Remembering my mother on Memorial Day Weekend

Today I am thinking of my mother, Gloria P. Gershun, who died suddenly two years ago today. I think about her every day, today is just a little bit more out loud. I miss her very much.

Two days before she died, she had lunch with her friends and went shopping for a purse at Nordstrom. She was only sick for two days and very alive and kicking every single one before that.

On Thursday, I went to the Searider Productions Awards Banquet at Wai’anae High School and presented a scholarship in both my parent’s memory to a wonderful young man, Mr. Michael Gooch.

On Friday, my family went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu and said kaddish.

Tomorrow Rabbi Schaktman is participating in the Lantern Floating Ceremony on Sunday at Ala Moana Beach Park where he will be floating a lantern on behalf of our congregation which will carry a yahrzeit list. I have added both of my parents’ names. It is a beautiful ceremony and a deeply moving way to remember our loss.

Tonight we have invited a few friends and neighbors over for a barbecue that has nothing directly to do with my mom. We always have a party on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend and after thinking about it a bit, I decided that just because it is the anniversary of her death does not mean we have to be sad on purpose. She certainly would not want us to change our plans.

I lit the yahrzeit candle this morning when I got up. Somehow the twinkling flame brings the feel of her presence just a bit us closer to us on this day. I wouldn’t want her to miss the party.

May her memory be a blessing and inspiration to us all.

I would like to share the bio that my youngest sister, boo, wrote about my mom.

Gloria Polsky Gershun, b. August 28, 1929, d. May 27, 2010
Gloria Polsky grew up in the small town of Marfa, Texas with her parents Blanche and Walter Polsky and her younger sister, Barbara. She graduated from high school in Omaha, NE at the age of 16 and received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1952. She met Theodore Leonard Gershun at her best friend’s wedding in November of 1947 and Gloria and Ted were married on June 20, 1948.

Gloria and Ted moved to Southern California in 1961. They lived there for nearly 30 years, where Gloria kept their household, volunteered with many community and school activities, and raised three daughters — Martha, Elizabeth (Betsy) (boo), and Lorraine (Lorrie) — in a happy, suburban Jewish home filled with books, food, friends, laughter, an orange player piano, and a ceramic lion’s head which lived in a birdcage.  When the girls grew older, Gloria returned to school, pursuing her lifelong love of books by earning a Masters in Library Science from California State University at Fullerton in 1975.  She re-entered the work force, first as a school librarian and then as a public school administrator for nearly 15 years.

When Ted passed away in 1990, Gloria retired and moved to Kansas City, where she made many good friends and built a full and satisfying life as an active participant in the Jewish community, a committed volunteer, and an avid shopper. In 2004 Gloria met Aaron Rabinovitz, who became her second life partner until her death in 2010. She is remembered for her optimistic approach to life; her lifelong willingness to try new things; her generosity to her community, family, and friends; her deep commitment to sharing her love of books; and her unfailing ability to find the right outfit for every occasion and the right gift for every person.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray that I get in to a good college

When I think back to my childhood and the lively conversations around the dinner table or the intimate moments when my parents tucked me in at bedtime, I don’t remember many deep discussions about G-d. The almighty HaShem, blessed be (s)he, was not a major player in the lessons taught by my parents almost half a century ago.

We did talk a lot about education. My mother often intimated that of all the Jewish “Values,” education is one of the highest. Like many a nice Jewish girl of my generation, I was practically nursed and weaned on the words “When you get to college.” Academic achievement was top priority in the Gershun household.

Forgive me if this sounds sacrilegious, but education was kind of the god in which my parents believed would make all things right in our lives. It was the key to our success.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a diatribe against the value of education on which I was raised. I’m just trying to give you an idea of how important it was in the house in which I was grew up.

My parents were the first generation of Americans in each of their families to go to college. Of course they believed in the power of a good education.

So do I. I was a high school teacher for 20 years, for goodness’ sake (I decided not to write the real phrase that I might say here as it is just not appropriate in this blog.)

When my sister and I stopped by last month to take pictures at Charles G. Emery Elementary and Sunny Hills High Schools in Southern California, my memory was aroused.

I have not been back to Sunny Hills since I graduated in 1980. I have certainly changed a whole lot more than the campus has since then. It actually looks a bit newer and cleaner than it did in the late 1970’s. The Performing Arts Complex (PAC) and the classrooms look pretty much the same. The quad is a bit smaller due to a few classroom additions and there is no longer a line of pay phones near the front office. No need for those any more.

We drove up “the hill” of our teens, the entrance to the school, and parked in the student  parking lot for a self guided tour.

We saved the best for last–Room 7.

Room 7 is an icon in Gershun family lore, it’s enchanting spell lasting long after graduation ceremonies. Each Gershun girl spent a significant portion of her high school days (and nights) in this classroom, learning about journalism: how to write a news story, how to edit a caption, how to produce a high school newspaper and so much more.

Under the brilliant direction of Mrs. Carol Hallenbeck, we became writers. She is  somewhat of a goddess in the annals of our family’s educational history. We worshiped her.

My oldest sister, Martha, was the first to discover the magical and inspiring world behind the door of what is now the attendance office (so sad).

Martha was editor-in-chief (her junior year, I believe) of the award-winning newspaper The Accolade and later the magazine, Excalibur. She filled our dinner table with stories and gossip, painting a vivid and exciting picture of life on a high school newspaper staff. Boo, my other sister, also served her stint as editor-in-chief (was it also in her Junior year?) and I couldn’t wait for my turn.

