every ride as many times as you wanted—was exactly what this little eleven year-old girl needed to soothe her aching heart.

So for a few short hours on Saturday, May 11, 1974, I was able to table my grief, if only for a little while, be outside on a warm, sun-kissed spring morning with two dollars in the pocket of my jean shorts, run around like a wound-up maniac with my fifth grade friends, and for a little while pretend that I was just like them—that in the late afternoon I’d be going home and my mother would be waiting there to ask me about how much fun I had at the park.

And that’s my best, my very best memory of Conneaut Lake Park.  It is a memory, a snapshot, if you will, of what I hope the park may yet become.

Sticks and Stones: The Defense Against Offense

smelly pirate hooker

We hear all the time about folks who are offended by ‘this’ and take offense at ‘that’.  To this end, I feel it is my duty as a middle-aged American woman of Anglo-Saxon origin living in one of the most conservative states in the union to put a little bit of perspective to the issue of offense.

What offends one person doesn’t necessarily offend the masses.  Take, for example, words typically used to address someone for whom you have some affection—you know, words like, “Honey”, or even “Dear”.  I once worked with a woman who was offended when she was addressed as “Sweetheart” by a male colleague, and she did not hesitate to very publicly let him know that she was offended.  She said that it wasn’t “professional” for a man to address her like that. 

And for the record, she wasn’t just offended; she was highly offended.  Damn.

What struck me about that conversation was not that she was pissed off that he called her “Sweetheart” but that she called him out about it in front of a large number of other staff members.  That, to me, was the true faux pas.  At the time, his term of endearment may not have been among the best choice from his arsenal of words, but her reaction was even worse, and not at all proportional. 

But I can’t say that I was offended.

Since that time, I have noticed that too many people have jumped on the ‘offensive’ bandwagon—everyone from people in the public eye to those whose lives are more private.  It’s as if folks are looking for a way to be offended just so they can publicly declare their outrage at the blatant violation of their civil liberties by an insulting, provocative, mean-spirited, distasteful, demeaning, and disparaging word or deed. 

My, my, people certainly are prickly.

This begs the question:  Is whatever that is branded as being offensive truly that offensive to warrant a huge fuss being made over it?  Or is the behavior in question merely an instance of poor manners and bad taste? 

Better yet, could you just simply and quietly disagree?

To wit:  I was getting ready for work one morning when a commercial came on TV between the snippets of local news.  This was shortly after President Obama first took office, and it was getting close to Christmastime (we’ll get to that little nugget later, I promise).  An advertisement for a “Ch-ch-ch-chia” came on.  The item in question was, indeed, the traditional water-the-clay-like-image-and-watch-it-grow thing-y; however, it was neither animal nor object; it was a bust of our forty-fourth president. 

Water his head and watch it grow.

To say that I was shocked is an understatement.  To say that I found the entire concept of a Chia Obama snarkily hilarious would be a truth that I am not afraid to admit.  And here’s why:

It was audacious, it was bold, and it was in poor taste.  Never had I seen a “Ch-ch-ch-chia” of any other president, and I could only gather that the reason the good people at Joseph Enterprises, Inc. thought this might be a good idea was that Mr. Obama is an African-American whose hair might grow in the same manner as chia seeds on a terra cotta image of him.  Subsequently, the company produced other effigies of political figures, but Mr. Obama’s was the first. 

Kind of like making farting noises with your mouth right after you’ve just farted.

Some, though, took offense at the Chia Obama and dubbed it as a racist representation of our nation’s first president to host a kegger in the Rose Garden.  Bad taste?  Yes.  Offensive?  Depends upon your name—is it Barak Obama?  No?  Then not offensive.  Racist?  Not even close.

“But Kelly,” you’re saying, “you’re not Black.  How can you say that this isn’t offensive to African Americans?”

Because it’s a silly thing, that’s why.

