Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Whatever That Changed Whatever ...

On Friday, 9 May 2008, I read to a Morning Meeting (an all-school assembly) at Western Reserve Academy a little piece I'd written about the recent proliferation of a certain kind of subtitle for books--a subtitle that includes words like changed the world or changed history or changed whatever.  I had been noticing them everywhere.

I submitted the piece to a few periodicals.  Struck out.  So I filed-and-forgot.  But I thought about it again today because I've been working on a review of a new book called The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History.  It's about the 1816 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia--an eruption that really did kill thousands and wreck summers around the world.  Of special interest for literary types is the summer of 1816 in Geneva, Switzerland, where Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Shelley), and others had to stay indoors a lot because the weather was so stormy.  To entertain themselves, they decided to write ghost stories.  Frankenstein ensued.

Anyway ... five years have passed since that talk/essay.  And here it is, a bit updated for a modern (!) audience ...

The Essay That Changed the Universe

            I’m in a bookstore standing by a display table loaded with thick piles of new books whose publishers have ponied up for this prominent location right near the front door.  I notice two titles, adjacent to each other: David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America and Eric Michael Dyson’s April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America.
            As a book reviewer and compulsive recreational reader, I’ve come across in recent years any number of books about people or events that “changed” America—or the world—or whatever.  In 2003 I reviewed Triangle: The Fire That Changed America; I recently read Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America.  There have been any number of others.
            But how large a number?  That bookstore display table made me curious.
            When I entered “changed world” into the title field on Amazon’s search screen, I got 2,464 results, including those with gravitas (The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World and Molecules That Changed the World) and those without (Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon—The Story behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World).
            The list reminded me, too, that Atlantic Monthly Press has a current series—Books That Changed the World.  Among them, Plato’s Republic, the Bible, Paine’s Rights of Man, Das Kapital, Clausewitz’s On War.
            To judge only by the frequency of subtitles, world-changing is much easier than America-changing.  In my Amazon search  “changed world” whelmed over “changed America,” which had only 583 results.  Some samples:  All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime [the murder of Emmett Till] That Changed America, Words That Changed America (a collection of famous speeches), Feminine Ingenuity: How Women Inventors Changed America, The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, Like No Other Time: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever, and Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America.
            As I consider all of this, I wonder: Would it be too cynical, too curmudgeonly, to suggest that publishers who affix these subtitles to their books are guilty of soup├žon of exaggeration?  I mean, in some sense doesn’t every historical event, doesn’t the life of every person, change the country that person lives in?  Change the world?  And more?
            Think about it: As I type these very words, something is coming into existence that wasn’t there before.  So the country and the planet are no longer exactly the same as they were.  Neither is the universe.
            So … this is the essay that changed the universe!
            That makes me feel pretty important.
            But then, just now, feeling inflated, I see a chickadee alight on a limb outside my window.  A male.  He’s looking around nervously.  There are cats in the neighborhood.  “And where,” he’s probably wondering,  “are the female chickadees, anyway?”  I consider: A male chickadee was not perched on that branch a moment ago.  That male chickadee just changed that tree, changed my yard, changed Hudson, changed Ohio, changed America, changed the world … changed the universe!
            But he also changed my essay … changed me.  So I’m no longer special.  Every single one of us—plant or animal, cowslip or kudzu, amoeba or blue whale (every flap of a butterfly’s wing!)—changes the universe every moment.  What awesome power!  And, hell, it’s not just living things, either.  Every puff of a zephyr, every shudder of the earth’s shoulder …
            Speaking of “changing the universe,” I entered that combination in Amazon just now.  Only forty-seven matches—most of them various versions of the same thing, James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed.  But there were a couple of interesting ones: Quantum Legacy: The Discovery That Changed the Universe and the immodest-sounding The Day I Changed the Shape of the Universe.
            Well, not too immodest, really, is it, since we all change the shape of the universe every single day, every moment we draw and release breath?  And even afterwards?  As we degrade in the ground—or as our ashes fly in the wind—we’re changing the chemical composition of the universe.  It’s what we do, we earthlings.  We change things--and not always (or even often) for the better.  And there’s no changing that.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 10

But I lay awake most of that night reading the book about the vicious tornado that hit St. Louis on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27, 1896, killing more than 300 people, injuring more than 1000.  It was really a collection of newspaper articles written back then, right after the storm.  So there were many sad stories.[i]
And many strange things happened that day, too:
The twister peeled the bark from some giant oak trees.
A roof flew from one house and landed on another.
Two horses, hitched to a wagon, were blown away and never found.  The wagon, left behind, was undamaged.
At the powerhouse for a railway, the entire building flew away, leaving behind the machinery inside, still operating.  Later that day, hundreds of people came to see this strange sight.
The storm ripped out a telegraph pole, carried it away, and then dropped it down a chimney.
A robin was found with feathers on one side—and no feathers on the other.
A birdcage was sucked out a window and left high in the telegraph wires.  The owner found it later when he heard his pet bird, completely unhurt, chirping merrily away.
Three women—caught outside in the storm—had all their clothes blown off and ran naked down the street.
When I read that, I laughed so hard that Father came in my room and made me turn the light off again.
But I just waited a while, then turned it back on and finished the book.

The next afternoon, down in the basement (where there were even more tools to use), I started making something out of some of the pieces of wood Father had given me—and with other things I found down there.
Let me remind you: I was four years old.  Just four years old.  No one had ever given me a lesson with a hammer or saw.  I had watched my father use his sometimes, but not very often.  (He wasn’t that interested in being a handyman.)  And I had never seen any television, so I didn’t learn anything from that.
But for some reason, I knew what to do.  I knew exactly what to do.

