I am on Facebook. I wouldn’t be, probably, had the alumni office at my high school of graduation not created a Class of 1964 group page in anticipation of our 50th Reunion. Once I joined, in ways I don’t quite grasp, I began to receive friend requests mainly from former students. That was too flattering to decline, so now there I am.
One of those students began to post about things she was cooking. Eventually I was intrigued enough to get in touch via a Facebook message. Now we occasionally correspond through regular e-mail. Recently she sent me a New Year’s greeting in an e-mail along with an update on her graduate work in food science. I responded in part by saying I was already aware of most of what she had said by virtue of having followed her Facebook postings. She responded in part by saying, Isn’t social media nifty that way? I can’t imagine how people kept in touch before the digital age…I have heard rumors about something called “handwritten letters” but I’m not sure what to make of them.
Her comment was amusing, but also this: she’s correct in her allusion to the disappearance of letters which for myriad reasons is a real shame, but then who am I to talk? In my life, I hardly ever wrote letters unless I wanted something from someone. She is incorrect, however, in suggesting that social media has replaced letters, (unless she includes e-mail under as social media. I don’t. In fact, I see e-mail as having replaced letters for good and ill.)
My social media experience is almost exclusively limited to Facebook. Ordinarily, I browse through recent postings, which Facebook calls “notifications” clearly because that makes posting sound as if it were passing along to me personally some intelligence my life would be the poorer for not possessing. Sometimes I “like” the post, but I’m not exactly sure why. It could be that If I’m amused or otherwise stirred, I think the poster might appreciate knowing, so I join those others who have already “liked”it. Rarely I add a comment. It could also be that I’m afraid other Facebook denizens who are friends or friends of friends will see that I didn’t “like” it. What will they think of me? That I’m clueless, a Facebook snob, humorless? Or, worse yet, that I’m no longer worthy of being a Facebook friend since I clearly don’t pay attention to my notifications! I don’t think anyone has “unfriended” me, but really, who wants to take that chance?
I use Facebook mainly for my blog’s sake. When I post, all of my FFs get an email telling them they have notifications, or that an awful lot has been going on on Facebook that they’ve missed out on. When they catch up with their notifications, they encounter a link to my latest blog effort. I also from time to time pass along my brother John’s interesting and often remarkably amusing rants and musings.
When I retired, a colleague whom I dearly love and hugely respect asked me if I was going to go on Facebook. She said she hoped I would because it’s a great way to keep in touch. Utterly ignorant of Facebook, I took her word for it, but not anymore. I do not count either what I post on Facebook or read there as keeping in touch. Rather I see Facebook postings as guilt free solipsism, for no matter how you may explain your motivation for posting what you do, there is plainly no way to deny that along with the content of a post is a shouted, “Look at me, look at me, look at me!” And in return, when you “like” and/or comment, you say, “I did, I did,. Did you see me look? Did you?”
I’m not anti-Facebook really. I am often interested in what I see. I wonder, though, do we Facebookers have any idea how much more of us we put on display than we intend? When I was a young boy, in the house next door to ours, in a room directly opposite mine was a window that looked at my window. The person who lived in that room was a woman. One night she undressed, partly, in front of the window, not intentionally, really, she just happened to pause in part of the process that held my interest. She never did that again, just the same, I kept checking . Often that’s how I see Facebook, but in a non-prurient way.
I am on Facebook. I wouldn’t be, probably, had the alumni office at my high school of graduation not created a Class of 1964 group page in anticipation of our 50th Reunion. Once I joined, in ways I don’t quite grasp, I began to receive friend requests mainly from former students. That was too flattering to decline, so now there I am.
I did not enjoy much of my childhood. Most of what I remember of that time is too frustrating, too contusing, too unhinging to want to revisit. I cannot think about growing up and believe those were the best years of my life. I always wanted to escape my youth, to be already grown-up, to be older.
In my aunt Carol’s memoir, At the Still Point, she writes of Sharon and Great Elm, one of her home towns and one of her homes. They, and what came to be known as The Barn, were my home too, for all or part of every summer of my life until I was twenty-one. Reading what Carol had to say about Sharon unsettled me, for as I read her words, the summers of my boyhood grew vivid, and I yearned for them, and felt grief for their passing; and I came to see that I would with pleasure relive many of them.
The words – Sharon, Great Elm, the Barn, summer – evoke in me such images! The haze of humid days, clouds of gnats, the water of the pool, redolently odorous with chlorine, and so bright with sun, you have to squint. The two park-size lawnmowers ridden in formation endlessly circling out and back, nipping around trees and across the acres of lawn, their drone a lullaby on a slow, muggy afternoon. Sometimes they are echoed by the Town of Sharon’s single lawnmower manicuring the town green which extended an extra mile from Sharon’s center, past the Town Clock, all the way to Herrick Road. Big, slow horseflies and mean, persistent deer flies that sweep in silently for a soft landing in the middle of our backs, and we do not know they are there until they bite. Now alert, we wait until a tormentor lands on an arm or thigh. A quick slap and what’s left of the fly is blended with the blood it stole moments before. Such revenge always feels good.
In the bathing cabins where we older children changed into our suits – the little ones were helped into theirs up at the Barn – with their always cool concrete floors, musty and stale, we undressed in cubicles standing on raised wooden slats that permitted the drying of wet feet. Then, at the end of the day, is there a cleaner feeling than stripping off a wet bathing suit, rubbing yourself as dry as you can with the already damp towel, and putting on your clothes over your body still cold from the water?
We children lay on our towels on a patch of lawn next to the large awning sheltered patio, not quite asleep but not fully awake either, and we listened to the undifferentiated voices of uncles and aunts while they ate lunch. Above us, from high in the elms, the voices of the cicadas rose and pierced the air, blending with each other. Abruptly they would fall silent for long moments which startled us to wakefulness. Then they would begin again, and we slipped back into the trance, floating, thinking of nothing, worrying about nothing, feeling nothing but content.
When his lips were blue with cold brother John preferred warming himself by lying belly down on the sun-heated tennis court or super heated flagstones. When he rose, his stomach and one cheek were bright red. He has described being in Sharon this way: “One, long, flowing day. No heavy expectations. No requirements of my time that I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Swimming. Blue, blue sky. No measuring up, no pressure, no failure, no gnats, no humidity. Not too much heat – of any kind. Lots of warmth – of all kinds. No school. No school. Just play. Lots of play. And all kinds of permission from everywhere just to play.”
Every day at five forty-five in the afternoon, the sun now shining through the elms, and the air beginning to cool, the Episcopal Church would broadcast hymns to the town from its steeple. They were played by chimes, one note at a time, and just that much slower than you might hear them played on an organ. We knew them all; we would often sing the words. Although Catholic Mass at that time did not include the singing of hymns, we Heaths attended independent schools which included non-denominational (read Protestant) chapel at the start of each day. Chapel began and ended with hymns, the kind school children could easily sing. Onward Christian Soldiers, A Mighty Fortress, God of Our Fathers, We’ve a Story to Tell. The hymns reminded us that it was time to leave the pool, time to take off for the last time that day our bathing suits, almost time for supper. As the last note of the last hymn faded, simultaneously the Town Clock began to toll six and Juju stepped out the kitchen door to ring a bell that weighed ten pounds or more, summoning those of us who hadn’t yet left.
What an extraordinary place for children to grow. What a gift and privilege. I wish I had known.
What Great Elm was like before my mother married and became herself a mother I have, of course, no notion; I do however know what it was like for my family, the Heaths, the perennial summer residents of The Barn for every childhood summer from late June to Labor Day. It was a place where we played, as John said, unsupervised, often unsafely, wildly, willfully, mostly joyfully and exuberantly. The freedom we enjoyed was so unfettered, it was in effect absolute We swam, we rode our bikes, we ran and climbed trees. We rode horses, played tennis, learned to swing a golf club, took rides in a cart pulled by a mean and sulky pony. We explored cellars, attics, roofs, haylofts, pastures, gardens, orchards, and woods.
Except for the weeks that included the Fourth of July and Labor Day, each week was utterly equivalent to the ones before and after. We knew weekends from weekdays mainly because our father was present. He was mostly peripheral to our lives, he and my mother having chosen or settled or sought a routine which had him living in New York City Monday through Friday.
Although by then our father would usually have arrived, in most ways, Saturdays were not appreciably different from any weekday. Mother still drove us to Hatches’ Pond in the mornings. Our father did not accompany us. We ate our mid-day meal at noon; and Mother often sat with us before she and our father joined the other adults for lunch at the pool or in the Big House. We children spent the afternoon there swimming, playing Red Rover or Marco Polo, or doing the myriad other things that Sharon had to offer, undisturbed and largely unnoticed. Again at day’s end we ate, the meal supervised by servants. Before we had finished, our parents were back at the Big House to dine. At some point early Sunday afternoon, after mass and brunch, our father was gone.
My mother always employed a cook, but it seems to me now that mostly our cook was a different person from one year to the next so each summer saw a different woman trying to figure out the oddities of our Sharon meals. Each day, three times a day, the cook needed to prepare meals for as many as ten children, two nursemaids, and often an au pair. In addition, my friend William and John’s friend David, William’s younger brother, often ate with us, with or without an invitation.
Breakfast was mostly whatever one wanted: eggs, bacon, sausage, cold cereal, toast, fruit. Lunch was the hot and big meal. Supper was different. Some days it looked suspiciously like a reprise of breakfast, on others there were cold cuts from which we made our own sandwiches. Campbell’s tomato soup, chicken noodle, or a chicken kind of soup out of a box which Juju called Arthur Godrey’s Chicken Soup. That last was the least tolerated. It tasted odd, not at all like chicken, more like sneakers John felt. Whenever there was soup, there were also grilled cheese sandwiches, the bread barely toasted, the cheese barely melted, and the entirety less than lukewarm. If the day were a cook’s night off – Thursday and Sunday – Juju might cook. That meant spaghetti with a pinkish tomato sauce, probably canned tomato puree thinned with the previous day’s left-over Campbell’s soup; or, Hungarian chicken with rice.
