Monday, May 08, 2017

Mystic Chords of Memory: Teachers

I. Back then there was a marvelous history teacher named Ruth Cunningham Bishop. First we knew her as Ms. Cunningham, then as Dr. Bishop. She was always inspiring us to learn by employing a playful sense of things. I took as many classes with her as I could, learning a lot about the British Empire, World War I, China and “Contemporary Issues.”

Dr. Bishop was studying, it seems, British India and colonialism. She had lived in India and had many tales to relate. It’s because of her willingness to share some of her personal thoughts with us that her imparted wisdom stuck with me. More on these in a future post, no doubt.

As far as history and culture goes, Dr. Bishop explained the Indian origin of the word “thug” – “deceiver” in Hindi. These were organized crime groups that operated for centuries, from the 1200s well into the 1800s. Some were Muslims and some Hindu followers of the Goddess Kali, a whirlwind deity of chaos, destruction and, oddly, motherhood. Thugs enjoyed infiltrating and waylaying merchants and travelers with stealth and surprise. Dr. Bishop would occasionally sing a little ditty about Kali, based on a song composed in 1912 but sung by many vocalists ever since: “My Melancholy Baby.” A play on words ("My Melon-Kali Baby"), a way to get us to pay attention and to remember. Obviously this method worked, at least for me.
Of the crisis leading up to World War One, Dr. Bishop composed and sang a variation on the “Oscar Meyer Wiener song:”

I wish I were in Bosnia-Herzegovina,
That is where I truly wish to be
‘Cause if I controlled that Bosnia-Herzegovina
Everyone would be in love with me

(Sounds a lot like Vladimir Putin today, eh?)

Later, in her Chinese history class, when she came to the communist revolution, she had us learn all about “Mousey Tongue” – Mao-tse-tung, aka Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Which reminds me that Beijing used to be called, in the West, Peking. 

It’s no surprise in retrospect that Dr. Bishop came to operate a cabaret in Chapel Hill. We drove by there once, but weren’t old enough to be able to get in. The mystery of it remains intact.
II. Another teacher of a different sort (figuratively, not literally a teacher) was Mely. I asked her out. She was a year older than I was, a significant stretch for a teenager who hadn't even had a driver's license for long. It was agreed that I'd pick her up at her house, where she lived with her parents. I had to borrow my parents' Jeep Wagoneer for the outing. It was a rather comical date. 

Mely (Melisandre, an unusual name -- at least before Game of Thrones) lived in Duke Park, which was not very far from where I lived with my family on Gregson Street in Trinity Park, as these "districts" of Durham were called. Duke Park was even called North Durham, but when I look at a map now, they're only about a mile and a half apart. Still, Duke Park felt like an alien place to me, hidden in wooded, hilly terrain and slightly menacing. I didn't know the territory.

When I got to her house, Mely opened the door, but there, too, were her parents. Her father, Ed, had a gruff, scary presence. He was a big deal, a White House correspondent who had covered Nixon, and he'd been a pilot in World War II in the Asia Pacific, surviving terrible things. Luckily Betty, a literary critic and general columnist at the Durham Morning Herald (where Ed also worked), was nicer. Thanks to Ed, though, I was glad to get the hell out of there as fast as I could.

Mely suggested we go to a dive bar downtown off West Main, across Albemarle Street from the Ivy Room and the Cosmo Room. Soon we were chatting it up when an old African American man came by and began singing the Nat King Cole version of "Mona Lisa:"

"So like the lady with the mystic smile . . . 
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there and they die there . . ."

After this eerie little ditty, he left. The rest of the evening must remain shrouded in quietude, though for no particular reason. Maybe I've been watching too many classic Japanese films lately. 

That dive bar space is still there, but now it's called James Joyce Irish Pub. Passing strange, if you ask me.

Fast-forward eight or nine years. I finished college over in Chapel Hill and worked for a small publishing company that was eventually snapped up by a bigger one. Thanks to this turn of events, I applied for a job as library clerk at Perkins Library in Durham, at Duke University. And surprisingly, I was hired.

The very next person hired in the same capacity as a library clerk, in a different department, in the same library was -- perhaps you guessed it -- Mely. We officially begin working there on the very same day. 

That, my friends, is far more than passing strange. Kismet, synchronicity, what? 

I liked library work so much that I went back to Chapel Hill to get an MSLS, wrapping it up in a couple years with an internship at Duke, where I did preservation work on League of Nations documents that culminated in a display about the Great War and its aftermath. I can thank Dr. Bishop again for the head start on this kind of thing.

I'd worked about three years at Perkins, coming out as a library assistant and then a professional librarian. 

When I headed for London for another library internship and then Philadelphia for another graduate degree (surprise, in history), Mely, who had also been promoted to library assistant, was still at Perkins Library. But, for the final kicker, last I heard from former co-workers was that she also eventually moved out of state and then became a professional librarian herself! 

As Paul Simon put it in a 1986 song, "These are the days of miracle and wonder." They really are, pretty much always. Indeed, as the late great Chuck Berry phrased it back in 1964, "'C'est la vie,' say the old folks, 'it goes to show you never can tell.'"

Today's Rune: Strength. 


Charles Gramlich said...

A great post for Teacher's day. So important. the good ones anyway.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

What wonderful tales from your younger life! How lucky you were to have an inspiration teacher like Dr. Bishop. She obviously helped a great deal to spark your passion for history.
And as for your second story: who doesn't love a great coincidence?