We Can Have It All

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I do not watch football, not high school football, not college football, not pro football. It is a game that holds little interest for me. I catch the Superbowl each year and sometimes purchase a ticket to watch my Houston Cougars play a game, but mostly I do not invest much time or money in the sport. Before Covid-19 I often went shopping or joined friends for lunch on game days so that my husband Mike would have the freedom to cheer and curse his favorite teams. I get all the information that I care to have about the state of football from Mike, so I tend to know which teams are doing, which players are stars, and the general state of the game. Beyond that my interests lie elsewhere.

I don’t begrudge anyone enjoying football or anything else for that matter. We each have different interests and different ideas of how to spend our free time and our money. I think nothing of dropping almost three hundred dollars on a continuing education course at Rice University so I completely understand the reasoning for those who purchase season tickets to some sport, even football. We entertain ourselves in different ways and those choices are a delightful luxury that comes from our freedoms both political and financial.

I am a bit puzzled by the number of people that I see demanding that we put prayer and religion back into schools, political gatherings, and even entertainment events but dislike the idea of athletes or celebrities expressing their personal views at similar venues. I hear so many insisting that these well known individuals should just stick to entertaining us and be quiet even as they themselves continually voice their own beliefs. It seems to me that there is a bit of a double standard as to who is allowed to use their rights to let their concerns be known. 

Of course when it comes to football the difficulties started when a Black quarterback chose to take a knee during the singing of the National Anthem. He made it very clear that his intent was only to draw attention to the brutal ways that Black citizens are often treated. He insisted that he was not insulting veterans nor did he hate the country. He simply felt that taking a knee was a peaceful way to demonstrate his belief that there are systemic injustices being leveled toward Black Americans. 

It did not take long for false interpretations to be applied to his action or for accusations of his lack of patriotism to become accepted as truth. Soon enough he was being dismissed as a trouble maker, socialist, hater and dozens of other epithets that had no real connection to what he had done. His peaceful attempt at drawing attention to a problem was rejected by a large swath of Americans and so was he. 

Most recently there have been marches and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement in virtually every corner of the United States. Most of them have been peaceful but admittedly a handful of them resulted in looting and destruction of property. Those incidents have tended to be the only ones that garnered the notice of the media and the citizenry. The focus has been on the extreme situations like Seattle, Portland, Washington D.C, Minneapolis and Kenosha. Again all of the positivity of peaceful marches has been buried under the hyperbole surrounding the exceptions, not the rule. With the encouragement of the President large numbers of the citizenry have written off the entire movement and ascribed behaviors and intentions that are not universally true.

So once again professional athletes decided to attempt to draw attention to the real issues of the Black Lives Matter movement in the hopes of making it clear that there are specific problems that should be addressed. They have been united in their efforts to keep the focus on what is actually true and not on the false narratives that have degraded the movement. Most recently the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans appeared on the field before the game had started to link arms in unison to demonstrate their support for the true essence of the movement which is to understand and accept that there is often a more stringent set of rules for Black Americans that too often places them in harms ways, not to indict all police officers or to demean the flag or veterans. 

Once again people missed the point. The players were booed. People threatened to never again watch another game or support them. They were accused of being unAmerican when there probably is nothing more American than protesting perceived wrongs. It’s been done since before our country’s revolution and in virtually every era since then. Our ancestors have dumped tea, gone on strike, blocked the way to businesses, engaged in hunger strikes, embarked on long marches to Washington D.C., and staged sit-ins at businesses. It is a glorious freedom that we should embrace, not just when the protests reflect our own thinking but even when they ask us to consider a differing beliefs. 

An actor once went too far in the demonstration of his dissatisfaction by assassinating Abraham Lincoln. That was not freedom of speech but murder and he was fittingly hung for his crime. While we do not want to encourage mayhem it would befit us to applaud those who find a way to express themselves peacefully. It does none of us any harm if football players quietly attempt to make a point. We also have the freedom to simply accept or reject their ideas but we should not attempt to force them into silence. Let them demonstrate and then play ball. Nobody is hurt in such a scenario. They get to have a voice and the fans get to see a good game. The two are not mutually exclusive. We really can and should be able to have it all.

