Berger’s Burg: May promises praise to professors, wed ‘luck’

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May is called “The Springtime of Life.” Many people, including me, think it is the grandest month of the year. It comes around but once a year and I will embrace every one of its glorious 31 days. Is my column going to be about flowers in May? No!

Did anyone ever wonder how this month got its name? Gerard, my neighbor, thinks it should be named after the defunct department store, May’s, because his wife, Beryl, did most of her shopping there during this month. My friend, Ev, a baseball fanatic, believes it probably was named after the great Willie Mays, while my barber, Leo, a wannabe poet, likes to dream it was named after the word “may,” short for “maiden,” as in archaic poetry. Is this column going to be about how the month was named? No!

May, as we all know, is filled with many memorable dates including: May Day (1), Ascension Day (9), Mother’s Day (12), the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (17), Armed Forces Day (18), and the observance of Memorial Day (27). Is this column going to be about any or all of the above? No! This column is just going to be about two other special days in May.

The first is National Teacher Day, which falls on May 14. It is celebrated annually on the second Tuesday of every May. This day is the prime time to shower teachers with recognition and thanks for making us the adults we are today. No other profession touches so many lives in such a lasting way. And, everyone has a favorite. Mine was Dr. Wald, a City College of New York English professor.

At the time, I was a 21-year-old Air Force veteran, just discharged after four years of active duty, and beginning my college career. Although I had graduated from Stuyvesant High School, I was very dubious about whether I still was capable of maintaining C.C.N.Y’s high academic standards. My first class on my first day was English 1, taught by Dr. Wald.

On that day, our homework assignment was to write a 1,000-word essay on life. I was terrified. What do I write about since the subject is so ambiguous? My mother suggested I write something about the Air Force, and I did. I brushed off my old Royal typewriter I had used during my high school days, and tentatively began typing.

“I must watch my grammar, I must watch my spelling, I must not have typing errors,” I kept repeating to myself. I sweated through the entire ordeal and finally completed the assignment, an essay on my Air Force buddy, Isaac Powell, whom I had written about in a previous column. The next day, I kissed, and then handed in the composition.

A week passed before Dr. Wald returned the papers. Mine was not among them. “Mr. Berger,” the professor said, “please see me after class.” My heart began to pound. Why did he want to see me? Did he not like my paper? Would he give me a failing grade and throw me out of college?

“Mr. Berger,” he began, as I held my breath, “I gave your paper an A-minus, my top grade for any student. Your writing shows intelligence, sensitivity, style, and above all, a marvelous ability to relate a story. May I read your paper to the class tomorrow?”

“Yes, yes,” I stammered. I knew then that I would make it at City college. I attained my degree in three years and the good professor was there at my graduation.

Another favorite teacher of mine is Gloria. During her 28-year career as a kindergarten teacher, she smoothed the transition-to-school process for many 5 year olds. One success story stands out. Jennifer, a special-ed child, was unable to communicate nor write or draw on paper. Gloria worked very hard with her with little success. One day, Gloria was teaching the children to write a Mother’s Day greeting, written on an experience chart. She handed Jennifer a pencil and paper, and told the little girl that the pencil was special, just for her. Suddenly, Jennifer began to write the words; Gloria cried, her paraprofessional cried, and the supervisor of special ed cried. A child’s life was enriched by a dedicated teacher.

May also is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. So let me tell you about the 18th day of the fifth month the people in China call “five-one-eight,” or “wu yao ba.” They consider it to be a very lucky day, a day to marry, become rich or both.

On this day, in beauty salons throughout China, women begin preparing for the big day, as a bride or bridesmaid. “Why do they choose to wed on this particular day?” you ask. In the interest of seeking out the truth, I asked my editor to fund a trip to China for me so I could discover the answer. Since this is a family paper, I can’t repeat what she said. However, I did the next best thing — I trekked into Chinatown.

Luckily, I ran into a Miss Wan and asked her why. She explained that everyone in China knows what that day signifies. Since the name sounds like the Chinese word, “wo yao fa,” meaning “I will get rich,” and the ancient Chinese almanac, which marks lucky and unlucky days during the year, brands May 18th as “The Day of the Wedding,” girls pick that day to marry. In fact, May 18 has become the most popular day of the year to marry in China.

Couples follow many elaborate wedding customs adopted from the West — Western-style wedding gowns and suits, a set of photos taken weeks beforehand so that copies can be shown on the wedding day, four hours of hairdressing in the morning, a limousine escort in the afternoon, a multi-course banquet at a restaurant in the evening and a final party at home with bawdy party games. There is no actual wedding ceremony before or after the banquet since most couples legally are married when they register a few days beforehand at a government office. Occasionally, the wedding may be the first time a bride and groom see each other.

At the wedding, the groom dutifully goes from table to table to toast each guest with a sip of beer. By the 10th table, he usually has trouble standing. His bride, dressed in a red full-length gown, tries to light a cigarette for each male guest, most of whom react as expected, by blowing out the match several times to enjoy her company a few moments longer. Everyone goes home happy except for the father of the bride who must pay the bill. Gee, I would like to be invited to one of these weddings — with Gloria, of course.

So, readers, welcome the month of May into your lives and do two things: Thank a teacher and help me get to China.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at: or call 229-0300, ext. 140.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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