Friday, November 23, 2007

Cultural Literacy

I taught special education in public and private U.S. schools for fifteen years and during that time probably gave fifteen hundred tests. A phrase I came across, again and again, was “cultural literacy.” There were, and are, facts, figures, fantasies, questioned on basic skills tests, i.e.; I.Q. tests, PSATs SATs, and even GREs exams for children and young adults. What do we mean by “the cradle of civilization,” Victorian society, and who were James Joyce, Horatio Alger, Daffy Duck, and Marie Curie? Who was Al Capone? These are the sorts of things we wish a college graduate to know, it seems. in addition to quantum physics or fluency in Arabic.

When I was a seventh grader in a parochial elementary school in suburban New Jersey, I took one of these tests, and my reading score was the same as a sophomore in college. I did not skip any grades. I had not been brought up traveling the world, and I certainly was no genius. But I grew up in an atmosphere of conversation about current events, fiction and non-fiction reading, and parental regard and encouragement. Wherever our interests lead us, within reasonable parameters, my mom and dad urged us (three brothers and myself) to journey.

Life magazine’s arrival by mail every week was an important happening in our household, possibly eclipsed by the monthly appearance of National Geographic. Ed Sullivan was “must see T.V.” and I’ll never forget my father’s laughter over Sid Ceasar and his Show of Shows. We had Rod Serling and we had the yearly showing of The Wizard of Oz and Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. There were also nights devoted to reading, homework, and or discussion, and everyone in the family, including my mother and father, were involved in these activities.

I’ve already written in The Linnet about my Nonnie, and her fabulous treasure trove of fairytales, nursery rhymes and songs, but there were also uncles, (Jerry was a soft-shoe dancer), aunts, cousins, my other grandparents, and my brothers, their friends, and of course my friends who shared what they knew in a mysterious carousel of knowledge. There was my ballet teacher. My father painted in oils. My mother took me to plays. Everyone, everyone read. And, yes, everyone talked about what they read.

Have I mentioned school yet? Not very much, have I? Hmmmm. Could it be cultural literacy, even then, had little to do with school and everything to do with family? The first volume of The Great English Poets didn’t sit among the picture books on my second grade classroom bookshelf. It sat in our living room. In a bookcase right next to the television.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Underclass Keeps it All Up

i'm not a sociologist, nor an anthropologist, nor a psychologist. I'm not an ologist of any kind. Just so you know.

What I am is fed up with sad. There is entirely too much sad and there are way too many addicts. Sadly. I remember dancing to records about going to San Francisco. Believing I would get out of the burbs one day and that I would at that point be able to join the singers, painters, lovers who were busy making the world hum. When I did get to Berkely, in the mid-seventies, I saw yuppies and drug addicts. Drank cappuchino and stepped around the meth freaks as they ranted. Where did all those drugs come from, anyway?

There were the strong, sexy sixties, with remarkably unified voices protesting racism, military industrial war-mongering, poverty, then the war ended in Vietnam, Watergate happened, and a whole bunch of drugs came into the country and blasted the living brains out of some brilliant heads.

The same people are poor. The same dealers rule the streets. The same wars are fought for profit and adventure, and the people who populate the underclass are stil stoned, or trying to get stoned, or in prison or hospitals because they got stoned or got caught (!) doing something stupid. I put that cute little parenthetical exclamation point there because that seems so silly to me. The people committing crimes are not very well hidden. How do they decide which ones to catch, say, on Thursday mornings?

I'm fed up with sad. One of my family members married a woman who is addicted to crack. She was clean when they met, but crack is very good at keeping the people down. The drug doesn't leave anybody who has had a fling with it alone for long, apparently. She will be going to jail soon. She should already be there, but her current legal status is as mysterious as is the fact that crack is there for her, right where she expects it to be, right where everyone in this city knows it is, any time she wants it. Why is that, I wonder? It's a strange reality to get a fix on, isn't it? The underclass has, and knows, it's place, and the other classes are just glad it all keeps working out.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


About fifteen years ago, I started having strange sensations in my arms and legs, double vision, sundry weirdnesses. So, I went through a gazillion tests, mostly aimed at ruling out Multiple Sclerosis, ended up seeing a rheumotologist at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D. C. and he had no trouble at all diagnosing me with fibromyalgia. Well, that seemed rather a vague thing to me, and I was a busy teacher, and fed up with going to doctors for tests that were inconclusive, so I decided, "Oh, well!" and put the whole business in one of the junk drawers in my mind.

Then in 2000, I was diagnosed with heart disease, had open heart surgery and an endarectomy (spelled more or less correctly) and that became a prime time health concern. I eventually went on disability, in fact, because the root problem (tiny arteries) could not be surgically treated.

This past summer, my stomach made her debut as a leading player in health dramas. Again many tests, a cancer scare, and finally, I end up with a rheumotologist again! (Who happened to be black and I very nearly said, pleased and surprised, "Oh, wow, a black doctor in Panama City, Florida!") And lo, and behold, he diagnosed me, without hesitation, ordering blood tests, or any tests for that matter, with fibromyalgia and he said that I'd probably had it for a long time. Duh.

I said, "So it's a real thing?"
"It's real, he answered."
"You know, I've heard that before, but I honestly forgot."

He handed me a pamphlet, and it was all about me. I have heart disease, and I have fibromyalgia. That's it. I'm done. I know what is wrong, I can explain weird things about my body to myself or to anyone else who needs to know, and I can carry on. What a thing!