Laughter Is the Best Medicine

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My father religiously read the newspaper each day. He subscribed to the evening edition and parsing the pages was a given in his daily routine. He would change from his suit into khaki pants and an undershirt and then lie back on the couch with his face hidden by the newsprint pages that he inspected with total interest. Now and again he would notice me watching him from across the room and ask if I wanted to see what the comics had to say. I would eagerly sit next to him as we laughed at the daily series of humor in graphic form. 

After my father died I followed the cartoon page for years in his honor. Over time my tastes changed from Dennis the Menace to Peanuts to The Far Side but I always remembered how wonderful it had been chuckling with my daddy who had a wicked sense of humor that I am certain I inherited. I suppose that my favorite comics these days are satirical which no doubt would have pleased my dad because Pogo was his absolute favorite. Back then I did not understand the underlying jokes of that incredible series of commentaries about government. I just thought it was a goofy presentation of swamp animals who said silly things that made little sense to me. How prescient the cartoonist had been because it seems to me that there are still swamp creatures holding office in our government and so much of what they say is absurd. 

I’m glad that I live in a country that allows satire to run free. I know that some humor is very dark and insulting but most of the time it is an acceptable way to point out the flaws in our humanity. Our hypocrisy as people is so much more vividly revealed under the pen of a gifted cartoonist. Sometimes one picture is worth a thousand words. When it tickles our funny bones the effect is even more powerful. We remember humor and it makes us think in ways that a heated debate never accomplishes. 

Our political system has been tested to the limit these days and with it has come phenomenal editorial satire. Gifted artists pick up on the ridiculousness of our leaders in their feigned appearances and their questionable actions. They capture silliness in memorable images that cause us to understand the madness that surrounds us. I would so love to be able to sit with my father once again and study today’s comics together. I know we would surely laugh but we might also enjoy remarkable discussions about the state of the world. I missed out on being able to do that with him, one of the biggest regrets of my life. I think that we would have truly enjoyed learning from each other. 

The current situation in our democratic republic is so bizarre that it lends itself to the most remarkable comical cartoons. I have found myself laughing hysterically on a daily basis but then I realize the seriousness of our situation and I want to cry. Our way of governing has been seriously damaged in ways that will haunt our nation for decades to come. Most seriously has been the harm inflicted on our election processes. I am heartbroken by what I have witnessed and I think back to Russian taunts from my childhood that boasted of eventually destroying our country from within. Somehow as a nation we have unwittingly fallen victim to the lure of hoaxes and frauds to an extent that large numbers among us question our very foundations. The fact that they have been led by the President himself is concerning beyond anything I might ever before have imagined. Surely our enemies are crowing with delight as they watch us tearing one another apart. 

There is wisdom to be found in the comics. Political cartoons have been around far longer than we might imagine. When I toured Yorkminster cathedral a couple of springs ago the guide pointed out satirical images that the builders had left behind in the stonework and some that had made their way into the stained glass. We human have been sending messages through the imagination and creativity of imagery for hundreds of years. Amazingly the ideas are understandable even centuries later. 

I have found myself more and more often turning to the comics even before looking at the news. I find not only great wit but incredible foresight in them, much of which translates into a universal and timeless language. Peanuts and its characters are as meaningful today as they were fifty years ago. Pogo might have been created fifteen minutes ago. Mad Magazine and The Far Side continue to be relevant. 

Comics are my favorite way of tuning in to the pulse of society. Why not have a good laugh along with a cry? The balance of emotions has a way of putting everything into perspective. Laughter is indeed one of the best medicines that we possess.  

Finding Meaning

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Long ago I chose the contentment and sense of purpose that being an educator gave me over opportunities for amassing wealth or power. I’ve often heard the words, “you might have been anything” from disappointed relatives who expected greater things from me than quietly teaching for fifty decades. Indeed I might have chosen to be a doctor or a lawyer or any number of higher status, higher income professions but no matter how often I considered another career I always found myself returning to the classroom. 

I even went so far as to earn an advanced degree in the hopes of changing the direction of my work. My professors were certain that I would be a huge success in the corporate world and I certainly would have had opportunities to earn more with far less time and effort expended working than my life as a teacher had always demanded. I interviewed with some highly regarded companies and made it past initial interviews but somehow lost interest just as it appeared that I would launch a whole new career. It became more and more apparent to me that I did not want to leave the world of schools. 

