Why I am Here Part II or For the Love of Reading

Whereas the first two years of high school were spent catching up to my peers, Junior and Senior year were filled with understanding and success. Academically, things just "clicked." After many one on one meetings with advisers, how to read critically(actual finishing a book I was studying versus Cliff notes), analyze (psychologically, politically, etc) and write a paper(intro, thesis, topic sentences, supporting points, conclusion) was finally drilled into my skull. I began Junior year with a brand new bedroom set I had purchased from "Affordable Portables" with my summer earnings as a nanny. The most useful acquisition was a long black desk, chair and lamp to be devoted to my studies. I had a bedroom in the basement of our Lincoln Park apartment which was quite dark, but the privacy(limited of course since I was the walk - through to our laundry room) was ideal for any teenager. I was so anxiety ridden in regard to Junior year and the new teachers I would face that I felt like preparation was necessary. These grades would be looked at closely when applying to colleges, I told myself, and I needed any leg up I could get. Other than my "Mademoiselle" subscription and my Mom's "People" I still was not a reader for fun. This year I promised myself I would plow through and read everything put before me completely EVEN if it bored me to no end. In addition I would read at my desk versus my King size bed which I used to do all of my reading and homework on and often, in a narcoleptic fit, fell asleep before completion. Now that I had some reading reference points, I actually enjoyed most of the assignments because I understood why I was reading and how to feel comfortable reading something new. Whereas prior I always skipped the table of contents and preface, I looked at those intently so I could get a "feel" for what I was about to read. What year was this book published? What was going on at the time in history? For this individual writer? What did the title mean? At this point I began to have a better relationship with the dictionary and thesaurus. I needed to uncover what the words I was unsure of meant. It was a drag, but I had to force myself to look up words to discover their meaning. The importance of the dictionary was amplified upon visit to a well-off peers' home in order to study for a class production. The student was in the grade above and we reached for her dictionary - unabridged of course, and weighing about a ton. I noticed all of the underlines as I flipped through the pages. She told me she underlined every time she looked up a new word. Needless to say, as you flipped, underlines dominated many of the pages. It should come as no surprise this student later attended Yale, although I believe her recommendations were unprecedented in their glamour(the most famous Democratic Senator at the time and one A-list actor it was rumoured), there was no doubt in my mind that she would be more than prepared for the Ivy walls of New Haven.

Three classes Junior and Senior year were responsible for my academic turn around and I am forever grateful for the inspiring educators who taught them. The easiest fit was American History. As I mentioned earlier, my Dad is a history buff so I had some reference points. He came from the generation obsessed with World War II as his father and half-brother both served in the army. My grandfather(who also served in WWI BTW) was at Pearl Harbor and my Uncle(my grandfather's son from a previous marriage) was the FIRST to drop down on the beaches of Normandy. It was my Uncle's job to light the fires on the beach so that all of the other drops could be made. I believe the survival rate for that first drop was only 10%. Both father and son served in two of the greatest U.S. battles of all time and had not even met yet (Did I mention neither one knew of the other's existence?). The fact that both survived to meet each other a few years post-war even more extraordinary. My paternal great-grandmother Josie(mother to 12) had a large number of sons and sons-in-law who served in WWII and Korea and somehow they all managed to come home in one piece. This fact just amazes me. Although I have no doubt that woman had a magical rosary, her flock did inherit a strength of spirit. These inbred family survival skills do carry me through insecure times, and I am grateful for the dna. As my great Uncle Ray used to say, "You can have all the riches in the world, but if you have your health, you are a millionaire."

So history was a great fit as I was simultaneously studying American Literature. The two classes(Am Lit and Am History) played off one another and I found I enjoyed reading novels more when I grasped the time period the story took place in. My American History teacher was a handsome, extremely tall Oakie who drove a twenty year old Volvo and still dressed like it was 1968 yet completely devoid of pretense. He was a parent at the school, which may have created some empathy for me, but I think he appreciated that I was one of the only students who actually read every assignment completely. He knew I was working my butt off and that I had to work my butt off in order to survive. Sometimes he threw the most challenging words at me when we spoke privately and I would say " Ugh, I think I'll have to get back to you on that one!" I was able to answer almost every question on the reading each class, it was ridiculous, and it was amazing how much more you learn when you come prepared for class! My discipline at home was paying off. Once you have the bases covered(the reading) then you are able to actually analyze what you have read and make comparisons to other events. Why hadn't I done this all before? Again, my history teacher appreciated my strong effort, and I appreciated his enthusiasm for the class. He enjoyed the subject matter and therefore we as students enjoyed it as well. He introduced to me to the New York Times, The Economist, The New Republic and National Review as resources. Even though I read the materials intently and attended every class, alas that was not enough. My writing skills were still being honed and I only achieved an A- that first semester. On the flip side, I did learn something new about school and work. Some people just don't have to work as hard as you do. There were other students in the class, who may have shown up sporadically due to "mental health" days and who were not prepared at all for the reading. Grading was set up just like in college where the majority of your grade rested with papers and exams. Our Oakie attended both Stanford and Wesleyan with a Masters and he truly prepared us for college. Some students even brought in university style blue books for tests. You couldn't believe the look on my face freshman year of college when I received my required textbook for history and it was the same one we used Junior year in High school! Anyway, these stellar students would show up for an exam or with a paper and just kill it. They knew the system - what was most important to the bottom line (their grade) and made sure to excel when it counted. This was the epitome of work smart not hard to me, but they obviously, as evidenced by their university future Alma mater, were gifted with not only strategy but keen intelligence and although I was disappointed that all my preparation garnered only an A-, I tried not to be envious of my peers(quite lovable too) who could just deliver when it counted most and get the A. But such is life and I had to get over it. I would have to work harder in school and that was the end of it. Maybe if I wasn't a year younger than everyone I would have had an easier go at it, but it didn't make a difference. One other thing I learned that year is that the way you present yourself, your expectation for yourself does impact the way others think of you. If you can manage to get classified as an "A" student, very little you do to hamper that image can take away those As when it comes time for grading. When I mentioned to this same Oakie that a friend of mine known as the "pretty blond" had been accepted to my same college, he seemed a bit shocked(in the most benevolent way possible- god bless this man as he wrote my college recommendation!). Because her persona screamed "party girl" he had made that assumption instead of noticing her intelligence. So, the lesson here is, believe in yourself as much as you can that you are an A student and the teachers will soon believe it as well. I believed in myself Junior year and earned that true A finally that second semester in Am History II, an amazing feat.

So, whereas the history classes I took Junior year helped ingrain my reading skills and studying discipline, the English classes I took spoke to my heart and opened up my creative side. You know how it is often noted that pet owners often look like their pets? Well, the same can be said, in my experience that is, that an educator can embody the subject matter or author they specialize in. Two such teachers with impeccable education merits are no longer with us today but are fondly remembered as they introduced me to my favorite writers of all time(sorry Tennessee). They WERE the artists.

The first teacher I speak of is Dr. Stone. I mentioned earlier that she highlighted sex in novels the same way a television show does so to garner better Nielsen ratings. Once something taboo was identified in the novel we read, the class was hers.

Dr. Stone was the teacher I feared most entering Junior year and as it turns out the one I loved best. She was a force to be reckoned with and the rumour mill of the atrocities she inflicted on her class legendary. You could witness her in action in the hallway yelling at a student - impeccably dressed from Europe, perhaps an alligator bag and Hermes scarf, black wig and blazing blue eyes. Lipstick which at times caught her teeth but you dared not say a word. Slim as a runway model, standing straight as a Roman sculpture, she emitted smart and gorgeous and so was the expectation. Some detractors might call her batty but aren't all artists a bit off any way?

Among her merits was being the cannon of information on progressive education, as began by Col. Francis W. Parker(our school namesake) and John Dewey. She witnessed first-hand the 1968 Democratic national convention via her students as a young teacher and had been published numerous times. Dr. Stone's womanhood fell somewhere between the conservative Eisenhower generation and that of the hippies. She deeply believed in peace and equality, but also of decorum and manners. She was also a survivor - having battled Hodgkin's her entire, gifted long life. She tried any experimental treatment possible and would knock that disease out of the park. She was a divorcee, travelled extensively and had definitive ideas about how a woman should carry herself. On our first day of class she called out my Sicilian surname and yelled, "Italians make the best leather!" She certainly did her best to break me out of my bad posture habits. "Get your hair out of your face!" she would scream across 20 people to land in my ears. She was part Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and part Imogene Cocoa as Jan's eccentric Aunt Jenny on "The Brady Bunch." But she was all alive, a smoking fireworks show that never ends, blood pumping, passion evident.

There was perhaps no greater instructor you could ever ask for than Dr. Stone to teach you about the 1920's "Lost Generation." She knew this material backwards and forwards, relished and delighted in every symbolic word Fitzgerald bled onto each ground breaking "Great Gatsby" page. I had the pleasure of volunteering for one of her charities - Big Brothers and Sisters of Chicago. The event took place at a bowling alley. Not very Marie - but she went with it. Some of the prep work took place at her lovely Coop apartment overlooking Lincoln Park and the lakefront above Stockton Drive in Chicago. She had lots of pictures of her with mysterious men - her "suitors" taken on one of her worldly adventures. We shared bagels and got a look at her front living room, or what she referred to as her "Salon" filled with various pieces of art. She was not too modest to have us make the Gertrude Stein argument - she was our own Gertrude Stein - an independent free-thinker who had an abundance of patience and interest in supporting all artistry. Just like in Stein's Paris salon, young artists gathered in her living room to be heard, tutored and encouraged into how to be an artist. "You all have a great American Novel within you" or "Which of you from my class will write the next great American Novel?" was always repeated. Even me, I thought to myself. Even me. I could write the next Great American Novel. I could...."You must do this while you are young!" "Art is truth and truth is life!"

What a delicious, sumptuous treat to have had this course. Listen, I realize that it is cliche to say you love F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many aspiring writers come out of high school and college wanting to write the "Great American Novel." Shameless, I was most definitely part of that pack. What I loved about Gatsby was how he was a self-made man. I, too, would be a self-made woman. Just like Gatsby honored Benjamin Franklin's disciplined almanac as a road to success, I too hoped to be as disciplined, a female Horatio Alger but without the drastic moralistic, naturalistic downfall. It was also the first novel where I learned the meaning of "amoral." One female character, Jordan, was "amoral." I knew of morals from Catholic school but this type had never come up. An amoral person is without morals completely - either for good or for bad - simply blase and perhaps the most dangerous. I knew I never wanted to be this type of person. "Her voice is full of money" was also one of my favorite lines in regard to the lovely but lethal Daisy Buchanan.

Highlights of Am Lit were Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", Richard Wright's "Native Son", Theodore Dreiser's " An American Tragedy" and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter." What fun it was to call Hester Prynne a "Whore" in class! What parallels I found to Fitzgerald and Gatsby as modest Midwesterners trying to "make it." The flood of sad memories of Bigger Thomas while visiting my husband at the University of Chicago Hyde Park campus. I probably took the naturalistic novel way too seriously as an impressionable young woman. I liked the fact that "society" created you and you were defenseless against it. This theory of being a product of society stayed with me til I reached college(again, remember past "victim" allusions?). I thank god these evaporated after graduation.

As an Am Lit student you were required to have a specifically sized three ring binder to which you would have Dr. Stone's curriculum - her Magnum Opus so exquisitely detailed. She was not kidding there and I did in fact, use her copious notes while at university. "Time, task and materials management" were constantly being embedded into your brain through the Am Lit class. These skills sets are of incalculable value to me today. Her schemata for organization elevated me to one of the most-sought after resources for university class notes.

I felt strongly for Dr. Stone. She was a hero of mine, and was the first teacher to ever truly build up my confidence. Did I mention that I was insufferably shy in high school? There was no hiding in her class - she would find you. When her sister passed away, I presented her with the W.B. Yeats poetry compilation, my favorite. When I had a small health scare of my own in my very early twenties, Dr. Stone wrote me a long, personal note recounting her own troubles and keys to longevity. One of the keys to her success was broccoli. So devoted am I to this green vegetable to this day that my husband often asks for a meal without broccoli once in a while. Whenever someone was in need or experiencing personal loss, Marie was there by their side. "Can't you see I am talking to this poor girl - her mother is sick!" or "I have NO time to speak with you now - this woman just lost her husband!" In a way her loudness took the sting out of scariness and fear and must have in some way empowered her own immune system. She had no husband, nor children, but many many admirers who would give anything to be shuddered by her screams in a school hallway once more. Did I mention my grade in Dr. Stone's class? An A. My first true, perfect A in high school. Her last note to me was "You are a Star!" I can only hope that my life will live up to her lofty expectation.

