The Ripple Effect

By my standards, something incredible happened yesterday–something huge and wonderful and heartstring-yanking and a little mind-blowing. I’d planned to wait a while before writing about it, but it’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep, because it just keeps jumping around inside me. I’m going to try to at least begin telling you the story now. I’ll stop when my eyelids start closing and pick up again after sunrise.

This is a probably going to be a bit long and convoluted, but please try to stay with me on this. You may want to grab a beverage and a snack. Oh, and some Kleenex.

On August 30, 2007, I wrote a post entitled “I Love You, Miss Reed,” about my first-grade teacher and the profound way she changed my world. Betty Reed was a miracle in my life, and I wanted to express it. Since I hadn’t seen her since my elementary school days and the chances of ever being able to convey my gratitude in person were slim, I wrote about it instead. Still, I always longed to find her, to tell her myself.

Over the years, I searched for her on the Internet from time to time, when I was feeling particularly blessed in my life and lucky to be here on the planet. I never found a thing–no Facebook page or address, nothing that linked her to the school, which, to complicate matters more, had undergone a name change. The six-year-old me vaguely recalled that Miss Reed left our school at the end of that year to get married, but I was never quite sure if it was true or if I was confusing her with Miss Crabtree on “The Little Rascals.”

Despite the time and attention Miss Reed devoted to me, the rest of my academic career was an unfortunate waste of desk space. My Hebrew school training was a flop. The time I served there isn’t time that I enjoy reflecting upon. Overall, childhood sucked (and I think of my childhood as having lasted decades). But here I sit, happy and healthy and somewhat sane, and though I’m not a religious woman, I am a very grateful one. The one thing about having had a Tragic Upbringing is that you seldom take the good for granted. Every night, I thank the Great Whatever It Is for the people who’ve shown me kindness on my journey. I’ve surely forgotten many of them, but I’ll never forget Miss Reed, as that earlier blog post illustrates.

I’m kind of hemming and hawing here, trying to figure out the best way to go on. The thing is that yesterday, I did one of my once-in-a-blue-moon searches for Betty Reed, mostly to take my mind off of the fact that I was STBW (supposed to be writing). Like a safecracker working to get the locks to tumble, I Googled different combinations of words–her name, the city, the school. No results. Nada. I experimented, squeezing the name of the school and hers between quotation marks. Scrolling through pages and pages, I finally hit pay dirt–a small Google preview that contained both the name of my beloved teacher and the school’s original name. I clicked the link and discovered a newsletter, written by the current dean of my former school, who I must say looks a lot younger and hipper than any faculty member I recall from my days there.

I burrowed into a corner of the sofa and hunkered down to read, hoping to glean at least one little clue as to what became of Betty Reed. The article was on the front page, written a little over a month ago. As is policy on my blog, I’m changing most of the names here. I’ll call my elementary alma mater MFS (Moonbeam’s Former School).

What follows is what the dean wrote:

I intended to write this column about the National Jewish Day School Conference which I attended…earlier this week. I was going to focus on the keynote given by Harvard professor and highly acclaimed author Tony Wagner about where education is and where it is headed. But when 11th grader Adam Kalen walked into my office on Wednesday afternoon, I realized that the conference would have to wait. There was something more important I had to share. It wasn’t about the future of education but about its past. It wasn’t about imagining what the MFS can be, but about reminding ourselves of what it has always been. Adam told me he had been meaning to come by for a few weeks, and apologized that he hadn’t. He said that he had been standing outside our school building on a Shabbat (Sabbath) morning some time ago, when a man drove by in a pickup truck and asked him for the school office. When Adam explained that the office was closed on Saturday, the man handed him a sealed envelope and asked him to deliver it to the principal. I opened the envelope and found a letter inside. Here is what it said:

Back in the late fifties or early sixties, when I was a young child, MFS hired my mother as a first grade teacher. At the time, my mother was a single parent with four young children and this job was our family’s lifeline. And while this job was a true blessing for our family in and of itself, the people at the MFS also helped our family in many other ways. At the time, I remember my mother saying that the people at MFS treated us like part of their family.