At supper that night my father asked me the usual questions:
 “How did you enjoy your day?  What did you read?  What did you learn how to do today?”
And I answered them: “I loved my day.  I finished the tornado book.  And today I learned how to be a carpenter.”
When I said that, he laughed out loud, almost spitting out a mouthful of the spaghetti that Aunt Claire had cooked for us.
 “That didn’t take long,” he finally said in mid-chew.  “Only an afternoon,” he joked lightly, “and you’re a carpenter.”
 “Only an afternoon,” I echoed.
 “Well, did you make something this afternoon?”
 “Yes, Father, I did.”
He looked at me.
 “Would you like to see it?”
 “Of course I would.”
I excused myself from the table and went to my room.  What I had made was so heavy that I could hardly carry it—it had been really hard getting it up the basement stairs, so Aunt Claire had helped me lug it into my room just before my father got home from work.
When he saw me coming into the room, he jumped up from his chair and took the object from me.  He sat down with it on the little couch we have in our huge dining room.
 “Vickie?” he asked.  “What … ?”
 “Lift up the lid, Father.”
 “The lid,” he said softly.  He was very confused, and I was very happy.
Here’s what I had made for him.  It was a little desk he could use in bed.  If he propped himself up against his headboard, the desk would fit right over his lap.  It was tilted slightly toward him, and I’d put a little piece of wood along the bottom so that pencils or pens would not roll into the bed.  I’d cut a little circle in it to hold a cup or glass.  Inside, I’d made separate little compartments for paper, pens and pencils, envelopes.
He wasn’t saying anything.
 “It’s not finished yet,” I said.  “I sanded it.  But I didn’t have any paint or wood stain.”
He still hadn’t said anything.  And he was just looking at me.
 “Vickie, where did you get this?  Did Aunt Claire—?”
 “Yes,” I said.
 “I thought so.”  He looked relieved.
 “She helped me carry it upstairs.  But I made it all by myself.”
He didn’t look relieved any longer.

It took Aunt Claire to convince him that I’d done all the work by myself.  Oh, he pretended to believe me.  But after supper I could hear him at the front door as Aunt Claire was about to leave for the day.  I was in the parlor, listening where they couldn’t see me.  Aunt Claire’s voice was too soft for me, so I can report only what Father said.
 “Claire?”  Pause.  “About that bed-desk?”  Pause.  “Really?”  Pause.  “Yes, it is amazing.”  Pause.  “Yes, very surprising.”  Pause.  “Well, thank you.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  I heard the door open and close.
 “Vickie?” he called.
 “Yes, Father.”  I looked up from my book as he came in the room.
 “Vickie, how … ?  I mean, who showed you … ?”  He couldn’t seem to figure out what to say.
 “I don’t know, Father.  I just looked at the wood.  And I looked at the tools.  And a picture came in my head.  And the tools helped me make what I saw in the picture.”  I waited a moment.  And then I told him the truth: “It was easy, Father.  Really easy.”
And it was easy.  I wasn’t lying.  And I’m not lying now.[ii]
My father never looked at me quite the same way again.

            [i] I know: Vickie is four years old.  Can she really read?  Does she really stay up late reading in bed—by herself?   These were my questions, too.
            [ii] Ed. note: I have talked to some industrial arts teachers and carpenters about this.  Not about Vickie, of course, but about what Vickie says she did.  When I asked them about a four-year-old accomplishing something like this, not a one of them believed it was possible.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Ghosts in Our House

The ghost of abolitionist John Brown has been in our house the past few years.  He joins the others who have gone before him--Billy the Kid, Jack London, William Shakespeare, Edgar Poe, Mary Shelley, John O'Hara ... many others as well.  The ghosts come, you see, once you begin to study.

Joyce has been hard at work on a book about John Brown, a book that has taken us to just about all the relevant sites in his life, from Harpers Ferry to North Elba to Osawatomie to Put-in-Bay to Connecticut to Pennsylvania.  And to numerous sites as close as 100 yards from our house.  Brown grew up here in Hudson (some family are buried here, a street is named for his father, Owen), and he lived in two other places where Joyce has lived (Akron, Kent).  And once she began looking for Brown, she found him everywhere.  And once John Brown recognized her interest, his ghost came to our house.  Melted through the front door.  Settled in.

He makes his presence known in so many ways.  He plans our itineraries, sculpts Joyce's days (and, in a way, mine), inhabits her imagination, disrupts her sleep, populates her dreams, reminds her that what she has just learned is but a hint of all that remains, subtly invades most of our conversations.

We'll be pulling out of the driveway, heading to Kent or Aurora for coffee, and Joyce will start telling me the names of the streets we are on--the names they had in Brown's day.  Or she will tell me about something odd she found in the archives today.  (The Hudson Library has a glittering collection of Browniana.)  Or she will think aloud, wondering how to unsnarl a particular Gordian knot in his story--and there are many.  Sometimes it's as if I'm not in the car at all--just Joyce and John, chatting amiably, Joyce pursuing, John retreating ...  Odd to be jealous of a man who's been dead since 1859.

I can only smile.  I know what's happening.  I know that the ghost is here.  He doesn't talk to me, but I see the signs.  I know them well.  For Joyce has ridden along with me and my ghosts.  For many years.  For a term, everything I say contains the words Jack London or Poe or Mary Shelley or whoever.  Most recently, John O'Hara has been riding with us.  Joyce goes with me over to Pottsville, Pa., where he grew up.  We spend nearly a week there, driving around, finding things, not finding others, John's ghost both urging us on and denying us all.  Walking along a street, we see him, hovering over a building.  We quicken our pace.  The signal for him to evanesce.

Right now, as I type, Joyce and John Brown are upstairs.  She is trying to hold him long enough to transform him into words.  He allows her small victories.  But he knows that if he gives all, he will somehow die again.  So he shimmers just out of reach--or so he thinks.  Joyce is most persistent.  He cannot suspect that it is not her arms that will finally embrace him--but her imagination.  And by the time he realizes what is happening, it will be too late.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 9

 …The morning of my fourth birthday, Sunday, 30 August 1987.[i]

 “Vickie, why don’t you open this one next?”
I looked over at Aunt Claire, who had just spoken.  She was holding a package whose shape did not puzzle me at all.  The most common gifts in our house were books.  And this, I could see, was another one.
But don’t misunderstand: I loved books—even then.  There was nothing I would rather get.  For each one was a surprise; each one held a new world for me to explore.
 “Careful, Vickie,” said Aunt Claire.  “Don’t rip the paper.”
This was one of the things Aunt Claire had tried to teach me—saving the wrapping paper on gifts.  Every year, birthdays and Christmas, we kept using the same paper over and over again.  Sometimes it drove me crazy, waiting while Aunt Claire carefully slit the tape with her fingernail—she had sharp ones!  And then carefully removed the paper, neatly folding it to save it for the next occasion.
“I’m trying not to,” I said.  But it was hard.  From the layers of tape I could tell we had used this particular piece lots of times.  It was getting pretty brittle.
From the paper I slid the book—and it was an old one.  A very old one.   An aqua cover with gold lettering.  I read the title: The Great Cyclone.  In smaller print, it said St. Louis.  The drawing on the front showed a tornado so large that it consumed practically the whole cover.  The funnel cloud was destroying a couple of large buildings—larger than our house.  Debris of all kinds was swirling around inside the twister. 
Because the book looked so fragile, I was gentle as I opened to the title page, where I saw it was published in 1896 by the Cyclone Publishing Company.   What a name.  I wondered if all their books were about tornadoes.
Carefully, I turned pages and saw many photographs of the terrible tornado that had ripped through St. Louis on that day so long ago.  Piles of rubble where there used to be a building.  Houses without roofs.  Trees and utility poles lying in the street.  People standing around looking amazed.
“I bet you’re wondering why I got that book for you?” Aunt Claire asked.
“No, I know why.”
“Because I was reading The Wizard of Oz,” I said.  “And you told me that the cyclone in that book wasn’t very real.”
“Correct!” cried Aunt Claire.  “Just listen …”  And she recited from memory the paragraphs from The Wizard of Oz about the cyclone:

