As many of you know, Allegra has been making, distributing, and collecting surveys and responses since she was in the second grade. Now on break from her first term at college, she’s done it again.
Below are my responses to her latest set of questions. If you, too, would be willing to write up answers to these questions, she would be most delighted (and your words will one day end up in a well-organized three-ring binder!). Responses to the nine questions contained in this survey can be emailed to her: allegrapihlajaATgmail.com. Enjoy, and thank you!
What teacher in your life has made the biggest impact on you? How?
Lowell Gorseth was the teacher for Honors English my junior year of high school, and, like most of my peers in the classroom, I never got over him. We read good stuff in his class – not that I can recall, at this long reach, any titles specifically – and his was the first English class that asked me to research and integrate literary criticism into essays I wrote, which subsequently taught me how to look up and pay attention to the persnickety rules of citing sources and typing footnotes and a bibliography. When I think of Mr. Gorseth’s class, I remember being in the public library downtown, pulling volumes of criticism off a shelf located on the second floor at the top of a turning staircase. And I remember being in the library of what was then Eastern Montana College, again trying to find sources to use in essays for Mr. Gorseth. I didn’t really understand how to maximize my use of the outside sources, nor did I necessarily see how it was making my papers better to use other people’s words, but I was going to fulfill Mr. Gorseth’s criteria and pretend to be confident as I did it. Memorably, I wrote a paper about Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, pulling from lit crit to support my points; I can still feel the slow-motion swoon I went into as I discovered O’Neill and realized I was getting and loving something like “adult” writing. When I found that essay in a box in the basement a year or two ago, I was surprised when I re-read Mr. Gorseth’s comments. His feedback had an eyebrow raised, and his tone in those comments was almost brusque, certainly not impressed. For someone like me, tough feedback would usually be the thing I let dent my heart, yet somehow, when I think of writing that paper, all my memory has retained is how crazy I was for Eugene O’Neill and how much I adored writing about his play. That Mr. Gorseth’s comments didn’t lodge negatively into my psyche is perhaps the greatest testament to his ability as a teacher. He didn’t put on the shine when giving feedback to me, a notoriously sensitive weeper, yet my memory only stored how much I loved that writer, that assignment, that teacher.
So what was Mr. Gorseth’s magic? Well, he was funny. Also, he pulled a student desk to the front of the room and sat in it, on our level, during discussions – not standing to lecture or sitting behind the teacher desk. He did random accents, notably a German one. He made all the kids in the room feel like he saw them as people. His standards were high; pap would not pass. He had a recliner chair in the corner of his classroom, and nearly every day during my final two years of high school, I would get up at 5:30 a.m., apply too much baby blue eyeshadow, drive to the high school around 7-7:30 a.m. (getting there before most everyone else meant I didn’t have to experience the trauma of walking past the line of guys on Jock Rock who rated girls as they walked by), shuffle some books in my locker, and then plop myself into the safe haven of that recliner. My friends knew where to find me when they got to the school; there was certainly room for more than one rear end at a time in that chair. And always, there was Mr. Gorseth, floating in and out of the room as he prepped for his work day, smiling at me and my eyeshadow, asking questions, joking around. He even took it well when his students realized he looked eerily like cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and made xeroxes of the faces of Dahmer and Gorseth next to each other, hanging those xeroxes on lockers around the building.
As you well know, I became an English teacher. It would be precious of me to act as though I chose this career because of Lowell Gorseth, for I never distinctly wanted to be a teacher; it’s a profession I fell into because it seemed a way to use my love of reading and writing to earn a paycheck. However, there is this: in about my 9th or 10th year of teaching college English, I was asked to mentor a high school English teacher in my town because he would be teaching some college classes to high school students (Minnesota has a program that allows high school students to earn college credit). This high school teacher was named John Alberts, and when we first met and started learning about each other, I discovered his then-wife, Rhonda, had grown up in my hometown of Billings, Montana. Her maiden name had been Gorseth. Her dad, who had passed away a couple years previously from a brain tumor, had been named Lowell.
