January 5, 2006
A Big Impression
I'm too old to have heroes. But for those who live their lives with courage, I can make an exception. Like the Impressionists, for instance, whose lives of self-sacrifice I was trying to share with my class of older adults.
"OK, everyone," I say, "whoever's not here, raise your hand."
Naturally, Saul raises his hand. Maybe I should explain.
My senior students suffer from short-term memory loss, a condition less severe than Alzheimer's and dementia but nonetheless frightening. They can recall exact moments from decades past, but in the present, from one moment to the next, many don't remember who or where they are. Sort of like elected officials.
"Are you saying you're not here, Saul?"
"Are you?" he asks, a sour look on his face.
"Good question," I say. "Now let's look at an amazing movement in art called Impressionism. First, we'll watch a video to appreciate the magnificent works of Renoir, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, because this class is art appreciation, right?"
Nothing. No response. Twenty-five people and not a whisper, not a murmur, not a peep.
"Which art movement are we learning about this morning?" I ask. "Anyone?"
Louise takes a stab at it.
"Yes, but which movement?"
Silence. You can hear a pacemaker ticking. Imagine being able to remember the color of your socks when you were 3, but you can't remember where you put your shoes five minutes before.
"OK," I press on, "aren't these just wonderful, these paintings of nature and the human form? What do you think Saul?"
He shrugs. He sighs. A big, burly man in his late 80s, he sits week after week collapsed in his chair, with his head in his chest, and I can't get a word out of him.
I continue. "Now in the late 1860s...."
Suddenly, here's Marla.
"Who does those clown paintings?" she yells.
"Yeah," she hollers. "I saw a painting with a clown, and there was a tear on his cheek. Who does them? They're great!"
Clown paintings? We're talking Renoir here. It's Monday morning; the class is five minutes in, and I'm wondering if it's not too late to get my real estate license.
"Red Skelton," I say with scorn.
"Oh," says Marla, now softly. "That's right. Red Skelton. Was he an Impressionist?"
"Yes," answers Bob. "He did impressions of clowns. He was funny."
"I used to be funny," says Jake. "Then I got married."
"Your wife doesn't know you're funny Jake?" I ask.
He makes a face. "My wife doesn't know I'm living."
"How about you, Saul?" I ask. "Are you married?"
Slowly, Saul raises his head, waves me off and drops his head back to his chest.
"Saul," I say, "if you don't take part in the class, I'm going to have to ask you to bring your parents to school."
"You'll have to dig them up," he replies.
I throw my hands in the air. "Oy!" I exclaim.
"You're Yiddish?" asks Jake.
"The world's Yiddish," I tell him. "Who knows the difference between a shlemiel and a shlimazel?"
"The shlemiel spills the coffee on the shlimazel," says Jake.
"OK," I say, "now how many of you know that one of the leading Impressionists -- Pissarro -- was a Jew?"
No response. Nothing. Nada. Bubkes. Maybe I could become a plumber. I already have a wrench. I know I saw one somewhere in the garage, I think, a month ago.
Two hours later, I'm exhausted. One last time, I explain how much the Impressionists believed in themselves and what they were trying to accomplish.
"OK," I say, "what have we learned today? Nellie?"
"Nothing," she says, cheerfully.
"Nothing? I'm up here talking for two hours, and you've learned nothing?"
"We remember nothing," says Molly.
"Yeah," says Ray. "Don't take it so personal."
Oh. OK. Surely, the West Valley could absorb one more real estate agent.
"What about you, Vivian?" I ask. "Tell me one thing you've learned about the Impressionists."
"Stick to your guns," she says.
"Thank you," I cry.
On the TV monitor, the video is now showing breathtaking paintings of the French countryside. One last try.
"Has anyone here ever been to France?" I ask.
"France would be a great place without the French," says Jake.
"Anyone else?" I ask.
Like an ancient tortoise, Saul lifts his head, and staring off into the beyond, mutters under his breath, "I've been to France."
"Hallelujah! Tell us about it, Saul. Did you go to the museums?"
"I was on the beach," he says to his feet.
"The Riviera, Saul? Girls? Bikinis? Ooh-La-La?"
"We landed in the water," he says. "All my friends around me were shot. The water was blood. I was on the beach."
The room goes extra silent, the only sound the air conditioning. My hero lowers his head back to his chest, but not before my eyes meet his. I am 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, and I think I am going to cry.
Wildman Weiner is a credentialed teacher of older adults.