…there came a great shriek from the wind, and the house shook so hard that she lost her footing and sat down suddenly on the floor.
A strange thing then happened.
The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air.  Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.
The north and south winds met where the house stood, and made it the exact center of the cyclone.  In the middle of the cyclone the air is generally still, but the great pressure of the wind on every side of the house raised it up higher and higher, until it was at the very top of the cyclone; and there it remained and was carried miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather.
It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her, but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily.[ii]

I clapped my hands with joy.  Aunt Claire could always amaze me with the unusual things she knew.
“No applause is necessary,” she joked.  “Just give me money.”
We all laughed.
“But where did you find a book this old?” I asked.  “I’m afraid it will fall apart when I read it.”
“Oh, it’s just something I had around,” she said, a little mysteriously.
“Just be careful with it,” Father added.  He held the book now—and was looking curiously at Aunt Claire over the top of it.  “There seem to be some awful stories in this book.  And such sad pictures.”
“Tornadoes are awful,” announced Aunt Claire.  “And you’re never too young to learn about them.”  Then she smiled a wicked smile.

And then it was Father’s turn to give me a gift.  I looked over at him.  He was holding a package shaped like a shoebox.  But larger.
I went over to him and took it from him.  It was so heavy I almost dropped it.
 “Watch out, Vickie.  It’s heavy,” my father laughed.
I set it down right at my feet, sank to the floor, and began to unwrap it—being careful, of course, to preserve the paper.
But I finally slipped it off  to discover … what actually was an oversized shoebox—large enough for boots.  But there were no shoes or boots inside.  When I lifted the lid, I found—instead—a bunch of tools.  A hammer, some screwdrivers, a carpenter’s measuring tape, pliers—all sorts of devices.
 “A good present,” said Aunt Claire approvingly.  “A girl need to learn how to fix things, and not just underwear rips and missing buttons, either.”
I looked at my father.  His smile was so large it divided his face in two.
He went over to the couch, reached under, and pulled out some pieces of wood he had hidden a few weeks ago.  I’d found them already while looking for a book I’d misplaced.  But I pretended to be surprised. 
 “And look,” he announced, “here’s some wood for you to practice on.”  It was in all sizes, shapes, textures, and thickness.  “Make something wonderful,” he said.
And so, the very next day, I did.

            [i] Why does Vickie write dates like this?  It’s the European style, not the American.  But maybe she knows that and is trying to throw me off the track.  And remember … Vickie read a lot.  She had probably seen this form in a book somewhere, liked it, copied it.  And, needless to say, I’ve discovered that there were no Victoria Stones born in Ohio on August 30, 1984.
            [ii] The Great Cyclone is an actual book, published in 1896.  And the quotation from the Wizard of Oz is real, too, and can be found on pages 14 and 15.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Oh, Donna ...

I first met Donna French early in the year--perhaps even at the opening meeting--when I began my teaching career in Aurora, Ohio, in the fall of 1966.  Donna was the librarian for the elementary schools, but she was often in the middle school because our building included fifth and sixth graders, and she knew that they needed her.  (And they did.)

I'll be honest.  At first, I thought she was a little weird.  Maybe even more than a little.  Her arms were full of children's books--she had a bag full of them, too--and, somehow, she was also clutching a bottle of RC Cola (another constant companion).  Donna, I learned later, had started the elementary school library just a few years earlier, and it was already an adornment of the school system.  As was she, I would learn.

She was fiercely liberal politically--this during the era of Civil Rights, of the Vietnam War, of the women's movement.  She did not endear herself to the culturally and politically conservative folks in Aurora.  She didn't care.  She believed in equality.  She practiced it.  She volunteered in some rough neighborhoods in Cleveland.  Driving her beat-up green VW bus back and forth ...

I also soon learned that she had six children, with a seventh (and last) on the way.  And an amazing husband, Park French (whom everyone called "Bud"), who had a Ph.D. in physics from Case--a detail I did not learn until after I'd known him about a year.  He was so unassuming, so--what?--down-to-earth (and I was so swollen with youthful arrogance), that it never occurred to me that this gentle man who liked to talk about books and cars and ideas was about, oh, fifty times smarter than I.  And a whole lot better read.

I was twenty-one years old that fall, beginning what would turn out to be a thirty-year career in middle school education.  I taught seventh graders.  I had no idea what I was doing--or what I should do.  Donna French, on the other hand, seemed always certain.  Get lots of books; get them into the hands of kids; read aloud to them---and, hey, why don't we act some of the stuff out?  She was amazing.

Well, very early that fall of 1966, the principal of my school, Ray Clough, told us that there'd been a screw-up (not his words) with the bus schedule, and we would now have a thirty-minute "activity period" tacked onto the end of the full academic day.  A daffy rookie, I thought that was a great idea, and I promptly formed a drama club and a newspaper.

Into that drama club that first fall came Linda French, an eighth grader (and thus, to me, terrifying). I wasn't too sure what I wanted to do with the group, so we started writing a play together, a script that grew into a show we called The Founding of Aurora; or, The Grapes of Wrath, a show we presented for the school in the spring of 1967.

Well ... when Donna found out what was going on, she pounced (in a nice way): What did I need? What would I like?  How could she help?  Etc.  I was near tears with gratitude.  And then she was inviting me to their home in Aurora to meet the other kids and Bud.  She fed me.

This was no small thing.  My annual salary ($5100) translated, after taxes, etc., into $168.42 on the first and the fifteenth of each month.  This did not ... suffice.  The Frenches did.  They kept me alive that year--and some subsequent years--both professionally and, well, actually.

And the Frenches' house?  It was more like a library--one that had outgrown its space long ago.  Books everywhere--and stuffed animals (many related to children's books--Curious George among them).  In the basement, Bud had a couple of old Porsches he was restoring ... a project that took, oh, thirty years ... and was still undone, I think, when Bud died a couple of years ago.

