Thank You, Mr. Pryor: An Apology, An Appreciation

J. Allan Pryor’s Life Legacy

For all the tributes I share on FB, most are for celebrated or noteworthy people in public life, whether an actor of yesteryear or an actor gone too soon or a beloved astronaut, etc. These are people who made an impact on my life one way or another…whether nostalgic memories or of historic importance.

This tribute is for a gentleman who is noteworthy to thousands of students he taught, of which I was one and is worthy of a blog entry dedicated in his memory. He made an impact on my life in ways he probably wasn’t aware of and I regret to this day, now that it’s too late, that I never thanked him for. And nor did I apologize for behavior I am not proud of looking back on. In fact, I have not been proud of myself for a long time now and which I have known for years I should have asked forgiveness.

J. Allan Pryor’s obituary notes him as a teacher first…”teacher, advisor, friend, beloved uncle and brother…” Mr. Pryor taught seminar style around a large table (or two pushed together?) in a room off the Library.

Believe it or not, I was a very shy insecure HS Student, especially after returning Junior year having missed the latter 2/3rd of Sophomore year to first hellish Spinal Surgery. I was accepted into Junior’s Advanced English Class only after my 10th Grade Teacher/home tutor – the lovely Mrs. Levy who made delicious brownies – “recommended” me to the teacher. For all of Junior Year I never felt as though I belonged (another story for another time). So when it came time to apply for AP English, I was nervous but knew at least I would have to go through the same process…essay writing and an “interview” (I think though can’t exactly remember). And there were fewer slots available. Not everyone from our 11th Grade class would move on. My only hang up was that I knew Mrs. Levy and Mr. Pryor were close colleagues. I truly wanted to be accepted on my merit. Long story a bit shorter, I was accepted into AP English …a class of Classics and European Readings mostly, taught College style. Several of my friends, girls of course as I had barely talked to the boys since 7th grade, were in the class, too, so I felt “safe” as long as I would sit next to them. Didn’t always work out that way naturally.

Senior Year had barely started when I intuitively knew Mr. Pryor liked me …admired me. I was a wee one when I first detected these types of reactions from people. This kind of – what seemed to me – unearned admiration was not welcomed. I’ve always wanted to be liked for my intelligence, my caring, my humor (as lame as it is sometimes), my writing, and my outreach.

Now comes the hard part …I took advantage of Mr. Pryor’s good will. I’d turn in papers late several times. And I’d never be penalized (not that I can remember which is why I’ve always felt guilty). In all the 30+ years since, I was and am embarrassed that I never apologized. Had looked forward to him coming to our HS Reunion in Oct. 2015 thinking I’d finally do what was right. Sadly, Mr. Pryor wasn’t feeling well enough that day to come in the evening and sent his regrets. We always think there will be another opportunity to say what we know needs to be said. One would think I finally learned the painful truth the last time I spoke to my Dad on the day he died, leaving the most important statement unspoken. There is no excuse for not picking up the phone save sheer cowardice and shame.

With the long overdue apology comes appreciation that has grown with each passing decade…never more so than when I watch Jeopardy and Franz Kafka/The Metamorphosis is favorite question to clues every few months. As much as I am happy I know the question, I still cringe as that story has haunted me (the reason why is for another time) from our reading of it for an overnight assignment. And possibly one of the best Pop Quizzes ever was Mr. Pryor having us “draw” main character Gregor after he wakes up. A teacher would certainly know immediately if any student had not done the homework. All the other works we read come to mind during countless Jeopardy clues, too!

There were many more memorable plays and books we read Senior year. And though I never knew why (another reason I should have made contact), Mr. Pryor inexplicably chose me to read one of the most famous soliloquies in all of literature…Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” Me of the shrill squeaky voice who practically never raised her short hand to answer a question. There were a few guys in our class with wonderfully expressive voices. And not to be sexist, I can think of a couple of girls who would have been great, too. I can’t imagine what my classmates thought. I knew I was horrified and practiced all that winter weekend, the cadence, the pronunciations, the inflections… What was he thinking? And now all these years later, I’m a public speaker. Can’t say that was precisely the beginning but perhaps Mr. Pryor saw something inside of me I was too insecure to at the time. Isn’t that what a great teacher is…one who sees what a student can’t see of oneself? I wish I knew if he knew what I’ve been doing with my presentations.

