I decided to heed Jody and Rudy’s advice. Friday came and went. There were several assessments in emerg that consumed my time; Linda and I crossed paths twice and in both instances we were civil but guarded. While there was no further conflict, the tension was eating at me. I saw a couple of people for follow up in the afternoon and closed the day crossing all my i’s and dotting my t’s. Then I was free and clear for the weekend. Jody and I were going out for dinner at Roland’s house tonight. We didn’t know his wife well but she was also a teacher. I would definitely be outnumbered.
Jody arrived home shortly after me. This was unusual for her. Generally she puttered in her classroom, marking papers or crafting devious assignments for her students. “This is a nice surprise.” I greeted her with a smile and a hug. “Are those flowers for me?” I noticed she was packing a bouquet.
“Nope. For Maureen, Roland’s wife.”
“Oh” I hoped I sounded dejected.
“ I have wine too, in the car, chilling.”
“You are brilliant and beautiful.” I’d rebounded quickly from my flowerlessness.
We both showered and changed into clothes that were a little funkier than our usual evening attire. Jody wound a fern green and russet pashmina scarf around her neck and over her shoulder, setting off the auburn highlights of her crinkly curls. A few months ago, on a whim, I purchased a pair of ox-blood red jeans and tonight was their debut. I chose a navy crew neck sweater that I believed complimented the jeans exquisitely. I also added a jaunty scarf, mine with a thread of red running though it to pick up the jeans. Then I posed. When no obvious praise for the outfit was forthcoming, I had to remark its perfection myself. “Hattie, you look lovely.” Jody agreed with a happy smile. I wasn’t sure which gesture intensified my joy more, the compliment or the smile. Certainly I had worked hard to draw the compliment. With coats and boots applied, we were out the door.
Roland and Maureen lived at the waterfront. Her family had a cottage there for many years that they had winterized and modernized. My jeep was our chariot because according to Jody, the road into this place was a bit cantankerous, which I assumed meant rough. In reality, it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t even need four-wheel drive. Maureen met us at the door and was delighted with the flowers Jody had chosen. The fireplace blazing in the corner added to the charm of the living room. A tray of cheese, veggies and dip rested on the coffee table. Roland shepherded Jody into the kitchen to sample the wine, a glass of which Roland delivered to Maureen. Jody fetched me a tonic with lime. Maureen gestured to a seat near the fire and settled into the chair beside me. I’d only met her a few fleeting times when we ran into Roland and she seemed a good match for him, sans beard. We considered the weather for a while, comparing this Winter to last Winter; Maureen sipping her drink, me sipping mine.
“How is your work at the hospital?” Maureen ventured. The last time we were together I might have been whining about some aspect of my job or another.
“I enjoy it most days. There’s a good mix of crisis work and counseling. We have a new program now that allows us to provide service to people who have insurance coverage. It increases access to mental health counseling for the community. It also gives us a little bit more variety in clientele.” The private nature of my work precluded sharing anecdotes or wild tales, such as I knew would be forthcoming when all the teachers were assembled.
“So what kind of therapy does that involve?”
“The usual,” I hesitated, not sure how familiar she might be with my line of work. “One of the clients I am seeing right now is dying and we are dealing with grief and loss. A couple of people are dealing with addiction problems. Some folks have a history of sexual abuse, or child abuse that is interfering in some way with their current function.”
“Hmmm. Maureen took another sip of her wine. “It must be hard to stare down death, or help someone else stare down death. Are there any tricks?”
I hadn’t expected this question. “Not tricks, really. I think it’s a matter of listening to fears and worries, providing comfort and hope. There are clear stages of grief but in my experience they don’t fall into neat steps. They transition back and forth over time, eventually moving toward acceptance…or sometimes not. In this case, the client is working hard to cushion her family. And yes, it has had an effect on me. It’s sad to share this experience with another person.”
