Monthly Archives: August 2014

Moment of Learning

Local schools are back in session, and for a moment I want to enter the realm of contemplating our collective navels about the actual process of learning.
I hope we can all agree that regurgitating facts and figures on a standardized test is not proof of true learning. So what exactly is learning?
The best illustration of the moment of learning is the climactic scene in The Miracle Worker. This is, of course the story of Helen Keller. She was a child who lost her hearing and sight very early in life. By the time she became prepubescent Helen was totally out of control. Her wealthy Southern parents were at their wits end about how to handle her.
Enter Annie Sullivan who was almost blind herself. Annie had a plan: communication through hand signals. However, this little girl and this Irish woman have some pretty fantastic battle royales. Who’s going to win? The stubborn little Southern girl who doesn’t want to learn anything or the strong-willed Irish woman who’s determined to pound learning into head.
In the big scene at the end Annie drags Helen out to the water pump to force her to fill a pitcher which she had just knocked off the dining room table. She pumps the water, sticks Helen’s hands into the flow and repeats the finger movement to water.
Suddenly it dawns on Helen that the wet stuff equals wa-wa which was one of the only words she learned before going deaf which equals the finger movements. Once she had “the” learning moment, she picked up more words quickly, urgently wanting to know the signs for everything.
My wife said she witnessed a high school science teacher having a similar epiphany while he drew the life cycle of the fern on the chalkboard. Actually, he was a football coach assigned to teach science so he memorized what he was supposed to say and what to draw on the board while his mind was already on scrimmage practice after school.
On that particular day, he stopped in mid-sketch, took a step back and stared at the illustration before him. The students watched as his stooped shoulders straightened as though endowed with a miracle elixir. He erased what he had drawn so many times before and replaced it with a new version, created by his newly acquired learning of what the life cycle of the fern truly meant.
My wife went from bored incomprehension to thrilling understanding because the teacher finally understood what he was teaching. Anyone who wants to learn about the life cycle of the fern, ask my wife. She knows.
On the other hand, my wife never had the moment of learning with the mysteries of the playing the piano. After 12 years of lessons she was in the dark. She knew what the notes on the page meant. She knew how to put her fingers on the keys. But the concept of how it all blended together to create the ethereal quality of music eluded her. At her church, everyone loved the way she play “Onward Christian Soldiers”. She could bang that march tune out to beat the band, but don’t ask her to attempt “Clair Du Lune”.
I can honestly say that I was in my fifties before I finally found my writing style. It’s not like I didn’t know grammar and syntax. I just didn’t know how to make the words sing. Better late than never.
When were your best “aha” moments? They can come at any age so keep on the lookout. And I hope all the children sitting through classes this year have that experience of widening their eyes and letting their mouths go agape. “So that’s what the teacher is talking about!”
Originally published in the Tampa Bay Times Hernando Section.

Ben’s Grandpa

(Author’s note: August is David Crockett’s birth month. I’m a direct descendent, and I’ve spent most of my adult trying to find the real Davy instead of the Hollywood Davy that most of us know. This story is complete fiction, but I think it’s closer to the truth than most biographies.)
Ben loved his grandpa very much. His grandpa took him hunting, told him stories and tickled him to make him laugh. Everybody loved Ben’s grandpa. He was Davy Crockett. Everybody knew who he was. Everybody knew he was the best hunter anywhere. His grandpa was a brave man who fought in the Indian wars. Everybody wanted his grandpa Davy to be a leader.
One day he went to his grandpa’s house and he was could tell something was wrong. There was his grandma patting Grandpa Davy on the back. Ben’s uncle and two aunts looked very sad. Ben stopped in the doorway and was very still.
“Is something wrong?” Ben asked.
“Nothing is wrong at all,” his grandma said. “Isn’t that right, grandpa. Nothing at all.”
Ben’s uncle Robert walked to him. Robert was a big boy who was nineteen years old. Ben liked Robert because he had always been nice to him. He took Ben hunting and played with him when Grandpa Davy had to go away to a big town called Washington.
Robert kneeled in front of Ben.
“You know how it always made you sad when Grandpa went away because he was one of our leaders? Well, he doesn’t have to go away anymore. The people decided they didn’t want him to be one of their leaders anymore.”
Ben wanted to be happy because Grandpa Davy was going to be home and take him hunting but he could tell Grandpa wasn’t happy at all. He could see tears in his grandpa’s eyes.
Tiptoeing over to the chair where his grandpa sat, Ben patted him on the back.
“I’m sorry, Grandpa.”
Davy looked up and smiled at Ben.
“You know I kilt me a ba’r when I was about your age.”
“I believe you, Grandpa.” Ben put his arms around his grandpa as he started crying again.
Ben laid his head on his grandpa’s shoulder. He had never seen him act like this before. Grandpa Davy had always been happy and had always been right. Grandpa Davy never did anything wrong, and nothing bad had ever happened to him. A little tear escaped from Ben’s eyes.
“One of these days you’ll teach me how to kill a bear too.”
Ben decided that maybe Grandpa Davy did not really know everything or could do everything or make everything all right. Grandpa was just like everybody else, even just like him. That made Ben love him even more.

