A Teacher’s Legacy

I was about seven the first time I saw my father teach. I sat in the back of the lecture room, scribbling in an examination “blue book.” Every once in a while, I looked up at the people seated near me, unwitting inspiration for my imaginative stories. Next to the blackboard was a tall man, gesturing wildly with chalk in hand, his usually soft voice at full volume as he punctuated his lecture with anecdotes from history. Like a born-again preacher wooing his congregation, my father spoke zealously. His gospel for students? Learn about history in order to understand your grandparents, your parents — and yourselves.

I remember asking him many years ago if he liked his job. He smiled broadly. “What other job would pay me to read books?” But even then, I knew teaching for him was about more than devouring the latest hardcover analysis of political upheaval. It was about translating scholarly ideas into language that could engage the minds of history majors, business majors and college jocks alike. It was about nurturing the worldview of even the most provincial undergraduate student.

Being the child of an academic had unique perks. Like the dinnertime conversations that enlightened my brother, sister and me about American diplomacy after the Second World War. Or the help I got with a high-school research assignment on the Middle East. Of course, there were also drawbacks to growing up in a family headed by a professor. One Christmas, for example, while most families huddled together in front of the TV to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my father summoned all of us for a video double feature: Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” followed by Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” Somehow, even family gatherings could turn into history lessons.

A lot has happened since Dad picked up his first piece of chalk. Back in 1963, there were no PowerPoint projectors or VCRs in university lecture halls — nor did any PCs grace the desktops in offices. Yet even after these technological advances made their way onto campus, my father eschewed the wizardry of modern academia. He winced at words like “multimedia,” took his sweet time warming up to chalk replacements like dry-erase markers, and staunchly refused to learn how to use a laptop. Having never learned to type, the eccentric professor relied instead on his distinctive longhand to create syllabi and exams, painstakingly writing out words as well as drawing his own maps.

At times an intellectual curmudgeon, he confronted each student essay with a critical eye. But I can think of no better gift for a student than a set of firm expectations based on high standards. Especially when the teacher holds himself equally accountable. Even for courses he taught repeatedly, my father liked assigning new books so that he, too, could be reading and learning alongside his students. By becoming the wise mentor, he kept himself young at heart.

In a few months, the man who fell in love with teaching some forty years ago will retire from the classroom. While the septuagenarian’s body is more than ready to slow down, his mind for recalling dates and events remains razor-sharp — and his appetite for understanding national identities and global affairs, ravenous. Somehow, I just can’t picture the old man on a golf course.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Or so the putdown goes. But educators can have a profound influence on the consciousness — and conscience — of each one of us. As Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Originally titled “Great Professors Exert Profound Influence On Us” and published as a “My View” column in the May 7, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News


My five-year-old daughter is in denial. She can’t accept the fact that her current object of affection and admiration, the venerable dinosaur, is extinct. During a recent visit to the science museum, she gives full expression to her indignation. Looking up at the enormous replica of the triceratops, she places her hands squarely on her hips and shouts: “Wake UP!”

But isn’t that the magic of childhood curiosity? Being passionate about something that we adults have long since forgotten, or take for granted?

“No, the Tyrannosaurus Rex is from the Cretaceous period, Mom, not the Jurassic!” My daughter corrects me as I comment on the creature’s distinctive jaw. I am half-thinking about the Spielberg blockbuster from a decade ago. Seeing another parent chuckle from a few feet away, I am humbled not merely by the fact that my precocious child has just set me straight on my science facts, but more importantly, by the realization that with a few spontaneous remarks, she is putting my existence into perspective. Long before all the cars and buildings and cell phones, there were these big amazing animals that walked the earth. Their brains might have been pea-sized in comparison to their mighty bodies, but they managed to survive for quite a while.

Compared to our charges, we adults focus on less sublime matters. I worry about the plummeting stock market and my expanding waistline; meanwhile, energized by her kindergartner’s thirst for knowledge about the world, my child frets over the disappearance of the largest creatures ever to roam our planet. I watch her as she bounces across the room, and then darts from the exhibit about the long neck dinosaur to the museum’s vivid picture of a saber tooth cat, snarling back at her through the glass case.

