DEATH IN THE FACULTY ROOM

Ronald Driggs has taught elementary school music in the Fleming Elementary School for the past twenty years. Fleming is part of a medium sized suburban community outside of Philadelphia. Atherhold, the larger school district, has been around since before the Revolutionary War and is a bastion of WASP families against the rising tide of upper middle class and blue collar invaders from the city.
Driggs has carved out a niche for himself in both the school and community. He has now attained the status of wise old man and elder statesman within the elementary faculty. He has his own chair in the faculty room and no faculty meeting begins before he arrives, even if he is ten minutes late. He has lived through five principals in those years and is happy to tell you that he has trained each and every one of them to his way of thinking.
I arrived on the scene in 1963 after spending two years teaching in a very poor neighborhood in New York City. There have always been calls for men to teach in elementary schools across the country. I had done my student teaching in a moderately wealthy suburban New York elementary school and thought that I could handle most anything that could be thrown at me.
After two years in a mostly impossible situation, I got married and moved with my wife to suburban Philadelphia. By the time that I had arrived, the faculty had really not had a new person for about ten years. Most of them kind of looked at me strangely. Who was this person from New York? Was he some kind of person with new ideas, who might disturb the status quo? He could also be a spy for the administration. I was therefore looked at in a very different way than my colleagues.
For the first year, I was told by Mr. Driggs, that I was not welcome in the faculty room. When I asked why, I was told that it was a tradition for first year teachers to gather in either the men’s room, ladies room or eat in their own classroom. I was particularly horrified. I had come from a collegial school, where we all huddled together to protect ourselves from the kids. Here were people that had not had a new person in their building for ten years and had somehow established a tradition within those ten years.
I did not hang around with any of the staff. My wife was teaching, in what was then a rural school district. She had enough trouble for both of us. She was in a situation where she had replaced an old and respected teacher in 3rd grade. Her co-worker was not enamored of her and did everything to make her life miserable; including making sure that she got all of the children with behavioral problems.
So, our married life began with us earning enough money to get along, but kind of unhappy with our work situations. I was determined to change my status in my school by being kind to every stare, grimace and wise crack. After a few months, I began to see a thaw in some of the faculty members. They sometimes said hello to me when they passed me by individually. If they were in groups, they averted their eyes.
Charles Ryerson was our principal. He was the quintessential Ichabod Crane looking person. He was about 6ft. 5” tall and walked like he was 5 ft. 2”. He was so bent over that I was certain that he would, one day, just fall over forward. Ryerson was a complete enigma to me at that time. He was not a smiley person. He sometimes looked like he was just uncomfortable with existence.
The cast of characters in Fleming Elementary School was very diverse within the category of WASPdom. Each of the staff members had their own little story to tell. As I found out later, many of them had described themselves falsely. What you don’t want to do in life is to lie and then have to take it all back on a witness stand, having sworn or affirmed to it.
Daily life at Fleming was always interesting. We had kindergarten to sixth grade and that is quite a spread. Almost all of the teachers knew all of the kids and that was an advantage. It was also a great disadvantage. Once you were stamped by a teacher early in your school career, you could not get out from under the stigma. Say Johnny was caught playing with himself in first grade during a reading lesson; He might have a quiet query from his six grade teacher Elder Angstadt whether he is still playing with himself.
In those days, kid’s files were passed on from year to year without too much scrutiny. You could have found many negative remarks about a student by looking at them when you got you new class over the summer. So, reading something about a cute 3rd grade girl, who appeared to be a bright shiny child, about her persistent rectal itch, might just turn you off as a teacher.
Ronald Drags was profligate about writing such remarks in a kid’s “permanent record.” He would sit in his chair in the faculty room and practically salivate while telling us of the things that he wrote. Most of the faculty was turned off by his remarks, but some listened intently, knowing that they might have these students in their classes.
By the second year of teaching I was invited to share the faculty room with everyone else. I had not blown up the building, nor caused any trouble by being a spy for the administration (although later we learned that there was one), nor was I some sort of communist pinko. I was just a regular teacher who did his job reasonably well.
Principal Ryerson did not like me at all. I was not hired by him. I was hired by the Director of Elementary Education and sent to Fleming without his input. I was kind of surprised that he was not involved in hiring. During the year, he seemed to be in my classroom every other day. He would walk around the room, never talking to the kiddoes, but read every single thing posted on the bulletin board or taped to the walls. He said nothing to me at all during those times and I grew to be a bit paranoid.
No one in my college education department had ever taught me what to do when Ichabod Crane would come in and just walk around. I had this feeling that he was looking for something to tag me with and ream me up and down. I didn’t have too long to wait. Along about the second month of my first year, he actually did an official observation. He sat in one of the children’s chairs (that was a sight) and was there for about 45 minutes.