The evening cuisine sounds wretched, I know, but we didn’t much mind. The food was no worse in Sharon than in West Hartford, but the meals themselves were more relaxed at The Barn because our parents never ate with us. Sometimes Mother would sit at the table while we ate, but she always took her meals at the Big House with Mimi. Our father did not set foot in the dining room in the Barn. In any event, eating at the Barn was mainly something we had to do before we could get back to being in Sharon.
I was almost thirteen when my grandfather died. As the result of a stroke, he had been infirm for three or more years by that time. Before his stroke, he was the acknowledged master of Great Elm. As did Uncles John and Jim, he traveled to and remained in New York for much of each week. After his stroke, he needed to be assisted in everything: dressing, walking, eating. His mind was unimpaired. He could speak still, albeit haltingly and, to my ears, uncomfortably, but his right side was mostly paralyzed. For me and certainly for my sisters and brothers, Great Elm did not feel like Father’s place; it was Mimi’s. After he died, John and Jim who worked in the family businesses, looked after that end of things, but Mimi’s place as the Buckley family doyenne and potentate, Fairy Godmother and Queen of Sharon was unquestioned.
When we visited Mimi in the morning, which I believe we did every morning, at least some of us, you could count on being enthusiastically received. If she was in bed with plasters still on her crows feet, if she was packing, if she was discussing the menus for the week, if she was writing letters, if she was on the phone, her grandchildren were welcome. If she was saying her morning prayers, however, we would fall silent until she unbowed her head, crossed herself, put her rosary down and turned to us, smiling. Mimi at prayer was, we were certain, in direct communication with God. I don’t believe we could have disturbed her had we tried.
Right away, Mimi needed to know what we were going to do that day.
“We’re going to Hatch’s, want to come?”
“Not today, dear, but you’ll tell me all about it, won’t you?”
“Mother’s taking us to Bash-Bish Falls? Want to come?”
“Bash-Bish? Oh, that will be wonderful. How exciting!”
“We’re having a picnic at The Farm.” No need to ask if Mimi wanted to come; Mimi’s idea of a picnic was lunch brought to the pool..
“Oh, won’t that be nice. Watch out for bears and Indians!”
When we visited, Mimi would tell stories either about Nancy, the young Confederate girl who helped (Cousin) General Lee, or General Stonewall Jackson, win battles against the bad, old (sometimes she said, “Damn!”) Yankee blue-belly General Grant – she said that as though it tasted dreadful – by spying on them and running through swamps and deep forests in the middle of the night to deliver the crucial information in the nick of time (Later in school when we took history and learned how soundly the South had been defeated, it came both as great surprise and heartfelt disappointment. Nancy and Cousin Robert had defeated Gen. Grant so many times, it was inconceivable the war could have been lost.)
Sometimes the stories were about a similar but different Nancy. This one was a young rebel girl who spied on the bad, old British for General Washington, and then running through forests and blizzards and across frozen rivers to deliver crucial information in the nick of time. This Nancy was presumably the other Nancy’s grandmother.
During those morning visits, before the visit was over, Mimi inevitably would disappear into her hat and shoe closet and find, in a secret place, a piece of maple sugar for each of us.
While we were visiting Mimi, Jeff would come to take her breakfast tray away, and she would say, “Isn’t Jimmy getting big, Boykin?” And Jeff would say, “Yes, Ma’am, he sho is,” and he would smile at me so I would know that he and I understood something just between the two of us. If we were still visiting after a full hour had passed, the phone would ring.
“Hello?” Mimi would say, “Hello?” She always said hello twice as though the phone were yet a new instrument whose use slightly puzzled her. “Oh, good morning, my darling. Yes, they are. No, not at all, they could never be a bother. Oh, it is? Well, yes, yes, then I’ll tell them; yes, I will, right away. Good-by my… Oh, Allie, will you be here for lunch? And supper, too? What? No, I think Jim and Ann will be joining us, and perhaps Reid and Betsey. Yes, it will, of course, it will. All right, I tell them right now. Good-bye, my darling.
“Children, your mother says it’s almost time to leave for Hatch’s pond, and you’ll just have time to change into your bathing suits if you run all the way back up to the Barn right away. Now let me give you each a big kiss. And thank you so much for coming to visit. You know, your Mimi gets so lonesome, and you’re always welcome!”
And you always were – in her rooms, her house, her life, and her heart – Mimi welcomed you into her rooms.
She was so happy to see you. Mimi was always more proud of you than anyone she could think of when you played the piano for her, or swam underwater the whole length of the pool, or learned to jump on a horse, or won a tennis match against anyone who wasn’t related to you, or shot a nasty old woodchuck that had been snacking in the garden.
If you asked nicely, and if there weren’t already too many people coming, she would invite you to dinner at the Big House which was a special treat beyond imagining. First you got dressed up in a jacket and tie and nice pants. Then you would already be sitting in the patio with your mother and uncles and aunts when Mimi came downstairs. As she entered, you stood up which made her very proud of your wonderful manners, “and don’t you look handsome!” Her high heels clacked loud on the tiles as she stepped to her seat on the sofa that rocked. And she would say, “Come sit beside me, darlin’.” So, of course, you would. Then Jeff would bring you a Coca-cola the special way he made it with Angostura bitters and a maraschino cherry. And after he had passed you your coke and everyone else their Old Fashioneds or scotches, then he would pass the hors d’oeuvres which included because he knew you were coming, peanut butter on triscuits that had been put under the broiler.
You would listen to your mother and uncles and aunts and Mimi talk about people and each other and places they’d been and were going. You would imagine being one day as old as they and joining in the conversation.
When Jeff passed the hors d’oeuvres a second time, he would leave them on the coffee table in front of Mimi which meant in front of you, too. Pretty soon Mimi would say, “Jimmy, dear, would you pass the hors d’euvres?” So you got up from your seat and picked up the tray carefully with both hands and passed it around to everyone else. When each uncle and aunt took something, they would say, “Thank you, Jimmy!” and look you right in the eyes and smile. When you put the tray down, then you could help yourself to olives and triscuits with peanut butter and one cracker with deviled ham because a gentleman samples everything his host offers.
A while later, Jeff comes back with more drinks for everyone, but this time he just has little glasses with bourbon or scotch that he pours right into everybody’s glass, and never, ever the wrong glass, no matter how many people there were, whether Jeff had ever seen them before that night or not, no matter where they might have moved to in the patio between the first drink and the second. In my glass, he just pours me more coke if I have finished mine already which I always have. Then, one at a time, he asks if you want more ice. If you do, he has a small bowl of ice right there on his tray, and with big tweezers, he picks up as many cubes as you want until you say, “Thank you; that will be fine.”
After you pass the hors d’oeuvres around one more time, Jeff comes back and stands in the doorway to the patio. Mimi looks up as soon as she notices him. Jeff says, “Miz Buckley, dinnah is suhved.”
Mimi says, “Thank you, Boykin,” which is Jeff’s last name. And I smile at Jeff, and he smiles at me.
All rise from their seats and step aside to let Mimi lead the way. If Uncle John isn’t there, Mimi asks you to escort her to the dining room, but when Uncle John is there, that’s his job since he is the oldest son.
Jeff would be waiting behind Mimi’s chair, and he would pull it back for her and then slide it forward as she sat. I would do the same for any aunt who was going to be sitting next to me. I always sit to Mimi’s left. When Uncle John is there, he sits at the other end of the table. During the week, though, when all my uncles are in New York so only Mimi, Mother, some aunts, and I are at the table, no one sits there.
Sometimes if it was a bad hay fever season, Mimi would go on a trip. We still went to the Big House now and again, maybe just to sit in the patio and listen to the water drip. Or explore the cupboards in the nursery, or the roof, or play the piano so when Mimi came back you would play the piece really well. Or look at the portraits of Mimi and Father, our father and Mother, and all our aunts and uncles and their spouses if they were married. When Mimi wasn’t there the door to her room was locked. Every day you went to the Big House, you would always go to her door and test to see if it was still locked because she might have gotten back late last night. When Mimi was on her trips, Mother would sit in her seat when she had supper at the Big House which she still did every night.
Mother was different. We didn’t visit Mother, we went with her. She took us to Hatches’ Pond in the morning where you could swim out to the raft and back, or play in the sand, or row a boat, or go fishing with William. She herself didn’t swim, but she would wade with the little ones, and sit with them on the grass above the tiny man-made beach. She would hold them in her lap wrapped tightly in a towel while they rested and warmed.
She watched all of us every minute. If one of us stood at the top of the ladder blocking others who wanted to climb up onto the raft, she knew. “Jim, let Pam and John up please.” Her voice was just loud enough to carry out to the raft, just loud enough to be heard above the voices of the children on the beach. “Buckley, if you don’t stop throwing sand at your sisters, you will spend the rest of the morning in the car.” Buckley makes no protest. He drops a handful of sand into the water, and turns away from Betsey and Alison. Alison reaches to scoop up a handful by way of punctuating what she sees as her triumph over Buckley. Mother says, “Don’t you dare,” and Alison opens her hand, swishes it in the water, and then holds it up for Mother to see. “I wasn’t doing anything,” she says. Mother says nothing.
At eleven-thirty Mother says to those still playing on the raft, “Time to come in.” John and David are having a cannonball contest. They’ve pressed Perky into being the judge. John’s head has just popped up above the water. He heads for the ladder, not the shore. David and Perky are swimming back. John gets on the raft, skips to the diving board, and is about to bounce off. Mother says, “John. If you jump off that board instead of coming here right now, you will not be coming back for the rest of the week.” John pauses to think that over. He turns toward the beach and dives into the water. He swims underwater most of the way back, popping up when he’s reached shallow water.
Mother is looking at him as she folds one of the damp towels. John stands in the shallow water. “I told you not to jump off the board,” she says.
“I didn’t jump, I dove. And I came right back.”
“No Hatch’s for the rest of the week.”
John wants to cry but he will not. He picks up his towel, wraps it around him, and he and David walk to the car.
