The Final Entry

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I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

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The Humanity

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.

I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.

Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.

My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.

One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.

Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.

Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.

What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.

All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.

I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.

Hearts Bigger Than Mouths

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There are a number of celebrities who are finding themselves in deep trouble these days. It almost seems as though they believe that they are somehow immune from the rules that the rest of us have to follow. They operate from a different point of view inside the bubble of their wealth and fame. There are others who are constantly giving advice to the rest of us as though they somehow believe that their wisdom is more profound than ours. Then there is actor, Gary Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. I fell in love with the character that Mr. Sinise played in that movie but knew better than to attribute the fictional characteristics to the real man. Over time I’ve realized that Gary Sinise is perhaps one of  the finest men in Hollywood and perhaps even the whole country.

Gary has already set records for his new book Grateful American but most importantly he has proven to be a man who demonstrates his gratitude for his own good fortune by helping the members of the military and their families. He has invested countless dollars and hours in helping wounded warriors, gold star families, and those serving our country in war zones. He is a genuine hero in his own right, someone who is quite modest about the wonderful things that he has done for our armed forces. While others are tweeting and inciting anger, he is actually doing something positive, not to ingratiate himself with his fans, but because it is the right thing to do.

In many ways Gary Sinise reminds me of Jimmy Carter, another truly loving human who has spent his retirement years building homes for those who might otherwise have no place to live. People like Sinise and Carter have the right idea in doing positive things rather than always whining about our society and our country’s faults. They have answered the cry, “Well what are you going to do about that?” 

It’s easy to complain and to cast aspersions, but too few people actually attempt to right the wrongs that they see. They seek attention from social media or hurl insults during interviews on television, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to digging in to do the hard work. They think that just writing a check is all that they have to do to look and feel better, even if that check is to wrongfully pay for someone willing to cheat to get their children into prestige universities or if it is used as hush money to cover egregious acts. They are actors even in the realm of real life, playing a part that they believe we want to see, but rarely taking real action.

I’m also a fan of Glen Close. She is not only an extraordinary actress who probably should have won an Academy Award this year, but she is also an unrelenting advocate for the mentally ill. She is unafraid to weigh in on a topic that still has a strong element of taboo associated with it. We are so far behind in our treatment of those with mental illnesses that it is both a national tragedy and a shame. Ms. Close’s honesty and understanding regarding her family’s struggles with depression and bipolar disorder is helping so many who deal with similar issues to come forward and seek help.

Instead of using their money and their influence for Prada shoes or Gucci purses those who have reached the heights of fame and fortune might emulate those who find joy and purpose in helping others. If more people would follow the lead of Gary Sinise or Glen Close or Jimmy Carter many of the ills that we face might at the very least begin to fade. It’s up to each of us for that matter to find a cause and then do our best to contribute our time and our talents.

It only takes a few hours a week to mentor a student who needs either academic or psychological help. Just providing a bit of wisdom and compassion goes a long way in helping a young person to navigate the minefields of want or neglect. There are children who benefit from the attention of a coach or a leader. I recall a very nice man who took the time to help one of my brothers with his pitching and served as an advocate for advancing my brother’s talent. This man brought so much joy to a young man who never knew what it was like to have a dad.

I recently watched an episode of Frontline that reported on those with severe mental illnesses who are attempting to live independently. Sometimes they need to know that someone is watching over them, checking in regularly to make sure that they are doing well. My brothers and I did that for our mom but all too often mentally ill persons are abandoned by frustrated families and doctors who grow weary of their noncompliance with treatments. They need the type of kindness that my mother’s neighbors and coworkers always showed her. She would never have survived as well as she did without a village of people quietly acting as her guardian angels.

I know sweet people who regularly visit elderly relatives or family members, bringing sunshine into other’s somewhat dreary lives. There are others who answer every call for food, every request for support for a team or a cause. They don’t just look the other way. They regularly spend their vacation time on medical missionary tours or working in clinics that serve the underserved. We rarely hear such people boasting or complaining because they are too busy getting things done.

I’ve got a hero list and it is comprised of such individuals. Some of them are famous like Gary Sinise. Others are folks that nobody has heard of save their friends. All of them have hearts that are bigger than their mouths, generosity that is selfless. We could certainly do with more of that.