The next day we set up an appointment to go over my observation. I appeared at his office at the appointed time, sat down in a chair and was handed an observation sheet. On it was a review of my lesson with the kids and comments about my lesson. I was anxious to read what he wrote and got to it immediately. I was struck dumb by the first comment,” No professional teacher should ever take the lord’s name in vain.” It was all I could do not to say to Ryerson, “Are you out of your mind?”
Evidently, without thinking, I had said to one of the boys in the class, “God Bobby, aren’t you finished yet?” I could not deny that I had said it. Whether I had taken the Lord’s name in vain, was open to discussion. If that was all that he got out of the lesson, then I was saddened. The rest of his comments were equally silly. “The window blinds were not placed in an even line.” “The children were too loud in the committees that you had set up.” “Many of the children’s work on the bulletin boards were not good examples of what art should be like.” That was the scope of his comments.
Having been observed by pros when I was student teaching, I could not believe the level of observation of my principal. It took me all year and many conversations with my wife to get me off my anger train. I started to think that maybe there was more to me than to Ryerson. He seemed to run a tight ship. The kids did well on tests and they seemed to do well in junior high school and high school. I could not find fault with his way of doing things, other than that he was out of his educational mind.
The first year there was tough besides that, although it was my third year of teaching. I would still come home exhausted each day. Teaching 3rd graders is not real easy. Not only was there a spread of age in my classroom, but a spread of ability. There was no special education yet in public schools, other than for the severely handicapped. So they were all in my room together. I still have the watch that Eileen Ruffington licked on my wrist because she wanted to clean it. It stopped on that time and day and has not worked since. It is a constant reminder of those years in Fleming.
Jim O’Malley was the art teacher, and what an art teacher he was. To say that Jim was effeminate is to underestimate that term. I never really understood his grandiose affect, his large paper flower in his lapel and his almost boisterous manner of communicating with everyone. I always believed that there was something more to Jim O’Malley. He was so good at this job, that the kids would do anything to please him. At the 6th grade dances, he led all the kids in line dancing and taught them all of the steps. He acculturated the kids by taking them to museums, art exhibits and art galleries. He was one of a kind.
Since Jim was obviously not a WASP, I wondered how his hiring had come about. I think maybe it was the school district’s move to do some integration on many levels. – me from New York, and Jim from La La land.
Teaching styles are so at variance with each other. Teaching is truly an art and each teacher finds their own art as they gain some experience. There is no one way to succeed with the kiddies. Some teachers never find their path and grow sullen and sadder as time goes on. These are the teachers that are featured on the evening news, whose somber faces vacuum each bit of joy from the children. They teach for 30 years in the same room and do nothing to advance the love of learning for themselves and their charges. They should leave teaching after their first day.
Because the Atherhold community was very wealthy, it had the resources to have additional staff that other schools did not have. It was unusual in those days to have an elementary guidance counselor. It is a normal thing today. Our guidance counselor was a one man wave of mental illness. Rolf Werthles was a short pudgy man in his early forties. He was sloppy and vulgar and did not know how to treat children, or for that matter adults. It appeared from his manner of interaction, that he had no interest in anyone’s welfare, other than his own.
If he had any friends on the faculty, it was unknown to me. His credentials were pedestrian, except for one thing. His father had been the president of the school board. Even in a place like Atherhold, there was just a hint of nepotism in certain quarters. It took me a while to figure out who was who and whether or not they were related to important people, or to others on the staff.
Once in a while, staff members brought in goodies so that we could gain weight while we worked and blame it on outsiders The favorite among the faculty were jelly donuts from a local shop. Dunkin Donuts had not quite appeared on the scene. Mom and pop donut shops abounded around atherhold for some reason and the temptation to buy some and stuff your mouth was a daily trial.
Rolf Werthles never brought in donuts or any other goodies. However, he did stuff his face quite often when they were placed on a table in the faculty room. The fact that he had no teaching duties allowed him to meander into the faculty room and gorge on any leftovers that he might find. Most faculty were aware of his creature habits and hid their lunches in various places. Rolf was known to scarf down other people’s food if they were not looking.
One day, there was a sign up on the faculty bulletin board that announced a special event. It was signed by Rolf Werthles. The following week, one of our sixth grade classes would be in art and phys. Ed for most of the morning. Their classroom would be inhabited by “women in suits.” I kid you not. No one could understand what was going on.
