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?
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.