Sunday, October 27, 2013

the last things

                                                   All that remains

Mindful to shut their back yard gate, I’d swept their basement
floor, re-checked their empty house for anything hidden, stored.
Nothing was there, nothing more.

Had I cleansed their home so well that even memories caught 
in corners by spiders’ webs held only shadows now? There must 
be a hoard of remnants

I hadn’t found before. I thought of a door I had not opened,
a crawl space where forgotten things might be. Switched on,
my silver flashlight was the key

to bits of history I’d hoped to find. On my belly, like my marble
days in dirt, I aimed my beam at a cache I’d overlooked. There
they were, Dad’s garden tools,

his screen wire trellis, his tomato cages, stakes and string and
a cushion he’d knelt on when he’d strung everything that needed

How tiny was his garden then, when a dozen squash was his
bounty, when cucumbers came in twos or threes; Mom loved
to cook them then.

I harvested those memories as I grew grass on Dad’s tiny spot,
long fallow and unplanted. Although their house would soon be
sold, these house parts were left, intended.

                                    B.Koplen 10/27/13

Saturday, October 12, 2013

What a teacher hates most...

Failure!                 In the course of each semester, I pause just before midterm during a class to chat privately with each of my students. Having such talks allows me to better understand even those students who seem to want to avoid the spotlight of the front row seats. Usually, they are the quiet ones. Often, they are my students with the best excuses for missing class.

This past Thursday I had my quiet interviews. Each one began with my request to be given their work assigned in lieu of mid-term exams. Not one of my thirteen students had completed their work.

Of course, I didn’t know that when my first student and I spoke. I had found him to be quiet but interested, capable but unlikely to put forth any extra effort. I also noted that he had been absent too many times.

“Do you realize that you’re on the verge of failing the class due to your absences?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, “I’ve had family matters…”

Although I hear that often, I try not to discount that excuse in case it is true. Instead, I ask whether that means they should take the class next semester and drop out of this one. Those with serious problems often elect to do just that.

“During class,” I told him, “I want you to write to me about what you think you should do and what you think you want to do. Let me have that at the end of class.” Before sending him off, I assured him that I didn’t like losing my students and I would work with him.

Then came the rest of my back rowers.

“I have too much work,” said a tiny young woman. “My job makes it hard for me to find time to do my assignments.”

“How many hours do you work each week?” I asked.

“Maybe twenty or twenty one,” she told me.

“What do you do when you’re not working?” I asked. Figuring she might work four hours a day five days a week, I wondered whether her evenings could be spent studying. She was taking two other classes in addition to mine.

She shrugged, then told me she had problems with her other classes too. Her remarks led me to think that she wasn’t motivated to go to school. Immediately, I wondered whether I was losing my ability to inspire uninspired students. Shaking off that thought, I gave her a one-week extension.
Then came the others. None had their work. Each excuse was similarly disheartening.

Finally, one young man asked whether he could bring it to me the next day. He’d left it in his girlfriend’s car. And she, who always sat next to him in class, was absent.

“Sure,” I said, pleased that someone had done the work I’d mentioned in every class prior to this class as essential to their mid term grade.

As my students filed out, one remained. The young man I’d asked to write an appraisal of himself and his performance had been diligent. Clearly written, his thoughts filled an entire page. At the top half were notes “To the teacher.” At the bottom, “To myself.” What he wrote is something I will reflect on each time I sense another student is wrestling with similar issues. Hopefully, it will help all of us to avoid failure.

What follows are his exact words. They will serve as reminders of why he will be missed.

To: The teacher
 I feel that what you was telling me when we spoke was right and made perfect since. Why would I dig myself in a hole even with the issue going on at home and at life. I shouldn’t hurt myself as I’m doing now…So, the option of dropping the class and not failing would be better than keep going through all this and failing.

To: myself

Knowing that I have issues going on at home and life, I should of been more smarter about taking the class and putting myself through a rough time in this class despite, if I feel like [it,] I can dig myself out. And even if I like the class I should drop the class to make it better on myself. Rather then being dumb about the situation I should be smart about it. I agree with my teacher one-hundred percent about everything.

                                                B.Koplen  10/12/13

Saturday, October 5, 2013

A reason for gardenias...

A man I wish you had known        Admittedly, I nursed my precious gardenias; wasting even one of their alluring blooms was unthinkable. Unlike ordinary compacta and azaleas, my gardenias required attention, a little coaxing. But it was worth the effort; their smell was an unmatched gift of nature. I’d planted less than a dozen in the large garden area around my home I sold a few years ago.

Since moving into my second floor apartment surrounded by sidewalks and a parking lot, I’ve missed my gardenias. They were sweet as carefully cultivated relationships with friends I didn’t want to lose. Of course, when I had to sell my home and move downtown, I could not take them with me.

Since living here, there have been notable distractions, demands that have distanced me from simple pleasures like my gardenias. I suppose that’s why, when my Mom’s house was recently emptied and sold, I was jolted by the absolute loss of that hub it represented to our family. Very soon, unless I invited, I knew I would never return there again.

Perhaps I should have been deciding what to do with so many memories long ago. Unlike my mother, I haven’t accumulated them in a disarray of boxes and scrapbooks my children haven’t already explored. My brother-in-law has converted some to DVD’s; for that I’m thankful. The rest may fill an archival vault if we can agree on its proper location.

As I was on my vigorous morning walk, I thought about that as I veered from my standard path. Flowers planted by the city were still blooming on a cool almost October morning. To my pleasant surprise, I noticed a row of small bushes with
blooms turning brown that I hadn’t seen before; the area had been newly planted in early spring. I bent down. In front of me were half a dozen gardenias!

Without hesitating, I picked a fresh flower and tried to drain its smell. That was impossible; it lasted my entire walk. Then I gave it to someone else to enjoy. The next day, I looked at other areas that had been newly planted. More gardenias! Greeters from the city to my soul!

That’s what I thought of today, about how I might have missed them had I not gone a different way on an otherwise often trod path. But I found them and, indeed, was nourished by that finding. I promised myself I’d never miss them again; I’d tell others that gardenias had come to downtown. To me, they were as welcome as the geese that seem to have permanently returned to the river that splits our city.

I revel in seeing it everyday. Some days I rejoice in its beauty, a beauty I share with many others. In fact, I had planned to tell lots of people about the gardenias by taking pictures of them in their hiding places and showing them those images.
One person I had hoped to show them to was Walter, a favorite customer who seems like a member of our store family. Since he retired a few years ago, he has visited us regularly, usually before or after his dialysis.

About 6’4”, Walter sat in the same chair and talked about the folks we knew and a few things we didn’t. His bass voice and easy smile touched us all. Usually we joked and laughed, but never talked about the last days we knew would come.

We didn’t want them to.

In fact, we didn’t know how close they were. Walter didn’t tell us. He never came to us to tell us about sad news. Instead, he came with life and a willingness to banter with folks who hated to see him leave.

Early this morning, I received a call I didn’t expect but probably should have. Walter died at Duke University at 3:00 a.m.

Immediately, I turned to look at the chair we thought of as Walter’s. It was about where he had left it. I wasn’t sure I was ready to accept that he would never be there again. Although it was time, I’d never thought of saying goodbye to Walter. Now I didn’t have a choice.

How would my co-workers do that? How would I?

All day I’ve thought about that. Until now, I haven’t known. But now I do. With his family’s permission, I’ll find a sturdy gardenia and plant it in his yard. If they’ll let me, I’ll care for it as long as I am able to tend to its beautiful blooms.

                                                B.Koplen  10/5/13