Ridiculous Dreams

dreams

My grandchildren tell me that their high schools are crowded with thousands of students. I have a difficult time relating to that concept because there were probably fewer than six hundred students in the school from which I graduated and under five hundred kids in the high school from which I retired from my career in education. I enjoyed the benefit of personalization for young men and women navigating their way to college and careers in both my own youth and my work life. Keeping secondary schools small nurtures an atmosphere for truly getting to know and understand each and every person. It creates a caring environment that allows for crafting graduation plans that take into account the needs of individuals. It helps each person to feel loved and important.

It’s so easy for students and perhaps even teachers to get lost in mega high schools. With thousands of people in a system it is a constant battle just to keep a semblance of order. There are never enough counselors to get to know each student as a person. People fall through the cracks of a one size fits all kind of education. Generally only those specifically protected because of their special needs receive a more custom designed education. Classrooms and hallways are crowded and teachers are overwhelmed with duties. There is little time and almost no patience for those who feel lost or ignored by the system. The squeaky wheels often get punished and those who quietly just get by sometimes lose interest. A great deal of human capital is wasted simply because it is so difficult to reach everyone in a factory like atmosphere. From time to time the truly disturbed resort to violent outbursts to gain the attention that they seek and actually need.

I have long held that no high school should be bigger than around one thousand students and even that number is a bit large. Having around two hundred fifty kids in each grade is more than enough for teachers and counselors to handle. Classes need to be restricted to twenty five or less and there should be a team of both an academic, emotional and college/career counselor for each one hundred twenty five students. Nobody is a cipher in a school that has a team of grade level teachers, three grade level counselors and a grade level chairperson diligently watching over the unique needs of each individual. The school becomes a kind of family unit away from home. People have the time to really “see” each person.

Teens are experiencing an upheaval of hormones and emotions. They are frantically attempting to determine where their lives should lead. They are dealing with social issues, physical and psychological changes, and academic challenges all at the same time. Some seem to easily handle the process but the vast majority would benefit from guidance tailored to individual personalities and abilities. In the mega high schools this becomes a tall order if not an impossibility. Each adult’s workload is so expansive that there has to be a strict and unyielding  set of rules to keep operations running smoothly. It’s not that nobody cares. It’s a matter of having only so many hours in a day to get things done. The task of keeping tabs on every single student in a large school is almost insurmountable. There are inevitably those who fall through the cracks.

There are many arguments that creating a caring and hands on environment in high schools does not properly prepare students for the harshness of the adult world. Some feel that the best approach is to figuratively throw the kids into the water and hope that they swim rather than sink. The efforts to save them are reserved for those about to go under, believing that choking on a little water is no big deal. While there is some merit to the idea of toughening our youth before they meet the real world, a small school allows for doing so in carefully monitored increments in which students feel ultimately safe. They may make mistakes, but they have adults who continually help them to learn valuable lessons from them. They graduate well versed in knowledge but also in how to navigate to and through the rest of their lives.

One aspect of the KIPP Charter Schools that is exceptional is that there are teams of adults who continue to stay in touch with former students even after they have graduated from high school. These adults are literally on call to help graduates with any kind of problems that begin to impede their progress in becoming the very best of themselves. The responsibilities of the schools do not end when the students receive their diplomas. Representatives regularly travel to college campuses and hold gatherings where the young men and women are able to openly discuss the difficulties with which they are dealing. In other words there is an army of support that continues without limits.

I worked in a KIPP high school. Many of my former students have returned to the KIPP Charter schools to work as teachers, counselors and support personnel. They realize with gratitude that their own lives were dramatically improved by the efforts of an army of adults who viewed each of them as being worthy of a program individually designed. They are the products of a powerful statement of action that taught them that each and every life matters.

What I propose is both radical and expensive but wise individuals might find ways to make such visions become possible. If we do not dream then when can’t really expect our children to think out of the box either. The best ideas have almost always sounded ridiculous until the were not. 

