FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN — PECULIAR MEMORIES

Garry has written his own version of this story, though it’s completely different. And a little bit the same. For him, it’s Hollywood. For me, it is memories.


In 1962, I was 15 years old, at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The school I attended was a giant of a school in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Five stories high (including the bell tower which was where the choir worked), it was shaped like a giant H. Most of the classrooms were on either end of the H with offices, bathroom, closets and all that stuff along the hallways.

There were no elevators. I suppose it never occurred to the designer of high schools that anyone might have a broken leg or something like that.

Jamaica High School was administered by the New York City Department of Education, which closed the school in 2014. The school’s landmark campus, located at the corner of 167th Street and Gothic Drive, remains open. It is now officially known as the Jamaica Educational Campus. It houses four smaller separately administered public high schools that share facilities and sports teams.

It was September 1962 when I noticed a big lump on my ankle. Pretty big. Hard, and it didn’t hurt. At all. Nothing to indicate it was from a bump or a fall. I ran my hand up and down my leg and thought about it. Probably nothing. At 15, everything is no big deal. But, because I also knew my mother had long and ugly bout with cancer (cancer? kids don’t get cancer!), I called her.

“I’ve got a lump on my leg,” I explained. “Here.” She ran her fingers over it.

“Does it hurt?”

“No.”

“Not even a little bit?”

“Nope. Just a lump. I was going to forget about it, but … you know. What do you think?”

“I think we need a doctor,” she said and promptly arranged for me to see the chief resident surgeon at NewYork Presbyterian Hospital. I should mention it was a great hospital. Compassionate, caring and very concerned for its patients. My mother had excellent taste in hospitals, something that would eventually serve me well as time caught up with me.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller-horror (and very camp) film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

I was in the hospital in the middle of September. The surgeon — Dr. Waugh, I believe … many years ago and names slip away with time — said I had a tumor. What kind of tumor, he didn’t know and couldn’t know until surgery. If it was benign, they would just remove it and off I’d go into the world, none the worse for wear. If it was the other kind, I would likely lose my leg. The whole leg. I was not happy about that, but at least he didn’t mince words or make me feel like a moron.

A week later, I was in surgery. It wasn’t cancer. Benign but a really big tumor. It had wrapped itself around my tibia and femur. It had crawled up the leg and was in the process of pulling apart the two bones. So not cancer, but also, not nothing. They could not simply remove it. There was too much of it, so they took out a piece of my femur and replaced it with a very hard plastic bone. Packed the leg in whatever that stuff is they use and for two weeks, I slept with that leg on a huge pack of ice.

No getting out of bed for anything. At all. I was not to use that leg for a full six months because the implanted bone needed to set. The nurses used to hang out with me in the evening. They were my pals when I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They checked under my bed to make sure there were no pods waiting for me. Then, it was time to go home.

With crutches.

My high school was gigantic and there was no way I could attend school until my leg finished healing. The school called the home teachers unit. There were, even back then, a lot of students who couldn’t attend regular school. Some had emotional issues. Others had physical problems. Some, like me, were having a temporary setback — broken legs or broken something or other — and needed someone to help them stay up to date. I doubted my absence would make that big a difference, but I worried if I didn’t take the exams as expected, I wouldn’t be able to graduate on time.

I got a teacher.

Are you still with me? Because it gets more complicated from here on.


My new teacher had other students. One of them, a young woman, lived nearby. She was schizophrenic, but also a nice young woman and a talented artist. My teacher thought that I would be good for her. She didn’t have any friends, being out of school. Thus we were introduced.

Mary was seventeen and I was fifteen. For fifteen, I was mature. As a mature person, I was still fifteen. I liked Mary, though she had the strangest eyes. She would look at me and it was as if she were seeing through me. Her pictures looked like that too.

One night, just after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released, she suggested we go to the movies. I have never been a fan of horror movies. Not even the terribly fake, silly ones with giant lizards and moths. I would get nightmares, so I wasn’t allowed to go to any of them. It was the screaming in the night thing. It ruined everyone’s sleep.

