by Myra Bellin
Myra Bellin received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Spalding University after acquiring degrees in English, law, and psychology. She worked as a civil lawyer for 15 years, a psychotherapist, an adjunct professor of business law courses, and a middle-school English teacher. A number of her personal essays have been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and her profiles have appeared in The Rambler and Ceramic Monthly. New work has appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Front Range Review, Slow Trains, and Colere.
No one in my family traveled much beyond our home in Philadelphia. My father's sole transatlantic trip occurred when his mother, with her five children, left a Russian shtetl to join her husband in America. Hidden in the back of a hay wagon, they raced across the border to Poland, pistol-wielding Cossacks at their heels. It was 1918 and my father was five years old. My mother, born here to immigrant parents, had never been out of the country except for the road trip to Niagara Falls when our car, a 1956 green Cadillac, went into death throes on the shoulder of the New York Thruway, ultimately succumbing with a strong final shudder in a cloud of steam. There were annual jaunts to Boston to visit family, a few day trips to New York where my father could play with his new movie camera filming his three children at the Statue of Liberty, and summer days at the Jersey Shore.
The world in which I grew up was family-centric, and the focus of its narrative was my older brother — his grades, his study habits, his accomplishments as a pianist, his girlfriends. His activities dominated the daily conversation, and none of it pertained to me. So I filled out my own personal world with books. I desperately wanted to jump down the rabbit hole after Alice. Heidi took me to the Swiss Alps, and Little Women presented a family in which people talked and didn't scream. It was a world much different from mine — no mothers shrieking at their sons at 3 a.m. for staying out late with cuervas (whores), screaming that shiksas (non-Jewish girls) were destroying all chances of acceptance to medical school. I tore through most of the popular book series for young girls — the detectives Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew, the nurse Cherry Ames. I wanted to leave my world and enter theirs.
My love of reading blossomed into a love of English classes when I was in high school. The Philadelphia High School for Girls was part of the public school system, but was an all-academic, all-girls school with a strong English department. My tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Grossman, was among my favorites. I felt drawn to her because she was calm and even-tempered, which made her seem so grounded and wise. It was in Mrs. Grossman's seventh period English class that the loudspeaker announcement came on November 22, 1963 — President Kennedy had been assassinated. She folded her tall, lanky frame into her chair behind the desk at the front of the room. The room lapsed into silence as she buried her face in her hands and wept. She looked up at one point, and I could see on her cheeks the shiny trails left by tears.
Mrs. Grossman wore her frizzled gray hair pulled back from her face into a small bun at the nape of her neck. Her glasses were thick and her teeth were large ivory blocks shielded by thin lips. She was hardly fashionable — her muted clothes hung on her angular frame as if carelessly tossed on a clothes tree — long skirts that stopped mid-calf; black, clunky orthopedic stack heels that laced up the front; a loose blouse tucked into the skirt shrouded by a shapeless sweater. But I loved Mrs. Grossman anyway, even though my own mother, had she ever seen her, would have dismissed her as a "tall drink of water." By tenth grade I was slowly but definitely moving beyond the limited world of my family.
Mrs. Grossman wrote poems on the blackboard for discussion — short pieces by Carl Sandburg ("The fog comes on little cat feet") or Robert Frost ("Whose woods these are I think I know"). I loved reading Shakespeare in her class; advanced English students tackled Macbeth and Julius Caesar in tenth grade. Her gravelly voice frequently dropped nuggets like "Just remember girls, what's in style is beautiful," a remark that has proven its worth by lasting in my memory far longer than whatever fashion statement prompted it. I don't know if my classmates appreciated her view of fashion, but I did; I had always felt so unattractive next to my older sister, whose teenage beauty was her signature. But Mrs. Grossman's perspective lightened my self-condemnation because it suggested that the rules of beauty were subject to whim.
