Student Teacher In Search of an Orange

After my parents stopped squealing into the phone, my father asked, “How do you spell the name of the town? I want to find it on the map.”

I spelled it for them slowly — S-K-A-N-E-A-T-E-L-E-S — because it’s a tricky name you can’t do phonetically. I had snagged a teaching job, and I knew how lucky I was with the market so glutted in 1973.

I’d made the right impression in my hour interview with the principal — poised and enthusiastic — just the type of youthful energy he looked for because he sensed the teacher would work her heart out for the $8,000 a year salary. I doubted a hearty handshake and a dazzling smile were reasons to put someone in charge of a roomful of 5th graders, but I could sense from his enthusiasm that he didn’t.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. For one thing, I found out in my last two years of college that if you went to class and didn’t cram a whole semester’s worth of reading into the night before your final, you could actually get decent grades. I couldn’t believe my high school guidance counselor hadn’t mentioned this.

My father went in search of the atlas because he couldn’t find Skaneateles on his New York State map. I started telling my mother my reservations about being ready to take this on.

“Oh, come on, you were a great student teacher!”

I remembered my mother’s stories of being a student nurse, how she had to practice giving shots into an orange before they let her have a person with a real arm. Sure, I hadn’t killed an orange during student teaching, but I still wasn’t ready to be let loose with actual kids either. After listening to more of my doubts, my mother let her voice trail off. I could tell she was done giving me reassurance and ready to hang up so she could call her friends and tell them, “Linda got a teaching job! Can you believe it? In this market?”

 

First of all, student teaching. I was assigned, along with two other students from Cortland, to a school in Auburn, NY. Like most student teachers, we thought we knew what we were doing until the moment we came face to face with an actual child. Then the real teacher went down the hall on some made-up errand to give you a few moments alone with the class, and they could smell fear all over your body, and things got dicey real fast. On Day 2 you were a lot more realistic, which in this case is a synonym for petrified.

My master teacher was Ron Donatelli, a twenty-year veteran. I waited excitedly for him in his classroom on my first day. I sat down on one of the chairs arranged in a circle in the back of the room, to see how it would feel to run a reading group, but it was one of those kid-sized chairs, and I realized my slip was showing just as I heard the doorknob turn. I tugged on my skirt and stood up quickly, not wanting Mr. Donatelli’s first glimpse of me to include lace.

“Hi there, Linda,” he said. “Think you’re ready for this?” As far as pedagogy went, Mr. Donatelli was partial to a Throw ‘Em to the Lions first day for student teachers. He would lean back a little and watch the hours unfold, and if you were still standing at 3 o’clock, you could count on riding solo for eight weeks.

For Mr. Donatelli, having a student teacher was a gamble he took once a year. If you got a loser, you made more work for yourself. But if you got someone who had control of your class, it was all worth it. You could reignite your passion for the Jumble and the Crossword in the back of The Auburn Citizen. You could check in with your mother in the nursing home using the teachers’ phone in the front office, and while you were there you could hang out and tell the secretary about the chicken cacciatore your wife made last night. Mr. Donatelli kept a calendar in his middle desk drawer where he drew Xs in each box and kept a running tally of how many days it would be until he could retire to Florida. He had just over 5,000 to go.

I fared better than the other new student teachers on our first day in the trenches. During lunch, a kid tripped Patsy Rossi and she fell against the leg of the cafeteria table and bruised her shin. From that point on, every kid who passed her made her flinch.

During Susan Werzbicki’s first science lesson ever, a boy threw a handful of 9-volt batteries out of the second-story window. She responded by crying, not a good look in front of her master teacher, a woman who had not been afraid of anything since 1948.

I was holding my own but desperately wishing I had an orange to practice on.

 

[Coming next Thursday: When a Fifth Grader Asks You Out]

Okay, Okay, I’m Getting Older. I Get It.

I seem to be repeating stories. Even when I take a second to ask myself, Have I already told this person my adorable story that took place thirty years ago? Either I don’t wait for my own answer, or I can’t remember if I did or not, so I launch into it, because, really, it’s my best story of all time: I joined a health club the year after giving birth to my last baby when I was in my early thirties. One morning, as I was walking to my aerobics class, all the way across the entire gym floor, I noticed men looking at me and nudging their friends.

I was getting a lot of attention, just by walking through the club! This was terrific. Men were noticing how well I’d whipped my saggy postpartum body into shape. I was naughtily delighted at how much they all seemed to want me.