I see the heartbreak in my daughter’s eyes every time I give her my “I’m the adult” look and remind her that no, the dinosaurs aren’t coming back. “They’ve been dead for a long time, Hanna.” As she crinkles up her nose in irritation, I realize how presumptuous I am. As long as there are eager minds to question and appreciate the grand mysteries of life, nothing about these mysteries will ever truly die.

Children teach us every day to see things for the first time, and to remember them as if they will never disappear, never become extinct. Breathing new life into creatures that have been physically dead for eons, my daughter gives me the gift of spiritual rebirth— and imagination. As we near the end of the exhibit, I look back at the towering models and catch myself smiling. Some day, light years from now, where will the models of the once-great humans be found?



Sometimes the hum of a big city can quiet a restless soul.

And so my teenage daughter and I decided to pack up the car and head north for Thanksgiving. To Toronto, a city my family and I had visited dozens of times when I was a child. When we went, it was usually for the day. We’d leave as early as possible, and reach the city in time for an early lunch and some window-shopping at the Eaton Centre.

The first time my daughter and I made the pilgrimage together, she was eight years old. We treated ourselves to a stay at the Delta Chelsea on East Gerrard off Yonge Street. Our room, number 654, was in the old part of the hotel. It was spacious and endearing, despite the faded curtains and walls that needed a paint job. We visited several more times – in fact, we got in the habit of coming at least once a year. Each time, I asked for room 654.

Quite out of the blue – and after staying away for at least four years – she and I decided to go back to Toronto, and our beloved Delta Chelsea. This time our room was located in the renovated section of the hotel and on the 14th floor. (No, I didn’t ask about room 654.)

I had barely taken the keycard out of the door when my daughter made it clear she wanted us to go our separate ways for a few hours. So off she went to explore the shops on Yonge. I, meanwhile, savored the chance to travel according to my own impulses, taking more than 100 pictures along the way. (It’s only been within the past few years that I’ve come to appreciate the power of a good camera.) Even as I fixated on the details of a building or the bright colors of a billboard, I recalled my many walking adventures in other foreign cities, including Paris, Tokyo, Rome and Hong Kong. I thought about how much I want my daughter to keep herself open to new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and serendipitous moments that can only occur when you allow yourself to leave home – both physically and mentally.

My hope is that as she makes her way out in the world, she’ll carry with her the inspiration of Toronto, a beautiful, bustling cosmopolitan hub. And the place that became our home away from home whenever we ventured out together.

It’s a Wonderful Midlife

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength,” asserted Betty Friedan. A few months ago I celebrated my 49th birthday, and it ended up being one of the most joyful I can remember. A milestone evocative of Friedan’s quote.

There was no grand celebration, no wrapped presents, not even a cake. Instead, the day was filled with small, spontaneous moments of generosity and warmth – from students at the school where I work wishing me a happy birthday to a card from coworkers slipped into my mailbox. And yes, a flurry of celebratory posts from my Facebook network. A dear friend had left a message on my cell phone, too. Another friend surprised me by stopping up in my office to give me a hug and wish me well. But the climax of the day? Being treated to dinner by my teenage daughter. She apologized for not getting me a present, but I assured her that the most treasured gift was the opportunity to enjoy her company over a meal.

As the years wear on, I know that getting older won’t be such an easy process. I can already attest to knees that can’t maneuver lunges at the gym anymore, as well as the occasional wiry white hair that chooses to go its own way amid the dark strands. But I wouldn’t trade the superficial perks of youth for the wisdom and clarity that can only come from living a long and authentic life – and learning from all the adventures and mistakes along the way.

Why do we put such a premium on youth anyway? Why do we let magazine covers and TV commercials dictate what we’re supposed to look like and how we’re supposed to feel?

