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No Choice About the Terminology

Posted: 2009-07-29

Susan's Notes: This appeared in the New York Times, July 28, 2009, under the heading Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times. I think it has special meaning for me because I taught students just like the ones described. Once I got the idea of asking them to write down every ice cream flavor they'd ever encountered-- or heard about--on a piece of adding machine tape stretched along the hallway outside the classroom door. Kids took this assignment very seriously. They checked the freezers in grocery stores, taking notes. They studied menus, taking notes. We had to keep adding more tape. When students had exhausted their own ice cream universe, they began making up flavors. We added more tape.

Then we began having contests to see who could read all the names without making a mistake. And every time someone added a new ice cream flavor, everybody else had to read the whole list from the beginning. This was great practice for kids designated as the worst readers in the school.

When I first started posting stuff like this in the hall, I worried other 7th and 8th graders would just have more ammunition for thinking our class was weird. But in a school where the walls were bare, where student work never got posted, the hallway in our corner of the school became a beehive of interest. Everybody came to read the ice cream names. Over and over. Their interest inspired us to create more lists and add other attractions.

by Mark Dow

Amy and I stood at the Xerox machine watching each other pay attention to our own palates and tongues. We kept the chocolate-covered caramel-topped cookie pieces in our mouths as long as we could without swallowing, and I hit the reduction-enlargement button over and over again. We started nodding and laughing. We were pretty sure we could taste what our student heard, or see what he meant.

Amy was an art teacher and a therapist, and I was an untrained classroom teacher at the so-called special school in Massachusetts, where our student âSteveâ liked to play with the Xerox machine in the teacherâs library as a reward on days heâd behaved. He liked to press the reduction-enlargement button and listen to the sound of the lens aperture closing and opening. He would do this over and over again. It was 1988 or so; the mechanism was easily audible. When I asked him what he liked about the Xerox sound, he said, I guess itâs a kind of a creamy, crunchy sound, like the inside of a Twix Bar.

He said this with deliberation because he wanted to get it right, but without self-consciousness about the words he was using. He was just answering another question from the adults.

First thing in the morning, Steve would usually say something like: âLast night I had cheese ravioli with marinara sauce plus a Pepsi. You do know that I really do love cheese ravioli and Pepsi, right?â

The next day he might say: âLast night I had chili with rice plus a Mountain Dew to drink. Mountain Dew really is my favorite thing to drink, you know.â

The next day he would tell me again that he loved Pepsi or Mountain Dew.

He would tell me again the next day.

Then the next day he would tell me again.

Often, of course, Iâd get impatient, especially with a half-dozen other students careening around the room, and Steve had very advanced radar for impatience. When I told him I already knew how much he loved Mountain Dew, he seemed confused. I told him heâd told me already. He stared as if betrayed. He stiffened along the length of his newly pubescent body, and his hands and chin started to tremble. Then he was pleading.

âBut you know that I really do love it. You really do know that, right?â

âYes,â I said, backing off, and he breathed.

âSo you do know that I really do love Mountain Dew, right?â

âYes,â I said, and he told me again the next day. He always remembered having told me before, but it made no sense to him that it made no sense to me to hear it again and again.

Steve knew about boredom â he complained about it sometimes â but this repetition wasnât boring to him, and he didnât see why it would be boring to someone else. If itâs pleasant to eat oneâs favorite foods over and over again, and to imagine eating them, why shouldnât it be pleasant to say so repeatedly, too? Why do we draw the line where we do? I never came close to an answer until recently, about 20 years later, in a small book my brother Leon gave me, Franz Rosenzweigâs âUnderstanding the Sick and the Healthy: A View of World, Man, and God.â The sickness in question is paralysis, what we would today probably call clinical depression. It is the patientâs metaphysical prowess that paralyzes him. It has replaced the common sense that once allowed him to accept ordinary things. He can no longer go to the store for butter because, after all, âthe butter remembered, the butter desired, and the butter finally bought, are not the same. They may even be quite different.â And yet he is able to make the purchase â or would be able to, if he would just move on.

Rosenzweig writes: âThe continuity of life blunts the edge of marveling. Wonder is finally enveloped in the stream of time.â

When Steve behaved well, his mother would take him to a special ice cream parlor. He kept a record of his treats on a scrap of paper in his desk, tucked within easy reach so he could palm it and gaze into it at any time.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

1. Coffee Frappe

2. Root Beer Float

3. Black Cow

4. Milkshake Float

5. Pepsi Float With Coffee Ice Cream

6. Black-Raspberry-Dip

7. Panama Cooler

8. Coffee Ice Cream In a Cup

9. Coffee Milkshake Float

10. Oreo Cookie Ice Cream, In a Cup

11. Chocolate Dip

12. Fudge Swirl Ice Cream, With Jimmies, In a Cone

13. Broadway

14. Hot Fudge Sundae

15. Pepsi Float With Vanilla Ice cream

16. Ginger Hyball

17. Mocha Chip Ice Cream In a Cup

18. Orange Sherbet With Jimmies

19. Butterscotch Dip

20. Raspberry Freeze

21. Three âDâ Sampler

22. Strawberry Ice Cream w/ Jimmies, In a Cup

23. Chocolate Chip Ice Cream w/ Jimmies, In a Cup

24. Chocolate Ice Cream w/ Jimmies, In a Cup

25. Cherry Dip

26. Coffee Frappe

27. Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream w/ Jimmies

28. Orange Float

âJimmiesâ is a New England term for sprinkles.

