The Art of being self-conscious

At a very early age I learned to be self-conscious, or should I say that I was, perhaps, genetically predisposed to it.  As an educator I have been able to help many a student in a similar predicament.  I have always felt something special for the individual who is a victim of himself/herself and doesn’t know how to proceed.  At the current time, I am tutoring several individuals, both of whom are having a tough time participating in class because of feelings of inadequacy and shyness.  These are things I have known most of my life.  Deep down, I knew that this was a false sense, but on the surface they were omnipresent and somewhat paralyzing at times.

As Cyrano de Bergerac said, my nose precedes me into a room.  That has been the main source of my self-consciousness from a very early age.  Add to that that I was always uncoordinated, a late bloomer, and I skipped a portion of second grade.  I was also relatively bright, if I may say so, and kind of stuck out just from that. 

The nose thing is something that has taken a lifetime to deal with.  In my youth, I was “Pinocchio” and I must say that my treatment from others was somewhat scarring, to say the least.  The daughter of the local funeral parlor was one of my many tormentors, she being probably the most notable.  I am guessing that the fact that she was rather homely in looks and had acne that actually begged for medical help (more than my proboscis!), might have been the reason why she lashed out at me.  In any case, people didn’t have to know how Gloria treated me to come up with the appellation of Pinocchio for me.

Not growing into my 5’10” body until much later didn’t help on the bullying scene.  When I moved to the suburbs at the age of seven or so I found the treatment I received reprehensible and it was in a Catholic School!  The awful treatment on the playground was a daily occurrence and so many of us were knocked down incessantly by others.

In elementary school I began to be almost physically ill the night before my physical education class.  The scene of being pushed around and last chosen made me aware of the little actual supervision and guidance being provided by the educators and truly was a big factor in my wanting to be a teacher.  I thought that perhaps I could make a difference.  This treatment in PE class gave me a real disdain for organized sports which, in our society is a real problem for a guy because so much “small talk” among men is base on this.  Somehow, I have managed to get around this.  More often than not in the past, I would just automatically agree and/or just try to “fake” the conversation. 

College was a great equalizer and the “nose” thing was less of an issue.  I have to say that I always toyed around with the idea of rhinoplasty but as I aged it became less and less of an issue.  This is not to say that I forgot about it, I just put it more into perspective.  I did say to my wife when we married that I would offer it to my children as I think that despite the idea that the concept is wrong, it is reasonable to try and spare human beings the experiences I had had.

My shyness was always an issue and was certainly related to my nasal issues.  I never liked being shy.  As I grew older it was more of reserved than shy.  At parties, my wife always noticed that it was not the easiest thing for me and sometimes I came off as being snobby or above it all. As time went on, this also got easier.

I have often told my shy students that I forced myself to deal with the issue of shyness by becoming an educator.  Not only an educator, but a language teacher!  A language teacher is tested each time the mouth is opened.  Speaking another language is massive risk taking.  I took that one step further and despite my reputation for being shy and retiring, I decided to go to France and live with a family for a whole year.  My mom actually told me she didn’t think I could do it.  I have to say, when your parent doesn’t believe in you, you are up the creek without a paddle.  I decided and did prove her wrong.

Teaching saved me in all areas.  I have to admit that as the years have gone by I have seen the looks when my students have looked at my face.  I have heard the comments.  One thing I also know is that students will notice anything that is out of place and/or different.  The teacher has to have a strong sense of self and not take anything too personally.  I learned to deal with my issues.  My shyness was something that I had to work on since I was at a school where we were expected, on a daily basis, to perform.  We would perform in the classroom, perform in front of colleagues, and perform in front of community members.  I taught at a school notorious for correcting memos, you would get them back with corrections in red!  Luckily I never received one of those since I was so paranoid about getting one that I made sure to proof everything before sending it off.

Getting in better shape and helped immensely as well and then it has the benefits of being physically good for you!

Aging puts everything into perspective.  Maybe aging is the wrong term, maybe it is just growing up!  I only wish I had grown up sooner.

Swimming with professionals


Since the birth of my third born, I have tried to stay in shape.  I have had my moments where I have been really good and others where I have fallen flat.  When I was working on my second Master’s degree, actually called a CAS (Certificate of Advanced Studies), I really fell off the track. Before my pretirement from teaching in 2007, I decided to get back on the track, lose some weight and get in better shape.  I haven’t managed to get where I would like to but I am doing pretty well.  In spite of the fact that I have always been a self-proclaimed “sports reject,” I am actually in better shape than fellow family members, who shall remain nameless, who are sports freaks.

I have only belonged to a formal gym experience twice in my life; the first time was when my community Park District opened up a “Fitness Center” located in the golf course clubhouse.  That was right after the birth of my third.  That was great but didn’t last long, it ended up closing.  Subsequent to that, I was lucky to avail myself of the facilities for the staff at New Trier High School.  It was a very high quality situation and was very convenient.  I would often get to school early (don’t know why I say this since I never ever did anything but that) and head down to the gym before heading into the classroom. 

