[E]qual parts entertainer, shaman, motivational speaker and, as he liked to say, “holy fool.”
Brother Blue would think it sacrilegious foolishness for my 6th graders to sit quietly for his obituary, so we had some fun.
It taught us the word idiosyncratic, which I defined as a polite way of saying strange. I instructed them to imagine they were at a fancy party: “Go around and introduce yourselves to each other in an idiosyncratic way.” I’ll leave you to imagine what ensued.
His obituary also taught us persona, so students invented their own. My favorite was Too Face, created by a boy with a less than enthusiastic attitude to school. While invisibly munching on snacks and playing video games, his persona is outwardly scholarly.
We also wrote epitaphs for Brother Blue. This one seemed about right to me: “A Very Original Man.”
And now my teacher persona will make these observations about Brother Blue’s obituary:
- During World War II, Mr. Hill was in the Army, where he served in the European and Pacific theaters… For an example of why background knowledge is important for reading comprehension, consider how confusing this use of theater can be in a performer’s obituary.
- It mentioned his brother was mentally retarded, thus providing the opportunity for my speech “Retarded does not mean stupid, and retard should never be used as an insult.” Don’t like the year to go out without delivering that one.
- You see words pop up again and again in obituaries, and not necessarily the ones you’d expect. For example, both Brother Blue and Mark Fidrych were “gangly.” (Gangly is what we in the business call a Tier 3 word.)
- Persona is one of those words that’s learned so much more easily by example than by definition (e.g. Superman: Clark Kent; Marshall Mathers: Slim Shady; etc). I noticed the same thing when we read Samantha Sadd’s obituary: rarely have I seen a roomful of blanker faces than when I defined what an allegorical name was; rarely have I seen so rapid a shift to understanding than when I added, “You know, like: Hope. Destiny. April. Hunter. Rose…”
- In an obit full of good sentences, this was my favorite: His thesis, on prison storytelling, was performed with a 25-piece jazz orchestra.
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“Mr. Zakim started a black-Jewish Passover seder in the early 1980’s as relations between the two groups deteriorated. Six people showed up… This year, 650 attended.”
If you spend any time driving in Boston, you learn certain names by rote, e.g. Sumner, Callahan, Tobin, or Logan. But if you’re like me, you can’t identify these transportation namesakes without looking them up. (OK, fine, Ted Williams. But you see my point.)
I drive over the Zakim Bridge at least eight times a week. I hadn’t known for whom it was named until I received this suggestion: “Kids today should learn about Lenny.”
Zakim’s New York Times obituary describes a man who made a life of uniting people for good.
It offers the vocabulary words anti-Semitism, defamation, and bigotry; more happily, tolerance and reconciliation as well.
Middle school students learn about metaphors as literary devices. By reading Zakim’s obituary they see how this bridge is a fitting metaphorical, and literal, tribute.
One man “drove so far, from God knows where, just to tell me how she turned his life around… And he kept saying, ‘She got me to ski.'”
Samantha Sadd taught generations of children “about the city and beyond” with field trips, subway rides, and salad-making lessons. She led the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, which several of my students frequent.
Sadd was not the surname she was born with; she declined to offer explanations for the change. My students came up with their own theories, including this one, which I think is pretty good: “Maybe she wanted to take in all the sadness and give out happiness.”
They also came up with their own allegorical surnames, including this one, which I think is unimprovable: Nate Reflex.
Ms. Sadd’s Boston Globe obituary describes a remarkable and admirable woman, the sort for whom the designation “pillar of the community” is exactly suitable. This teacher also likes her obituary because it demonstrates why background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. For example, a 6th grader might understand each of the following words, yet risk alarmed confusion: “[S]he was a whiz at handicapping racehorses,” her sister said.
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It was rough becoming a Red Sox fan in the 1980s. I sought solace in literature, namely baseball biographies. That’s how I learned of Mark Fidrych.
Even to a child it was obvious that Fidrych was singular. But it was by reading posthumous tribute that I learned how much so: writer Paul Auster calls Fidrych “perhaps the most lovable person ever to play the game.”
If you don’t know much about him, read some of the pieces here (don’t neglect Joe McNally’s).
Fidrych’s pitching arm was prematurely damaged, but his graciousness and cheer remained unscathed:
“What I got out of baseball is what I have today, and I’ve got to look at that… I got a great life now,” he said, sitting in his living room. “I got a family, I got a house, I got a dog. I would like my career to have been longer, but you can’t look back. You have to look to the future.”
Carney Lansford, a former Red Sox third baseman (I can still recite the 1982 lineup) eulogized him well:
“I don’t think you’ll ever see someone like that come around again… He was just great for the game. That’s what the game needed, more guys like him.”
There isn’t a game around that doesn’t need more guys like Mark Fidrych.
“You be good,” said Alex. “I love you.”
Alex, who found a home at Brandeis University, also claimed a perch on some of the more exclusive real estate in print: the obituary page of the Economist. “Science’s best known parrot,” they called him. Today my 6th graders read another one of his many obituaries.
Lest this sound like a belated April Fools joke, let me assure you that Alex was a real, and indeed rare, bird. He had the intelligence of a (human) five-year-old and a vocabulary of over one hundred words. According to his Wikipedia entry, “[h]e was the first and only non-human animal to have ever asked an existential question.” His death at age thirty-one was especially tragic: the typical African Grey parrot’s lifespan is twice that.