The Frogs

lucky frogMy grandchildren are becoming all grown up. They are all either teens or young adults in their twenties. The days of hearing the seven of them tearing through my house playing chase or hide and seek are gone. Now they are more likely to play quiet sedentary games or engage in conversations with us older folk. They have hundreds of questions about history and enjoy discovering the movies and music that are classics from the sixties, seventies and eighties. It’s rather wonderful spending time with them because our interactions are more and more adult and they become sweeter as they age, as unafraid to admit their love as they were when they were toddlers. They no longer hide with embarrassment when they see us approaching them while they are in the company of their friends. They quite openly smile at us, squeeze us with great hugs, and express their feelings with honesty. They even solicit advice and listen to our stories with keen attention.

It’s nice to know that they are going to be the kind of adults who will do a grand job of moving our world into the future. I have to give a nod of approval to my daughters and sons-in-law for parenting jobs well done. There’s still some minor work to be completed before they are fully launched into adulthood but things are looking quite promising.

I’m quite proud of the next generation but sometimes I miss the little ones with their innocent joyfulness and laughter that used to echo through the rooms of our home whenever they came to visit. When I see grandparents with babies and toddlers I remember how much fun it was to escape into a wonderland of joyful abandon when my own grandchildren hung on my every word and laughed at even the lamest of jokes.

These days I enjoy entertaining the children of my nephews and nieces who are still in the fanciful stage of development. They wander through my house giggling and asking delightfully silly questions about the most unexpected things. They notice items that I have on display that I sometimes forget that I even have. Among their favorites are my frogs, a trio of amphibians associated with my teaching days that remind me of dear friends that I now rarely see. They are whimsical and as adorable as the children who are invariably fascinated by them, the source of smiles and maybe even a story or two.

The oldest of my frog family lives upstairs in what I fondly call “the children’s room.” She is a rather lovely creature who sits atop a shelf filled with books, games, photos of former students and mementoes from my long career as a teacher. She was a birthday gift from a counselor at South Houston Intermediate, a quite beautiful woman with an impish sense of humor. The frog, not the lady, has green leathery skin and incredibly long and skinny legs that seem almost incongruent with her plump midsection. I hate to admit that her figure now resembles my own rather closely but like me she hides her flaws under a carefully selected outfit. Her gingham dress is bright and cheery and the little apron that protects it also serves as a way to keep her fat belly from being noticeable. She has lovely eyes that protrude with a kind of happiness that matches her grin. She holds a little net for catching flies and she used to boast a cute wide brimmed straw hat but it somehow got lost over the years. She is as cute as can be and nary a child fails to notice her. In fact I do believe that she might give Miss Piggy a run for her money in attracting Kermit the frog if given the chance.

The next frog that game to live with me is from Chinatown in New York City. I bought him at the suggestion of an art teacher who had invited me to join her for an award ceremony at Carnegie Hall where one of our students was to be honored. She showed me the frog in a crowded shop and convinced me that I needed to take hime home.

He’s a fierce looking but friendly character who stands guard by my front door. He is like a soldier on duty with his immovable bearing and elegant red coat. He perennially holds a quarter in his mouth which is supposed to be a sign that we will never find ourselves without the funds we need to survive. His fabled story insists that he is a bearer of luck, a creature who represents good fortune, tranquility and harmony. He is also the one object inside my house who totally fascinates every child who enters. They are never sure whether to love him or fear him until he gently allows them to take his quarter without harm. Then they seem to understand that he may look gruff but he is indeed a kind fellow whose only job is to be steadfast in his duties.

The youngest of my frog family was yet another gift from a colleague at work. He is lustrous and elegant, well toned and athletic. His sleek body and strong legs give him the appearance of an Olympic god. He proudly poses as though he is modeling his lovely attributes. His skin is a combination of jade mottled with ebony and tiny flecks of gold. He is a muscular creature who might join the ranks of the Avengers and fit right in with the superheroes. He is worthy of belonging to a king or a queen even though his actual monetary value is not great. There is just something remarkable about him that nobody fails to notice, especially youngsters who view him with a kind of reverence. They want to know who he is and why he is in my house. I always tell them that he is a treasure that reminds me of the glory of my teaching days and the dear friends who once worked with me.

I love all three of my frogs. Until I googled the word frog I had little idea of their storied history. They are the stuff of literary metaphor. No wonder they make me and my visitors smile. Mostly they remind me of other times in my life that I shared with people who brought me the good fortune that only comes from treasured friendships. Frogs are a sign of a peaceful and accomplished life and in my own case they are reminders that I did something meaningful for young people along with so many devoted people who worked alongside me. How wonderful is that!   