When I got to class at the far end of the building, the instructor came rushing over to me, saying, “Oops, you’ve got toilet paper coming out of your leotard, and it’s dragging behind you!”

Lately when I’ve told the toilet-paper tail story, I see a little impatient nodding going on, because my listener has heard it all before and is trying to save me the trouble of finishing.

I believe I’ve now told this story to everyone, though I can’t be sure, so I’m going to keep telling it, just in case.

This happens, too: I’m driving in a perfectly orderly and cautious way and come to a four-way stop sign. A young dad in his SUV is already there, waiting. He spots me and begins waving that I should go. It seems like a panicky wave, like he can’t trust me. Like he wants to save his kids in the backseat. I want to open my window and shout, “Hey, I’m still an excellent driver!” But those were my father’s words to the Police after he mowed down an entire hedgerow in front of their condominium in Florida. So I do go first at the intersection, but I also give the SUV dad a little thank-you wave, showing off I can still do two things at once without hitting the fire hydrant on the corner.

There are more signs that I’m not, shall we say, the young bloom I used to be.
I never run out of anything. Ever. My days of trotting next door for a cup of flour while I’m in the middle of making a pie crust will never happen again. I stock up on everything, even things I will never use if I live to be 100. My heirs can count on inheriting economy packs of toilet paper and a subscription to The New Yorker that will expire in 2045.

When I have to bend down, I always look around carefully to see if there isn’t something else I should be doing as long as I’m down there. I hope the cheerleaders from high school also have to do this now.

I’m not sure I’ll ever remember to cough or sneeze into my elbow because every time I feel one coming, I still hear my mother saying “Cover your mouth!”

I’ve never taken a selfie. I reject that word on principle. It’s quite enough that I’m of the generation that established the School of Epic Self-Importance. I don’t need pictures taken at bad angles to remind me that I’m the center of the Universe.

And somehow I totally missed the demise of phone booths. One day they all just seemed to have disappeared from the landscape. This happened while I wasn’t looking, which troubles me.

In his later years, every morning and every evening, my grandfather wrote down the weather in the little boxes of the free calendar he got from his newspaper boy. I’m happy to report I’m not even close to doing that. But the world does seem to be spinning so much faster than it used to. And I’m not ready.

For anyone keeping score, the weather was miserable today. But I don’t remember what it was like yesterday because I don’t keep track. I swear I don’t.

Why My Wedding Wasn’t on TV

Weddings need themes these days. I know this from a TV show I’m addicted to where brides compete with each other for a honeymoon. As guests, they score things like food, dress, and venue. Then they get to be interviewed and tell where the other brides dropped the ball.

Sometimes they’re riled up about having to wait too long at the bar for the signature drink. Sometimes it’s the bride’s dress that sagged at the bottom or didn’t have enough bling. Bling is big.

I’m most obsessed with the theme part. It allows the bride contestants to walk into a reception area and moan “I don’t see enough of her winter wonderland theme.” Or, if the bride has been successful, one of them might say to the others, “You can really see how she carried off her peacock theme.”

When my boyfriend and I decided — over a bubbling casserole of mac and cheese on a Tuesday night in 1974 — that we would get married, there wasn’t much to it. He hadn’t bought a ring. Why would he when I could use my grandmother’s just-fine engagement ring she’d given me for my college graduation? And it almost fit, so there was that.

I called my parents, announcing the date we picked out, giving ourselves five months to plan everything. This would be unthinkable in today’s wedding world, where you have to book a florist two years in advance. Plus I didn’t have a binder (or seven) that I lugged around with all my DIY ideas for place cards and cake toppers.

My mother’s first question: “Are you sure you’re ready to get married?” It was a ridiculous question, because at 24 I was sure of everything, and I wondered how she could have missed that.

She sort of sighed at the end of our conversation and said, “Well, I guess you’ll have to come home soon so we can get the details arranged. We should be able to get it done in a weekend.” She said this with the tone usually reserved for “The dog had diarrhea on the carpet.”

The call to my future in-laws was even less lukewarm. I’m guessing here, since there was no speakerphone in those days. I could just see my boyfriend’s mouth turning down slightly as he listened to them tell him he was making the biggest mistake of his whole life (I’m assuming). Then every few minutes he’d spot me, still looking at him intently, and he’d try hard to turn his mouth upright. Once or twice he gave me sort of a half-assed thumbs-up sign, but I knew he was lying.