In one particular situation someone at MFS found out that although I needed eyeglasses, we couldn’t afford them. Shortly after that, a very kind gentleman who was an eye doctor made it possible for me to get my first eyeglasses. His office was downtown-‐I think on Main Street. I’m sorry that I don’t remember his name–I was just a child–but I do remember his kindness and that when I was nervous during the eye exam he made me laugh when he instructed me to look directly at his beak–even then I knew he was poking fun at his prominent nose.

Having eyeglasses opened up the world to me, and after getting my glasses I developed a love for reading. And as I grew older, it was from my love of reading and self study that I was later able to teach myself a skill. And with that skill I have been able to provide for my family and to make it possible for my stepdaughter to attend college and I’m proud to say that she is now in graduate school. And with her new skills, she will one day be able to provide for her family.

Years ago, a kind individual’s generosity made it possible for a young boy to see the world more clearly, and I wanted the MFS family to know that the gift was never forgotten, and to say thanks ‐ not only for the kindness, but for everything that a single act of kindness made possible.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Daniel Reed, son of Betty Reed

Attached to the letter there was check. On the check was a post‐it note. It read: Maybe you could help someone else with this! ‐ Daniel Reed.

Daniel: I can and I will. But please know that your thoughtful gift won’t just help a child in need. It will inspire a community.

I read it three times. Big, gloopy tears rolled down my face and so many thoughts and emotions ran through me that I shook like an electrocuted squirrel. Now that I knew Miss Reed’s full name (and that she wasn’t a “miss” but a “missus”), I did another search, and this time a small snippet of an obituary popped up. Apparently, my dear, sweet teacher died nearly three years ago. Once again, I Googled, this time for the dean’s email address, and quickly sent him this:

Good afternoon, Rabbi P-,

I hope this e-mail reaches you, and that it finds you well. I just came across the beautiful story you wrote in the newsletter, about receiving the check from Daniel Reed, and I feel that I have to write you (as soon as I stop crying).

I attended MFS decades ago, from kindergarten through eighth grade. I was definitely not a typical MFS student–my family was very poor and we were not Orthodox. My parents were in an awful marriage and home was a very scary place. My siblings and I were traumatized and quite neglected. We also lived in a very rough part of town, and endured quite a bit of after-school anti-semitism. Needless to say, I kind of stood out from the crowd, for all the wrong reasons. I was an awful student, just awful, and while many of my teachers and classmates were very nice to me, unfortunately, quite a few were not. Still, I credit the school for allowing me to attend (I surely was given some sort of scholarship or aid), and for providing me with the only stability that I had at the time. It gave me firmer foundation, and a glimpse of civility that didn’t exist at home. I just don’t think that anyone knew what to make of the messy, troubled little girl who showed up for class each weekday. I’m sure I was pretty hard to tolerate.

But there was one teacher there who accepted me unconditionally, and that was Betty Reed. No matter how disheveled or exhausted I was, that lovely woman greeted me with a warm smile each weekday morning. Sometimes she even hugged me. Under her tutelage, I was reading at a sixth* grade level in first grade (though I barely passed my other classes). She instilled in me a love for literature and writing that I carry to this day. In fact, I became a writer.

I still have a lacy, rather yellowed thank you card that she wrote to me back in 1966. Here is what it said:

“…Thank you for the stationary. I love it because it’s so pretty, but most of all I love it because it came from my very special friend. I love you…– Betty Reed”

You cannot imagine what those words meant to me. Mrs. Reed made me feel valued when no one else did. There were other kind teachers who came along later, but in my nine years at MFA, she had the greatest impact on my life.

For years, I tried to find her, to thank her for all she’d done for me. So often people quietly change the lives of others for the better, never realizing the impact of what they’ve done. I wanted to tell her. It wasn’t until I came across the story in your newsletter that I realized that she too was struggling at that time. It reminded me that life works in mysterious and beautiful ways. For over forty years, I’ve carried the memory of this wonderful woman in my heart, feeling grateful for the goodness she had bestowed on me when I was six years old. I never imagined that at the same time, one of her own children was carrying the same feelings for those who had employed her. The world is a wonderful place.