When I eventually met Rhonda, I burst into tears and dove for a hug. “Your dad was the teacher of my lifetime,” I sobbed. “He provided such brightness in those tangled teenage years. He helped me love literature and writing, and look at me now, teaching those things.”
Rhonda was crying, too. “I have met so many of my dad’s former students, and they always tell me how much he affected them – how he was their favorite teacher. He was just my dad, but I am constantly reminded that he was more than just my dad.”
What song is a lifetime favorite of yours, and why?
The idea of “lifetime favorite” makes me want to reach way back to childhood and find a song that has stuck with me for 40 or more years. Sure, there are many songs I have loved for a long time, like Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. And if we’re talking about a song that I have heard a million times yet never get tired of, well, I will go ahead – predictable as it may be – and tell you that “Purple Rain” has never failed to raise goosebumps on my arms. It remains powerful for me even on the thousandth spin. Another song I can play ten times in a row and then play again is “Within Your Reach” by The Replacements. Similarly, the joy of “Be Good” by the Hothouse Flowers has never dimmed.
But, okay, if it’s a lifetime favorite song, and I’m reaching back to childhood, my mind goes to tunes noodled out on the piano. There was “Nadia’s Theme,” which my sister and I desperately wanted to play well and which now causes me to stifle laughter when it fills the room during yoga class in this Russian-ish place of Belarus. As well, there was “Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills. But rather than choose a cheesy 1970s hit tune as my song of a lifetime, let’s try another.
When I was four years old, a baby grand piano was delivered to our house at 3030 Forsythia Boulevard. With Grandpa Don being a voice professor, the piano was an important tool for him to give private lessons to students. Plus, he and GramMax hoped we kids would learn to play.
Once the delivery men had oomphed that beast into the living room, my dad sat down on the bench and played a few notes. Nearby, I hovered. He patted a spot on the bench next to him, and after I clambered up, he taught me my first song on the piano. It used only three keys: C, D, E. There were words: “Here we go/In a row/To a birthday party.” That tune still runs through my head sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.
A few decades later, when a piano was deposited into our house and the work men left, you sat next to me on a bench, and I taught you that same song. C, D, E/C, D, E/D, C, D, E, C, C. And there we went, to a birthday party.
Do you have a go-to question or story to use when there is a lull in conversation?
Jeezus. You know I have about a hundred. This is tough. Okay, my favorite such question, because it always yields a good twenty minutes of response — longer if I can work in follow-up questions – and because it always ripens the connection between everyone at the table, is this: “Tell me your life story, starting with ‘I was born . . . ‘.”
Can you identify a turning point in your life? What happened?
When I was 31, I was dumped in a way that shattered me completely. I was sure I’d never find love or have kids. Then Cousin Kurt messaged me and told me about a guy he worked with, asking if he could serve as my “agent in the field.” Without much hope, I shrugged and said sure.
In a couple months, it’ll be 20 years since I clapped eyes on your dad for the first time. His intelligence, steadiness, appreciation for who I am, and ability to live without resentment changed my everything.
What is your favorite word in a language that is not your native language? Why?
which is the Russian word for “sea buckthorn.” Sea buckthorn is HUGE in Belarus; there are juices, teas, lotions, chapsticks, oils, and on and on. In the last few days, due to a tip from Alana, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant here in Belarus, I have been rubbing sea buckthorn oil on my face in the hopes that it makes me look young enough to be wearing baby blue eyeshadow in Lowell Gorseth’s class again.
Certainly, I love this word because I love the stuff made from it, but also: I love this word because it’s so fun to say “abla-pika,” which I am able to remember because the first half sounds like the Turkish word for “sister” and is commonly used on the streets to address strangers, and the second half sounds like the first part of “Pikachu,” which reminds me of Paco when he was younger and was into Pokemon. When I first came up with this pneumonic device, another ETA, Leslie, gave me the tip to soften the pronunciation of the “k” so that it’s almost an “h” sound. She gave me this tip at her kitchen table shortly after she’d crushed berries into hot water for the two of you to sip as evening tea.