Alike and Unique

Aunt Valeria

For as long as I can remember I’ve been told that I look just like my mother, my father, both of my grandmothers, my brothers, my aunts, my cousins, my daughters, my grandchildren. When people view me they see different things emphasizing certain traits in their minds. I’m certainly not a doppelgänger of anyone in my extended family, but the resemblances are there. I noticed that as I grow older I take on a kind of generic similarity to my relations even though I don’t appear to be a twin of any of them. It seems as though in the process of aging we take on characteristics similar to those of a baby without the external trappings of hair, makeup or clothing to distract from the essence of our appearance. We begin to look more and more alike.

I have a one hundred year old aunt from my mother’s side of the family. Invariably when I visit her at her nursing home someone will tell me that I am a carbon copy of her. My aunt doesn’t hear well these days so when I recently related such a comment to her in writing she commented with her trademark sense of humor, “Poor girl!” with a sly grin on her face.

The fact is that I have often thought that she and I resemble one another in a number of ways but most of them have more to do with the genetic makeup of our health issues rather than outward appearance. I somehow inherited the same propensity for osteoporosis and migraine headaches that have plagued her to the point of landing her in a wheelchair for many years whereas my own mother had none of those things.

I suppose that if a very observant artist or writer were to seriously analyze my facial features I would be found to more closely resemble my father and my youngest brother than anyone else in our big family. Such is also true of one of my grandsons and a nephew who bear a preponderance of features very similar to those of my dad. It’s funny how that works and often leads to one of those strange moments when finding an old photograph of an ancestor who appears to be a twin to one of the living relatives. It’s one thing to pick up the habits and nuances of people with whom we frequently interact to the point of seeming to be just like them, but it’s rather remarkable to discover an ancient still image that is eerily like a living descendent. Our DNA has a way of repeating patterns.

I now look at myself in the mirror and I see my face as a kind of microcosm of hundreds of years, perhaps thousands in a long line of people leading to me. Of course it never occurred to them to ponder so far into the future but I am intrigued by the thought of who they might have been and which of their traits I share. When I consider the miracle of those clumps of cells forming in a woman’s womb to make a new person with the evolved characteristics of people from the past I am in awe. It is breathtaking to consider the magnificence of the process of the creation of a human life and something not to be taken for granted.

Since joining Ancestry,com I have been able to put names, if not faces, to the people who came before me. I have put my spit in a test tube and sent it for DNA analysis. Through that process I have found distant cousins that I did not know existed. I have become a member of a Facebook group of people related to my paternal grandmother. I read their posts and their stories and realize that we share so many commonalities without ever having known each other before. Learning about them has made me feel an even stronger connection to humanity than ever before. It has made me realize that on the whole we share many more commonalities than differences even as we are separated by time and distance. I sometimes wonder if people would think we look or act alike if we had the opportunity to come somehow come together. Would the world instinctively know that we are related?

It’s difficult to imagine disrespect for human life whenever I think of how much I share with other people. There are basic traits that course through all of us. We laugh and cry and bleed and hurt in much the same ways. It seems contrary to common sense that we would ever think that one human is less worthy than another when we are so intertwined by our commonalities. The things that separate us are mostly cosmetic. If we were to be stripped down to the essence of who we are we might begin to look almost like reproductions of one another, just as babies and old people do.

At any given moment I do indeed look like my aunt or any of the people to whom I am related. I also resemble the more generic characteristics of being human just as we all do. It tells me to value myself and the people that I encounter. Each of us is both alike and unique. Perhaps there is nothing more important than treasuring every single life from the moment that we first begin to form to the instant when we take our last breaths. If we were to continually bear that in mind perhaps we might find ourselves in a more peaceful and just world. Languages and cultures may differ but the marrow in our bones and the blood in our veins tell us that we are the same.

The Journey to the Future

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I’m beginning to understand my paternal grandfather more without gaining any concrete knowledge about his life before he met my grandmother. I’ve been researching the hints that he gave me about his heritage and in the process my understanding of what life may have been like for him has become clearer. At the same time I’ve learned more about life in the United States in the part of the world where he grew up as a boy. By following the tiny red thread of comments that he left I see a picture of the influences that touched him both as a boy and a young man.