Photos of Bette Davis & Joan Crawford, The ‘Feud’ characters in life

Mary wanted to see it. Said it would be a hoot. I was amenable. I figured I was not a tiny kid. I could watch a horror movie. I’d be fine, right? Of course I would.

I didn’t go to movies often. They were expensive. My allowance was enough so I could get to school and come home. If I walked rather than taking a bus, I could save the 15 cents each way. If I did it a lot, I could hoard enough cash to go to a movie and even have a coke. Since I hadn’t been going to school at all, I had money saved. We went to the movies.

I was uncomfortable. It wasn’t as icky as things with giant lizards, but bad enough. Yet, the night wasn’t over. Mary said: “There’s this wonderful place I like to go at night. It’s really cool. Wanna come?” What teenager could turn down a great invitation like that?  We went.

It was a nice little grave yard. My friend Mary danced through it, her scarf flowing in the breeze. Then, she ran about, gently kissing the tombstones. She was happy.

SUMMING UP

Garry and I are watching Feud – Bette and Joan. It’s about the making of that particular movie. Garry rather likes it. He knows it’s not a great movie. Probably not even a good one, but he likes it anyway. He knew a lot about the feud of the co-stars because he is into movies big time. This show has juicy bits above and beyond his own juicy bits. Also, he had done a piece with Gary Merrill (one of Bette Davis’ husbands) who had a son in Boston politics. Garry had a few juicy stories of his own.

I merely repeated I didn’t much like the movie, though I admitted I’d seen it in 1962, so I could change my mind. Garry finally asked me what I had against it? “Really,” he said. “It’s just a campy movie with two feuding actresses.”

I explained I had a different take on it. “Didn’t I tell you this already?” I asked him. I was sure we’d told each other everything. How could I have omitted this gem? But I had.

When I was done (and this is not the whole story … there’s more), he said: “You should write that.” And now, I have. This was one of the evenings I can clearly remember — fifty-five years later.

There’s no moral to this story, except that my feelings about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are uniquely mine.

SCHOOL. WAS. DULL.

I always find myself defending school to kids. They complain it’s dull. That there’s nothing in it that “grabs” or fascinates them. I find myself trying to explain that school … well … wasn’t fascinating. That wasn’t the point.

School was dull. I remember being the one who had a book in my lap so when no one was looking, I would read. I love science today, but in school? In elementary school, junior high school, and high school? It was boring. I remember in high school I had a double period of botany beginning at eight in the morning. When I was, in any case, half asleep. The class went on for two endless hours. We had a teacher who knew her stuff, but could not speak in anything but the most droning voice. She’d start to talk and I’d black out. Completely. Gone.

I did not do well in the class. A pity. I was actually interested, but she was better than a sleeping pill. Twice as good, really. Nothing I ever took knocked me out as well as she did.

Social studies which would today be what? Social science? History? Some weird version of both? It consisted of everything that wasn’t English, math, or science. What we called “the rest of the stuff.” I was a passionate, ardent, enthusiastic reader.  I loved history and the world. But social studies? With those stupid work books where you would answer a question and then you had to color the pictures. Seriously? Color the pictures? I flunked coloring.

English was dull, too. We had to read books that were of no interest to anyone. I suspected the teachers found them duller than dirt too, but it was in the curriculum and that’s what they were supposed to teach. They did. We yawned. I drew pictures of horses in my notebooks. Sometimes, when I got tired of horses — I never got the feet right — I moved into castles. I was better at castles.

If they let us write something, I was definitely good at that. But being good at it didn’t make it interesting. My previous summer vacation wasn’t the stuff to brighten my week.

The teachers droned on and on. Those of us who intended to go to college hung in there. It never — not once, not for a split second — crossed my mind that I should drop out and work at entry-level jobs for the rest of my life merely because I was bored at school.

For me, going to college was exactly the same as going to heaven. I would go to college because as a child, there wasn’t another choice. I knew I could learn. I never doubted my ability to think. I was sure once I made it to the top — to college — the rest would follow.

