Monday, November 30, 2009

The Preteen Blues (played in B)

Middle school years are the hardest ... the students feel disconnected from the "little kids" in elementary grades and unacceptable to the "big kids" in high school.

Interestingly enough, that was my favorite group of kids to teach. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because they were still young enough to enjoy cartoons and old enough to be a little more sophisticated intellectually. I related to that ... at 25 years old (okay, emotionally and mentally I was 13 years old). So ... we understood each other. Now that I have reached well beyond the AARP threshold ... I'm about at the senior high school level.

One thing I always remembered about being in school myself was that I continually questioned the relevance of what was taught. Why did I need to study about frog reflexes or isoceles triangles or Custer's Last Stand? Would I need the frog reflex fact or have to draw a triangle when I applied for a job? I don't think so. Now, the Custer thing ... that was okay at the time because the visual of Custer with hundreds of arrows in him was so cool.

Relevance was important ... so I decided to spend at least one hour a week teaching it. It was then that I came up with the idea of "Community". One day a week for one hour, the seventh graders would work and play in their own community. They had jobs, got paid, had real life problems and had to work together to figure it out. I might add ... this was before computer programs like The Sims Community and 10 years before Enterprise Village.  It was not nearly as smart and well put together ... pretty rudimentary ... but the kids loved it and related to it.

There were challenges.

For instance, the first time around, I let everyone choose a profession. There were 10 lawyers and 15 doctors. That didn't work ... so I limited the professions to one each (since we had a small town and we'd get into competition later in the year). I ran into trouble with our first lawyer. I told him to research his annual income and compare it to small towns in the Southeast US. He found a reasonable comparison and started getting "paid" each week. His father (a prominent attorney in St. Petersburg) called me at home to complain that his son was NOT making enough money and how dare I underpay him for his services. I KID YOU NOT.

Some professions were never picked so I would gather everyone for a Town Meeting run by our elected mayor and he would draw "problem" cards which I had created with challenges for the town to handle as a group. One was that the garbage had not been picked up for two months because there was no garbage collector. My student attorney offered to change professions and assumed this duty  ... being the community minded individual he was.

Big surprise: I got a call from his dad that night. 

I Love You Mom

I have tried to keep this blog light and funny .... not too heavy ... but enjoyable. I think all of us need to laugh at ourselves now and then. But today is different and I hope you'll forgive me for talking about a subject that is anything but humorous. Today I wanted to share some thoughts about my mom.

She passed away last night.

It was the end of a two year decline. She weighed only 70 pounds and barely had a pulse when she was transported to the hospital. Her systems were shutting down as I watched her try to breathe through the oxygen mask. It was hard to watch as I remembered how beautiful she was ... how bright and immacculate she kept herself over the years.

As fate would have it, my two daughters were visiting her earlier in the day at the nursing home when she started to crash. My son and my wife, Debbie met me at the hospital when the ER staff was trying to stabilize her.  I stepped out to speak to the doctor and left Josh, my son, with my mom for a few minutes.

When I came back into the room, she was gone. It was as if she waited to see everyone for the last time and then said goodbye.

For the past three years, Mom and Dad have been living at Menorah Manor, a wonderful nursing home in St. Petersburg. I brought them both here from New Orleans during the weekend of Katrina ... they were kicking and screaming ... but I got them here. My mom (if you've been following my blog) is anything but shy and retiring ... in fact I remember her hospitalization 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with "a heart attack complicated by drama queen disease".  The nurses had called me in St. Pete to come to New Orleans to help them calm her down. When I got there (true story) one of the nurses was straddled over her holding down her hands.

Mom was screaming ... "Joel ... These @#%$#@ are trying to KILL ME!"
The nurse was calmly telling her ... "Mrs. Momberg ... if we wanted to kill you we would have done it IN SURGERY!"

Okay ... you know me .... I just HAD to add a little humor.