Another lasting lesson I learned the hard way was how to read peers’ work and offer comments. Simple “this is good writing” notes would not suffice. We were graded in part on our “critical review” of each other’s assignments. Yea, that was fun – Not! Unsurprisingly, I nearly always picked my friends’ papers – the girls! Until one day myself and another student were directed to the cafeteria to read one another’s papers (I think on Zorba the Greek – nearly 50 year old brain cells have been lost) since we had both turned in our assignments late and had not been in the binder left in the Library for classmates’ comments. Yep, the other student was one of the guys…one of the good guys, one of the cute guys. I enjoyed what ever book we had read and though I didn’t think my paper was all that, I did guess it was likely better than the one I was tasked to read. How could I write comments on a paper that wasn’t very good? And of a cute guy sitting across the table from me…one I barely said two words to ever. As I wrote above, he was one of the good guys and at one point he piped up, admitting his paper wasn’t great and I shouldn’t feel bad for being “critical” — a gallant gent letting me off another mortifying hook.

Madame Bovary proved to be a revelatory read as I actually had comments in response to Mr. Pryor’s questions – only as usual I’d whisper them to whichever friend I was sitting next to. This one friend this one time I caught began to yawn and stretch her hands as Mr. Pryor called my name. Seemed that M was pointing down at me…curse of being much shorter than everyone else. No one would ever admit how many times this had occurred previously but I then learned not to whisper anymore!

Back in the day, early in the school term, Seniors were assigned to write an autobiographical essay. I think (who knows – my timeline may be mixed up) this was to help us with our college essays. As usual, I procrastinated and struggled with what to write. There was the obvious topic but I tried to stray as much as possible. I wrote first of my Grandparents and eventually got around to the obvious. I was truthful no doubt about the pain, but I also ended the paper on an optimistic tone as I do believe that is what keeps me going. And I actually handed that paper in on time! I was, however, absent when graded papers were returned. Dear Mr. Pryor had suggested that classmates ask me to read it. Those assigned personal essays had not been left in the library binder for comments. I didn’t know until the next day when I sat down and another classmate – and a guy even — asked me to read my paper. I was very confused till somebody explained later. Oh the embarrassment once again…what did my classmates think…that I was the teacher’s pet? And this could be why I began to “test” Mr. Pryor’s good will…I wanted him to get frustrated with me. Probably didn’t help either that Senioritis set in early after being accepted to college in December. Yet I never succeeded because J. Allan Pryor was a generous soul…one I didn’t fully appreciate then.

Besides the serious topics of AP English, we also had fun. Mr. Pryor gave our class permission to celebrate Birthdays! My 17th Birthday came in October on a Monday and I was extremely grumpy that morning because no one had wished me a HB yet. Second period I came into our classroom and actually slammed my books on the table, a rare display for me at the time. Truthfully, not sure anyone noticed. Wasn’t long, though, before Sarah, Lisa and others brought out the baked Birthday goodies, singing along. Needless to say, I was delighted even if embarrassed while a year long tradition was started. Somehow it was always us girls who brought the snacks and desserts until Mr. Pryor shamed the guys. Last day of Senior Year, the guys went all out with fancy foods (with some help from Moms and Grandmothers), drink, and a coffee urn. What a feast we had to end a terrific year with each other.

AP English with Mr. Pryor was a highlight of my Senior Year at BHHS even as I didn’t fully embrace it till too late. The lessons I learned those months from a passionate teacher whether from literature or of life are timeless. I can only hope hundreds of other students thanked him enough so he knew what a great force he was at Byram Hills. And somehow I hope the indirect messages sent to him with the apology he was due from me were received. Even if they were, the message of thanks were not, save now here …where I believe he can still see what is being written, I pray.