Now, who is that person who is offended by the words “Merry Christmas”?  I haven’t met this person yet, but when I do, he or she is going to get an earful from me.  Please, would anyone whose day has ever been ruined by these words respond to me so that I can make things right with you? 

You know what I think?  I think that some people became so frightened of offending the rather small number of individuals who don’t celebrate the birth of Christ that they started this whole silly thing by not acknowledging the holidays.  When my former employer, in the name of “diversity”, suggested that we begin referring to that blessedly long and stress-free two week Christmas vacation as “Winter Break”, I knew it was time to throw in the towel.

Americans have taken this “offensive” pity party too far.  Why do people feel the need to place themselves in a suspect class so that they can feel empowered when someone says a word or makes a stupid move that they don’t like?  What about the manner in which that stupid move reflects upon the person who made it?  Isn’t that enough schadenfreude?

On a more serious note, the word ‘retarded’ has gotten a bad rap these days.  When used incorrectly, it’s a disparaging modifier used to describe a person with intellectual challenges.  Even worse, the word ‘retard’ is often used as a noun, sometimes even a proper noun, when referring to certain individuals. 

But when you look at the true meaning of the word, ‘retard’ or ‘retarded’ is a word that means that growth has been slowed or stopped, so those who first used the term to describe people with intellectual challenges had the right idea—initially.  It’s just that the term has devolved into something more demeaning—well, actually, just plain mean.  So in this sense, it is correct to avoid using the word, unless you’re talking about pajamas.

Yes, I realize that there are many more words that slice into the hearts of men and women like Cutco knives and are best left alone, but can we all agree that when someone makes a bonehead move or says something completely stupid, the reflection upon the speaker or doer is enough to put the matter to rest?  Must we suffer through your feigned sense of outrage, your shock and hurt feelings, your “victim-ness”, and your collective suspect class angst? 

Get over it.

Misguided and destructive ideologies, on the other hand, do have the power to destroy lives and blight humanity.  When words are used insidiously to weigh down and brand certain sectors of society in a negative manner, then the responsible thing to do is to end such rhetoric by not giving it an audience at all, thus denying this leviathan of negativity a platform from which to destroy.  The message will soon reach the source of this ugliness that no one likes a hater.

But you can call me “Sweetheart”.  Just don’t call me late for dinner.

The Day the Sky Fell and Hell Froze Over

blizzard of 78

In case you haven’t heard, seen, or felt (or you’ve been in a coma), we—as in those of us living in most of the Midwest—had a little snowstorm on Sunday.  Then, to remind us of Who is really in charge, the temperature dropped like it was hot—except that it wasn’t.  It has been freakishly cold. 

What more can be said about this latest development in our weather that hasn’t already been said?  Well, nothing really.  Folks who are stuck at home (or people like me who are constantly online) have resorted to posting status updates on Facebook that read, “Went to CVS today!  Yea me!”  or “The roads are still bad, but I’m totally out of Pinot Grigio!  LOL!” or “Do you think CPS will find out that I beat my kids today?  I’m going craaaazzzzy!  When will this end?  Wink!” 

That last one wasn’t really on Facebook; I just made it up.

I’ve seen worse, though.  Some of us remember the big one—the blizzard of 1978.  I was living at home in northwestern Pennsylvania and was just about to turn 15 when the big one dropped about 30” of snow right smack dab on top of our house.  We were out of school for a whopping six weeks.  It was in those six weeks that my now brother-in-law began wooing and courting my sister and the two of them tied up the telephone line all day long, where I learned that I was rather proficient at Jeopardy! but no one was around to witness my question-providing acumen, and when I discovered that boxed Dream Whip, when mixed with congealed bacon fat, tastes worse than the chewed-up-and-spit-back-out cheddar cheese that Becky also tricked me into eating.  We were obviously without any adult supervision; thus, I suffered some of my worst days under Becky’s cruelty lo’ those many years ago.  My brother Jamie was away enjoying his freshman year at Westminster College, but really, he wouldn’t have been much help.  She bullied him, too.

