Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Two Women Chat - - - Carolyn J. Rose and Nancy Peterson Farina

Friends since second grade, Carolyn J. Rose and Nancy Peterson Farina chat about the impact one negative person had on them when they were very young, why they’ll never forget those experiences, and how that has shaped their lives.

Carolyn J. Rose, the author of 11 novels including A Place of Forgetting, a story of love, war, betrayal, and Thoreau, set in 1966, and a cozy mystery, No Substitute for Murder, released last month. She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Nancy Peterson Farina was born in the Bronx, grew up in the Catskill Mountains, and attended the State University of New York at Albany. She taught junior high English for 33 years in New Hartford, New York. She and her husband Sal have two grown daughters and two grandchildren. They split their time between Central New York and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, reveling in blissful no-accountability.

Carolyn: Remember when we met in second grade? When they merged many tiny schools into one consolidated district? For me, that meant leaving behind the one-room schoolhouse a mile from home, boarding a huge yellow bus, and jolting along 12 miles of winding road to an enormous brick building. I’d been one of only two students in first grade at that tiny white schoolhouse at the intersection of two rural roads in the Catskill Mountains. Now I was one of many. At that one-room school, I’d been the pet of older students, coddled and encouraged. Now, everything changed.

Nancy:  My experience started differently from yours, because we are from different little towns. When I started kindergarten, I was in the first class to attend the big centralized school, so I never attended a little school as you did. In kindergarten, my teacher was a darling grandmotherly-type. I loved her. Imagine my delight to be assigned to Mrs. Goodrich’s first grade class. I’m not sure about the “rich” part, but our teacher was of the fairy-tale good variety. I was also coddled and encouraged, expecting the loving environment to continue in second grade. Oh, what a naïve child!

Carolyn: And we didn’t realize that we were so naïve, or so powerless. Because of that, we lacked the awareness necessary to develop coping mechanisms. I remember our teacher as wearing black every day, even though I’m sure she didn’t. Let’s call her Mrs. X.

My father, who had returned with malaria from the China-Burma-India theater of World War II, had little sympathy with my tears and pleas to be allowed to stay home. In his universe, you weren’t supposed to like school or a whole lot of other things. You just sucked it up and did them. But my mother was a nurse, so often I was able to use a strategy of feigning sickness. Actually, there was little feigning. Dreading the misery ahead, I threw up most mornings. About half the time (I remember seeing a report card showing 80+ absences for that year), I persuaded my parents I was sick enough to spend the day with my grandparents, former teachers who had coached me along to a reading level well beyond second grade. Every day with them was a day spent reading books borrowed from the library instead of sitting in a stuffy corner of the classroom listening to others labor through endless repetitions of the adventures (and I use that word loosely) of Dick and Jane.

Nancy: I remember one time when my stomach was growling as Mrs. X droned on and on. Dick and Jane and Baby Sally . . . My eyes followed the minute hand. Noon! Why didn't anyone notice it was time to line up for lunch?  I knew how to tell time, so it was up to me to alert Mrs. X that we were two minutes late.

Was I really trying to help Mrs. X or was I just showing off my new-found skill? In any event, I shouted out, "It's after noon! Time for lunch!" Grabbing my attention with her flashing eyes and face suffused with rage, Mrs. S. slapped down her book and ordered, "Everyone line up. Nancy, stand by me."

I thought I was being rewarded, until Mrs. X pinched my arm tight and stalked out the door. Down the hall we marched, her sharp fingernails digging into my chubby arm. Mrs. X let all her students file into the lunchroom and then swung me up to the glass wall looking into the cafeteria. "Wait here until everyone else has entered!  And that's everyone—all the grades."

Mortified, I stood small and alone outside the glass wall, looking in at the kids eating. Students from third, fourth, fifth, and then sixth grade filed in, giggling and shoving, pointing fingers at me. After the last sixth grader had gone into the cafeteria, Mrs. X shouted for me. I felt a thousand eyes on my blood-red face. I put one foot in front of the other, felt my stomach churn, and threw up in front of the whole school.

What happened next is long forgotten, but the lesson I learned that day has never left me. Humiliation of another human being is wrong. Mrs. X certainly taught me well. I would never hold up a person to ridicule.

Carolyn: Whenever I hear that story I want to turn back time and stand with you outside of the cafeteria as the person I am now. But in second grade, I would have been too petrified to draw attention to myself and draw her wrath. To this day I carry the lingering feeling that I’m about to get into big trouble for something I didn’t even know was wrong.

