Friday, June 14, 2013

Sundays with Evelyn

My friend Evelyn, with me on the High Line in New York City
Four years ago, I was in Aix-en-Provence, a lovely little city in France.  I traveled there with my friend Elaine, who had a paper to present at an academic conference called "Women and Spirituality".  The conference was fascinating and by no means of mere academic interest.  The women and men there seemed to be individuals with a burning need to find a genuine form of spirituality.  One of the people I met there was Evelyn, a self-proclaimed agnostic.  "Well, let's just say I haven't bumped into him yet," I can imagine her saying.  Evelyn says she is not spiritual, but every time I'm with her, this seems to be one of our main topics.  She isn't so sure there's a God, but she goes to synagogue every week.  "I go there for the music," she asserts.  I accompanied her to her synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun, once.    I think she is one of the most inspiring, spiritual women I have ever met, but when I tell her she is spiritual, she looks either annoyed or confused.  Then I say, "Spirituality is not the same thing as religion."  This helps some.  Evelyn hates religion because people use it to discriminate against others, and she dearly loves people - of all religions and of no religion. 

Just days after returning from Turkey, I traveled to the US to attend a conference in Delaware on inner healing and how working through the "twelve steps", a spiritual program, brings about healing.  After the conference, I spent several days with Evelyn in her apartment in New York City.  Last time I was in New York, Evelyn said, "Come see me again - soon.  And stay with me next time.  Who knows how often we'll have a chance again for our intense talks."  I was only too ready to visit Evelyn again. 

One of the things I like about Evelyn is her youthful, positive, can-do way.  She was eighty when I met her, now eighty-four.  She is a passionate educator.  Whenever she can, Evelyn delivers papers on her ideas about learning strategies at conferences.  While I was there, she heard about a conference taking place at the New School for Social Research on teaching methods for teaching English as a foreign language.  With no hesitation at all, she had a proposal typed within half an hour, sent out within the hour.  One evening she showed me how I could use her method of "taxonomy", using the alphabet, to help my English students remember what they learn more easily.  Evelyn uses her method regularly on any students she can find.

The door to her apartment was open the evening I arrived.  I heard a male voice coming from the kitchen.  "Oh hi, Noreen," yelled Evelyn, walking over to the entrance and giving me a hug.  A handome man of about fifty walked out of the kitchen towards me.  "I'd like you to meet Neil, one of my friends from BJ."  BJ is how the people who attend B'nai Jeshurun call their synagogue.  Neil "happened" to drop by to visit Evelyn.  "You just missed Spring and Linda," Evelyn said.  "They're my two Chinese girls.  They left ten minutes ago."  Evelyn is much too busy entertaining people to be lonely.  She collects people the way some people collect china demitasse cups to display in their corner hutch.  Later in the evening, Judy dropped by.  Judy is an actress who does Kosher catering to supplement her income.

Things did quiet down some during the week, but Evelyn had almost daily phone calls from Neil and Judy.  She told me about Reza, an Iranian she met at an academic conference in Spain a couple years ago.  Later they arranged to meet in Istanbul, one of the few places an Iranian Muslim and an American Jew would be allowed to meet.  They presented at a conference together.  "If only Reza could come to this conference coming up in New York.  But how could an Iranian possibly be able to enter into the United States?"

I always wondered why Evelyn is so passionate about education.  During this visit, when we had the luxury of nearly a week to talk, I found out why.

When Evelyn was a young student in a local Bronx school, her class was administered an IQ test.  This test was based entirely on spacial relation tasks.  Evelyn was always highly verbal, but her abilities didn't extend to figuring out which triangles fit when one of them was upside-down.  She was judged to have a below-average IQ.  This went into her school records and followed her all the way through college.

In addition to having a "low" IQ, she was hampered by a couple of other things.  One of them was her singing voice.  Evelyn has always had a powerful New Yawkish tenor voice.  If the right person had discovered her, she could have been another Ethel Merman in "Hello Dolly".  Instead, since she couldn't reach the high tones, she was forever cast into the mold of a non-singer in school.  School classes were made up of singers and non-singers.  Another strike against her was that New Yawk accent that just wouldn't go away.  She and most of her classmates at City College were even offered elocution lessons with trainers brought in from Michigan to train the New York out of their accents so they could major in better things than education.  It didn't work with Evelyn.  She just couldn't turn "ovah theyah" into a pristine soprano "over there".  Three strikes and you're out.  Evelyn was doomed to becoming a teacher.       

Thank God for that.  She went on to get a Master's degree, later a Ph.D. in education.  She has published several books on education and written other children's books telling stories about interesting historical events told from the perspective of one of her grandparents, parents, or even herself.  She wrote a play that was performed off-Broadway, a love story about a Jewish teenage girl and the German doctor sent to live in her family's home during the German occupation of Poland in World War I.

Evelyn never tires of opportunities to use her educational methods on children.   She met Spring and Linda a year ago when she was getting a manicure at a salon around the corner from her apartment.  She spied the Chinese owner's daughters over in the corner, amusing themselves with a computer game.  She asked if they had a piece of paper.  They did.  She gave them a writing lesson, then and there.  She invited them over for more.  They've been coming every Sunday ever since.  These are brilliant girls who managed to do better in their entrance tests to get into Manhattan's School for Talented and Gifted Children than did Evelyn in her day.  You can only get three out of a thousand questions wrong, or you're not admitted unless one of your siblings is already there.  Then you're allowed to get four wrong.  Spring got four wrong.  Linda had a perfect score.

Evelyn's Sunday mornings are spent with other kids besides Spring and Linda.  She has two boys, one of them Iranian and the other Eastern European, both of whom have had difficulty keeping up with school.  Thanks to Evelyn's methods,, their grades have shot up and they're experiencing joy in learning.

I got a second chance to meet Evelyn's "girls".  On my second Sunday there, promptly at 10 am, they walked through the door.  I first saw them sitting on Evelyn's couch, looking at a TV series on their I-pad.  Later in the day, when I returned from church, I found they had another guest - their grandfather, who had just arrived from China and who doesn't speak a word of English.  No matter.  The girls and Evelyn were cooking hamburgers and fried potatoes - practically a German (or Jewish? meal - for him.  One of the parents of the boys had brought Evelyn a bunch of bananas.  Evelyn didn't know what to do with all those bananas, but the girls had an idea.  They found a recipe for banana cake in the internet.  Evelyn's day was spent with the girls at the Whole Foods store, finding ingredients for the cake, baking the cake, and experimenting with dark chocolate and milk chocolate to see which would melt faster.  Dark chocolate won by about two seconds.
Linda and Spring with their banana cake

We sat down at the table together to eat - an American Jewish grandmother with Russian and German roots, an American living in Germany, two Chinese-American girls and a Chinese grandfather.  "Can I say the grace?" asked Linda.

"Of course," replied Evelyn.  Each of us held onto the same piece of bread as Spring prayed in perfect Hebrew.   "Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha'olam hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz".  "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth."

Evelyn grinned.  "I taught it to them.  They wanted to learn it."

That's my friend Evelyn, this wonderfully alive, spirited and spiritual agnostic who never misses a Friday at the synagogue or a chance to inspire someone with the joy of learning.  I hope I can spend some more Sundays with Evelyn, being inspired as she inspires her kids.

Evelyn and her girls


1 comment:

Blue Flag said...

I've heard you mention Evelyn so many times over the years. Thanks for the lovely introduction.