Thus, whenever I say this word, I think of Turkey, and I think of Paco, and I think of how much the four ETAs here in Belarus and I have gone crazy for all things sea buckthorn (with Kate messaging about how the oil is “the perfect blend of good fats” and Liz giddily reporting she bought a heap of berries at the market), and I think about how you, dear Leggy, immediately tapped into the craze for it and loaded up with shampoo and conditioner and lip balm when we visited the Soviet-era department store, GUM.
When I think about the word
I think about all my many families, in all their many forms, and then I am full of wonder at this life I’ve lived, and that’s some powerful stuff right there.
What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?
In college, I would sometimes head out for class, get halfway there, be possessed by a feeling of “Nah, not feeling it,” and turn around to head back to the dorm. In other words, my every day for 51 years has been ruled by spontaneity, so this might be an impossible question for me to answer. I hate plans. I hate having to be somewhere at a certain time. I hate expectations. Spontaneity feels much more natural and right. That’s why your dad knows that if I’m not home around the anticipated time, it’s not that I’m in distress but, rather, than I decided to turn left instead of go straight, and like as not, I’m having a chai latte with someone I’ve only talked to twice before.
I do want to give you a real answer, though. Let’s go with this: last time I had a sabbatical, and we’d been working for months to hammer together a plan for living abroad, with possibility after possibility falling through, there came a moment when my husband’s father’s boss’ daughter said, “Hey, you should come to Turkey for a year,” and without too much thought, your dad and I looked at each other and agreed, “Hey, yeah, we should go to Turkey for a year.”
Following that impulse provided us with a seminal experience for our entire family. Not a day goes by, still, when we don’t feel the effects of that spontaneous choice.
Add this to your Journal of Maternal Wisdom: “Don’t plan your way out of potential adventure.”
What is your favorite sound?
The quiet whoosh of a page being turned.
What is your ultimate dream vacation? Who would it be with and what would you do?
We had just such a vacation when we went to Çirali on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Our year in Cappadocia was so rich, so lonely, so amazing, so taxing, as were our various travels around the country, with us trying to wrap our heads around “What even is this place?” When we headed into Çirali, we had no idea that a one-road town next to sparkling water was exactly what each of us needed. Dad needed a break from three cups of tea with guys he couldn’t talk to every time he went to re-up our bottled water order. I needed a break from the village ladies sitting on the curb eyeballing me whenever I went out for a run. You needed a break from crying through math homework during homeschooling. Paco needed a break from every part of regular Turkish life – since his seven-year-old self had decided the first day he hated the place. Those days floating in the waters of the Mediterranean, exploring the ruins of Olympus in our still-wet suits, eating gozleme with lemon and powdered sugar…well, they were my dream vacation. I just needed you three and a departure from the regular. That was all.
If you could become an expert in a specific area of something, what area would you choose and why?
I’d like to be a really, really good writer, but getting there is a life’s work; these days, I’m galumphing around the hinterlands of Good Writing, trying to tame my gait. As someone who gets weak-kneed in the presence of a well-wrought sentence, my smaller goal is to write the occasional fine sentence. That’s some hard work – because it’s not just about the words and how they’re ordered but, rather, about the thinking distilled within them. So let’s put a finer point on this: I’d like to become an expert thinker and figure out how to convey that through vocabulary and syntax.
Alternately, it would be cool to master some craft where there’s a physical result that can be displayed. All my best life gifts are “soft” and not so easily seen – “comfortable with public crying” doesn’t make for a gallery show – and so I might enjoy the feeling of making a thing, a physical thing, really well. Maybe I can become a master weaver who makes her first kilim at age 60.
Or maybe I could bang out a badass butter churn.
For a third alternative, because you didn’t give me a word limit, there’s this: I would love to be an amazing dancer, the kind who is crazily talented and attuned to how the finer nuances – a shoulder pushed an inch higher, an arm flinging left while the foot steals right – create greatness. This can happen in any genre, but since I’ve been obsessing over the dancing of Comfort Fedoke on Instagram the past few days, let’s go with the kind of freestyle street dancing she does. Fedoke is a back-up dancer for Missy Elliott, but she’s also able to make her feet write in cursive along the line of a shadow and tell a tall tale with steps that describe new spaces inside a crew battle circle.
Yeah, let me be a Comfort.