I had these images of having plenty of time to write interesting, informative and pleasing blog posts about the things I’m doing.
Instead I find myself running ragged ever since I left CT – with no end in sight.
Yesterday in Atlanta I visited The Jimmy Carter Presidential Museum and Library, the historic home that Margaret Mitchell lived in while she wrote the majority of Gone With the Wind, and I ended the day visiting The High Museum of Art ( It was half price on Thursday nights!)
I really enjoyed The Carter Center. As a child my first awareness of politics was Watergate. (Wait. What? What’s a President? We have a President? And he lied?) So by the time Carter was being elected I totally wanted him to win. I had a teacher at the time who made us engage with the political process by choosing sides and visiting the local Party offices and volunteering.
I was so displeased by what I’d seen since becoming aware of politics that of course I chose to campaign for Carter.
Since leaving the Presidency the man has done many commendable things in this world and I enjoyed immersing myself in the facts of it all.
Plus it was kind of awesome to stare upon an actual Nobel Peace Prize.
A helpful museum guide named Tony broke the rules and took some pictures of me. He also gave me the Jeopardy-worthy little bit of trivia: There are only two cities in the world which house two Nobel Peace Prizes. One is Atlanta (I went and saw King’s today!) and the other is Soweto, where medals for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela reside.
Somehow I enjoyed that tenuous connection, what with the week’s news being filled with the goings on at the memorial ceremony to honor Mandela’s passing.
(More text below photos.)
Here in Atlanta I’m staying with a nice older gentleman named Al. It’s a booking I made via Airbnb – a service born of the sharing economy whereby you rent out extra bedrooms in your house, or pay a cheap price to stay in someone else’s extra room. I’ve been renting out my extra room that way for a few years but this trip is my first chance to really utilize it for myself. (If you don’t know Airbnb yet, do check it out.)
Anyway, Al lives just on the outskirts of Little 5 Points. I spent a good amount of time here in the 80s when Vette (my lifelong best friend) lived here.
Today I started the day with a short walk to Little 5. Truly worthy coffeehouses and a collection of stores I wish I had access to on a daily basis. I spent a few hours wandering and browsing. Enjoyable day.
A Facebook post, saying where I was, got me a message from a friend saying she had people not too far from here and that I should visit and deliver a hug and greeting.
So I did.
That introduced me to the Lake Claire Land Trust.
What a fantastic place! With land bought from Marta, they have created a meandering little city oasis with playgrounds, sweat lodges, a small amphitheater, performance spaces, and I met an emu named Lou!
That was a great detour and addition to my day!
Then I jetted off to The King Center to pay my respects and learn a thing or two. The complex is rambling and covers many blocks. I got to see Atlanta’s second (or was it the first?) Nobel Peace Prize.
I was somehow humbled to stand near his tomb. The gravity of it all. A friendly pool cleaner named Lawrence took my photos for me.
I really like meeting real people to chat with.
I was going to go back to the Lake Claire Land Trust tonight for a Friday night friendly jam but that’s not gonna happen.
I walked a couple blocks from Al’s for dinner at a place called Babette’s and, at 9pm, have landed next door at JavaVino – a coffeehouse wine bar combo and I’m downing more wine than would allow me to be comfortable driving back to the Land Trust.
Here I sit writing this bit on my iPhone in hopes that when I get back to the house I’ll upload some photos and make this a real blog post.
My original plan for this trip was to cruise along the northern reaches of these southern states as I head west but a Facebook post last week from a friend might be sending me north from here to Tennessee – to McMinnville – where there is a concert tomorrow known as Bluegrass Underground. Once a month they have concerts that (I think) are filmed for PBS and December’s is tomorrow and billed as “A Pirate’s Christmas.” So yeah. I think I’m changing my plans and going north tomorrow.
I have a friend who pays an inordinate amount of attention to obituaries.
It’s not like he’s of an age where one would watch to be aware of the passing of friends. He’s always been like this.
He’s the one who tells me when a friend’s parent has passed, or perhaps the untimely death of an old acquaintance in our age group, or an important yet little known person who influenced our chosen brand of American culture.
Earlier this week I got a text from him that said “Mrs. Sokolowski died. 89 years old.”
Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Eighth grade? Seventh grade?
It seems some of my best teachers came from that time of my schooling. Anthony Dyer was middle school too.
These are the teachers who pushed me. These are the teachers who knew I could do better than what I did.
Mrs. Sokolowski was a hard-ass. No excuses were good enough. She insisted on work done well. She scoffed at efforts less than 110%. She scowled and growled and hissed and snapped. Right now my mind pictures a viper.
She was the matriarch of Memorial Middle school, possibly I have that impression because her daughter worked there too. Miss Sokolowski taught French which I took two years of (and passed) but with which I was completely lost and decidedly unfluent in, when I was in France. Mrs. Sokolowski taught English and writing. (Not that this is any of my best writing but it’s just coming off the top of my head – and yes, I see the awkwardness of some of the previous sentences.)
Along with the babysitter of all my young years, Mrs. Bostock, Mrs. Sokolowski was very important to the shaping of my writer-brain. And Mr. Dyer was there to teach me how to think, how to see the big picture as well as the details and comprehend the nuances to the shaping of civilization.
I was an excellent student in Middle school. Hungry for the knowledge these people could give me, rebellious slightly and always a bit of a lazy student, they drew out the best in me.