When Mother was angry with you, the inside of your stomach froze. You held your breath and you got very quiet. You sat alone and didn’t do anything or talk to anyone until she said something to you which if you were crying would be, “Would you like me to help you stop crying?” You always said yes to that. Then you sat in her lap and she would rub your back and say, “Sh, sh.” If you weren’t crying, then she would say nothing, but I think she admired that.
Mother sat with us while we ate lunch. Sometimes at lunch Mother would tell you we were going to the movies after supper. Sometimes she’d say we’d be going to the Catskill Game Farm two days from today, or the Firemen’s Carnival or Bash Bish Falls or the Cathedral of Pines, and everybody could invite a friend. That meant William and David who didn’t need to invited because they were always there anyway; Pam invited Susie; but anybody younger than John didn’t invite anyone because there weren’t any other children around that were their ages except for a few cousins who are different from friends; besides, not all the younger ones got to go anyway, if they were still little enough to have to take a nap.
Sometimes Mother reminded you that you had to practice the piano after lunch or read for an hour after lunch, and if you said anything that sounded like you didn’t want to do that, she would get mad. Sometimes when she was mad at the dining table, she would slap her palm down hard and sharp. She would do that a lot if you were arguing with your sisters and brothers. Whack! And she’d say, “End of the conversation!” Then everybody would quickly be quiet. After that, nobody would say anything at all until she’d say, perhaps, “Who wants to go for a ride to the drugstore after nap time?” Everybody except the one she’d spoken to sharply would say, “I do, I do.” If you were the one who didn’t say anything, she’d say, “I guess old, stinky Jim is going to punish me by not coming.” That way, you stopped feeling completely scared and started to feel a little mad yourself, too, and you pretended you didn’t even hear what she said.
When they would came back from the drugstore where everybody had gotten something special – a comic book or coloring book or a new box of crayons or a ball to play with at the pool or a flashlight that looked just like a pen – your feelings were hurt and you were sad. Later on, maybe, Mother would take you to the drugstore by yourself which was actually more of a treat than going with everybody else.
Mother would take you woodchuck hunting or on picnics up on top of a mountain when she was eight months pregnant, or fishing after dinner. She would drive you to Millerton which was a town in New York but only a few minutes away. Millerton had a toy store if you needed a ball or swimming goggles, and a store that sold guns and fishing lures if you needed hooks, and a movie theater.
Sometimes Mother went away on trips. Then you would stay at the Barn with just Juju to take care of you. You still could go to Hatches’ Pond and to the movies and the drugstore because Mother asked Leslie to give you rides sometimes, but just going there wasn’t the same as going there with Mother. When Mother was gone on trips, she was usually gone with Mimi, and all of the days they were gone weren’t any different from each other. You were still in Sharon, and you could, and did, do everything you wanted, but Sharon felt a little hollow and empty without Mimi and Mother.
When they came back, summer was fun again. First, they brought back presents for everybody, like the kind of clothing people from the country they’d been to wore: hats, vests, belts, pants, scarves, dresses. Usually Mother would bring me a knife because I would always want one. Mimi would give us some of the funny money they used in those other countries, or rosaries made of special wood that the Pope or a bishop had blessed.
If we weren’t going someplace special, Mother usually spent the afternoons in her room reading and writing, especially when it was hot. Hers was the only room in the Barn that had an air conditioner.
All the bedrooms in the Big House had them, and Mimi’s air conditioners were always on. She had one in the front part of her rooms and one in the bathroom between the room she slept in and the room that used to be Father’s before he died. She didn’t use that bathroom, she just kept things in it. She had another bathroom off her front room that was big enough for her make-up table. That was where the pitcher of ice water was. Going to visit Mimi in the afternoon when you had been up at the pool and swimming meant you got very, very cold because you only had your bathing suit on. When you visited from the pool, you never stayed long mostly because it was too cold and also because you couldn’t sit down in your damp bathing suit.
Visiting Mother in the afternoon was not the same. She never told you not to come in, she just went right on doing whatever she was doing. You would start to tell her something – “Mother? You want to know what I did? – and she would say, “Um-hmm,” and listen to you but not look at you. If you told Mother you’d just climbed the red tree higher than you’d ever climbed it before, she would nod and say, “Oh, good for you.” To her, climbing trees was part of what you were supposed to do in the summer, the same as swimming, or going riding with Williams, the groom, or playing tennis or golf if you were old enough. It was why you were here in Sharon in the first place. Mother was mildly pleased about the tree, but she was really interested in her book, or what she was writing, or the jigsaw puzzle she was putting together.
Mimi was thrilled. Mimi always wanted to know if you could see the tree from her rooms, which you couldn’t because, for one thing, the red tree that was outside the big house wasn’t as good for climbing as the one up at the Barn. To Mimi, climbing that tree should be rewarded with maple sugar, maybe, or a quarter. Mimi would say, “Oh, Jimmy! Good for you, dear!”
Anything that Mother did, she did with great intensity and passion. She was happy to have you join in and help her, but the help she took from you was more on the order of cheering than assisting.
Mother bought us, her children, things that she thought would make a child’s life more magical, or maybe just at all magical. We had, of course, industrial strength jungle gyms and swings and teeter-totters anchored in the ground by cement blocks, but her eyes lit up when she saw other things like a cable that could be strung from one tree to another on a downward slant some fifty yards or more distant. Where she found it and what it was called – of course, today it is a zip line – no one knows (although I’d guess Hammacher Schlemmer because it was our mother’s favorite store, even more so than F.A. O. Swartz, when it was located in the Squib Building at 58th and Fifth Avenue), but it was perfect for getting from the Barn to the Pool in record time. You gripped the handles suspended from the trolley, ran forward and then leapt up, chinning yourself, holding your feet off the ground; and you flew along the cable at speeds that would have OSHA and the Child Protective Services speed dialing SWAT. A really important part of the technique for that particular toy was to remember to put your feet down before you got too near the tree at the end. Once brother Buckley (Heath #5) didn’t. Too bad, but he wasn’t supposed to use it anyway until the next summer because he was too small.
The sled on wheels – small, hard rubber wheels, no more than five or six inches in diameter – was the most fun maybe because it was the most dangerous. None of us who rode it recall not having spectacular crashes that would shred our pants, knees, shins, forearms, and elbows. You could take it all the way up to the top of the driveway next to Mr. Bristol’s house and ride it all the way down, past the turn off to the barn, past Leslie’s and Elizabeth’s apartment above the laundry, past the garage where Mimi’s big Cadillac was parked – she almost never went anywhere in that car after Father died – past Williams’ cottage, past Ella’s cottage, past the stables, and on down past both driveways to the Big House, then right past the stone pillars and gate and right up to the main road. It disappeared one day my fifteenth summer when Mother found out my friends William. Harry, Tom and I were riding it on the public road that went up and down Sharon Mountain. It was a two and half mile ride, and you could get up to almost fifty miles an hour on the last steep part. She never told me I couldn’t do it; the sled just vanished.
One summer a miniature Model T Ford appeared. It was powered by a lawn mower engine. At the beginning of each summer, the men up at Bud’s Gulf Station worked to get it running. And at the July Fourth parade, dressed up to look authentic, first Pam and I, then another year John and Perky, then Buckley and Allison drove it in the Fireman’s parade. We were no longer going to Sharon by the time Tim and Janet would have been old enough to drive it. Mother died when Janet was six.
Another summer, from somewhere, she bought something that looked like the sort of thing a knife thrower’s beautiful young assistant would get strapped in and spun around on. This contraption, however, was freestanding. You stood in the middle, put your feet under broad leather straps, reached up and gripped two handles. Then you rocked yourself to the side, and you would begin to travel down hill, heels over head, until the ground flattened or something intervened. That was a wildly popular device with those tall enough to fit in it – me, William, Harry, John, and my youngest uncle Reid. My aunt Jane, who was afraid of nothing and would pass up no opportunity to try something new, also gave it a ride and pronounced it mad fun even though when it came to a halt, she was upside down and had to wait until we could catch up to her and give it a half turn more before she could get out.
I am sure Mother knew that the playroom in the Barn was not a place we children wanted to be, so on rainy days, we went for rides. As many as could fit in her station wagon would get to go. Always Pam, John, Priscilla, and I, usually Susie, David, and William. Sometimes Buckley and Alison, maybe Betsey, maybe Jennifer.
Sharon is a small town still, and while to us it was the center and source of all things good, it was only one of many small towns in that area of the world. Two other towns we went to with some frequency were both in New York state, Amenia and Millerton. Taking the most direct route and assuming minimal traffic, one can drive from Sharon to Millerton (Route 361 to the New York border, thereafter Rte. 62); Millerton to Amenia (Rte. 22/44); and Amenia back to Sharon (Rte. 343) – a distance of twenty miles even – in twenty-eight minutes. But if you were our mother with a car full of bored children, you could spend most of a rainy afternoon driving the roads circumscribed by the route outlined above.
You might drive from Sharon down Hospital Hill Rd. and onto King Hill Rd. and into Sharon Valley. From there, Sharon Valley Rd. would take you to Sharon Station Rd. which used to lead to Sharon Station, now defunct as a station and renovated and a private residence. Family mythology as invented by my mother had it that Sharon Station was established by my grandfather and other residents of Sharon who, like him, worked in New York City. Traveling from the city by train. one could detrain in Amenia or Millerton, but not anywhere else closer to Sharon. Sharon Station was still in New York State, but it was closer by car to Sharon than were either of the stations in Amenia or Millerton. As it turns out, that myth is fiction as Sharon Station predated the arrival of the Buckley family in Sharon.
If you didn’t take Sharon Station Rd. which now boringly just leads to Amenia, and you went right instead onto Sheffield Hill Rd., why, from then on you could wander onto Sharon Ridge Rd., Reagan Rd., Indian Lake Rd. which becomes Taylor Rd. which becomes Dakin Rd.; Dairy Rd., Mill Rd., Barney Dr., Red Cedar Lane, Lake Lane, and Horseshoe Lane, as well as Rtes. 58 and 61 until supper time.
