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2004-11-24 - 7:56 p.m.

It's an Ill Wind, Indeed...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone...

I've been writing on my NaNo novel in a month...not moving along as fast as I would like, but here's:

Chapter One

I first heard the old adage, “It’s an ill wind, indeed, that blows no good,” when I was about nine years old. My grandmother consoled me about our family’s impending move from the farm where I’d grown up.

“What does that mean, Gram? What does the wind have to do with our moving?”

“It means that even though you’ll miss your animals and your school friends…and the freedom you have to roam around here on the farm, you’ll have many new opportunities living in town – a new school and new friends. Think of it as an adventure, Joni.”

“I’ll try,” I said, “but I’m still sad…and a little bit scared, too. What if…”

“Oh, there are a lot of “What if’s”, Grandma interrupted. “Life is full of mystery. That’s part of the fun of life. We never know what’s right around the corner.”

As it turns out, in town the library was right around the corner. Reading for me became a reflexive response to everything. And it has continued to be how I deal with the world and everything new or mysterious that comes my way. Since that early time in my life, I’ve known there is a book for every occasion – and every obsession. I read all the usual children’s novels of that era – Heidi and most, if not all, the Nancy Drew mysteries. At age ten, I even taught myself to type, using an instruction book I found at the library.

Over the years, I’ve had many occasions to recall my grandmother’s wise words and the more modern version that says the same thing – “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” They were never more relevant than when soon after my retirement, I had a series of surgeries on the ankle tendons of both feet and then later bilateral knee replacements.

When I had my pre-op interview for the first ankle repair, the doctor assured me I’d be up and walking within a week or so. However, after my surgery, he quietly told my husband that he had had to do much more extensive work on the ankle. He would have to cast the leg in a few days and give orders for no weight-bearing for at least six weeks.

My husband immediately began to prepare for what he knew would be a long six weeks. As he installed an Internet and TV hook-up in our bedroom, I pooh-poohed the idea, still believing I’d be up and walking to my study down the hall within a week or so.

I felt more than a little sorry for myself for a few minutes the day the doctor put the new cast on my leg, while telling me I could not put any weight on it. But I’ve learned over my 70+ years that the world is the way it is. Today is the way it is. My situation is the way it is. So what am I going to do about it? As my grandma used to tell me when I’d have a little setback, “It’s an ill wind, indeed, that blows no good, Joni”. I also remember reading in Franz Kafka’s “Man’s Search for Meaning, “We who’ve lived in a concentration camp can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They offered proof that anything can be taken from man but the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” To choose how you think about things.

I have had many opportunities to test this theory - from the move from farm life to city life, from a two-room country school to a city parochial school and eventually to boarding school. I tested it again when my father died when I was 16…and when my mother remarried a few years later; and then college, marriage, children and all that each brings with it. Each step of the way, testing "Our only real security in life is our ability to adapt," and arriving at the emotional truth that I do have the freedom to choose my attitude in any set of circumstances, the freedom to choose how I think about things. This realization has helped to make the endings and new beginnings far less difficult. I can do nothing to change the circumstances, but I can do something to vastly improve what I’ll get out of the next six weeks, I thought.

I started writing my memoirs during what seemed like a marathon of surgeries and recuperative periods over the next two years. The Internet, amazon.com and half.com became my salvation. Unable to get to the library or a bookstore, these new more immediate resources saved the day! Whether it’s the meaning of a word, the words to a song or a quote I’m trying to remember, or how to teach a math concept to one of my tutoring students, I’ve learned to turn to Google or Ask Jeeves.

When I read a book review or heard an author lecture on C-SPAN, I turned to amazon.com or half.com and usually received the book I ordered in a matter of two or three days. I joined a “risky writers” group at Story Circle Network, where I met several women who were also writing their life stories, women willing to risk telling their stories in an open forum. We shared our stories and our lives.

When I joined another creative writing group called Writers in Touch (WIT), I “met” a budding young writer from India, who asked for help with his grammar. His stories were heartfelt and sometimes written in the naïve, unaffected voice of a young boy. One of his first stories featured a young boy in Delhi, but to my mind seemed more a story about the boy’s father. I hesitated to tinker with it, as I believed my corrections might lessen its impact.