Choosing Character

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My father was born in Skiatook, Oklahoma in September of 1923. Skiatook, a town with a funny name, is about twenty miles north and a bit west of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was founded by a chief of the Osage tribe when he opened a trading post there. By 1923, oil had been discovered in the area which is no doubt why my grandparents were living there when my father was born. My grandmother had been working as a cook in a boarding house when my grandfather met her sometime around 1919. Grandma was a widow whose former husband had died in 1918. I have often wondered if he had been a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic of that era but my grandmother never spoke of him one way or another.

Anyway my grandparents were both in their forties when they married and started a family together. They seemed to enjoy living in Oklahoma but my grandfather frequently spoke of the horrific treatment of the native Osage tribe members by most of the whites who had flocked to the area in search of oil. It bothered him that people took advantage of the native people, sometimes purchasing land for the price of a car battery. He would never quite forget how angry it made him feel to see such egregious actions but he generally understood that the world has always had its share of scoundrels and outright evil people. He tended to be rather philosophic about the inevitability of man’s inhumanity to man but insisted that each of us had a duty to be better than those who lacked ethics.

He told lots of stories many of which carried the same theme of character overcoming greed or violence. I suppose that when all was said and done he thought that the world was moving slowly but surely to a better place in spite of its imperfections. He pointed to ordinary heroes who had impacted his life, like the uncle from West Point whom he chose for his guardian when he was essentially orphaned at the age of thirteen. Grandpa picked the military man because he “was honorable.” High moral character along with compassion for others was incredibly important to my grandfather and throughout his lifetime he always strove to model the traits that he so admired in others. I suppose that many of my own philosophies were greatly influenced by my Grandpa’s example.

My grandfather told me about a terrible depression at the end of the nineteenth century and how a man named Coxey protested by traveling across the United States on his way to Washington D.C. Along his march he was joined by hundred of people suffering from unemployment, homelessness and hunger. Coxey and his “army” passed through Grandpa’s childhood town and he remembered how thin and careworn they looked. He wanted to go with them but he was just a boy and his grandmother insisted that he stay home. 

Grandpa often told stories of people who lived in poverty and the folks who helped them. He spoke of the smallpox epidemic that almost killed his relatives. He remembered Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. Many of his most often told tales was about how he had learned to be frugal and adapt to difficulties. Virtually every life event that he described involved an individual who was remarkably devoted to understanding and helping others. 

He had many heroes both famous and ordinary and he urged me to learn from them just as he had. When I graduated from the eighth grade he gave me a book entitled Great Lives, Great Deeds suggesting that I pattern my own life after people who were generous of spirit and determination. I don’t think he ever knew that he was the hero who would most impact the way I think and live. 

Grandpa walked to the polls to vote in every election even after he turned a hundred years old. He had given his car away years earlier because he felt that old people driving around after a certain age were dangerous. He liked walking because it gave him an opportunity to exercise and he never missed an opportunity to vote. His measuring stick for choosing one candidate over another had as much to do with moral character as stances on issues. He insisted that a man or woman who was boastful or unkind was not the sort to whom we should give power. He voted for the best man mostly on his observations of how he treated others. Grandpa could not abide with anyone like those he had seen taking advantage of the members of the Osage tribe in Skiatook and he said that far too often such scalawags ended up in positions of power that were dangerous to the rest of us. He voted from candidates as diverse as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both of whom he admired for their compassionate natures. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt both men who were unafraid to do what was right and just.

My grandfather and grandmother were good folk. Neither of them ever had much money or many possessions but they were happy with their lives. They were loving parents who raised good children. They were particularly proud of my father who not only graduated from high school but also earned a college degree. My daddy read as voraciously as Grandpa and devoured historical tracts with relish that he would then discuss with his father. They were a remarkable team and their impact on me has been immeasurable. 