Mr. Pryor, thank you for being one of BH’s beloved Teachers …you had quirks for sure and a wicked sense of humor, with a great intellect and a gentleness that could help the hardest to reach students. Don’t worry, I won’t include here that last question I asked you in the main office on final day of Senior Year when some had arranged a Hawaiian theme complete with plastic leis. I think I finally did shock him with my tongue in cheek potty mouth. Thank you for being one of my biggest fans when I didn’t deserve it. And thank you for pushing me out of my comfort zones (several times!). You were a teacher in the best sense, teacher and advisor. My condolences to your loving family and friends and to all the students who made the extra efforts to exchange correspondence with you these many years. You were a treasure here on earth. Enjoy reunions with all the former BH teachers gone …some long ago, others more recently. Please give my regards to Mrs. Levy if possible as I owe her an apology as well. Enjoy all the spiritual reunions with loved ones and happy encounters with any you may wish to discuss why this or that with!
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“I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize – sometimes with astonishment – how happy we had been.”
Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Musings on Birthday #49

Since Sunday, I have shared a slew of Baby Pictures on my personal FB account. The Baby Pictures only begin at approximately 12 months though. I’ve definitely been looking back at a time I don’t remember. I’ve also been reflective as my 49th Birthday approaches Saturday. Some friends who I adore believe in the idea of a month long celebration!! Being a middle aged single woman sans partner of any kind, being motherless and currently being more housebound than not means I don’t have lots of ways to celebrate for long, let alone a month, but I will admit I DO LOOK FORWARD to my Birthday each year.

Quite a while ago, a person commented that Birthdays really aren’t that important – and she doesn’t care much when they roll around… the underlying message being that I was too old to want a big deal made of my special day. This person also demeaned me and a dear friend who came to share in my grief when my Mom died last year, sneering when knowing we were sharing a King size bed in the hotel.

Yes, I do look forward to October 22nd each year – though the day comes with sad thoughts and lingering questions that will trouble me to my end of days. I was born unbelievably at 5:15 AM (never again would I arrive anywhere so early!) at White Plains Hospital to an Italian couple. I will likely never know if I was ever held by either the man or woman – or if only by the delivery doctor and nurses and later nursery staff. I’ll never know if there were any tears of joy (doubtful) but rather tears of shame or dare I wonder, horror. Logically and intellectually, I can understand the fear and disappointment of the couple who had already lost a baby daughter a few years earlier to the same genetic condition. That baby died within a few days. For whatever reason unexplained, my internal health was sturdier if not my skeleton make up. Diastrophic Dwarfism (as I first remember the condition being called) or Dysplasia is a recessive hereditary condition so both haywire genes were present from the egg and sperm in the embryo that resulted in me. Having taken Anatomy and Physiology some time ago now for my MS Ed/CTRS requirements I was amazed how the slightest change can result in either life threatening illness and/or body malformation, even something as seemingly minute as a missing protein.

Many people know by this blog and website that I give school presentations and give older students an overview of my life story including details of being given up by my biological parents. Thankfully, I was given the chance to live out in society rather than an institution as was the usual decision through the end of the 1960s. And despite an handwritten note of instruction “No Pictures to be taken of this Baby” put atop my Hospital records (copies received when in my mid 20s), Department of Social Services workers decided to put my picture in the local county newspaper seeking a family. The family decided upon was the Marianos, then of Bronxville, NY – Doris and Bill with their daughters Joanne, Beth and Andrea.

Sadly, I lost both my Mom and Dad in 2015 so my main story tellers are silenced forever but I have memories of the stories told to me and pictures that accompany the story. An official family portrait and individual baby pictures were taken soon after my arrival. And there would be many more pictures over the years. What a gift of acceptance and love.

Ironically, I developed a love/hate relationship with pictures. After my cute baby days were over and I entered the awkward teen years and adolescence doubts took hold, I really did believe I was a freak. I so wanted people to want to take my picture and then when they did, I would pick apart each photo to decide if I looked weird or not. I’m particularly sensitive to anything shown below the waist. Last year was my HS Class of 1985’s 30th Reunion. Though not pleased I was confined to a wheelchair and slouching back, I nonetheless decided to glam up as much as possible and was thrilled when friends/classmates wanted to take pictures. Ridiculously, I still remember there were no candid photos of me in our Senior yearbook. Of course I was never a cheerleader or played on sports or part of the popular cliques but I still wonder why I didn’t rate one candid back then and chalk it up to my not being pretty enough.