When the Rich Get Richer

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I’m livid about the college admissions scandal that is rocking the nation with its accusations of cheating by moneyed parents in order to obtain spots for their children. As an educator I am appalled but not really surprised by the idea that wealthy families are buying their way into prestigious universities. The whole affair speaks to monumental problems with the way things work in the acceptance process for schools and it addresses the pressures that our college bound students are facing, particularly when they lack influence or financial backing. As far as I am concerned this story reveals only the tip of a very dangerous iceberg and a societal problem that we have generally refused to discuss openly. There is something very wrong with the way things presently work and it is hurting everyone of us.

Right now suicides and attempts at suicide are at an all time high among high school and college age students. It’s a complex issue with so many facets that narrowing it down to just one thing is ludicrous. Nonetheless we have to consider the pressures to attend the top universities as one of the reasons that our kids are so anxious. The almighty class ranks and test scores are dominating their teen years. High schools are no longer ranked just by the number of graduates but also by the number of students taking advanced placement classes, the scores of students on the various tests, the number of students being accepted into universities and the supposed quality of the university admissions.

To get to the pinnacle of their high school careers students are carrying almost impossible study loads and being urged to compliment their academic achievements with participation in sports, extra curricular activities, and community service. Our kids are leaving their homes before dawn, arriving back home after dark and studying into the wee hours of the night so that they might receive acceptance letters from the most coveted schools. They are continually challenged  and ranked and asked to perform better and better. The idea of personal bests pushes them to the point of exhaustion and steals away time with their families. Little wonder that so many are crashing and burning. Few adults work as many hours without relaxation as so many of our high school students presently do just so they will rank high enough, score high enough  and perform well enough to one day gain admittance to one to a top university.

We’ve always known that wealthy families buy buildings, support athletic programs and serve on collegiate boards expecting payback in the form of special treatment for their children. I suppose I don’t have to mention the names of famous people who graduated from Ivy League universities without seeming to have had the intellect to do so. Money has always talked, but the new schemes are particularly egregious. How many worthy students have languished on a waiting list while a less qualified but rich son or daughter of a scion has been welcomed to a big name school with open arms?

Given the revelations of cheating what are we to tell the students who are genuinely attempting to demonstrate their worth? How do we convince them that the deck isn’t stacked against them before they even try? Furthermore, why are we as a society so convinced that the diplomas from the more highly regarded schools are worth more than others?

I’m a graduate of the University of Houston and quite proud of the education that I received there. I had the grades and the chops to attend the more elite schools but as the child of a single parent I did not have the resources or connections to be able to afford attending such places. I happily commuted from home each day and learned from some incredible professors who worked hard to inspire me. I was a Summa Cum Laude graduate who had won several academic honors. I quickly learned after landing my first job that what counted most was the quality of my work. No body ever again wanted to know where I had earned my degree, what my GPA had been, or whether or not I had earned honors. As far as my employers were concerned my performance each day was of the most importance, and I worked hard to earn their respect. That was all that really mattered.

There have always been individuals whose lives were set for success even before they went to school. The influence of their families has been their key to getting and staying in high paying jobs. The rest of us have to work our way to the top, but I wonder if starting that grind too early can have devastating effects on the overall development of our young. There is a time and a season for everything and if we join the rat race too soon we will eventually burn out. We have to learn how to find balance in our lives, so why are we pushing our students to levels of dedication that are unhealthy both physically and mentally? Do we not understand that wide scale cheating is a symptom that should tell us that something is very wrong?

I recall conversations with high school teachers about preparing students for college and beyond. What few high school educators note is that university students are not stuck in a classroom for seven to eight hours a day and then given enormous amounts of homework, research projects, and papers to write in the hours when they are at home. In college there may be three or four hours of class time each day with many more hours to complete course requirements. If the students wants to participate in extra curricular activities they can, but that is not forced on them. In other words, college presents a far easier schedule than most of today’s high schools do.

It’s time that we adults speak up for our young, and speak out against the practices of testing companies, admission policies, grading systems, continual ranking and other processes that are wreaking havoc with our teens. Learning should be our focus, not competition. The experience should be joyful and meaningful, not a source of stress. Until we repair the damage that has been done we no doubt will continue to see greedy individuals taking advantage of the gaming nature of the system. So far fifty people have been implicated in the latest scandal. Something tells me that the real number is in the thousands or perhaps the hundred thousands. We are sending our young a horrible message and we have to change that now. 