I love you, Mom.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Truly Beautiful People

There are so many wonderful stories I could tell about my students at Canterbury ... also a few that I can't tell, either (those little angels!). Every now and then I run into one of my former students and find out all the wonderful things that they have done with their lives. At least two (that I know of) are regular readers of I Was Born Very Young ... Wendy and Ellie ... and I love hearing from them from time to time. I can't understand why they would want to read my stuff anymore ... I was sure they would have been tired of listening to me by now ... but I love them for it.

I'll share two other stories about my former students:

About ten years ago, I ran into Christina, who was touring All Children's Hospital (my subsequent employer) with the Junior League. I hadn't seen her in more than 20 years but recognized her immediately.

"Christina? Is that you?"
"Yes, Mr. Momberg. It's great to see you." She kept her eyes averted shyly.
"You don't have to call me Mr. Momberg anymore."
"Okay, Mr. Mom ... um ... "
"Call me Joel."
"Yes sir."
Well ... I gave up on the informalities and stuck with conversations about old times. I told her how proud I was of her accomplishments (she was in her medical residency). And bragged about how I knew at a young age she would be a success.
She started crying.
I said, "Christina, I didn't mean to upset you ..."
"No ... I ... I have to tell you something ... something terrible ... something that's been on my mind since sixth grade."
Oh no ... I braced myself. Did she have years of therapy after having me as a teacher? Did she need intense tutoring to relearn her basic academic skills?

She took a breath. "Do you remember the day that you accused Elizabeth and I of cheating on the science test?"
I just stared ... I didn't have a clue ...
" You took us both out of class and asked us if we were cheating. I told you I wasn't cheating and Elizabeth too."
" Christina ... I ..."
" I WAS cheating ... I WAS cheating and I lied to you and you believed me."
" Christina ... it was 20 years ago ... I don't even remember."
" Oh my God ... you don't? I worried all these years for no reason???"
Amazing what you hang on to.

A few years ago I went to a one woman art show and saw Allison ... another one of my beautiful, talented students who always had a penchant for the arts. Allison had survived a serious accident years earlier when her car burst into flames and she was trapped inside. She barely escaped with her life. She underwent countless painful surgical procedures and years of physical therapy. Her outlook on life and her beautiful smile remained unscarred and her artwork is incredible. She is a true success story.

To all my beautiful former students who may be reading this ... I am so proud of all of you please stay in touch.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Other Duties As Assigned

There's more to teaching at a small private school than most people realize. Lunch duty, detention, coffee breaks, baby sitting, countless hours talking trash about people in the teachers' lounge, coffee breaks, taking naps ( ... oh wait ... that was just Karl ...). There were "other duties as assigned". Mine were Yearbook Advisor, Soccer Coach, Editor of the newsletter and ... in later years ... Admissions Director.

The first Admissions Director was Bob Bradshaw. He came to Canterbury the year after I arrived. Bright guy ... the product of Northeast prep schools, graduated from Yale ... set to follow in his father's footsteps as a Philadelphia attorney ... but he headed south to St. Pete instead. Turned out he was much happier teaching school and coaching basketball for about $4000 a year. Go and figure. Bob was a voracious writer too ... his class notes were the size of a James Michener novel. I remember when he first came, I did a piece on him to introduce him to the school community. Bob's resume was so long that I had to just do the highlights: Eagle Scout merit award and ping pong champion of the 6th Grade. I am not kidding (probably cinched the job for him). Bob's a great guy and a great teacher. He still is teaching today ... but now pulls in about $15,000 a year (kidding, Bob ... if you are still talking to me after reading this).

Bob was a great basketball coach by the way. We had many winning seasons. On the other hand, I have to admit I was the worst soccer coach in the history of Canterbury sports. Fortunately I coached the JV team and not Varsity. I never played soccer in my life so coaching it presented some challenges. I carried a little soccer manual with me at all times. Just picture me in the middle of the practice field reading my book and lining up the team for one of the drills.

Needless to say we had a perfect season 0 and 10.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Who's Watching the Kids?

Looking back at my old Canterbury pictures, my hair was pretty long. Actually ... looking back ... I'm happy I HAD hair.