“My niece recently died. She had a brain tumor. She pursued a course of aggressive treatment for about a year but in the end…well, in the end, it was the end.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks. I wish she had someone to talk with through her ordeal; someone outside the family. I’m not sure she ever came to grips with her reality. It makes you think about what you would do in the same situation. It made me wonder if I would have fought as hard. Of course my reflections are all in retrospect. At the time we mostly dodged the inevitable. We were all encouraging, of course, and tried to stay optimistic. It was strange…even when we all knew she was in her last days, we didn’t admit it to her. We stayed cheerleaders. ”
“That’s what we do in our families. Its pretty normal, by my account. What I’ve lately found is that people share their experiences differently with a third party. It’s likely safer or more acceptable to question oneself to a relative stranger, someone who is not fighting or grieving alongside you. It makes me think……”
Jody and Roland boomed into the room deep in the throes of debate regarding social history, the advent of technology and the consequences for the literati. Roland noticed Maureen and I seemed absorbed in our own conversation and interjected “What are you two talking about? It can’t be as depressing Jody’s observation that film has ruined the novel.”
“It could be.” Maureen stated matter-of-factly. “We were talking about death.”
“Oh.” Both Jody and Roland blurted at the same time, appearing chastened.
“Well, don’t let us bring you down.” Roland added as he looked away, flapped his hand dismissively and took a seat on the sofa across from the fire.
It was such a bizarre transition that both Maureen and I burst out laughing. “A little more detail about the evils of film will get my attention.” Maureen inquired.
I smiled and shook my head at Jody so she knew it was just fine with me if she continued her social critique. “What is it about film that’s eating at you tonight?” I posed and the topic was effectively shifted.
“Well, Roland and I have been talking for a while about co-teaching a literature-slash-history course about the progression….”
“..or degeneration!” chimed Roland.
“…the progression or degeneration of literature.” She studied us before proceeding, assessing true versus polite interest. “I think, we think, the long history of story-telling is important to understanding literature…and art too but we haven’t been able to engage Dickie Vereen, the senior Art teacher in our scheme.” Jody had been looking at Roland when she mentioned Art, then she turned to engage Maureen and I. Way, way back people sat around the fire telling stories. Sorta like we are.” Jody used both hands to point toward the fireplace in the corner, casting warmth and soft light.
“Did everyone share stories, or just the guys?” I interjected. I regretted my feminist observation when I was given ‘the look’.
Jody continued. “People used to talk more, share tales. Some stories were straight narrative; some described interpersonal transactions. Some stories included simple performance, or dance. They, like the people or tribes, knew each other well and they learned their history from each other. Maybe the guys talked more, as Hattie suggests. I don’t know – this perspective offers a new opportunity for feminist critique. Maybe my dear partner can be a guest speaker….”
I stood and bowed “ I accept.” Then I sat down quick because I’d heard earlier countless versions of this rant and knew there was more to come.
“Anthropology research suggests that all the many and varied firesides produced remarkably similar stories and myths. We are looking for that same similarity of ideas and interest in story-telling and myth that might draw our students in, that are timeless and current. There are underlying human narratives that I think kids can relate to.”
Roland jumped in. “From fire light to candle light, from light bulbs to tablets. I like to think of this as Literary Anthropology.” He was puffed up and proud by his analysis.
Jody grasped the baton. “Stories moved beyond the fire’s glow when we began to draw and write, like more than just on cave walls. Over time, talkers became writers. Realistic scribing led to great realistic novels. We also had the great, realistic paintings.” She would not let go of the Art aspect of this plan. “We developed imagination, attention and focus. We wrote long, newsy letters, not emails or texts. We didn’t rely on Facebook for information. We read pamphlets, like those prepared by Darwin. We read real paper magazines and newspapers. And here is the climax: photography trumped painting…”
“But in my understanding didn’t it precipitate the abstract, impressionist painters…” Maureen interrupted, clearly intrigued by the Art aspect.
Roland responded to his wife. “Yes, yes. But that is my…our point. The response is interpretive. When it is narcissistic or ego centric, I see it as regressive, or degenerative but when it becomes inclusive, I believe it is more progressive…generative. I see how the narcissistic perspective works…but I think stretching outside this brings easier access to alternatives. Hmmm. That’s a bit tangled, isn’t it?” Roland paused to think as he spoke and I could tell that even though he and Jody had the germ of this idea, they were developing it interactively. For me, my head was several sentences back trying to figure out the regress from the digress. I would ask Jody for the Cole’s Notes in the morning.