He always insisted that he was Scotch Irish which always seemed to be an oxymoron until I learned about the people from southeastern Scotland who journeyed on a odyssey that took them first to Ireland and eventually to the hills of Virginia and Kentucky in search of a home where they might be free to live and think without rancor. In the woods and secluded areas of what we now call Appalachia they found a way to be left alone, at least for a time. Just as my grandfather described they lived far from towns and cities in isolation among the forests and in the shadow of the mountains. They mostly farmed and kept to themselves often retaining the distinctive accents that they had brought from across the ocean.

The Civil War changed things for the entire country and the people in western Virginia were particularly affected by the strive and divisions that were literally tearing the nation and whole families apart. In choosing sides brother sometimes turned against brother and hard feelings, combined with the violence of war, left a lasting impact on the people who had always wanted little more than to live their lives without interference. With the end of the war the feuding that had disrupted routines often continued and as shown in a recent episode of American Experience on PBS it sometimes reached epic proportions as in the violent rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys.

By the waning years of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of the United States and few were entirely immune to its effects. In the parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky near where my grandfather spent his boyhood businesses from the northeast came in search of coal to drive the industries that depended on that black substance from the earth. The land on which my grandfather lived was filled with it. In fact he told vivid stories of his grandmother owning a small coal mine on her property.

With the mines came railroads and strangers whose interests had little to do with the people in their way. The once pastoral land was stripped of trees and filled instead with mining operations including barracks style housing for the workers. Sometimes the labor of digging into the earth imposed itself on the land of the farmers. Where people and animals had once roamed free there were now restrictions on where passage was afforded.

Those with enough gumption to leave generally did better than those who decided to keep their families intact by staying. Once my grandfather lost the woman who had raised him (his grandmother) he had little reason to remain on the land. He was barely thirteen at the time and mostly on his own although he stuck around long enough to help out his father for a time. As soon as he was able, however, he struck a blow for freedom traveling in search of an acceptable way of life just as his Scotch Irish ancestors had done before him. He only returned to his boyhood home once and learned that there was nothing to keep him there.

My grandfather often spoke of the hardships of his youth and the intelligence of his grandmother in keeping both of them fed and safe. She was a rather amazing woman, living alone with a child and commanding respect from the community. She was light years ahead of the general customs of the time with her independent spirit and folksy knowledge of medicine. She owned rights to a coal mine on her property and kept her farm going without the aid of any man other than a boy. From what I can tell she was somewhat like the other hardscrabble women in that part of the country where shrinking violets never made it very well.

Grandpa entered the twentieth century ready to be part of the great move of progress that defined the United States throughout that era. He was part of the building boom that created iconic structures from sea to shining sea. He was on the move not so much to hide away but to experience the modernization of the country. He was proud of the work he did and the inventiveness of the United States. He saw his life from the promise of the windshield and not from the nostalgia of the rearview mirror. His philosophy was to embrace progress and to build a better future. I suppose that’s why he said little about his world back in the hills of Virginia. The past didn’t matter to him as much as the present and what was still to come. Perhaps he understood that standing still and looking back leads to stagnation and stagnation leaves one without hope.

The world is ever changing and my grandfather taught me not to be afraid of letting go of the past. He believed that the good old days are always ahead of us, not behind. We can treasure our history but it would be foolish to be mired in it. Progress marches on and the wise know when its time to join the future.

A Sense of Happiness

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Does anybody remember Leon Hale? He was a writer for both The Houston Post and The Houston Chronicle who traveled around the city of Houston and the state of Texas writing about this and that. His columns revealed a man who was always on the lookout for a good story, and over the years he found hundreds that delighted readers like me. His best ones were often about rather ordinary people who came to life under the magic of the words he chose to use to describe them. His talent was so profound that he somehow made the mundane incredibly interesting. He had an eye for finding the beauty in a single moment or face or comment.