I did an Internet search after reading your story, and I believe that Mrs. Reed has passed away. I don’t know if you have a way of contacting her son, but if you do, I hope that you’ll feel free to forward him this e-mail and/or my e-mail address. I’d like to tell him how remarkable his mother was, though I have a feeling he already knows.

Thank you for sharing your experience, Rabbi P-. You’ve made my whole week.

Sincerely,

A Former Student

In exactly nine minutes, I received an email back, which said:

Wow. The good keeps going: He made my week, I made yours, and now you’ve made mine again. Thank you.

I do have an address for her son and I will gladly send him a copy of your email. I was wondering whether you might be comfortable with my publishing it in my newsletter and perhaps on my blog as well? If you’d rather I didn’t because it reveals too many personal details, I’d certainly understand. If you are comfortable with it though, I think it might just be the gentle push someone else needs to become the next Betty Reed.

All the best,

G-

Holy shmoly, he signed it with his first name! My, how that school has changed. I told him that I’d need to check with the rest of my family before I could give him the green light on publishing it. The school had been small when I attended. It wouldn’t be hard for certain people to identify us. I needed some time to think.

When Amadeus got home from work, I told him everything. I read him the story in the newsletter, and cried all over again. “That’s beautiful, baby,” he said. My daughter came over a few hours later, read the whole thing, and got a little weepy.

“Wow, Mom. This is amazing.”

I forwarded the e-mails to my siblings (along with a link to the newsletter) and asked if they were okay with my letter being published. My sister texted: “Of course!” My brother wrote back: “What an amazing story…! If it helps others, be my guest.” He added some smooshy stuff about how blessed he was to have such swell sisters. It was a love fest, I tell you.

Later, I mulled the whole thing over. Basically, I’d be giving a stranger permission to share my less-than-spectacular opinion of my years at that school; most likely, several of my former classmates have children and grandchildren who are students there now. But that wasn’t the point. The point was Miss Reed. Mrs. Reed.The point was kindness, something I could have used a bit more of while I’d been there. Maybe the rabbi was right. Maybe it would give a gentle push.

A few hours ago, I wrote back and told him that he could publish my letter. He in turn gave me permission to reprint what he’d written. I have news for him though–there will never be another Betty Reed. But I think we’re both rather astounded by Daniel’s story, and hopeful that some of his mother’s fairy dust will settle onto at least a few people.