I pray that no child has been subjected to such indignities during these past three days. 

The last time that it was this cold, though, was in January 1994.  I was a new mother with two not yet crawling baby girls, and I remember that Tim and the twins and I were hunkered down in the family room of our newly built house enjoying the warmth of a roaring fire in our new fireplace.  Once the fire was out, I made Tim clean out the fireplace so it would look pretty for the next fire.  Doesn’t everyone do that?  Since we were in a new neighborhood, there was a lot of new construction, and new construction equals a plethora of Dumpsters, one of which happened to be parked right across from our new house.  Tim, always a forward thinker, braved the frigid temperatures and deposited the contents of the fireplace in the Dumpster, threw in four or five shovelfuls of snow over it for good measure, and returned to our pretty, new house, proud of his manly and husband-like achievement. 

Soon we heard the wail of sirens. 

Perplexed, we curiously peeked out of the sidelights of our newly installed front door and found, to our initial shock, and then to our mind-numbing horror, what appeared to be the entire Lawrence Township fire department, complete with a ladder truck.  The firefighters were furiously fighting a roaring blaze in the aforementioned Dumpster.  This was the same Dumpster that had been the happy repository of the ashes of a newlywed couple’s first fire cozy in their new home. 

Fearing imminent arrest and eventual prosecution (Tim wouldn’t have fared well in prison), we dropped to the floor and made our way, commando-like, to the front window, where we took turns monitoring the situation by peaking over the window seat and out the frosty glass like two mongooses hunting for cobras.  At one point, I think Tim mentioned something about hiding in the attic if the authorities were to come a knockin’, but we were still newly married, and he hadn’t yet learned how easy it was to throw me under the bus.  Holding our breaths, we watched as the stalwart firefighters fought the good fight.  Soon the fire was out, and Tim has lived these past twenty years in abject fear that I would someday reveal his secret. 

That day has come. 

Oh, and Becky?  I was listening in on the extension the whole time you were making lovey-dovey on the phone with Randy.  So there.  I should have told Dad on you.


The Gym Show

sample cover pic 5  I despise tired and overused clichés just about as much as I hate Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, Ron Artest—excuse me, Metta World Peace, and random sports metaphors, but I guess I’ll make an exception just this once.  Here goes:   I’ve crossed one item off of my—ugh–bucket list.

I have written a novel.

Every small town, I believe, has its quirks, its idiosyncrasies, its colorful characters, and gossip a-plenty, at least I think so.  I’ve only lived in one small town in my lifetime, and that town was Linesville, Pennsylvania.

A few people with whom I was acquainted with still live there; many others have no idea who I am, who my parents were, and really wouldn’t care anyway.  And that’s how it should be.

But for a few decades in the latter half of the 20th century, anybody who went to Linesville-Conneaut-Summit High School couldn’t help but to have known my parents.  In a present day educational milieu where school principals are shuffled around more often than Peyton Manning calls audibles, it’s rare to find a high school principal whose tenure lasted as long as my father’s did.

Linesville put up with my father as its high school principal for twenty years; my mother as its girls’ physical education teacher for nearly as long.  My brother, sister, and I were literally brought up inside of that school, and if I close my eyes, I can still remember every hallway, every nook and cranny, every smell—sweaty locker rooms, redolent ditto machines, the cafeteria after Johnny Marzetti days, the cigarette smoke in the lobby during halftime at the basketball games, even the smell of the tall countertop in the school office where I would lay sprawled out, drawing pictures of cheerleaders and horses, while Myrna kept an eye on me until my mum and dad were ready to leave school and take me home with them.

Once I decided to leave teaching and do something—anything—else, I figured it was time for me to write a novel.  Lord knows I’ve read enough novels to get the gist of what goes into writing one, or so I thought.