I am so relieved not to be living according to someone else’s expectations anymore.

There’s another reason I am grateful for each year that comes along to mark the passage of time. More than 45 years ago, a young mother and father were at Children’s Hospital, where they were told to say goodbye to their infant daughter, who’d been born with a congenital heart defect. Thanks to modern medicine, a gifted surgeon, and the love of family and friends, I beat the odds and can blog about the joys of marking my 49th birthday.

“To everything there is a season,” the scriptures and song tell us. I know that now that I’ve passed the illusory midpoint, my body will begin to slow down and the aging process will take its toll. I like to joke that our bodies are like cars. We can be faithful to our regular tune-ups, but ultimately, the total mileage is something we can’t predict. No, despite all the best quotes from all the most inspirational people, aging will become an increasingly less graceful endeavor. My mother just turned 81, and although she hardly looks her age, she’s had her share of health issues, which only remind all of us of her – and our – mortality.

I occasionally think ahead to next year’s half-century mark. What the hell, maybe I’ll break with my own tradition and throw a huge party. You in?


Turning the Page

“Look around you,” he said, pointing to all the books on the shelves. “This will be my legacy when I’m gone, because I sure won’t be able to leave you kids a lot of money.”

Growing up, I most often saw my father doing one of two things: grading papers or reading a book. He loved books. He stockpiled them. He could never leave a bookstore without five or six new purchases under his arm or in a bag. Before Barnes & Noble and Borders achieved their heyday, my father had already become a regular. Even when money was tight, the catalogs from various publishers kept rolling in. (He preferred buying to borrowing because he liked to make his own notes right on the page.)

At one point my parents ran out of shelf space in their big old, three-story house, thanks to his ever-expanding collection. His solution was to sneak a bookshelf, or two, onto the landing of each staircase. My mom once got so ticked off, she demanded that he move some of the excess to his office at the university. So the next day, the whole Time Life series on the Vietnam War, along with several other volumes about China and Japan, got transported to his workspace. They found a new home next to the textbooks and novels he used for his college history courses.

I should point out that my mom also grew up appreciating books, especially novels from and about faraway lands. Long before she met her future American husband, she had read Japanese translations of several dozen Western classics. The Three Musketeers was a favorite.

My earliest memory of being read to is when my father introduced me to the world of Maurice Sendak through In the Night Kitchen. He read the story to me over and over, and Mickey became one of our most beloved fictional characters. The boy with the milk was eventually replaced by Charlotte and Wilbur.

Now you’d think that because of the perpetual presence of books in my life, I too became a voracious reader early on. In fact, I often had trouble sitting still to read. Given the choice, I preferred watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island.

But I did read. When the activity was most enjoyable, it was usually because I – not my father and not a teacher – had made the selection. I went through a biography phase that started around middle school and extended into high school. I read about old movie stars and later, young rock stars. I loved books that allowed me to skip back and forth, jump ahead, gawk at photos. I loved words, even poorly chosen ones, which gave a glimpse into the life of a famous person. A hard-cover biography on Judy Garland mesmerized me during one vacation.

During this period, I got excited about the latest issue of People Magazine, not the next novel for English class. I’d walk to the nearest drugstore just to stand at the magazine rack and thumb through the pages, filled with delicious photos of flashy celebrities.

The summer after I saw the groundbreaking miniseries on TV, I bought a copy of Roots by Alex Haley. I  couldn’t bear to put it down and would read late into the night.

Summer reading lists for high school could be torture. One hot August evening, just before my freshman year, I flung a paperback copy of Vanity Fair, the required text for Mr. Foster’s English class, clear across my bedroom. The thought of tackling a 700-page novel in time for the new school year put me over the edge. I was just happy my dad never heard the sound of the book as it hit the wall. (I’m also happy to say that, once I settled down, not only did the book survive my initial wrath, it also enchanted me from beginning to end.)