In subsequent years I would teach Doug "Skip" French and his sister Jill.  I would have Susie in class for a while.  I would work in some capacity with some of the others.  I watched little Jodi grow up.  I directed them in plays, watched and admired them in others.  Saw Skip excel in middle school sports, heard him sing in the high school choir.

When a friend and I decided to start an Aurora Youth Theater (for the summers), guess whom we approached first?  Guess who dived into that torrent of activity with unabashed glee?  Guess whose kids formed the foundation of that program?

When I married Joyce in 1969, she soon joined the French free-for-all, too.  They made her feel immediately welcome.  And she has not forgotten it.

When we left Aurora in 1978 to give Lake Forest College a whirl, the Frenches were among those who planned a "going away" bash for us.  (We were back in a year!)

Well, time passed.  Kids grew up, moved away.  Life rolled on.  I kept in touch with some Frenches for a while (Jill especially), but soon I lost track of them--shame on me.  I retired from Aurora in January 1997 and a few years later was teaching in another torrent--Western Reserve Academy.

Then, a couple of years ago--the sad new of Bud's passing.  They had moved out to Anna Maria, a stages-of-care place in Aurora (though their book-filled house remained!).  We went to his lovely memorial.

Then, this past Tuesday evening the phone rang.  It was Jill.  Weeping.  Her mom was gone.  Could we make the memorial service on Saturday?

Could we?

Yesterday, we joined many former students, colleagues, friends to celebrate Donna's remarkable life.  The setting?  The Aurora Memorial Library.  Downstairs in the very room where I once saw Jill in the cast of Arsenic and Old Lace.  The kids (kids! some are in their fifties now ... some have grandchildren of their own) had arranged around the room various displays of Donna's immense collection of children's books--and stuffed animals.

Once again, I was in the room with all seven of them.  And there were hugs and tears and laughs and stories in such abundance that this morning my mind and heart and memory are still a-swirl.

Linda French Griffin was there.  As were at least two other cast members of The Founding of Aurora, which, in a few years, will reach its fiftieth anniversary.  How can that be?

I don't like to think about a world without Donna French in it.  Everything seems, I don't know, just less possible without her.  Hers was a most capacious heart, a most generous one.  I shudder to think about my career--my life--without her and her remarkable brood.  I commented yesterday afternoon that entering her house was like walking into the pages of Little Women (plus Skip!).  But it was more like walking into Life itself, a life in which laughing and reading and pretending and helping and touching and loving composed the very air we all gulped so greedily.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Teachers Who Don't Feel Like Working

In yesterday's New York Times there was a story (Link) about a new PBS mini-series--Shakespeare Uncovered--which began its six-part run last night.  (It's on DVR--haven't watched it yet.)  Anyway, I was reading the feature in the paper (by Neil Genzlinger), figuring it would be fun to watch in these dark drear dour days of January and February. Until I came to this sentence:

Sure, the hourlong programs feel a bit like something high school teachers or college professors might show classes when they didn't feel like working ....

(By the way, if I were grading Genzlinger's sentence--on one of those days when I feel like working--I would circle his they and mention it doesn't have a clear antecedent: the closest plural noun is classes, but it's probably not the classes he's talking about.  Or is it?  Not clear.  Rewrite the sentence.  Make it clear.  Picky English teacher.)

Well, I was surely glad Genzlinger didn't mention middle school teachers in his sweeping dismissal.  He must have known that middle school teachers would never show a film or video just to, you know, have something to do when they didn't feel like working.

I taught middle school for about thirty years, college for a few, high school for about ten--and I really got out a lot of work by showing films.  I'm alarmed now that Genzlinger has outed my colleagues and me--has revealed our darkest secret to the readers of the New York Times, whose reporters never don't feel like working--well, there was Jayson Blair, that reporter who faked stories, fooled his editors--but, hey, let's not condemn all NYT reporters because of a couple of sluggards.  Let's save that for educators.

First of all: confession.  The first year I taught middle school (the first year I taught anything) was 1966-1967.  I had five classes a day, forty seventh-grade (i.e., wacko) students per class.  (Do the math.)  I had two sections of American history, two of English, one of reading.  Three different preparations each day.

And then ... a screw-up in the bus scheduling, so the principal added another thirty-minute period to the day and called it activity period. Now I had a couple additional preparations.  (I found myself involved, via activity period, in the drama and journalism programs at the school.  I loved both.)

I didn't complain.  I was having fun.  And--some days--I was drowning.  Overwhelmed by work and detail.  And, yes, sometimes on those days as I slipped below the surface, I would show a filmstrip or a film, giving me time to swim back up for a little air.

I did not show those films because I didn't feel like working but because I had so much work I couldn't do it all.  And I was under water.

The job never got any easier.  There were years when I had fewer classes, fewer students, but there was always more to do than I could possibly do.  But I started figuring things out, too.  I organized my days better, my evenings, my weekends.  (Critics love to bleat about how teachers don't work in the summer; what those critics don't mention is that we work seven days a week, plus evenings, during the academic year.)

And I started integrating films and other visuals into the curriculum.  My middle-schoolers read The Taming of the Shrew--later, Much Ado About Nothing--and then we watched the wonderful films of those plays.  (But just on days when I didn't feel like working.)

When I taught The Call of the Wild, which takes place during Klondike Gold Rush, I showed students Chaplin's film The Gold Rush (same era)--but only when I didn't feel like working.

When I taught The Diary of Anne Frank, we read the play, then saw the film--but only when ...

When I taught Hamlet, we read the play--up through Act IV--then saw one of the films--but only when ...

When I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I would show the Huck-related segment of Ken Burns' film Mark Twain--but only when ...

It's annoying for anyone--a teacher, a reporter, a politician, a cop, a welfare recipient, a teenager, a hunter, a lawyer, a priest, an investment banker, a mother, an anything or anyone--to be compared constantly with the worst of our sub-species.  But we do it to one another, all the time.

It's a kind of shorthand.  Kind of easy.  Even kind of fun.  Very self-satisfying.

