Monday, November 15, 2010

Lost Innocence

Mr. Bernard was the only male teacher at the small elementary school I attended. When we were told we'd be in his class back in 1963, there was a lot of giggling among the girls. A man for a teacher? And he was cute! It was almost unheard of then, but there he was standing before us ready to teach on the first day of school. He was just out of college, and we were his first students.

What my memories do hold is that Mr. Bernard followed my class right through high school. After our fifth grade year with him, he was transferred to the junior high that I eventually attended. There he taught science. Then he was transferred a few years later to our high school where he taught a variety of earth science and physics courses; he also coached track and cross-country.

I never had him as a teacher again after fifth grade, but he looked after his first class of students like a parent. He knew the names of our brothers and sisters. He knew our parents. It was like family. He even attended our graduation with his wife and new baby. I received a graduation card from him where he inserted a candid shot of me from fifth grade. When I ran into others who were in this fifth grade class, they also said they received graduation cards. Each had a black and white snapshot Mr. Bernard had saved. In those days, the world was smaller and less transient, so he was able to follow his first students through that point just as we were able to watch his life unfold.

What I remember most about fifth grade with Mr. Bernard is when John Kennedy was shot. My own children are now linked to the world with TVs and computers in their classrooms. If something happens, it is almost immediately known and they watch it on the classroom TV. In 1963, there was none of this. I think there was one television in the entire school building. The world was very different.

The memory is so vivid. I was sitting in the second row, second seat from the window. I was wearing a plaid dress with a white collar. I was wearing ankle socks. I hated that my mother made me wear ankle socks. I liked boys and boys made fun of girls who still wore ankle socks. Mr. Bernard was teasing my best friend about the pronunciation of the world "acre." She had read it aloud as "ac-ree." Apparently, she had never seen this word in print before, and she just couldn't see the word in her mind. We were all having fun. We were all learning. Perhaps I was thinking I might have pronounced it "ac-ree," too. My friend wasn't embarrassed; there was gentle teasing with Mr. Bernard in charge. And the realization that the word she'd struggling over was "acre" made my friend laugh at herself, without contempt, without feeling bad.

And then the principal was standing at the classroom door. He motioned for Mr. Bernard to come to him. They spoke for a few minutes; Mr. Bernard's back was to us. It was like one of those movies where frames are shown, slow motion, one still at a time. Mr. Bernard finally turned to us, and he was crying. Our teacher was crying. Then he told us about John Kennedy and the motorcade. He told us all he knew.

The rest is a blur. We were so young. The world back then for fifth graders was one filled with innocence. We silently followed Mr. Bernard to the auditorium where the larger room filled with each classroom of children, and we all watched and listened to the reports on a small black and white TV that was set in the middle of the stage.

John Kennedy was shot.

John Kennedy was shot.

Then, John Kennedy was dead.

We were dismissed early. My family's black and white portable TV stayed on all weekend. My mother cried a lot that weekend. I watched and cried as well, but I'm not sure ultimately what the pain was about. I can theorize today about the loss of innocence or the sadness in the world, but it was so long ago.

I was helping my mother dust our apartment when Jack Ruby became visible from the crush of people and shot Oswald. My memories are in slow motion and more of colors and sounds than of events. I remember our TV was light tan and on a gold rolling cart. I was wearing green pedal pushers. It's funny how I can see these details. My mother's hair was jet black at the time. Even though my mother usually had the record player on with her 33's playing Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, during that weekend, the sound recorded in my mind is that of news broadcasters' voices; Walter Cronkite for some reason is the voice I hear, but it could have been anyone.

Many times in my adult life, the words, "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" have been part of our conversation. Everyone who was alive then has an answer and can tell a story. Perhaps every generation has an event like this. Maybe it was my first time being aware that I was connected to the world, and the world wasn't a perfect place made up of perfect people, and the ultimate sadness that thoughts like this bring.

I remember dating a man for awhile before I met my husband. He was taking me to meet his older sister and her husband.

"Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" someone asked.

"I was at NYU."

"I was driving to work, listening to the radio."

"I was watching TV."

"I was in Mr. Bernard's fifth grade class. It was the first time I saw a man cry."


©1999 Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved.


Previously published by the Front Porch and

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Ever Steepening Learning Curve

It was a glorious day when I saved Hyrule. For weeks, I guided Link through mazes, caves, tunnels, and dungeons into the depths of the Underworld. As I approached the conclusion of the final maze and was ready to come head to head with the most evil of the continuous legion of thugs, I put the video game on pause, gathered my easily impressed elementary-school-aged children to observe the Master, and rescued Princess Zelda from the evil Ganondorf. My children rejoiced with me. We danced around the TV and harmonized along with the Link Theme Song. Then, on the screen before us, a miracle occurred! We realized the game was only half over – the game included a Second Quest!

As my children grew, the complexity of their games increased. The Nintendo game creators, in what I translate as a focused attempt to make me feel incompetent and to allow my offspring to gain the upper hand in all things electronic and technical, added additional buttons to the game controls. When the games went 3D, I retired – undefeated. I told my children that I no longer had the time to waste on games, but the truth was, the games became too difficult for me.

I know I am not alone.