Our Little Angels

Cooper and Luna

I have a little friend at the house for a few days. His name is Cooper and he is my grand dog. Over the years Cooper has been here for many sleepovers while his family travels. He’s no trouble at all and he brings a great deal of love when he comes. This year he had some tough times. He had surgery in the fall and for a while we really wondered if he was going to make it. Thanks to a good vet and some tender loving care from his family he has rallied back, but he’s really showing signs of being an old man now. His coat is becoming more and more grey over time and his legs don’t always work as well as they once did so he sometimes struggles just to get up from a resting position. He doesn’t do much running around theses days. Instead his pace is slow, steady and deliberate. He’s missing teeth that he once had, making him look a bit forlorn.

There was a time when Cooper was athletic enough to leap up onto our bed like a super hero. We would awake in the morning to find him snoring at our feet. Now he can’t even climb the stairs to be with Mike in the man cave the way he used to do. Now He prefers having a soft quilt on which to relax, and even then he struggles a bit to find a comfortable position. Still, he’s as lovable as can be and enjoys back scratches and tummy rubs as much as he ever did.

Cooper is little trouble. He only barks when he wants to go outside or when it’s time for a meal. It’s nice of him to remind us to take care of his needs because we sometimes get busy and don’t notice what hour it is. He dutifully lets us know what he wants and when he wants it. The rest of the time he mostly follows us around and watches us doing our chores. He is a model guest and a great companion, so we never mind having him. He’s as sweet a dog as ever there was.

Cooper doesn’t play much these days. When he was younger he was like an athletic clown, making us laugh with his antics and prowess. He often flew into our laps wherever we happened to sit and ran across the yard with ease. Since he was adventurous we had to be certain that there were no cracks along the fence line or he would find a way to wiggle outside of the barrier and wander around the neighborhood exploring. He wound up at somebody else’s house more than once. We’ve engaged in many a frantic search but we always found him and felt a sense of relief along with a great deal of amusement.

Cooper is a pug, by the way, and as cute and sweet as that breed of dog generally is. His eyes have always been so enchanting. All he has to do is stare at us and we have to give in to whatever he wants. Now they are a bit sorrowful owing to the passage of time and the aging of his body, but he is still irresistible when he uses them to beg. He knows that I am a real pushover when he patiently stares at me with his now old man puppy face.

We haven’t had a dog of our own for some time now. We are always on the go and having to consider the needs of a pet just doesn’t work with our present lifestyle. I imagine that we will eventually slow down just the way Cooper has. Maybe then we will once more enjoy the companionship of a dog. A large creature like a golden retriever or a collie might be fun but I like the idea of a lap dog like Cooper. I want a pet who can sit beside me in a chair without taking up too much room. I like the idea of a pet that I might cuddle without feeling as though I am being crushed by its weight.

It’s little wonder that dogs are used to service people with disabilities. They are so remarkably loving and conscious of our moods and our well being. They communicate with us as though they understand exactly how we are feeling. When we are happy they rejoice with us. When we are sad they loyally offer us comfort. It’s a silly idea, but also quite profound to note that the word dog is God spelled backwards. In so many ways they are indeed like little angels sent to love and care for us as long as we treat them well.

I’m happy that my grandchildren have grown up with pets. Their dogs have all been sweet and quite smart. I’ve loved them as if they were my own and grieved when they passed. I wish that our dogs would last longer than they do. We become so close to them that our hearts break when they die. It is as though a member of the family is gone, and we remember them forever.

It saddens me a bit to know that Cooper is truly an old dog and that he shows so many signs of slowing down. I want to enjoy him as much and as often as I can while I still have the chance. He has burrowed his way quite deeply into my heart. These days he does nothing extraordinary other than to be as sweet as he ever was. I take joy in simply listening to him snore as he lies at my feet. I laugh when he barks at me to let him go outside or indicates that he wants me to give him a treat or a bit more food. I could sit all day just watching him sleep. There is great comfort in having him near.