“So, if I jump ahead, I’m guessing your idea is that because film is easier to access, people chose it over novels?” Maureen seemed better at following their tack.
“More or less, Maureen.” We were back to Jody. “And not just novels into movies; its also about snippets of text over pages of description and dialogue. A recent study found that the average young person will likely read fewer than two books a year. And apparently even that stat is declining. As English teachers, how do we reconcile this?” She was looking at Roland. “How do we encourage reading in the face of technological alternatives that are so much easier to access, require less attention and focus and may not require the effort of interpretation, imagination or incite curiosity?”
“How do we stave off extinction?” Roland concluded, mugging a grave face, while I watched his bobbing beard.
“So, you two are taking this idea and translating it into an English course?” Maureen added. “It seems paradoxical. But I do look forward to seeing how it turns out.” Maureen taught Grade five in elementary school so she understood course design and curricula development. “Truly, I always wonder high school English and History don’t pair up. How do you teach A Tale of Two Cities without teaching the French Revolution? Only after I finally understood French social history did I love that book. The same is true with To Kill a Mockingbird. How do you teach that without teaching the history of the American South; you know, teaching about the State’s Rights, slavery, white supremacy and Jim Crow?”
“You are absolutely right!” Jody jumped on this one. Literary relevance was one of her favorite rants. “Why do we segregate…essentially why do we Jim Crow our study of Literature and History, and Geography, and Social Studies!
“And Art!” Maureen was in now with both feet.
Jody nodded in agreement and continued. “Roland and I have a lot more work to do but we have a sketch to show our principal and she has already put the bug in the Superintendent’s ear. The thing about it that I think will seal the deal is the use of electronic sources, as well as conventional sources like books and magazines. We plan to teach it together but as you said Maureen, why can’t we include Art and History… an eclectic approach. Many of us don’t see the novel as in decline but we know people are not getting, or more likely not choosing, the same level exposure we did.”
“To enlarge that point, in this room,” Roland polled, “how many books did you read last year? Maureen?”
Maureen paused. “16, maybe 20”.
I was grateful to have had that moment while Maureen was answering to calculate. “Probably about the same. At least 15 for sure.” I didn’t want to get this wrong in a tough crowd.
“This is the phenomenon we want to explore. There’s a chance the Board will approve this course as a research study; they are big into that now. Even though coming at it as a preliminary study will take a bit more work, that approach will provide more detail to inform our program. We want to engage the students in the process. We want to understand reading preferences and behaviour.”
“Living with you two is like living with Bethune!” My lips were ahead of my brain. “I didn’t mean any disrespect…” I added quickly. But my stab at an apology was not required. Everyone appreciated the humor I intended and recognized the timeliness of the next shift in topics.
Dinner was an enchanting combination of vegetarian and carnivorous options. I stuck to the veg but Jody dabbled with meat. Conversation drifted back to the various aspects of teaching and learning. I have read widely in the literature of transformative learning. I described my fave theorist, Paulo Freire, who in my opinion is the Carl Rogers of education. I shared how I lean on these theories in my clinical practice. In my opinion, therapy cannot be only a journey of self-discovery; it must include the component of learning new ways of thinking and acting. Otherwise, we would go through life understanding why we made all the wrong decisions but never changing them. Although, as Roland pointed out so brutally, based on this assumption I should give up the Leafs and back the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bastard!
Dessert is an event for me and my sweet tooth. I can always find room, even when I declare complete satiation. In the true spirit of collaboration, Roland and Maureen co-created a light and fluffy pomegranate cheesecake. It was divine. I had my customary two pieces!
Friday night became early Saturday morning before we fell into bed, and stayed there until well after the high noon sun painted the shadow of the front garden trees onto the wall. I made us Chai tea and we lay in bed reading, our precious paper books, until nearly two!
“Do you think we are losers because we still have our pajamas on and the sun will set in the next couple of hours?” I wondered aloud.
“Nope, we are winners.” Jody said without lifting her head from her book.
“What did we win?”
“Well, I won you.” She finally looked up and smiled. “And you drove me home last night, you made me Chai tea just the way I like it and you are making me dinner tonight!”