If Mrs. Grossman's advanced tenth grade English class had met anytime other than seventh period, the last period of the day, I probably would not have succumbed to a fit of giggles when she announced that we were all going to enter an essay contest. Not only was it last period, but it was last period Friday, a time when everyone was mentally poised for the final bell announcing the weekend. We had recently completed a unit on techniques in advertising, and I had learned that we were foils for mass marketing, for people who deliberately used language to manipulate us to buy their products. Their techniques of manipulation even had names like "bait and switch," which meant that the advertiser would lure a prospective customer's interest with some tantalizing offer and then, once the deal was sealed, switch to some object of lesser appeal. I think I was appalled to learn that deception was so established that it actually had a name.
As the elected chairman of the English class, it was my job to take roll at the beginning of the period. On this particular Friday in February, I had just placed the completed roll sheet on Mrs. Grossman's desk and taken my seat, five seats from the front in the row near the windows, when Mrs. Grossman rose from behind her desk and perched on a high stool that she kept in front of the blackboard, an unfolded brochure in her hands. The bright, slanting sunshine of a cold winter afternoon poured through the windows.
"Girrrrls," she announced in her low voice. "I have just received this brochure about an essay contest for high school students." She waved it in the air. "And each of you is going to write an essay for it. The essay must be one thousand words long." Her oversized glasses slid down her bumpy nose as she unfolded the brochure, and she pushed them back up. "There will be two winners — one who lives east of the Mississippi, and one who lives west of it." She looked up; no one said anything. "The prize is a two-week Caribbean cruise." Dead silence. We were still absorbing the burden of a one-thousand-word essay, an assignment weighty enough to give tenth graders pause. "The essays will be due a week from Monday." A low but audible groan rumbled through the room. Mrs. Grossman didn't acknowledge it directly; she merely added, "My girls write as well as anyone else in the country. So if someone is going to win, it might as well be one of you." I was impressed by her certitude.
But when she read the title of the essay, a spasm of laughter seized me and refused to let go. "The Bellin laugh," my mother called it, claiming that it infected her three children through their paternal grandmother. It had never struck me anywhere beyond the dinner table before; usually I would catch it from one of my two older siblings, breaking into gales of uncontrollable laughter over absolutely nothing. But the subject of our assignment piqued this round — "Why I Think the United States Should Have an American Merchant Marine for Domestic and Foreign Commerce." Writing an essay on a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing and cared even less struck me as hilarious. But I think it was the earnestness of the title that tickled me the most — the very words assumed I had actually spent time and energy considering this weighty problem and had a whole rash of opinions just waiting to flow onto a piece of paper. Engulfed in giggles, I excused myself and went out into the hallway until I could control myself. Mrs. Grossman turned slightly to watch me leave. She didn't say anything, merely peered at me over her glasses, which by this time were perched on the very tip of her long, crooked nose. I stepped outside and closed the door as quietly as I could behind me.
It took several minutes for me to calm down, but I reentered as soon as I could, a bit chagrined by my outburst. Mrs. Grossman was reading from a brochure. Lisa Feldman, to my left, held out her notebook as I took my seat and I saw in a large, cursive scrawl the heading "Ten Suggested Ideas for Your Essay." The American Flag Ship Association, the group sponsoring the contest, considerately furnished a pamphlet giving us suggestions for our entries. I opened my loose-leaf book to the red tab that marked the section for English, and began taking notes as Mrs. Grossman read. Finishing the ten points, Mrs. Grossman then read to us from another brochure. This one was called "Some Important Statistics You Should Know About the United States Merchant Marines." I took notes on those as well. Concluding her reading, Mrs. Grossman looked up and said, "Remember, girls, what we learned in advertising about selling things. You have to tell people what they want to hear."
Boing! A eureka moment! A light bulb went off in my 15-year-old brain as soon as the words left Mrs. Grossman's lips. "That's it," I mumbled to myself. "All I have to do is tell them what they want to hear. But they just told me what they wanted to hear. I just have to tell it back to them."