Once during a summer camp week away, fellow campers convinced two sweet boys with developmental disabilities from Long Island that I was cute and interested in them; the message being that only those with diminished capabilities would be interested in me. I never told anyone about that until a year or so ago, but the humiliation has always stayed with me. That and women whose sons I “crushed” on would subtly tell me that girlfriend or wife material I would never be…messages I can never shake though I desperately wish I could.

Now back to my Birthday …the big 49! 49 is big, one might ask? Well considering I have vivid memories of wondering if I’d make it to 50, yes, 49 does seem to be a milestone. A few times over the years I asked a couple of doctors, two women actually (maybe I felt safer asking the tough question with them), what my life expectancy was. Both times the responses were “Don’t really know.” Yet, doctors have looked after me and have done what’s needed to prolong my life. During 10th Grade, I underwent a tremendously difficult spinal operation that left me in a body cast for 6 months and cut short my Sophomore year. The reason given was that my spinal curvature was increasing and would “crush” my heart. In 1992, a C3-C4 degenerated disk was removed before it could slip and slice through my spinal cord. In 2015, there were two more arduous and complicating spinal surgeries to allow continued breathing and hopefully a return to mobility. 50 doesn’t seem to be much of a question mark anymore though my other questions of whether I’d still be scooting and doing acrobatic leaps on/off the Throne and over the tub wall are more or less answered.

The weeklong retrospective back to baby pictures day has helped me realize how far I have come. I may not be so adorable anymore (really what 49 year old respectable woman wants to be cute?) but dang, when I try …I can be pretty and even sexy! Happy Birthday to me!

After 20 Years, Still No Makeovers Possible

Sometimes coincidences are too glaring to take lightly or to dismiss an opportunity not taken once before in almost a nod to Rip Van Winkle …an opportunity to share a lasting message about self-worth and image.

This 2014 winter in the north east had been cold and snowy and it reminded me greatly of a similar winter in 1994 where it uncannily snowed every Wednesday.  If it was Wednesday there was invariably a 2 hour school delay or a full snow day.  Likely I would have ordered a few lunch specials from the local Chinese restaurant which never turned down a request for delivery.  Then I was housesitting for a church family and was mostly “stuck” in the house, cozy as it was, because I simply couldn’t go out in the snow and ice, and I wasn’t working.

Fast forward to 2014 and we had almost the same winter and snow patterns although the day of week differed as to when schools were delayed or closed.  All these years later I have the added benefit of technology and social media to keep me entertained; I scrolled daily through Facebook updates and could not help but be confronted with endless posts about The Today Show anchors, specifically the female ones, being brave about going make up free on air.  I found my hackles being raised the same way one feels the hair tingle on one’s arm in an alarming way that reminded me of 20 years ago.  I dug out my “never-did-anything-with-these-writings folder and found the following letter I wrote to Oprah Winfrey on February 21, 1994 with intent to send this essay written the summer before at a writing workshop:

“HOW TO LOOK LIKE A COSMO GIRL.”

– click –

“SIX SISTERS OUT TO MAKE A CHANGE LATER TODAY ON DONAHUE.”

IT’S A BEAUTY MAKEOVER

– click –

“WANT TO LOOK LIKE A MILLION WITH NEW CLOTHES? WATCH OUR SPECIAL

REPORT.”

– click –

“TIRED OF THE SAME OLD YOU? WANT A CHANGE? SEE WHAT THREE WOMEN

DID. WATCH OPRAH THIS AFTERNOON.”

CLICK OFF!

 One reading today perhaps would ask “Who’s Donahue?” but Miss Winfrey would still be known and I believe Cosmo, as in Cosmopolitan, is still a go-to in print magazine for all things women’s issues – focused mostly on fashion and beauty.  Yet isn’t it a shame that the same topic aggravates me?  That this is still an issue and subject of morning talk show segments and countless magazine articles, both on line and off?

With the age of social media and new tech advances, beauty can be very easily distorted with body sculpting tricks or facial enhancements.  20 years may have passed since my original essay but the topic remains basically the same …how does Society define beauty and is its mainstream definition false?