On a suggestion from friends about where to have our reception, my mother got an appointment at the Riviera. It seemed decadent because it was in the section of Massapequa we called, “the rich part of town.” It could accommodate 125 people, and we had 120 on the guest list. The catering director gave us three menus to look over. My parents had been saving for my wedding a long time, long enough that even though it wouldn’t be the truly white wedding of their dreams, a buffet would not do.

The Riviera people told us, “Everyone uses the Buddy Guy trio.” From the photographs, the trio appeared to be a sweet group of older Italian men who knew their way around the “Hokey Pokey.” My mother took out her checkbook. We were in business.

We stopped by a florist and ordered a bouquet for me, corsages for the mothers, and flowers for my matron of honor. She was going to wear a multi-colored dress she’d worn for someone else’s wedding. When he asked about shades and hues, I said, “Anything you think will look nice.” He didn’t drop his chin the way florists of today would at hearing this crazy talk. And among the roses were a few carnations, which would have dropped my overall score on TV. I just know one of the more critical bride contestants surely would say, “What? Carnations in a bridal bouquet?”

Our last stop was the photographer. We overlooked the yellowing pictures and plastic lilacs on the dirty ledge in his storefront window. My mother knew someone who knew him. “I heard he’s nice,” was her complete report. He seemed happy for the business.

My mother and I conquered the complete planning of my wedding in six hours. It would be years later, looking at the photo album, that I’d notice a few details I might have put more thought into. And be glad camera crews and competing brides hadn’t followed me into the reception hall that day.

I stayed married for 22 years. So I’d like those brides of today with their penguin-themed receptions or the ones who have to have everything covered in chevrons and twinkling lights to give me the credit I rightfully deserve. Two decades count for something, even if there were a few carnations in the mix.

The Dumpster Fire Dates

So far on this blog, I’ve only mentioned the dates that went awry. One reader, who is also a writer, has told me that my dating years are not quite the literary gold mine I’d been thinking they were. He’s become bored. Others have commented that sometimes these tales make me sound — shall we say — a little uppity.

One more. Just one more, I promise, and then I’ll get on with the rest of the story.

The truth is many dates were magical. I had relationships. With good men. But no one I wanted to live with or marry. There was no second husband at all — ever — waiting in the wings.

But I still think I’m a laugh riot when I get on a roll about the dating years, so indulge me just once more. Here they are, in abbreviated form.

Sam, who, halfway through dinner, started calling me Wendy. I had a panicky moment. I was a pro by now, and I’d entered the restaurant, looked at the man waiting who looked expectant, said, “Sam?” and he said “Yes, hi!” and we began our date, as I’m sure we’d done many times according to the rules of the midlife online dating ritual. The second time he called me Wendy,  I was thinking there might be two Sams at this restaurant and this was the wrong one. But my anxiety was premature. He came back to calling me Linda right before his phone rang. And he took the call. On speaker. For a good ten minutes. From a woman who called him Sammy Baby.

Pete, who never took a breath. He would look like he was going to take a breath and give me a hint that maybe I should speak. But then he’d tap himself on the side of his head and say, “Let’s see. Let’s see, let’s see, what else can I tell you about myself?”

Charles and Tom, who spent most of our dates spewing venom about their ex-wives and letting me know all about their screaming fights and standing their ground in front of cars in driveways and protective orders. These men needed a dating coach. I actually excused myself to the ladies room during one of them, hightailed it to the parking lot and left before he could get my license plate number.  He seemed like the type of person who wrote down license plate numbers.

Larry, who got to the restaurant ahead of me on our first date, and had the hostess place a bouquet of flowers on our table. A large, expensive, Queen of England bouquet of flowers. He had great hopes for it going well apparently. He led off with a story about how his sister died of kidney disease because his father had refused to be a donor. (Now that’s a story that makes you hope you’re invited to Sunday dinner soon.) As we parted ways after dessert he asked, “How about going out this weekend?” When I said I didn’t think so, he looked at the flowers and said, “Shit, what a waste of $75.” I wished he’d taken them back because for two days I looked at them and all I could think about was his sister.

Henry, who emailed me after our dinner. It began, “I hope you won’t be offended by this,” at which point you know you’re about to be offended. “I don’t see it in the cards for us. I’m still thinking I can get a woman who will look bangin’ in a thong.”

There was John, who still lived with his mother, and slept in the bedroom where he achieved puberty.

Then there was George, who still lived with his wife.

And Ian, who apologized for leaving his wallet at home. Twice.

