Life lessons, Teaching

The People Who Teach Us

I was in my mother’s room at the convalescent home recently when a woman’s voice behind a curtain said, “Is Joan Livingston here? There’s a man here who says he knows you and your mother.” Intrigued, I left my mother and in the hallway found a man wearing a mask (we all have to wear one there) who identified himself as Dennis Duval. He was my ninth-grade history teacher.

I gave the man a hug although I hadn’t seen him since my last day in that grade and I then moved onto our high school. That was a very long time ago.  

Mr. Duval, as I called him way back then, was visiting his brother who was also a resident of the home. On the sign-in sheet, he saw my mother’s name and my first name, so he put the clues together. He could have left it at that, but he decided to seek me out.

Like me, Mr. Duval grew up in North Fairhaven, Massachusetts. His father had a pharmacy in that part of our oceanside town. Mr. Duval was the youngest of ten kids, he told me.

I remembered Mr. Duval as an energetic, dark-haired teacher not long out of college who made history relevant to us kids. I was a member of the first ninth grade at what is now called Elizabeth Hastings Middle School. And as we spoke that day, I thought of the other great teachers I had. I even mentioned a few.

Mr. Mignault, who taught geography, lived in Boston and stayed in a motel in our town during the school days. It was my first exposure to the counter culture — he wanted us to understand the message behind “Puff the Magic Dragon” and told us those drills we were doing in case there was a nuclear bomb were useless. Unfortunately, he left us that year after a bad car accident.

Mrs. Lima, my freshman English teacher, recited Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by heart. She stood in front of the class or sat on a student’s desk, holding a finger in the page but she didn’t look at the words. Decades later, my mother mailed me a box with clothing she bought at a tag sale, and at the bottom was a slim blue volume of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Yale Shakespeare version, 1923, edited by Willard H. Durham. The blue cloth is mottled with something white, perhaps from moisture. Susan Lima’s name is written in perfect cursive on the second page. I still have the book and fond memory.

Mr. Piche had a difficult time talking due to a past injury, but he brought American history alive. At the end of each lesson, he would say, “You know how I know? Because I was there.”

We brought up others like Mr. Hughes, who also taught history, and Mr. Cardoza, my math teacher.

I remember so many of the teachers I had during those three impressionable years. To be honest, a few were not among my favorites. But I would say I got a great education, and thank you Mr. Duval for reminding me.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s Mrs. Lima’s copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

LINK TO A FABULOUS MYSTERY: I want to let Kindle readers know that during the month of June they can buy my friend Teresa Dovalpage’s latest mystery for $2.99. Death under the Perseids is the third in her Havana Mystery Series. (Teresa was born in Cuba.) I will tell you more about Teresa and her book it in my next post, but for those who can’t wait, here’s the link:

Life lessons

Friday Was The Last Day

By that, I mean my last day as an editor-in-chief overseeing three daily newspapers. Yes, I am finally leaving journalism after over 35 years in the business.

Retiring? I guess I could say that. But it’s actually my second time.

The first was in 2016 as editor-in-chief of the Taos News in New Mexico. I kept my hand in it doing book reviews, but I also helped adults working to get their GED and taught creative writing to kids in fourth grade. After we resettled in Western Massachusetts, I saw a classified ad that the Greenfield Recorder was seeking an editor. A couple of months later I was leading the daily newspaper, then later that year, I picked up another. And over a year ago, I was asked to lead the company’s papers in Northampton. That’s when I became the Pioneer Valley editor-in-chief. I only intended to continue for one year and that’s what happened.

Jan. 7 was my official last day although I will stay on four more weeks to help in the transition for the person taking over my role. I want him to succeed. I want the papers to thrive. People need local journalism, these papers’ forte.

Now I will concentrate on my own writing — the novels I write — and do some freelance editing. I have other plans.

