Saturday, June 25, 2011

Remembering Life's Fabulous Realities

The person I was my first two years in high school was SO different than the person I was the last two. Part of this had to do with the fact that halfway thru high school my parents dragged me halfway across the country to Michigan. Different school: different people, different classes, different culture. But I think another big part of it had to do with becoming comfortable with standing out. As has been discussed here before, so much of my middle school and high school years were spent being teased by everyone. As a result I developed a finely honed desire not to stick out. To be purely average. I didn't want to attract attention because I had trained myself mentally to recognize any attention as negative (which had a strong grounding in reality!) Even though I had been recognized/isolated as "gifted" in elementary school by my teachers, I stopped trying to live up to that label for awhile in middle school and early high school. Even though I was in all honors classes, I was perfectly fine to make Bs and coast my way through without making too many waves. Suddenly, moving to Michigan was like - whoa, blank slate. I really started to love school, and realize how much I had been missing by not giving it my all. The relationships I formed with teachers, the degree to which I found my inner voice, my initiative and spirit - these things all were strengthened by giving myself a chance to really be who I was. I am so grateful to have had that opportunity and experience, though before it happened I was certainly dreading it! As most kids forced to move in the middle of high school would be.

Anyway, not the point for today. I wanted to share something with you. In case you don't know me that well, or didn't know this particular fact about me - I save everything. I have pretty much every piece of homework, every paper, every notebook from every class I've ever taken. I have every single debate flow from college. I have all the birthday cards my parents ever gave me, every photograph and negative I've ever taken. Memories, history - these things are SUPER important to me, and always have been. As a kid, I spent HOURS poring through my parents photo albums, many from before I was born. Sitting in the corner of my family room in Parsippany, my ears covered by the giant headphones belonging to our receiver, my parents Miles Davis or George Winston or some borrowed CD of my siblings (phil collins, depeche mode, smashing pumpkins, beastie boys are some of those that stick out in my mind), my head full of music and my eyes scanning the pages of photographs. I could tell you better than they could today about the captions my dad hand wrote below all their pictures.

So recently, I felt a yen to look back at some of my old high school papers. Whenever you get to know someone new, or someone you know even better, you often talk of the past. And for me, that tends to wake inner voices of nostalgia and reminiscence. The other day I was telling a friend about my junior year English teacher, Mr. Staniszewski, or Mr. Stan for short. Other nicknames included NDAS and 'magnanimous individual.' Mr. Stan was one of those teachers who stuck with you forever. He had funny ways of saying everything, his walls were covered in old tennis racquets and vocabulary words, his clock was covered in numbers, and he used to start almost every class with a salutation to the sun. In his class we read Annie Dillard and William Least Heat Moon, we watched "Harold and Maude", we talked about language and words, Thoreau, nature, and whatever we wanted to. He used to joke that he had dementia and might not ever remember our names, but I think this was secretly a ruse to be able to call us whatever he wanted in order to amuse himself. He used to say his wife made him go to marriage counseling for not being able to remember her name. He taught me to analyze, to think, more than any teacher before or after him. He was a creative, intelligent, inspirational and all around awesome teacher.

One of my favorite things from Mr. Stan's class was the "fabulous reality." The fabulous reality was a kind of paper we used to have to write for him. It could be no longer than a page, no smaller than size 10 font. It was meant to describe, in full, an episode which caught the writer's attention and gave them pause. Something that made the writer sit back and say, "Huh", to cause reflection upon the 'fabulous realities' of life on our little planet. It could be anything from seeing a hundred birds taking flight simultaneously to the passionate kiss between a couple reuniting at the airport. And it could include as little or as much setup as was necessary to set the stage for the moment, the attention grabbing piece of life. I always loved this concept. Not only because it is fun to have such a small amount of space to relate something significant to the reader (being concise always being one of my challenges as a writer), but also, because anything that gives us pause and causes us to appreciate life is a big thumbs up in my book. As Mr. Stan believed and so do I, none of us do this enough.

So after reminiscing about Mr. Stan, I suddenly decided I had to dig out these old papers and read a few. Which was a very pleasant way to spend two hours. Then I decided I ought to come on here, write about him, and maybe share one with you. So here ya go, an effort that received an 'A' called "The One Millionth Shopper".

Six girls huddled around the table, arms crossed, fingers stuffed in armpits to keep warm. The door swung open again, hitting them with a cold gust. "Would you like to make a contribution?" a hopeful voice asked. "No thanks," was the unenthusiastic reply. A cup sat on the table. A couple of dollar bills were sticking out of it, some crisp and new, some old and crumpled. The cup was paper, with a flower border. The kind you often find in people's bathrooms for taking a quick sip of water. It looked homey surrounded by plates of brownies, trays of cupcakes, and piles of chocolate chip cookies. "BBG Bake Sales Today," the sign read. It hung in front of the table and swung up every time that breeze of freeze came through the door with a prospective customer.

The girls had been there all day, calling, coaxing, and convincing. Their goal was to reach 400 dollars by four o'clock. There hadn't been too many customers when the sale started around ten. But now it was three-thirty in the afternoon, and with three hundred and sixty making an uncomfortable lump in the back of one girl's pocket, their goal was in sight. Another customer entered the store. The small blonde girl, who had asked, didn't manage to finish the word "contribution" before the cold woman had hurried by. The girl hadn't been loud enough anyway. She looked as though she never ate, and consequently spoke in a voice which could easily be confused with a balloon hissing out the last of its air. Her head hung down, like that of a dead flower, and she apologized in her whispery voice for not being faster. The other five comforter her, as they could only have been expected to do, considering that teenage girl tendency to form groups of confidence. "We'll get the next one," a heavyset brunette said decidedly. The blonde gave a slight smile in return.

For the next twenty-five minutes people came rushing in and out of the store. Some hurried by, some stopped and considered, and others came over with inquisitive looks, wanting to know what they were contributing to. The girls had smiled, and given their set speech. Most people, when hearing it was for charity, stopped and gave a dollar or two, so the girls learned that if they started talking when people walked in, they could usually express their charitable intent before the indifferent ones got by. And so it had come down to this: The store's clock, hard to read, because of a newly cleaned gleaming glare, read 3:58, and the girls had in their possession three hundred and ninety-two dollars. The automatic supermarket doors swung open again and a mid-twenties couple could be seen coming through. "I call this one," the evident leader of the pack whispered to her girls.

"Hi would you like to make a contribution?" she asked. "We are working to raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation, which helps ill children all over the world get their wishes granted," she continued, not bothering to take a breath and looking the semi-assaulted pair straight in the eye. Still not waiting for an answer, she added, "We had set a goal of 400 dollars for the day, and we have 392 and two minutes to go." When she had finally finished, there was a small pause. It seemed to the six girls, standing unbreathing, apprehensive, around the table, that the pause lasted for minutes. The man reached into his back pocket, slow like molasses, and pulled out a wallet. Then, without another apparent thought, he pulled out a ten-dollar bill, and said, "Well how much do you want to give us for ten dollars?" The collective squeal of six teenage girls was comparable to that of a countryside pigsty. Choruses of "Thank you so much!" and "Oh my gosh, we did it!" could no doubt be heard throughout the entire store. The husband chuckled, picked up a cupcake, and said to his wife, "I feel like one of those one-millionth shoppers, don't you?" as the two turned and walked away from the group of girls still hugging, laughing, and clapping, with the pure happiness of success.

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