When not belonging to a gym I exercised by riding my bike, using the wonderful Concept 2 rowing machine (which I had first enjoyed in the school gym), or just walked fast in the neighborhood.

At my last job, I read info about how they were going to give us money to use to join a gym.  I did and subsequently found out that it was just talk, not actually in the reality stage.  It was a great excuse to join anyway so I paid out of pocket and have been there ever since.  It is a great situation, owned by the Park District, was the high quality gym where the Chicago Bulls practiced before the opening of the current Berto Center found in my town, and they have everything imaginable in what I consider to be a country club atmosphere (good thing for that since that is the only way I shall get into a country club).

Anyway, today I hit the gym very early to swim, as I like to do every other time I work out.  I have to qualify this because I do swim but have never been formally trained.  I am a sports reject, as a kid I was always the most uncoordinated kid and the last guy ever picked in gym class to be on a team.  Nonetheless, I enjoy being in the water and I like the feeling after a good workout.

I always check out the pool as I am signing in at the gym, to make sure that there are lanes open.  The pool is adjacent to the main desk, so that is easy to do.  Today I did just that, noticed that although it wasn’t 9:00 am yet, the lanes were full, but thought that I would try to get out of my mold, the old Rich would have gone to the main gym and worked out instead.  So I went to the pool and took my chances.

I really enjoy being in the lane alone, part of it is because of my unique, untrained stroke that I do.  I do a rendition of the breast stroke but generally keep my face out of the water.  I know it is odd, but it is decidedly comfortable for me.  Because of the wide breast stroke that I do, I really like the lane to myself.  Call me selfish, but I enjoy hogging the lane.  More often than not, if all the lanes are taken and I am in one of them, someone will ask to share with me.  I always say yes, idiot that I am.  It works out for the most part but there have been a few times where I have had to deal with being kicked, slapped,  and even nudged, while swimming.

Today since all the lanes were taken, I really was getting out of my shell, something my father’s friend Bill Kasper told me to do oh so many years ago.  He was right, but frankly, that man always scared the hell out of me.  Anyway, there I was, on the sidelines, and about to ask someone if I could share a lane when one of the guys got out of a shared lane and I decided to just take his place, not needing to even ask.  It was an okay experience, but when you are an unprofessional, as am I, it can be intimidating sharing the lane with Olympic wannabes!  Today was pretty funny, because the professional breast stroker I was swimming with actually jumped lanes the minute he could.  I was kind of proud of myself, because I am usually the one in that position.

I haven’t mentioned that there is a bit of a stubborn streak to me.  Would you believe that one of the major events in our children’s lives was learning to swim and the boys are all amazing swimmers.  Christian and his wife even met in college and ended up as Captains of the Men’s and Women’s swim teams at their Big Ten School!  To top it off, Christian’s stroke was the breast stroke!  I suppose I could finally learn to do things right but why should I when I am enjoying myself?

Another reason I love to swim is because there is often entertainment as I do so.  In the adjacent room separated from the pool by a glass wall is the Aerobics’ Room with lots of sweaty participants and music with a great beat.  I love to have music with great rhythm just about all the time.  There are often “Aqua” classes as well and that is always amusing as well.  Notice I haven’t explained why I find these events entertaining, perhaps because I am being kind in saying nothing?

So, there it is, my Sunday true confession, the reason why I like to swim laps.  To be honest, I love the all day feeling of relaxed muscles and calm that it gives me.  The only problem is that sometimes I just want to sit down and take a nap.

A lifechanging event…

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When I was 19 ½, I flew from Cleveland to New York (Idlewild, now JFK airport) and then from there to Paris. It was a monumental trip for me. Upon leaving, my mother said to me, “You’ll never last!” Actually, her words were not far from reality. I was a relatively sheltered, shy, reserved young man who had decided that his love of French and the French language should take him to France for the year. While there, I was a part of my university group which also included students from Ohio University (my school), its sister school Bowling Green of Ohio, a few students from Miami University and finally one from Toledo, I believe, and Ohio State University.

When the plane touched down in Paris, as I looked out the window, I felt a shiver go down my spine. To this day, each time I land in France or Europe (because it is a given if in Europe I shall go to France), the same thing occurs. There is something magical about the moment. France for me is something incredibly special, perhaps the bellwether for me and signaling my imminent departure from a person and background I needed to shed. Like the caterpillar that spins its cocoon, I emerged ever so different from the person before.

Upon arrival in Paris, I met up with the main portion of the group I would be spending the year with. I don’t remember many details other than we had a long bus trip which took us from Paris to Tours, southwest of the city. I recall with fondness Dr. Barnes and his beautiful French (Corsican) wife who were the leaders of the trip. Dr. Barnes was an amazing man, an African American with American Indian built in, who was a social studies professor at the University.