Writers are always told, “Write about what you know.”  So I did.  I wrote about a small town, its quirks, its idiosyncrasies, and its colorful characters.  Oh, and there’s plenty of gossip.

In doing so, I had to be careful to not only protect my family’s privacy, but the privacy of the town that I will always call home.  I believe I have.  My family has many secrets, and my town has many more.  However, you won’t read about any of those secrets in The Gym Show.

I would derive absolutely no satisfaction out of exposing anyone’s dirty laundry, and I would never disrespect the town that gave me and my family so much during our time there by hanging it all out to dry.

The Gym Show is a work of fiction.  Some of the characters were inspired by real people, but if you’re looking for traces of yourself or shadows of events you may have been a part of during your time there, you won’t find them here.

I can’t wait for you to read it.

A Hero Among Heroes

88th Division

Monday is Veterans’ Day, and I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize, thank, and pray for all of those who have served and are currently serving our country, especially my nephew Lynn Panko.

Godspeed to you, Lynn, and I pray that our Lord keeps you safe from danger and harm, returning you home to us very soon.

Lynn follows the footsteps of another one of my heroes, my dad (and Lynn’s Pap-Pap) Ray Abercrombie.  My father was a veteran of World War II serving in the 88th Infantry Division in Italy.  I’m in the process of reading about the entire Italian campaign in Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle

As I read, I am amazed that anyone ever made it out of Europe alive after World War II.  Understand that in 1944, the world was without the conveniences we so depend upon today—I nearly choked reading about Eisenhower receiving a cable about a planned invasion, and I’m thinking, cable?  Hell, Ike’s relying on dots and dashes to determine the outcome of the war in Europe?  But, then again, he could not have foreseen today’s technology, so he most likely believed that the U.S. was on the cutting edge of wartime gadgets, gizmos, and whatchamacallits.

During my dad’s later years, I spent quite a bit of time talking to him about life stuff—all kinds of life stuff, but one thing that he rarely talked about to me to or to anyone was his experience in combat.  Oh, he went on and on about his escapades while “in the service”, about the various pranks he pulled, the places he’d been (Pisa, Rome, the Italian countryside) , about the little aide-de-camp who was assigned to him after the war who had some convoluted German name that made my dad’s throat hurt when he tried to say it so my dad just called him “Fred”, and he made it clear to all three of us why our family would never ever go camping—it went something like this:  “I spent way too many g*damn nights sleeping on the ground.”  We knew that he hated having his feet covered up at night—something about trench foot–and he was obsessed with having clean socks.  When I asked him once if he ever learned to speak Italian, he told me (and I think I was, like, ten years old at the time), “I speak a little bedroom Italian.”  That didn’t sink in until I became an adult, at which time I started wondering just how many half siblings of mine might be dotting the Italian boot.

But he never talked about his actual experiences in combat.  What few recollections my brother, sister, and I had gathered from him about his time “overseas” was usually only amid the pitiful utterances, shouts, and cries during one of his nightmares or when he was “in his cups”, so to speak, and would let slip some detail that gave us a tiny glimpse into what his life as a combat soldier had been like.

About the only recollection I have of his recounting of combat is when he told me—when I was an adult—about watching one of his buddies get blown into bits as he was retreating over the crest of a ridge toward the place where my dad was watching and waiting for him.

I wish I had the language to recall that conversation here, but I would never do it justice.

Those who served in World War II came home and were expected to pick up life where it left off—they were expected to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and move on.  No one ever talked about PTSD or “combat fatigue”, and there were few medical or psychological evaluations made on returning veterans.  After all, if they returned in one piece, wasn’t that enough?

No, they just went down to the American Legion hall and drank themselves into a stupor.  What made sense to these men and women during wartime ceased to make sense once they returned home.

As Americans, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that our veterans return home to a country that is free–at liberty to enjoy the rights and privileges guaranteed by our Constitution—the very same document they have risked their lives to defend.

Anything less makes us unworthy of their service and their courage.