I did learn a lot of things in college, but really, I learned most of the stuff which eluded me in school — math, science, statistics — while working.

When you are working, you learn things that make sense. You discover science has a reason. Numbers in context are not random forms on a piece of paper which you jiggle around until you either get the answer or sit there with empty eyes wondering what this is supposed to mean. I did stuff at work I had found impossible in a classroom. It wasn’t my fault. It was their fault. They taught the material so poorly no one who didn’t have a special thing for it ever figured it out. What a pity for everyone. Worst of all, they meant well. They did the best they knew how.

College had its share of drones and bores … but there were enough insanely wonderful teachers who opened whole new worlds for me. Out of all the courses I took, there were maybe a dozen teachers who were inspirational. It was enough.  For each year, there were at least one or two each semester. Plus, I was in an environment where learning was a thing everyone did. We wanted to learn. We needed to learn. We chose it.

We had managed to stay awake long enough in lower levels to get to this higher one and we weren’t going to toss it away. I know many people dropped out into the world of free love and acid and all that, but most of us stayed. If we were going to mess around, we were going to do it outside of class. We hadn’t gotten this far to ditch it for weekends of fun.

We never properly explained the whole school thing the way it should be explained to our kids or grandkids. We’ve told them “Oh, it’s not that bad.”

Except, it really is that bad. Sometimes, it’s even worse than that bad. School comes with incredibly boring teachers, but also with brutal, cruel classmates. That is very bad. Whether they are teasing you because of your color or because you are smart and they aren’t … cruelty is cruelty and kids are cruel. You don’t stay in school because it’s fun or because the quality of education is uplifting. You are there because you know in your brain and your guts that this is what you have to do if you want to have a real life.

If you also get wonderful, inspiring, enlightening teachers, that’s much better. But even if they are duller than you, duller than your dullard friends, you need to be there.

School is the work of childhood. It’s the “why of the how” of growing up.

WHY STUDY HISTORY? REFLECTING ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PAST

Posted on January 29, 2017 by Sean Munger in Authors, Books, History /

Al Mackey, the Civil War historian who runs the excellent Student of the American Civil War blog, has today put up a very thoughtful and incisive piece on a book written by another one of our blogging colleagues, Dr. John Fea. Dr. Fea’s book Why Study History? is a clarion call for our times, when understanding of the past–or even appreciation of why understanding the past is even useful–is under serious attack. The themes Dr. Fea talks about in his book, and which Mr. Mackey echoes, are similar to those I recently dealt with in my own article about the dangers of “Fake History.” Please read the whole article at Al’s blog, or, better yet, buy Dr. Fea’s book!

This is an excellent book by John Fea, Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College. Professor Fea is also a blogging colleague, blogging at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which is also the title of an earlier book of his, subtitled, Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. There he posts the normal history blog posts as well as personal reflections on current events, religion, politics, and the academic life, as well as videos. He also hosts a podcast that has already been featured on this blog.

In my opinion, everyone who would like to be a serious student of history needs to read this book. Professor Fea gives us an accessible primer on how to do history, from the obligatory “What Do Historians Do?” to “What Can You Do With a History Degree?”

So what is a historian? ” ‘In my opinion,’ writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, ‘not everyone who writes about the past is a historian. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists frequently work in the past without thinking historically.’ ” [pp. 1-2]

Is history simply the past, or is there a difference?… [CONT’D]

Read the entire original article here: Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO EDUCATE A CHILD by ELLIN CURLEY

In an effort to improve public education, many mayors, including New York City Mayor Di Blasio, have converted inner city schools into “community schools.” This is the first time I’ve heard about community schools and now I feel much better about the future of education in the U.S.

A community school, according to an August 7, 2016 NY Times article by David L. Kiro, is, ” … both a place and a set of partnerships with local organizations intending to deliver health, social and recreational supports for students and their families. The idea of a school that serves as a neighborhood hub holds wide appeal.”

elementary school

In poor neighborhoods, it apparently takes a village to educate a child. It’s almost impossible for kids to learn when they are dealing with health problems, ranging from hunger to vision problems to chronic asthma, learning problems, psychological issues or even major trauma at home. These programs address the needs of the whole child. They create an atmosphere in which kids can learn and mature into responsible adults. To that end, community schools provide breakfast and an in-house clinic to provide medical, dental and psychological services. There is also a staff of social workers to train teachers how to counsel their students and give them the emotional advice and support they need.

