Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Memoriam

My beloved high school English teacher passed away last week.  I had heard a rumor a couple of years ago that she was sick, but when I never heard anything else, I assumed everything was ok.  I had been thinking about her recently.  As I was finishing up my PhD, I was making plans to write letters to all of my English teachers, thanking them for helping me along the way.  She was at the top of the list.  Last Saturday, I learned that she wasn't doing well, but I still thought I had more time.  Thursday, I woke up early for some reason, drafting the letter I wanted to write to her in my head.  I learned later that she had died that morning.

She was, undoubtedly, the most amazing teacher ever.  I took senior English--Brit Lit--from her, and I believe that my decision to become a Victorianist can be traced to her influence.  She had the reputation of being very challenging.  Kids who had taken honors classes throughout high school, dropped out of the advanced program and took standard English because they were afraid of her class.  And she was tough.  We came in the first day of class to find a stack of about five books on our desks.  We read Beowulf, and Othello, and King Lear, and Hamlet.  We read Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and A Tale of Two Cities.  We read The Heart of Darkness.  I also took her AP English Lit. class where we read Jude the Obscure (well, I didn't read it: I had learned my lesson about Hardy with Tess)  We read The Bridge on the Drina, a challenging contemporary novel about Serbia.  And, as a special favor, because she wouldn't do it with just anyone, she took us sailing on the Pequod: Moby Dick was her personal favorite novel.  We read so much poetry--poems that are now my favorites, I read first in her class, and for many of them, it is her voice that I hear when I read them.  Browning's "My Last Duchess", Shelley's "Ozymandias".  We read Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" out loud in class every day for at least a week.  I don't know if we ever discussed it--I think we may have just let the words wash over us.

She gave kooky, but challenging assignments.  We made mobiles with symbols from King Lear.  We made a model reproduction of the house in Wuthering Heights.  My favorite was when we went to the art room (she was bosom buddies with the art teacher), and made something from clay to represent an idea from The Heart of Darkness.  I made two figures--Kurtz's fiancee, dressed in Victorian mourning, and the native woman, dressed in a tribal costume.  After the figures were fired, I tied them, back to back with a bit of twine.  How could this not have been a precursor to my dissertation work--images of femininity, gender binaries, dress, for goodness sake?

She made us feel special.  When I went home to visit my parents this weekend, I unlocked a trunk in my old bedroom that stores my "treasures."  I found the cigar box that she brought in for us to decorate.  Inside, among other paraphernalia of my teen years, were a sea-shell she had brought--she loved the beach (she had a lounge chair and inflatable palm trees in the back of her classroom) and brought her students smooth, heavy shells, to serve as worry-stones.  I carried mine in my pocket for years in college.  I found a post-card she had written me on spring break, writing about hearing Verdi's Othello, and how much she enjoyed having me in her class.  I found the small, framed quotation that she gave me as a graduation present: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."  "This made me think of you, Stephanie," she said, "because it is what you do."  I don't know if that is accurate, but it made me want to be someone who does it.  The frame came with me to college.  It is what I brought into my Freshman Experience class when we were asked to bring in something meaningful to us.

My students don't know it, but they are learning from my beloved teacher.  Every semester, from the readings, to the ideas, to the assignments, I am drawing on what I learned from her.  It seems impossible that she's not here.  That she's not growing her orchids, reading on a beach, or enlivening another generation of students.  Someday, I hope to see her in heaven; and I expect that we will have more than enough time to talk about every book we have read since we saw each other last.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Various and Sundry

 Easter dress shrug.  A bit small, but pretty.

 I really liked the design.  I thought it would be tricky, but it was actually the easiest lace pattern I have tried thus far.  I couldn't decide if the pattern looked like flames, trees, leaves, or peacock feathers.
 A bit of embroidery.  This was for my committee chair--the poppy motif seemed to suit her.
 I wasn't too sure about the frame at first--I was afraid it was a bit frilly, French country.  But I like it.  I took the glass out so it wouldn't smoosh the embroidery.
Flowers for Momma and my mother-in-law for Mother's Day.  Flower arranging is a lot harder than it looks!  Especially if you do something silly, like try to use a planter with a drainage hole as a vase.  As it turns out, I couldn't just tape it up and expect it to stay water-tight.  So I ended up using the ubiquitous Mason jar as the actual vase and packing plastic grocery bags around it to keep it from bumping the ceramic planter.  Classy, right?  Anyway, the flowers were pretty, coral and yellow striped tulips and light orange roses.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wham, Bam, Strawberry Jam

 Freezer jam is quite possibly the easiest thing in the world to make.  No kidding.  Making a sandwich involves more skill.
 First, I picked the berries.  I love the pick-your-own farm just up the road.  My bucket was so full that berries kept jumping out.  Back home, I sliced off the tops and hulled them.  Spread them on a baking sheet and mashed them with a potato masher until they are nice and pulpy.
 In another bowl, I mixed sugar and pectin, then mixed in the mashed berries.  This mixture gets poured into half-pint jelly jars, leaving a half-inch head space (the jam expands when it freezes).  Leave it for thirty minutes and then freeze or refrigerate.   That is it.  No fancy equipment, no boiling water--I didn't even turn the stove on. (Specific measurements are listed on the pectin container; I used Ball Instant Pectin).
 I gave a jar, along with a loaf of homemade Victorian Milk Bread, to my committee members as a thank you for helping with my dissertation.
We kept several jars for ourselves, and Jordan has been eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon.  I prefer mine on toast.  It is so delicious and tastes nothing like store-bought strawberry jam--it actually tastes like strawberries, even after it has been frozen.  We tried some last night on croissant bread pudding that I made with some very stale croissants: shazam.

Whole new possibilities have opened up: blueberry jam, blackberry jam, peach jam, quince jam.  Forget ice cream and frozen peas.  Our freezer will be stocked with jam!