Teachers are the salt of the earth, the foundation upon which every other job is built. Even the most lax among them really do work harder than most people are capable of imagining. Their job requires them to be alert every second that they are inside a classroom with their students. There is no rest of any great consequence during the school year. Teachers arise in the dark and travel to their campuses with their minds already working overtime as they mentally rehearse their lessons and think of students whom they want to inspire or comfort. The young people that they teach are never far from their minds, not even in their sleep. 

Days are long for teachers. Their labors do not end when the school bell rings and the students go home. Teachers cart boxes of papers to be graded to their cars and spend hours in the evenings and on weekends carefully analyzing the work of each little soul in their care. They surf the Internet looking for instructional ideas and ways to keep their pupils interested and learning. Their work becomes an obsession. Anyone who has ever lived with a teacher knows the extent to which work dominates an educator’s life. 

It’s been estimated that if the actual number of hours that teachers expend in connection with their jobs were to be counted and translated into an hourly remuneration, few would even receive minimum wage. Many dip generously into their paychecks to provide students with books and supplies not covered by school budgets. Teachers are heroes who do what they know is best for their pupils even when they receive little praise for their efforts. They carry on knowing that their may be no acknowledgement or reward for all of the unheralded things they do.

There were many goals that I wanted to accomplish with my students. To this day I berate myself for falling short more often than I might have wished. I have to admit to being obsessed with providing the best possible educational experience for my students and all too often I felt that I had failed them. One thing that I was able to control was my fairness toward them. I learned from a talented principal for whom I worked to leave wiggled room for the inevitable differences between students and situations when crafting my rules. I had to develop a wisdom rivaling that of Solomon to maintain a just and kind environment in my little domain. 

One summer I served as the principal for a school session designed for those who had failed one or more classes. I quickly learned that my role in that capacity would be to serve as a kind of Supreme Court judge, an arbiter between the students, teachers and parents. It was a touchy gig but I felt that I had somehow done the right thing when one of the students told me that I was great at being a “very nice mean principal.” I understood that he was attempting to compliment me for doing what was right and necessary without demeaning anyone. I’d like to think that my number one accomplishment as an educator was to be fair in my judgements of both student academic progress and behavior. 

On Christmas Day my daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren joined us on a Zoom conference that lasted over five hours. We discussed so many topics and somehow found ourselves speaking of education during the time of Covid-19 and the difficulties that the virus has evoked for both students and teachers. My daughters and grandchildren complained about a few teachers who were mostly distributing busy work and losing touch with students in ways that made their classrooms feel impersonal and sometimes even unfair. We were describing what makes a teacher equitable when my grandson Eli gave me one of the finest compliments I have ever received. He rather quietly asserted that “Gammy (me) is the most fair teacher I have ever met.” I doubt that anyone else even heard what he had said, but I did and it made my day. I always wanted my students to know that they could count on me to treat them as individuals with particular needs and that I would assess them with a willingness to know and understand who they were and why they did certain things. Eli knew these things because he loved hearing stories of my years as a teacher. He had clearly realized the central focus of my work.

There is no amount of money nor abundance of titles or honors that are as important in life as doing one’s best to be just. If the Covid-19 experience has taught us anything it is that our human relationships and how we foster them are actually the most important aspects of our existences. Each of us has an idea of how to lead a life filled with joy. Mine was being a person that my students could count on to see them as more than just another face in a crowded classroom. I saw wonder and promise in every little soul who passed my way and by being fair I hope I showed them how much I would always care for them. They are in my heart to this very day. They were the catalysts for the joy of finding meaning in my life.

Admission. Contrition. Atonement. Reconciliation

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My grandfather was a storyteller. He spun tales for most of his one hundred eight years on this earth. Every episode came from his youth and always had an unspoken moral that not only demonstrated the morays of an era but the characteristics that Grandpa believed were most important in a moral human. 

One of my favorite memories from his childhood was about two boys who got into a fight in the school yard. Things got so out of hand that one of them grabbed a tree limb that lay on the ground and used it as a kind of sword. He scratched his opponent’s face leaving bloody tracks. Then with a last violent thrust the boy pushed the end of the stick into his adversary’s eye stunning everyone witnessing the incident. 

My grandfather thought that the fatal blow was probably an accident but the damage was done. The victim lost all sight in his right eye over what had begun as a petty squabble. Grandpa told us that the perpetrator of the the injury was instantly contrite and began sobbing when he realized what he had done. Eventually the parents of the guilty young party announced that they would pay all of the injured boy’s medical bills and then provide him with a monthly stipend until their own son was able to make the payments himself. They signed a promissory note vowing to care for the blinded soul for the remainder of his life. 