I also learned a lesson about humiliation—but trust me to get it backwards at first. I came to the conclusion that humiliating others must be what grown-ups did because they could and because it was their right. So, in the process of growing up, and maybe in an attempt to armor myself, I was sometimes petty enough to use the weapon I saw wielded back in second grade. I’m “cured” of that now, although I have to admit that I still find a certain enjoyment in glimpsing the public humiliation of those in power who break faith and victimize others by lying, cheating on their spouses, etc.

But my mother also learned a lesson from my second grade experiences—you don’t have to simply accept the situations life hands you. You can speak up, speak out, and act. Years later, when she was marching against the Vietnam War, she apologized to me for not going to school administrators and lodging a complaint. Looking back, I wonder if that complaint would have only made things worse for me and for you.

Nancy: Back in the late 1950's, I doubt many parents complained about a teacher. It simply was not done. Today, your mother would be all over the principal, demanding that you be removed from Mrs. X's terror-zone. Back in the "old days," kids were at the mercy of bad adults. (Hmmmm... perhaps that is still true in too many situations.)

When I think about your 80+ absences, I vaguely remember you not being in the classroom often. When you were there, we were unconscious allies. Most everyone else was 100% compliant with Mrs. X. Our friend Sandy had her gorgeous dimples to protect her. We had no such weapons. I wonder what lasting effects there still are on our meeker classmates.

Carolyn: I wished I had dimples. And a decent haircut and style. Looking at this picture makes me howl with laughter. (If you’re reading this blog, feel free to chime in and comment on those bangs.)

But back to the topic at hand. I wonder what made her the way she was. It seems to me she was new at teaching and I wonder if she was overwhelmed by the reality of a room filled with little people with agendas of their own. I wonder if she was resentful because teaching wasn’t what she’d imagined it would be. And I wonder if she was frustrated because she had to make a living and this was one of the few options open to women at that time.

Having survived Mrs. X, you went on to teach in junior high for 33 years. Did your experiences in second grade enable you to make a stronger connection to your students? And in all those years of teaching did you ever look back and think that you understood a little of Mrs. X’s emotional state?

Nancy: Perhaps Mrs. X had much to do with the kind of teacher I became. Instead of ruling by embarrassment and intimidation, I welcomed my 8th graders with open arms. I always tried to make my classroom a safe haven, where my students knew they could expect a warm hello at the door, fairness, and respect for everyone—oh, and work! Lots of work!  I expected the most out of every single one.

To improve reading, writing, speaking, and listening in 39 minutes a day plus homework is no lame feat! We squeezed as much out of every class period as possible—leaving a little time for a few belly laughs. For kids who struggled, I made myself available for extra help during my planning periods and after school. Hard work and encouragement by teachers is what helped me through a very difficult childhood. I could do little to change the bad home environments of some students, but I could be an adult who my students could depend on to teach with enthusiasm and to help them learn. Just one caring adult can work wonders for many children.

Carolyn: Fortunately, you and I found other caring adults to balance out our early experience with Mrs. X. And we found and developed strength within ourselves.

It could easily have gone the other way and I shudder to think where we might be now if we’d given up on ourselves and our dreams at that early age. But, like you said, we savored the encouragement we got and we worked hard and kept our eyes on the futures we imagined. I remember walking the quarter mile to the school bus stop, wind whipping my legs because girls weren’t allowed to wear slacks to school in those days, and counting up the days until I would graduate from high school and start to have a life that was all my own. (I was soooo dramatic back then; let’s hope I chew less scenery now.)

Robert Frost in “The Road Not Taken” talks of how “way leads on to way” and how the choice of the road less traveled defined his life. I chose to leave graduate school and join VISTA, then to work in adrenaline-fueled TV newsrooms for almost three decades. The pay wasn’t great and pensions were unheard of, so retirement is still out there for me and I’m working as a high school substitute teacher and—on most days—loving it. Being around teens puts me back in touch with the kid I was way back then and the powerful emotions I felt. I expect this is where A Place of Forgetting came from and I’m grateful for that.

Almost every day I’m at school I remind at least one teen that there are always choices, that those choices lead to others, and that we seldom find ourselves again at the same fork in the road and rarely get a “do-over.” I’ve made some not-so-smart choices in my life, but there were lessons in all of them so I would never wish myself back into the past to change things.

Except for second grade. If I could, I’d go back and hug those little girls and whisper in their ears, “Believe it or not, this will all work out for the best.”

Nancy: Troubled little girls are still out there—and still need reassurance that with hard work and spirit, life can improve. Sometimes that reassurance comes from a teacher, sometimes a family member or friend. Carolyn, you know that another major source of reassurance comes from books. If I had read A Place of Forgetting when I was a troubled teen, it would have sparked my spirit. All those life lessons you have learned become part of your novels, inspiring women. Keep writing, dear friend.