Steve let me make a Xeroxed copy of his handwritten list, and Iâve kept it. We write things down, and hold on to them, for many different reasons. To stop time and keep the âedge of marvelingâ honed, or at least handy. To create pockets of order. To prove to ourselves that we exist. To be able to immerse ourselves in whatever matters to us but is gone.

Sometimes on my way home from the special school, Iâd stop by Celebrity Pizza, where the big seller was ice cream. At first I went there just to pass the time, but I became interested in how interested the manager was in ice cream, and I started writing down things he said, such as, Soft vanilla outsells all hard ice cream except hard vanilla and hard chocolate. It outsells hard strawberry. â¦

And: âYou hear all this talk about salt now. Well, itâs the hidden salt that gets you. Häagen-Dazs, Hood, those are the top-of-the-line, and theyâve got about one-and-a-half to two teaspoons of salt per gallon. Down at the bottom, youâve got five teaspoons per gallon. That might not sound like a lot, but it is. Itâs like taking a steak and putting the whole salt shaker on it. You know how to tell how much salt an ice cream has? If you drink some water after, and then thatâs it, O.K. But if want to drink more later, then that oneâs got more salt. And if it makes you burp right after it, and then you burp later and you can taste it still, if it repeats on you, thatâs because of the salt.â

He talked about ice cream to just about everyone who ordered some.

He asked one customer, âDoes ice cream give you a headache?â

The customer said he didnât think so.

âYes it does,â the manager said. âIt does everybody sometimes. You know why? Because itâs so cold. It hits the roof of your mouth and just shocks you through your head. You know how to prevent it? Just drink some water first. Water has a film on it. Most people donât know that, but it does. It coats up here â¦â â he touched the roof of his mouth with his index finger and made a blurry two-part noise â âThe roof of your mouth. It puts a film there. Then itâs not such a shock.â

One afternoon a kid about twelve years old walked in and ordered a dish of pistachio. The manager asked him what size, and the kid said large. The manager leaned in and started scooping. The kid said, âCan I have caramel on that?â

The manager stopped scooping and straightened up. He said, âYou want a sundae, then.â

The kid said, âI only want the caramel on it.â

The manager said, âAs soon as you add a topping, itâs a sundae. You got no choice about the terminology.â

Then he bent back over the tub of pistachio and added, apparently to himself, âItâs important to me.â

Once we took a few students from the special school on a field trip to a cavernous grocery warehouse. When we got there we sent one student, Alejandro, out on his own with instructions to find jimmies for the sundaes weâd make back at school.

Alejandro walked, ran, laughed, and spoke in slow motion. Teachers who were sports fans were convinced he had learned to speak by listening to Marv Albert. His deep, sportscasterâs voice stretched words so that they seemed slurred even though they were not. He spoke out the side of his mouth, his taffy articulation spiked at odd intervals with exaggerated inflection, bursts of short-lived speed within the thicker pulling.

Every day that there had been a Red Sox game the night before, Alejandro asked me if Iâd seen it. And every day that there had been a Red Sox game the night before, I asked him to collect synonyms from headlines in the Boston Herald sports section. When I left the school, he wrote: âYou told me about new words for lost and win, sports news about the red sox and Iâll miss you mark.â In thick green marker, he filled the blank space on the card: âiced, blast-off, derailed, faltered, jolt, hailed, bounced, crushed, defeated, eliminated, stalled, shellacked, smoked, tripped, pasted, lost, win, shocked.â

At the grocery, when Alejandro didnât turn up at the checkout, I went looking. The aisles were like wide empty streets. A block ahead, among the foil cupcake cups, colored crystal sugars, icings, and edible ornaments, all arranged in neat rows, Alejandro was walking one resolute step at a time. He was almost brushing up against the fortress-high shelves to his left, left hand lightly dragging along shelf-edge at waist-level for balance. He was mumbling, so I approached quietly to catch what he was saying before he knew I was there.

âJimmies,â he was saying. âIâm looking for the word jimmies. I just need to find the word.â

Mark Dowâs essays and poems have appeared in The Paris Review, PN Review (UK), Mudlark, Killing the Buddha, and SLAM! Wrestling. He is the author of âAmerican Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons,â and teaches English at Hunter College. He is working on a short book that touches on most of what heâs ever thought about.

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