At her memorial service at the school a few years back, I listened as friends and family gave their fond memories of Marie and presented the school with a bronze bust to be displayed which she had been fond of. I always recall her being larger than life, always bragging about her A-list students who left her advisory nest to Hollywood adulation or other success. The school halls just seemed so quiet without her. This was it - I thought - a bust. This can't possibly be the end to such a great woman who believed in progressive education - all education - as the most precious gift. Could this possibly be it? A life ending not with a bang but with a whimper?

But it didn't end and will not end for every student who got a burst of confidence, like I had, or comfort, as many had, to be an artist. "You must write - every single one of you!" I remember her screaming. I was just one student out of a thousand through forty plus years of teaching, but I always felt like her only one, and that was her gift to me.

Being young and living in the tail end of the Reagan eighties I was naturally drawn to the Jazz Age writers of the roaring twenties. Young, beautiful, nouveau riche, cocktailin' ex-pat aesthetes. I fell for the story of the artist almost as much as the art itself. To my surprise it was in a class my senior year, and the study of an insecure, sexually repressed Irish Catholic who would win my heart forever. The name of this literary God is James Joyce. British Literature - or "Brit Lit" had a completely different yet no less compelling teacher. Another U of C grad swallowed up by the school, this one with a very interesting history himself.

Bill Duffy was the closest thing I could find to James Joyce on earth. A former monk, he walked the classes with a constant cup of coffee and a chocolate candy bar. He was always hyped up on caffeine, perhaps his only vice, but you could tell he was as pent up as a raging Lamborghini engine stuck in neutral. He was perhaps the most nervous individual you would ever meet. Breathtakingly brilliant, there was so much he wanted to reveal or tell you about himself or what he was thinking but held back. So his brain just racked up these crazy thoughts and ideas with no release as if he was still back at the monastery. His was a stream of consciousness one would beg to hear! He almost always had a glimmer in his eye when he spoke about a writer or story, but was also incredibly ornery. You didn't want to tap him on the shoulder in his office - he just might rip your head off.

High School Senior year is one of those transformative years for us all. Weekends are spent looking at colleges, writing essays and studying for SATs. It is an end, but also the beginning. You get to particpate in all of the activities you had envied earlier like Senior Ditch Day and in my case, running the hot dog stand during County Fair. That Fall of Senior year when I took Brit Lit, I remember very dark mornings and days, cold and rainy. It took a lot to keep out of a depression.

And then I was transported to Dublin. My first "Red and Green" Christmas spent with Stephen Dedalus, the insecure writer in the making of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Who better to teach the story of a repressed Irish Catholic abandoning home and religion than another repressed Irish Catholic having left his life as a monk to become a teacher(many of whom weave artistry themselves?) As in similar fashion I began to take on the characteristics of Stephen Dedalus. Ready to leave home for college? Yes. Sexually repressed? Yes. Eating greasy eggs and sausages at La Petite Greek coffee shop and finishing with a Marlboro Light? Yes. Drinking flasks of whisky at North Avenue turn around until I blacked out? Yes. Writing contrived youthful indulgences? Yes. Would I have to leave the comforts of home to grow as an individual and become an artist one day? Absolutely yes. Do I still fear the sight of a dead cold rat like the one at Stephen Dedalus's boarding school to this day? Yes, of course, yes.

Early Senior year I was not even sure I would be leaving Chicago for college. Since my closest friends age-wise were in the class below mine, I strongly considered taking a year off to travel and then join my age-appropriate class the following year. I remember my very tense father and mother meeting with the school college counselor to discuss these options. My mother was very smiley and my father uncharacteristically silent in his thousand dollar alligator shoes. When I showed him a few of the college brochures I brought home to read the next day, he threw the American University one across the room and said "What the f--k am I supposed to do with this?" I don't know if he felt guilty that he had not finished college when he had every imaginable smart and opportunity to go, or if he was just pissed that this was one area of the world of knowledge that he knew not of. How could his pool hustling skill sets on human nature be transfered to the college application process? It was a mystery to me, my mother and father. Both parents had always told me I could be whatever I wanted in life. That I always had to shoot for CEO rather than secretary was ingrained. I learned then when it came to getting into college, I was pretty much on my own. My Mom would make sure my application typing was as neat and as professional looking as can be, but deciphering the requirements, writing essays and taking the tests - that would all rest with me.

