What Would My Grandfather Do?

This just in from Mountain Brook Schools outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

A high school teacher’s history lesson in experiential learning went a bit too far when he had his students stand and salute the [American] flag with a Nazi salute. The  goal was to teach how symbols change over time. Before Hitler turned the salute into an enduring symbol of Jew-hatred, the extended arm/palm down gesture was called the “Bellamy Salute.” After the United States’ entry into World War II in 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the one familiar to us all today — placing one’s right hand over the heart to show respect for the Stars and the Stripes. The sole Jewish student in the class did not join in. He  filmed, and then posted, the “lesson” on social media. He was reprimanded and told to apologize to his teacher who then further ostracized him.

“Your grandfather is probably turning over in his grave,” my husband said when the story broke. My grandfather Abe Berkowitz, whose law firm was in Birmingham, Alabama, and who lived in Mountain Brook, was a firebrand who fought with other attorneys and private citizens for civil rights. In 1948 a pro-bono case of his laid the foundation for the United States’ anti-masking law that was much in the news at the beginning of the pandemic. The law had its origins in a case he brought against the Klan for their raid on a Girl Scout camp.  Two white counselors were holding leadership training for leaders of the local black Girl Scout chapter.  The Klan caught wind of it, stormed their tent in the middle of the night, terrorized the women and ordered the two white women to leave within 24 hours. Abe took the Girl Scouts’ case against the Klan and won.

So back to Mountain Brook High School and the Nazi salute. What would my grandfather actually have done? He was clever. He was compassionate. He never blinked and he made sure right won out. I’ve got a feeling he might have asked to meet with the high school teacher to get a sense of the man. He would have asked him in      a roundabout way, and in not so many words, “What the hell were you thinking?” In his deep voice, rich as molasses,  he would have explained why the sole Jewish kid in the class would have been so upset to see his classmates encouraged to imitate a gesture that let to the murder of six million fellow Jews.

And then Abe would have met with the students. He would have started with a joke. Or perhaps related a story recounting               a personal foible or misstep. He would have had them in the palm of his hand because he was a master storyteller.  “Now boys,” he would have said, “your teacher thought he had a good lesson going. It’s kind of backfired on him. But the greater good is that he opened the door to teach a bigger lesson, a lesson about not following the crowd. A lesson of knowing your history and understanding its impact on those for whom history isn’t some event in a book but is instead family history.”

I imagine he’d continue somewhat like this:  “The thing about the Nazis was they saw the world as us and them. And the Jews?  Well, to the Nazis, the Jews were as them as you could get. The Nazis were able to get everyone else to believe this as well. That salute was part of it. That salute said, ‘It’s us against them and we are going to rid the world of ‘them.’ Now, that’s all book history. But it’s human history, too. And we,” Abe would pause and gesture with his arms to include each and every student, “We are human beings.  We are all part of part of the human family. Even that sorry bastard Hitler. Whatever I do affects you and affects our human family. Whatever you do, also affects our human family.

“Your teacher wanted to teach you how symbols change, how a different meaning can be riveted onto a benign symbol and turn it into a weapon. That salute, the arm slicing through the air that the Nazis commandeered for their own eviltry? That salute symbolizes the slicing away of part of the human family, separating them in order to murder them by sending six million Jews and four million others up the concentration camp chimneys. That’s why your fellow student here reacted the way he did. That’s why he did what he did that led to this hullaballoo.” I imagine the students, if they weren’t already, were growing a bit fidgety. “Like I said, your teacher wanted to teach you something about symbols. I hope I’ve been able to extend his lesson a bit farther. Thank you for your time, gentleman. I’ll see you around.”

Abe would have given them his heartfelt smile so warm and true that you could feel it leave his soul and enter yours. No punishment, no shaming, no recrimination. Just a lesson from a great and humble man who knew a thing or two about the human family.

A Triple Treat

I’ve been on a novel reading jag and have a trio of my recent faves to share with you.  In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed hovers between life and death. Her life has less been lived, than regreted, every step of the way. “Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.” Nora pens her suicide note, chases the pills down with some wine and ends up not in the morgue but between life and death in the Midnight Library.