Except, of course, when we are the target.  Then it's something else, isn't it?  Then it's bias, prejudice, ignorance--all those other ugly words we use to characterize people who don't understand us. And who don't take the time to try.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 8

My father did a good job of bringing me up.  He needed some help, of course.  He was working full-time as a local newspaper reporter, so he was not able to be at home all the time.  But he found an older woman in town to take care of me during the day.  She cooked and cleaned and changed my diapers and played with me.  Her name was Claire Wahl (rhymes with doll).  But I always called her Aunt Claire because I loved her just like she was part of my family.
Later, when I was older, I found out a strange thing about Aunt Claire.  That day, after she had left for home, my father and I were eating supper, talking about our days—as usual.
 “What did you and Aunt Claire do today?” he was asking me.
I told him.
Then I thought of a question.  “Father,” I asked, “where did Aunt Claire come from?”
He chewed his food thoughtfully before he answered me.  “I put an ad in the newspaper,” he said.  “For a babysitter.”
I thought about that for a minute.  “But where is she from, Father?  Did she always live here?”
 “No, Vickie, not always.  In fact, she had only been here a day or so when she saw the ad and applied for the job.”
 “A day or so?  Where was she before?”
 “I don’t really know.  She had some letters of reference—some names of people I could call to check on her.  But I never did.”
 “Why not?”
 “I don’t know—I just knew after talking to her for five minutes that she was perfect.  I didn’t need anyone else’s opinion.”[i]

Aunt Claire had ideas of her own about how I ought to be brought up.  “Girls should know how to cook and sew,” she always said.  “And so should boys.  How can you live in the world if you don’t know how to fix your own lunch or repair a rip in your underwear?”  That was a good question.  I didn’t want to go around hungry … or with rips in my underwear.  Who would?  She said, “These are not girl skills, Vickie.  They are human ones.”
And so she taught me how to cook and sew, and by the time I was in elementary school, I was helping to cook for my father, fixing the rips in his shirts (not his underwear), replacing the missing buttons.  By the time I was in third grade I made all my own clothes.  And so I didn’t look much like other girls in Franconia.  Usually, this didn’t bother me.
Aunt Claire taught me something else, too.  German.  She spoke the language fluently.  And when Father was away, she would speak only German to me.  I don’t remember this, of course (I was an infant), but Father told me that he didn’t know anything about it for a while.  He just assumed that those sounds I was making were typical baby sounds—nonsense syllables.  But when I started saying whole sentences in German, asking questions in German, he realized what was going on.
Aunt Claire told me about it later, when I was older.  (She told me in German, but I’m going to write it in English.)
 “Your father was a little bit upset,” she told me.  “He didn’t know I was talking German to you.”
 “Why didn’t you tell him?”
 “I was afraid he would say no.”
 “That’s the same reason I don’t ask him some things,” I said.  “I didn’t know adults did things like that, too.”
 “Adults are just children with jobs and larger clothes,” she said.
 “But why did you teach me German, Aunt Claire?” I asked.  “You’ve never told me.”
She looked at me strangely for a moment, then said lightly: “Who knows?”  And she would never say another word about it.

My father never owned a TV set.  He said that television was an invention designed to make people stupid and to want things they can’t afford.  We did own a radio.  But Father rarely turned it on, and he would not let me listen to it.
Not that I ever wanted to.
My father was my television, my radio.  Our books were our television, our radio.  He read to me every night, even when I was older and could read by myself.  He would sit on my bed and read aloud until one of us fell asleep.  When I was really young, I always fell asleep first, but by the time I was eight or nine, he would nod off before I did.  I would gently remove the book from his hand and then use the edge of the cover to tickle his cheek.  Then he would wake up—sort of.
 “You asleep?” he would ask.
 “Yes,” I would answer.  “I’m sound asleep.”
 “Good.  I’ll talk to you in the morning.  Guhnight.”  And then he would struggle to his feet, turn off the light, and trudge slowly out of my room and down the hall to his own. 
As soon as I heard his bedroom door click shut, I would turn my light back on and read on into the night.  I don’t think I was fooling him, though.  Because every morning my light would be off and my book would be on my desk—even when I knew I’d fallen asleep with my light on and with my book open across my chest.
Our house, as you might guess, was full of books.  Every room—even the dining room—had shelves for books. We had bookshelves in the bathrooms!  My father belonged to book clubs, he bought books at library sales, he ordered them from catalogues, he went on book-buying sprees in Columbus and Cincinnati.   Both of us regularly brought armloads of books home from the public library.
I never thought anything was strange about that, not until I visited other houses and noticed that some of them had no books at all.  I feel sorry for people who have no books.  It’s worse than having no friends.  Much worse.  A friend can move away.  A friend can betray you.

            [i] Ed. Note: This seems very odd to me.  Why would a father trust his only child to a stranger?  Did he really fail to check Claire Wahl’s references?  Wasn’t he running a terrible risk?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mom's 1936 High School Yearbook

While I was helping my mom, Prudence Osborn Dyer, move last weekend (into an assisted living place), I found among her many books a title I'd never expected to see: The Monticello, the yearbook of Thomas Jefferson High School, Richmond, Virginia--her high school, her senior year.  1936.  Everyone called her "Prudy."

Her father--my grandfather--had been serving as a Disciples of Christ minister at a church in Richmond but had recently accepted a position at Phillips University (a Disciples' school) in Enid, Oklahoma, and so they had left Richmond in the middle of her senior year--not an easy thing for any adolescent to experience.  Apparently, her friends had arranged for her to get a yearbook, and many of them had signed it--as had many of the faculty.

lower left corner
The high school was a large one--but Mom seemed to have been liked by lots of folks.  She was vice-president of the senior class and was involved in many other activities, as well.  Her "credits" under her picture include Athletic Association (some sort of booster club--the only girls' sport was basketball), Debating Society, Girl Reserves (?), French Society President, National Honor Society.  (I, too, was an NHS member!)

Most of the teachers just signed their names--but three English teachers--all women--wrote little messages: What Oklahoma has gained we have lost. I miss you.  And: We've missed you this term.  And: Gone but not forgotten.  (So trite!) And the science teacher, Ruth P. Browning, said I've missed you.  I also had a teacher--at Hiram High School--named Ruth Browning.  There are other weird coincidences, too.  TJHS performed The Mikado that year; we did it at HHS, too.  And so on.

Many of the students wrote little messages like we miss you!  One girl, Marguerite V. Costello, wrote Gosh, I miss you!  Some wrote things like Luck always! and Best wishes!  And one guy named Jack wrote Always shoot high.  Ruth Ann Sommers called Mom My very best friend!  And Ray wrote: Gone, but not forgotten.  A kid named Mac said To [sic] bad you moved away.  And Billy: Love & Kisses.  As I look at Billy's picture, I'm pretty sure he was engaging in some wishful thinking.

And Patsy--You don't know how I've missed you this term.  And Phil waxed wise: "Life has no blessing like a prudent friend."  A football player nicknamed Booky said: Loads of good luck to the loveliest girl to graduate this year.