More from the never-seen-the-light-of-printed-anything now dog-eared, stained essay:

 I try very hard not to let myself fall into the quicksand pit of self-doubt and increasing self-consciousness over not being able to measure up to the impossible standards society and commercialism set.  I would love so very much to be “made over”.

But my mistakes aren’t solely those of the wrong color eye shadow, poor fashion sense or an unflattering hair cut (although I have also erred in those areas). My “mistakes” are more complicated and they can’t be fixed.

Using the medical lingo of my doctors, I was born with physical deformities of the upper and lower extremities, that is, of the arms and legs. The official medical diagnosis is “Diastrophic Dwarfism”. My abnormally developed legs, feet, arms and hands are attached to an otherwise normal looking torso. But, I lack proportion. Reaching out in a curve, my arms and hands together measure approximately 11.  My fingers are short, stub-like and are unable to curl into a fist. My legs and feet together are shorter than two feet and are not rigid enough to support my 75 pound body for walking or standing.  I do walk however, with the aid of straight, unbending prosthetics that fit over my own legs, like casts. With my “legs” on, I stand approximately 4’6″. With the “legs” off I sit on the floor, no taller than 3 feet, and look similar to an oversized baby who scoots to move about.

Being masochistic, I watch these talk shows that show beauty fashion, exercise, etc., make-overs. The producers always find an average, everyday housewife, or a typical career woman who isn’t quite “hip”. In less than an hour, the chosen woman has a new hair-do, new clothes, and new make-up. The audience then “oohs” and “ahs” and claps over the transformation, the “after” after the “before”. If it were only so easy.

(Oh and for truthfulness’ sake, I am no longer 75 pounds)

I generally don’t watch morning shows anymore but every now and again, and against my better judgment, I watch KLG and Hoda’s Ambush Plaza Makeovers on Thursdays.  And just the term makeover is disconcerting …make over …as if something is inherently wrong with what already is … and that which cannot be changed … no liposuction, no facelift, no anything save perhaps the longed for but still unavailable 1970s TV fantasy of bionic legs and arms.

Now, while I know that blog posts are not supposed to be advertisements for any brand I do appreciate the message of one body care line’s campaign for “real beauty” as well as a German department store’s use of mannequins modeled after real people with varying kinds of body conditions/disabilities. I also applaud a college classmate Cynthia Wade’s recent short documentary entitled “Selfie” debuted at Sundance Film Festival to challenge teen girls and their mothers self image beliefs.  (Of all ironies, I cannot take selfies myself because my short arms can’t reach out far enough to hold and snap a picture with a hand-held phone or iPad camera.)

Too late now for regrets but I wish I had been brave enough to send the excerpted letter to Miss Winfrey on February 21st, 1994 when I typed it:

Sometimes, it may be hard to believe, but I forget that I’m different…but at other times, usually in social situations I’m all too painfully aware at how different I look.  I wish I could be beautiful and turn the head of a man.  I wish that people would expect that I would have a boyfriend or a husband someday, not that it’s out of the realm of possibility. 

2014 Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o was chosen as People’s Most Beautiful Woman for this year …a nod that beauty can come in all nationalities.  Also, in reading her bio, Nyong’o wrote, produced and directed a documentary about the treatment of albinos in her family’s homeland of Kenya – another group that is targeted for ridicule for a DNA malfunction beyond personal control.  Miss Nyong’o’s mother’s message to her that she was beautiful was a gift and should be a message all young girls receive worldwide.

Twenty years later and I do believe, society’s attitudes towards differences – whether appearances, race, and disabilities are changing if slowly though.  And I don’t believe notes like the one in my hospital birth records stating “No pictures to be taken of this baby” would happen anymore …I hope not anyway.  My biological parents apparently could not handle a non-looking “normal” baby though I had the usual requisite 10 fingers and 10 toes.

Women and girls especially around the world are subject to discrimination based on simply their second X chromosome (China’s society’s high value on sons for example) but add any kind of difference and much hardship can follow.

Can Social Media help change the persisting “definitions” of mainstream beauty of a size 4 body, light skin or long flowing hair?

Can words and experiences like mine also help?  I hope so.