Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When your B- is my A+

Not long ago I got a cryptic email from a friend. She wrote: “My day was a solid B-.”

Well, I try to be a nice person and I don’t like to see another soul in distress, so I immediately replied to her message: “I’m so sorry. What happened to bring down your day?”

And that’s when I realized a basic truth:  How the world looks depends entirely on how you’re looking at it. It’s a matter of perspective.

Turns out, she’d intended to let me know she’d had a pretty darned good day. What I read, however, was that her day had hit the skids. For her a B- is, to quote that other Martha, a good thing. It’s above average. For me, a B- means you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Why the big difference? It got me wondering.

Back in my world, a B- meant you’d slid by. You hadn’t really broken a sweat to get the job done and whoever issued the grade was on to you. That teacher looked at your work, sighed, took one of those big red grease pencils and slathered an ugly B- minus across the top, then handed it back to you with one eyebrow raised. You slunk home hoping nobody asked you how it went.

Apparently, my friend went to better schools than I did.

The kind of haphazard work that got me a B- would have landed her a D, tops. She had to work to get a B- and was proud when she landed it. In my school, you could nail a C just for showing up on time.

The folks in my school probably meant well. I’m sure they must have. But when the high school offers only one foreign language, and that one only periodically when they can find a teacher willing to take it on . . . when algebra is an elective, not to mention plane geometry (which was a one semester course) . . . when memorizing and regurgitating the last stanza of Thanatopsis is enough to get you an A in English all by itself . . . and when chemistry and physics are offered as electives only to seniors and only for one semester each . . . well, the bar is pretty low. (We won’t discuss their approach to punctuation and the rules governing the use of ellipses, now will we?)

If you go to a school like that you figure out early on that you’d better deliver some A’s. With so little to be had, you have to grab all you can.

In retrospect, going to that school has served me surprisingly well. By the time I graduated it had lost its state accreditation -- it took an intervention by our Congressman to get any of us into the state university. But I came out all right.

For one thing, I learned that “ok” is not good enough. And I learned that you can’t live your life to someone else’s standards. You have to set your own – not because other people’s standards are too high, but because they might not be high enough.

What little college prep I got came from the high school English teacher.

This is not one of those hymns to the English teacher who opened my eyes to Shakespeare and poetry and the joy of well-punctuated prose. Those teachers came later in my life. This is the woman whose most valuable gift to me may have been assuring me that I was both stupid and lazy.

She knew, you see, that I wasn’t prepared to enter the hallowed halls of learning our Congressman had opened for me. None of us were. And she made sure we knew that. In addition to being stupid, she assured us, we were lazy. She went on to allow as how that combination was a guarantee we’d all be home on academic probation by Christmas.

She ticked us off. Big time. I suspect it was her ulterior motive all along (although she really did believe what she was saying – that we were both dumb and slothful). She made us mad. And we were a stubborn lot, full of Scotch-Irish indignation. When we got mad, we got even. We succeeded in spite of her.

That small class produced a couple of outstanding engineers, several acclaimed civic leaders, more than a handful of very successful business entrepreneurs, at least one doctor, and some respected public servants. And I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key tucked away in my jewelry box. We sure showed her, huh?

(To be fair, I want to pause here and give credit where credit is due – to those teachers who knew what they were up against, both in a poor excuse for a school system and a lazy bum of a student like me who had a brain, but was frequently loath to use it. They deserve medals. The power of their sardonically raised eyebrows is what kept me on the straight and narrow. Not just in school, either. My first editor was especially skillful with her right eyebrow. When she applied it to my copy she didn’t even need her blue pencil. The look alone produced an instant rewrite.)

I’d left that town with my degree tucked under my arm and gone through several successful professional experiences, not to mention the rigors of parenthood, before I understood just how much those grades didn’t count. The ones in college were a little bit harder to get, of course, but there was still a formula to it. Figure out what they want, give it to them, and get the A. The grades were the easy part – the hard part was, and still is, gaining real knowledge.

To explore an idea, to grasp a concept, to understand a principle – to make those things a part of who you are and how you think – that’s the important stuff. And most important by far is to question what you’re being taught – not to take it all at face value just because someone else insists it’s true. You can rack up a whole semester full of A’s without getting there. I know you can. I’ve done it.

So I keep trying. Even though Shakespeare’s King Lear makes me weep for the sheer beauty of it, I still haven’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses enough times to make sense out of it. And even though I’m pretty proficient with Excel pivot tables, say “algebra” to me and my pulse starts to race.

It’s all just a matter of perspective.