Carolyn: And you keep reading. And keep telling me about what you’ve read and what speaks to you in those books. Your comments and encouragement have been priceless.

I wish there had been more of a selection for us to pick from back then. And I wish there had been more books that were relevant to our time and situations. Now there are shelves loaded with wonderful books dealing with the traumas—in all shapes, forms, and degrees—of childhood and the teen years. And there are thousands of teachers and librarians helping to get those books into the hands of kids who might find refuge and strength and direction within the covers, kids who might grow up whole and happy because someone helped them see another road to take and they found a way to take it.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Carolyn and Nancy - Welcome!

Thank you both for sharing this story with us.

There's nothing better than a best girlfriend and it sounds as though the two of you have both been blessed with the best.

I loved reading this - Thank You!!


Carolyn J. Rose said...

Thank you for allowing us to hang out in your cyber living room, Kaye.

I'm looking forward to what others have to say about some of their childhood experiences.

Julie D said...

Wow! Great stories! I had many like them, too. Sign of the times, sadly. This is fun. Thank you, ladies!

jenny milchman said...

Wow. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly here, Carolyn & Nancy (I don't mind the bangs personally--you two were adorable). It's amazing to me how much less child-centered things were back then. For bad, as this tale reveals, but also with some unintended consequences, for bad.

How luck you two are to still have that synchronicity of writer and reader.

Thanks for the post.

jenny milchman said...

Oops, meant that second "bad" to be good. It strikes me as a mixed bag the lengths we go to these days to protect children. They needed more protection than was available in the 50s. But possibly less than there is now. It's OK to get a bad grade if you deserve one. Not everyone should win a trophy.

Patty said...

Wow! Much of this resonated with me a lot. Isolated from "peers" and humiliated by a teacher is a tough thing to overcome. It sounds like both of you came through with flying colors!

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Jenny, I agree. It's wonderful to protect children and maybe not-so-wonderful to protect them too much.
But knowing where that line is and when you've crossed it . . . well, that's for a wiser person than I am to decide.

Pat Browning said...

Well, this brought back memories. I was always feisty enough to fight back but my late sister Carolyn was not so bold. I never forgot or forgave a teacher who caught her chewing gum and made her parade through the classes with a wad of gum on the tip of her nose. I was mad enough -- but too small-- to throw that teacher through a window.

Now, of course, the teacher would be up for abuse, maybe in jail. We finally figured out there are better ways to teach children.

Even so, it must be a tough time to be a teacher -- damned if you do, damned if you don't. And the pendulum swings ...

Pat Browning

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Pat, I remember when chewing gum was one of the worst "crimes" a child could commit at school. And I remember kids having to stick the wad to their foreheads as punishment.

Suedenym said...

Wow! Does this take me back! And I don't just mean the photo of Carolyn's bangs. I could share my own elementary school photos of crooked bangs (cut by my well meaning mother) but they're probably best left buried in some dusty box in a closet. What a wonderful conversation on the huge impact adults make on children (good and bad) and on the power of friendship. Thanks for sharing. :)

Judy Hogan said...

Thank you, Nancy and Carolyn, for sharing your story. I had lovely, encouraging teachers 1st-4th grade, but the 5th grade teacher was rather harsh. Oh, there was one brief 1st grade teacher who was so mean to others that I scribbled on my work, and she didn't even notice. But I didn't have her long. In 5th grade, I could cope, and a friend and I started writing novels in lunch hour. Cheers, Judy Hogan

Carolyn J. Rose said...

Nancy can't seem to connect, but wanted to share this:
"Luckily for Carolyn and me -- and so many others -- we had many more excellent teachers than horrific ones. Just think of the material this one miserable teacher gave you for your writing, Carolyn!"

Mike Nettleton said...

One thing my wife's commentary doesn't include is that she's become a person you not only can't misuse, but who will rip your throat out (metaphorically) if you attempt it. One time when we were in transit, an airline counter person told us they didn't have record of a ticket for me for the leg of the flight from Denver to Eugene. Carolyn told her that we had paid in advance, had verification and if they attempted to bump me in Denver she was going to sit down on the floor in front of their counter, spin in circles and bellow at the top of her lungs how they'd screwed things up. When we arrived at the airline counter in the mile high city and told them who we were the clerk gulped three or four times, then assured us we had seats together for the next flight. My wife is a pussycat, really, but with sharp claws.

Melanie Sherman said...

LOL. Great blog. I love the part where you remember the teacher wearing black every day, although she probably didn't.

Our memories can certainly be form-fitted, but not necessarily true.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

You're right, Melanie, she probably wore other colors. But back then, women teachers wore dresses and high heels every day. Maybe that had something to do with her attitude. LOL.