Alas, I was not selected to serve as Editor-In-Chief of the Accolade. That honor went to my friends Jennifer Lorvick and Julie Wilson (it was well deserved.) I eventually shared the editorship of the Excalibur, with John Yoon and was content.

While not the protege each of my sisters proved to be, I thoroughly enjoyed my own tenure in room 7.

When I joined the faculty at Wai’anae High School in 1991, it never occurred to me that I would become a journalism teacher in the footsteps of Carol Hallenbeck. It happened in 1998 when I agreed to advise the school newspaper, Ka Leo O Wai’anae.

I taught my SP students what I had learned in Room 7 over 20 years before, finding  in it the power to transform an ordinary classroom into an extraordinary setting. Turns out that I am a way better teacher than I ever was a student.

To my pleasure, I saw Mrs. Hallenbeck at a Journalism Education Association convention when we took a Searider Productions trip to California in 2001. I proudly introduced her to my students and colleagues and I bought a book that she co-edited, Practical Ideas for Teaching Journalism. It guided the lessons I taught for the next eight years. Talk about influence.

I later met A.J. Nagaraj who joined the Wai’anae High School faculty in 2006. I was pleased to learn that he is from my home town and  his sister is a former Accolade editor.

I was looking online for information about Mrs. Hallenbeck. I found many stories of the honors she received for her excellence in teaching before she retired a few years ago. I also found a wonderful story from 2005 of another teacher who was honored in Southern California. She mentioned Carol Hallenbeck as a teacher who made a difference in her life.

And now it is time to tie this all together and I’m not sure how.

Back to the Jewish part: I think that we have more conversations about Tikun Olam and Tzedakah with our kids than my parents did with me. I am also trying to add in some blessings and conversations about our beliefs.

I’m not saying that we don’t value education or believe in the power of a good one (just ask my kids how often we bug them about their grades and talk about college). Nor am I saying that my parents did not believe strongly in doing the right thing. I do think that our children learn as much from what we don’t say as what we do, so I try to say it all to avoid confusion (just ask my husband!)

Finally, I discovered that when I look back through the door of Room 7 to the 1970’s at Sunny Hills High School, I still feel the amazing power of that one simple classroom.  I can see the row of manual typewriters along the back wall with several long tables in a parallel line just a few feet away. On the other side are the student desks arranged in three groups, facing each other to facilitate discussion. I also see the magical world that blossomed within, led by one mighty teacher from her podium at the front, and how it developed into a colorful thread woven through the fabric of my family’s story, touching us in the past, present and future.

Happy Birthday Boo

For those of you who know my family, this is not a birthday homage to my youngest sister who goes by boo, although I will be happy to wish her a happy day next month.

Those of you who know her, knew that already by the fact that I used a capital B. She always uses the lower case and I would never  dare to consider changing that, even for grammar and spelling.

And while October 31st is just days away, this is not a post about Halloween. Our house is decorated and the kids have costumes and I plan to buy candy (not too early like my mother always said or I’ll have to go buy it again because we enjoyed too many samples) and we plan to celebrate, but not in this particular blog post.

This post is about my all time favorite novel To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee that is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication this year. And I am celebrating too. Happy Birthday to you.

Anybody who was ever a student in my classroom when I taught English at Waianae High School in the 1990’s  also knows that it is my favorite. I taught it every single year to the Juniors in my American Literature classes and it was one of the highlights of my career.

I read much of the novel out loud class period after class period, helping my students appreciate the rich language and deeper meaning infused in every paragraph. And I never, ever got tired of it.

We drew pictures of the street where Scout, Jem and Dill played, the Radley’s  porch that sagged and the town square where the tired courthouse stood. We discussed tolerance and racism and hana bada (childhood) days. I read that novel so many times that it felt like the series of events  so masterfully woven together, narrated in Scout’s childhood voice, actually happened to me in some surreal, other life type fashion.

Since I heard the anniversary mentioned on Oprah last summer,  I have been wanting to read the novel again. I also wanted to share it with my children. I bought the audio book last week and we are listening to it in my car and loving every single minute of it–the kids too.

I started to listen to audio books on a regular basis last summer for some very compelling reasons besides the simple pleasure of listening to a good book. My blue tooth headset broke for the upteenth time. I was not enjoying music or talk radio and I needed something to relieve the stress of being stuck in traffic. Combine that with the fact that I used to call my mom on a regular basis while driving in the car and I missed that very much, I needed a distraction.

When my younger girl became interested while I was listening to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and kept asking for more, I decided to get a book that was family friendly, To Kill A Mockingbird.

I don’t miss teaching very often, but on occasion I am reminded of the familiar good feeling of 20 years in front of a class of students.

I miss it very much when I am listening to this book.

The familiar phrases and language. The story that speaks to my soul. The brilliant masterpiece that became the signature unit of my Language Arts teaching career. It takes everything in me not to press the pause button every few minutes and try to teach it to my children. I don’t think they would appreciate it very much.

Besides my overwhelming pleasure in the book is my even deeper thrill at their pleasure in it as well. My younger daughter is mesmerized. She asks questions and contemplates the meaning of each chapter. My older daughter is captivated as well. She has surprised me by asking if she can play the CD, forgoing her usual demand of pop music and annoying habit of constantly changing the station in search of her favorite songs.

All three of us drive along together in silence, sharing the moment, sharing the story and sharing the experience of this wonderful novel. What more could an English teacher and mother ask for but to love a book together with her children?

Thank you Harper Lee.

And happy birthday Boo and Scout and Jem and Atticus and Dill (and my sister next month) and all the other characters in this beautiful story that has now become a part of my life in a new and meaningful way.