Then there were the comments that set the mind a-whirl: Remember what we used to do in French class with Mr. Berry?  And how about this one?  Yes, this is the same boy who used to be the back seat driver when we had those double-dates in Richmond, remember?  I bet you do, ha! ha!  The guy who wrote that is either 93 or dead, but I think I still want to hunt him down.  The same guy wrote: How about the night we got home from a certain dance?  How about it?  Oh, the mysteries of my mother's past require a Sherlock Holmes ...

Mom did indeed have her share of luck and all.  Three years later--she had just turned twenty--she married my father in Enid.  They would have three sons.  And then three grandchildren.  And now two great-grandchildren.  Dad would survive WW II and have a fine career as a professor.  Mom taught in Enid's Emerson Junior High, then at James A. Garfield HS in Garrettsville, Ohio, for ten years, during which time she completed her Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 1966, my father left Hiram College--where he'd taught for ten years--and both he and my mom took positions at Drake University, where they both retired.  Then came some years on the Oregon coast--Cannon Beach, then Seaside, before my father's declining health sent them to Massachusetts, nearer my brothers.  He died in November 1999.

My mother lived on her own for a while.  Then time and frailty ganged up on her.  And now she moves, slowly, with her walker.  Spends much time in her chair, reading.  Dozing.  Perhaps dreaming of the days of youth, of Richmond, of Thomas Jefferson High School, 1936, of the mysterious events in French class, of the double-dates, the dances, the young men and women who swirled around the decorated gymnasium, laughing so hard their poor sides ached while the orchestra played sweet music that floats forever on the soft Virginia night.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 7

For a long time I did not know who I was.  Who I really was, I mean.  Who I am.
When I was little, I was positive who I was: My name was Victoria (Vickie) Stone.  I was sure of that, as sure as any girl can be about her identity.  I had no middle name, but I never really worried about it except when, later on, I had to fill out forms at school.  Then I had to leave blank the part that said Middle Name or Initial.
I lived with my father in Franconia, Ohio, a small town on the Ohio River.[i]   Just across the river is West Virginia, but the nearest bridge was ten miles away, so I didn’t go over there very often.  But I looked across the river every day, staring at the heavily wooded hills, wondering what it was like.  Wondering what the people were like.  Wondering if one of them was over there wondering about me
Older people in Franconia said that once in a great while the Ohio River would freeze.  And when it did, brave—or foolish—people would race across to the other side.  West Virginians to our side, Ohioans to their side.  Some stopped and talked with strangers, right in the middle of the river.  Every winter I hoped the river would freeze so I could cross it, just to see.  I knew, of course, that my father would never let me do it.  He would tell me that the ice would break, that I would fall in and drown.  Parents always figure the worst will happen.  Sometimes they’re right.
I never knew my mother.  She died just a week and a half after I was born.[ii]  My father always told me it wasn’t my fault that she died.  But whose fault is it, if not mine?  If I hadn’t been born, my mother wouldn’t have died, not then.  My birth killed her, plain and simple. 
Her name was Mary Waldman—before she married my father, of course.  Then she became Mary Waldman Stone.  I have a picture of her in my room on my dresser.  She’s at her wedding reception.  Laughing.  A hand is reaching into the picture, putting a piece of white cake into her mouth.  It is my father’s hand.  My mother looks so happy. 
The picture makes me sad.  It makes me wish I could have been at the wedding.  It makes me wish my mother were alive.  I want to see her smile, hear her laugh.  Hold her hand.  Feel her hair, her breath.
When I was a little girl, I used to think my mother looked old.  Now—as I write this, I am nearly fourteen—she seems so young.  So impossibly young.  She was twenty-two years old when she married my father.  She was twenty-three when she died.  She is buried in the little cemetery behind the old Lutheran church in Franconia.[iii] 
When we still lived in Franconia, I used to go to the cemetery all the time, especially in the warm seasons, but sometimes in the winter, too.  I would sit with a book near her grave and I would read.  Sometimes I would read aloud to my mother, especially when I found something funny or sad or interesting.  Sometimes I would talk to her.  But she never answered.  Just a silent stone, a lonely daughter.[iv]
The gravestone is very simple.  It’s white granite, and here’s what it says:

Mary Waldman Stone

Beloved wife and mother.

“And flights of angels
sing thee to thy rest.”

My father told me that the quotation about the angels is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  A character named Horatio says it to Hamlet, his best friend, who is dying at the end of the play.  It’s very sad.  I had a mother for only a handful of days, but I will always be her daughter.

            [i] Ed. note: I was alarmed to discover that there is no town named Franconia on the Ohio River.  In fact, there is no town in the entire state of Ohio named Franconia.  Has Vickie simply changed the name of another town?
            [ii] Ed note: Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, also died shortly after delivering Mary in 1797.
            [iii] Ed. note: I have checked the death certificates in the southern counties of Ohio for the 1980s and have found no record that would fit the sad situation that Vickie describes here.  No woman named Mary Stone died during that time period.
            [iv]Ed. note:  The young Mary Shelley would also frequently visit the grave of her mother.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Are Girls Better Readers Than Boys?

Yesterday one of my web services sent me an article about how the authorities in Allentown, PA, are worried about a gap in reading achievement scores between girls and boys in their school system.  (Link to article)  Some recent tests showed that third- and fourth-grade girls are just far ahead of the boys--and the differences remain, though somewhat diminished, clear through high school.

And now the school authorities want to see if they can do something about it.  Mind the gap, as I used to hear on the Tube in London.  (That's the subway, not the TV.)

I think if you were to query the first person you saw on the street (or, better, the first person who didn't run away from you) about this issue, you would get explanations like these--

  • Boys are more active; they'd rather punch a book than read it.
  • Girls are more interior; boys, exterior.  (A nice way to allude to sex organs.)
  • Girls don't play as many computer games as boys do.
  • Girls are nice and polite; boys are assholes.
  • Schools aren't what they used to be.
  • My son is a great reader--what are you talking about?
  • Teachers are lazy and overpaid.
  • Kids--all kids--watch too much TV, spend too much time on Facebook.
  • Their parents don't read--so why should the kids?
  • Books are dead.  Who cares?  Old technology.
  • Etc.
  • The usual suspects.
I'll confess right now: I come from a family of readers.  There were lots of books in our house, and somebody was always reading them.  My older brother was reading Shakespeare and Dickens and all those Russians when he was in elementary school.  My younger brother still eats books like French fries.  Yet there was a time in my life--during most of junior high and high school--when I didn't read at all--or very little.  This alarmed my parents and delighted my brothers, who got to sit and smile at supper while my parents asked me why I wasn't reading any longer.