The success rates for community schools has been awesome. In one school in New York City, kids entered 9th grade reading at a 3rd grade level, 25% of the students were classified as special needs and 20% were learning English as a second language. Nevertheless, compared to other demographically similar schools, this school’s rate of absenteeism dropped 15.4% and the graduation rate went up 8% in two years. These rates are now close to the citywide average.

In other states the statistics are just as impressive. For example, in Massachusetts, one group of community schools managed to erase 2/3 of the math gap and ½ of the English gap between their schools and the statewide average. In addition, their drop-out rate was cut in half.

You might be thinking that these programs must cost a fortune and put a real burden on state and local governments. However, studies show that these programs more than pay for themselves in the long run. The adults they send into the community actually save states and cities a huge amount of money because these students have lower incarceration rates, better health and less reliance on welfare programs. The NY Times article comments that if the community school concept “ … were a company, Warren Buffet would snatch it up.”

72-OIL-school bus Which-Way_06

This seems like a no-brainer to me. Massive social and personal gains are achieved in the long run with little or no net cost to the government. The problem is that money still has to be allocated today to establish community schools and the benefits can’t be seen for several years. Short-sighted politicians probably don’t want to allocate this money. And there may not be a lot of pressure on them to get behind these programs because so many voters don’t care about the underprivileged.

If it were up to me, all schools in poor areas would be converted into community schools. Maybe if we contact our local and state officials about this issue, we can raise awareness and maybe make a difference. This is a worthwhile cause so I will definitely try.


NOTE: Ellin and Tom are out to sea. Literally, on their boat, so she isn’t ignoring your comments. Connecting from the boat is difficult, but she’ll be back soon!

TO READ OR NOT TO READ, by ELLIN CURLEY

I recently read an article in the New York Times about the efficacy of ‘bribing’ children to get them to read. The article was “The Right Way To Bribe Kids To Read”, by KJ Dell’Antonia and ran on Sunday, July 24, 2016. The article cited a study that showed that bribery does work. However it also showed that the kind of bribe determined the longevity of the positive result.

The study found that monetary or other material bribes worked only as long as the rewards continued. Once the money stopped rolling in, so did the reading. So parents have to find another kind of bribe to foster enthusiasm about reading in order to form lasting reading habits. The most effective form of bribe used in the study was the promise of one on one time with a parent. This time could be spent reading together or just talking about what the child had read.

72-Library-Uxbridge-GA-Downtown_086

This reminded me of one of my finest parenting moments, which I would like to share with you. When my daughter was 13, she was obsessed with reading a series of books below her reading level, called “The Babysitters’ Club.” Neither I nor the teachers at her school felt this was a serious problem. She was reading and loving it and that was enough for the school and for me.

However, her father (my ex-husband) was adamant that we “make” her read more adult books. He favored the classics, like Dickens and Jane Austen. I had hated these books when I was 13 so I did not agree that this was the way to go with our daughter. He also favored the banning of TV and other ‘punishments’ as the means of ‘motivation’. I obviously was against this approach as well.

books james lee burke

My solution to this sticky family problem was brilliant, if I do say so myself! I conceded to my ex the goal of getting our daughter to read age appropriate books. BUT, I would be the one to determine the method used to accomplish this goal.

My daughter loved movies. So I proposed that she find books that had been made into movies. She would both read the book and watch the movie. We would then talk about how the two versions differed, which was more ‘successful’ and why. And how well the book translated to the screen. The first book she choose was Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes” – a movie she had already seen and loved. She loved the book too. Without parental prompting, immediately read every book Fannie Flagg wrote. She took her library of Flagg’s books to sleepover camp with her and traded them with her camp friends for other books. She was off and running as a life-long, voracious reader.

netflix for books

My daughter is 31 now and is still an avid reader. She reads all kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction, covering a wide range of subjects. She particularly loves history and historical fiction. I feel that my creative solution to her reading ‘problem’ years ago allowed her intellectual curiosity to develop freely. I firmly believe that we could have destroyed that curiosity and squashed her love of reading had we mishandled that situation when she was 13.