When asked most of my life who was my best teacher ever, I was always inclined to point the finger at Mr. Dyer. A large man with piercing blue eyes, a shock of yellow blond hair, and the voice of a Viking, he was flamboyant, loud, intimidating and endlessly entertaining. Mrs. Sokolowski was old even then, with her curled grey old-lady hair and glasses. And she was a little mean. She was the kind of teacher who might have a ruler in her hand to slap loudly on a student’s desk. She was relentless and maybe not so well liked. She may not have been as entertaining, and it may have been harder to sit in her class, but she was without doubt a force to be reckoned with and a remarkable teacher.
Beyond Middle school my thirst for schoolwork waned considerably.
My teachers were less interesting, less motivating. They seemed to be sort of bumbling and ineffectual.
This may have been due to my own lifestyle changes, it was the start of high school where I met a whole new crew of fascinating long-haired boys. Boys more interested in music and marijuana than in schoolwork or knowledge. But it seems to me, when I look back on it, that part of the problem was that I had come up against teachers who were not as smart as me. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I felt then as if they had little to teach me. Certainly I was learning new things in circles I hadn’t even known existed and school didn’t afford me opportunities that interested me as much as watching ‘the band’ learn new songs, hanging out in sand lots on mountain tops having keg parties and learning to know a whole new crowd of people, and a whole new introduction to music.
It’s probably wrong of me to blame this disinterest and this turning from school on my teachers, there were other factors in my life that precipitated these changes in me.
Certainly there were a few memorable teachers in high school, including Mr. Adams and Mr. Seibal(?) but this post isn’t about them.
When I was in my early 40s I went to the post office one random day and Mrs. Sokolowski recognized me. Many people from my past recognize me because somehow I look just the same now as I did when I was 8, and 25. It took a moment for me to place her, then I smiled. A few moments of chit chat and she got serious and said “May I ask you something?”
She asked me – “Did we do right by you? In school? I know we did okay with the average students, but I always worried about you smart kids. Did we challenge you? Did we set you on the right path? Did we do okay?”
It seemed such a burning question inside her, I was surprised.
I was moved by her query. I guess I’d never thought about a teacher’s perspective on someone like me. I guess I didn’t know, that back then, they knew I was smart. Isn’t that silly? I knew. I knew they treated me differently, placed me in advanced classes and whatnot. And I knew they worried about me in high school when my grades began to drop, (when they pulled me into the guidance office and told me I was hanging with the wrong crowd,) but I didn’t know I mattered to any of them. Not really.
I saw it though, that day, in her eyes. She truly cared to know if she’d done a good job. Not for her sake, but for mine. I mattered to her. This was literally stunning.
I didn’t know, other than theoretically, that a teacher truly cared about the trajectory of a single student, like an arrow she’d had a part in aiming.
I told her the truth.
She’d done the best she could with me. She engaged me and taught me well. I told her I’d lost interest through high school, perhaps because I didn’t have teachers of her caliber. I’d not gone to college, instead I traveled the country for nearly a decade, then I’d opened my own successful business (which I was 12 or 13 years into owning at the time) and that I’d have to say yes, she had, they had, done okay by me. They’d taught me to think and learn and I couldn’t have asked for better.
We parted happily and I thought of that encounter often. I related it to friends many times through the past bunch of years, with awe at her concern, and honor that she thought of me at all.
Before I relate what it was like when I went to her wake (which is the point of this post) I’d like to tell how after the wake, I went to dinner with a teacher friend. He assured me that teachers do indeed think often of individual students and lay awake at night wondering if they’ve done right by these kids. And when talk turned to other areas of our lives, and an idea came forward that he could utilize in his teaching, and I watched his eyes light up with the possibilities of this new idea and how it could and will affect the experience his students will have; I thought of her.
I felt compelled to go to the wake. The point of a wake is to pay one’s respects to the departed. I didn’t expect to know anyone there, unless Miss Sokolowski, who was surely no longer Miss Sokolowski might be there, and I hoped she was.
I walked in to a mostly empty funeral home. The emptiest wake I’d ever attended. There were a few people looking at the photo board. There were pictures of her in the 40s, a glamorous looking woman with perfect 40s hair. There were pictures of her as a young girl, grainy sepia toned photos, a little girl on a red wagon, a little girl looking into a stream. There were pictures of her as an old woman, smiling around a table with other old women. None of them looked like my Mrs. Sokolowski. But then, there was one small photo, from an instamatic camera, with film color that’s not holding up well, of her accepting an award or something at a podium among diners. Ah! There she was.
I looked around – I wanted to tell someone – look! There she is – my teacher!
There was no one to tell.
It was an open casket.
I walked over and stood before her. Her skin was grey and she was old and didn’t look like anyone I knew. But I looked past that, I looked through to the woman I saw in the photos, to the woman who waggled her finger at me and INSISTED I do as well as I could.
I thanked her for caring. About me and about all the many students whose lives she had undoubtedly touched as much as she did my own. I thanked her for our encounter at the post office. I thanked her for all that she gave of herself. I told her I hoped her life had been satisfying in all those realms a kid never imagines for a teacher. I told her that I hoped her journeys beyond this planet would afford her heart and soul much peace. I told her she had mattered.
And when I turned from her, I wanted to tell this important information to someone else. I wanted to tell someone that she mattered. There were chairs there for the family, but no one was in them. There were a couple of small groups of people talking amongst themselves. I looked for Karen – Miss Sokolowski. She was not there.
I stood not knowing what to do.
I wanted to shout to the room – hey! This lady over here! She mattered! Do you know that?!
I looked back at her for one final Thank You, and then I left.
Goodbye Mrs. Chesterlyn Sokolowski. Thank you, you did good. You mattered.