Out Now!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Simon and Garfunkel AND Manhattan Transfer

The classroom I taught in had a large statue of St Lucy in it. It occupied a niche behind me, just to my left. Occasionally I had the uncanny feeling that she was looking at me, but that was impossible since she didn’t have eyes, at least not where they should have been. Hers were on a plaster plate and resembled a pair of dusty poached eggs.

She had an interesting death. When the guards came for her they found her so full of the Holy Spirit she was too heavy to carry. They still could not move her even with the aid of a team of oxen. Lucy was indomitable. Even with a dagger through her throat she prophesied against her persecutor. And when her eyes were gouged out she was still able to see without them.

She must have suffered greatly and whilst no doubt confident of salvation, I doubt the thought ever crossed her mind that she would also occupy a classroom in College Point two thousand years later.

Morning registration consisted of ten minutes in Form base, listening to a homily piped into every classroom, followed by an address by Sister Kathleen. It was quite Big Brother-ish. I’m sure Lucy thought so, too. But I wasn’t thinking of St Lucy that Friday, September 18th. My mind was on Nancy Dillon.

The following day we were going to see the Simon and Garfunkel concert in Central Park AND Manhattan Transfer in Radio City Music Hall. Yes, conflicting concerts on the same night. It wasn’t completely my fault. The tickets for Manhattan Transfer had been bought on September 8th but somehow Simon and Garfunkel found out and decided to make things difficult for me by picking that night for their surprise free concert.

Planning was clearly going to have to be meticulous, sacrifices made. Not on the scale of St Lucy, but sacrifices never the less.

That Saturday, two friends of Ron – John and Clare Sexton – called at 4pm and invited me to their house in Coram Long Island for October 23. As they left Nancy and her sister, Michelle arrived. It was like a scene from Frasier. The subway was crowded with Simon and Garfunkel fans, Central Park even more so. Michelle somehow located her boyfriend and split, and I looked at my watch. We could spare the super-stars an hour – two at a stretch – then the Algonquin for cocktails, followed by the concert I’d paid for!. Can’t remember much about the Algonquin, except it was very ‘woody’ and the cocktails quite pricy.

Then two hours of magic in Radio City. Manhattan Transfer took to the stage, and Cupid struck. I was in love – I just didn’t know who with: The willowy, red-haired Cheryl Bentyne or the shorter, more feisty Janis Siegel. And then there was Nancy.
All in all a magic night, and a day to recover before Monday and St Lucy – who I was not in love with, but greatly respected.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Sister Vera Puzt

Sister Vera Puzt had a face carved from Polish oak, and she could speak without moving her lips. Occasionally, if something excited her, the side of her mouth would quiver. She was dry as though weathered in Utah and placed in a kiln for good measure, and she was funny and kind and never afraid of the truth.

‘Hey, Mike, you know you smell?” Her nose wrinkled, her mouth didn’t move. I was forced to agree. New York was hot and I was behind in my laundry. The girls had said nothing. Maybe they thought this was an English aroma.

Lesson learnt. No messing around with Sister Vera. Straight from the lip.

She would stand beside me in the corridor as the girls from St. Agnes Academic School walked between bells. A voice, dry like a desert wind, and as faint gave a run down on each of the girls that passed: ‘old German family’ – ‘Columbian drug baron’ – ‘Italian deli on 82 St.’ – ‘Grandfather ex matador’ ‘Mafiosi’ – ‘Fruit and veg’ – ‘family runs a bakery’.

The life blood of the city drifted by, oblivious to Sister Vera’s spare and precise analysis.

Strictly speaking it was the life blood of Queens. Even though Manhattan was less than 20 minutes on the subway they were remarkably ignorant about the city, nervous about going there. So much so the school organised guided tours, along with a brief history of major landmarks. The boroughs of New York then, and maybe now, were self-sufficient, insular and serene. Sister Vera was not insular, but as funny as hell.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Caesar would have enjoyed St. Agnes

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous

Caesar would have enjoyed St Agnes, or at least been reassured. Management, embodied in the person of Sister Kathleen Waters, was both efficient and professional, much of it expressed through the medium of food. In one week I enjoyed more Danish pastries than I’d normally have in a year. I didn’t complain, but fought hard to maintain my lean and hungry look. The school was all about encouragement – to staff and students alike. The smallest act was rewarded with a written thank you on brightly coloured paper and, most puzzling to me, extended to exams.

My first social studies test resulted in outrage when students were awarded marks ranging from 28 – 81%. It was then I was told that students were not allowed to gain anything less than 48% in any test or exam. As a result there was, by British standards, a degree of grade inflation. Students with, say a mark of 85% (which would have more than satisfied a student back home) would see that as little more than half-marks and question why they hadn’t got more. It sharpened marking in that the teacher had to defend every missing mark, and it also developed confidence in the student, though sometimes misplaced.

I was also fascinated by Social Studies where the sophomore progressed from the Stone Age to the Cold War in the space of a year. A dental appointment meant you missed the Renaissance. But that’s the flip side of the coin. What the students learnt in the Medieval component, for example, was conceptual rather than narrative. So, instead of cause and effect, events and key dates, the student had two weeks to appreciate the ‘concept’ of Feudalism, which involved a comparison between European and Japanese feudalism.

And so the weeks rolled by. The classes were large – forty girls to a class - initially intimidating or exhilarating depending on mood; the text books were heavy and lavishly produced. Those books were brilliant. There was nothing like them in the British classroom – as Ron would testify.

But all this was in the future.

I was broken in gently with coffee – an endless supply – and Danish, more introductions and work related meetings. Thursday, September 10th brought in the first students - Seniors showing Freshers the ropes and the school, and culminating in a wonderful picnic in Cunningham Park and endless tugs of war which no doubt embodied something or other.

That night, a fellow exchange teacher phoned: Peter Stassi. His school was Henry St. Junior High. It sounded quite fierce. Because of muggings corridors were patrolled, and inhis first week cops had come in to arrest two kids. One class Peter taught hadn’t heard of England, which, I imagine, was the least of his problems.

I listened, chewing on a Danish,and agreed with Caesar. There’s nothing much wrong with sleek headed men that ‘sleep a night.’

Thank God for St. Agnes.

Some of my students. I wonder where they are now?


(Would you believe I couldn't find a picture of the school other than this link?)