Grandpa went on the explain that personal responsibility was the hallmark of the people of his community. He was saddened that the incident had occurred and felt that tempers had flared in a moment of pique, but he also agreed that it was wrong to simply leave the injured party to his own resources. He greatly admired the initiative of the family that did the responsible thing without need of lawyers or a court ruling. He suggested that if we were all so accountable the world would be a better place. 

I’ve often thought of Grandpa’s tale. So often adults behave like children, skirting their duties or  blaming others for the consequences of their words or their actions. It is an immature thing to to justify immoral actions by accusing others of doing even worse things. That is the kind of explanation that young people still in the processing of developing character use to defend their egregious actions. 

So often when I had to deal with recalcitrant students they wanted to justify what they had done by pointing out that everyone was doing the same kinds of things. Sometimes they accused me of having one set of rules for everyone else and another set for them. They felt beset upon for being caught and held accountable for their actions. They moaned about how unfair things were.

My goal as a teacher and a mother has always been to make teachable moments out of the times when an individual has done something bad. Owning our transgressions is the first step in repairing breached relationships. We cannot stop with accusations, recriminations or punishments. We must demand that those who are hurtful go through a process of admitting their guilt, expressing sorrow for what they have done, and accepting the consequences for their transgressions. Only then can there be meaningful forgiveness and reconciliation. 

I once had a student who had become so angry in a classroom that he began to cuss out the teaching, threatening to beat him to death. Of course we had to find a suitable punishment for him but I also wanted him to come to his own realization of the seriousness of his outburst. As I was guiding him through an analysis of the situation he broke down crying and admitted that he had trouble controlling his temper. He began to outline ways that he believed that we should hold him accountable. He actually described punishments more excessive than what we had thought of requiring him to do. He was not off of the hook simply expressing contrition. The added time spent guiding him to an admission of how he might have approached the situation differently and what the consequences should be was the beginning of important change for him. He eventually became a rather remarkable man but I doubt that would have happened without requiring him to endure all of the steps that lead to reconciliation. Like the young man in my grandfather’s story he took a giant leap toward maturity.

I am saddened by our president and those who love and admire him in that he and many of them seem unable to accept their own roles in the uprising in the Capitol last week. They point to the rioting and looting that sometimes occurred during the Black Lives Movement protests of the spring and summer as an excuse. They insist that we have misinterpreted their intent. They whine that they are always beset upon and hated, so of course they fight back. Then they tell us that punishing any of them will only inflame the intensity of the situation and lead to more violence. It is as though they are holding the victims of their seditious actions responsible for the damage down to our democracy. They beg for peace and reconciliation without contrition. This of course is the response of a child.

We must focus for the moment on what happened on January 6, not other events. Those involved either through direct action, lies or language that incited anger must own the roles that they played in the unfolding of that horrific assault on Congress. Healing and working together only comes after honest admission of wrongs committed, an expression of sorrow and a willingness to accept consequences. 

I look forward to a day when this may happen. In the meantime I cannot wait for the January 20 inauguration of our new President, Joseph Biden.

The Perils and Joys of Following My Heart

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I’ve had so much drama in my life that I have a tendency to shy away from conflict. When people become emotional and argumentative I try to smooth over the situation and walk away. I make grand attempts to keep my world calm and happy. I prefer overlooking personal insults or slights to becoming engaged in disagreements. I have been known to defer to the demands of someone insisting that I change to their way of doing things. Most of the time the impact of my peacekeeping has fallen on me and I don’t mind the inconveniences that surrendering in some instances has caused me. I generally have far more important battles to fight and I am a proponent of rarely sweating over the small stuff.  

Now and again I find myself in situations in which morality and fealty demand that I stand firm in my beliefs. No matter the cost, I must speak out. Such occasions are usually quite painful and often result in loss of relationships that I had thought to be solid and unbreakable. I have lost sleep over them and prayed earnestly that my choices have been wise rather than based solely on emotions. It takes courage and steadfastness to do what I believe in my heart to be right. 