As I make an important decision regarding how I will vote in the next election I clearly hear my grandfather’s voice. I believe that he would lean toward the man who is modest and genuine which in my mind is Joe Biden. As a matter of fact Biden is much like my grandfather. He is rather humble and unassuming, quietly compassionate. Grandpa would no doubt think that Biden is a fine young man. My grandfather’s folksy lessons taught me so much and his nuggets of wisdom have never steered me wrong. I feel confident that he continues to guide me to choose character.  

Time To Heal

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Each of us have memories that are forever emblazoned in our hearts because of their horror. Visceral emotions remain with us years after events that are shockingly and unexpectedly horrific. That beautiful September 11 morning of 2001 had so much promise. The sun was out and the skies were blue. I was getting ready to attend a meeting at the Houston Independent School District Administration building and watching Good Morning America as I put the finishing touches on my hair and make-up. There was a plane that appeared to be lost and then it suddenly, inexplicably slammed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. 

I was stunned but I had to leave my home or I would have been late for my meeting. I listened to the radio as I drove down the Houston freeways. There was still a great deal of confusion regarding what had happened when another plane appeared and took aim at the second tower of the World Trade Center. That is when my brain snapped and I knew that this had not been an accident. My stomach lurched as I nervously tried to keep my mind on the road. I called my husband Mike to verify that what I had heard on the radio was true. He sounded anxious as he described what he had seen on the television and told me to be careful as I continued to my destination.

I arrived for the meeting and found a solemn group of colleagues sitting in stunned silence while watching a television that had been brought into the room. The lovely breakfast that should have been a treat for all of us remained untouched as we focused on the live news reports that were as confused as we were. Then came the most horrific image I have ever seen as the towers literally collapsed before our eyes. A few people let out screams and cries but most of us were too disturbed to do anything other than attempt to remember to breathe. 

Our innocence was stolen on that day. A quiet fear would steadily eat away at our national confidence. We would become more cynical, more reluctant to believe in ourselves and our leaders. We became more openly divided and wary of those who did not share our philosophies. The damage of 9/11 went far deeper than we had imagined it would. 

Each year we rightly remember the lives so brutally lost. We have erected a memorial so that we will never forget them. We rebuilt on that sacred ground but we have struggled to repair the national spirit that we had often taken for granted. Today we are an embattled nation as we fight a virus that also attacked us without warning. It has spread fear and doubt and death. We were no more prepared for its ravages than we were for the terrorist attack of 9/11 and our divisions with one another are more pronounced than ever. We are in a state of chaos and sorrow as the numbers of dead continue to rise. There have been single days when we lost as many as we did on 9/11 and yet somehow we have been more resigned to the toll of innocent lives. We desperately want to just go back to a time when we thought that we were secure, but we know that there is no way to time travel. 

We have to face the demons that attack us whether they be terrorists or microbes. We need not panic, but we must instead mend our wounds, rekindle our relationships and work as a nation to clear the rubble and work together. We can no longer fall back on thinking of ourselves as members of rival groups but rather as Americans faced with some of the greatest challenges of our history. We will only find a way out from under all of the fear and destruction and death with truth. We can handle honesty, but we cannot bear lies even if they are meant to shelter us. 

Nation building requires trust and there can be no trust when we are uncertain of the facts. We need to know the extent of our problems before we may properly plan how to deal with them. Teamwork is imperative. Selfish motivations are toxic. This is not a game or a race. It is a battle for the very soul of who we are as people. If the ideals of our Founding Fathers are ever to be achieved we must include all voices, all parties. We have to honor veterans and those who have concerns about our military decisions, Black lives and police officers attempting to be just and ethical, scientists and medical experts who understand what we need, Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the pilgrims and immigrants from other lands, Christians and those of many other faiths. It is only in working together that we will ever rise again from the ashes of 9/11.

If we want to truly remember the souls who died on 9/11 and those who have died from Covid 19 as well we do not need fear or panic. Instead we must walk together, ignore those who would turn us against one another and begin a process of demanding honesty and compassion from those would lead us. It is time to heal.  