Nora is shown infinite shelves holding an infinite number of books, each one offering a different life for her to experience. “While the Midnight Library stands,” the librarian explains, “you will be preserved from death. Now you have to decide how you want to live.” 

Book after book, Nora lives the life of a rock star, a glaciologist, an Olympic swimmer, a cat sitter, thrice married, an aid worker in Botswana, and many more. Each life answers Nora’s question of who might she have been, but none can tell her which life is the best one.

Here are a couple of passages I marked. This is for my librarian friends: “Librarians have knowledge. They guide you to the right books. The right worlds. They find the best places.  Like soul-enhanced search engines.” And then there is this one, “The art of swimming — [Nora] supposed like any art — was about purity. The more focussed you were on th activity, the less focussed you were on everything else. You kind of stopped being you and becamse the thing you were doing.” The same can be said for The Midnight Library.  You cease being the reader and become one with the author’s world. What an intriguiging world Haig offers us to live for a while.

Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace is sweet, satisfying and not a bit treacly or pat. Told through the voices of seven-year-old Clara, her elderly neighbor Mrs. Orchard, and the young stranger who moves into Mrs. Orchard’s house while the old woman is in the hospital, A Town Called Solace weaves together mystery, heartbreak and the shattering actions sorrow can compel us to take.

I’d never read anything by Louise Penny, but the recommendation was so effusive, I immediately put a library hold on The Madness of Crowds. I love mysteries and crime novels and Penny’s latest delivers 100%. But Madness is so much richer than a mere whodunit. Penny began writing the novel just as the pandemic began; the stresses and dilemmas Covid laid bare in our hospital systems figure prominently.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has been charged with providing security for a lecture given by a visiting statistics professor. The seemingly simple assignment devolves into a near riot as the professor makes her case for euthanasia of those who are a drain on the medical system — the elderly, the disabled and the terminally ill. The debate ignited by the professor’s findings set the townspeople of Three Pines against one another. When a murder is committed, ghosts, secrets, and uneasy truths begin falling from the sky like the Christmas snows blanketing the town. 

While Penny deftly weaves the strands of the mystery toward the kind of ending you would expect from an award-winning, New York Times best-selling crime novelist, it’s her characters and their inner lives that have left me wanting to read other books in the series. The relationshp between Gamache and his son-in-law (and second-in-command) shifts between family tenderness and the stresses of their profession. A bevy of beautiful grandchldren, a gay couple who run the bistro and Ruth, a woman who treats the local bookstore as a lending library and never leaves the house without her F-word quacking duck clutched in her arms, make for the kind of ensemble that is pure delight.  And if that’s not enough, Louise Penny’s final pages of acknowledgments end on a note that lets me know the author would be a really fun person to hang out with. 

Cute as a Button

I was visiting with some young friends and their son. He is three and adores remotes.  At one point during my visit he told me, “I am a button man.”  I figured that was somewhat akin to being a car guy. I told him that I love buttons and had a collection of them.  His beautiful blue eyes grew rounder in excitement.

“You have buttons?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I  even wrote a story about buttons a long time ago.  Maybe my next visit I’ll read it to you.” I don’t know how we got were we got next, but I commented that I had a button on my jeans.  Max asked, “What does it do?”

And then it hit me. Max’s interactions with buttons have nothing to do with clothes and everthing to do with remotes. Dressed in pull-over sweatshirts and pull on pants, and zippered parkas, where do kids today encounter buttons except on keyboards and remotes?

I still might read him my story one day but I’ll probably bring my button jar. Otherwise he may well get quite confused.


If you’d like to read the story, head over to Grandparents.


Hold the Bleach!

Clotheslines might have been a pain in the neck way back when, but I’ve always felt a sense of romance and lightheartedness about them.  To me they evoke warm summer days, light breezes and sheets scented with the aroma of cut grass and sunlight.

I’m taking an intro class in color theory. After painting our own samples of primary, secondary and tertiary colors on cardstock, the assignment was to create a color wheel using three separate shapes for each of the color groups. What better than shirts, pants and skirts? And what a great mix and match wardrobe!