Perhaps it’s my brain’s refusal to be completely taken over by the staccato nature of most online communication these days. Or I’m just getting older, and suddenly feel an urgency to enrich my imagination and inspire my spirit through something I can look at, touch and hold. Whatever the reason, I’ve decided that one of my goals is to make up for time lost to jobs, housework and other responsibilities over the years, and read more books. (I don’t see myself getting an e-reader anytime soon, though. It just wouldn’t feel the same.)

I  couldn’t always appreciate the books from my dad when he was still alive. His exuberance could be overwhelming at times. Five years after his death, the absence of his intense example as a reader remains a deeply felt loss, but also something of a relief. I inherited quite a few items from his personal library, and many more are gifts from long ago, but the hand-me-down shelves are increasingly lined with titles I’ve discovered on my own.

A few years ago a friend remarked how impressed he was by all the books on feminism he spied on the shelves in my living room. I pointed out that most were from my old man. The same man who, the summer after my freshman year in college, gave me a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue. It was his way of trying to make me feel less anxious about the “freshman fifteen” I had gained at college.

A few weeks ago, after news of Nora Ephron’s death, I searched for her book, Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, which I’d read for a high-school elective. I ended up finding two copies: the one I’d kept from Ms. Kloepfer’s class, and another paperback version, which had totally slipped from memory.

I opened the second one, a 2000 edition with a brighter cover, only to find an inscription on the inside.


Try it with the blue cheese dressing…



Cue the Theme Song

Forget June Cleaver. For my generation of impressionable dreamers, the inspirational TV mom was Clair Huxtable. She was gorgeous, stylish, smart and clearly in control of her household, even as she managed a successful career in the law. Like her name implied, she exuded clarity and confidence. The kids could goof off, but by the end of that half hour, Clair was unequivocally in charge. No one got away with anything – not even her husband, and certainly not her future son-in-law.

On the subject of ‘80s pop-culture icons, I fear my maternal temperament is more Roseanne Conner than Clair Huxtable. The antithesis of the well-put-together matriarch, Roseanne was perpetually tired and just a little indignant that she had to work so hard to stay one step ahead of her teenage daughters. Roseanne had a gritty side that made her hard to watch on TV, but a little easier to understand in real life.

Today’s headline news makes me recall another fictional family figure: Andy Taylor, one of TV’s earliest single parents. How did the Sheriff of Mayberry make it seem so easy? Surely the matronly presence of Aunt Bee was key. It also probably helped that the real child on the show wasn’t a red-haired boy without a mama, but a perpetually befuddled deputy named Fife.

Ah, if only parenting were as simple as a walk down a dirt road on the way to a beloved fishing hole. For a moment, I can dream.

The Driver’s Seat

One morning, quite out of the blue, my nearly-16-year-old daughter asked if we could find a parking lot so she could practice driving. We drove to a nearby suburb, where we parked in the vacant lot of a sprawling college campus. Soon we’d switched places — she had positioned herself squarely behind the steering wheel, while I got comfortable on the passenger side. The butterflies I’d felt in my stomach while driving us to the lot had vanished.

Put the car into drive, and slowly release your foot from the brake pedal. Feel the vehicle move gently forward as you keep both hands on the wheel. Turn slightly to the right, and feel the vehicle move in the same direction. 

The first time I sat behind the wheel happened long ago — during an era that did not emphasize seatbelt laws or infant car seats. My father had an old red Corvair, and he loved putting his toddler-age daughter on his lap as he drove. Goodness only knows what he was thinking, but I’m happy that we managed the adventures — limited, thankfully, to smooth rides on the open, deserted road — without incident.

I didn’t actually learn to drive until I was 30. Growing up, I was bothered by the way the adults around me seemed to turn nasty and tense behind the wheel. My own father — the same man who calmly sat a 3-year-old on his lap while driving rural highways — could become rather impulsive and aggressive when navigating the city streets during rush hour.

A friend once told me that learning to drive means taking control of your life. I’m already looking forward to the next time my daughter and I trade places in a wide, open lot.