A Diary of Change

On the 18th anniversary of the day our world changed – forever.

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September 12, 2001. Last night I looked frantically for the picture of my SAVAR students on our yearly trip to NYC to no avail. But I can still see the their faces. BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying, as I do, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head. Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the television or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkite’s voice coming over the speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.

 Yesterday I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.

 Now, my days are changed. An unseen hand has written a tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.

 I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. Everywhere there was nothing but television news so I watched my son’s soccer practice. I sat in the bleachers reading the local paper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection. No hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.

 A student asked about our annual New York City trip. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right.

April 2002. The New York City trip did happen. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.

Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged. I looked.

I admonish myself for my foolish, pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan, we are all forever changed.

GDF – 2019

 

In the Kitchen of Memory

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Theirs are the young faces brightened

By the garish blue-light of their toys

They look up to cast wary, beleaguered eyes at us

“What do we know?”

We have left the living rooms to them for their disposal

Seated on comfortable sofas and chairs – our gifts for their retreat

We huddle in kitchens preparing healthy meals

For children who are no longer

And will have nothing to eat

As they rewrite their lives in 140 characters or less

Living on likes and bytes

No thought given to the time-capsule in the attic

The one that holds the baby clothes and tangible

Photographs of all their ‘firsts.’

And the trunk jammed packed with sheet

Music for instruments

They’ve forgotten how to play

Maybe they’ll want to explore one day

Like they used to

Sneak into the attic and see the Polaroids –

The young, beautiful couple beaming at their baby

“Who are they?”

They are the originators of your story

The authors who’ve shared the same pen

Picking up when one partner drifts off

Crawling away to heal the cuts

To hearts now cowering in kitchens

Licking the sweet spoons of memory

A Country For No Child

Jaime Kalenga, whose mother died in labor, suffers from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times
Jaime Kalenga, whose mother died in labor, suffers from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

There is a country rich in diamonds,

Oil and foreign sports cars

I know this – having read it in

The Times

This is a country in which one child

In six will die before the age of five

Says The Times’ Kristof

But I live in a country that cares

About children – Some of us

Care so much we call authorities

On parents whose children walk

Home from the park – alone

Keeping our children absurdly safe

Ignoring the Angolan mother holding

The “twig limbs,” swollen belly, wizened face

Of the near carcass that is her child

She’s waiting for care from the few who do

Those people who come from far off places to nurse and

Heal everyone’s children

Those people who know that diamonds

Are friend to no one

The people who recognize

The diamond’s sparkle

Being stolen everyday

From the eyes of babies

Leaving in its place a

Haunted spectacle, skeletal frame

Held together in wrinkled brown

Wrappings of skin

KITE SEASON

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Happiness builds a fast fire
Underfoot the running child
In fields wild with flowers
Laughing, some unknown joy,
That life will be good

Happiness forces arms open
New experience
Embracing daring
Nothing but youth

Before receding to the corners
Beaten back by the collected ticks
A clock and a heart weary
Holding happiness at bay

Then comes
The thumping hush
That muscle upon which
Nothing is lost

Rolling and dipping
Tethered calmly against
Winds of age & change:

Happiness,
Flying its own kite

EVERY TEACHER PRAYS

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Every teacher prays

The Catholic, Protestant, non-Christian, Atheist …

Everyday, walking the classroom’s threshold  

We pray to be delivered from

The menace of caprice

In a land governed by misery

The only evidence of our existence

With nothing but a chalk

backbone for the onslaught

The gunfight

The fire

The explosion

The educational cataclysm

That will leave the classroom

Scattered in doom

Books, bodies and minds with

Words and dreams

Obliterated beyond recognition

 

   …pray for us teachers now

   and at the hour of our test,

 Ah women

From Watts to Ferguson

New York Times photo - 8/14/14
New York Times photo – 8/14/14

And this is what becomes of youth

Arm and arm with desire

Standing staunch facing abuse

Before a funeral pyre

 

Youth inbred with courage and past

Arm and arm with desire

Stand before weapons en masse

Falcons in loosening gyre

 