When the day came, Rolf came in wearing a new suit, spit shined shoes and a close cropped haircut. He carried a box of powdered sugar donuts in his arms and headed right for the empty sixth grade class. At 9:00 women in suits actually did appear and were ushered up to the room. They carried a number of boxes with them as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. One of the custodians got a dolloy out of the janitorial closet and helped them up the stairs.
We were all curious as to what the heck was happening. What was Rolf going to do with those ladies in suits? As we went on throughout the day, the word finally leaked out. These were salespeople and they were presenting their books and such to the principal, administrative staff and guidance counselors within the school district. Rolf had been put in charge of the operation. He was very proud of this accomplishment and was later seen eating a powdered sugar donut in the faculty room. Since the faculty room also housed the ladies and men’s rooms, at a point, Rolf had to empty his bladder. He finished his donut and strolled over to the men’s room. When he came out, he had the imprint of a hand ( in powdered sugar) on his fly. No one told him and he continued on his way back up to the “ladies in suits.”

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GRANDMA FRIEDA

For some reason, I was at lunch at a Chinese restaurant with a colleague, when I thought of the many times that Grandma Frieda took me to a Chinese restaurant on the lower East Side of Manhattan. We went there on the days when I was off from school for some religious holiday. Those were minor holidays for which going to synagogue was only an option. So on Purim and Sukkot, I might have appeared at the Pageant Chines Restaurant around the corner from Delancy Street.
I know that going to eat at the Chinese restaurant might not mean much to many other people, but it meant a great deal to me. You see, Grandma kept a kosher home. Certainly, she knew that this restaurant was not kosher at all. My favorite dish was shrimp with lobster sauce, which is still my favorite. You know that shellfish are not kosher according to the Old Testament. However, I was still able to indulge my taste, while grandma sat there eating her chicken chow mein.
We drank tea, dipped our morsels in the spicy mustard, slurped our egg drop soup, and generally ate like there was no tomorrow. At one of these soirees, I dared to ask grandma the question that had been on my mind forever. “How come we can eat treyf ( non-kosher), when we do not eat that way at home, or at any other time? My grandmother sat up to her 5 ft. 5 inches and told we that kosher was a synonym for clean and that it is a well-known fact that the Chinese are very clean people.
This made my brain dance in my head. If that is so, that means that all of the other places that I might eat, where cleanliness was up to grandma’s standards, might serve me well. The idea of Kashrut got all tangled up in my head. How about all of those nice restaurants in mid-town Manhattan- Tafinetti’s, Shraffts, Horn and Hardarts- were they now possible places to eat? I never did ask grandma, but I did ask my mother, who later took me to those places. I guessed that they were clean too.
Grandma also had cures from anything that ailed you. One of the most devastating concoctions was the mustard plaster. Just lay a paper bag out, having been cut lengthways and pour in a mixture of mustard seed and water. Kind of grind it down so that it gets exceptionally warm to the touch. Then roll the mixture up in the bag and place on the patient’s chest.
After a minute or so, the burning becomes unbearable. One can imagine steam rising from your chest as your skin is being burnt to a crisp. Soon the symptoms of the cold disappear. You are no longer concentrating on them, but are instead trying to call the firemen on the phone to put out this fire on your chest.
I was never really sure how the mustard plaster worked, but somehow, I felt a sense of relief when it was removed by grandma. The symptoms of my cold receded into the back of my mind, as I rubbed Noxzema onto my raw skin.
Another grandma remedy was the Guggle Muggle. Did JK Rowling get her name for people from the Muggle? When you complained of any throat ailment (and you didn’t do it too often), you would be plied with this concoction. It was so odious, that you had to be forced to drink it with you head laid back and your nose being pinched. If you can imagine such a sight, you would know how I felt scarfing it down.
Guggle Muggles are an old Jewish comfort drink made of milk,honey, brandy, and some nutmeg. However, my grandma added her own touches- milk, honey, beer, and a yolk of an egg. This served to sooth your throat and encourages you never to tell grandma about your ailment ever again.
Grandma was possibly the worst cook I have ever met. I was brought up on things that I have never encountered again in my life. Because my mom learned from Grandma, I was very happy to eat the food in the Army. I thought that I had died and gone to heaven.
Grandma’s specialty was Spool Chicken. You cut up a chicken and place it in a pressure cooker and cook it for about seven hours. When it is done, it falls off the bones in a string fashion. You can then string it out and place it on an empty sewing thread spool and eat it that way. There is no worry about it tasting bad because it had no taste whatsoever.
Shopping with grandma was a lesson that I would never forget. She was a fierce shopper and brooked no interference from shop owners or street vendors. Her idea was to get the best meat or fowl and vegetables at the lowest possible prices. This is a wonderful idea. However, it might also be taken too far.