So much has been swimming through my mind. About the power of words. About the beauty of this world and the ripple effect of a good deed. About the multi-facetedness of life, and the invisible thread that sometimes seems to connect us. But I’m not going to try to explain it. I have a feeling you already know.

~~~~~

*A clarification: In my haste to write to the dean, I couldn’t remember if I’d read at a sixth or eighth grade level, so I erred on the side of caution. I called my mother and she confirmed that it was indeed eighth, which is what I’d written in the “I Love You, Miss Reed” post.

I’m sorry that this isn’t more readable. I was having major formatting issues, and finally gave up.

Anne Hathaway of Ticking People Off

I’ve been thinking about Anne Hathaway a lot more than I should lately, but really, it’s hard not to. Her face is on the screen almost every time I turn on the TV; when I connect to the Internet, her porcelain-veneered smile and big, perfect-browed eyes stare from under a headline which announces that something like one in four Americans hates her guts. I used to read these stories, but I no longer do, because frankly, the attacks on her are so vicious that it sort of makes my tummy hurt.  The woman somehow elicits nastiness in people. A lot of people, anyway.

There are many celebrities who’ve somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the public, but usually those on the receiving end of our contempt have done something to earn it–beaten up their significant other, summoned Xenu or showed their true colors during a drunken traffic stop. But Ms. Hathaway has done none of these things. She focuses on her craft, donates time and money to various charities and seems like a nice enough sort, certainly nicer than many Hollywood folks.

But there’s something about her that brings out the snark in me, too. The moment she and her nipples stepped onto the red carpet at the Oscars, I laughingly told my husband, “Well, that’s all anyone’s going to be talking about for the next three weeks. She could be discussing crop circles in Rwanda right now and no one would notice.” The cynic in me knew that those pointy darts were as intentional as her rehearsed surprise later in the show, when she breathlessly whispered, “It came true.” 

Anne rubs a lot of people the wrong way, myself included. I could list a multitude of reasons why, but I’m truly not writing this to trash her.  In fact, she’s been in a couple of movies that I really liked. But I never bought her as Selina Kyle in “The Dark Knight Rises,” because I found her unconvincing as someone who’d ride a big-ass motorcycle, much less lead a life of crime. I could almost hear her gush, “Don’t I look fabulous in this cat suit?” I haven’t seen “Les Miserables,” and probably won’t. I’m too aware of her pride in the weight she lost for the role, the head shaving, the Suffering for Her Art. “Look! I’m wearing burlap! It’s scratching my skin!” 

I’m ashamed to admit this. There’s nothing rational about my feelings. I don’t know this person. Despising her is currently a national pastime, and I usually don’t involve myself in such matters. But for some reason, I find myself riding the “I hate Anne Hathaway” bandwagon, and it’s awful. My gut-level dislike of her makes me dislike myself. It makes me feel petty and shallow and mean-spirited. It’s ugly, it really is.

She’s just a person. Granted, she’s a public person, but she’s also a fellow human being. Whenever I have an instantaneous aversion toward someone, I start to question myself. I try to get to the root of my negative feelings and exorcise the demons of annoyance. Yesterday, as I heard yet another news story about the public’s unfathomable contempt for this attractive, Academy Award winning multi-gazillionaire, it hit me.

Anne Hathaway is that girl. You know, that girl–the one we all went to school with, that one girl we loved to hate. In a flash, I realized that for a lot of people, she isn’t Anne Hathaway at all. She’s Janie Perfectberg.

 

From kindergarten until eighth grade, I attended what may have been the world’s smallest private school. I can’t remember how many boys there were, but in my class, there were exactly five girls. For nine years, I had four female classmates. This was a religious school, a Hebrew school to be exact, and a lot of the kids there were from very pious, wealthy families. If you’ve learned anything about me from reading this blog, it’s that my family was anything but pious or wealthy. Though some of the teachers and students were cruel, I’m thankful for the experience, because it exposed me to a much more civilized environment than the one I had at home. Though none of the religious stuff took, the lessons I learned there were invaluable. Like the one I’m sharing now.

The four schoolgirls in my class were, all in all, very nice to me over the years. Ruthie’s father was the academy’s director, a very strict and hairy rabbi who was later dismissed due to a sex scandal with a wealthy patron’s wife. Ruthie was a cheery, rather lumpy girl, ultra-orthodox and very outspoken. Tessa was quiet, thin and studious, the daughter of Czech immigrants. Lisa was my very best friend in the world, and we were, comparatively speaking, little hellraisers. Both of us were having tough times at home, and though our backgrounds and social statuses couldn’t have been further apart, we were each other’s life preservers throughout our elementary years.

But it was evident from our first day in the sandbox there was greatness among us, and that greatness was all smooshed up into one girl, whom I’ll call Janie Perfectberg. To paraphrase those gods of rock, the Carpenters, on the day that she was born, the angels got together, and decided to create a dream come true.

