Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bad Teacher and the Great Rodent Experiment

During my teaching career, I was sometimes like “Bad Teacher.” We had mice we kept in a cage in my sixth grade, self-contained classroom.  They were brought in by a student.  I think he found the mother mouse and babies in the barn!  The children could take the animals out of their cages and play with them after they finished their work.  (It was a different learning environment than in classrooms today.)  When one of the mice bit a boy’s finger, I just told him to squeeze it and make it bleed, then go to the restroom and wash it well, assured him he would be fine and luckily he was.

When a very observant young man told me my favorite, red, long Indian print skirt had “bad” pictures on it, I was surprised to see what I had never noticed before--that the prints on the bottom of the skirt were lovers: a man and woman with their hands placed strategically on each other’s bodies, and this motif continued all around the skirt.  I told him it was art and not to worry about it.  He seemed to accept that explanation, and I don’t think he ever told anyone else, because I kept wearing the skirt and never saw anyone else give it a second glance. 
I continued to wear this skirt,
even in Louisiana as evidenced in the staged photo above
 taken at LSUHSC Children's Center around 1989.
Detail from Indian print skirt
I still own the skirt, hanging in the attic!
The rodents we had were a never-ending source of interest in the classroom and school.  When the cafeteria ladies saw a mouse in the kitchen, they blamed our class.  We went back and counted our mice and assured them it was not one of ours.  One day a boy informed me that something was wrong with a mouse, and upon further examination, we discovered she had delivered babies and it was those tiny, ugly, bald bodies the boy had seen. 

I don’t recall what happened to the mice.  At some point I may have sent most of them back to the farm.  A couple came home with me for the summer, caught a chill and died. 
The story of Romeo, our class’ white rat, was much more poignant.  The whole class loved this friendly white rat, donated by a student.  We read the book The Rats of NIMH, and the children took turns taking Romeo home for holidays.  He stayed by himself at school most weekends.  One Monday Romeo wasn’t there when we arrived, having apparently escaped from his cage.  We searched all over the school and told everyone to be looking for him.  The cafeteria workers were less than thrilled to hear about his escape, because they figured he would head for the kitchen.  The children left surreptitious food trails in the hall leading back to our room, but nothing worked.  We finally figured Romeo had made his way to the outside. 

We left on Christmas break, and when we returned, a little girl found Romeo dead in his cage.  It appeared that he had returned to his familiar home over break, but we had long since stopped leaving food and water out.  The children were devastated, some of the girls were crying.  We put Romeo in a box and after lunch buried him on the edge of the school grounds.  I don’t recall if we had a ceremony for him or not, but he was mourned. 
It may have been after Romeo had passed, as we say in the South, that someone donated two long-haired gerbils to the class.  All went well for a while, but then they came down with some sort of illness.  The father of one of the students was a professor at the University of Tennessee vet school, so she asked if she could take them home for her father to doctor.  He was unable to save them, and thus ended the great rodent experiment at Cedar Grove Middle School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Am Half Sick of Shadows

When I was in my twenties, I had a short-lived career as a middle school teacher.  One year I taught a sixth grade self-contained class, which I adored. I can still remember how gratifying it was when I saw the students get excited about reading—my passion—or to have the children propel me on a path of learning.  One such student was Leslie who lived near the school.  Leslie loved science, as did many of the other students. 

School pictures when I was middle school teacher!
Science was one of my least favorite subjects in school, but I tried my best to be a good science teacher, mostly by following the children’s lead.  We inspected earth worms bought at a local bait shop, and there were always cages of rodents, e.g. white rat, gerbils, mice, in the classroom when students’ mothers gave their children ultimatums that these pets had to find other homes.

