Tag Archives: Teaching by Example

Lessons From Nan, Who Passed On June 16, 2004

Nan (Tilly Epstein) & Pop (Irving Schuls)

My grandmother’s name was Tilly. As a child, I wrote her name on envelopes and birthday cards and doodled it on pictures. I never questioned the authenticity of my grandmother’s name because no one had ever said anything about it. And frankly, her name didn’t much matter to me because I called my grandmother Nanny, or sometimes Nan for short.

In 6th grade, my social studies class did a genealogy project, and I sat down with Nan to ask her about her siblings, about her childhood, about her memories, how she met my Pop – all kinds of questions. It was during this interview that Nan told me that her name wasn’t really “Tilly.” She informed me that her real name was Telia, which she thought was a pretty name, but that no one had ever called her by that name so she just went by Tilly, the nickname that was given to her by her parents and siblings. To me, this story is emblematic of the grandmother I knew all my life.

Nan didn’t complain. She didn’t pick fights or confront. She didn’t sweat the small stuff. Unless someone had really wronged her (or flirted with Pop), in general, Nan just kind of accepted things. She found in my grandfather a soulmate and, while they would never be rich in dollars, she was satisfied to be rich in love.

When we four grandchildren were young, we would run down to Nan and Pop’s apartment after a lazy day of swimming in the pool located in the middle of their apartment complex and demand drinks and snacks and candy and cartoons. Nan always opened the door with a smile, ushered us in, and quietly delivered the goods. When her french-fried potatoes became our summertime obsession, she dutifully peeled and sliced and fried those potatoes to golden perfection – sometimes in a very hot apartment – and we would devour them hungrily, asking for seconds and thirds and sometimes probably even forgetting to thank her for her efforts.

Nan never asked for thanks or looked for recognition. And while some people spend their lives dissatisfied or longing for things they do not have, Nan truly had the ability to appreciate life’s simple gifts: the gift of good health and the gift of a loving family.

Nan was intimately connected to her family. She somehow managed to keep both of her children close to her. While she never learned to drive, Nan always found a way to get what she needed. She was resourceful. Nan was not cocky, but she was proud: proud, first, of her children, then her grandchildren and, finally, proud of her great-grandchildren.

While moving Nan’s belongings into a nursing home, I was amazed to find a small wicker basket filled with hundreds of scraps of papers inside of it. Each scrap bore an address of someone Nan had cared about. At the very bottom, there was a calling card bearing the address of the house she and Pop had lived in on Ranier Avenue, a street lost long ago. She had kept my various college and graduate school addresses, though I hadn’t lived in any of those places for decades. She had my brother’s addresses in Ithaca, NY and Charleston, South Carolina, my cousins’ addresses at Oneonta, and other names I didn’t know attached to addresses I didn’t recognize – little scraps of paper with numbers and letters representing much more to Nan.

Nan was home-loving and intensely private. She was unobtrusive, but involved. A tiny woman, who seemed to grow shorter each year, Nan was truly a matriarch. When her husband, my Pop, died in 1990, Nan swore she’d never leave her apartment again: never return to the Jewish Community Center, or to shul, or to the grocery store – but eventually, she did all of these things. Though she appeared frail, she was strong and – when feeling good – had a hearty appetite that never ceased to amaze us. And, even in the end, when she suffered a broken pelvis and arthritis and weakening knees, she went to physical therapy and strove to walk independently. Nan possessed an inner fortitude that is indicative of a great strength.

I will always remember Nan, wearing a snazzy pair of purple pants, sitting on the gold couch in my parents’ living room. Just sitting quietly, patiently, watching my brother and me as we made up games or put on little shows. Many years later, she would sit in the same place, dozing off and on, awaking with an almost apologetic smile.

Agatha Christie once said, “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable . . . but through it all, I know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.” I believe Nan knew this, too.

Seven years and six months later, I still think about her.

Who do you miss and what did they teach you?

Lessons From A Boy In a Skirt

photo from MC Quinn @ flickr.com

Several years back, on the first day of the semester, a student walked into my classroom. A boy, clearly, a male — wearing a long pink skirt, his hair tied in a low pony-tail. When I read the roster and got to his name, he corrected me and told me that his name was Sophia.

I quickly noted the change.

When I met Sophia, she wanted gender reassignment surgery. She wished for it, but knew it would be a long road. As gender reassignment is an irreversible procedure, two letters of therapy clearance would be required. She explained one therapist (psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, sexologist) would be required to have a doctoral degree, and one of the two therapists would have to know her for an extended period of time. When I met Sophia, she was simply trying to change the name on her birth certificate and running into all kinds of roadblocks. A ward of the State from age 15, if memory serves, Sophia was an emancipated minor living with distant relatives. She had no car, took the bus to campus, and had no expendable money for one therapist, let alone two with the kind of credentials that she would need to put her on the path towards gender reassignment.

That semester, Sophia was distracted. It was hard for her to get to class on-time. Hard for her to make deadlines. Hard for her to deal with the stares and (I imagine) comments in the hallways. A talented writer, Sophia was exhausted at age 19. And I wanted to help her. Eventually, Sophia stopped coming to class. I had lost her.

In June 2009, I read that the person once known as Chastity Bono, the precious little blond-haired daughter of Sonny and Cher who often made appearances at the end of their shows, would henceforth be referred to as Chaz Bono. At age 40, Chaz Bono went public that he was undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and I read the surgery had been completed in May 2010. Of course, I thought of Sophia.

I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a person stuck in the wrong-gender body.

I am English teacher. I am supposed to teach my students how to improve their writing skills; how to properly use their commas; how to understand and compose for different audiences and recognize the varying modes of discourse. But writing teachers also get to read their students’ words. And I got to read hers.

So while I don’t know where Sophia landed, I still hope she is okay. That she feels good about herself. That she saw the article about Chaz Bono and feels hopeful about her future. And I hope she doesn’t have to wait until her 40th birthday to get the surgery she wants.

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