I guess I was ... distracted ... during those years.  Sports (I was certain I would have a variety of options for professional sports--baseball, for sure; maybe even basketball).  Girls.  Sleep.  Thinking of how little homework I could get away with doing.  School plays.  Girls.  Sleep.  Sports.  Girls.

Later, in college, my reading lamp went back on--and has stayed on until this very minute.  (By 8 a.m. today I'd read 100 pages of a book I'm reviewing.)

I've read--and you can read in the article--that there are perhaps some physiological reasons why boys read less (and thus score poorly).  I'm sure this is true.  When I was in junior high, I was just constitutionally incapable of understanding why so many girls were carrying books around--not just textbooks, but real ones.  Only a few guys did that, and they were, for the most part, you know, Girly Men.  Or so I thought in the thickest denseness of my most densely thick period.

I know that no one achieved any status--in those years--because of what he'd read--or because of what he was reading.  Status came from (1) athletic prowess, (2) sexual prowess (or ability to feign same), (3) musculature, (4) disdain for authority.  I also kind of admired guys who were good at pinball.

Sometimes, of course, we had to read.  Book reports and the like.  The guys I knew had two criteria for picking a volume for a required book report: (1) slimness, (2) font size (though we didn't know that word then--font).  One friend just made up a book for his report--got an A on it, too, which pissed me off.  Not because of the grade--but because I hadn't thought of that first.  (The suspicious teacher, in the future, made us show our books as we were talking about them.)

I'm being frivolous, I know.  But I think it's really not all that complicated.  Boys are hunter-gatherers.  It's a lot more fun to go shoot arrows at a buffalo than it is to stare at unmoving marks on a flat surface.

Nowadays--not so many buffalo.  And the flat surfaces in front of us really move in exciting ways that animate the imagination--and keep us from doing homework.  Or reading.

My younger brother and I were talking last weekend about how glad we were that we grew up in the age (the dying age?) of the book.  I realize that if I'd been born into a world of cable TV (sports and porn, 24/7!) and the Internet and Netflix and Facebook and all, I might never have read a book.  That's sad.

On the other hand, my house would now have a lot more free shelf-space.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 6

I thought she was sick.  But after a week went by, I stopped by the office and talked to Mr. Craft, the assistant principal and attendance officer.
“What’s the word on Vickie Stone?” I asked.
“Vickie Stone?”
“You know, the new girl?  Moved in last fall?”
He looked at me with a blank expression.  “I can’t place the name,” he said finally.  He reached for his file of index cards and flipped through them.  He looked up at me.  “No Vickie Stone,” he said.
“Of course there is,” I laughed.  “Look again.”
“I don’t have to look again,” he said roughly.  “I’m telling you, there’s no Vickie Stone registered here.”
I went to the file of permanent records and looked in the S’s.  No Vickie.
I asked the secretary, “Did Vickie Stone withdraw or something?  Transfer?”
“Vickie who?”
Was I losing my mind?
“Vickie Stone.  She was in my second period class.”
The secretary consulted her computer, then waved me over to look at her monitor.  I saw my second-period class roster.  Vickie Stone’s name was not on it.  “Is this an early April Fool, Mr. Walton?” she asked me.
“Yeah,” I gasped, trying to remain calm, “it’s an April Fool.”
Next day, second period, I casually asked the class.  “Has anyone heard anything about Vickie?  Is she sick?  Did she move?”
I don’t really need to tell you what happened next, do I?
No one had ever heard of her.
If it weren’t for the copies of her Papers that I had in my house—and her handwritten notes—I would have thought I was crazy, too.  Now you’re going to have to trust me on this next thing: When I went home that night to check my photocopies of the Papers, I found them in fine shape.  But the words on the handwritten notes—the ones in the spidery ink—began to fade before my eyes.  Quickly, I sat at my computer and typed copies of as many of them as I could.  But I could not get them all.  In a short while they were gone.  I tried soaking them in lemon juice; holding them up to flames.  But I could see nothing, not a sign that any words had ever been on the paper.  (When you read what follows, I think you’ll understand how this happened.)
A week later I got a card from Vickie.  The postmark was so smudged that I could not tell when she had mailed it—or from where.  The stamp had fallen off somewhere along the way.  So the card could have been mailed from anywhere—around the corner, across the ocean.  I would never know.  On the front of the card was a picture of Mary Shelley.
And here’s the message:

Mr. Walton,
I know I have some explaining to do.  But I will not be able to do it.  Not right now, anyway.  You’re not crazy, Mr. Walton.  I am real.  Just like my Papers … real.  One day you will know the truth of what happened, but that day will have to wait.  If you want to tell my story some day, I guess you can.  But, Mr. Walton, I warn you: No one will believe you.
            P. S.  It’s fortunate that you made copies of my Papers, isn’t it?

I have not heard from her again.  Maybe if she ever sees this book—if she’s even alive—maybe then she’ll get in touch with me.  I hope so.  I miss Vickie Stone—or Victoria Frankenstein, or whoever she is.
I think I believe her Papers are authentic.  I know I want to believe Vickie.  But then … I sort of have to, don’t I?  Because if I don’t, then it’s not Vickie who is insane, is it?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Along the Road, Twixt There and Here ...

From Becket, Mass., to Hudson, Ohio, today ... in no particular order ...

  • On the Taconic Parkway very early this morning--a red smeared line along the eastern horizon eventually swelled into a sunrise.
  • A crow, surely marveling at his/her good fortune, stood alongside I-84 contemplating a dead deer nearby.
  • The length of the Taconic Parkway--from its beginning on I-90 to my exit at I-84: not a single vehicle passed me--nor did I pass anyone.
  • I followed a car out onto I-80 near Clarion, Pa. (where I'd stopped for coffee), a car going 35 mph.  I said some bad words.
  • The McDonald's servers charge me only for "Senior Coffee" whether I ask for it or not.  Should I be grateful?  Or insulted?
  • On I-81 I saw a red fox that had not been sly enough.
  • The wind today was so strong that it cut about 8 mpg from my usual rate on that trip.
  • Why do the pumps at the Hudson BP (where I filled up when I got home) never send out a receipt, sending me inside to get one?  (Yes, I asked the pump to print one; it refused--again.)
  • Snow flurried wildly in the Alleghenies; none stuck to the road.  No one slowed down.
  • Why can trucks nowadays maintain 75 mph going up a steep hill?  Even with double and triple trailers?  When I was in driver ed (1961), we were taught that trucks always slowed dramatically on an upgrade.  Not no more ...
  • Why was a Ford F-150 parked in one of the slots that said "Compact Cars Only" at one of the rest areas?  Can't read?  Or just an asshole?
  • Did anyone passing me today know that for many miles I was reciting aloud the 120+ poems I've memorized?  Or did they just see an old guy flapping his jaws and figure ... Dotage!
  •  I saw a hawk whose eyesight hadn't been good enough alongside I-80.
  • Do you have to go to school to learn how to speed up to pass, then slow down so that I have to pass you, just before you pass me again?  For miles ...
  • Your erratic speed tells me you're texting.
  • Several Priuses, doing 80+, whispered by me at various times along my route.  My Prius felt inadequate--Prius envy?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I Hate Moving: Thinking of Mom and Jack Reacher