We read Alex’s obituary on the final day of the new state English tests, which take 225 minutes over three days. I expect my students have his sympathy: “After repeating some learning trials dozens of times, Alex would become tired and throw objects off the trays with his beak.”
Kip Tiernan founded America’s first homeless shelter for women. She named it Rosie’s Place, believing everyone needs a rose.
Mary Moon Wilson taught my students maternal, Edward Walsh and Michael Kennedy taught us fraternal, and with Ms. Tiernan’s obituary we learned sorority. Her purview, however, was humanity: she also helped found the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission.
“The lives she saved were untold,” Mayor Tom Menino said.
Lieutenant Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy died fighting a fire in Boston on March 26, 2014.
Mr. Walsh was a devoted family man and youth athletics coach; Mr. Kennedy was an Iraq veteran and Big Brother mentor. Public service doesn’t just indicate their employment, it describes how they chose to live.
“Eddie lived more in 43 years than many of us will do in 80,” his sister said. Mr. Kennedy’s 33 years brim with life as well: “Michael never met a high school he couldn’t be expelled from,” according to his mother.
Today kids can pretend to drive firetrucks at a playground refurbished and renamed in their honor. It’s where Mr. Walsh brought his own children, and where Mr. Kennedy played as a child.
(Photo credits: Firemen’s Memorial – Hantsheroes; Lt. Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy Tot Lot – City of Boston)
“Well, why don’t we take in some of these girls and see if we can’t give them a better home and turn them around.”
Mary Moon Wilson founded and ran two group homes in Boston: one for runaway teenage girls, the other for mentally challenged adults.
According to her Boston Globe obituary, she “rescued and raised maybe 1,000 children.” One of them – using a literary device we learn, understatement – said: “They don’t make too many folks like Mary Wilson.”
The obituary offers the vocabulary commendation, maternal, and haven. And savvy, too, which Ms. Wilson demonstrates here:
She was able to get employment at the Pentagon as a cryptographer by inflating her resume, saying she was able to speak several different languages (knowing only the English language) but the interviewer did not ask her to speak any of the languages she claimed to know and eventually got the job.
Like Rockne and Wooden, he became legendary in his sport and something of a cult figure on campus.
He coached rowing at Harvard for over half a century. He had twenty-two unbeaten seasons, as well as multiple national titles and Olympic medals. Quite reasonably, Harry Parker’s New York Times obituary uses terms like “unparalleled” and “unrivaled success.”
Highlights of reading Coach Parker’s obituary in class included seeing our vocabulary word venerable for the second week in a row, and trying to ascertain what it takes to qualify as a cult figure.
Last Friday we read the obituary of Adolphous Bullock, the inspiration for Passed Made Present. Normally I have students list reasons the subject of an obituary merits one, but in this case, I tried something different.
Since we’re reading The Adventures of Ulysses, I asked them to explain what Mr. Bullock and Ulysses had in common. They both went to war, obviously; everyone got that. Many students said that both were venerable (much as I’d like to tell you this is how we go around talking, it’s one of our vocabulary words). Others noted that they both led by example, which is one of “Ulysses’ Rules.”*
One word we learned in Mr. Bullock’s obituary was mentor. Mentor was the name of the man who looked after Ulysses’ son, Telemachus, during the Trojan War.
*along with: Never anger a god; play chess, not checkers; mortals can’t change their fates; don’t have too much pride. (This plays off a rule list from Bud, Not Buddy, which they read last year. I’d say it’s a decent enough list for modern life, too.)
Yesterday we read the obituary of Phyllis Jen, a beloved family doctor who trained hundreds of future family doctors. She was also renowned for treating all of her patients with skill and warmth.
Given what we learned of her, I expect she wouldn’t mind at all that we had a bit of fun reading her obituary. It mentioned a sabbatical, which got us all talking about what we’d do if we could take sabbaticals. (Warm locations were prevalent among locales proposed, perhaps because snowdrifts are approaching students’ heights.)
Family doctors acquire an astonishing amount of knowledge, and work unbelievably hard to do so. To Dr. Jen and family doctors everywhere: Happy Valentine’s Day!
Facts we learned reading Sam Sapiel’s Boston Globe obituary:
- It was illegal for American Indians to enter Boston from 1675 to 2005
- Deer Island has an unhappy history
- Mr. Sapiel hit holes-in-one in 2001, 2002, and 2005. (NB he was born in 1931)
My dad used to work at the VA clinic on Court Street in downtown Boston. Sometimes on school vacations I’d meet him on his lunch hour and we’d go to the North End. This was pre-Big Dig, so you’d have to walk under the 93 overpass – be glad if you never saw it, it was as ugly as you’d imagine – and it was on these walks that I first remember seeing Sidewalk Sam’s work. It was beauty where you weren’t expecting any at all.
I’m in the habit of giving my students – with their permissions, of course – nicknames. These tend to be unoriginal and not overly inspired: Mad Max, Diamond Dave, Joltin’ Joe, Wild Bill, etc. But last month I received a faint ray of inspiration and proposed to one Sam that I preface his name with “Sidewalk.” Happily – or, at least, I was happy about it – he accepted.
I was saddened to learn this week of the original Sidewalk Sam’s passing. I was also saddened that I’d pretty much forgotten about him until my silly nickname habit reminded me. We’ll be paying tribute to Sidewalk Sam by reading his obituary next.
Rest in peace, sir, and thanks for bringing beauty to a city in need.