Fire Starter

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A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.  ~Author Unknown

The tardy bell buzzed as if somewhere in the educational firmament a student contestant had incorrectly answered a $ 100 question.   It was the autumn of my junior year of high school and according to my older brother, the elective class – Creative Writing, would deliver an easy A for students who could string together a few coherent sentences and devour five novels of their own choosing over the course of the semester. He simply referred to it as “Creative Cake”.

The distorted grading curve of this class was not a well-kept secret and the faculty mistakenly perceived its popularity to be a function of its ancient educator, Mrs R.  I surveyed the crowded class – an entire back row was filled with football players – joking and shifting awkwardly in desks that could barely withstand their weight.  Unlike other classes that tended to filter students into a hierarchy of ability – electives did not seem to distinguish between those who were serious about English and those who spoke and wrote it as a second language.

Our teacher, Mrs. R, was missing in action.  She was well past her educational buy/sell date and was playing out her final years teaching a few elective courses.  She was a slow-moving creature whose sentimental detours and sepia fascination with the past, all but ensured that we would could pass notes and do homework while she waxed poetically about the Hemmingway or Melville.

Our classroom door opened and a plain young woman with hornrimmed glasses replete with thick celluloid frames moved to the closet.  Removing her overcoat (it was 90 degrees outside), she advanced quickly to the board and proceeded to decisively inscribe her name in chalk: Miss S – Creative Writing. A great panic swept the room as we realized that our sloth-like octogenarian with the benevolent grading curve had been relieved of duty by someone who appeared to be a refugee from the TV show, “Leave It To Beaver.”

She turned and stared at the befuddled knot of muscles, hair, dolphin shorts and surfer tee shirts.  “Je sais, mais une liberté et c’est la liberté de l’esprit.” We hesitated, hoping that she was the new French teacher lost and asking for directions.

She smiled and translated  “I know but one freedom, and that is the freedom of the mind. Ladies and gentleman that was written by Antoine de Saint-Expury, the author of The Little Prince.”

Having established her utter and complete intellectual prowess, this Bodleian Library refugee gathered up our mongrel band of misfits — verbally challenged and uninspired teens and marched us through a millennium of creative writers who had succeeded in transforming their pens into instruments of social and political change.

Miss S would scold us in French and quote the great writers like an evangelist might conjure scripture.  I once cut class and attempted to lie my way into avoiding detention.  She stared at me expressionless – enjoying my grand fabrication.  “ Facts and truth really do not have much to do with each other, do they Michael.  Wasn’t that William Faulkner brilliant?  Why he could have been your older brother the way he seems to understand how your devious mind works.”  She was particularly fond of Faulkner -a writer I found tedious.  She seemed to know this and would barrage me with his verse.  Others might recieve lessons from Steinbeck or Kerouac.  Why belittle me with this pedantic Southern bore?

She was blunt, unadorned and as plain as a museum curator. She chose long conservative dresses and a signature rain- coat irrespective of the temperature.  It was as if a seam in time had opened from the 1950s where she had been dispatched to ignite creativity in a flagging generation that could no longer see the rich garden of verse that lay before them like an endless fertile plain. She opened our eyes to writers who had moved before us like great shadows across the American landscape.

“ Oh, men do change.” she once confided to the female members of the class, “and change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass. John Steinbeck knew men…He understood that men evolve.”  The girls would sigh and then give us each a dirty look seeing us for what we were – a less developed species that could only transform with time and rigorous cultivation.

It was during that autumn of 1977 that my passion for English Literature was ignited like a grass fire. Over the course of the semester, we became poets, writers of mystical Haiku, authors of our own epitaphs and O’Henry novelists attempting to chronicle our sacred and profane tales of suburban life. She was our captain and like a Dead Poets Society, we were bound in leather and verse.

Each night, I would watch Miss S climb into her ’68 Ford Galaxy, the kind of vehicle that is never purchased but handed down until the day it simply dies.  She would disappear presumably into a spinster’s life of flickering televisions, 60 watt bulbs, poorly written papers and pop quizzes.  Our curiosity about our leader was never satisfied.  She was a shadow that one would easily pass by without understanding the riches that hid beneath its simple veneer.  She had no partner choosing to live with her adult brother and her parents.  She deflected all attempts to color in the bland lines of her own life.  It was as if we were her reason to exist.

A year later, I would win an award for English at our senior honors assembly.  I saw her later and she explained her preoccupation with Faulkner.  ” I will not use Faulkner on just anyone, Michael. You are intelligent enough to understand what he is trying to say.” The fire was now a conflagration that carried into college and a richer journey into the litturgy of man.  I would occasionally stop by the high school and she would be there – chirping in French and leavening an otherwise boring 5th period class with humor and perspective. 

It would be years later that my mother would call me across 500 miles to share tragic news. “Hon, there was a double homicide/suicide in an adjacent town.  Apparently, it was Miss S’ brother – he killed his parents and then homself.  I guess all these years she had been caring for her elderly parents and her brother who suffered from severe schizophrenia.  She found them all – – dead.  I am so, so sorry.  I know you were close to her.”

I remember sitting in that numb, angry, out of body purgatory where it is impossible to wrap your mind around senseless tragedy.  I could not understand a cosmos where dark deeds were allowed to reach in and savage such an innocent light.

She never did return to our school and vanished like so many of life’s refugees of tragedy.  I’d like to think she found a small town, nestled in a safe, cradled valley filled with kind neighbors who delivered food in times of trouble and who’d check in on you every so often just to be certain that everything is fine.  I imagine her starting another fire in the mind of some awkward teen, spoon-feeding him morsels of Faulkner and Hemmingway.

I stare out my window.  I am now gray and have seen the harder edges of life.  I cannot recall who won the 1977 Superbowl, World Series, NBA Finals or Daytona 500.  I cannot recall who held key public offices or even who appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  But I can remember that teacher.  I see her face every day and I can hear her lilting voice as she perfumes the room with perfect French. I imagine every aspect of her intelligent and sympathetic countenance.  I hear her chastise me, “ Michael!” in exaggerated disappointment as I fail to answer a question.  And then I wait – – for a quote – a golden nugget harvested from the deep river of Harper Lee, or the gentle streams of William Shakespeare.

I like to think she is out there – – with that silly raincoat and those horn-rimmed, docent glasses.  Somewhere she is smiling at a student and quoting De Exupery. 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Hard Times

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Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.