Loved Because They Love

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They met on a mountain in Japan, two strangers from different parts of the United States on a summer vacation. They began talking during the descent from the summit. There was something comfortable about their conversation as though they had known each other for a very long time. By the end of the hike they had decided to meet again over a meal where they exchanged contact information for when they returned to the States. They were both teachers of English who enjoyed reading, writing and traveling but it was a long way from Texas to California, their respective homes. Still, they were fascinated with one another and the friendship continued and then blossomed into a romance. Before long they were married and she was moving to Texas where a job at the school where he worked awaited. They were and still are a remarkable team.

They are Eric and Jenny Brunsell and they have spent years living and working happily first at Paul Revere Middle School, then KIPP Houston High School and finally Taylor High School. Beloved to both their coworkers and their students they dedicate themselves to teaching grammar, usage, writing and literature. Their classes are fun and they have a reputation for being caring and fair. They plan together and grade together for most of the year then they take exciting trips all over the world during the summer. 

A few years ago Eric and Jenny agreed to sponsor the Academic Decathlon team at Taylor High School. The coaching requires and great deal of extra work on their part. They have to read and learn about whatever era or topic is chosen for a particular season. They often spend evenings providing extra practice for the members of the team and weekends accompanying the students to the competitions. The days and weeks of prepping the team and attending contests extend well beyond spring break. For Eric and Jenny it is fun and exciting to work with the students. They speak of their time with team with smiles that reveal how happy they are going the extra mile.

Each year Eric and Jenny have managed to take their team ever closer to a state championship. Such a feat requires great sacrifices of time and dedication on their part. They seem to revel in being able to provide the students with experiences that they will no doubt never forget. Coaches like Eric and Jenny touch the very hearts of the young people that they guide. That kind of extra effort never goes unnoticed. 

When I was in high school working on the school newspaper was the extracurricular that most enchanted me. Our sponsor often worked with us until late in the evening and many times all weekend long so that we might deliver an edition in a timely fashion. She gave us responsibilities but she was right behind us making sure that we did not fail. Seeing the final copy of our hard work in all of its glory was electrifying, one the grandest moments of my four years of preparing for college. It would not have happened without that teacher’s willingness to give us the gift of her time and attention.

So it is with Eric and Jenny, model teachers. They work hard to deliver interesting lessons and to show their students the fundamentals of writing and critically analyzing all types of fiction and nonfiction. More importantly they have genuine concern for each and every one of their students. They have been known to quietly go out of their way to help someone in a state of crisis, someone struggling to understand a concept, someone who just needed someone to listen and provide encouragement. Their students know implicitly that the Brunsell’s classrooms are safe spaces where everyone is treated with great respect and dignity. 

There are so many people today who act as though young people are silly, lazy, entitled, without a sense of direction. Eric and Jenny understand that nothing could be further from reality. They inspire their students and encourage them to follow their dreams. They are loved because they love. They learned long ago that they need not be stern and authoritarian to keep their students working hard. They need only be fair.

Three years ago Eric and Jenny’s home flooded during hurricane Harvey. Their community of friends and coworkers and students rallied around them in a show of appreciation for the wonderful educators that they are. The school hosted a shower to provide them with household items that had been ruined in the water. A group created a Go Fund Me page to raise funds for the cost of repairs. People opened their homes to them and offered the gift of their labor. Such is what happens when two people have a reputation for goodness and inspiration. 

Good teachers like Eric and Jenny abound but more often than not we mostly hear about those who should never have been in a classroom from the start. It’s good to stop now and again to praise remarkable people like these two whose impact on the world will increase and multiply as those they have taught make their own marks on the world, no doubt remembering two teachers who made a difference in their lives.  

Great Teachers Create Great Lives

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September has always meant school time for me. Back in the day we never returned until after Labor Day but somehow with fewer days spent in the classroom we still managed to learn enough to get through college and become fairly competent adults. I suppose that there is more history to cover and a great deal more science and mathematics to be learned than what we studied back in the fifties and sixties so having some extra time somewhat makes sense. I even suspect that if parents had their way the students would only be off for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, spring break and a couple of weeks in the summer. Teaching takes far more time than it once did and even when the teachers are supposedly resting in the summer most of them take coursework to retain their certification or learn about new teaching methods. They are lucky if they get a month that is not dedicated to improving their professional skills or planning for the coming school year. Sadly their salaries have not risen proportionately with the extra time that they dedicate to their jobs. 

I have found that most teachers would enjoy better benefits and compensation but the lack of those things does not deter them from following their vocations. When we speak of heroic essential workers we tend to forget our teachers. I see applause for firefighters, police officers and medical workers all of the time but not so much for teachers. I see people taking donuts to police stations, cookies to hospitals, gifts to fire stations but somehow teachers are often left from such generous outpourings of gratitude. To a very large extent we take our educators for granted even though they are grossly underpaid given their level of education and the true amount of work they pour into their professions. Few people understand that for every eight to ten hours of a school day a teacher spends at least half again as many hours planning lessons, gathering supplies, and grading papers and exams. With the advent of remote learning the process is even more time consuming and complex. 

We act as though there is nothing to the art and science of teaching, that it is something virtually anyone can do. In truth the subtleties of good education are often difficult to discern but watching a maestro of the classroom is akin to listening to Mozart. When someone who is unskilled or untrained attempts to teach the difference is palatable. As a Dean of Faculty I have been privileged to see the very best but also alarmed when watching the incompetent. Luckily I worked in a system that allowed the principal and I to send the worst of the lot on their way. 

We have bad actors in every profession, every group. Sadly we also have systems that protect them. It would be absurd to condemn everyone who is a police officer, priest or teacher because a few in the ranks do not belong. It is important that we have a way of disciplining, retraining or releasing individuals who simply cannot do a sufficiently good job regardless of the occupation. It is far easier to fire an accountant who cooks the books, an engineer who makes critical mistakes than it is to keep our public systems free of incompetence but we still must protect the good honest workers of every profession by ridding ourselves of anyone who would besmirch the good name of the organization. 

Someone suggested that we should all concentrate on what is good about any group that is under siege these days. Since teachers are often criticized I plan to spend much of September telling the stories of some of the great ones that I have encountered. I will begin today with a chemistry teacher named Mrs. Weston who inspired both of my daughters at South Houston High School, but particularly my youngest, Catherine, who was shy and unsure of herself when she walked through the halls of that school. 

Mrs. Weston was a brilliant woman who might have found work in the Houston Medical Center or one of the many chemical plants that dot the Houston landscape. She would have garnered much respect with her knowledge of chemistry and her salary would no doubt have been much higher than the one she received from teaching, but those were not things that impressed her. She was devoted to her students and she changed lives for many years. 

Catherine was such a quiet young lady that she was oftentimes overlooked by her teachers but she had an uncanny interest in science of all varieties. During her years in school science was her favorite subject and that interest only increased when she went to high school. Her enthusiasm went through the roof in Mrs. Weston’s class and she studied the concepts and formulas with delight all the while speaking of her teacher in reverential terms. That class was the one place where she felt totally comfortable and able to be herself. 

One evening I received a call from Mrs. Weston. I was a bit nervous when I heard her voice because I feared that there was some kind of problem. Instead she told me how much she enjoyed having Catherine in her class. Furthermore she insisted that she considered Catherine to be among her all time top five chemistry students. I was overwhelmed with joy upon  hearing this news. I was well aware of the many outstanding pupils Mrs. Weston had taught and I deemed it a great honor for her to think so highly of Catherine. What I also knew was that this teacher had managed to pull out the very best from my daughter. She had lit a fire of enthusiasm and recognized the brilliance of Catherine that had all too often been overlooked during her time in school. Eventually Catherine would attend Texas A&M University become an environmental consultant and later a nurse. She would use notes from Mrs. Weston for her college classes.

This is what gifted teachers do. They find the excellence in their students and cultivate it. They bring excitement to every lesson. They inspire and they love. Catherine and I will always appreciate Mrs. Weston both for her range of knowledge and her capacity to motivate and care. Her story has a special place in our hearts. Mrs. Weston demonstrated how great teachers help to create great lives.