Janie’s genetic makeup consisted of something very different than ours, and it included fairy dust, brilliance and Personality Plus. Her father was a very successful attorney, and her mother devoted herself to raising the children. Their house  was three times bigger than mine, located in one of the nicest areas of town. Our principal, Mrs. Tack, was their neighbor and one of her parents’ closest friends. She made no attempt to hide her favoritism.

Janie was the tallest, prettiest girl in school. She had a wide, perfect smile framed by deep, perfect dimples. Neither freckles nor acne ever marred her fair skin; her hair, she informed us, was dishwater blonde, and was longer, straighter and silkier than any of the rest of ours. I don’t think there was a boy three years older or younger who didn’t have a huge crush on her.

She began piano lessons about a week after her birth, and she played like a prodigy. She took ballet, and made straight A’s. Her artwork was stunning. In a box in my closet somewhere, I still have a stack of get well cards, cards that my classmates made for me during a first-grade hospital stay. While other kids scribbled stick figure snowmen and dogs that looked like mosquitoes, Julie had cut out a series of perfect little paper snowflakes and glued them to a backdrop of a colorful winter landscape. She was the Monet of the class.

As the years went by, her popularity grew. She easily won first place at our yearly talent contests. For Track and Field day, the faculty selected her as team leader. She wrote our fight song, won every event and confidently led us to victory. Teachers, students and principal fawned and gushed; no one attempted to hide their admiration for her brains, beauty, talent and athletic superiority. She was chosen first for every playground kickball game. She was the first to figure out how to play jacks and Chinese jump rope when we were six, and the one who introduced us to Carol King’s “Tapestry” album when we were eleven. When a project needed a can-do person, everyone knew Janie was the can-est, do-est person at school. About the only flaw I can think of is maybe her singing, which she loved to do, but sounded to me a bit like Julie Andrews-with-a-sinus-infection. I’m fairly certain everyone else thought it was perfect though.

Janie was adored and accomplished, but in reality, it was a big set up. I mean, how does one little girl handle such attention? How can you be normal with so many people singing your praises and kissing your ass all the time? She dealt with it as best she could, but it inflated her ego and gave her a justifiable sense of self-importance. But what was she supposed to do? Say, “Please stop being so fabulous to me? Please stop giving me awards and accolades?” Over time, she became a bit of a show-off, slightly less genuine. Her actions became somewhat studied.

After years of this skewed adulation, we girls began to develop a low-level resentment toward Janie Perfectberg. Our flaws seemed magnified in her presence. Throughout puberty, she managed to maintain her poise and beauty while we wrestled with zits and training bras and social awkwardness. I’d like to point out that none of these kids were slouches (I being the exception). They were smart, they made excellent grades, they were overachievers in a school full of overachievers. But no one could hold a candle to Janie. She’d been handed the cards from day one, and they were all aces.

By eighth grade, we were fed up. We’d put up with nearly nine years of Janie’s larger-than-life persona.  We were junior high school girls now, replete with bouncing hormones and female competitiveness. Until this point, we’d been friends by circumstance, and we’d all gotten along well. But as we matured, we realized there was a horrible imbalance of power and popularity at our school, and the scales tilted on the side of our aggrandized, perfect pal.

We began to gossip about her. In the school bathroom, at recess and on the telephone after school, we dissected her personality and listed her faults, chief among them being her very high opinion of herself. Second was the mutual attraction which flowed between her and the tiny number of cute boys at our school. We counted five girls in our class, but to most of the guys, there was only one.

For my thirteenth birthday, I hosted a small slumber party at my house. Among the guests were my classmates, with the exception of Ruthie, who was forbidden to attend such sinful gatherings. But I remember Tessa was there, and Lisa, and another girl named Linda. Of course, I invited Janie Perfectberg, who I believe wanted more than anything to just be one of the gals.

What Janie didn’t realize was that prior to the party, the rest of us had decided, out of the goodness of our black, adolescent hearts, to compose a letter to her. We felt this was a public service, not only to ourselves, but to Janie, whose ego (in our opinions) had grown to monstrous proportions, and whose increasingly disingenuous personality had become a bit unbearable. We didn’t mention we were jealous of the fact that her beauty completely overshadowed us, or that her intelligence somehow made us feel that we should be boarding the short bus at the end of each day. We didn’t mention that she played piano like a pro, was as artistic as an angel or that she was light years ahead of us, maturity-wise. No, we concentrated on her flaws. Because, you know, we really wanted to help her out.