I do have some remembrance of finally arriving at destination, to the Le Saux’s family house in St. Cyr sur Loire, just north of the city of Tours. I remember being in a situation that was somewhat scary. Fatigued as all get out and in a situation which demanded my utmost attention as I needed to speak in French, a French which was nothing more than school French. The TV was on, blaring, in fact, and the family was asking many questions. It was difficult and I remember what welcome relief it was when I settled into my room (I had the single, my two American counterparts there had the double) and went off to a well needed sleep.

Yes, this momentous occasion in which I made sure to deny my mother the satisfaction of being right, was a moment in which I used to make positive changes in my life and to make certain that I knew which career I was headed into, the teaching of French. My roommates, housemates, whatever, and I made a very difficult pact to always speak in French to each other, and we kept it. I managed to stay the entire time from September until June when my mother arrived and I accompanied her and her friend to Paris, London, and Dublin. And my shy self bloomed as I went from my school French to a communicative one that I have been building my whole life, to the point that people do not ever think I am American, nor do I have an American accent.

I had the ultimate freedom while in France, even managing to grow a beard, something I had never before felt comfortable doing as my family was so ridiculously anti-facial hair! I ate up the atmosphere! The food was amazing; the classes were satisfactory, all in French from classroom to oral and written final exams. My French mom provided me with a daily class in adult French and my new friends and peers were amazing as well giving me the family I had left at home in Cleveland.

During this year I slimmed down, though I didn’t really need to, eating like a horse and yet walking like crazy. I learned to finally let loose a little and to finally smell and drink the coffee. I realized the importance of relaxation, of enjoying myself, and , I believe, how to put it all into perspective. And, thanks to Madame Galliéni and her little soirée at her house, I fell in love with Scotch. Not so much because I then liked it, I did my best to impress this beautiful Phonetics teacher into thinking I was cosmopolitan! I have loved it ever since!

The French were and are amazing. They taught me and still teach me so much. That isn’t to say they know everything but they do have a civilization that is quite old, successful, and still blossoming. They are so much like us and we love each other so much that we often cannot stand to be around each other. We are like siblings. I understand that and I have no issues whatsoever with them. I am more than tired of explaining to people how wonderful they are. I don’t even have enough negative experiences in France or with French people to count on my one hand, and trust me, I could go way beyond that count in my own back yard. To think of the countless ignorant people who say they don’t like the French. How can they say that? Most of them have not spent any time with anyone French. Many just stay with their stereotyped ideas and just don’t give anyone a chance. I figure that if my German Teacher wife can fall in love with them and my sometimes hard to please sons, then that says it all!

I learned how to enjoy a meal. I learned how to spend quality time with people discussing anything and everything and revel in the differences that we all bring to the table. Culturally, I learned so much and it has helped me in dealing with my students and with any ethnic group. I learned respect and tolerance.

I have been criticized by some, even In my own family, because I guess I might sometimes give off the impression that there is nothing in France that I don’t like and that I cannot criticize them at all. This is not true. My feeling is that we can all learn so much from each other.

To me, in the ideal world, I would be able to spend half the year in the U.S. and the other half in France.

Due to my involvement with the New Trier in France program, I have had many French people in my house and exposed my entire family to my experience. They would most certainly reiterate what I am saying here and they don’t all speak perfect French. Speaking perfect French in France is the ideal but the French, overall, are more than happy if we just try. The reality is that we often don’t even do that, we act like everyone should speak our language, we are proud of ours, but remember the French are proud of theirs as well. I have been embarrassed more than once in France by the actions of one of my fellow citizens and have apologized profusely to the French and tried to explain the problem.

One of my most interesting experiences was the year that Mary Kay and I were able to take all three boys and our then future daughter-in-law to France. We had been given a gift by a student’s family of a week in their home on an island (the île d’Oléron), off the western coast of France, not far from Bordeaux. I told my French friends that due to distance that we would probably just do Paris and then go west, not head east to the Alsace region near Germany. The reaction was that of great friends extremely disappointed and this reaction says it all. They made it very clear to me, that if we made that choice and didn’t hit Strasbourg, that “I was dead to them.” I took it to heart and we changed plans. That change was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me and my family. Our weekend in Alsace was, as Mary Kay has so aptly put, “St. Richard’s arrival in France.” They went crazy, housing us with them, the kids in the dormitory of the school our exchange was with and showering us with a huge potluck party with amazing gifts, dinner engagements, and they drove us to all the main scenic sites in the area. Missing that would have been a major mistake and it so reminded me that the French truly love us. They may not always agree with us, but they love, respect, and appreciate us.

So, each time I land, it is the most amazing feeling for me. The shiver goes down my spine and I thank my lucky stars that I had the good fortune to find my love and career and that it has continually blessed me and my family with experiences that would knock anyone’s socks off!