This area was then and is mostly still now farm country, flattish by New England standards, but crisscrossed with brooks where if you needed to see if there were any fish or frogs there, Mother would stop the car. In fields left fallow in the spring, and so in summer, now covered in wild grasses and clover, you might see a woodchuck; and since William and I always thought to bring our .22 rifles along on these excursions, Mother would let the car roll silently to a stop, William and I would get silently out, sneak to the fence line, and ease our guns forward. If the woodchuck was still there, which more often than not it wasn’t, we would take careful aim, count to three, and fire.
There was once an extensive charcoal industry in that area. A number of the kilns used in the manufacture still stand. Inevitably on these drives we would pass one. Mother told us they were the tombs of Indian chiefs. She would stop the car so we could get out to explore. “If you’re lucky,” she’d say, “or unlucky – especially if the chief’s ghost is still around – you might find a bone or two, maybe even a skull!” I never doubted her and didn’t find out what those structures really were until I was older, much, much older.
Before returning to the Barn, these rainy day rides often included a final stop for a snack. Sometimes at Walsh’s drugstore, which had a soda fountain. Or perhaps the Singing Hollow Shop wherein Mr. Reep sold candy, ice cream, soda, comic books, and other sundries. Or The Raven, Sharon’s first restaurant, still in business in the sense that the structure is there and a restaurant operates in it, but the establishment has gone through many names including for a long time, The Waldorf.
Our mother was mentally ill. How long for I’m not sure any of us knows. To understate things hugely, the last three years of her life were difficult, for her of course, but no less extensively, for everyone who loved her. And of course for Mimi, too.
In the mid-sixties; Mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but schizophrenia was then a catch all diagnosis. Her illness was knotty, and the information she doled out to the psychiatric cadre who were charged with helping her was incomplete at best. How much did she drink, I’m sure they wanted to know. A glass of grapefruit juice and vodka, she probably told them. How much vodka? A jigger. That was not the truth. In fact, once the cocktail hour had arrived, she was never without her glass of vodka laced grapefruit juice which seems never to be more than half empty.
I am absolutely certain she made no mention of the Dexedrine she took from 1947 until her death twenty years later. Dexedrine was once commonly prescribed to help women regain their figures after childbirth. Somehow she managed to keep the prescriptions coming over those years. Then about 1960 she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. She suffered narcoleptic seizures from time to time which scared her and scared us more. I believe her habituation to amphetamine had much to do with her mental illness and narcolepsy and shocking weight gain.
I can’t recall a time when Mother was not “on a diet.” By the time of her death, she was obese. In those last years she gained weight virtually every day. She once told me that on a particular day during which she ate nothing (except for the grapefruit flavored vodka), she gained a pound.
Mother always had a mercurial side, even before she was officially mentally ill. Her companions, her children by day, her mother and siblings in the evenings, experienced the swings of her moods first hand. Three summers before her death, Mother’s mercurial side possessed her, and essentially the fun stopped. We went infrequently to Hatches’ Pond always depending on the availability of someone else to drive us. Mother was as likely as not to go sound asleep while she was driving so no more trips and drives.
She was by then an angry woman armed with a wit none could match. Irritation simmered inside her as in the bowels of a volcano. The pressure of it, I imagine, was unbearable. She moved through the Barn vibrating with barely suppressed rage. The children felt her coming and skittered off in other directions. They knew what she was looking for: someone to serve as catalyst, to trip the release valve to vent the anger and let the seething die down for a while. When she couldn’t find prey, she’d lie in wait for someone to show up.
In 1963, I was eighteen. I had my driver’s license and a car at my disposal. That summer I worked on the town crew of Lakeville. The following summer I had three jobs, all at the Sharon Playhouse. I directed the car parking, ran the concession stand, and drove all over that tri-state corner – Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts – delivering and placing posters for the following week’s show . The next two summers I was an acting apprentice at the playhouse. What all that meant was that I missed the full impact of the wretchedness of those summers before she died.
To this day, I do not know completely what those summers were like for my siblings. Mother still went away, not on trips with Mimi, but instead to yet another psychiatric hospital or clinic. Our father and Mimi told us she was at hospitals that would help her to loose the weight she could not stop gaining, but that was hardly or even slightly true. Where ever she went, whatever treatment she received, nothing changed her back to the mother of enchantment and mystery from the excoriating, irrational harpy she became.
One epiphanic evening, my father and I were standing in the foyer of the barn when my brother John came from his room and went through the door into the kitchen. It must have been a Thursday night, or perhaps we were between cooks. Mother was there making split pea soup which she did, not for the pleasure but more for the ritual. A ham, bone in, had been served earlier that day or a day or so before, and ham bone meant split-pea soup. My father and I must have suspected something would happen for we stopped our conversation and listened. Very soon, the voices in the kitchen rose. My mother, always capable of attacking the weakest, most vulnerable spot even before her illness, now used her gifts of intellect not so much to destroy as to torture and maim.
Quite unexpectedly John’s voice rose over hers with all the angst a sixteen year old can bring to bear. Through tears he said, “It didn’t matter what I did. You were just looking for someone to be mad at!” He shot back through the door before my mother could reply.
My father and I looked at each other. “He’s right,” he said, and we slunk away before she discovered us.
to Gwyneth Paltro in appreciation.
A message from me to celebrities
who feel compelled
to announce their
outrage/shock/umbrage/extreme displeasure/deeply felt anger
at the treatment of
Native Americans/ African-Americans/ Hispanic Americans/ Proto Americans
LGBTs/ Muslims/ Atheists/ WASPs
the Homeless/the Oppressed/the Persecuted/the Unemployed
the Tired/Poor/Huddled Masses
NEA (teachers)/NEA (artists)/ AFT (teachers again)
Emily’s List/La Leche/Code Pink
NOW/ PETA/ AARP/ ACLU/ ADA
Sierra Club/Common Cause/Greenpeace/Amnesty International,
By any Republican
Presidential/Senatorial/Congressional Candidate (especially ahead in polls),
former candidate for Vice-President (female),
Supreme Court Justice
(always Scalia/Thomas, often Roberts/Alito, sometimes Kennedy, never the others)
Big Oil/Big Banks/Big Business
The Military-Industrial Complex
Halliburton/ Dow Chemical/Exxon Mobil/J. P. Morgan Chase/Wall Street in general
Big Brother (except the TV show)
(except for his treatment of Ben Affleck recently)
Rush Limbaugh/Fox News/Rupert Murdoch/Laura Ingraham
Meghan Kelley/Glenn Beck
Chris Christie (limited: okay when hugging Obama,
not okay when chastising union teacher)
Rand Paul/Paul Ryan/Marco Rubio/
(limited to the present, but past political positions held prior to achieving minority leader status okay)
Republican Wars on Women/ Welfare/ Food Stamps/ Unemployment Insurance
Planned Parenthood/ Obama Care/ Minimum Wage Workers
Gun Control/ Gay Marriage….,
Please, I’m begging,
Stop embarrassing yourselves.
Stick to what you do well
e.g. Matt Damon/ Gwyneth Paltrow/ George Clooney/ Bruce Springsteen
unless your celebrity is due only to self-promotion
e.g. Kim Kardashian/Kevin Federline/Paris Hilton/,
then please, just keep quiet.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am the oldest of fifty-one grandchildren. Until I was around five, other than a brother and sister, there were no other grandchildren. I am, of course, older than all my cousins, but significantly older than most. Thus I experienced our grandmother and Great Elm differently than all, and significantly differently than most.
Mimi always welcomed you into her rooms. If she was in bed with plasters on her wrinkles, if she was saying her morning prayers, if she was packing, if she was discussing the menus for the week, if she was writing letters, if she was on the phone, her grandchildren were welcome. She always had maple sugar high in a closet somewhere among her shoes, and no matter how hard you might look for it yourself, only Mimi could ever reach up and produce it. She always had ice water in a pitcher. She always was happy to see you. She always knew a story to tell about Nancy, the young Confederate girl who helped (Cousin) General Lee, or General Stonewall Jackson, win battles against the bad, old (sometimes she said, “Damn!”) Yankee blue-bellies. She was always more proud of you than anyone she could think of when you played the piano for her, or swam underwater the whole length of the pool, or leaned to jump on a horse, or won a tennis match against anyone who wasn’t related to you, or shot a nasty old woodchuck that had been snacking in the garden.
If you asked nicely, and if there weren’t already too many people coming, she would invite you to dinner at the Big House which was a special treat beyond imagining: because first you got dressed up in a jacket and tie and nice pants. Then you would already be sitting in the patio with your mother and uncles and aunts when Mimi came downstairs. As she entered, you stood up which made her very proud of your wonderful manners. Her high heels clacked loud on the tiles as she stepped to her seat on the sofa that rocked. And she would say, “Come sit beside me, darlin’.” So, of course, you would. Then Jeff would bring you a coke the special way he made it with Angostura bitters and a maraschino cherry. And after he had passed you your coke and everyone else their Old Fashioneds or scotches, then he would pass the hors d’oeuvres which included because he knew you were coming, peanut butter on triscuits that had been put under the broiler.
You would listen to your mother and uncles and aunts and Mimi talk about people and each other and places they’d been and were going. You would imagine being one day as old as they and joining in the conversation.
Sometimes Uncle John was there; he was the world’s best fisherman and hunter which is what you wanted to be when you grew up if you couldn’t be a pilot in the World War II.
After Jeff passed the hors d’oeuvres a second time, he would leave them on the coffee table in front of Mimi which meant in front of you, too. Pretty soon Mimi would say, “Jimmy, dear, would you pass the hors d’euvres.” So you got up from your seat and picked up the tray carefully with both hands and passed it around to everyone else. When each uncle and aunt took something, they would say, “Thank you, Jimmy!” and look you right in the eyes and smile. When you put the tray down, then you could help yourself to olives and triscuits with peanut butter and one cracker with deviled ham because a gentleman samples everything his host offers.
A while later, Jeff comes back with more drinks for everyone, but this time he just has little glasses with bourbon or scotch that he pours right into everybody’s glass (but not mine – he just pours me more coke if I have finished mine already which I always do). Then he asks if you want more ice. If you do he has a small bowl of ice right there on his tray, and with big tweezers, he picks up as many cubes as you want until you say, “Thank you; that will be fine.”