Recently, we renewed our contract with our cell phone service provider, and along with the new contract, we were able to upgrade our phones. My husband, as the primary member on the account, received a free new phone. My new phone, which I did not need because my old phone was working perfectly, was semi-free because I chose the red phone to match my Jeep. The red phone cost an extra $69 above the free phone offer. The new leather case and car charger (since cell phone manufacturers never make the old cases and chargers compatible with the new ones) were a discounted additional $29. I also splurged on a memory card since my son told me the phone I chose had limited storage capacity. I assume I will now be able to store my winter wardrobe on my new phone. To justify the expense, I told my family that the new phone and its accessories could qualify as a Mother's Day gift.

Unfortunately, the original phone I ordered online was defective, and despite having my "network" following me around town, I had to stop working, leave my office, and go to the cell phone store for a new (refurbished) replacement. While waiting for my salesperson to program my replacement phone and transfer my personal data from the defective phone to the hopefully not-defective one, I watched another customer enter the store and hand his defective phone to another salesperson.

"Have you ever seen anything like this on a screen before?" the flustered man asked the clerk indicating what my poor nosey eyesight saw as a giant frown face on his screen.

"Nope," the salesman responded, "can't say I have."

"Well, can you make it go away?" he asked.

His salesman disappeared into the same magic back room where my salesman had gone earlier.

Then, the man looked at me and said, "I hate admitting defeat to technology – especially when it costs me more than my first car."

I nodded in agreement and said, "I admitted defeat when I saw how thick the bilingual instruction manual was."

"My kid could probably fix it," he said, "but he’s too busy partying at college."
We went back to minding our own business after that; however, that short impersonal conversation led me to an epiphany.

In the world of technology, I have become an antique. I have value, but it is in the eye of the beholder.

Lately, I am finding more things that are too complicated for me to deal with…or maybe, I am gadget-overloaded. Maybe I am tired of reading manuals that start with, "Never place your phone in a microwave oven as it will cause the battery to explode" and "Do not handle the phone with wet hands while it is being charged. It may cause an electric shock or seriously damage your phone."
Maybe it is time to shut off my power.

Twenty-five years ago, when the school where I worked installed its first computers, I bravely (before the publication of DOS for Dummies) learned how to "C colon backslash" on a screen without windows. Over time, I learned how to build websites, set up spreadsheets, compose professional documents, and competently add things to motherboards. With each new electronic accessory, I gained a new set of skills.

I have never had problem with cell phones, DVD players, coffeepots, all-in-one remote controls, electric pencil sharpeners, teller machines, faxes, printers, scanners, air purifiers, or other electronic devices with which I interact daily until recently.

When I was in high school, my dad, who used a manual one-armed-bandit adding machine with a coil of paper tape for his business calculations, brought home the first handheld calculator I had ever seen. My dad liked gadgets, too. I still own that Texas Instrument calculator although it has not worked for years. I cannot bring myself to discard something that cost my dad over one-hundred pre-inflation dollars.

In the early 1980s, I remember being wowed by a Brother portable electric typewriter that I could fit in my attaché case. I bought it without comparison shopping or knowing what the future would bring. I thought it would help me produce dittoes for my classes. (Raise your hand if you remember dittoes. Raise both hands if you ever cranked a non-electric ditto machine.) A few years ago, I sold the useless typewriter that only printed on unreadable thermal paper that is no longer made. I sold it on EBAY for several hundred dollars less than its original cost.

I have outlived dozens of personal computers, fax machines, printers, scanners, stereos, VCRs, game consoles, and other electronic devices. I remember my first PC cost more than I paid the obstetrician when our first son was born. I tried to donate it since I never got around to turning it into a planter, but no one wanted it. With each upgrade, I learned more and realized how technically savvy I could be.

But Sunday night, when both TVs in our house stopped working at the same exact time, I was stumped. Between my brand new cell phone not keeping a charge and randomly speaking to me when it had not been spoken to and the two dead TVs, I was ready to apply my senior citizen discount to the nearest home for over-the-hill computer nerds.

First, I had to wait three days for a repairman. This was during the NBA finals.

For three days, I tried rebooting the system at every opportunity. For three days, I searched the internet for reasons why two TVs would lose their cable signal simultaneously but still be able to show movies from a DVD player. For three days, we missed exciting basketball, fair and balanced news, and reruns of Frasier, Sex in the City, and Two and a Half Men.

It took Jason, the twenty-something-year-old cable guy, exactly five minutes to find the problem.
Apparently, I knocked the plug out of the outlet that connects our cable boxes to the cable signal when I was getting a piece of luggage from a rarely entered closet.

Now, I am scared. My husband, who usually compares me to my mother, despite my best efforts at concealing all hints of wrinkles, didn't make fun of me when I told him how I "broke" the cable. He was also exceedingly kind when I told him I was unable to open the bucket of chlorine tabs because I couldn't figure out exactly how to use the screwdriver and hammer to remove the tamper-proof plastic tab. But then again, he also depends on me to defrag his hard drive, turn his cell phone to vibrate at the movies, and program the clock on the coffee maker.

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© 2008 by Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved.

(Originally Published by The Irascible Professor - September 9, 2008)