To see faces so young and unlined

Witness new history unfold

Is to know the past as so unkind

Lessons unlearned, agony untold

 

This is what becomes of a youth

Where bondage is original sin

Buried with denial at its root

As if the crime had never been

 

Not as if one turns a page

To find a new, happy ending

Black skin will always pre-sent rage

Some unfailing and unbending

 

And so our youths confront it all;

Our transgressions of the past

Those shot will scream and fall

As we parse a truce that failed to last

 

 

                                                 ~ Gwen Davis-Feldman

                                                    August 14, 2014

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN…

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Go home,” the mighty Christians say

from their soapbox of indignities

our taxes too high we need to slay

those who’d deny our vanities

~

Embarrassing ignorance

happily displayed

hatred in torrents

intelligence delayed

~

Maybe it’s the distance

from Emma’s creed

begetting an entranced

and ugly breed

~

“Your tired, your hungry” sentenced to crawl

back to Central America; “Mexico”

while goodness & ignorance resort to brawl

to kindergarten a few will go

~

They will go to your schools

learn your lessons well

they’ll know all  enemy’s rules

that armies were  sent to quell

~

And lo many, many years hence

you’ll stare from old window blind

having forgotten hate’s energy spent

begging beautiful leaders, “please be kind”

~

 Meanwhile:

 The New York Times’

headlines scream

Armies of children

Armed only with dreams

 

gdf 7/17/14

 

 

 

ANGEL IN THE OUTFIELD

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In 1998 I was “stuck” with western New York’s equivalent of “The Bad News Bears.” A team no one wanted and I, by default (with a son moving up to majors with his father as coach), was left to coach. I can teach life-saving & water safety classes but baseball? All I could picture was me ducking and flailing comically out of the way of a come-backer that was sure to find my front teeth. If only that were the singular tragedy that season. The following essay won the 1999 New York State Teachers 1st prize for journalism and a lovely (unaccepted) job offer. I repost today after going into town and having lunch by the river treated to sights of youth on the water and the haunting sounds of balls being cracked into the outfield behind me. Happy spring.

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It would be wonderful to say “Stevie” came to baseball tryouts that first day and dazzled everyone. He didn’t. Stevie showed little talent for the game. Even when he came to that first practice, when it was so cold he had to alternate throwing drills with time in the heated cab of the truck, he knew he had a ways to go to be as good as some of last year’s minor-leaguers. I didn’t see him for three practices and one game after that. I had forgotten what he looked like.

On the day of our second game this very blond, fragile boy walked into the dugout. I responded with my customary “Excuse me,” which was freighted with suspicious overtones. He slowly turned and spoke his name. Then I was glad to see him, because that only made us shy one player. Even so, I knew we had to borrow a player from our opponent’s bench and I silently kissed the thought of winning good-bye as I saw the little, very little fellow stumbling our way from the other dugout. I looked back at my bench and eagerness engulfed the boys and protected them from the slow rain beginning to fall.

Stevie took his place in the outfield. He was safe. Balls seldom get out that far in the minors. His hitting was lackluster, too, but I did make a mental note to get to the pitching machine first and get in the much needed batting practice for everyone. At batting practice he swung too late, too weak. I began to feel that he was in little league for other reasons. His body was there; arms, legs, and head, but not his heart – that was somewhere else.

Our next game was across town. Stevie was there. He quietly took center field. I remember my frustration as a shallow fly-ball caused him and the other 9-year-olds to stare at such a phenomenon in awe. The next inning Stevie was taking a bathroom break when we started closing the gap despite our weak fielding. It was the fourth inning and Stevie’s turn at bat – no Stevie. I made a mental joke about his bathroom break being a complete stop. After making a substitution, I went to investigate.

I headed around the dugout just in time to meet his mom and dad who were already on their way back with a very shaken little boy. He had been locked in the portable john that sits on the other side of the playground. Turning the ring-shaped latch to the locked position is a common prank, I was told when I complained. I came back to the dugout to see Stevie huddled in the corner shivering in spite of the 75 degree weather. I told him he could get back into the game after this inning, and he looked at me with tears brimming in his large blue eyes and asked if he could sit out the rest of the game. He was different; unlike the others who would probably have shrugged off the incident and jumped at the chance to play. Not Stevie.