And when I list all those dates in one place like this, I think maybe I’m descended from Pilgrims even though my name is not Alden or Standish. I think I must have come from people who spent months sodden, starving, and all full of Scurvy, wending their way across the ocean on a leaky wooden boat. Between lung-crushing coughs, they said things like, “Hoist the sails! Give thanks!” Tomorrow will be better!”

I sat down at every date, thinking the man across from me might be The One. Or as my ancestors probably said, “I’m sure we’ll see land any day now!”

A Date with Nathan and the Elephants

Nathan was the first date I’d had in 26 years. Based on his emails, I was pretty sure it would be magical. He was brilliant and literary. He’d gone to Harvard and worked — in a somewhat vague capacity — for a think tank in Washington, DC. I pictured him spending his days lounging with other think-tanky people on leather chairs in some opulent office on Massachusetts Avenue. From what I could glean, he doled out advice for less-smart people somewhere, and that was plenty good enough for me.

His emails contained perfect spelling, and this seemed important to me, as if bad spelling were a character defect I wanted to avoid in a man. His messages were didactic in spots, but then he would write, “I really like fun. I want to be part of a fun couple.” I sent him my telephone number. He called when he said he would. We talked for a while. He didn’t seem like a serial killer.

“Shall we meet at the zoo then next weekend? That might be worth a giggle,” he said.

I shuttled to the back of my head a few red flags that had surfaced during the call. For a man who’d grown up in Michigan, he had quite a British accent going for himself. I could tell he didn’t think I was funny. And I am funny.

I was game. “Baltimore Zoo or Washington Zoo?” I asked.

Was that a snicker? I believe it was. Nathan was clear he didn’t actually ever leave Washington, which he called The District. He suggested we meet at the Elephant House, and added, “It’s the National Zoo.” But he wasn’t finished. “And, by the way, the name of yours is the Maryland Zoo,” he added, just so I’d know I got both zoo names wrong.

Traffic was horrible, and then I missed the exit for Connecticut Avenue. I was almost 45 minutes late. I didn’t want him to think I’d ditched him, so I ran for the Elephant House as soon as I parked.

There he was, at the entrance of the smelly building, jacket slung over his shoulder. Black hair, very tall. Eyebrows that had merged together to form one serious, knitted line, probably years ago.

“So have you ever been to our zoo?”

I hadn’t.

“How about our Smiths? Our Hirshhorn? Our Corcoran?”

We kept walking, and Nathan kept talking and taking credit for Pierre L’Enfant’s life work. The history of the zoo, the pandas by name. He knew a lot about the llamas, too, which didn’t surprise me. He was like the Chamber of Commerce with a unibrow.

Nathan had planned ahead — lunch at a restaurant within walking distance after we’d seen everything the zoo could teach me. My feet hurt in my ill-advised shoes. He’d chosen a place known for its wine list, which sounded like a great idea at this point. But it also felt like we were walking to Philadelphia.

When we finally got to lunch, the mere act of sitting down felt glorious. Especially since I knew there would be a glass of something earthy, with mellow tannins and a strong finish on its way. For the last five blocks, Nathan had been talking about his wine collection. I had no idea what tannins were but I was in favor of them floating down my throat. Soon.

As soon as the waiter passed out menus, my first-date jitters arrived. I like to stay ahead of worries, so I was already nervous about how the whole paying-the-bill thing would play out. I’d brought lots of cash, in all denominations, covering my bases. I knew most men were now comfortable splitting the bill, so I came prepared. If the bill had come to $350, I was still prepared, so I probably had nothing to worry about.

“What are you thinking about having?” Nathan asked, peering at the wine list. He was asking about my food choice, I knew, because I’d come clean I knew nothing about wine in bottles (although I was hardly a neophyte when it came to wine in boxes, my little joke that had dropped dead on arrival).

“I was thinking of the chicken and pasta.”

More looking at the wine list. More eyebrow. When the waiter came back with his pencil poised, Nathan seemed pleased that the waiter answered, “Excellent choice!”

It seemed like a lot of work just to get buzzed after a long day at the zoo.

Then Nathan leaned over the table and touched the top of my hand. It was the first physical contact beyond the awkward introductory hug we’d shared hours before at the Elephant House.

“So, Linda. . .”

A pause followed. It seemed to last a week.

“I have just ordered an expensive bottle of wine, and I will pay for lunch.” (Another pause almost as long as the first one.)

“But I don’t expect you to sleep with me on our first date.”