Most such occasions have centered on very personal incidents such as finding the best care for my mother when her mental illness raged out of hand. She was a noncompliant patient to the very end of her life and we sometimes engaged in soul crushing fights about her need for therapy and medication. I had to persist in my demands that she see her doctors and follow their instructions. In her mind I came across as a control freak intent on ruining her life. For my part the child in me wanted to run away from my responsibility so that I might ignore the venom that spewed from her mind when she was in a psychotic state. I had to gird myself and fight for her even when my courage wavered. I learned from our battles when there could be no retreat and how to broker peace. Love was my shield and my spear. It guided me in doing what I had to do. 

I’ve had other experiences in my professional life that demanded that I not simply look away. I have had to shine a light on abusive practices from both parents and educators more than once. I had to muster every ounce of bravery that I had to defend both students and teachers from individuals who should never have been given the responsibilities of working inside schools. Sometimes rather than remain silent about injustices I had to stand up to administrators who had the power to dismiss me. At times I stood alone because others were afraid to join my crusade. Holding onto principles can be a very lonely experience. 

Nonetheless I remain humble and a bit guilt ridden because more often than not I have preferred to maintain the status quo, to remain calm rather than stir up a hornet’s nest. I have to admit to being a people pleaser, someone who longs to make people happy. I would prefer having someone else assume the role of truth teller. I like being able to hide behind the mantle of a true hero, someone who regularly tilts windmills and questions the way we treat our fellow humans. I so admire those willing to withstand horrific criticisms in order to do what they believe to be right. I mostly dream of being like them rather than actually becoming a true champion. 

Since this time last year the world has been turned upside down. Twelve months ago I was happily planning trips and filling my calendar with plans to attend the Houston Rodeo and to see a live performance of Elton John. I naively thought that I was in the slow quiet phase of my life when I would no longer be called upon to engage in a contentious battle for my principles. I had almost become immune to the bombast of our president. In essence I had simply tuned him out because I found most of what he said to be offensive blather. I did not realize the extent to which he had electrified a sizable portion of the electorate with his poisonous fears even though younger friends and members of my family were warning me of this.

Then came the pandemic and the realization that Trump was not up to the task of leading the nation to safety. He tried for a time but grew bored with the heavy lifting, instead wishing and hoping that by some magic it would all simply go away. He discouraged his followers from listening to the science. He led them by refusing to wear a mask or forego his crowded rallies and parties. He eventually even hurled insults and innuendo at the medical people who were valiantly fighting the war against the virus.

Then came the Black Lives Movement and instead of inviting its leaders to confer with him he threw gasoline on the situation by instead focusing on incidents of violence rather than the bigger picture of sincere citizens attempting to demonstrate their frustrations with an often inequitable and racist system. He had an opportunity to be a real hero but instead he bolstered his popularity with his base by making it seem unpatriotic to point out the flaws in our nations’s history that have yet to be resolved. 

As we approached election day our president became more and more concerned about his own prospects for reelection than about the cries of citizens suffering all across the land. The frenzy of his speeches and rallies created division and unfounded fears. He had no policies to present, only a litany of untruths and half truths that created anxieties at a time when his job should have been to reassure us all. 

I had to speak up publicly and on record as all of this unfolded. I saw this as a moment in which remaining silent and hoping for the best would be the most unpatriotic thing that I might do. Every ounce of my being warned me that we were on the threshold of a clear and present danger and like Paul Revere and others who rode with him I had to voice my concerns. The price I have paid is higher than I ever imagined. My patriotism has been questioned and I have borne the brunt of bruising insults. I have been unfriended by relatives and people I thought to be my friends. It has been an emotional journey but I am proud of myself for refusing to turn back.

When I watched the horror of January 6, 2021, unfold at our nation’s Capitol I knew that I had been right in my assessment of President Trump and his manipulation of the people of this this country. Sadly I had not understood the extent to which his constant barrage of lies and fear mongering had driven so many of my fellow citizens into a frenzy of insurrection. Even I had underestimated the effect of his negative rhetoric on people some of whom had become cult like in their deference to him. I did not fully realize how horrific things would become because so many overlooked the worst aspects of his personality defects  and chose to be silent even when they knew that he was pushing his followers to an allegiance not to the country, but to him. 

Now it is time for our president to pay the price of his inglorious behavior. It is time for those who encouraged him to lose their credibility and power as well. We must heal from the pandemic. We must finally face racism in our midst head on. We have to ask ourselves what we need to do to move our country forward, not backward. We can no longer simply look the other way when we see or hear hate being voiced. I expect to be fighting this late battle in my life until I have no more voice. This is the remarkable peril and joy of following my heart.