The Boy and the Blazer


By Deep

Winters in Delhi cause as much a fall in the mercury as summer causes it to rise. Tempers aren’t much different. In the transitional months of August to October rainfall is scant. First, the boy needed what in India is called a half sweater (vest). A bit later he might need a jumper or pullover sweater, because by the end of December till mid-January it is bundling up time, as it is quite cold.

The schools require students to wear uniforms. Can you have public schools without uniforms in India. No, of course not. Blasphemy! Come the month of November, schoolboys wear a winter uniform of grey trousers, a white shirt with tie, grey socks, polished black shoes and a jumper. But beginning in the last week of November, the boy noticed a sign on the bulletin boards of his school: “Blazers compulsory from the first of December.”

What are these blazers? Coats - short ones, with shiny brass buttons and, of course, the school logo on the breast pocket. He thinks it is to make the school look good. The boy went home and told his Papa as soon as he saw the notice. The father refused – flatly. He said, “Be grateful you have a jumper. I had none when I was a boy. (He grew up on the coastal region.) I am already paying much money to send you to this school.”

The boy knew better than to tell his father what he was thinking. He couldn’t tell him, “Your school never asked for blazers. I am asking for one not because I need it or want it, but because I will be punished if I do not have one.” His father would have whacked him. It is the father’s birthright to whack his child.

So the boy went back to his room. He read his book aloud because it was Saturday and his father was at home. And the father went to school when very few in his village had been able to go to school…and the father always stood first in his class…and the father always read his lessons aloud. Until the father went to college, he had believed that it was the only way to read. When the boy first saw somebody reading without moving his lips, he was amazed. And, of course, his father had to walk ten miles to his school. He walked ten miles to school, barefoot.

The first of December came. The boy went to school, carrying his load of books. After the assembly bell rang, all the boys and girls started praying to God. Then they sang the National Anthem, and with a touch of divinity, humility, and, of course, patriotism, the boys and girls started to march in place, stomping their feet on the uneven ground of the new, not very well established school. The boy worried that his new shoes would be ruined from marching in the dirt. He worried because his father had bought him a new pair of shoes just that year. The boy knew it was going to be one pair of shoes that year, because so said the father…and because the father had to walk ten miles to his school…the father had to walk ten miles to his school – barefoot!

When the boys and girls completed the day’s duty of marching and leveling the ground, the prefects inspected them: First, the nails snipped short. The boys and the girls had not worried about this; they could always munch on those before their turn came. Then came the shoes and socks – polished, shining and no holes; socks – clean and grey in color. The boy had just one pair of socks, too. The boy told his father that his socks smelled and that the boys and girls teased him, saying he “stank of it.” The father told him, “You should be grateful you have even one pair. When I went to school. I had none”…because, as he knew, the father had to walk ten miles to school…the father had to walk ten miles to his school – barefoot!

The boy always wore the required belt and tie. The tie was a bit torn where the boy had chewed on it nervously as he waited his turn. The boy had no friends. The boys thought him different because he stank. He stank of “You do not deserve to be here, because you can afford to have only one pair of socks and one pair of shoes. You can afford only to be here and not be a part of HERE.” And because I think only of studies, he thought.

Was the boy like that? Yes, he was. The boy thought that if he read more than he understood, wore specs and answered more than was asked for in the teacher’s questions, he would get what the other boys and girls already had – comfort, luxuries, and a sense of being at ease in life. His father told him to choose – live life now and struggle later. Or better yet, the RIGHT way is to struggle now and live later. The father reminded the boy, “Remember, you are fortunate to be able to study – that we can afford to send you to school to learn. Many boys are not born so lucky. Those boys are “hands” – children who are just taught to work.” It was understood that this boy, his eldest son, should be successful, first in his class, because the father had walked ten miles to school…because the father had walked ten miles to school, barefoot!

The boy’s turn came for the inspection: Nails: OK. Shoes: OK. Socks: OK, Belt and Tie: OK. Finally, the almost disappointed prefect found something. “You do not have a blazer,” the prefect said sternly. Because he was a prefect, he had the right to send the boys and girls who were not in a proper uniform to run two rounds of the school ground.

The boy didn’t mind, though. He liked running. As the loner he had become, that was the only sport the boy could play. The boy wore specs, because he couldn’t see without them. Because he wore specs, the other boys and girls thought him brainy. He was never chosen for games. No one wanted to play with him. The parents wanted the boy to always study…the parents wanted a return on their monthly investment – the tuition fee + computer fee + building fee + transport fee…because the parents sacrificed dreams so that he could go to school. Because they gave birth to this boy, they make this sacrifice. Because this boy was born to them, they sacrifice…they dream of a good future for him.

