Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

According to the San Francisco Museum's website, the Pepsi-Cola Center for Service Men and Women opened on March 5, 1943. The center offered telephones for troops to call family members, stationery for writing letters, and wire recorders to make voice recordings to mail home.  It also served hamburgers, hot dogs, and--of course--free Pepsi.

My dad arrived there on November 27, 1943, after a long train trip from Camp Hood, Texas, where he'd been in the Army Specialized Training Program.  He was en route to Camp White, Oregon for more training and eventual deployment to North Africa with the 91st Infantry Division.

While in San Francisco, he took the opportunity to record a greeting to send to his mother back in Grantsville, West Virginia.  I don't think the mailer it was sent in got preserved, but there are some great images of a mailer and its enclosed record here.

There's a similar recording posted on this blog, too.  Incidentally, the author there notes that his "Dad would never pass up a free deal, especially one that involved advanced technology." Sounds familiar. I'm quite sure my dad didn't even notice the writing paper or the telephones as he made a beeline for the wire recorder.

We've posted here before about other recordings  my dad made before, during, and after the war.  While we knew about dad's Christmas 1941 greeting, and had heard the interview he did for Armed Forces Radio while in Italy, this is one of a stash of recordings that the family never knew about until Mom came across them after Dad died.  I'll try to post some of the others later, but this is probably the best of the lot, both sound-wise, production-wise, and content-wise.

By the way, I love the fact that my dad spends ages in this recording describing the Salton Sea (its size, its depth below sea level, etc., etc.), but crams his adventures in Hollywood into just a few seconds at the end of the recording.  As a budding scientist, he was clearly more interested in the geology of the passing landscape, which must have seemed positively alien to a 19-year-old kid from green, rural West Virginia.

Still, I'd love to know what stars he saw at the Hollywood Canteen.  It's so like him to leave 'em wanting more.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Six Things in a Blog


Rosemary woke up this morning with the Andrews Sisters' "Six Jerks in a Jeep" running through her head, leading her to both sing it all over the house and to post a YouTube version as her facebook status. I'll resist the temptation to re-post it here to save all you readers out there from having the sort of experience we had this afternoon at lunch.

It all started out with a whole series of more or less spontaneous renditions of the song: "We're six jerks in a Jeep," of course, and "We're six WACs in a hack" (both of which are in the original) was followed by Rose singing "We're six heels on a wheel" or "We're six blokes on a spoke." A variety of similar efforts ensued. Even I wasn't immune: "We're six Yanks in a tank" I offered, in what I thought was true WWII spirit.

The tune is catchy, to say the least, and silly in just the right way.

So, anyhow, as I was eating lunch, I must have been staring off into space as I sometimes do, and Rose asked me what I was thinking about. Always truthful, I had to admit I was thinking about Tralfamadoreans (who last made an appearance on this blog here), the plunger-shaped aliens who kidnap Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

Ever one for a challenge, Rosemary more or less instantly belted out "Six Tralfamadoreans in a . . . Delorean" and we both started laughing uncontrollably.

Comic genius.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kalamazoo Update

Just got back from the big medieval conference in Kalamazoo: as usual, I went to the dance, but I did not dance.

The dance at Kalamazoo remains an institution, though the beer is no longer free, and one must show one's conference registration badge to get in the door: they actually have people guarding the entrances. One rarely if ever needs to show the badge to attend a panel, go to the book room, or virtually anything else, in my experience, but the dance is another thing.

It's probably a wise policy, and it's probably intended to keep local kids and others from sneaking in and drinking up the cheap beer, but it's hard not to also imagine that the guards also serve to protect unsuspecting innocents from seeing hundreds of medievalists, of all ages and types, gyrating and jumping, and singing along with Bon Jovi at the highest possible volume. That's a sight that only a medievalist could endure, I suppose, but the cheap beer helps, even so. And some of my closest friends always dance at the dance, so perhaps I shouldn't mock it too harshly.

But I did all the things that one goes to Kalamazoo for: I gave a paper (about medieval poetry, no less), went to a few panels, spent money in the book room, got way too little sleep, and drank way too much beer. And I talked, talked, talked, with a few old friends and a few new strangers. And I didn't have time or occasion to talk to many other old friends, which is too bad, but that's also Kalamazoo.

I carpooled there and back with one old and good friend and fifteen hours together in the car was just barely enough time to get a little caught up. Except when I called her to retrieve my cell phone from her (I left it in her car), I literally did not even see her at the conference until I went to her panel, from which we jumped straight into the car for the return trip.

Talked to another dear friend at dinner one night, as part of a party of six, and we had our heads together so much that when the waitress brought us all our separate checks, ours were combined, as if we were a couple.

Talked with a couple other great friends at the dance, as the conference was wrapping up, and I realized that some of these people are among my very best and closest friends, though I may see them only once a year or sometimes less. And there we all were, trying to cram in a year's worth of friendship and fellowship into one long weekend. No wonder I slept too little and drank too much. That's what a conference is for.

Let's hope we all get to do it all again next year.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My mountain mamas

In case you didn't know it, West Virginia is the home of Mother's Day.  (So you can direct any complaints to Anna Jarvis, Grafton, WV 26354...or better yet, to the Hallmark corporation.)

On this Mother's Day, however, I want to pay tribute to a couple of other West Virginia mothers:  my grandmother, Wilma Maude (Crow) Toothman, and my mother, Joyce Alley (Toothman) Hathaway.   OK, so they're both natives of southwest Pennsylvania--but both spent big chunks of their lives in West Virginia.