People Watching

One of our favorite things to do when we eat out is to watch the people around us and make up what’s going on in their lives.
You see a young couple who are smiling nervously and have extremely good table manners, and you know they must be on a first date. It’s not hard to pick out family groups or business associates grabbing a bite to eat. This is a lot of fun and is cheaper than going to the movies, except when you run across a family argument.
On our anniversary trip to Saint Augustine we ate one evening at a nice Mexican food restaurant in a second-floor room with spectacular views of Matanzas Bay. We could have taken a table on the balcony with even better outlooks, but it was the middle of summer and nothing comes between us and our air conditioning. We had settled into our booth and ordered our meals. I got the fajita nachos which didn’t include processed cheese sauce but used actual cheese grated on top. While we waited for the plates to come out we looked around for some people to watch.
Right next to us were two tables put together to accommodate a large family—two children, a mother and father and two older people, evidently grandparents. The older man had silky white wavy hair and had the face of a saint. All he needed were a black suit, stiff white collar and an Irish brogue and he could have been a priest. The older woman stood and gave him a big hug, so the priest hypothesis went out the window. They weren’t acting like he was practicing vows of chastity.
She then went out to the balcony and talked to another man, not quite as old as the one who got the hug but still in the grandfather age range. He had moved his chair so his back was to the dining room and he faced straight out to the bay. He smiled broadly when the old lady spoke. Now this wasn’t a “I’m glad to see you” smile but a “I’m mad as hell but I’m not admitting it to you” grin.
In a few minutes the mother, father and two kids went out to talk to the man on the balcony, who—by the way—was slurping down a tall glass of white wine. When I looked back inside at the erstwhile priest, he had his hand to his pale wrinkled cheek and I swore I saw tears in his eyes.
The scenario was evident. The family was having dinner with three of the grandparents, and one of the guys said something that started a spat which ended with Smiley deciding to eat alone on the balcony. I guessed it was Smiley’s wife who was missing. Either she was dead or she divorced him because he had a tendency to blow up and leave the room. I couldn’t imagine Holy Guy ever saying anything intentional to hurt anyone so I was blaming Smiley.
In a few minutes the family returned—without Smiley—and their food arrived. Holy Guy was too upset to eat so he made his way out to the balcony, sat down and talked to the other grandparent who still wore that hard-as-nails grin on his face. After a few minutes they shook hands, but Smiley didn’t move. At least when he got back to the table Holy Guy was able to eat some of his meal.
By this time our meal had arrived and my wife thoroughly enjoyed whatever it was that she ordered. I don’t remember what it was, but she gave me a spoonful and it indeed was tasty. I, on the other hand, was put off of my fajita nacho magnifico because of the family drama I had just imagined by watching a bunch of complete strangers. Luckily I had my extra-large margarita, and by the time I had it half drunk, my spirits returned. I was able to finish off my fajita nachos which were magnifico.
The family finished and left. Smiley still nursed his wine and ate his meal. I could not tell if he enjoyed it or not because he had his back to me. I can only assume he came in a separate car or else he was in trouble because his ride had left the station.
I wondered aloud to my wife if spying on private lives was an ethical pastime. Perhaps beyond invading the world of innocent people, this hobby wasn’t good for my own digestion.
“Don’t worry about it,” she replied. “Here. Finish my margarita. It’ll make you feel better.”
I did polish it off, and by golly she was right. The next day I was at it again during lunch at Dairy Queen. I’m too old to try to become a better person anyway

Beauty or Beast

Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
People can be beautiful until they open their mouths or start doing stuff. Take the red-headed daughter of the new football coach at my high school. She had a beautiful voice to go with killer good looks. Then I realized that while she had a gorgeous smile plastered on her face nobody was home in her eyes; or, if she were home, she was too busy looking in the mirror to hear someone knocking at the door. I detected a shrill in her voice which was notched abnormally high. By the end of the year she looked like an overdone crone who sang like Ethel Merman.
In the desperate years—you know, after graduation and before you get married—I dated a girl who had been Miss Gate City. Gate City, Virginia, was a suburb of Kingsport, Tennessee. We were sitting in Shoney’s Big Boy having a bite to eat when the Tennessee governor’s race came up in the conversation. Miss Gate City, who couldn’t vote in the election because she lived in Virginia and not Tennessee, said she was for the Republican. Just that moment Winfield Dunn and his entourage walked in.
“Well, there’s your candidate,” I said to her.
“What for?” she asked.
“Governor. That’s Winfield Dunn.”
“Oh. Is that what he looks like?”
The next beautiful girl I dated invited me to her apartment. I noticed a copy of Love Story on the table.
“So what did you think of the book?”
“I got through the first couple of chapters then it fell open to the last page and I saw that the girl dies and that ruined it for me.”
The opening line of the novel is, “What do you say about a girl who dies at age 25? She loved Beethoven, the Beatles and me.”
Of course the girl dies at the end of the book. My date went from bewitching brunette to Dumbo in ten seconds.
Not to leave guys out, let me mention Orlando Bloom, the prettiest man in the movies. When he played an elf in the Lord of the Rings he made Cate Blanchette look like a dog. One day he was walking down a Manhattan street, and my daughter nudged him as she was bustling to get to work on time. He swirled and glared at her imperiously.
“Don’t you know who I am?”
Even though she was raised by a nice polite Southern couple in Florida, my daughter had adapted to the manners of New York very quickly. Her salty reply was, in essence, I don’t care who you are.
“I’m Orlando Bloom!”
Again my daughter replied in the New York vernacular that she still didn’t care. To which he launched into his own brand of invective that went something like, “What kind of subhuman are you that you don’t care that I’m Orlando Bloom?”
As I said, beauty is relative. You can have all the best physical attributes in the world, but if you’re stupid or vain, you look like the relative of a dog.