So here’s to a new day – hope it is a solid B- for you.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Family Traditions, or, Whatever Happened to the TripleNickleStickleDoublePopper?

About this time every year, my blood starts to rise. Like a dog shredding a newspaper and turning in circles, I nest. Maybe it’s the haunting of my ancient Celtic roots, stocking the cellar with cabbages and filling the beds with fresh hay. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that I’m going to be rained into this nest for the next few months so I’d better make it comfortable. Or perhaps it’s just the quality of the autumn light that stirs my spirit.

Whatever it is, the most important things in my life seem to happen in autumn. We just celebrated (another) wedding anniversary – of course we knew two such stubborn people would stick that one. And, as I write, I’m messing around with my husband’s birthday dinner (we like to cram as much celebration into a single week as possible).

So once again, here we are. It’s October and I’m thinking about long-standing traditions, the kind families polish with sentimentality and pass down across generations. Where do we always take the first day of school picture? (On the front steps because I forgot the camera on the first first day and he had to wait there until I rushed back to get it. Thus are traditions born.) When can we play the first game of Hide in the Dark? (Third week of September, after the solstice, before the time change.) When will we come home and smell the first pumpkin pie? (Mid-October, around Dad’s birthday. Today, in fact.) When do we finally turn the heat on? (October 15th, come hell or high water. Even if I’m wrapped in a blanket on the 10th.)

This year, as I hunt down the furniture polish and change the bag in the vacuum cleaner, I realize that some of my own family’s traditions – the ones I grew up with, not the ones my husband and I created together – are now endangered species. My sisters and I buried our mother in 2007 and, with her departure, we became the keepers of memories. Because we live far apart, I’m afraid we haven’t stewarded the memories as well as we could have.

That’s why I’m worried about the TripleNickelStickleDoublePopper.

If my sister is reading this, she’ll know what I’m talking about . Nobody else will have a clue. I know this is true because I Google’d it.

The TripleNickelStickleDoublePopper (aka the TNSDP) was an autumn classic in our north Georgia bungalow. All my father had to do was say the word and the three of us would line up like well-tuned robots, ready to go.

The TNSDP was a special kind of ice cream bar, found only in amusement parks and county fairs. It was a cross between a square and an oblong, creamy vanilla ice cream coated in thick chocolate and rolled in salty chopped peanuts. The whole thing was skewered on a wooden popsicle stick. If you go to a fair or carnival today (see my September 25 post), you’ll find something that’s a little bit like it, but it’s only a ghost of the real thing, a teasing whisper of what once was.

An honest-to-goodness TNSDP is made on the spot – they don’t come out of a box, frozen so hard you could demolish a brick wall with them. They emerged from a little ice cream parlor on wheels that graced the Hamilton County Fair in Chattanooga every autumn.

And, no, that wasn’t their real name. That was their name only in our family. I have no idea what the real name of these heavenly concoctions was. Anything I’ve seen since childhood has been a weak imitation. There are things at the grocery store now, ice cream in a cone with chocolate and peanuts ( -- don’t go there if you’re hungry) – Drumsticks I think they’re called, but they’re not the real thing. And they still sell something called a Nutty Buddy at the fair, but it, too, is a weak second.

Why my family knew them as TripleNickelStickleDoublePoppers, I can’t tell you. The name probably came from some wry encounter my dad had at some time in his life, but it’s lost to us now.

That’s what I mean about being stewards of the traditions.

I’d give anything on earth for another hour with my father so I could ask him where he got that name, along with a million other questions . . . How did he come up with our nicknames: Rabbit, Skiels, and The Calf. Why were summer trousers known as ice cream britches. And why was it that we never lived in a house that didn’t have a basement or wasn’t on a bus line. I might need more than an hour.

I would definitely want enough time to hear a few more of his Spoonerisms ( The man was a master at worning a turd.

No matter how much time I could bargain with my father, it wouldn’t be enough. There never is. And no matter how many of those lost family traditions I tried to recapture, I’d leave some out. So maybe that’s why, every fall, I start reliving them – the ones I brought with me, and the ones I’ve helped build.

Family traditions may be silly, limiting, short-sighted, and, quite often, embarrassing. But I believe they’re precious. After all, if I don’t tell you about the TripleNickelStickleDoublePopper, who will?

And, now, in honor of the late (and much loved) Herman Wilson, I will get back to my nesting, dig out the pumpkin pie recipe, and wish you a fond farewell as I say, “Yie Ball.”*

* If you’re from the South, you’ve figured it out. If you’re “not from around here,” it’s Spoonerism for “Bye, y’all.” Rest in peace, Daddy. Or, if you must, pest in reach.