When I was a kid, I never thought I would be a journalist although I will admit a fascination with newspapers. But being a reporter, columnist, and editor taught me a great deal about writing, and frankly, being an author has always been my dream. As a reporter, I had to pay attention to what people said, how they said it, and the way they behaved. I practiced writing nearly every day. My lessons continued when I became an editor. Journalists are supposed to be fair, objective, and accurate. Fortunately, I can abandon that in my fiction.

The best part of being a journalist for that long was the people I’ve met and certainly, the ones I worked with. I have a treasure trove of experiences.

Along the way I learned how to be a boss. I recall being sent to a one-day conference. The one useful thing I learned was that when employees were asked what was most important to them, the number one response was feeling appreciated. A light went off.

Making the people that “work under me” feel appreciated has been a goal ever since. I am fiercely protective of my staff — I joke I am the mother wolf and these are my pups — but naturally a few times, I have had to deal with serious internal problems.

Then, there are the readers and sources. For the sake of objectivity, I may be friendly but they are not my friends. How have I dealt with those who are unhappy with coverage, in particular rude and/or threatening people? I will listen. If they’re right, I will admit it. If it’s a standoff, well it’s that ol’ we will have to agree to disagree. The one thing I will not tolerate is someone swearing at me. I hang up.

On Friday, I removed the last bit of personal items in my old office and moved to a desk in the newsroom. As I worked on the Saturday paper, I joked it was more fun out there. We had pie — thanks to the news editor. I was presented gifts and a card with touching comments from the staff.

Yes, it has been a great run. Thank you.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Paul Franz, photo editor for the Recorder, took that photo of me for a story.





Life lessons

One good turn

When my job as editor-in-chief for one paper was expanded to two in January, it meant meeting and learning about the people who worked in the second newsroom. One of the first things I noticed was the paper towel dispenser in the women’s room. Huh, you say, but please stay with me.

When COVID-19 disrupted jobs, I still went to the office most of the time, as did a number of people. We just followed safety rules. That means anything from wearing your mask everywhere except at your desk to staying six feet away. And then there’s washing your hands a whole lot and drying them, which is how this story twists back to that paper towel dispenser

When it was time to wash and dry my hands the first time in the women’s room, I noticed somebody had thoughtfully left a couple of feet of paper toweling hanging down, which meant I didn’t have to use my wet hands on the lever. Instead, I got paper ready to dry my hands, and then I used the lever (with a towel) to leave paper for the next woman who would need it.

No, it doesn’t happen all the time because not every woman in the building does it although it is rare when I don’t see paper hanging. And sometimes I catch someone doing it. I always thank them.

My parents taught me good manners like saying “please” and “thank you,” which I find goes a long way. You give up your seat to someone who is a lot older. You hold the door for others. You find something nice to say about somebody. I believe I have passed that onto our kids, who are very good human beings.

But back to those paper towels. I make sure I leave toweling for the next person. Actually, I’ve started doing it in the women’s room of my first newsroom and will see if it catches on. It isn’t a big deal, but it is in a way, you know, because one good turn deserves another.

WRITING UPDATE: I am nearing the two-thirds mark for the fifth book in the Isabel Long Mystery Series. This one is called Working the Beat. You can check out my books on Amazon at this link: Joan Livingston books


Life lessons, New Mexico, Western Massachusetts

In Two Years’ Time

Two years ago, Hank and I were driving somewhere in the Midwest as we made our way from Taos, New Mexico to Western Massachusetts. Hank was at the wheel. Our cat sat on my lap for almost the entire 2,400 miles.

I know for sure because Facebook reminded me. I wrote “Adios, Taos.”

We lived in Northern New Mexico for 11 years. We built a home there. I ran the editorial department of the local newspaper. Hank got into the artistic side of woodworking. We enjoyed grand views of the mesa, mountains and big skies. Great food. It was an interesting place to live.

But we had our reasons for leaving.

And a lot has happened since then. A lot of good things.

Having easier access to more of our family is an important one. Four of our six kids and our two granddaughters live in Massachusetts. (You gotta love it when your two-year-old granddaughter calls you Grandma Applesauce.) Then there is my 95-year-old mother and other kin.