My mom (93) and Jack Reacher (ageless) don't have a lot in common.  My mom was not an MP in the Army; Jack Reacher does not have a Ph.D., has not written a book about teaching poetry.  But helping my mom move this weekend made me think about Jack Reacher ...

It takes a move to remind me how much I hate moving.  My brother, nephew, and I just spent the weekend moving my mom, who lives in a stages-of-care facility, from an independent unit to assisted living.  And I'm whupped.  All her things demanded decisions--what to keep? store? take? donate? save? trash? And few decisions were easy.

But the look on Mom's face when she saw her new place?  She was coming from the nursing wing, where she's spent the last two months in rehab after a fall.  We were worried, mostly because she had been adamantly opposed to assisted living.  (BTW: Look up that word, adamant.  Has a hard meaning.)  In fact, when she originally moved into her stages-of-care place, she tried to get me to promise I would never move her.  I couldn't make that promise--and she was not happy.

So we were worried about her reaction.  But we needn't have been.  She was thrilled.  Her things all around her--her favorite pictures on the wall--everything convenient for her, now that she must use a walker at all times.  Over and over she thanked us.  But, as I've reminded her, over and over, the River Thanks flows the other way--from me to her.  She gave me life--in every way imaginable.  How to thank someone for that?

But oh do I hate moving.  I told my brother, Dave, as we were leaving for the day, This makes me want to go home and get rid of every object I own.  It's become a cliche, I know, but our objects truly do own us--it's not the other way around.  Our economy very much rests on our passion for things--on our willingness to go into debt to have them--on our limitless capacity to fall in love with new things and have to have them.

Here's a little test: Sit down in your space; look around you.  How many objects are there--just in your line of sight?  How many of them do you really need?  And how many are there only because you want them--or because you don't know what to do with them?  Or, even because you've forgotten you even have them--they are out of your awareness as you walk through the room.

One of the appeals of the Jack Reacher novels is that he moves through life only with the things he can wear or carry.  It's one of the things I envy about him--that and his ability to whup anyone who hassles him--which happens every few chapters in the books.

But what am I going to do about all those Jack Reacher novels piled on my floor?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein: 5

I’ll admit it: I was flattered.  I always feel that way when a student trusts me with something.  Kids take a chance when they confide in an adult, and it’s an honor, really, when anyone of any age trusts you enough to share something from the heart.
But I didn’t know what to think, how to respond to this, well, incredible turn of events.  I didn’t want to insult Vickie by—once again—accusing her of making up the whole thing.  And she worried me a little, too.  And there’s no one left to tell, she’d said.  What did that mean?
And how could I accept that her name was Frankenstein!  A name from a story, a  name that Mary Shelley had simply made up!  (Didn’t she?[i])
So I just sat there with her manuscript in my hand, and she just sat there, and we looked at each other for a while.
Finally, I broke the quiet.  “And after I’ve read it,” I asked, “what would you like me to do?”
“Just write some comments,” she said.  “Don’t grade it or anything.  Just write me a note.  Let me know what you think.”
“I can do that,” I said.
“And please … don’t write on it,” she said.  “I don’t have another copy.”
“I won’t,” I said.  “But would you like me to Xerox a copy of it for you?”
Never,” she said so sharply I almost told her she was going too far, using that kind of tone.
But then she softened, even smiled.  “And don’t forget,” she said.  “You can’t tell anyone else about this.  I mean it.”  She looked at me with a sober seriousness so rare for someone her age.  Was I imagining the hard glint of a warning in her dark eye?
“I promise,” I said.
And now here I am, years later, publishing Vickie’s story, proving myself a liar.

The manuscript was longer than I expected—more than a hundred pages—but I read it in one sitting that very night.  And I was impressed.  Very much so.  And I wrote Vickie a long note about it.  But I didn’t return it right away.  Instead, the next morning, very early, well before anyone else was there, I went to school and Xeroxed it.  I don’t know why I did that.  I shouldn’t have.  But now, considering what’s happened, I’m glad I did.
Over the course of the next few months, Vickie brought me other installments of her Papers.  I read them all quickly.  Wrote comments for them all.  Photocopied them all—without telling Vickie.  I felt guilty about deceiving her, but I did it anyway—feeling guilt’s sharp point each time the machine sent another warm page out into the light.
As I read each installment of Vickie’s “autobiography,” one thing bothered me above everything else: Is any of this true?  Vickie swore it was, every word.  But—as you’ll see—she asks a lot.  To believe that she really experienced these things is to believe, well, that the world is a far stranger and more mysterious place than most people imagine … than I ever imagined.
But maybe Vickie was just a really creative girl loaded with weird ideas. 
Maybe she was just a gifted liar—or insane.
You’ll have to decide.
And so I present Packet #1 of The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein.  I have not changed a word of Vickie’s manuscript.  Not a single word.  That would be cheating.  But in some places I have added footnotes—just to clear up something that a reader may wonder about, or to add some information I’ve discovered about what she wrote.  Or to express my doubts or questions about something.
You may be wondering about something right now: Why am I publishing the Papers?  Aren’t I breaking my solemn promise to Vickie?
Yes, I did make that promise—but that was more than fifteen years ago.  Vickie Stone—Victoria Frankenstein?—did not finish the year at Tyre Middle School, where I taught.  One day in the middle of March—not long after I’d returned to her the final installment of her Papers—she just quit coming to school.

            [i] But did she make it up?  Later, I learned some surprising facts: In his book In Search of Frankenstein (New York Graphic Society, 1975), researcher Radu Florescu tells about the actual Castle Frankenstein in Germany and attempts to prove that Mary Shelley saw it on her journey along the Rhine River in the summer of 1814—two years before she began writing Frankenstein.  Florescu also traces the Frankenstein family back to the 12th century!