I truly understood why the affluent had an advantage on exams such as the SAT. If your parents had taken you to Paris at some point, even dragged you to the Louvre as a toddler, you may have had a better chance at answering a geography or art question having been exposed to it early on. You have some level of comfort with the question being asked, even if you do not know the answer. Perhaps there was a book of poetry on your bookshelf at home growing up. The author's name would not be new to you. If only the songs of Frank Sinatra or how to bank a pool ball into the corner pocket were on the SAT. Any disadvantage can easily be overcome, I later learned, simply by visiting the nearest library where you can transport yourself anywhere - even the moon- at no charge. As my father told me repeatedly "every solution begins with education." To me, these college tests and applications were all new and very scary. I had no point of reference and neither did my family. I was on my own, fingers crossed.

I did attend college out of state - Tulane University - only the 2nd or 3rd person to attend a 4-year college out of hundreds of relatives - WASP and Italian-American sides- and the first to ever go AWAY to college. My familial priviledged few attended school while living at home with their parents. Man, am I lucky I didn't have to do that! My father was in the service so as soon as he could translate his experience in Germany in the late 1950's to my experience in college, his insecurity about mainstream higher learning disappeared. We both agreed that his army and my university were the best years of our life. Just like Stephen Dedalus, we had to be vigilant about leaving home and exploring the world in order to have a greater understanding of ourselves.

To my relief, I was accepted into two great schools - George Washington U. in D.C. and Tulane University in New Orleans. George Washington was my first choice as my American History classes and a failed attempt to get Dukakis into the White House pot boiled my love for politics and the also bound to fail youthful mission of wanting to make the world a better place. When it came time to put a deposit down, my father, with more weighted wisdom than a lithe paper degree could provide - chose Tulane University and the city of New Orleans - for me. I didn't know much about Tulane other than the fact that the weather would be warm and I would have 4 Mardi Gras to celebrate(in my case 4 1/2). I tried to argue for GW but I soon relented. Tulane was my "reach" school he said and you always go to the best. Plus my grandfather, who passed away in January of my senior year, had been a Dixie land Jazz drummer and spent a lot of time in New Orleans as had my Dad when he was young and hustling pool. I would be the next to carry on the family tradition. New Orleans it would be. Best decision ever made for me. Thanks, Pops!

Brit Lit also introduced me to my favorite poet - another Irishman yet Protestant - W.B. Yeats - "Sailing to Byzantium"whom I chose to monologue in my Senior year college poetry class "Fish, flesh or fowl. Commend all summer long. Whatever is begotten, born and dies." My favorite playwright - Tom Stoppard. "The Real Thing" was probably WAY too complex for me to understand at sixteen but I was struggling with the idea of romantic love and the play challenged it. I also liked the idea that a writer could "play" with the idea of writing itself. A play within a play (hadn't read much Shakespeare yet). Graham Greene was so enjoyable - I fell in love with both the man and almost every single middle aged British civil service male protaginist stranded in an exotic locale or time that he threw at me. And it all started so easily with "Gun for Hire" right there in Mr. Duffy's syllabus. From "The Quiet American" to "The Heart of the Matter" to "Our Man in Havana" I became obssessed with Graham Greene. Even read his biography. Speaking of Biography - I also took the James Joyce "Ulysses" class at the Newberry library - twice! Many men failed my "Ulysses" test. I would send or read them the last few pages of Molly Bloom's ecstatic monologue and wait to see if it moved them in any way. I knew I had finally found the man I would marry when I nervously sent him the last page to "Ulysses" in an email and his response to me was "Yes!" I hope it is indictive of the power of Mr. Duffy that I continued to read these author's after class ended, for many years after, and to this day. There is no greater compliment I can bestow upon an educator than this gift - the gift of introducing a great author, authors that I have absorbed into my body and will grow old with.

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