That year when science fair time rolled around, Leslie wanted to do a specific science project.  She had an older sister in nursing school, and she liked to look at her sister’s anatomy textbooks.  Leslie decided she wanted to compare the bone structure of a chicken with that of a pigeon.  She made her mother cook a whole chicken, which was a feat because Leslie’s mother didn’t cook.  But they cooked the whole chicken and Leslie took all the meat off of it. 
However, when it came to boiling the flesh off a pigeon, her mother drew the line.  I got the school’s science teacher to order Leslie a pigeon and when it arrived, Leslie asked if she could stay after school and boil the pigeon.  I don’t remember if we used hot plates or if there was a home economics lab, but I did learn that cooking a pigeon preserved in formaldehyde is not a good idea!  The smell was awful, the fumes probably deadly, but I didn’t know any better.  Luckily the windows in the school opened.  The janitor came to see what we were doing, but I don’t remember the principal showing up. 

Ultimately Leslie had to complete this process elsewhere, but she persevered and somehow got the pigeon cleaned and her science project completed.  I’m not sure how she kept the skeletons together or if she was just interested in certain bones, but her project won the school science fair and went to the regional fair.
I think of Leslie, the budding scientist, when I read the Flavia de Luce mysteries, written for adults but featuring Flavia, an eleven-year-old sleuth and mad chemist whose life revolves around her love for chemistry.  Flavia sleeps in her laboratory in the rambling English mansion that belongs to her family.  She and her two older sisters are cared for by their forgetful father whose energies focus on his stamp collection and trying to save Buckshaw, his late wife’s ancestral home, from creditors.  Maternal nurturing in the household comes from the cook and from Dugger, a faithful family retainer who suffers flashbacks from his experiences as a POW during World War II. 

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Alan Bradley
(Delacorte Press, 2011)
It’s Christmas time, and Flavia and her sisters won’t even have their minimal holiday decorations this year because their father has rented their house to a movie company in an effort to raise funds.  The girls are ordered not to disturb the movie people when they arrive, but Flavia manages to befriend the famous actress Phyllis Wyvern, while another sister is given a walk-on part in the movie.

Then the village vicar weighs in and talks Wyvern and her co-star into performing a short pageant at Buckshaw to raise money for the church’s new roof fund.  The whole village turns out for the play, only to get stranded at Buckshaw by a blizzard.  When one of the acting company ends up dead, there’s a houseful of suspects and no way to notify the police.  Flavia’s scientific experiment to prove the existence of Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, ends up exposing the murderer who tries to add the eleven-year-old busybody to the death toll. 

This novel isn’t my favorite of this series.  It is hard to keep straight the large cast of characters, the plot and motive for the killing are convoluted, but I do like Flavia.  Her penchant for concocting poisons is over the top, as is the sibling rivalry between her and her sisters.  The series, set in the 1950’s, uses exaggeration to create humor.
I Am Half Sick of Shadows is a line from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” that describes a lonely woman isolated from the real world and implies that all is not as it seems.  There is a foreshadowing that something is going to change. 

Author Alan Bradley is a Canadian writer who was encouraged by his wife to enter a fiction writing contest sponsored by the Canadian Crime Writers’ Association.  The result was the first Flavia de Luce mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  He was affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan where he worked as Director of Television Engineering for 25 years.  He now travels and writes fulltime.  He has published six Flavia mysteries, in addition to screenplays and biographies.  The Flavia books are under option to be made into movies for television.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Be Happy, Attend a Festival!

Recently two professors from Harvard and the University of British Columbia announced that, based on their research analysis, five of the ten happiest cities in the country are in Louisiana.  Shreveport is one of them.  Articles based on this report went on to point out that many good times enjoyed by Louisiana residents revolve around food and music.  (Click here to read article from

Louisiana, and Shreveport, host a wide array of festivals that celebrate the rich musical and cultural heritage of the state.  Ricky and I are taking friends from Virginia to the Red River Revel today to give them a taste of our city.  In town on business, they have already been on several tours of interesting places in the city, and a festival should round out their experience.
If the Red River Revel is Shreveport’s ultimate fall festival, this past summer’s best musical festival has to have been the biennial (or whenever they can pull it together) James Burton International Guitar Festival held at the historic and refurbished Municipal Auditorium.  In August of this year Ricky, our friend Pam from Houston, and I attended this celebration of James Burton’s 75th birthday and 62nd year in the music business. 