I wasn't alone. Alot of my fellow teachers had long hair: Sarah, Jan, Candy (well, my hair was longer than hers). Even some of the guys. There were always more female teachers than male teachers in the lower school. Karl was the rare exception as a kindergarten teacher. But then Karl was a rare exception in life.

Sarah Lonquist taught first grade. She has a southern accent right out of "Steel Magnolias". In fact, she could have starred in that movie. The students adored her ... so did the rest of us. Her name had 37 syllables: Sayyyyrraaahhhlooowwwiiinquiiiiissssst. Sarah's own kids had 37 syllables in each of their names, as well, and were always referred to as Carollonquist and Jimmylonquist ... as in ... "Well, I just had the nicest day shopping with my Carollonquist ... she just has such wonderful taste ... must take after her mother." or "That Jimmylonquist is just the brightest thing ... he takes after his mother." She looks the same today as she did 35 years ago and is still as energetic as ever.

Pat Murphy was the fourth grade teacher. She had cheerleader good looks and in fact was the cheerleader coach for years. She used to think I was hysterically funny ... but that only lasted a week. I'll save that story for later.

Kenny Beytin was the science teacher and football coach. He and I became great friends. Kenny was a grad of Princeton and played football for them. He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys but messed up his shoulder. When he came to Canterbury, he started the football program and had a winning season the first year. The team lost every game after that. I think that was because there was no team after that ... Kenny left after the first year to get his law degree at Stetson. He's a successful Tampa attorney practicing today.

Jan Fisher was the librarian. She was married to Greg Fisher. Candy, Jan, Greg and I used to hang out together when Candy and I dated. Things didn't work out for any of us ... Candy and I split up and Jan and Greg split up. I dated Pat Murphy for a week (remember her?). Candy started dating Art (the brother of the Head of the Upper School Paul) ... which didn't work out, so Art wound up dating (and eventually marrying ) Jan. Whew!

And what happened to Candy?

Well ... she is married to a woman in California. They adopted a little boy. I think they named him Joel Arthur.  

Thursday, November 19, 2009

God's Waiting Room

" How would you like to teach in St. Petersburg, Florida?" Candy asked me that at the end of the school year and the end of my contract with AIS in Vienna.
" St. Petersburg, Florida?" I asked.
" Yeah. I accepted the position of Lower School Head for The Canterbury School of Florida."
" There are actual children in St. Petersburg?"

Up until that point, I had heard that Florida was God's Waiting Room. Actually, in those days, St. Pete was known as the home of the newly wed and the nearly dead. I figured that once you gave birth, you were banished to Georgia or Alabama or had to go back to where you came from (New York mostly).

But I soon found out there were at least 15 sixth graders who lived there. They were my first honest to goodness class that I could call my own. I had taken Candy's offer and had become a sixth grade teacher in St. Pete ... living on St. Pete Beach and loving life.

Crazy Karl came too. He was the new Kindergarten teacher at Canterbury. He asked me to go on a shopping trip with him for some new Florida clothes. So, of course we went to his favorite store ... the Salvation Army. Yes ... that's right ... he always shopped there and tried on everything right there in the aisles. That day he found a school bag that he liked. It had a name inscribed on it: "E. Fried". The bag had to be 50 years old and to Karl it was love at first sight. In later years he searched for Mr. Fried to tell him how much he loved that bag ... found him too.

Karl and I had apartments close to one another. Candy had a place closer to school but we all managed to hang out together on weekends. Karl made friends easily ... especially with the beach residents. They found nothing unusual about his shopping habits at Salvation Army and weren't even shocked by one of Karl's most unusual habits ... eating left over food from strangers' plates at restaurants.

Karl had a series of girlfriends.

And I dated my boss ... which only got wierder.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Gotta Go Home

I was starting to worry that the United States was changing at the speed of light while I was living in Europe in 1973 and 1974. Here are a few of the things that I read ... from the pages of European newspapers:

- The Watergate Scandal ... you remember that? Nixon's criminal bunch CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President) caught breaking into the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel? Conspirators Mc Cord, Liddy, Haldeman, et al ... sounded like a disfunctional law firm.

- Nixon resigns. BIG surprise.