After you passed the hors oeuvres around one more time, Jeff would come back and stand in the doorway to the patio. Mimi would look up as soon as she noticed. Jeff would say, “Miz Buckley, dinnah’s suhved.” And Mimi would say, “Thank you, Boykin.” which was Jeff’s last name. And I would smile at Jeff, and he would smile at me.
All would rise from their seats and step aside to let Mimi lead the way. If Uncle John wasn’t there, Mimi would ask you to escort her to the dining room, but when Uncle John was there, that was his job since he was the oldest son.
Jeff would be waiting behind Mimi’s chair, and he would pull it back for her and then slide it forward as she sat. I would do the same for any aunt who was going to sit next to me. I always sit to Mimi’s left. When Uncle John is there, he sits at the other end of the table. During the week, though, when all my uncles are in New York so only Mimi, Mother, some aunts, and I are at the table, no one sits there.
My grandfather died on October 25th, 1958. He was 77. About a year later, a book entitled W.F.B., an Appreciation was privately published. My mother, the eldest of his ten children, who would not live ten years more, contributed a piece which she called “Supper at Great Elm.” To begin, she made the distinction between the days when she called her father Papa, and later when, as she and her siblings reached adolescence, they were schooled to call him Father. I, the oldest of his eventual 51 grandchildren, always called him Father, for that was what I took his name to be. Everyone, my mother and her grown up brothers and sisters, called him that. Father was his name, just as my grandmother was Mimi, my mother Mother, and my father Daddy.
“Supper at Great Elm” closes this way:
Soon – too soon, it seems today – Papa has turned into Father, and the big children are sons and daughters whose eyes no longer widen as they listen [to his stories]. It is only the smaller children who still have Papa, and to them the stories are told.
As much as my mother seemed to feel regret for not having her Papa beyond her childhood, she experienced none such with her own children, or if she did, she chose not to show it. She treated us in much the same way he apparently treated her. She loved us dearly and passionately as little children, but not really very much when we were older. Oh, sometimes she enjoyed us. She laughed at us and with us. How not? We all share her dry and often disturbing sense of humor. We all have it in us to be witty in the particular way she liked.
Rarely she was proud of us. Much of the rest of the time she tolerated us in both the best sense of that word but also in the worst: putting up with; enduring. Enough of the time she treated us with scorn, condescension, biting sarcasm, and unconcealed disappointment. She resented, I think, that we grew older.
Only recently a law suit five of my siblings and I brought against our father ran its course. We lost. We had undertaken the action because we disagreed with our father’s intention to withhold from us after his death the income of a trust our mother had been given by her father. Our suit turned on one phrase in a trust document which we felt as a matter of law had been interpreted wrongly. Nevertheless, as I suppose these things must, the full circus played out – depositions, trials (two: the first judge died before rendering a decision), and appeals. My father was alive when the suit was brought. He was dead before the final disposition. The four siblings who did not join us six as well as his widow have now wrapped themselves in the firm belief that the action we took was responsible for his death, that of a 98 year-old man with a heart condition, previous by-pass surgery, a pace maker, and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, who was beginning to make a habit of tripping over flower pots, the last time on or about his 95th birthday, which broke his leg. Thus, we siblings are estranged. Ah, well.
Today, of my nine uncles and aunts on my mother’s side, two survive. Uncle Jim, who turned 91 two days after my 69th birthday, and Aunt Carol, soon to be 76. I called all save one by their first names. (My Uncle John thought it unseemly that I, a boy, should call him John. He told my mother, and my mother told me I was to call him Uncle John – and his wife Aunt Ann – from then on. I did as I was told. When Uncle Jim married an Ann as well, and distinguishing between the two became a necessity, John’s Ann was called – privately, to be sure, Old Aunt Ann.)
I believe I used their first names for the same reason my grandfather was Father. I heard them called John, Priscilla, Jim, Jane, Patricia, Bill, Reid, Maureen, and Carol. Before the unfortunate arrival of my adolescence, my greatest pleasure on summer evenings was to sit out of the way during the cocktail hour in my grandmother’s home listening to all of them talk. My only ambition then was to grow old enough to take my place among them. Sure, they were my grandparents and uncles and aunts, but Carol was hardly more than six years my senior. I could have been her youngest brother, and if hers, why not then, the youngest sibling of all of them? Except for my mother, of course, because I was then a small enough child so that being her son was still my greatest joy and pleasure.
An old friend and former colleague invited my wife and me to dinner one night in the fall of 1999. She was married to a young man who had been my student, years before they married, to be sure. His attendance at the school predated her employment as a teacher. At the table, the young man, recalled an incident from his days in my English class. “You were giving a quiz,” he said. “And by that time, I had learned from your quizzes that I ought to read my assignment twice, so I was feeling confident. I remember the answer to the question was ‘The truth’ which I wrote down right away. Soon I was aware that my classmates were writing and writing and writing. I got worried that I’d been mistaken. I reread the question. The answer was still ‘The truth.’ Rather than reassuring me, though, that made me worry all the more. You must have noticed me worrying, because you got up from your desk, walked over to me and looked at my answer. Then you smiled and nodded.”
It was a nice story. I appreciated hearing it and accepted the implied compliment. On our way home that evening, I told my wife, “Until this evening, I would have sworn that M. was never one of my students.”
Memory is enthralling, or perhaps I mean, I am feeling in thrall to my memories. I once argued with a woman for almost an hour about words that I had heard her say only a few days before. They were – and I believe I can still hear them as clearly and accurately as I did the night of the argument now thirty-eight years in the past – “But he was warned, many times!” In fact, not only can I still hear the words, I can see her speaking them, I can see to whom she was speaking, I can take you and stand where I was standing and point precisely to where she was standing. Yet that night of the argument, she denied over and over and over she said those words or any like them.
In July of this year, my father would have been 100 but for having been dead for two years. My mother died when she was forty-eight. My grandmother died March 10, 1985, only one day before her ninetieth birthday: Uncle John, three months before his mother; his wife Ann in 1965; Aunt Maureen a couple of years before my mother; Aunt Pat in 2007, her husband, Uncle Bill ten months later; Aunt Jane also in 2007. Aunt Patricia, Bill’s favorite sister, died five months after Jane; her husband, Uncle Brent ten years prior. My godmother, Aunt Priscilla, died in 2012, a few months after her 90th birthday. My Uncle Reid died in April of this year.
I remember things about all of them. For instance, I remember when my grandmother suspected I was sneaking rum into my coca-cola. I remember my Aunt Maureen weeping in the arms of her sisters one evening because she believed she was unattractive, and no man would ever fall in love with her. I remember my Uncle John being surprised and grateful that I, age twelve, didn’t shoot at the quail flying between him and me. I remember my mother, during the first moments of her return from yet another stint in a psychiatric hospital, asking me how my broken arm was mending. I had not broken my arm. When I asked what she meant, she said she’d assumed I had since I had sent her no letters. Three months later she died. All those memories are from the summer’s our family spent in Sharon, which is to say, every summer in the lives of my three brothers, six sisters, and me from our births through 1967.
What I don’t “remember” is much of the framework of those memories. For instance, my grandmother, Mimi, and I were sitting on a sofa in the patio of her home. I was under the age of twenty-one. It was the cocktail hour before dinner. Everyone, as was the custom, was dressed for dinner: jackets and ties for the gentlemen, dresses for the ladies. Others of the family were there: most likely my mother; perhaps my father if the occasion was part of a weekend; any or all of my five aunts and four uncles and the spouses of those already married; perhaps my sister Pam, the second oldest in my family; maybe my brother John, the third. For some reason Mimi suspected I had managed to get rum into what was supposed to be only a coke. She asked me to let her taste it. I had no intention of doing that, but how to deny Mimi, especially in front of most of the other adults in the world whose opinion of me mattered? She pulled gently on my wrist with her left hand, reaching for the glass with her right. “Let me taste it,” she said, gently, quietly.
“No, Mimi,” said I, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
Just as my mother began to notice, Mimi desisted. “Be careful about that,” she said, and no more then or ever again.
My relief was such that I gave no thought to her words; but a quarter century later when my Uncle John, alone in a hotel room on a business trip to Canada, experienced the alcoholic bleed which killed him, I recognized the nature of her warning.
I would say I can’t let go of that memory, but that isn’t at all what I mean. I don’t want to let go. What I want is not to wince when I visit it. That’s why I say in thrall. My memories are not part of a narrative. They are scenes running in a loop. Back in the olden days – an outdated phrase which itself is from the olden days – if one didn’t arrive for a movie on time, one could simply stay seated while most left the theater. In moments, the movie, preceded by previews and a cartoon, would start over. My brother John and I once walked into a film called Vanishing Point. We were twenty or thirty minutes late so, after it was over, we stayed where we were. Atypically, when the film reached its explosive conclusion again, we sat where we were for a third viewing. That, by the way, is the origin of the phrase, “This is where we came in.”
At this time, half a year from age 70, I want to replace the thrall in favor of some feeling more akin to pleasure. So I will write of my memories as a gift to myself, hoping this time to leave where I came in.
Each evening after dinner on our Alaskan cruise, Edie and I would walk through Deck Five where at that time of day, most passengers could find some form of entertainment to suit. Close enough to the main dining room to suggest shared kitchens, we’d pass by a restaurant billed as five star and featuring steak and seafood. What I suspect really distinguished this establishment from the main dining room was first, price and second, delusions of grandeur. Reservations were required although not once in fourteen days did we pass the place without noting empty tables. The price of the dinner was, I suppose, fairly modest compared to, say, Le Cirque whose heritage the shipboard chef claims; on the other hand, taking into account that all meals had been included in the fare, $39 a person extra (not including beverage other than water) seemed to us a bit uppity so we did not indulge.
Passed the restaurant on the port side was a coffee bar that with the right color scheme could have passed for the kind of Starbucks one finds in supermarkets only without the seedy types piggy backing free internet access . Oddly, for being so close to the dining room where one could drink endless cups of coffee for nothing, this place did a brisk business selling their concoctions and pastries at more than Starbucks prices, at all hours, day and night.
