Archive for Pandemic

The Verb To Inquire

Posted in Education, Pandemic, Poetry, social justice with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2022 by Louise Steinman
collage/LS and LBR2022

Every Friday afternoon, I have been tutoring a fourth grader named Delilah, whom I view through a screen on Zoom. During the pandemic, Delilah’s school is the bedroom she shares with her two brothers. Her desk is her bunk bed.  The family rarely goes out. Her mother quit her job to monitor the three kids’ schooling. Last December, they all got Covid. Her little brother bounces on the bed behind her, desperate for attention. Her older brother is playing a video game, with volume on high. After our first meeting, I cried. Delilah had no books. Everything was on the screen. She told me her eyes hurt after so many school hours on Zoom. 

Still, Delilah is patient. Slowly but surely she sounds out the words in a story about a girl named Esperanza. Today she’s added more emotion to her telling, and we’ve discussed what quotation marks mean. Delilah changes the quality of her voice now for the different characters. We take apart the words she doesn’t know, this week “crisis” and “opinion.” She has a lot of opinions. We laugh a lot.  Sometimes while we’re talking, Delilah transforms her image into an avatar of a pirate or, say, a panda bear. (This is a feature of Zoom that Delilah understands but I do not.)

“If you’re going to be a panda bear,” I say, “then write me a poem about what the panda bear dreams.”

PANDA’S DREAM

My dream is to eat many bamboo

And to find so many panda friends

And to have a party

One day

In the house of my Dad.

-Delilah

……..

My mother taught me the verb “to inquire.” No cream cheese on the shelf in the supermarket? “We must inquire.” It sounded so grown-up.  We threaded our way through the aisles until we found the  door to the stockroom where the store manager sat at his deck.  I picture this scene at Market Basket grocery in the Culver Center, the locus of several favorite haunts: Grant’s Department Store, where I could purchase Chanukah gifts for everyone in my family with a fiver, where, downstairs in the pet department, I spent hours watching the colony of turquoise, green, yellow parakeets, their wings clipped, their space equipped with miniature parakeet furniture. They gossiped with one another, clanged small bells, nibbled seed. There were also the small turtles with beautiful colorful roses painted on their carapaces, designs which I later learned meant sure slow death.

My sister Ruth, six years older, a polio survivor, patiently taught me how to write my name when I was three. We practiced every day for a week, at a little table in the garage, printing out L-o-u-i-s-e. She took me by the hand and we walked a few blocks to the branch library on Sawtelle Avenue where I demonstrated my clumsy calligraphic prowess and, as a reward, received my first library card. New power!

From my older brother Larry, I learned several crucial lessons. After I’d read a whole book on the subject without any idea of practicalities, he finally told me how babies were made. I had to inquire.

I recently unearthed my term paper, titled BEING BORN,  submitted during fourth grade MCL (“More Capable Learner”)  summer school.  I did not understand what quotation marks were for:  Eventually the time comes when these two reproductive cells must find each other if they are to carry out Nature’s plan for the future. “But how?”  “That is the question!” The egg cell, of course, must stay where it is, inside the mother, for that is the place where the baby is to grow. To the sperm falls the greater task of finding its mate. It must leave the body of the father, enter the mother, find the egg cell, and unite with it. Then there are no longer two cells. There is just one cell, and from it the baby grows…The sperm cell not only starts the growth of the egg cell but we “believe it does two others things.”

……..

I tried to teach my mother to ride a bicycle on our street, Harter Avenue, which was flat. (“At least it has a curve in it,” an architect friend said to console me once, when I brought him to see my childhood house.) My mother was unable to achieve balance on two wheels. She hadn’t learned as a child. “Your body follows your eyes!” I yelled, but she fell over time and again. I was dumbfounded. Convinced it was easy. Just like I was convinced, when I was eight, that Mr. Goldstein, the sixty-something housepainter who was touching up the moulding in our living room, could also paint pictures, if he would just try.  

My brother, age five, attempted to teach me square roots, in a hall closet. I was two. I was screaming. His pedagogical method was not successful. I have never liked math, am dyslexic with numbers. I must also credit him with being the one who blurted out, one night at the dinner table—as the body count in Viet Nam was ringing out on the TV— “I would lose my virginity!” in answer to my father’s question: “what would you do right away if you knew the atom bomb was going to drop? A new word.  What’s virginity? Look it up, my mother said, which I did, in the big Webster’s that commandeered its own wooden dictionary pedestal, always resting open in its cubby hole on the shelf below the World Book Encyclopedias. 

Sometimes we surprise ourselves at what we’ve learned, without knowing that we learned it.  Early memory:  a drive home—I was three?— from a cousin’s house, down Motor Avenue, past the 20th Century backlot, passing the large red neon sign with that grinning creature and the letters that spell F-O-X… FOX! I yelled from the backseat, shocking the adults and shocking myself as well. I was overwhelmed not with sense of pride but with a sense of loss. That I would never again be able NOT to read, that those squiggles would forever more correspond to sounds that would add up to meanings. No going back. Words would now have their way with me; I’d crossed over the border from pure sensation, stepped out of comfortable oblivion, those hours spent up into the branches of the Chinese elm in front of the Britton’s house, observing the world through the green leafiness, where stories came to us primarily through the ear.

As infants, we extend our sense of self by literally reaching out with our hand. To grasp. Physical and mental development are inseparable.  Rudolf Laban uses the German word antrieb, which has the sense of a “drive onwards,” the urge of the organism to “make itself known.” Movement is assertion, and assertion is one of the primary acts of the mind. Our bodies educate themselves in the sensorial world. Don’t touch that pan, it’s hot. Startle when you hear a bear grunting.  Over time, we adapt to limitations, learn habits that may even create new limitations, the body responds with pain, the brain blurs.

……..

Reading with and for Delilah allows me to re-enter and re-admire reading in its inherent complexity, as a feat of translation, noting voice and thought. It’s humbling. Those marks on the page represent ideas, creatures, actions, emotions.  Yesterday we drew pictures on the shared Zoom whiteboard and made up stories about the creatures we drew: a cat, a lizard, a clown named Bobo. Two weeks ago, Delilah abruptly remarked, “I wish I could go back to the year 2017.”  Why 2017, I asked. “Before Covid,” she said somberly. 

Since her bed is her desk is her room is her school, I asked Delilah if she would write a poem about what was above her and what was above that and what was above that.

SKY

there’s an attic that’s been closed a long time.

there’s a roof that has little dots there’s a

blue sky that’s shining

there are clouds in the shape of pandas and

koalas and a lion and a puma

and above them planes pass by on their way to Hawaii

and above the planes there are

people floating with their arms

out

and as they pass by they say,

“Oh those midget people in

the bottom of the sky.”

-Delilah

……..

Today, Delilah showed me, with obvious delight, the bright orange back-to-school backpack that her mother purchased for her return to school next week. She unzipped the many compartments to show: this is where I keep my hand sanitizer! This is where I keep my masks! This is for my math homework! This is the pocket where I keep my erasers! She is so ready to be among her peers, even masked and at a distance. So ready to exit the small bedroom of her apartment, to re-enter this imperfect but vibrant world full of stories, a world where we must inquire.

[this essay first published in thursDAY morning, a chapbook published by Firehouse Press, San Francisco, 2022.

%d bloggers like this: