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Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

Last year, like this one, the winter was particularly ” brutal” : actually the word most people used, but eventually spring arrived. As my husband was preparing planting beds, I walked out to pick up a few things for supper. Outside of Havergal ( a private girls’ school), I notice coloured hot pink chalk markings and it looks as if someone was or practicing their Latin. I stopped and chortled for some things never change. The clever person had scribed : Semper ubi sub ubi. And for you non-Latin types, I translate,‘”Always wear underwear. “ Good advice, No? I laugh out loud.

I am catapaulted back to Grade 11 and the Latin class with the teacher nicknamed The Whip. To my surprise, I loved learning latin. It was a game as we were taught the declinations: agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola, agricola: each responding to a specific placing in the syntax of a sentence, much like our parts of speech. There was a predictability to the placement of these words, somehow for me, a logic and a game of placing the puzzle parts in a particular order.

Perhaps too, I liked Latin because I was the president of the Latin class. Likely a position no one else wanted, but one I actually won in a class election. All that meant was that when or if the teacher was late or drawn away from class, I would run the show, and because I was very good at Latin, I had garnered some respect from the others.

I also appreciated the tactics of The Whip ( who later ditched teaching and went on to law school, clever woman). In several seconds, she could slice and dice through a student’s pretense of having prepared a homework assignment and reduce to tears even the most popular or haughty classmate. Strangely although. I admired this talent in latin I might have been the hapless victim in say, math or Chemistry.

Yet in this class, I guess I was experiencing Schaudenfraude where one enjoys the pain of another, and not because I could empathize but because I so loved to see one of the Forest Hill aristocracy, often the object of even fawning simpering, sycophantic teachers brought low with a few crackling brushes of The Whip’s sharp and non-emotional tongue lashings.
Did I imagine a wink at me from under her Boston brown haircut and no nonsense piercing eyes? Not likely.

As I surveyed the words on the sidewalk, I wondered if the girls at the school were also taught by someone whose mind was as razorsharp as The Whip’s and did she make even the dull-eyed, lacklustre types like myself feel they could shine.

Reading Vogue this month, an article by Hilary Clinton caught my eye. It was the same paperthin stuff one expects but then a story about her mother, Dorothy , perked my interest. Dorothy Clinton had a very difficult upbringing , raised by a hard grandmother, leaving home at age 14 to work as a nanny, etc. Hilary asked her mother how she had managed to maintain a positive outlook and her mother replied that small acts of kindness had enlivened her soul and given her hope.These were small acts, but kindly ones: when her employer noticed that Dorothy’s one shirt was washed nightly, the employer demurred that she had bought a shirt that was too small for herself and would Dorothy like it? Generous and thoughtful, people had saved Dorothy’s pride through offerings that might appear insignificant but were intensely meaningful to the young woman.

Was it an act of kindness the The Whip bestowed on me, treating me with respect and throwing the occasional smile my way when others received such scowling looks that could scorch any composed exterior?

We think of random acts of kindness that occur daily. I hold in my mind, a trip to Eilat in Israel when my foot caught in a crack along the waterfront and I tripped, falling so hard that I feared my arm was broken. My husband who did not notice I was no longer at his side , was many strides ahead, while I, stunned, lay flat out on the uneven ancient pavement. Although people gathered to help me up, one woman, pulled my skirt down that had flown up over my exposed panties.

I don’t think she was offended by the sight , but rather considered my humiliation as being laid flat and on public display and splayed, momentarily stunned and helpless. Although the arm took months of physiotherapy, my focus is on that one small act of covering my embarrassment. I remember a light hand, in a second of anonymous movement and my embarrassment was made less so.

The event also made me more intensely aware of how my father must have felt when his crutches lurched from his control and he fell, laid prone. He refused the help of others, insisting on somehow making himself erect. Only my mother might help him. For him, besides pride, I think it had to do with the concept of being a man who managed –even walking – for himself.

Jews say the best way to give is anonymously : that way the recipient does not feel indebted.I think that is wise and thoughtful. Not a huge granite cornerstone where we can murmur homage, what a good soul that was to donate…although many gifts are given in the pure spirit of giving, name or no name.. And like the unselfconscious act of Dorothy’s employer and the woman who pulled my dress back down, we so appreciate the thoughtfulness shown to us when most needed.

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