Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Whitney Matters

If you haven't yet heard about the passing of Whitney Houston, I'm guessing you live under a rock. In any case, if you haven't heard, you must not have internet access and, so, you're not reading this.

In the 24-or-so hours since this somewhat shocking news broke, I've seen two camps emerge online: there are those who have been posting links to Whitney Houston videos, photos and articles...and then there are those who take pleasure in making jokes about this sad news and/or saying things such as, "A lot of people died, and she was just some addict that none of us really knew...what's the big deal?" That's actually a reasonable question, in some ways. I didn't know Whitney Houston. Never met her. I don't even own any of her albums. (I'm old enough to have to admit that I may have had a few cassingles, back in the day.) And, truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of addicts, in general. I've been related to enough of them, seen enough people I cared about turn into assholes via addiction, and been exposed to the worst aspects of addiction via many years of working in the not-for-profit sector that I'd be more than happy to never spend ten minutes with a drug addict or alcoholic, again.

That said, the death of Whitney Houston leaves me with great sadness and, if I had to identify with one of the two camps, I'd go for the former. I'm not on a posting spree of Whitney videos, but I actually do care that this happened, even though I never met Whitney Houston. 

First off, the argument that we didn't know her is a silly one. We live in a time and place where the celebrity phenomenon creates some pretty damned convincing illusions. One of these is the illusion that the very famous are practically friends of ours, almost family. Like it or not, we're happy when our favorite actor gets an award. We cheer on our favorite athletes. We anticipate the birth of our favorite celebrity's baby, and wonder what name the baby will be given. And we grieve when an actor, writer, singer, or other celebrity we've come to care for passes away. It's a part of how the world works, these days. To deny it is just silly.

Second, and more importantly, Whitney Houston's death speaks to a whole lot more than some woman I never met coming to a premature end. It speaks volumes about women's roles in the modern world, and how far we have yet to go. In this way, her sad end is very much like the sad end that Princess Diana suffered, and here's why:

Whitney Houston was talented. 
Whitney Houston was beautiful.
Whitney Houston was rich.
Whitney Houston came from a close-knit family.
Whitney Houston was well loved on a global scale.

All this, and yet, she still did two things that we often associate with low self-esteem: she entered into and stayed in an abusive marriage for many years, and she became addicted to drugs.  And this is what is so heartbreaking to a lot of us, especially women: that someone so gorgeous and talented and loved....someone who seemingly had everything going for her didn't - couldn't - love herself enough to make choices that were in her own best interest. We loved her from afar, and it's inconceivable to us that she couldn't love herself more. 

We didn't know her, personally, but we watched her go from being a gorgeous, talented teenager, to a mere shell of her former self, whose gift - her amazing voice - was destroyed along the way.  That, in itself, was sad enough. To find out that her life, itself, is over, is truly heartbreaking...especially when one considers the efforts she finally did make to clean herself up and try to build her career, again. If you're anything like me, you were rooting for her to make a comeback. 

And, so, yes - Whitney does matter, and some of us do, indeed, care. If this is the way it can end for someone who seemingly had the world in the palm of her hand, what does that say about the chances an ordinary girl or woman has in this world? Or an ugly girl? Or a girl with no talent? Why is it so damned difficult for girls and women to love themselves, and demand the best for themselves?  

If it drives you nuts that some of her fans are going a little hog wild about posting her videos on Facebook, keep in mind that they're probably trying their damnedest to remember her as she was, when she was at her best.  Not just her most beautiful (but, yes, surely that) - but when her voice was so amazing, when she was great to watch, when we looked forward to her next song. Who of us wouldn't want that for ourselves, after we're gone?  Before she was a hot mess, she was a woman and a singer.  Is it so wrong to want to remember that?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Teacher, Teacher

A couple of nights ago, I received a phone call from an old friend...a woman who's been a school teacher in the public school system for over 20 yrs. As soon as I heard the crack in Sue's voice, I knew something was wrong.

"I've had a terrible day," she said, "One of my former students killed himself, today. Thirteen years old. He got hold of his father's shotgun and blew his head off. Thirteen years old, Lana."

There is really nothing I can say about this tragedy that wouldn't be stating the obvious: it's horrible, it's sad, it's disturbing. I feel for this boy and for his loved ones. But I'm not here to write about him - I didn't even know him. His story, and how I found out about it, moved me to write about something that's been on my mind a lot, lately: the role teachers play in the lives of children.

I wonder if this boy had any idea that his tragic death would have such a profound effect on his former teacher? I wonder if he realized that someone thought about him, cared for him, and would mourn him in such a way? I wonder if he had any idea that, long after the school bell had rung - and even long after the school year had ended - his teacher would be thinking about him, wondering how he was doing, wishing him well?  Not every teacher does this, and even the ones who do, probably don't with every student. They're human beings, after all, not saints.