- Roe v Wade ... Supreme Court overturns the state bans on abortion. To this day ... it's one of the most controvertial split issues ever.

- Streaking ... naked guy running across the screen at the Academy Awards during David Niven's presentation. Following that ... streakers showed up everywhere there were cameras.

- Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner since 1948. He's a horse by the way for those of you that thought that it was an illegal election following a coup in South America.

- American Graffitti was filmed. That was the last time Ron Howard had hair.

- Ted Bundy started his murderous rampage.

- SLA kidnaps Patty Hearst, wealthy granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. Patty ultimately joined the SLA, robbed banks, got captured, married her bodyguard and had bit parts in low budget movies like (I'm serious) Cry-Baby.

- Henry "Hank" Aaron broke Babe Ruth's HR Record at 715. Some white guy came out of the stands to circle the bases with him which made everyone nervous including Hank Aaron ... thinking he was going to try to hurt him.

- Yom Kippur Wars .... OPEC Oil Embargo following the Yom Kippur Wars ...Stock Market Crash following the OPEC embargo. And you thought it was only bad today!

... but of course the most newsworthy of all in 1974 .... was Sacheen Littlerfeather who stood in for Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards to accept his award for The Godfather while talking about how bad it was for the Indians to trade beads for Manhattan (or something like that).

I knew then .... it was time to get back to the STATES before my home was gone for good.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Do You Get When You Mix a Sumo With a Strudel?

I called Candy. She was the lower school principal at AIS in Vienna who said ... "if you ever want a permanent position, call me." I needed a position ... any position. I guess I could have gone back to the states but I wanted to stay around Western Europe a little longer.

Candy lined up a job for me.

A week earlier, one of the high school history teachers was in a tragic automobile accident. There was suddenly a need for a substitute to teach her classes for the remaining school year. There was only one catch: the substitute had to teach Japanese history.

" Can you teach Japanese history?" the head of the history department asked me.
" Of course." I said without hesitation.
" Have you ever taught it?"
" Um ... no ... but I have a good knowlege base of ... what did you say it was again?"
" Japanese history."
" Yeah ... THAT."
" Okay ... it's yours."

He was obviously desperate. I didn't have a clue about Japanese history.  I figured ... nobody else did ... so maybe I could fake it. There was no internet back then ... so I had to look for everything I physically could get my hands on. Fortunately ... all the big embassies were in Vienna. Japan had a wonderful one and generously gave me pamphlets and literature on everything Japanese: the government, Sumo wrestling, cooking, art, royalty, geishas, paper making ... It was a gold mine.

Then came my REALLY BIG idea.

On my first day of class I introduced myself. We spent some time remembering their former teacher and sharing stories. I told them that I would try to continue teaching the course the best that I could but would never replace their beloved teacher.

I then passed out the embassy pamphlets to all the students. I wrote names on the board next to the corresponding pamphlet that ended up in their hands. Then ... I put random dates next to each name and gave them their instructions. Each student was to study the information they had and give a presentation to the class on the date that they were assigned. We'd all take notes (me included) on every presentation and at the end of the year I would give them a final exam on Japanese Culture and History based on their presentations.

It worked ... I learned alot that semester.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Roma Coma: The Final Chapter

Other than the nights on the Via Veneto, my life was not working out well. My money was running out, my boss at Readak was pressuring me to start the course and apparently everyone in Italy except for me wore the same size pants.

I loved the school ... Marymount International Academy. It was a very exclusive Catholic school, located on the outskirts of Rome ... on the Via di Villa Lauchli. (How I remember that street name is beyond me ... I can't even remember what I had for breakfast ... I must be a "useless fact savant"). I remember having regular meetings with the headmistress. She was a Dutch nun who "kicked the habit" years ago. Try as I might ... I couldn't salvage the course. And in the end I had to refund the money and apologize. My luggage was still missing more than a month after I arrived and I had no teaching materials (books, tests, equipment, etc).

My Readak days were over. We parted ways over this last experience. They didn't want me to refund the money and I didn't want to keep it ... so I refunded the money and they refunded me. Actually, I refunded them ... but who's counting.

