- Lost & Found
In memory of Mary Oliver
Here's a lyric Bing Crosby sang in 1939: "An apple for the teacher will always do the trick when you don't know your lesson in arithmetic." This was the kind of music I grew up listening to—the kind of music piped through our kitchen radio, Thanks for tuning into AM 8-80, K-I-X-I, hits from the '40s, '50s, and '60s!—the kind of music my mother played on the old upright in the basement, and later upstairs, on her glistening baby grand.
"Did your students ever bring you apples?" I ask my mother while she plays.
"Of course they did!" She beams at just the thought of it. "Some brought two apples every day in their lunchboxes—one to eat and one to give to me. You know that apple cake I make, the one that's so moist and delicious? I started making it because, at a certain point, your father and I were drowning in apples."
I perch beside her on the shiny white bench. I tap my foot in time to each melody and turn the fragile pages when she signals that I should. "I'm not sure I understand that Bing Crosby song. He makes the apple sound less like a gift and more like a bribe."
My mother shrugs, and I can still see in memory the outline of a shoulder pad inside her blue-and-white-striped blazer. How nautical she looked, with her red lips and her white pants, her navy blue low-heeled shoes! Those were the days (so long ago now) when everyone wore shoulder pads inside their blazers.
"My students knew better than to try to bribe me," my mother says, never falling out of rhythm, never faltering on a single note. I can still see her thick fingers with the stubby red nails—not elegant to look at, not praised as "piano hands"—but always graceful, gliding along the keys. "I trained my students like I trained my daughter. Approval has to be earned."
Perhaps it was this conversation, or another much like it, when my mother revealed she had named me after one of her students. "I always [End Page 37] thought you named me after Julie Andrews!" I exclaimed, crestfallen at the mere suggestion it might be otherwise.
"Don't be silly. I named you after a little girl named Julie in my fourth-grade class who was very bright and very sweet and—most importantly—very obedient." I lifted the sepia page with its fraying edge and laid it down on the other side. "I don't know what happened to that Julie, but she was a gift. She knew how to listen, and she knew how to toe the line."
As of today, I have been teaching for nineteen years. This fact astonishes me beyond measure. I turn the numbers over in my mind, rotisserie-style. Nineteen years in classrooms: with desks and seminar tables, chalkboards and whiteboards, overhead projectors with transparencies and digital projectors with laptop computers. Nineteen years, five states, four disciplines. Before students had palm-sized screens of their own. Before "Permission to Google?" and caveats on the syllabus about texting during class. When I first started teaching, if you wanted to show a movie, you had to check out a television with a VCR and roll it down the hallway on a cart. You left your faculty ID card with Tech Services as collateral, a polycarbonate promise that you would bring their equipment back.
Once, eighteen and a half years ago, give or take, I stood waiting outside a classroom in Miller Hall. I remember the weight of the bag on my shoulder, the speckled composition book in my hand. I must have just come from teaching my own class. I leaned against the door and peered through the small square of light. From this vantage, I could see a tall woman with tousled hair addressing a room full of students. She was young as I was, a woman like me who had been a student like these only the year before. Perhaps she...