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Jeannette was her name, and she was a teacher. Actually, she wanted to be a biologist. She got her master’s, but it turns out that today, her master’s is just a few credits shy of being a Ph.D. She wasn’t happy about that. Apparently back in the late thirties and forties, when it came to education they weren’t kidding around; you actually had to show real knowledge over an extended period of time and number of courses. You can’t do that in today’s high-speed world; people don’t have the patience. “Just give me the degree and let’s get on with it.”
She began her teaching career in an all-black school in the District of Columbia. You see, this was in the early fifties, the heyday of an absolutely shameful segregationist policy called "separate but equal.” I like to call it “separate but equal my ass.” Imagine that, in our nation’s capital, right in the midst of all those lawmakers. The mind reels in the face of such racist nonsense and the stupidity of the leadership that fostered it.
With her biology degree, my mother was, of course, teaching high school math. There was a curriculum in place that was supposed to be followed religiously. But my mother, being a gifted and intelligent woman who was ahead of her time, slightly modified the curriculum. She wanted to be sure her kids knew why they were learning math and give them a practical application for a science, which those kids didn’t seem to have. So she would take them to stores, give them an amount of imaginary money, and ask them to figure out what they could buy with it. This also allowed her the chance to teach them to be intelligent consumers.
The powers that be found out what my mother was doing and reprimanded her for going outside the curriculum. She argued that the curriculum was a sealed vacuum unto itself, one that turned the kids off the subject entirely. Many of these students were not going to end up in college and desperately needed a practical application for math in their environment. The administration told her to do it their way, and she responded by taking the highway. As you can see, by railing against authority I am hardly breaking new ground in my family
It wasn’t until my brother and I were older that she began to teach again. She became a substitute teacher for the county where we lived, which meant she spent a lot of time teaching in my high school. Talk about a potentially inflammatory situation. The last place on earth you want your mother is at your high school, and certainly not as a substitute teacher. Substitute teachers may as well walk into the classroom with targets on their backs. Being the son of one certainly puts a kid in harm’s way. Kids have been beaten up with much less provocation, such as wearing green and yellow on Thursday or knowing the answer to a question that no one else did.
But I was lucky. Make that very lucky. My mother was really good in the classroom – any classroom, with any kind of kid. A lot of my fellow students didn’t realize I was related to her, because they thought if she was my mom, I should have been a whole lot smarter. My mother never had any problems controlling her students because nobody, and I mean nobody – not even the snottiest peckerhead or the biggest thug – could stand up to my mother’s sarcasm. It was withering and unrelenting. It came from a place deep within her DNA. Thousands of years of Jewish irritability and humor went into the genetic masterpiece that comprised my mother’s snide barbs.
She could deliver a line like it was a heat-seeking missile, crushing whatever the problem might be, in an instant, amid gales of laughter, she left no prisoners. She was legendary. Students actually hoped they would get her as a substitute. After a class of hers, word would spread in the hallway of some off-the-cuff remark she had made to put down whatever wise ass was dumb enough to try to disrupt her class.
The bottom line is, my mother was funny. I mean, seriously funny. Heart-stoppingly, belly-achingly funny. Her humor comes from my grandfather, who was never happy but always funny. His three most famous quotes were: “It’s a great life. You’re born in Russia and they bury you in New Jersey.” At the height of the Vietnam War, he said “If I knew it was going to be like this here, I would have stayed in Russia.” And when the tax men came to his business in 1967 because he never paid taxes, they said, ”You have to pay taxes every year,” and he responded, “Really? I didn’t know.”
My mother was cynical like H.L. Mencken, only while in the classroom she didn’t have the luxury of crafting a line at a typewriter. She had to whip it up in real time, in front of the toughest audience on earth – high school kids. Once, a student in what was the toughest classroom at the time asked why he had to learn whatever subject she happened to be teaching that day. Without missing a beat, she said, “Because when you are pumping my gas at the Sears Station, where you have been for ten years because you didn’t get your diploma, I don’t want to have to waste my breath saying ‘I told you so.’”
When my friends would gather at my house, my mother eventually would get around to her favorite speech. The one where she would tell us that we were never going to be any better off than our parents. That family is a wonderful thing, but ultimately it’s what makes any real change impossible. We would, she would go on, all be compromised into oblivion. It was the kind of conversation that went great with snacks.
My mother didn’t like to cook when I was growing up, and it showed. The food was scary at times. Vegetables would be hot on the outside and frozen in the middle. Beef was cooked to a point of appalling grayness, and gravy didn’t exist. The whole idea of the happy homemaker of the fifties had made nary a dent in my mother. She found the notion preposterous. To her, being happy as a homemaker meant you needed a round of electroshock.
She once cooked a meal, however, that was so unforgettable that years later I asked her why she never cooked it again. She said it was because we liked it. There is one thing that can be said for her cooking: It prepared me for industrial cooking, that’s for sure.
But my mother dished up a sense of humor that has served me in good stead, and beats a good home-cooked meal anytime.
(Excerpt from my book, Nothing's Sacred)