On my way home, as I exited Nathan’s Capital Beltway and Baltimore came into view, I was wondering how I was going to tell him. I thought, “Nathan, Nathan, Nathan. Not enough grapes in the Napa Valley for that to happen” was much too harsh.

This would be the first time — but hardly the last — that rehearsing exit lines would be a total waste of time.

It was a new world. Men appeared as words on a screen. They disappeared with no follow-up email, on their quest to be part of a fun couple. Which, clearly, I wasn’t ready for.

[Up Next Week: A Date with Ben and his Hair]

He’s About My Age

He’s about my age. His white hair is long and full, but not so much that he looks like he never found his way home from a Grateful Dead concert. I see him walking through the neighborhood all the time.

Today he’s on the other side of the street, and my grandson and I are playing in the front yard. He hasn’t looked in our direction all summer, but now he says something I can’t quite hear.

“Excuse me?” I say.

He bounds across the road so he can repeat his first message, which may or may not have been purposely mumbled just so he could bound across the road.

He begins in mid-sentence. We figure out we both graduated from high school in 1968 and ask the usual questions about where we grew up, where we went to school. He asks about my grandson. “What’s his name? How old is he?”

Even though he didn’t plan this conversation (maybe) he has a lot to say. At some points he’s just lost in his own narrative. At others, his gaze lingers on me, and I wonder if he’s flirting. It’s so hard to know when hormones aren’t flying through the air like they used to.

But yes, I think the neighbor likes me.

“What’s your favorite band of all time?” he asks.

“Rolling Stones,” I say.

He approves of my answer and starts telling me about a movie starring Mick, something I never heard of because — truthfully — I stopped caring deeply about Mick a while ago. In the middle of his story, my grandson decides it’s time for lunch. The neighbor and I say our goodbyes.

Me: “I guess I’ll see you around.”

He: “I guess you’ll have no choice.”

I’m a little uneasy the rest of the afternoon, worrying he might be at his house now, thinking Damn. What an attractive woman. What if the next time I see him he pulls out a Rolling Stones boxed set from behind his back, or invites me to dinner?

A week later, I spot him in the supermarket, on the other side of the produce aisle. My grandson is in the shopping cart seat, facing me, and I pretend to be telling him something interesting about cucumbers because I don’t want to get the neighbor’s hopes up if he sees me. I don’t want to look available, if that’s the right word for the way you can look in a supermarket when you’re this old and getting your grandson in the cart seat is the most physical thing you’ve done all day.

I’m thinking to myself, Ugh, I have to let him know that I’m just not interested. But before I know it, he has seen me, crossed over, and is standing in front of us, grinning.

“Oh, hi there,” I say.

He smiles big. He motions to my grandson and asks, “How old is he?” I’m a little confused. “What’s his name?” he asks. Again, old news, but I tell him.

I realize it’s not that he’s a bad listener and has forgotten the details of our talk on the sidewalk. He has no idea who I am.

On the way home, with my grandson chirping happily in the back seat about the cookie the bakery lady gave him, I feel the need to reach deep into my memory box.

I was 23, at a wedding, seated next to a man from Greece. He was dark and tall and brilliant. We danced. I’d had a lot of wine and had suddenly remembered what a fabulous dancer I was. At the table, as we talked, he looked deeply into my eyes, and we took almost-drunk turns being fascinating.

Hours later — home alone and in bed — I heard little pebbles glancing off my second-story window. He was standing in my front yard, bathed in moonlight.

“We’re not finished,” he said, “I want to know more.”

I go over the story a few more times — savoring a detail here and adding a new one there — until finally I’m ready to take it into old age with me.

“How’s that cookie?” I ask my grandson. I’m happy the rest of the way home.

My 7-Word Brush with Helen Gurley Brown

The phone rang while I was making dinner. My kids were underfoot. It was 1986, we didn’t have Caller-ID yet, and I always suspected telemarketers at that time of day. I tried to answer with an attitude, making it clear we didn’t need new windows or a timeshare in Jamaica.

The voice on the other end was low and commanding, and her name was Myra. She was a senior editor at Cosmopolitan, following up on a query letter I had sent a month before. She was quick and to the point.

“We’d like to hire you to write the article you’ve proposed. We can offer $3,000 with a kill fee.”

I was not yet calling myself a writer back then for fear I would be outright lying. I was piling up meager checks here and there, mostly from parenting magazines and newspaper op-eds. When she said $3,000, I was conscious of not hyper-ventilating into the receiver.