I know I would have enjoyed sitting down with Leon Hale to talk about his decades of adventures with folks. I would have liked to ask him how he developed his writing craft so well, but I suppose I already know many of the answers because he was masterful at noting even the tiniest details about his subjects and then finding words and phrases that painted pictures without so much as a single photograph. His was indeed a brilliant talent that brought me many years of joy. Even on days when I was too busy to peruse the other pages of the newspaper I found time to see what Mr. Hale had to say and I was never disappointed.

Leon Hale taught me as much about humor, love, acceptance and other such positive characteristics of the human heart as the sermons I heard in church. He got me to thinking about the best inclinations of humankind and his stories were as uplifting to my spirit as readings from a book of meditations. He also had a knack for describing people and situations with unique combinations of words that invariably brought out emotions that either made me laugh or cry. I literally felt as though I knew him and the people that he introduced in his tales.

The glory days of local newspapers are dimming. Houston was once a two newspaper town long before it was even close to being the forth largest city in the country. The Houston Post, which was always my personal favorite, went the way of dinosaurs long ago and The Houston Chronicle is just a shell of its once glorious self. A Sunday morning edition used to be so big that it came in two separate rolls from the paperboy. Now it is so slim that it’s hardly recognizable. It’s surface area is vastly diminished as is the quality of writing between its pages. Before long it won’t be too far different from the little suburban newsletters that come out once a month.

It was the printing press that wrought dramatic change in the world. As ordinary folk had more and more access to books and newspapers equality became more possible. The new revolution has been on the technology front with news and print entertainment on demand at any given moment. A morning or evening run of a hard copy is old news by the time it arrives and is less and less cherished by avid readers than it once was. Computers allow us to see the latest information whenever we wish. Blogs provide us with almost infinite numbers of writers that we might follow. The new Leon Hales can live and write in Texas and then publish for a worldwide audience within minutes.

I am definitely an electronic reader. I use my various devices to read wherever I go. I don’t have to cull through dogeared magazines about topics that have little interest for me when I wait to see my doctors because I have my trusty phone to keep me apprised of breaking news or to provide me with columns from writers that I enjoy. I even have a Kindle app that allows me to read from the latest best selling books. Still, there is something about the look and feel of paper and printed letters formed from ink that adds to the reading experience. Actually holding a physical copy of writing is as enticing to the senses as wearing fine perfume.

The glow of letters on a screen just ins’t as exciting as holding a printed version of a story or a book and I always have the sense that I may be missing something important whenever I read from an electronic device. I understand and learn best when I have a fully kinesthetic experience in which I can actually manipulate the words by circling or underlining them or making comments in the margins. I like to put paper tabs on certain pages or turn down the corners of the sections that contain my favorite passages. Not even mechanical highlighters on ebooks do the job as well for me. My photographic memory feels a bit lost in the world of computers, notepads and phones. I have to spend too much time remembering where all of my information is stored. With a paper copy I know exactly where to look.

Several years ago I rid myself of all of my long playing record albums and I had quite an extensive collection They took up a great deal of room in my house and I was more inclined to play CDs which were far easier to store and rarely had a scratchy sound from overuse. Eventually even my CDs became rather arcane and I was more likely to stream music to one of my devices. Low and behold LPs became a thing again, a kind of homage to authenticity in music.

One of my grandsons is slowly building a collection of records from artists of my generation. He finds them in thrift shops and half price stores. It pains me to know what a treasure trove of music I once had that I might have given to him as a gift. Instead I was a bit too quick to convert to the new ways. For some reason I have not been able to do the same when it comes to the written word. I still have books and magazines all over my house. Some are growing so old that the paper inside is yellowed and fragile which makes them even more precious in my mind.

I suppose that there is a good argument for conserving natural resources by using only electronic versions of writing. I think of all of the trees that were cut down just to satisfy the human search for knowledge. While the Amazon forest burns we might consider being more conscious of the cost to our world of eschewing more modern methods for reading. Perhaps it’s time for me to retrain my brain to be more appreciative of the evolution of the reading experience. It’s certainly more democratic and inclusive. Nevertheless, I still miss sitting with the latest copy of Leon Hale’s column and reading with enthusiasm as my fingers become smudged with newsprint and the paper makes a crinkling sound as I hold it on my lap. I can almost see it, hear it, and feel it now. It gives me such a visceral sense of happiness. I miss that.