James Burton, a world renowned musician who is known by many as Elvis Presley’s guitar player, resides in Shreveport when he isn’t touring or recording.  He and his family have established a foundation that provides guitars and musical training to children and young adults who might not otherwise have the opportunity.  The festival raises money for this endeavor.  The musicians, all friends of Burton and renowned performers in their right, volunteer their time for the event. 

On this occasion, the music started at 7:30 pm and continued without a break until after 11:00.  It was almost midnight when Ricky, Pam and I got home.  We were so hyped up from the show that we stayed up into the wee hours, sitting on the porch of the cottage, talking about the festival.

Each time we attend Burton, his family and music business friends come together to perform one of the best concerts you will ever see, and we agreed this one was the best we’ve attended so far.  Where else in one evening would you hear live on stage multiple Grammy Award winner, James Burton who is one of the best guitar pickers and most prolific session guitarists ever, plus: Gunnar Nelson, son of Ricky Nelson with whom James played from 1958—1967; David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer; Lee Rocker from the band Stray Cats who made his double bass come alive on stage; Rick Vito, singer, guitar player and song writer, who played with Fleetwood Mac from 1987-1991; Richie Furray who was a founding member of Buffalo Springfield and Poco; Billy Burnette, guitarist and song writer, who also toured with Fleetwood Mac, 1987-1995; Merle Haggard’s son Noel Haggard, played and sang representing his family’s history with James Burton who played with Merle; blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan; Memphis pianist Rob Haynes who plays like Jerry Lee Lewis; and Bossier City’s Cole Vosbury, a Voice finalist, and his family band who display music chops in their own right (his grandmother who played with the family band on this night was once described by Les Paul as the “best female guitarist” he had ever seen). 

Representing country rock were Trace Adkins who is “one attractive tall drink of water” and a local boy; fiddle player Byron Berline who has played with about everyone from bluegrass musicians to The Band, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elton John; and  Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill.  Also joining James Burton were his son Jeff Burton and other family members, in addition to guitarists Doyle Dykes and Lincoln Brewster; Priscilla Presley who talked about the years James played with Elvis; and Master of Ceremony Mike Wolfe from the TV show, Pickers.  All of this in addition to back-up by a fantastic house band, composed of local and out-of-town musicians.

Each of the above musicians boasts an extensive list of musical accomplishments, each represents an era of James Burton’s long career, and each is a virtuoso.  Now I ask, who in their right mind, wouldn’t be happy when they have a chance to experience this level of musical talent and exuberance every few years. 

The next project of the James Burton Foundation is the creation of a guitar and car museum in Shreveport to house Burton’s extensive personal collections.  Our next festival after the Revel will be the Louisiana Film Prize Festival.
Ian McNulty, author of Louisiana Rambles,  said "It's sort of a cliché but Louisiana is a place where people love to have a good time."  I know I’m smiling in anticipation of many good times to come! 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Charming Salon

When I was leaving today for my appointment to get my hair cut and colored, my friend and stylist texted me, "I can't believe that I've forgotten to tell you I've moved."  She went on to say that her salon and house are now side-by-side on a quiet street in a tiny historic part of Bossier City, incongruously located near the bustling riverboat casinos.

I set my GPS and crossed the river to find her new abode and place of business.  I came upon a delightful enclave of cottages that immediately demonstrated to me why she is excited about the move.  The cottages are tiny, fairy-like in appearance, but the outdoor space is quintessential Louisiana, reminiscent of hidden New Orleans courtyards. 

Lights appear in the windows of her shop at twilight
When I look at the lush vegetation, it's hard to believe it's October 1, but our current Louisiana daytime temperatures are remaining in the eighties.  Moreover, a hard rain blew through while I was getting my hair done, which should keep these plants happy for now.

One of the outdoor seating areas outside the shop
T-Cup Bird Feeders appear to float amidst the vegetation.
My friend is still in the process of getting herself settled and her spaces organized , but at least she can step outside into this serene oasis to rejuvenate and recharge.