Monday, March 8, 2010

Andrea Sciberras

Andrea Sciberras

I used to have to look at the name repeatedly, to make sure I copied it correctly.
Andrea Sciberras. With accents over the, “e’s,” one, grave; one, ague.

It was important. The last name contained two, “r’s.” For some reason, I couldn’t get used to that, two, “r’s.” And I didn’t want to make mistakes, or do anything that implied this letter was anything but really important. I wanted to make it perfect.

Two, “c’s,” made sense to me. Even two, “b’s.” But, two, “r’s?’’ I had to look, two, three times, each time, to make sure I spelled it correctly.

After all, she had picked me to write to, for some reason; and to write regularly to—that was, say, her second or third letter—because she hoped to be a writer, someday.

She’d chosen me, I guess among others, to ask what writers asked each other. I didn’t really think I knew what writers talked about. I never had that kind of courage, to talk to a, “Writer.” But I knew it would not look good for me to misspell her name, or any other word, for that matter.

I’d handled kids. I taught junior high before going to work, manufacturing paragraphs. As a teacher, the relationship between me and my students had—has—always been wondrous to me. Somehow, I could stand before them with the pretense of authority, but each of us knew we were pretending.

I had more experience with language, which I would try my best to share with them. When I was done, if I had done a good job, there really wasn’t any difference any more, and we could drop the pretense about my authority.

I’ve had lots of wonderful run-ins with my junior high kids over the years—they’re around 53 and 54, now—and one hysterical encounter with a girl who suddenly yelped because she realized that the comic on stage at the East Side Comedy Club was her 7th grade English teacher.

I liked to think that I felt that way about adults of all ages, down to junior high students…maybe 6th graders. I wasn’t always confident after that: 5th, 4th, 3rd graders. They scared me.
But I got stuck, once, speaking about journalism to four classes of 3rd and 4th graders at a school in Copiague.

I had understood I would be speaking about teaching to an audience of teachers. Surprise.
With my host teachers, I reacted probably a little too demonstratively, a little too revealingly, even a little too angrily, now that I think of it. But the kids already were coming down the hall, toward the cafeteria, to see the Newsday reporter. I was stuck.

I don’t know what I said in my little speech, but the question and answer session came next. A pint-sized little boy asked me, “When you interview somebody, do you make them sound smarter, if their grammar isn’t too good, or do you let them, you know, sound dumb?”

In twenty years of reporting, no adult had asked me that.

I don’t think an editor asked me that.

I wondered if I had asked me that.

The answer came right into my head, challenging me to tell the truth. I was very proud of the accuracy of my quotes, but the fact is, yeah, I cleaned a quote up, if it had a double negative in it; if it were a mistake, but I knew what the speaker meant; or if it had curses in it that drew more attention to the curses than to the speaker’s point.

I had to admit it, I sometimes fudged, or doctored, or dressed up a quote. And, I never thought of it, “…until you asked me,” I confessed.

The rest of the period, I learned way more than they did.

As a reporter, with high school and college students, I was an ace, especially since I wouldn’t have to come back the following day, or grade papers, or catch people cheating. I would just appear—and here he is, Newsday columnist Ed Lowe—and be gone, an hour and a half later.

And papers. Oh, man, talk to somebody, anybody, who summoned the nerve to ask me to be interviewed for a term paper: high school, college or graduate school. I’ll bet kids who used me as the subject of their research all got A’s.

I talked with Andrea Sciberras last week; first time in quite a few years.

She believes she was in the 2nd or 3rd grade that she wrote me her first few letters. That really surprised me. I thought I was stretching it to suggest I remembered the correspondence going all the way back to maybe junior high.

She said she would check, but she was pretty sure that they went back farther, like 2nd or 3rd grade. She said she still had a box with all my responses in it.

It will be quite some time before she has any real feeling for what that meant to me. It will be some time before I do, too.

She is a doctor now.

I knew that, because she asked me to come to a big party at The Coral House, in Baldwin, celebrating her medical degree and licensing. I met her mother and father, her relatives, friends, and, her, for the first time, or maybe the only time, which is strange, for somebody whose name you know you’ll never, ever misspell.

That was eight years ago.

She teaches now, in Florida, and is one of the leading researchers on HIV/AIDS, and has been to Africa, which she is very enthusiastic about; and she just returned from a trip to Haiti, which she was not very enthusiastic about; not at all.

She writes a newsletter every few years to friends. This last one was pretty horrific.

She says she doesn’t know what to feel, even whether to go back. Everything was so wrong, so criminal, so hopeless.

If you want to know what a hero feels like, how hard it really is, how maddening it is, how impossible it is, stay tuned. If not, it’s all right.

Next: Haiti

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