Grammar 101

Trinity Episcopal Church, at the corner of Broad and Third Streets in downtown Columbus, has a cool arched red entrance and a welcoming message for all just above its two front doors. But . . . “An House of Prayer”?

It violates one of the rules of grammar that were drilled into students back in grade school — namely, that you use “an” when the following word starts with a vowel sound and “a” when the following word starts with a consonant sound. It’s one of the many weird English grammar rules that trip people up precisely because of letters like h, which can be pronounced in some cases and silent in others — so you write “an honor” but “a house.”

So how did the friendly message above the front door at Trinity get bungled? I don’t know, but I may have to go inside to see whether there are violations of other key rules, like “I before E, except after C, or where sounded in A as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh.'”

Two-Cent Milk

Yesterday I had oatmeal for breakfast, and the waitress at the hotel restaurant brought me a small carton of milk along with some raisins, brown sugar, and blueberries.

Looking at the small milk carton immediately reminded me of my earliest days in the cafeteria in grade school.  Sometimes Mom would pack my lunch, and sometimes if she was too busy I would eat a hot lunch at the school cafeteria.  Either way, a staple of the lunch hour was paying two cents for a small carton of ice-cold whole milk.  It tasted good with either a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Twinkie from a paper bag or a hot plate of Johnny Marzetti on a plastic school cafeteria tray.

img_2891The two-cent milk was an important rite of passage in two ways.  It was my first real use of money and — equally important — my first real experience with being entrusted with money.  Mom would give me two pennies and I would walk to school with that cold, hard cash burning a hole in my pocket, knowing that I couldn’t lose it or I wouldn’t be able to get my milk with lunch.  In those first-grade days I didn’t have much of a conception of how the world worked, or how much things cost, but I knew that my milk at lunch cost two cents.

And, of course, the carton itself was a key test of young kid small motor skills.  You had to manipulate the carton just right to achieve the optimal milk-drinking experience.  The first step, of gently separating the container opening, was easy.  It was the second step, which involved applying just the right amount of pressure so that the carton would pop open in one clean motion, that was the challenge.  If you did’t get it on the first try, with each new effort the container would lose structural integrity and stay frustratingly closed, and you might have to use your fingernails to claw it open, leaving the milk drinking hole looking embarrassingly mushy and torn.

When I was presented with the small container of milk with my oatmeal yesterday, I felt my inner first-grader deep inside, focused on the task of opening the milk as cleanly and proficiently as the big kids did.  Alas, I still don’t have the knack.

Selling Reading

IMG_0854Schools are always trying to come up with things to make kids want to read.  I’m not sure any of it works — kids either pick up the love of reading or they don’t, and the summer reading clubs or painted signs or gold stars don’t seem to make much difference one way or the other — but I had to hand it to the unknown artists at the school down the block who came up with a flying saucer, a space shuttle and boosters and representations of all of the planet in the solar system.

One question:  does anybody use the phrase “out of this world” anymore?

Birds Of A Feather

IMG_0804Today two birds decided to roost for a bit on the ledge right outside the window in front of my desk.  I’m not sure what kinds of birds they were — mourning doves?  brown pigeons? — but I certainly understood their impulse to bask in the sunshine and enjoy some long overdue spring weather.

I would gladly have been out on the ledge with them.  Today was the kind of day where, in elementary school, you’d beg your teacher to let you sit outside for the math lesson — and the kind of day where a teacher sick to death of gray, chilly weather might just say yes.

Kids On The School Stage

A few days ago a drama teacher at Richard and Russell’s school gave Kish some pictures of the kids when they were in various productions, years ago.  There were some snapshots of Russell dressed up like a Native American for one school play, and this picture of Richard in a somewhat Harry Potterish old man costume and makeup for another.

The pictures brought back memories, of course — and they were all good ones.  Any parent who has watched their child perform in a school play remembers the tension and nerves as the show time neared, because you were praying fervently that there wasn’t some mishap or stumble after the weeks of learning lines and practicing and staging.  But then the curtain would go up, the kids would perform like champs, the parents would feel a sense of great relief, and in the end it was clear that the kids who were in the show had a ball.

IMG_0129And years later, when you think about your kids’ school years, it turns out that the theater performances created many of the strongest memories.  When Richard was in kindergarten he played a squirrel in a short play called The Tree Angel and had the first line.  The teacher said she picked Richard because she was absolutely sure that he would not be nervous and would say the line without a problem, and she was right.  I felt like I learned something important about our little boy that day.  Several years later, Richard played Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even sang a song on stage (“Cheer up, Charlie . . . “), and did a great job.  Russell, too, had his turns before the footlights, memorably playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned Native American character, who I think was named Bullseye and (intentionally) got a lot of laughs in another show.

The point isn’t that our kids were great actors or stars, and their participation didn’t turn them toward Broadway or Hollywood for their adult careers.  But those school plays did give them a chance to shine on stage and to know firsthand what it was like to perform in front of an audience — and, in the process, to get a better sense of themselves and their capabilities.  School is supposed to do that.  The fact that the performances are warmly recalled by parents, years later, is just the icing on the cake.

When I look at these old photographs, I think about the school systems that, for budgetary reasons, have cut their theatre programs, or their orchestra or choir programs, or their art programs.  When the budget axe falls, those programs get chopped first, on the rationale that they are non-academic and therefore non-essential:  after all, the standardized tests that seem to drive school policy these days don’t check whether you can act or sing or play an instrument.  But that reasoning is wrong-headed, and also sad.  It doesn’t recognize how those programs greatly enrich the school years and help to produce more well-rounded students who have tried something new and now are bonded by the shared experience of performing before an audience — and it also deprives the parents of that deep, lasting thrill of learning something new about their child.

The Joys Of Recess

  

On lunch break in Brooklyn, I walked past a park and saw a bunch of schoolkids playing during recess. They had no equipment other than a ball and no teacher or monitor telling them what to do, but they obviously were having fun playing a game of their own creation where one kid stretched out on the ground and the others had to bounce the ball over her prone figure.

Who doesn’t remember recess fondly — and these kinds of unsupervised moments are the most memorable.

Suddenly, September Traffic

If Gershwin were a Midwestern commuter, he might have written: “Summertime, when the traffic is easy.”

That’s because, at any given point during June, July, and August, a good chunk of the population is on vacation. That means, in turn, a reduced number of cars crowding onto highways and byways at the peak hours. The result, typically, is a smooth and pleasant ride to work.

When school starts up again, though, everything changes — which is why it’s not only schoolchildren who dread the words “back to school.” Vacations are over. School buses and school speed zones are blinking their yellow lights. Everyone is back in town and — what’s worse — everyone is leaving for work at about the same time, after they’ve dropped their kid off at school or the bus stop. People who might have been leaving for work at 8 in July are now on the road at 7.

It’s like the Super Bowl, where everybody is watching the same TV channel and uses the bathroom at the same time, placing huge burdens on municipal sewer systems at the same moment in time. Roads that formerly ran free and easy are now clogged and filled to rank overflowing with traffic, and it stinks.

It’s why September driving is usually the worst and most congested of the year. This week, it was suddenly September traffic in Columbus.