The 2:30 p.m. bell rang, and 25 fifteen-year-old girls passed me in the front of the room where I was reading the portions of the pamphlet I had missed. The "cool" girls wore A-line skirts in soft shades of blue or green or fuchsia manufactured by Villager or Ladybug. Tucked into the skirts were blouses with Peter Pan collars in tiny flowered prints. A few girls had cardigans thrown over their shoulders that exactly matched their skirts. Everyone carried an ivory canvas book bag stuffed with a large loose-leaf, perhaps a notebook or two, and textbooks from various courses. My classmates brushed past me as I stood there with the pamphlet in hand, playing catch-up.
I spent the weekend moaning about the English assignment, for even though I had decided on my general approach, I still had to actually do some work and write the paper. My older brother Harvey was in medical school at Jefferson Medical College, but still lived at home, commuting downtown every day in the spiffy red Corvette convertible that my parents bought him as a reward for abandoning his romance with a shiksa. Fortunately, my English assignment predated by a few months his next romance with a shiksa and their subsequent trip to Elkton, Maryland to elope. I complained about the assignment so much that Harvey offered to stop by the Merchant Marine Library, conveniently located on Walnut Street, close to his classes at Jefferson, and check out a couple of books for me about the Merchant Marines.
My brother's efforts concluded my research because the books contained just enough additional information to make my concept about how to "tell them what they want to hear" a reality. I had a plan. A thousand words, 10 suggested ideas. I figured that all I needed to do was write a paragraph amplifying three or four of the suggested ideas in the pamphlet — at 150 to 200 words each, that should put my essay at about 700 words. The introduction and ending, which would depend on information from the promised books, would consume the remaining 300 words and, voila, a thousand-word essay.
When the books appeared I gleaned enough from them to write an introductory paragraph of about 200 words devoted to the history of the merchant marines. I amplified several of the "suggested ideas" into separate paragraphs, which left about 100 words for the conclusion, and I was done. I liberally sprinkled the paper with statistics from the pamphlet entitled "Important Statistics You Should Know About the United States Merchant Marines." On the Monday that the papers were handed in, a number of my classmates described their weekend labors. "I spent the whole weekend at the library researching this paper," Helen Finkle announced, striking terror in the hearts of those who had not been that diligent. But I was content with my efforts and relieved to be finished. The essays were returned on Friday. I got an "A" with a penciled request from Mrs. Grossman to please type it up over the weekend because it was one of the papers she planned to enter in the contest.
I can still see my 15-year-old self setting up the manual Royal typewriter on the dining room table to begin this chore on Sunday evening. The earpieces of the thick glasses I needed to correct my nearsightedness slid beneath my coarse brown hair, which had a mind of its own and refused to quietly mold into a shiny flip or perfect tease fluff, in spite of all my efforts. I didn't know how to touch-type yet, although my parents encouraged me to learn so that I would have the skills necessary to do part-time secretarial work. The large oval dining room table seated 10 people when closed, and I set myself up at the end near the windows. The ornate overhead chandelier provided light — its layers of crystal teardrops caught and threw the beams from the bulbs buried at its center. It took a few hours of "hunting and pecking" among the boldly lettered keys before I was finished. I handed it in and promptly forgot about it.
That same year, Dr. Faust, my tenth grade homeroom teacher, had appointed me to serve as the homeroom's "ventilation engineer." The responsibilities of this job consisted of taking the long wooden pole specifically designed to unlatch the windows and to open them from the top every morning during the fall and the spring. One warm and humid morning in May, by this time an expert at wielding the pole, I was executing my duties when Dr. Faust summoned me to her desk and told me that Dr. Thompson wanted to see me.
She did? What had I done? Dr. Thompson was the vice principal and the school's disciplinarian, and I couldn't imagine why she wanted to see me. I was an obedient and diligent student; I never even snuck a cigarette in the girls' room, which was one of the worst transgressions imaginable at Girls' High. In fact, I didn't even smoke yet.
Dread accompanied me to Dr. Thompson's office. I waited in the doorway, bracing myself for an indictment. When she looked up from the papers on her desk, I relaxed a bit because she began to grin — a large, toothy grin worthy of the Cheshire cat in Alice and Wonderland. Her short, squat self rose to greet me. She requested me to accompany some visitors to the upper school assembly scheduled for that morning. I sighed with relief and wondered briefly why, with hundreds of upper school students already going to the assembly, she didn't ask one of them. But the thought passed quickly.