A good teacher, though, a great teacher, can have an incredible impact on the life of a student.  A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with my friend, Heidi (a teacher, herself.) I told Heidi about one of my favorite teachers, Ms. R - the 5th grade teacher who had the vision to introduce a room full of 9 and10 yr old "gifted' children to poetry not only on the page, but on vinyl. Ms. R started us out early in the school year by giving us rexograph copies of Edward Arlington Robinson's Richard Cory. We read the poem, and discussed it at length. We spent a whole session of Language Arts (what they called reading/English at the elementary school I attended) on this one poem. Ms. R didn't explain what the poem meant, but asked us to explain it to her, in our own words. There were no wrong answers - just different interpretations. (You may think this is a fairly straightforward poem to dedicate a whole afternoon to discussing: keep in mind that we were 9 and10 yrs old, this was our first foray, EVER, into reading poetry. It was an ambitious undertaking.) We loved it. The next day, Ms. R showed up with an old and very worn record album - her personal copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence. She put the record on one of those big, portable record players that was in every classroom in the 70s, and played their version of Richard Cory, introducing us - a class full of 9 and 10 yr olds - to the idea that poetry didn't just live on the page, that poets could tell their stories in different ways, that music - even pop music - mattered.

It was a revelation. It changed everything for me. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ms. R was the first person to make me see that writing could carry weight, that it was a worthy pursuit.

This is just one example of how special a teacher she was. When I told Heidi about Ms. R -  how much she'd meant to me,  how I'd never forgotten that she once called my parents and gotten permission to take me with her to The Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Saturday, just because she wanted to, and how I wished I could thank her, all these years later, for all she'd she'd done, for all that her care and attention had meant to me - Heidi replied, "You've got to find her. Google her. Find her and tell her everything you're telling me."

And that's what I did. Hoping that Ms. R would somehow still be involved in education, even though she might well be at or past retirement age by now, I Googled her somewhat common name combined with "NYC public schools." Bingo. There she was....still involved with the public school training young men and women how to integrate the arts into the classroom experience. How fitting. I sent Ms. R the following email, hoping against hope that it didn't sound corny or stupid, and figuring the worst that would happen would be getting no reply:

I'm writing in the hopes that you're the KR who taught at PS 321 in Brooklyn during the late 70s. If not, I'm sorry to bother you. If you are that KR, I'm glad to have found you, because I've always wanted to tell you what a difference you made in my life.
I don't expect you to remember me, but I was a 5th grade student in 1977, and you were one of my teachers. A great teacher. As a child, I took it for granted that every other child had a teacher who really cared and made an effort to keep things interesting, welcomed curiosity, and encouraged critical thinking. As an adult, I know better.  
A week ago, I heard Simon and Garfunkle's Richard Cory on the radio, and immediately thought about sitting in your classroom, reading E.A.R.'s poem, and listening to S&G's version of it. I asked one of my friends from childhood, who was also in your class, if he remembered you and the poetry you introduced us to.  William Carlos Williams. Percy Shelley. Vachel Lindsay. Langston Hughes. Robert Frost. Sure enough, his memories of that time were just as clear as mine, and just as fond. We talked about what a really special teacher you'd been, how lucky we'd been to have had the experience of being in your class. And more - I'll never forget that you once took me to the Met on your own time. On your day off. It was my first time going to the Met, and it changed my life. The Met became one of my favorite places in NYC, thanks to you. Thank you so much for that, and for so many things. The gifts you gave me 35 yrs ago are still precious to me.  
At any rate, I hope I've reached the right KR, because the KR who taught at PS 321 in 1977 really should know that the time and effort she put into working with a room full of ten year olds made a world of difference.
Corny? Maybe a little, but all true, so what the hell? I was thrilled, then, to receive this reply (note: names and specifics have been deleted for privacy) a  few hours later:

Dear Lana, You have indeed reached the right person…and I am typing with a big lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.  I have never, ever received a note/message/email like this!   
I have always loved teaching and the word “rewarding” doesn’t even begin to cover how I would describe your note, Lana.  I have very fond memories of teaching at PS  321…it was really an incredible school…I didn’t even mind being in the mini-school!  
I am presently working for (education-related agency) but the best part of my job is visiting schools and, because I really still love teaching, conducting workshops for teachers….I have one tomorrow…at the Met of course!   It is really my home away from home…I also volunteer in the Nolen Library at the Met around once or twice a month.  
But I would like to know more about you, Lana!  Please write back.  
Thank you so much for being thoughtful enough to write to me and share all of this.  It means more than you could possibly imagine!  
All the best and write back,KR 
To say that this made my day would be putting it mildly. It's immensely satisfying to be able to thank someone for such wonderful gifts 35 yrs after the fact. I didn't even realize, when I was 9 or 10, that there was anything I needed to thank this wonderful person for. That she so naturally and seemingly without effort gave us so much is part of what made her an outstanding teacher. As a 10 yr old, I didn't know how rare an opportunity I'd been granted. I'm so glad that, as a 45 yr old, I've been able to voice it and give thanks where thanks have been long overdue.

Teaching can be something of a thankless profession. Pathetic salaries, not much respect from the public,  overcrowded classrooms, difficult parents, problem children, supply shortages, budget cuts.....yet good people still choose teaching as a profession. A good teacher can make a huge difference. I'd urge anyone who has a memory of a special teacher to make the effort to thank them. I can tell you, first hand, how good it feels to successfully deliver that "thank you," and to find out that it doesn't fall on deaf ears. You may be surprised at how satisfying it can be to say "thanks."

And, to answer the inevitable question, yes - I've written back.