I wish I could say I remember what he said when, later, he came out to tell me about something in his life. I remember him standing there happy to have his mom’s sweatshirt on and flapping the over-sized sleeves. I do remember that was the only time I saw him smile.

The last time I saw Stevie was team picture day. I see him clearly, now, next to his mom with his head in her lap as the other Yankees run amok. I see myself, too, cranky as ever, trying to get eleven 9- and 10-year-olds to hold together in line at 6 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The remainder of that week is a blur. Just bits and pieces stay afloat; obtuse, emotional flotsam.

The phone call came Friday night from a friend with news of the terrible accident involving a 9-year-old in my valley and concern that my son be affected by the news. I heard the name, last name only, so many out there it can’t be THE one. I remember my call to the hospital, and the surprise of the emergency room nurse and her emphatic “No!” when I asked if anyone of that name had come in this afternoon. I waited, hoping against hope and losing track of time. I made a promise to myself to hug Stevie the next day at our game. I went to bed thinking of how I was going to explain the hug and special attention. At 11:30 that night the call came. I wouldn’t have to explain. Stevie was dead … killed when a tractor-mounted mower backed over him. I thought of his fragile body. My dreams that short night ended with the sight of Stevie huddled in the corner of the dugout, shivering from the pain and fear of the dark. I cried most of the day – for Stevie, his mom and dad, his brother, for me and every time I made a call to tell the other team parents of our canceled game and the reason.

I met with my team the following Monday. With Tuesday being a game day, I could not go on with life as usual until there was some acknowledgment with the team of Stevie’s tragedy. A counselor, friend and colleague offered to come and speak to the team and possibly help them with grief. I should be used to this grief. But I am not. So, I could only hope that my friend could do for my team what she did for me that Saturday when I called desperately needing comfort and help.

My team was there, and as we sought the cool shade around the practice field, I knew things would be OK. The tentative smiles of the kids and the smiles strained with sadness of the moms and dads spoke of the need to “DO” and the tools with which to accomplish this task. My friend was wonderful, beautiful in her approach. She came with handouts: “How Tos: for parents who deal with children and tragedy.” Grateful, parents snapped up the papers as they listened to their young suggest ideas for a personal memorial to their teammate. Adult tears were ever-brimming as it became apparent these young people were taking that important first step in grief management. They had been given a platform from which to address their sorrow. Plans were set; the stage would be taken, exits would be made and, however sadly, life would move on.

Stevie’s funeral was 11 o’clock that Tuesday morning. Tuesday evening found the ballpark full of parents and players alike, hearts heavy with the knowledge of why the flag was at half-staff. The ceremony began. The stadium announcer proclaimed the game dedicated to the memory of Stevie and invited all the little leaguers in the park to come to the ballfield. A hat and jersey with Stevie’s number was placed at home plate. Someone on the team said “… Stevie’s home now.” The pledge was spoken as two team members unfolded a banner reading “Angels like you are precious and few.” A brand new bat engraved with Stevie’s number was presented to the team. And finally, the messages taped to helium balloons held in the right hand of each team member were released on the count of “1, 2, 3 STEVIE.” A song was playing: “… if I am not there in the morning … remember me …” My team’s faces were shiny with tears, yet held high and smiling at the sight of a dozen Yankee-blue balloons moving further and further into the stratosphere. I looked at my son, and the sons and daughters of others and I beheld a beauty indescribable.

Oh, if life could imitate art we would have seen, that radiant Tuesday evening, Stevie, receiving his wings in some heavenly arena flooded with light. Even as we left a hole in our lineup indicating no player (visible) in center field, we should have known we would win. Fly-balls – shallow or deep, it didn’t matter – hung in the air, giving my team all the “awe-time” they needed before, yes, God willing, Stevie caught the ball.