I had queried Cosmo about an article idea I knew nothing about — not unusual for me back then (or now, come to think of it). The topic was the relatively new phenomenon of single career women deciding to have a baby on their own, without a husband or even a boyfriend in their lives. Tame by today’s standards, there was a time when this was groundbreaking.

Myra wound up our conversation with this: “The first draft will be due in six weeks. Of course Ms. Brown will have final say. I’ll be in touch after she reads it.”

I got off the phone, positively giddy. Then I realized Ms. Brown was Helen Gurley Brown. And my knees shook a little.

The next day, I began my research. Since email was not yet the communication of choice, I did everything by phone while my kids sat in front of the television, eyes glazed over by Gilligan Island reruns. It was not my best mothering moment, but — hey — I was going to have a byline in Cosmo.

I felt a connection to the women I interviewed even though I’d gone the conventional route toward motherhood. They were smart and savvy. Their stories were poignant, about their dreams to have a baby, about running out of time. Myra had made it clear in our first conversation that the magazine did not approve of this new way to form a family and my piece should reflect that slant.

I thought I knew better. On the day I put my draft in the mail, I believed I was going to make journalistic history. A few days later, the phone rang. It was Myra.

“We received your draft and Ms. Brown has seen it.  I’m going to read from her memo.”

Here is what Helen Gurley Brown thought of my draft: “This writing is smug, small, and sanctimonious.”
I’ve always loved the idea that she brought forth alliteration to cut me off at my writing knees.

Here’s the good news. There was a kill fee waiting for me that exceeded my wildest expectations. I thought HGB was wrong about my writing, but I still had some wounds to lick. So I licked them. And I developed a clever answer for  friends who kept asking when my article was going to appear in Cosmo.

And the bad news? There wasn’t any. My keyboard was still waiting for me in the morning, with all its possibilities. So I sat down. And I got back to work.

Freshman Year in College. What could go wrong?

After I was all moved into my college dorm, my parents took me out to eat before they braved the five-hour trip back to Long Island. My father made a little speech that I thought contained too much advice I wouldn’t need. Then they got in their station wagon, and I waved to them from the sidewalk. I was on my own, a college freshman, negotiating through one of the most turbulent years in American history — 1968. What could go wrong?

Once all the college orientation exercises were over — after we’d been on campus a few days — classes started. I was afraid that might happen.

Let’s be clear. I wasn’t against learning. I simply had other priorities, and there were just so many hours in a day. I seemed to be driving young men crazy, a new phenomenon for me. The more I attracted attention, the better I got at it. It was almost mathematical. Or — to put it another way — I probably would have been picked first or second in Square Dancing if such a thing existed in college. Definitely in the top five.

Although Cortland was still steeped in traditions like fraternities and panty raids, the undercurrent of social change was undeniable. I first noticed it inside the classroom.  I’m sure my parents thought they could count on strict rules about attendance and grading in exchange for the tuition money they were shelling out. But the old rules weren’t resonating with younger teachers who were walking into class, their hands in their pockets and humming Dylan tunes.

One of them, a young man who taught English 101, would come in late and sit cross-legged on his desk and say, “So, what do you guys want to talk about today?” The answer was hardly ever subject-verb agreement.

Another started the semester like this: “I don’t believe in taking attendance.” Now this was a system I could work with.

Unfortunately, these same professors who seemed so cool still believed in midterms and finals. And in November, when that first exam loomed, I discovered it was much harder to absorb 250 pages of text in one sitting than I thought. I cracked the virginal binding of my Sociology book at 11 PM the night before my 9 AM exam. Within an hour, I was erupting in sobs.

My roommate, Randi, heard me — perhaps the reason I chose space in the hall, right outside our room. She padded out in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. She was taking the same course with the same professor but had chosen a different route early in the semester. At first her attention to detail had annoyed me.

After dinner, she’d say things like, “See you later. I’m going to the library.” Sometimes she actually used the word homework, and I’d want to shake some sense into her.

“Come on,” I’d think, as if she were a little sister who didn’t know any better. “We’re in college. There is no homework in college.”

This night made it Randi’s turn to talk. She sat down in one of the lounge chairs.

“I have outlines,” she said softly. They’ll help us. Don’t cry.”

And 47 years later I can see her fuzzy pink slippers.  And hear her say, “Okay, so let’s start with an independent variable…”

For Ron Kovic, on Memorial Day

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

Ron

In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

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When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.