Here's a picture of me with the two of them a few months after I was born--the date on the photo is November 1965:

These are the two smartest women I've ever known.

My grandmother met my grandfather on the lawn in front of Woodburn Hall here at West Virginia University where both were doing graduate work, and the two of them embarked on a life together that was shaped by education:  they lived in Ohio while my grandfather earned his PhD at the University of Cincinnati; in southwestern West Virginia while he taught at Morris Harvey College; and eventually settled in Athens, WV, where he taught at Concord College.

My grandmother, meanwhile, finished up her master's in education at Columbia University and worked as a teacher in the coalfield town of Matoaka, west of Athens.  Decades later, her former students would still ask after "Miz Toothman."  She was a born teacher.

My mom and dad also met as graduate students at WVU, and then moved to Columbus when my dad took a job with the Franklin County schools.  My mom subbed around in the Columbus City Schools until she got a job teaching at Capital University.  After several years at Cap, she went back to school at Ohio State, earning her PhD in English about the time I started high school.

How she did all of that while raising four children and teaching four classes a semester I'll never understand.  I remember with great pride my Dad photographing her in the backyard after the ceremony, wearing her full academic regalia.

When I earned my PhD in 1998, she passed her gown down to me.  It is the best heirloom I can think of.

So today, I want to thank my mom for putting up with my shenanigans...

...and always being there for me to lean on.

Me, mom, and my big sister Pam (who really is a WV native), circa 1970.

This winter, I often tied a dishtowel around my neck before breakfast so I wouldn't spill anything on my nice clothes, just as my mom tied a dishtowel around my neck whenever I came home for lunch in elementary school.

And recently, while balancing my checkbook, I thought about how uncomplainingly my parents bought me Nancy Drew books and paid for piano lessons, voice lessons, acting lessons, tennis lessons, and who-knows-what-other stuff I wanted to do.  I was spoiled rotten.  It's a shame all kids can't be spoiled in the same ways.  What if every kid could pursue whatever opportunities or passions cropped up for them, without boundaries?  I was profoundly lucky.  And I am profoundly grateful.

So thanks, Mom, for being brilliant, and beautiful...

...and strong.

You're my inspiration.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Teacher Appreciation Day 2011

Colson Hall, home of the WVU English Department
True confession:  when I first started working with English-education majors years ago,  I openly scoffed at those who said they wanted to be teachers because they just loved kids so much! 

(Although not as much as I scoffed at those who said they wanted to be teachers so they could be home when their kids got back from school, or because they wanted to have their summers off.  Dream on, folks!)

This semester I've heard a lot of buzz about "teacher dispositions" in meetings at the college of education.  That's a fancy, euphemistic way of describing whether a student in the teacher-ed program has the personality, perseverance, sensitivity, tolerance, and sheer nerve that it takes to survive and thrive in the classroom. 

A few days after my first-grade teacher died in March, I ran into a friend from the college of ed, and we talked about how some people are just born to teach.  Even if they didn't have the official title "teacher," that's what they'd be doing in whatever setting they found themselves in.  Malayna and I agreed that in many ways, the idea of "training" teachers seems absurd.

Sure, anyone wanting to teach needs as much content knowledge in their discipline as they can get, and also needs to love learning generally in order to convey that enthusiasm to others and to keep up-to-date in their field.  In terms of practice, though, while there may be specific tools and skills to be learned and refined, the idea of "training" teachers renders what is at its best an art into something numbingly mechanical.

And my own reaction to the passing of Molly Davis made me reconsider whether "love" really is all you need to be a good teacher.

While I recall some of the knowledge I acquired in her classroom, what I remember most is how she made me and all her other students feel:  Noticed.  Cherished. Nurtured.  And yes, loved.  As I told several folks, after hearing of her death, I felt like I'd lost another of those very few adults who loved you unconditionally as a child.  Without that deep feeling of acceptance, would I have learned as much?  Of course not.  And for sure, having an adult who was passionate and excited about what she was teaching, and who never doubted that we'd be just as excited about it, was the best incentive for learning imaginable.

Now, I'm still enough of a realist (or a snob, depending on your perspective) to know that love ain't all that teachers need to succeed.  Teachers still need "training," but there is, undoubtedly, an intangible, essential quality that the best ones bring to the job.

So maybe what we need is a different, more specific term than "love."

Jane calls it "school love."

For lack of a better term, I might call it faith.  I really think that to be a successful teacher, you have to have a core belief that what you do matters, that all students can learn, and that education is the key to enlightenment and opportunity.  Which is not to say that teachers won't have crises of that faith.  And certainly, there will be many experiences, and students, and administrators (especially administrators!) that will regularly challenge that faith. 

In the weeks after Molly's death, I heard a couple of songs that seemed apt, not just for her, but for all the other hardworking teachers out there. This one by Earth, Wind and Fire especially caught my ear with its opening lyrics:
Through devotion, blessed are the children
Praise the teachers that bring true love to many.
Your devotion opens all life's treasures
and deliverance from the fruits of evil.
So on this Teacher Appreciation Day, let's praise our devoted teachers, and help them keep the faith.

(Oh, and if you're in Ohio, you might consider signing the petition against Senate Bill 5 being circulated by the group We Are Ohio.)