Liver and Onions

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When I was young my mother sometimes cooked cow liver with onions for our dinner. She considered it to be a kind of delicacy that was also good for preventing anemia. I viewed it as the grossest thing that ever came into our house. Just smelling it made me want to gag and the mere thought of ingesting it turned my stomach. It was one of the few times that I became a recalcitrant and whiny child, unwilling to accept the bounty of what Mama chose to prepare for our family meal. 

My brothers never balked at eating the vile innards of a cow but I was adamant that it would never pass my lips. My mom was just as insistent that I was free to leave my portion of the main course for others to share but she was not willing to prepare something different for me. She would point to the accompanying vegetables that might soothe my hunger but I was still not satisfied because I was literally unable to be in the same room with the offending liver without feeling quite ill. Mama’s solution to that problem was to announce that I was free to go outside until the rest of the family had finished dinner if I so chose and I always took her up on that offer. 

I’d stand in the yard gagging at the thought of my mother and brothers actually ingesting the foul protein. I felt like a valiant crusader for standing my ground and refusing to be part of the disgusting ritual of dining on liver and onions. Luckily my mother only chose to serve such a meal once in a blue moon so I was able to reserve my histrionics for a full blown rebellion on the occasions when she brought such a meal into our home. I suppose that we both thought we had won since neither of us were ever willing to back down. Luckily I have never been particularly in need of a regular round of meals so going to bed without dinner was a very small sacrifice for me but I never let my mother know how little in mattered to me. Instead I acted as though I was being unfairly tortured by her lack of understanding of my stance. 

My mother was of course a widow with three children to feed and an impossibly small income with which to purchase food. She had to be quite creative when it came to planning meals, never wasting a single ingredient for any reason. She did not have the luxury of catering to our dining whims and so her strictly enforced rule was that we either ate what she offered or passed on that particular meal. She never made us eat something we did not like but she taught us to begin with small portions, perhaps just enough to taste something to determine if we wanted more. While she never made us clean our plates her face demonstrated her concern if we were wasteful of the food that we had. It was painful for her to throw something in the trash. 

I cannot think of anything else that she prepared for us that I was unwilling to eat other than liver and onions. She was a wonderfully inventive cook who made even the most humble ingredients seems to be a gourmet treat. She had a knack for combining spices and common items in a way that was unique and tasty. I think she thought of liver and onions as a splurge and it hurt her feelings that I made such a show of disgust when she placed it on the menu. 

I suppose that I might have been a little more reserved and polite in my commentary. I should have just explained that I did not care to eat on the evenings when liver and onions were on the table and then taken a walk around the neighborhood until the disturbing food had been consumed and the kitchen cleaned of its odor. Instead I became a drama queen to emphasize my disgust with the whole thing. It was as though I wanted to destroy the moment for everyone and become the center of attention with my antics. 

Over time I learned how to curb shows of dislike with food. I am far more polite when I do not want to consume a particular type of food. I fill my plate with things that I prefer and use the trick of taking a small spoon of the offending item so that when it is left on the plate it appears that I simply ran out of appetite. Sometimes I do not even partake in a charade but simply choose only what I like to eat. In today’s world filled with so many vegetarians and vegans I can get by with only fruit and vegetables without drawing attention to my dislikes of things like lamb, eels, raw fish, tripe and such. 

Because of my own childhood experience I find myself feeling quite comfortable with anyone who admits that they do no wish to eat something that I have prepared. I understand that each of us have differing likes and dislikes when it comes to food. Nobody should ever have to ingest something that makes them queasy or that they feel is not good for them. It makes preparing a meal for a crowd more complex because these days there are so many different kinds of diets to accommodate. I have to take carbs, meat, allergens and general preferences into account and even then I sometimes find someone who can’t find anything satisfactory in the buffet that I have offered. 

We’ve learned a great deal about food and healthy diets since the days when my mother was so proud of her liver and onion delicacy. More and more people would no doubt be joining me in the yard if they were to encounter such a thing on a menu. Still I feel conflicted over how I behaved. On the one hand it felt good to stand my ground but on the other hand it now seems rather childish of me to have behaved so abominably. I now realize that it was really my mother who understood what to do. I imagine that she and my brothers had a rather enjoyable dinner sharing the extra portion of liver and being free from my pouting and dirty looks. Because of her wisdom it worked out well for everyone and I got the privilege of deciding for myself what I was willing to eat. She outsmarted me just as she always did.