The visitors were three women from Japan who had been exposed to the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States at Hiroshima. They were on a tour of American high schools to both observe classes and to demonstrate, by their very physical presence, the horrors of the nuclear age, for the bomb had left its mark on them. I tried not to stare at their disfigurement. I remember one woman in particular — the right side of her face had been facing the direction of the bomb when it exploded. Although she was miles away, the heat of the blast was so intense that it looked as if that side of her face had melted while the other side remained almost perfect. It was an unsettling image that I couldn't quite believe, although it was right before me. One of the three spoke a halting English that I struggled to understand. She interpreted for the others when they visited classrooms, but aside from giving them a brief tour of the school before the start of the assembly, I did not have much opportunity to speak with them about their mission. Our tour ended in the auditorium.
There was a guest speaker at the upper school assembly that day — a woman from the American Flagship Association. By the time she got around to announcing my name as the winner of the essay contest, I realized why Dr. Thompson had selected me to escort the visitors to the assembly. I remember stumbling up the aisle to the stage and shaking the speaker's hand to the applause of the upper school. Word spread fast.
My first class of the day was Algebra II with the dreaded Mrs. Schumann. Class always officially began when she tinkled the brass bells resting on her desk. By this time, she had already placed the initials of several students on blackboards around the room. The designated souls would march to the board with the enthusiasm of prisoners walking the plank and try to solve the very algebraic mysteries that had stumped them the night before. She rarely put my initials on the board because I generally understood the homework problems, but I still regarded her with a healthy fear. It was obvious that Mrs. Schumann had already tinkled the little bell to begin class because the room was so quiet. I tried to enter unobtrusively, and was astonished when, as I tiptoed to my seat and at Mrs. Schumann's instigation, everyone applauded. She stood by the side of her desk, grinning a huge grin, lightly clapping her hands together.
I was a little embarrassed by the whole thing, unused to being the center of attention. I was also a bit confused about winning because I didn't consider my essay particularly insightful or novel. All I did was follow Mrs. Grossman's advice — I wrote an essay telling people exactly what they wanted to hear. It wasn't difficult — that very information accompanied the announcement of the contest. To me, my work seemed obvious and transparent.
I wondered, too, if my technique in approaching the essay constituted "cheating." After all, the substantive ideas weren't mine — I just figured out how to organize them within the contest guidelines. On the other hand, I reasoned, it's not as if I had been sneaky or subversive — anyone familiar with the promotional materials for the contest would understand that the arguments in the essay were not original. And furthermore, I thought, I was encouraged to use the ideas in the pamphlet — why else would they have been "suggested?"
Somehow, though, my victory didn't seem quite right. It felt hollow, as if I had won this fabulous prize by sleight of hand.
I didn't discuss these reservations with anyone. I was unused to sharing my thoughts with anyone in the family, and not one of them would have understood anyway. I would have been waved off and told I was too sensitive or crazy. I don't even remember any excitement or enthusiasm on their part. There was no room on center stage for me because it had been totally reserved for my brother.
I seemed to be the only person who was confused about winning, with the possible exception of Helen Finkle, whose jokes about spending so much time doing research seemed tinged with competitiveness and envy and pricked my conscience ever so slightly.
Still, I took the cruise when I was 18, during the winter break of my freshman year at college. My stateroom on the sundeck was elegant. The 200 passengers dressed for dinner every night and I was treated like a guest of honor, seated at the captain's table with the ship's doctor and a few other guests. The meals were lavish, and the Caribbean itinerary was exotic, with stops in Curacao, Aruba, and Caracas.
The colors of the tropics amazed me — the bright turquoise ocean and soft white sands, leafy palms, and magically blue sky seemed more like a Disney cartoon than the real world. And, as if scripted, I even had a shipboard romance. A cadet from the Merchant Marine Academy was working onboard, a handsome 21-year-old with clear green eyes. We stood on deck at night under a sky of dark velvet, looking above us at the stars of a limitless universe, a frothy ocean beckoning.
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