Beyond the coffee bar, still on the port side, is The Casino. Did you know that slot machines can no longer be accurately called “one-armed bandits?” They don’t have arms anymore. Now that I think about it, I suppose that would explain why they are now generically called “slots”. Once upon a time I played a nickel slot machine. There were no lights and no electronic sounds. The coin went in the slot and you heard it slide down a chute and clunk into a box. You pulled the arm all the way down and let it go. It returned to the upright position with a pneumatic sigh while four cylinders whirled around with a softly blurred clicking. Then they would stop, one at a time, chunking into place. When rarely all four cylinders came to rest on the same image, nickels issued down a chute and into a waiting cup which overflowed from time to winning time if the matched images all declared, “Jackpot!”
The slots in the ship’s casino are operated by buttons. In fact, the ship’s slots had no slots. There was instead a scanner under which you held your room card which had been pre-programmed with the credit card number which you, the guest, had authorized previous to embarkation. For efficiency sake, once a card had been scanned, you had the option of selecting how many “plays” you wanted to make. That way you needn’t distract yourself by constantly having to hold your card under the scanner. When you won, which is to say when the whirling images stopped whirling and most or all of them looked the same, your winnings were announced to great fanfare and flourish, and your card was credited with funds. Not to be unkind, but the slots were inhabited by mostly obese, middle aged women. Over the course of days, a Slot Tournament was held. The cumulative winning totals were kept on a white board for all who cared to see. None of the names seemed masculine.
The blackjack tables were more interesting to watch. While I cannot say we saw always the same people at the same tables and machines, we did see many of the same people. The tables worked on a cash basis. You handed the croupier/dealer cash (most often hundred dollar bills), and he or she handed you an equivalency of chips. The exchange was stylized and fun to watch. Also fun was The Shuffle. At all the black jack tables save one, the shoe held 416 cards. These cards were shuffled by hand, initially deck by deck. Then the decks were cut, left apart, and shuffled together randomly. That process was repeated three times. Finally, the stack was cut by means of a player being given a red card to insert into the deck. The deck was put back together, inserted in the shoe, but before play would commence, the red card was once again inserted, somewhere in what looked to me like the rear fifth of the deck. When that card made its way forward so to the point where it appeared too few cards to play another round, the shuffling began again. Each eight deck deck was retired periodically, but the timing for that eluded me.
The outlier table offered a one-deck blackjack game. For each hand, however, the deck was newly shuffled. The risks and rewards for that table were far greater, but I never saw the table in action.
On occasion we would find ourselves watching a dinner companion. For no reason I can offer, I found that surprising. Dinner conversations invariably were dissections of the day’s activities ashore, or, on the days we were at sea, plans for the upcoming port. Since many of the excursions had to do with going off by water or by air to watch whales, bear, or other wild life, those who had met success were looked on with good natured envy by the rest whose had come up empty or had chosen not to do more than explore the town. Dinner conversations never touched on the Casino.
One woman we met at dinner we were not surprised to see. She and her husband owned a wildfire fighting company in northern California. They were never not busy during the warmer months, especially since they and their equipment were ready to travel anywhere in the United States on little notice. Why we were not surprised to see her is this: she was originally from Colorado where she grew up on a ranch. Her father had not too long ago passed away and left her in sole possession of the ranch, which had been in their family for generations. In fact, her great-grandfather was the first registered owner of record, assuming the Native Americans who once thought of the land as more or less theirs did not bother with deeds and the like.
No doubt you know that the United States is about to become, if it hasn’t already, the number one oil producing country in the world. Much of the newly accessed oil is to be found in Colorado, and apparently – good news for the firefighting couple – a not inconsiderable portion of the Colorado oil is accessible from the their ranch. “At first,” she told us, “we’d get a check and see it as a lark, something that was fun to get. But we didn’t take it too seriously. But when, the checks kept coming and growing, we contacted the company we’d leased to. They told us there was no reason to think the oil wouldn’t keep coming out of the ground at the same rate for twenty or more years.” So seeing her at the blackjack table? Why not?
On the starboard side of the ship were various lounges where after dinner, music was played. In one, a duo played classical music on a piano and violin. Cute, but not in the end terribly satisfying. In the next forward, a piano player/singer held forth to a packed house every evening. Why I can’t say, for each time Edie and I chanced by, he was engaged in conversation with audience members. We never heard him sing. In the last, a trio played what was supposed to be dance music. We tried every once and again, but as someone on American Bandstand’s Rate-a-Record segment might have said, “I can’t dance to it ‘cause I can’t find the beat. I give it a 35.”
Forward most on Deck Five was the theater where each night was presented live entertainment: three performances (shows) at 6:30 (too early), 8:00 (while we were at dinner), and 10:00 (when we were comfortably tucked in for the night). We did catch the closing minutes of a few shows when the 8 o’clock ran a little long. On the penultimate night of the cruise we finally ate early enough to see a comic. He was very entertaining and lived up to his reputation as a comedian suitable for the entire family, which is to say he found no need to punctuate his routine with a multitude of f-bombs and the like.
Also on Deck Five were the shops, such as they were. One sold articles of clothing, either souvenir T-shirts or warm jackets and sweatshirts which sold very well as most passengers found themselves suffering by having assumed that summer in Alaska is like summer in most other parts of the Union. That shop also carried men’s dress socks, but you had to ask. I know this because I had to ask.
The other shop sold jewelry. As much as anything else, the jewelry selling was also part of the entertainment. Each night, something of little or no value was raffled off, but the winner entered automatically into a drawing for a chance to win a $15,000 dollar yellow emerald necklace.
The only entertainment Holland America couldn’t figure out how to include in the evening program were the art auctions. Those were held during the afternoons when the ship was at sea. As to the art, you cannot imagine.
Unpredictably, each evening ended with a small but distinct pleasure. When we returned to our cabin, quite apart from being soothed to find the beds turned down, the reading lights lit, ice bucket filled, and two chocolates left on the foot of the bed with the best wishes of the captain and entire crew for a good night’s sleep, our steward created and placed on the bed a whimsy, a fantastical creature made from hand towels and two button eyes. Now, that’s entertainment.
You may not have noticed, but I certainly did. I have not posted to my blog for more than a year. There were reasons. Our stepped up house-hunting was a big one. What is also true, however, is that I was boring myself a bit. While my view of Public Education has not changed, I find have little more to add to what I’ve already said. So, I am going to let the focus of Cornvillenutmeg shift and wander with no particular intent. For the time being at least, you can expect content as diverse as the people you might meet on a cruise.
Speaking of Cruising, until last month, my previous experience with that was nil. While I have before a short time ago traveled aboard ocean-going passenger ships, the primary purpose of those ships was transporting passengers from, in the first instance, Marseille to New York City, and in the second, New York City to Le Havre. No ports of call, no shore excursions, no sharing with others.
Today, I consider myself Cruise Proficient. My wife and I have recently returned from spending fourteen nights and much of fourteen days aboard a medium-sized cruise ship (1300 passengers, 600 crew), which traveled from Seattle to Seattle visiting along the way many places in Alaska and one city in Canada.
At this point, I need to admit that I am a reserved and reticent person. I like people well enough; I just don’t want to spend much time with them. I’m very happy to make conversation with, say, the check-out person in my supermarket. I would rather not engage in conversation with a seat mate on the rare occasions I travel without my wife; but I’m not rude, and if someone wants to tell me about his grandchildren or chiropractor, I will listen after a fashion and make empathetic sounds and short comments. I do not as a rule, however, encourage further intercourse by sharing. On a cruise,being reserved and reticent is not an easy thing to pull off.
At home, we don’t take three or four sit down meals a day. Our breakfasts are, mostly cold cereal relieved by fruit. From then until supper we graze, each on his own. At sea, on the other hand, we ate in the main Dining Room each morning, mid-afternoon, and evening. Lunch we took on an upper deck where a luncheon buffet was served school cafeteria style which is not a judgment of the quantity, quality, or variety of fare. Plates full, we searched for unoccupied seats where we joined other passengers, their mid-day meal already in progress. We often visited mid-afternoon High Tea served in the upper level of the Main Dining Room, and except for one blessed occasion, we did so in company. What each and every one of these dining opportunities meant to me, apart from a growing fear of growing fat, was dismaying and unavoidable opportunities to share with others.
Now, we could have limited our exposure to other guests, as passengers are repeatedly referred to. We could have chosen to eat at the same time each evening, at 5:15 or 8:00. That way we would have eaten with the same people at the same table each evening. (If you are like me at all, the possibility that the people you could find yourself with for the next fortnight would turn out to be less than ideal companions occurs to you immediately. I kept that to myself, however.) In the end we decided the first seating was too early and the other too late; we chose instead “open seating.”
At the entrance to the Dining Room, stern-most on Deck Four, one is greeted by the Dining Room Steward or his assistant. One is asked one’s stateroom number. All cabins are staterooms, even our 171 square feet with unobstructed ocean view the enjoyment of which necessitated only the slightest contortion. (Quite simple really, once you got the hang of it. Starting from a supine position – back of the head on pillow, feet facing the stateroom door – turn over, come to all fours, kneel up, arms at your side, forearms raised, shuffle forward on your knees, lean forward until your forearms come to rest on the sill in front of you. There before you is the ocean, or the coast line, or an interesting view of pier pilings, all depending, of course, on the ship’s location.)
The Steward enters the number you gave, then says, “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so?”
You nod or say, “Yes.”
The Steward says, “Happy to share?”
Our first evening I had no idea what that meant. “I beg your pardon?” I said.
“Happy to share with others?”
I looked at my wife. I don’t hear all that well, and while I was wearing my hearing aids, certain voices, higher pitched and soft ones particularly, are still difficult. All the dining room staff, in fact most of the crew, are Indonesian. They all speak excellent if not unaccented English, but their voices are also soft and higher pitched. It must be an island thing. Most were from Bali.
The steward rephrased. “Happy to share a table with other guests?”
“Yes,” my wife said before I could think to ask if there weren’t possibly some tables for one or two set aside for reserved, reticent curmudgeons such as I.
And so began our Cruise, my first, during which I shared intimately with more adult human beings in fourteen days than I had cumulatively during my previous 68 years.
Last time we met, we were talking about the idea of Reinventing the Wheel as a way of describing what happens when a faculty in an independent school wrestles with a part of its school’s structure in need of attention. I had said I would continue that discussion in regards to public schools. The answer to the unasked question is, no. Wheels do not get reinvented in public schools. Instead, more wheels are added.
Cornvillenutmeg readers know I am not a fan of Public Education as it exists today; that does not mean I am less than an enthusiastic supporter of teachers, whether they labor in public or independent schools, so let me say a quick word here about teachers in general. There are far more good ones than not, and the good ones work their psyches to the bone. No, don’t say it and stop thinking it. That gripe about how much time off teachers get compared to any other profession is a fiction. Good teachers (not the handful of not-good ones who are, I’m sorry to have to say this, as hard to be rid of as ticks on deer) routinely work four and five and more hours each day before and after the school day comes and goes; and it is the rare teacher who does not also work during summer break out of necessity. You needn’t take my word for this, just ask your child’s teachers next time you speak with them.
Public Education doesn’t understand innovation. In its transitive meaning, innovate suggests introducing something for the first or (more serviceably) as if for the first time. It is the intransitive meaning that Public Education defaults to in what passes for thinking: viz., to introduce something new. Thus, there is no wheel reinventing in Public Education, nor will there likely ever be because the faculty of a public school has no opportunity even to think about its structure, let alone engage in trying to fix or amend any part that is not working satisfactorily.
I use something called Update Checker. It periodically pops up and tells me that one or more of the various programs my brother Tim told me I couldn’t live without have available updates of themselves. Dutifully, I do the requisite clicking and soon enough those programs are updated, but I worry; for I believe in my heart that each update lays down another stratum on top of previous updates so that someday, probably later today, there will be so many strata my poor hard drive will crack under the weight of them all. I accept my worries may be mistaken, but if you follow the thought, you have a notion as to how Public Education practices innovation. Nothing is either invented or reinvented; what was there is only added to and/or covered over.
For example, my second year of public school teaching, the Board of Education (BE), in anticipation of the next New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation visit, mandated that there be a system wide Curriculum Initiative (CI). The CI directed the system’s Administrative Council (AC), comprised of assistant-superintendents, principals, assistant principals, and supervisors, to create a Multi-Departmental Study Group (MDSG). The MDSG recommended the creation of Departmental Curriculum Revision and Development Committees (DCRDC) in each individual school of which there are one high, one middle, and three elementary. It will perhaps not surprise you to know that the DCRDCs were, in fact, the various academic departments themselves (Math, Social Studies, etc.), but if the MDSG had simply tasked the departments, the wealth of acronyms would not have been complemented. The mission of the DCRDSs was, of course, curriculum assessment and revision, something academic departments do anyway, all the damn time.
Thus it was that at the first meeting of the English/Language Arts Curriculum Revision and Development Committee, I encountered for the first but tediously not the last by a long shot, what passes in Public Education (see previous post) as Reinventing the Wheel.
The Supervisor of the English/Language Arts Department, also the de facto head of the E/LACRDC, announced that our work was to be focused on making ours an Outcomes Based Curriculum (OBC).
My training as a teacher, unlike that of all my colleagues at the time, is accurately described as on-the-job. My first year, no one, not the English Department Chairman nor the Headmaster nor the Assistant Headmaster made one suggestion as to how I might approach teaching. I was given the text books for the courses, told where to meet my classes, and wished the very best of luck. The rest was up to me. To be sure, I am not advocating for that method, only explaining that, not having studied Education, my professional vocabulary was limited.
Before migrating to Public Education, I did take a handful of Education courses in order to be officially certified by the State of Connecticut, just in case, so I knew a few words in edu-speak. Outcomes was not, however, one of them. Now, since our work as the E/LACRDC was important enough to give our department a brand new name, I didn’t feel comfortable letting the E/LA Supervisor get too deeply into his explanation of the scut work we were going to be required to do. What is an outcome, I wanted to know?
God bless him, he tried. Oh, how he tried to define that word for me. He said all sorts of things, but no matter how he put it, I couldn’t understand the word outcomes as meaning anything other than consequence or effect. The problem was my influency with edu-speak. He was a native speaker; I but a novice with, frankly, no desire to be anything but. My limited vocabulary included the word for students (learners) and tests (assessments). I knew what contact time meant – don’t ask – and after prolonged effort and tears of frustration, I had forced myself to distinguish goals from objectives (hint: no matter what your thesaurus might suggest, in edu-speak those words are not synonyms).
Out of a sense of desperation and concern for my colleagues who looked as though they were hoping I might be struck with an incurable case of hiccups, I asked the E/LA Supervisor if perhaps an outcome might be thought of as an objective?
Well, yes, he said, sighing and reaching for the next stack of handouts.
Oh, said I, but wait. So if now objectives are outcomes, what’s the new word for goals?
He gave me an avuncular smile; at least, I think that’s what he was trying for. Expectations.
Oh, I see.
He sighed and smiled.
Of a sudden, I had what I still think today was a brilliant idea: couldn’t we just use the Find & Replace command in MS Word on the current curriculum documents and save us all a lot of time?
The E/LA Supervisor thought I was trying to be funny. He smiled and sighed.
The specifics of the efforts of the E/LACRDC have faded from memory. I do know that whatever they were had no effect, no consequence other than the production of a document unlike the old document in no meaningful way other than in vocabulary. The NEASC visit came and went. The high school was certified for another ten years, and all the concomitant hyper activity died down. What did not happen was anything that made the schooling of the town’s children any better.
Let me hear from you, if you would. Either leave a comment or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Posted in Administration & Supervision, Curriculum Development, Education Reform, Not Making Sense 101, Public Education, Renovation in Education, Teaching | Tags: Board of Education, Curriculum Development, Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, summer vacations, teacher work day
My first teaching job was at Indian Mountain School, a junior boarding and day school. Each weekday we held a special study hall y at 5:15 p.m. for boarding students It was called 5:15. Any student who failed to do his homework could be assigned to 5:15. Looked at in the most positive way, 5:15 was the school providing a supervised setting for students to make-up work not done for a class. Looked at in the least positive way, it was a punishment given to students for not having done their homework.
Faculty entered students’ names into a notebook labeled 5:15 along with details of their assignments. Each day a different teacher supervised the study hall. He or she was called the 5:15 Master, irrespective of gender. Each day another different teacher was assigned what was called 5:15 Roving duty. That teacher was called The Rover. Rovers spent their time between roughly five o’clock and five minutes to six roving the main building, just in case.
A minute or so after 5:15, the Rover checked in with the 5:15 Master. The latter handed the former a list of names of students who had not shown up for 5:15. The Rover’s task was to find those students and remind them of their obligation. That often turned out to be a goose chase since at that time of day students were not required to be anywhere in particular. There were, however, a number of places they were required not to be. A missing 5:15 assignee was more likely to be in those places than where other students usually congregated, common and dormitory rooms. To be fair, some students really did just forget, but not too many. Some habitual offenders made it a habit to check in with the 5:15 Master just to see if their presence was required.
Once in a while, 5:15 worked in its most positive way. A student who regularly did do his homework might, say, have simply run short of time. Such a student would report dutifully, prepared with text, paper, and pencil, do his assignment and, were study hall not yet officially over when he finished, be dismissed early. Should you think that such examples had a salubrious effect on the habitual 5:15 students, think again.
Having found a missing student, Rovers did not as rule escort him to the study hall, they simply told the student to go there. Then, later on, the Rover checked in to see if the missing had shown up. Those that did not became the subject of a discipline report.
Indian Mountain’s boarding population in those days was all male. One year two of my fifth graders were not very good about doing their homework. They happened to be day students. We did not generally have boarders that young.
I began to send home what I called 5:15 Letters. The letter – a mostly mimeographed note – explained what 5:15 Study Hall was and noted that “were insert student’s name here a boarder, he or she would have been assigned to 5:15 Study Hall for the following assignment: insert details of assignment. Please sign this letter and have student’s name return it to me tomorrow with the completed assignment.”
I thought it was a neat idea. The parents of those day students did not, perhaps because the letter turned them into de facto combination 5:15 Masters/Rovers. One mother called me after a week or so and told me to stop giving her son those letters. That flummoxed me. I still thought the idea was a neat one, and so, in fact, had other faculty members who adopted. The more who sent 5:15 Letters home, the more Day Parents who were less than enthused. In due course, 5:15 Study Hall became a Faculty Meeting Agenda Item.
The IMS faculty met each Wednesday evening at 7:30 in the library. On Wednesdays, all boarding students were required to go to a supervised evening study hall so all but one faculty could attend the meeting, at least until 8:30. Those meetings often lasted until eleven or even later. Faculty who had left the meeting at 8:30 to supervise a dormitory till after lights out commonly returned to the meeting. To tell you the truth, I liked them. I found them stimulating and sometimes exciting, but I was then mostly one side or the other of thirty years old than not. I’m not sure I would have felt the same way twenty-years on.
The night that 5:15 Study Hall came up for discussion, the meeting lasted a long, long time. I won’t try to recount it, but I will tell you that the concept of 5:15 was deconstructed, torn apart, torn down, abolished, introduced, modified, modified again, rebuilt and reestablished. The reestablished 5:15, called 5:15, bore an uncanny resemblance to the former 5:15.
Some days after, perhaps over the weekend during a social evening, conversation turned to 5:15. The Headmaster, Dick Rouse, spoke about how the faculty had re-invented the wheel. Dick was, for me anyway, the best head of school I ever worked under. Someone asked him if he had known the reinvention of 5:15 was likely to happen. Yes, he did. Why,we asked? Because re-inventing the wheel is very often a very good thing to do.