I stayed in Rome for another two months. I was a free man! No responsibilities, no job, no money ... but wait ... there WAS light at the end of the tunnel. On one of my daily visits to the train station ... I was greeted by an official with good news. These were words I never thought I would hear again ...

They had found my bags.

Excitedly, I was escorted to what appeared to be a gigantic lost and found room filled with every size and shape of luggage. It was dusty and damp ... cobwebs hung on some of the bags ... dust settled on others. Out of the dark, a man carried two bags and placed them at my feet.

The official (in broken English) "These YOU bags?"
Me (looking carefully at both) " The one on the right is .... the other one doesn't look familiar."
Official " These NO YOU bags?"
Me "THIS one is."
The official told another man ... "TAKE BAGS AWAY."
Me  "NO. I mean this one is mine."
Official "I thought these NO YOUR bags".
Me " Well the other one isn't mine ..." (he starts to take them both away again)
Me "WAIT. You know what I just realized? These ARE my bags. I just didn't recognize this one right away. " (I take them from him ... I knew if I didn't take both, I would get neither.)

He ushered me past a table of at least 10 officials with their own rubber stamps who had to decorate my passport and paperwork with different colors, I assume, before I could go home.

Once I was in my hotel room, I opened the mysterious bag ... I felt so guilty about it. It was neatly packed with clothing, a camera and two train tickets to Munich .... dated November 10, 1952. That's right 1952. And there were slides packed beneath ... old style glass slides of pictures of heart surgeries. The bag belonged to a doctor from Walter Reed Hospital who had apparently had a similar missing bag experience more than 25 years earlier!

So ... I called Walter Reed Hospital and asked for the doctor ... hoping he might still be there. He answered! And he was thrilled to hear from me. A week later, two marines showed up at my door, thanked me, took the suitcase and gave me a check for one million dollars!

Okay ... I lied.

There was only one marine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Roma Coma Part 2

There I was in the middle of the train station in Rome. I had no luggage ... which meant no clothes and no classroom materials ... and was told by the "officials" that it could take weeks before they found my bags. I was due to start teaching classes in less than a week.

The more upset I got with the customs officers ... the more laid back and nonchalant they became.

Fortunately, I had not lost my traveler's cheques ... which I carried in my pocket. For those of you too young to remember ... travelers' cheques were critical travelling currency ...  as there were no ATMs in those days. American Express backed these if they were lost or stolen. Mine were neither, thank heaven.

I needed clothes so ...  I asked a taxi driver to take me to a nice clothing store. He took me to one located right off of the Via Veneto (at the time one of the most famous streets in the world ... filled with a unique blend of outdoor cafes and frequented by celebrities). I wasted no time picking out a few pair of pants and shirts ... not taking time to try them on, of course, because men don't do that ... only to find out later that everything ran MUCH smaller and tighter in Italy ... as my crotch can attest to.

That's also where I met Antonio.

Antonio was shopping in the same store and spoke a little broken English. He interceded for me when I struggled to get directions for hotels in the areas. He told me he could help me find a place and invited me to sit with him at a cafe and have a cup of coffee (which came out more like "sit in a coffee cup and drink one of the tables"). Anyway ... Antonio's family owned a pension (small residential hotel) just a few blocks from the Via Veneto. It was perfect. I moved in that afternoon.

Antonio became my one and only friend in Rome. He knew lots of people ... the right people ... and tried to help me find my luggage and get people to listen to me. I went to the "Dogana" every morning to see if there had been any progress ... Antonio would tag along from time to time and yell a few obcenities to get folks moving ... but nothing seemed to work. Every evening, we would watch American gangster movies dubbed into Italian on TV with his family and then walk down to the Via Veneto where we would drink and party all night long. I couldn't work (I delayed the course until I could get my classroom materials and equipment) so I figured I would be like the Italians and just let life "happen".

You know ... looking back ... I should have wondered how Antonio was making ends meet as I never saw him go to work during the day. But he was certainly popular with people ... especially with the ladies ... consequently, I was too. They would stop and talk to me when we were together and ... I have to say, I was feeling like quite the ladies' man myself with all these beautiful women.