We found and bought the style of home we wanted — an arts and crafts bungalow. (My wish then: we find the right house for the right price in the right location.) Youngest daughter, Julia, a real estate agent, negotiated the deal.

The home, built in 1900, has great bones. We had to fix the things the previous owners either did or didn’t do to the home. Luckily, Hank is a skilled woodworker. Me? I was the unskilled helper. The only work we hired out was the roof, floor sanding in two rooms, plumbing and electrical. But as it goes in older homes, there’s still work ahead for Hank.

We live on the Buckland side of Shelburne Falls, a charming village in a rural area. Think small shops, restaurants, and our son’s microbrewery, Floodwater Brewing, which opened last November. And for the most part, friendly people. Folks come from all over to admire the Bridge of Flowers that spans the Deerfield River. We achieved our goal of being able to walk to places from our home — only four-tenths of a mile to Floodwater.

It’s been a productive year for me writing-wise. I’ve published the first three books in my Isabel Long Mystery Series through Crooked Cat Books. I am onto the fourth.

I have a freelance gig copyediting history books for the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio. I’ve learned a lot about our nation’s history.

If that weren’t enough, I am now the editor-in-chief of The Greenfield Recorder. I didn’t think I would go back in the biz, but here I am again running the paper’s editorial department. I am glad to say I have a hardworking and friendly staff devoted to community news.

Oh, our cat, Two, who is around 15, is just fine.

Yes, we got a lot done in two years. What will the next two bring? Bring it on.

PHOTO ABOVE: A not very flattering selfie taken somewhere on our cross-country trek with our cat Two glued to my lap. She hated the carrier.






Life lessons

Looking Back: I Should Have Said Hello

I found this post from 2 1/2 years ago when I was searching through this website’s archives. Here, I wrote about a lesson I learned about race as a young child, one that certainly has influenced me as an adult. Given what is happening in the news these days, I wanted to share it again.

I don’t have many regrets in my life. I can think of a few things I’ve thrown away I wish I still owned, but no biggies there. There’s some stupid stuff I’ve said. I will admit, also, to mistakes I’ve made with relationships. The one experience that bugs me, likely prompted by the news these days, happened when I was a child.

I was eight or nine, perhaps, and a Brownie Scout. That’s a picture of me above, looking awfully skinny in my uniform. One year, I found out I could go to a day camp for free if I sold enough Girl Scout cookies. My enthusiastic parents, especially my Dad, went into full gear, hitting up the people they knew. They sold enough, so I could go.

It was my first experience away from home and school. I didn’t know any of the girls, but as the week went on, I got close to one. I will also note she was Black, which shouldn’t make any difference, but it does later in this story. We did the activities and ate lunch together. We acted like the silly, little girls we were.

Later that summer, I was with my mother and sisters shopping in downtown New Bedford — a lively strip then of department and other stores during those pre-mall days. We were walking along the sidewalk when I spotted my camper friend and her mother.

I remember the girl was happy when she recognized me. But what did I do? I passed by and pretended I didn’t know her. I recall distinctly she asked her mother why I didn’t say hello. I didn’t hear her response.

I knew then I did wrong. I should have said hello. I should have told my mother we went to camp together.

But I didn’t. And I wish I had.

Yes, I was a shy girl then. (That might surprise some folks who know me now, but I worked on it.) I lived a sheltered life in a small town. Also, being fully Portuguese, I am more brown than white. It was the fifties. But still… I ponder today what stopped me then from doing what should have been a natural thing.

Compared to what is happening now, my snub may seem rather small. But I believe it’s one of those lessons I had as a kid that has helped shape me as an adult. When it comes to my fellow human beings, I try to look for common denominators. I want to know about our different experiences. Certainly, living in big cities, small towns, and in multicultural Northern New Mexico has given me numerous opportunities.

But when it comes to that little girl, I honestly wish for a do-over, but sadly that’s not possible. Lesson learned.