I Teach ESL

It doesn’t seem like such a radical statement, at least not to me. On the most basic of levels it is a question of supply and demand: I teach English and my students want to learn English. On a deeper and more personal level people want to be active participants in our communities and I want them to be able to share their gifts with the society I love and value. My immigrant family raised me to use my talents to benefit others.  I never imagined over twenty years ago when I began a Masters in a relatively unknown program in the US called TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) how controversial and necessary my chosen profession would become.

I learned about the importance English played in the life of an immigrant before I even started kindergarten. I knew my grandparents didn’t speak the same way I did, we understood each other well enough although we couldn’t use the same words. As long as they remained in the neighborhood, they didn’t need English, everyone spoke their dialect or at least proper Italian, but they wanted to learn it and wanted the same for their children. While neither of my grandparents ever achieved fluency, they were both able to communicate with the world outside of their community in Astoria, NY. All five of their children learned to speak impeccable English even with the primitive second language pedagogy in vogue in the middle years of the last century.

These days ESL is on the front line of the political debate about immigration. As an ESL educator, I really don’t care, my politics never impacted my career, but my philosophy always has. That philosophy values people so whatever help I can offer them is energy well spent. When students arrive in my class with a burning desire to learn English I don’t see titles, I don’t see green cards or passports, or the lack thereof, I see people, precious and valuable people who want to learn something to make their lives and the lives of their families better. When my father and his family pulled into New York harbor for the first time in 1957 people with my training were few and far between and my family suffered for it in many little ways. But just because it was difficult for them doesn’t mean that I have to stand by and allow it to be difficult for others.

I make a difference


Beauty and the Beast

If you happen to be in NJ this weekend stop by to see Elizabeth, Nicholas and the rest of the talented cast in person…

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr

Thursday, March 22 @ 10am

Friday, March 23 @ 7pm

Saturday, March 24 @ 7pm

Sunday, March 25 @ 3:30pm

Holy Spirit School

330 Newark Pompton Turnpike

Pequannock, NJ

For tickets call 973-835-5680 or purchase at the door

Off-Off Broadway and on the Spectrum

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly Wisneski

It isn’t unusual for students in the Performing Arts Program at Holy Spirit School in Pequannock, NJ to rehearse in the science lab. With all the desks and lab stools pushed against the walls there is just enough room for a small group of cast members to run through a scene, a song or a dance number. On this particular afternoon Elizabeth and Nicholas, cast as Belle and Beast in this year’s production of Beauty and the Beast Jr, are working on perfecting a waltz under the guidance of their gifted choreographer, Rosemary Rado. Nothing at all unusual.  What is unique is the casting; both these eighth graders are “on the Spectrum” having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s  is a high functioning form of autism characterized by high intelligence, difficulties in social interactions and highly specialized areas of expertise. Often considered quirky by family and friends, Aspies, as Nicholas refers to himself and his co-star, often use formal language and fail to read non-verbal communication. Some may experience repetitive behaviors such as rocking or the flapping of hands. Also notable is a focus on one area of specialization: Elizabeth is an expert on faeries while Nicholas specializes in Disney animation and the history of Nintendo.

Elizabeth and Nicholas’ disability has enhanced their creativity, a characteristic that they share with many other Aspies. In addition to acting and singing, Elizabeth has written a book and many short stories and plays three instruments. While Nicholas is a visual artist who has designed posters for the school plays over the past two years in addition to creating his own series of cartoons. There is no scientific explanation for the connection between creativity and Asperger’s though there is some speculation that since they don’t pick up on the common social cues in their early school years that make children feel that they aren’t artistic, Aspies haven’t learned not to be creative. Others suggest a link between acting on stage and the way Aspies often act to get through daily life. For example, they will often laugh at jokes they don’t perceive as funny because they understand they should in that social situation.

Even with their creativity, acting does pose some difficulties for both Nicholas and Elizabeth, as well as those who work with them. The show’s director, Kelly Wisneski,  has observed that problems are often found where they are least expected: “Simple things that would not bother most kids can become big problems for them, such as the need to wear eyeliner or endure the sound of certain costume fabrics rubbing against one another.” Cathy Prior, co-director, puts their disabilities in perspective by considering them in light of their neurotypical peers “It’s hard to get children to really become a character in a performance. [But] these two children really put themselves into the part and thus their success as the two stars of the show.”

While the world may be struck by two leads in the same show on the Autistic Spectrum, this is nothing unusual to Nicholas and Elizabeth who Wisneski notes “do not know there is any other way to portray a role other than to completely become the character.” They are more than their disabilities, they are actors.

Battle Hymn of the Humorless Mother

Amy Chua, better known as the Tiger Mom, praises the virtues of her “immigrant upbringing” and blames America’s fear of parenting and fear of China for the explosive negativity directed toward her and her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Well, that’s a load of bovine excrement.

In a recent video clip posted on AOL Chua blamed the Wall Street Journal for taking her book too seriously and kick starting a brouhaha that would never have happened if the title had been, say, Battle Hymn of the Italian Mother (no, that’s a whole different and even less flattering stereotype).  After all, according to Chua, the book is intended to be humorous. Okay, now I get it. In spite of all her academic dedication and professional achievements, Chua is a horrible writer of humor.