The boy cried of embarrassment for having no blazer. The boy was sorry. He thought himself too dumb to be otherwise. Wiping his tears, the boy entered his class - late.

The next day the same thing happened…and the next day…but the following day the boy went home and told his mother that because he did not have a blazer, the prefect punished him. The mother said, “Because you are not first in your class, you should be punished.” He ought to be punished because the father was paying for his clothes, for a heavy tuition, and for the school bus. Parents here generally weigh their efforts in the education of their children only by the relatively higher money spent on their children’s education compared to what had been spent on their education.

At first, the boy could make no sense of it. The mother gave him a whack. He got punished not only from the prefect for not having a proper uniform to make this school look special, but because he disappointed his parents who sacrificed to send him to a private school where normally only the almost-rich people’s kids go. For this reason, the boy should carry himself smartly. Getting punished by the prefect is not smart, so the boy deserved to be whacked.

The boy did not tell his father, because the father was stronger…because the father had had to walk ten miles to go to school…because the father had to walk ten miles to go to school, barefoot.


+O+O+O+O+O+O+O+

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which found segregated public schools unconstitutional because they denied persons “the equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. It was a historic decision that advanced civil rights, especially for black children. Although it ostensibly gave America the dream of equal education for all, it is painfully clear that the educational results of Brown were meager for black children from the start.

The story of the boy in his nouveau private school reminded me of the private schools that sprung up after the Brown decision when a voucher system was adopted in Louisiana in answer to integration. The state gave a voucher for tuition so that those parents who did not want their children to attend an integrated white school could send their child to a private school. This sounded like a wonderful idea – their child would now get a superior prep school education, one that had not been available to them before. However, the older well-established, private schools, such as Metairie Country Day, simply increased their tuition the exact amount of the vouchers. Their reasons were two-fold: one, they did not have room for the masses of new students clamoring at their doors, and two, they wished to remain exclusive.

The nouveau private schools that sprung up to meet the increased demand provided neither the education nor the prestige of the older schools, which those receiving vouchers still could not afford. What it actually accomplished besides thwarting integration was to decrease the funding for the integrated state schools and bring students in droves to profit-driven new private schools.

It sounds as though the boy was attending one of these lesser quality private school. These “nouveau” private schools often aspire to greatness through the ostentatious trappings of the blazers with school logo on the pocket, as well as the pomp and pageantry of the more traditional “public school,” which is what these schools are called in India.

The story brought up several questions for me. I e-mailed Deep, asking about the educational system of India and about their traditions. He wrote back. “India has three types of schools: Government schools, which charge a nominal fee and cater to the poorest of the poor. Anyone may attend these schools. What we call public schools are roughly equivalent to private schools in United States. Some of these older public schools are well established and provide quality education, but charge a high tuition. Other public schools, such as the one the boy attended, are newer, less well-established, and claim to be good, but do not provide the status of the more expensive and well-established ones.” In another e-mail, Deep wrote, “…Parents generally assess the education of their children by the relatively higher money they spend to attain it.”

Among all religious minorities in India, Christians have been at the forefront in spreading quality education in India. In Catholic missionary schools the priest is most often the principal and the teachers are nuns. Since they do have some zeal to convert, especially when they open new schools in rural and poor areas, Christian children’s tuition is subsidized by the church, while non-Christian children pay a rather high tuition fee for what is believed to be the best education available in India.

He wrote: “As a nation, we strive and surge toward a better tomorrow, so it is essential that we all get an education. Because ours is a developing nation, we have been led to believe that academics equal to education. Infrastructure and trained manpower is in great need in India. Because India is, for the most part, economically backward, we must make education tangible through competitive examinations and marks (grades). So it is our belief that marks equal education…and marks equal rank. If you pass out of a good institute, you will get a good job. Because you get a good job, you will get a good spouse. The boy wondered, “Is marrying well the aim of education then? Can all other things be bypassed? A bad student forgets before the exam and a good student forgets after the exam. Ah, but some things one never forgets…like his father…that he walked ten miles to school…he walked ten miles to school - barefoot!”

to be continued...


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