At some point during the party, we handed her the letter, written in pencil on notebook paper, folded carefully into a three-inch square with her name neatly scrawled across the front. We told her to go into my room, so she could read it by herself, while the rest of us scarfed down snacks and chattered and laughed in the living room. I remember the way we looked at each other as she walked down the hall. We were co-conspirators posing as do-gooders, an ordinarily sweet group of girls who’d subtly and viciously turned on one of our own.

Janie was gone for a long time. I imagine that she read the letter, reread it and cried, then waited to compose herself before returning to the pack of she-wolves she’d discovered herself in midst of. Finally she emerged and walked into the living room. She stood, tall and graceful before us. Her eyes were red and so was her face. But she held her head high.

“I want to thank you all,” she said quietly. “How lucky I am to have such concerned friends. Such good friends who care about me so much. Thanks for letting me know what you really think of me. This is very helpful.”

I’m not sure if her mother coached her on Jewish guilt, or if it was genetic, but I can tell you I will never forget that moment. I don’t recall if Janie stuck around after her speech or if she left; all I remember is that I was overcome with self-loathing and shame, and I still feel it when I think about that incident, almost forty years later.

Things were never the same after that. Janie politely distanced herself from us, and rightly so. I entered public school the following year and lost touch with everyone.

Looking back, I realize Janie’s life was probably as crazy and difficult as the rest of ours were. She detested her mother, who pushed her to be perfect. Her father was mean and her older brother always seemed to burn with rage. Privilege doesn’t cancel out pain, and I’m guessing her desire for perfection was an attempt to gain some control over her life. Somehow though, I’m certain she went on to do great things. The personality flaws we picked at like vultures surely dissipated with time. At that age, we try on new personas as though we’re trying on hats, rejecting  them until we find the one that fits. I’ll bet that right now, wherever she is, Janie Perfectberg is wearing one swell hat. At least I hope she is. Because in all of this, I don’t remember her ever saying an unkind word about anyone. I remember our cruelty, our pettiness, but I can’t think of one instance where I saw it in her.

My guess is that there was a Janie Perfectberg in almost everyone’s childhood, and I believe that Anne Hathaway represents her. And I think we all need to lay off.

 

The Watch

What follows is the part of self-publishing I hate–promoting my latest work. For a while, I’ll post some little blurbs on Facebook, warble out a few tweets and post semi-apologetic paragraphs on this blog. Then, I’ll get frustrated and grumpy and abandon the whole thing because I’m so inept. I tried putting an excerpt on Goodreads yesterday, but finally gave up. I’m sorry if you heard me cussing. Anyway, I try to come up with non-pushy ways to let the world know when I’ve published something new. Ultimately, I hope to earn enough money to buy hair dye, to cover the gray hair I get when I try to format my work. It’s still hit or miss, but social media really turns me into a curmudgeon. Just ask Amadeus. Anyway, here goes:

My newest e-story is called, “The Watch.” It’s about a little girl named Angel Walker, an eleven-year-old whose parents have recently divorced. Her world’s quickly changing and she’s learning to maneuver. Her mother claims she’s trying to make a better life for them, and her way of going about it involves a search for a rich new husband. Her father’s a pill-popping playboy with a hair-trigger temper, who makes no bones about the fact that he has little interest in parenthood. Angel worships him, and prays that he’ll change. Lately, he’s given her reason to believe that he has.

A tale of family dysfunction, childhood resilience and trust, “The Watch” will transport you to another place and time, and Angel Walker will steal your heart. Don’t I sound confident? I really like this one, although I should warn you that it’s rather sad.

As part of my shameless self-promotion, I’m shamelessly copying and pasting some of the comments and reviews I’ve received so far.

“…this story is a highly polished gem…”

“What an amazing story! LOVED it!!!”

“I wept three times reading that story. It is a masterpiece.”

“…exquisitely written, each character completely believable and throbbing with life.”

“…poignant, meaty, truthful…”

Not one of those lovely words was written by a family member, nor did money change hands.

“The Watch” is available for the low, low price of $1.99 on Smashwords and at Amazon. My preferred site is Smashwords (because they take a smaller percentage of sales). I’ve published it under MB McQueen, in order to make my life more confusing. Actually, MB McQueen just seemed to fit this one better than Moonbeam. It’s a serious story, and initials are serious things. 

Thanks to all who’ve already sent me such wonderful, in-depth feedback, and to those who helped me purchase rights for the song used in the story. As always, I feel that you’re all a part of this process. If you feel the spirit, please spread the word. Post your reviews at Goodreads, Kindle and Smashwords. For the next week, I’ll gladly give a free copy in exchange for a review and a link on your blog (shoot me an email if you’re up for the task). Word of mouth is about all I’ve got to promote my work. Fortunately, I’ve got a very big mouth.