Grandma felt that the object of every vendor’s life was to cheat the customer. How many times did I hear her say, “Get your thumb off the scale?” The poor vendor did not want to continue the conversation and generally agreed with grandma and let her have her way.
She was also adept at demeaning all of the fruits and vegetables that she saw. “Do you call this a bunch of carrots? Who would eat such scrawny things? You would have to buy dozens of these bunches just to have a serving for one person.” That was her line of patter. She would raise the radishes in the air and complain that they were filled with dirt and did not deserve to be on display at this market.
You know that fish smell. Grandma’s gig with the fish was to complain loudly that these fish stink. They were obviously not fresh fish and the owner of the establishment should be reported to the authorities. “How can you hold your head up when you are selling such garbage to the public? You should be ashamed of yourself.” By these means she was always bringing home extra fish vegetables, and slices of corned beef and pastrami (who weighs all of that fat, do you think that I am paying for the extra fat on the corned beef and pastrami).
Grandma loved me without reservation. Her favorite thing was to watch me say my morning prayers and sit down with me at night and sing from a Jewish song book. Her acrimony was reserved for her husband, who she did not speak to from her arrival in America till the day that he died in 1950, and the food vendors. She was a strong woman with pretty strict ideas of how things should work. I owe her a great deal and her picture adorns the wall of my office.

TO DRONE OR NOT TO DRONE

The political landscape has landed on the issue of drones targeting certain elements of terrorist organizations in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere. The arguments seem to be a question of morality. Does standing miles away controlling this deadly flying object become more than just a weapon of war?
According to some, innocent people are being killed in these attacks, which have no effect on those who control them or aim them. There is now even a thought that we should not have killed Osama Bin Laden, but captured him and brought him back for trial.
Those who abhor war in any form stand fore square on these issues and will not see that there might be other opinions about using these newest weapons of war. Are any of the armaments in the world moral? Was the atomic bomb a moral instrument of war? That discussion has raged on for years.
Those who see these drones as a way of ferreting out our enemies from their hidey holes say that we are actually saving lives. They say that bombing is a much cruder way of approaching this war on terror that inspires more collateral damage than does a drone.
Certainly war is not an issue of morality. There are always statements about “just wars,” which really cannot be discussed in a rational way. Seems to me that we have always warred and I cannot see any end to it. Somehow, it appears to be a human condition that has been around since we walked upright.

BLOOD ON THE FLOOR

At 5:00 A.M. Thursday morning I awoke to a primal need. I got up slowly measuring every movement, as I lifted my bulk from my temperpedic mattress. Because of the comfort of my bed, I was tempted to lie back down and go to sleep. The urge would not let me.
I trundled into our bowling alley sized bathroom and heads for the toilet. As I shuffled towards the door, a wave of nausea washed over me. I stopped for a moment and decided that I needed to urinate first and then lean over the bowl and empty my stomach. The peeing ended with a flourish and I felt somewhat relieved to find out that I was no longer nauseous, somewhat dizzy. I moved toward the door to the bathroom. That is the last thing that I remember before waking up flat on my back saying, “Hey, I must be bleeding.”
The next part of the story was told to me by Carol. She heard shuffling noises coming from the bathroom. She awoke and was moving towards the lighted toilet, when she saw me keel over backwards and land on my head and right shoulder. Blood spurted from the back of my head and garnished the bathroom tile with a crimson cover.
She attempted to call 911 on our landline phone which did not seem to work (we later found out that our modem was stuck when Comcast came to fix it). She got her cell phone and got 911 on the phone. They told her that they would be there presently and to clear out any pets that we might have.
I am now almost fully awake and hearing Carol talking to the EMTs who are bending over me. They ask me some questions which I answer correctly. “How many MVP’s did Roy Campanella win?” What was Doris Day’s real name.?” I was now fully awake a realizing that I was not going to go back to my cozy bed that evening.
It is a weird feeling to be moved onto a thing board strapped in and then to be lifted onto a gurney and put into an ambulance. The EMTs continued to question me, take my blood pressure, check all of my vital signs and ask me some more questions to determine my situation. All in all, I was happy that I had contributed to their welfare each year. They were a professional group all the way.
I was delivered to my hospital of choice, Harrisburg Hospital, within a few minutes. Other than a couple of bumps, the ride was not remarkable. The emergency ward people really hopped to the task of making me comfortable. They all seemed to young pretty women, scurrying about doing things with my litter, blankets and making introductions
By the time Carol arrived in her car and parked, I was on intimate terms with at least 10 nurses and a physician’s assistant. Carol was there to comfort me and to be my advocate. She continually asked questions to make sure that everyone was doing their job correctly. After all that’s what she does for a living, so why stop at the emergency ward.
My actual emergency ward doctor, Dr. D’Angelo came running in, kind of whistling, “Whistle While You Work.” He was just coming on shift at 6:00 and was raring to go. After a moderate exam, he had me take an EKG and then proceeded to stitch up the back of my head. The inside stitches were many. The outside stitches were 10 to cover my 5 inch gash.
Since I had fainted, there was talk of a stroke, small heart attack and other such pleasant sounding reasons for my fall. I was dismissed from the ER to go for an echo cardiogram. A rather placid young man came to get me and wheel me into the first of a number of cold rooms.. This test, I assume was to determine whether there were going to be further complications from my fainting spell. I guess I passed because I was quickly wheeled back to the ER.
My next stop was going to be room 727 on the 7th floor cardio unit. Since I was there a few years before for my robot surgery, I saw some of the folks that I had met then. We did not have a reunion party. Everyone on the 7th floor is all business.
Back to Carol and the aftermath of my fainting. When the 911 folks told her to clear out the pets, she thought it was for their own good. Actually, the EMT people do not want to get bitten. Strange thing though, as Carol was shooing the cats away, and grabbing Boo Radley by the tail, Boo bit her on the hand.
At first it looked like a scratch. She washed it thoroughly and then put bactine on it and did not think much of it until the next day. She spent some time trying to clean the blood off the floor after she got home from seeing me at the hospital.
She then came back to the hospital to check on my welfare. I was in the midst of another series of tests that involved my brain and my heart. Each one of the tests showed nothing (right, nothing in the brain scan). Carol showed me her hand and it worried me. She told me that she had it under control.
The fellow next to me, Mr. Smith, was in for a pacemaker which he had installed on Thursday afternoon. He came back to the room and we began to talk. He was the same age as me. He had been the head of the meat department at and A&P Food Store for many years. He then had kind of gone into the antique and used items business. He was articulate about the current state of affairs in our country. I listened to him. His view was particularly interesting because he was a rural kind of guy with really progressive (not liberal) ideas.
The tests continued until the early evening. My nurses were all business and oh so helpful. They attended to my every need, except for the black and white ice cream soda. They substituted a vanilla ice cream cup each time I asked for it. The only problem that I had was that I had to urinate in a vessel, rather than in the bathroom. You see, I was attached to a saline drip, in which they sometimes inserted other stuff. I would not want to know what else they put in.
The nighttime was a series of me dozing off and a nurse coming in to give me sort of medication or other. At some times, there were insulin shots and other blood related kinds of things. I believe that they are actually selling most of the blood that they took from me- vials and vials of it. I didn’t know that there were that many tests for my functions.
Friday morning saw my roommate in a very tender state of affairs. The pacemaker that they had inserted had not been put in properly (that is kind of scary). One of the leads was not functioning and it had to be reinserted. That was Mr. Smith’s plan for the morning activity.
I was sent down to have a nuclear and pharmacologic stress test. Carol was not with me at the time and I really am claustrophobic. She had gone to our family physician to get her hand checked out. It was infected and she was given a prescription to take to the pharmacy.
My stress test turned out to be fine. The good Dr. Hanna ( Salaam Aleikum) told me that I had passed with flying colors. He also told me that the reason I had passed out was because I was dehydrated. This is not an uncommon thing for people who were taking certain medications to expel urine. It always happens after urination. Who knew that this was a common kind of thing? I have now spoken to three men who had the same thing happen to them. Why don’t I know these things beforehand?
I was released from the hospital. Meanwhile, a wonderful nurse named Nancy had been ministering to Carol and her hand. She faxed the prescription over to our pharmacy and helped Carol by putting Neosporin on the wound. Nice Nurse Nancy would never have known that Carol is allergic to Neosporin and neither did we. We thanked her for all of her help with Carol and my discharge.
When we got home, I was just hurting from having landed on my back. Carol’s hand looked to becoming worse. Since I was of no value, we were happy when our children stepped in to help. Our son Marc came up later Friday evening to keep an eye on us and to help us with our needs.
However, Carol’s hand needed attention. We have two doctors as neighbors and they agreed. I could not take Carol anywhere, so I called our friends Joe and Kathleen. They came over instantly and took Carol to the hospital emergency ward.
The ministration included and IV drip, an x-ray and blood work. It was all negative and Carol went home with two prescriptions, which our son had filled the next morning. The nice thing was that he was able to stay over and talk with us till Saturday afternoon. We still love to be with and talk to our children. I guess we are lucky.