Then I found out they all worked for Antonio ... he was their pimp.     

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Roma Coma Part 1

My time in Vienna seemed to speed by.

Rome was to be my next stop. I said my goodbyes to Karl ... Mr. Kindergarten movies, Bob Fumo ... big red beard with a laugh to match, Candy Stein (she was the lower school principal, from Ohio and not Jewish ... first Stein I ever met that wasn't). Candy told me to keep in touch and let her know if I ever wanted to take a more permanent position.

Little did I know then how important those words would become.

The train between Vienna and Rome had regular coach cars and special sleeping cars. The sleeping areas were called couchettes (a fancy name for solid boards covered with a blankets and stacked up in fours.) I sat in the regular coach with my bags until it got dark. One of the conductors told me to leave my bags at the spot that I was sitting and move to the cachette in the next car to get some sleep.

I said good night to my luggage ... I should have said goodbye.

The next morning my bags were gone. Worse still ... all the conductors were Italian and I had no idea what they were saying, nor could I communicate with them. Apparently, in the middle of the night we crossed into Italy and a new crew came on board. I asked what happened to my bags and no one seemed to pay any attention.

Now ... I must tell you ... there's a big difference between the Austrians and the Italians.

Ausrtrians are precise ... their trains are always on time and spotless. There are very clear business rules to follow and very little flexibility. Italians were ... well let's just say. I used to think Fellini movies were so exaggerated and bizaare that no one could possibly live like that. I was dead wrong. Italians have no rules. Their work style is ... socialize for an hour ... eat for two hours ... sleep for six hours and then work for 15 minutes. Yelling is a national pasttime.

Needless to say, I found out nothing about my bags until I got to Rome and begged the officials in the Dogana (Customs Office) to help me. Four days later they had a POSSIBLE answer (truth!). Apparently. someone sat in my seat over night and asked the (Italian) conductor to remove my bags because whoever owned the bags wasn't there and ... obviously ... just decided to leave the bags there in the way.

So ... the conductor threw my bags off the train somewhere between Vienna and Rome. My frustration had ONLY just begun.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vienna Waits For You

"Was kostet das?"

That was the most important phrase I learned while living in Vienna. It meant "What does this cost?"... and I used it frequently for food. Restaurants typically asked for the money before you ate. I couldn't figure out how to say "how much does the chewy stuff with fat and breading cost?" ... so I'd just point and use the same dumb phrase.

I also used that phrase alot at the flea market that my new friend and teaching colleague, Karl, introduced me to. We used to go once a week. Karl bought old home movies. He didn't care who was in them or what they were about. He was a Kindergarten teacher and used them in class as story starters for the kids.

His classroom was filled with flea market stuff ... old books in different languages (not the classics ... unless Plumbing for Dummies in German counts), clocks, camera equipment, old records, a VW van bench ... all priceless when you asked him, "Was kostet das?"

In the afternoon, Karl took a nap in his own cot next to the other students. I think he brought his own teddy bear too.

My students were too old to take naps ... that is if you don't count when they nodded off in the middle of a reading assignment.  But most of the time they were attentive. Many were kids of diplomats stationed in Vienna ... like US Ambassador John Humes son, Colin. His family invited the faculty to a party in the embassy one evening. I remember it well because I sat in the chair marked for Kruschev. I had this incredible urge to tell everyone "I will bury you!" .... but I held myself back.

I'll never forget teaching two Russian Jewish brothers. They were temporarily living in Vienna until their family could be relocated to Israel. Painfully shy, they had just started taking English lessons. I learned that I had to speak very softly to them when I gave instruction, as they cringed at any loud noise. Apparently, they had been the victims of beatings and anti-semitic abuse in  their hometown.

One day, there was a loud crash outside of our classroom ... a car accident. The two brothers dove under their desks and refused to come out. I sat on the floor next to them for a long time until they finally felt safe.

Ballad of the Big Prostate

Here’s a little country tune I wrote just yesterday to commemorate a dark day in my history. I don’t have a tune but realized you can use an...