As far as I know, 5:15 Study Hall was already an institution since before any of the faculty then teaching at Indian Mountain came to work there. No of us gave it much thought; it was what happened Monday through Friday at 5:15. We assumed it to be a good thing educationally. The reinvention we went through let all of us experience the creation of 5:15 as a pedagogical means to an end. In the process we focused on the good it was intended to do, and the unintended but nevertheless real not so good consequences. Namely, a habitual 5:15 habitué was likely not benefiting from the experience. In the New and Improved 5:15, those who showed up three times or more a week were treated to a variety of different approaches. Advisors invited their chronic 5:15 advisees to spend the 5:15 period with them, working on their homework and, perhaps, study habits. Some teachers began to hold special 5:15 classes to which they “invited” students rather than sending them to the official 5:15. Resident faculty in dormitories were encouraged to make note of what students had been assigned to 5:15 Study Hall each day and to seek them out. Shower lists began to have check marks next to the names of students who were assigned to 5:15 Study Hall, and thus were reminded after sports of their obligation. (In a junior boarding school, everything is supervised.)
All of those innovations made 5:15 mostly affirmative. Next time I’ll tell you how and why, in my experience, a 5:15 study hall would never exist in public school, and were it to exist, how any attempt at reformation through reinvention would be botched.
Unless you are in Public Education (or, alas, in much of Independent Education as well), if someone were to ask you the meaning of the word consequence, you might say something close to the following: “Why consequence means something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition.” Or, let me see, you could say, “A consequence is the relation of a result to its cause.” Or, to put it yet another way, “A logical conclusion or inference.” For the dictionary hound, those three definitions come from the American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin).
Those in Public Education know that consequence really means punishment. Observe.
Place: Mr. Assistant Principal’s Office.
Time: 11:27 A.M.
Mr. Assistant Principal: Come in, Tom, have a seat.
Tom: (saying nothing, shuffling into Mr. AP’s office. He sits in the chair in front of Mr. AP’s desk. He’s been here before.)
Mr. AP: Do you know what I have here, Tom?
Tom: No. (He does know, but he’s not going to participate in the process any more than he can help.)
Mr. AP: It’s a Discipline Referral from Mrs. Leary.
Mr. AP: Does that help you remember?
Tom: How can I remember what I don’t know?
Mr. AP: Last Monday, when she sent you to the office?
Tom: Not ringing a bell.
Mr. AP: For using inappropriate language…
Tom: That was bullshit, she….
Mr. AP: …after warning you repeatedly.
Tom: She accused me of not doing my homework?
Mr. AP: You couldn’t produce it.
Mr. AP: You didn’t have it with you.
Tom: How does that mean I didn’t do it?
Mr. AP: Did you do it?
Mr. AP: Had you done your homework?
Mr. AP: Yes, Tom. Honestly. Had you done your homework?
Tom: No (pause. Mr. AP is about to add something else) But she didn’t know that. She said I was lying.
Mr. AP: Well, it sounds to me, from what you just said, that you were.
Tom: How do you like it when people call you a liar?
Mr. AP: If that were to happen, which it doesn’t, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it at all.
Mr. AP: Do I see what?
Tom: It was bullshit.
Mr. AP: (deciding the interview has gone on more than long enough) The Consequence for your being removed from Mrs. Leary’s class is Saturday School?
Tom: No way!
Mr. AP: It’s in the Student Handbook, under Disciplinary Consequences, p. 47. (reading from the handbook) Infraction: Removal from Class. Consequence: Saturday School. Sorry, Tom, my hands are tied.
Tom: What if I don’t show up?
Mr. AP: (reading again) Infraction: Failure to attend Saturday School. Consequence: One day in-school suspension.
Tom: I’ll take that. At least I won’t have to listen to Leary’s bullshit.
Had I not heard conversations indistinguishable from the one I imagined above, I would not have taken the time to illustrate the point that way. But I have, too many times, in fact.
Now remember my last post on Food for Thought? No? Well, okay. That was my fault. I said I’d write more in a few days and a few days has turned into a couple or three weeks. So if you need to refresh your memory, I’ll wait while you look it over.
Right, now the last line was “[Shared Spaces is] saying you’ve got to put responsibility back on people, not on the government.” Reread that line, but, (1) change people to students, (2) add the word teachers, (3) change government to administrators, (4) begin the sentence at put, and (5) delete the word back. Now we have: Put responsibility on students and teachers, not on the administrators.
I hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure most public school teachers would howl at the very idea. Teachers, most especially those who went to teacher college, will talk your ear off if you want to hear about their approach to Classroom Management, but Discipline is something handled by Administrators so Teachers can concentrate on the import work of Educating Learners.
To save myself time, I checked out Shard Spaces on Wikipedia and found this:
Risk compensation (also Peltzman effect, risk homeostasis) is an observed effect in ethology whereby people tend to adjust their behavior in response to perceived level of risk, behaving less cautiously where they feel more protected and more cautiously where they feel a higher level of risk. The theory emerged out of road safety research after it was observed that many interventions failed to achieve the expected level of benefits but has since found application in many other fields.
Peltzman, by the way, is Dr. Sam Peltzman. You can find him speaking about the Peltzman Effect on YouTube. He’s interesting.
Rooting around on Google, I discovered the following from Dr. Gerald G.S. Wilde in a discussion of Risk Homeostasis.
People alter their behaviour in response to the implementation of health and safety measures, but the riskiness of the way they behave will not change, unless those measures are capable of motivating people to alter the amount of risk they are willing to incur. (Wilde, 1994)
I shall paraphrase to suit my purpose: Students alter their classroom behavior in response to the implementation of different consequences ( or perhaps I should say negative or positive results) for enumerated behaviors, but the appropriateness of the way they behave will not change unless those consequences are capable of motivating students to alter the amount of risk they are willing to incur. In the imagined conversation above, Tom’s consequence is an acceptable result of his behavior in Mrs. Leary’s class. As the saying has it, if you do the crime, you do the time. The result of Tom’s blissfully spending his day suspended from classes will certainly be a repetition of the behavior that got him to be suspended in the first place. Being suspended will bring about no chance Tom will mend his ways and (a) begin to do his homework, and/or (b) stop lying about doing his homework. Nor will his vocabulary improve.
Educators allow themselves to think that motivation is exclusively a positive term, but it is not. People young and old can be motivated by unattractive alternatives, too. New to Arizona and not wise to the pleasure the local gendarmerie take in strictly enforcing traffic laws in this part of the state, I ran afoul of a motorcycle policeman whom I now think of as Officer Bonaparte due to the fact that, once he had dismounted and arrived outside the driver’s window, he and I were looking deeply and directly into each other’s eyes. I had indeed done the crime (although to be fair to myself, it was due to my unfamiliarity with the eccentricities of the town’s ideas of from which of three lanes one may or may not make a left hand turn rather than my anarchic driving habits) and so unhappily I accepted the time, so to speak. As a result, I am highly motivated not to go through yellow lights, squeeze out in front of on-coming traffic, go faster then 25 miles per hour in a residential zone, 15 mph in a school zone while school is in session, or make a turn from a lane not explicitly created for such a turn.
It used to be that a managed classroom was one in which acceptable and appropriate behavior was expected by the teacher; conversely. inappropriate behavior was not accepted. Appropriate, by which I mean good, behavior was rewarded in myriad ways. A smile, a pat, a note sent home, encouragement, praise, a congratulatory comment, gold stars. Bad behavior was also responded to. A frown, a sharp word, a note sent home, what a former colleague used to call “the hairy eye-ball,” detention, removal from class which sometime led to rustication§ . The latter was the last and least favored, for in such cases, teachers understood clearly that they were admitting failure and turning their problem over to someone else who, by virtue of hierarchical position, was more authoritative and intimidating.
In Middle Schools across the country children learn, of course, many things. One of the most momentous lessons they learn is this: almost nothing they do, write, or say is less than wonderful, astonishing, marvelous, splendid, great, super, incomparable, excellent, and/or outstanding. Don’t believe me? Do this: if you are still young enough to have held on to the journals you wrote in Middle School, look through them. See what words your teachers used in comments about your efforts. If you are parents of Middle School children, look at their journals. If you are a Middle School English teacher and you don’t write such comments, congratulations! You are an uncommonly sensical person.
To return to the Shared Spaces concept and applying it to the classroom: what might be the eventual result if next day after Labor Day, teachers were to remove from their bulletin boards the Rules for My Class; e.g., (1) Be On-Time, (2) Bring Appropriate Materials: book, paper, pencil or pen, assignment book, (3) Be Courteous, (4) Raise Your Hand. (5) Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Work, (6) Do Not Leave Your Seat without Permission? In other words, what might happen if the principles of Shared Spaces were applied to a classroom?
Given a teacher with the requisite courage, students would bump up against results (consequences) of inappropriate and unacceptable behavior that made them feel not wonderful, astonishing, marvelous, splendid, great, super, incomparable, excellent, and/or outstanding in any way whatsoever. On the other hand, they would also discover a number of behaviors that resulted in their feeling good in any number of ways. These behaviors they would fairly quickly come to understand as ones that are appropriate, acceptable, appreciated, and rewarding. Does this sound familiar to you at all? Do you recall the term Behavior Modification?
Once upon a time, teachers made use of what eventually became known as Operant Conditioning because it worked for most all of their students. Then the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers cast their spell, and Public Education committed itself to Improving and Reforming itself every five to seven years or so, thereby credulously throwing the babies out with the bath water. In the end, Shared Spaces is a return to doing things that makes sense. Where the concept of Shared Spaces is applied and ends up making for happier, healthier, safer places, it will have been because behavior in those places has been modified. There will have been enough positive and negative consequences to people’s actions that the people will have chosen those behaviors that were rewarded and eschewed those that were not.
- § You’ll recognize this word as meaning suspended or expelled if you happen to have had the pleasure of seeing the Spencer Tracy film, Captains Courageous. I used it because I may never have another chance.
Posted in Administration & Supervision, Behavior Modifcation, Classroom Management, education union history, Not Making Sense 101, Operant Conditioning, Public Education, School Discipline, Shared Spaces, Uncategorized | Tags: Discipline, Education, In-School Suspension, Peltzman Effect, Shared Spaces, Teacher, Vice-principal, YouTube
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