When my oldest son was in first grade we actively explained to him that humor that had to be clarified wasn’t funny. Someone needs to deliver a similar message to Ms. Chua. I wouldn’t have thought that this was necessary since by her own frequent declaration Chua is a highly intelligent Ivy League educated attorney and law professor, not a six-year-old whose understanding of social cues is hindered by an autistic spectrum disorder. But even if that’s the case, wasn’t there an editor over at Penguin who could have mentioned something about it? “Um, Ms. Chua, is it possible for you to give your readers a ‘Bazinga’ every now and then?” Or did everyone involved in the publication of this book just fail to understand that writing humor isn’t easy?

A friend and former classmate of mine is a serious student of humor writing, exceptional writer in his own right as well as editor of Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor. Check it out! Issue 2 is hot off the presses. He has fostered in me an appreciation for the art of humor writing and its creation. Before getting to know him and his writing I thought that being a writer of humor and a humorous writer were one and the same. They aren’t. I can honestly say that while I can, at times, be a humorous (and sarcastic) writer a humor writer I am not.  But Amy Chua is neither.

So ever the optimist I can give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she’s not as much horrible mother as terrible writer. Maybe…

Pollyanna & Irene

I’m a Pollyanna; albeit a cynical and sarcastic one, but still a Pollyanna. I genuinely want to believe that there in good in people  even while I’m chuckling about their pants’ inability to cover their plaid  boxer shorts or their failure to find Manhattan on a map of New York City.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene my optimism poked its head out of the muddy waters of the Passaic and liked what it saw: people acting human. Neighbors helped neighbors sort through the destruction that had rushed through their lives. The Church started acting like it should, putting on hip waders and rolling up their sleeves to pump out basements, ripping up molding carpets and pulling out soggy dry wall for people they’ve never met.  Even the corporate world was pitching in.

This got me thinking…

This could be the opportunity for the cast of “Jersey Shore” to redeem themselves to me and the millions of other New Jersey residents by giving back to the state that has provided them fame, fortune and all the  wonderful sea air that they obviously use to inflate their egos. This is something that both the Pollyanna and the cynic could agree on. Disasters can bring out the best in people and nothing enables self-promotion like a tragedy and no one does self-promotion like this crew. Sure, they aren’t going to be named UN Goodwill Ambassador anytime soon but the field is wide open. Vinny could collect unused stair climbers, treadmills that have doubled as clothes hampers for years and dumbbells, lots of dumbbells. Snooki and Deena could donate the dresses they wore to the MTV music awards to Seaside’s Beach patrol to use as flags on their rescue boats.

Unfortunately the cynic won out this time. The over-coiffed and tanned crew hightailed out of Jersey on an MTV chartered private jet to attend the MTV Music Awards in Los Angeles and talked about how horrible it would have been to miss the event. Too bad a huge number of the local fools whose support keep them on the air didn’t have the power to watch them.  Glad to hear that they didn’t have to worry about broken windows, flooded homes and cars destroyed by fallen trees like many of my friends and neighbors.

Even Pollyanna couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But here’s hoping.

Staying Alive: A Love Story

One of the most exciting parts of being in a writer’s community is the publication of a friend’s book. A unique comaraderie develops as we work out the kinks, draft after draft, with our trusted readers and friends. We come to feel that while we aren’t haven’t birthed or nutured the book, that we are its godparents, standing by it’s side and supporting it as it is eventually sent out on the world.

Recently my friend, Laura B. Hayden, has delivered her book, Staying Alive: A Love Story to the world.

Staying Alive: A Love Story is a tale of hope and renewal that centers on Hayden’s search for meaning after the untimely death of her 49-year-old husband. Coupled with other experiences of loss in her life – including one of her kidneys to cancer — she is determined to, with her children, persevere.

Like Annie Dillard, Hayden draws on the rhythms and rituals of the natural world to explore her Brooklyn roots and New England adulthood. Wild creatures and domesticated critters, seasides and hillsides proffer comfort and understanding as she comes to realize that ‘no more than a hairline and no less than an eternity’ separate her from the man she loved. Even with the wear and tear her faith endures, it rarely diminishes.

Her purpose – to usher her two grieving children through a difficult adolescence to a well-adjusted adulthood – resonates through her own struggle. With the precise objectivity reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates A Widow’s Story, Hayden recounts the day her husband died and the rituals and obsessions of the bereaved. Forced to look at death straight in the eye, the author stares back, wide-eyed, without blinking through her tears.

Hayden also manages to be seriously droll – in an Anne Lamott way.  Never is her humor more honed than in the portrayal of her deceased spouse, whose devotion, antics, and
wisdom remain ever-present to those who are staying alive without him. His death becomes not only the family’s heartbreak, but the loss of a well-executed life for all who knew him or will get to know him through her memoir.

Whether Laura B. Hayden’s writing deals with herself, her children, or her cadre of loved ones, it is clear that she, her daughter, and her son emerge from their tragic loss survivors, not victims of Larry’s death, an outcome of which he would be very pleased. In a culture of intentionally exposed and celebrated self-victimization, the story of this family may be considered a quiet triumph.”

This is a wonderful book, and I’m not just saying that as a proud godparent.

Click on the cover of the book to purchase Staying Alive: A Love Story from Amazon.com.