I guess the moral of this story is that you have to nurture and encourage your children’s interest in reading. Making reading a chore or something to do for Mom and Dad is apparently not the right approach. You have to make reading something exciting that they can share with you and with their friends. You can always ‘make’ your child read. The trick is to create an adult who loves reading and learning and passes this love down to their kids.

ANOTHER MIND-BLOWING DOCUMENTARY FROM MICHAEL MOORE – PART 2 by ELLIN CURLEY

This is part two about Michael Moore’s newest documentary, “Where To Invade Next.” In the movie, Moore travels around the world and reports about something wonderful from each country he visits. Last week, I wrote about the great working conditions for middle class Italians and Germans. Here I’m going to talk about some elements of the educational systems in Finland and France.

Michael M poster2

Apparently Finland had a mediocre education system in the 1970’s. It ranked 29th in the world along with the United States. The Finns decided to make some extreme changes in their K-12 system and over the years they have worked their way up to Number 1 in the world in quality of education. We are still Number 29.

What did Finland do that worked so well? For one, they cut school hours and days back and now they have the shortest school week and school year. Yet they are Number 1 in performance. They also cut some other things – homework and standardized tests. This would be anathema in the U.S. But in Finland, the education system is now based on the premise that the best way to educate kids is to let them be kids. It is believed that kids need plenty of down time to exercise their imaginations as well as their bodies.

They also need to spend time playing with others to learn social skills and coöperation. Experimenting with music and art, baking, sports, carpentry, etc. are considered important parts of the curriculum. Why? Because they help kids discover what they like to do and what makes them happy. And that is the primary goal of Finnish teachers – to produce well-rounded and well-adjusted kids who have the ability to make themselves and others happy in life. It seems to be working. Remember, these kids tested highest of any country in the world.

Michael M FInland

Another amazing fact about the Finnish school system is that every school in the country is the same. There is no shopping around for good school districts. Private schools are prohibited so the wealthy have to make sure that every single public school is up to the standards they want for THEIR children. I understand that this is possible to achieve in a small, relatively homogenous population like Finland but is probably impossible to achieve in America. Nevertheless, the achievement is life changing for the Finns and truly enviable.

The French also have something awesome in their curriculum that made my jaw drop. Lunch. For all French children, even in the poorest school districts, lunch is a gourmet affair and a big part of the school day. Teachers and kids eat together around large tables set with actual china and glassware. Lunch is a full hour and consists of four courses – an appetizer, an entrée, a cheese course fit for a fancy restaurant and a dessert. Water is served with the meal (French kids rarely drink Coke.) The food is served at the tables to the children by the cafeteria staff. The dishes are all well-balanced and look and sound like they are from Michelin Star restaurants. Yet the food budgets in French schools are similar to school lunch budgets here. They do not spend more money than we do.

Michael M France

The faculty talked about the importance of teaching children what a balanced diet is and to be particular about what they put in their mouths. What a concept! No wonder the French have lower obesity levels, heart disease and diabetes than we do. No wonder they grow up into discerning foodies who see food as a sensual and enjoyable, as well as a necessary part of life. I don’t blame the average American as much now for being a food troglodyte – where are they supposed to learn anything about nutrition, vegetables or balanced meals? Certainly not in American schools. Good food is a major part of French culture. Fast Food is a major part of ours. Why should our schools be different than the rest of the society?

Michael Moore’s documentary gave me great hope for the world. Problems that we see as insurmountable, someone else has solved. Things that we think can’t be changed, have been changed for the better somewhere else. Moore shows that humans are capable of great things when the climate is right.

Opening minds is the salvation for the world – one issue at a time, one country at a time.

IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR

The Class of South Pacific, by Rich Paschall

It seems like an odd thing to say to high school or college graduates, and yet we say it all the time.  Students are probably listening to graduation speeches in wonder, perhaps even shock at this notion.  There it is, however, an oft-repeated idea that older folks are selling to the young.

“These are the best years of your life,” some may exclaim.  Others may narrow it down to tell students, “You will look back on this as the best year of your life.”  The best year?

It was a long time ago, and I can not recall specifically what I heard at my various graduations, but I am pretty sure the idea was sold to me somewhere.  “How can this be?” graduates may ask themselves.  “What about the next 60 years?  You mean to say, ‘this is it’?”

Are these youthful years the best years of our lives?  Is this where we had the best times, best friends, best dances and concerts and music and well, everything?  The answer is a surprising yes, and no.

When I was in third year of high school I learned that DePaul Academy would be closing and we would all be shipped off to another area high school.  To be perfectly honest, I did not like this a bit.  Despite the tough discipline of my school and the fear of 4th year Latin, I wanted to go to a similar environment.  However, the school where I applied to go to for 4th year would not take any incoming seniors.  So off I went where they sent me, bound to make the best of it.

graduation

There were a few familiar faces at the new school, some were transfers, some I knew from grade school.  There were also dances and plays.  They had a fine arts department (something lacking at the all boys academy) and teachers who seemed to care about you as well as your studies.  I took drama, not fourth year Latin.  I came, I saw, I took something else.

The social activities meant more opportunities to make friends.  The interaction was an education itself.  Soon there was a group of us that hung together a lot, and some of us still do.

The most remarkable part of this transition was the “Senior Class Play.”  Yes, so many students wanted to take part, it was just for seniors, as in 17 and 18-year-old students.  I got the nerve to audition.  I have no idea what I sang.  Everybody was in the show so it did not matter that a hundred of us showed up.  We were going to do South Pacific.  I was rather unaware of it.

Aside from learning the art of theater (Project, Enunciate, Articulate, Stand up straight), I learned about the classic story of war, hate, prejudice and, of course, love.  Learning to play our parts was important.  We were commanded to be professional in everything.  We also learned a story that held a dramatic lesson in life.

I'm in this group, just left of center.

I’m in this group, just left of center.

When the movie starring Mitzi Gaynor, Rosanno Brazzi and Ray Waltson was re-released, we ran off to see it.  In subsequent years, we saw several community theater productions as well as professional versions of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical.  We grew to love the theater and the lessons that such musicals could bring to us.  We learned why fine arts were so important in the schools.

So we were fortunate. We had a positive experience and a good education.  We learned our lessons in the halls as well as the classroom, in the gym which was also our auditorium.  We signed one another’s yearbooks and held on to them like they were made of gold.  But was it the best year of my life?  If so, what about all the intervening years?

It is an interesting paradox that you can not adequately explain to an 18-year-old graduate.  Yes, it was the best year up to that point, and it will always remain so.  Nothing can ever take away those memories, so hopefully they are all positive.  Those lessons of love and life will influence everything from that point on.

While you are busy making new memories, a career, a family perhaps, and new friends, they will all be measured against “the best year of your life,” whether it is 18 or 21.  Some friends may be better, some lessons may be better, some experiences may be better, but they will all be measured against those moments in youth when you discovered who you were and where you were going.  The quality of future friendships must stand up to those already at hand.

South_pacific_bway_1949

If you have a South Pacific in your memory bank, you will tell people all across the (hopefully) many generations that come through your life how this was a great experience.  You may say it was best time ever.  If your younger friend looks sorry that your best times were so far back, remind them to enjoy what they have because it will be the springboard to everything else.  It will be their touchstone.

Every spring, without fail for these many decades, the change of seasons hits me like some great coming of age story.  My imagination calls up images of Bali Hai and I hear echoes of “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” in the distance.  I once again feel “Younger Than Springtime” and every night is “Some Enchanted Evening.”  Whenever I look back to the Class of South Pacific, I can also look forward with a lot of “Happy Talk” for everyone who will listen.