I Have Seen

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I will be seventy two years old when my birthday rolls around in November. In my lifetime I have seen:

  • Black men and women forced to sit in the back of a bus in which I was able to move around freely.
  • Signs on water fountains and bathrooms designating “White” and “Colored.”
  • Areas of my city designated as the “black” part of town.
  • Little Black children being sent to separate and unequal schools.
  • Restaurants and lunch counters where Black citizens were not allowed to eat.
  • Poll taxes and tests that restricted Black adults from voting.
  • An unspoken rule that Black people needed to leave certain places after sundown.
  • The lynching of Black men.
  • Groups of Black people protesting peacefully to procure their rights.
  • Black children courageously undergoing anger and derision for daring to integrate schools.
  • Black leaders being jailed and assassinated.
  • Black families being ignored and derided for moving into formerly white neighborhoods.
  • Black people enduring insults while taking full advantage of the educational system once it was finally open.
  • A Black man inaugurated as the President of the United States, loved by most and reviled by some.
  • A Black woman becoming one of the wealthiest and most highly respected people in the world.
  • Black people living on my street in harmony with the “United Nations” of our cul de sac.
  • Black people being stopped for traffic violations on an avenue near my home where officers seem to look the other way when the same infractions are committed by whites.
  • Black people ending up dead when they are stopped or arrested for minor non violent infractions.
  • Black people being shot by rogue citizens taking the law into their own hands.
  • A renowned Black professor being arrested and harassed for entering his own home.
  • Innocent Black souls being shot while they worshipped at church.
  • Black athletes kneeling during the National Anthem to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter.
  • A Black man being shot while jogging through a neighborhood.
  • A Black man pleading for his life while a police officer kneeled on his neck.

Even as I write this incomplete list of the history that I have witnessed my chest contracts and my stomach clinches while I fight to hold back tears of both sorrow and anger. Somehow I feel complicit in the unfair treatment of our Black population because I have watched it unfolding but done so little to make it go away. Now I see that we all must do everything within our power to eradicate the virus of racism that continues to fester in our midst. We can no more ignore the devastating death and destruction of discrimination than the we can pretend that Covid 19 is a hoax.

We cannot change history but we can undo the foul stench of prejudice in our midst. We have to call it what it is and quit pretending that it no longer exists. There is nothing good about self appointed vigilantes who shoot Black teenagers or joggers simply because they appear to be up to mischief. There is nothing good about police officers who hold a Black man down with a knee on the neck for five minutes while the captive cries out that he is dying and can’t breathe. There is nothing good about demonstrations of white people carrying guns and Confederate flags who are left alone even though their behavior is threatening. Somehow a Black man attempting to sell loose cigarettes ends up dead from an arrest but white people carrying Tiki torches and shouting Nazi slogans walk free and are even described as “good people” by the president.

Surely we can see how wrong these things are and how they fester and grow when we ignore a racist comment or refuse to admit that a problem of discrimination is still alive and well. Surely we must understand how frightening it must be for a Black mother to send her Black son out into a world in which an encounter with the wrong person may lead to his death. Surely we can understand the frustrations that an entire group of people in our country are feeling because the evidence is clear that there are people among us who only see color, not a real person with feelings and accomplishments and a loving family. Surely it is becoming clearer to us that for some Black lives don’t seem to matter as much as white ones. Surely we must work as hard as our Black friends and neighbors to eradicate prejudice and to celebrate each individual with dignity and respect.

I watched the movie Glory Memorial Day. There is a single scene in that movie that seems to encapsulate the fear and degradation and anger of the Black experience. The character portrayed by Denzel Washington is being punished for an infraction by being whipped. As he bears the pain of the lashes the camera zooms in on his face. His lips twitch and his nostrils flare as he attempts to control his feelings and demonstrate his courage and his pride as a man. Then as though he cannot control the emotions that lie within his heart a single tear rolls down his face. His humiliation is complete.

This week as I watched the killing of George Floyd I was stunned. For five minutes the cruelty that was inflicted on him was almost too horrific to watch, but I made myself endure every single second. Mr. Floyd begged for his life. He could not breathe. His body hurt all over. He pleaded that he was dying. Finally he called out for his Mama. All the while the loathsome police office who was pinning him down had his hand in his pocket and at one point he even appeared to apply even more pressure on Mr. Floyd’s neck. The other officers did nothing. Nobody came to Mr. Floyd’s aide.

Now it is up to us. We must all demand justice for Mr. Floyd. We must end the hate and call it out wherever and whenever we see it. The disease that continues to fester in our nation must be eradicated wherever we find it.    

Celebrating Our Magnificent Snowflakes

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With each new generation there always seems to be a great deal of chatter about how spoiled or clueless or delicate they are. We hear them described as “snowflakes” not because of their unblemished beauty but because they appear to some adults to be far too fragile to take on the real problems of the world. There are those who poke fun at the ideas and ideals of our youth as though they are living in an imaginary land of unicorns and fantasies. The age old divide between some members of the older generation and our young people continues to flourish just as it always has.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 the normal routines of our youth have been twisted into unrecognizable versions of themselves. In an instant so much changed for our kids. To the utter amazement of many of the naysayers who thought that they would surely fall apart they have soared just as I knew they would. If there is any delight to come from this pandemic it should be the realization that the children are not just alright, they are warriors.

I puff up with pride when I see all of the evidence of our youngsters from toddlers to twenty somethings proving their meddle and creativity. When the track season was cancelled the athletes took to the streets and trails around their neighborhoods to keep in shape. When the lessons went online the kids tuned in to Zoom meetings and worked on assignments in their bedrooms. In the last few weeks thousands of high school students across the country have been faithfully taking the Advanced Placement exams in subjects from American History to Calculus.

I’ve watched a video of the valedictorian of Pearland High School giving a speech to his classmates from his front yard. Wearing a casual t-shirt and a big smile his words are somehow more uplifting and meaningful than they might have been in a big auditorium or sporting venue with thousands of guests squirming in their uncomfortable seats. With the same determination that earned him the honor of graduating number one in his class, he found a way to share a moment of celebration and remembrance with his classmates. I suspect that his moment will one day make a great story for his grandchildren. Moreover, it demonstrates his grit, a quality that will serve him well as he enters the adults world.

I saw a young lady try out for cheerleader at Madison High School. Imagine attempting to show your stuff on film with nobody else around. Well, she did it, and she made it. She is now a very excited member of the squad and she is still practicing wherever she finds enough space to do her flips and cartwheels and routines. She’s not about to let something like a virus hold her back.

I enjoyed the musical recital of my young cousin who continued his lessons remotely. He never quit practicing in spite of the shut down of his city and his school. When the date of his already planned performance came he demonstrated his talent and his creativity with arrangements both on the electric guitar and the piano.

I have laughed with some kids who were once my neighbors who have had their own episodes of “Chopped” for nine weeks now. Their production is professional and delightful. Mostly they spread a sense of optimism and joy with their unswerving determination to make the best of a difficult situation.

I have been impressed by the sweet sounds of the granddaughter of one of my dearest friends. Not only does she have the voice of an angel but she sings with the personality of a Broadway star. She has used her time at home to perfect her performance skills without a single sign of self pity that they have not showcased in front of a live audience.

The eight students to whom I teach various levels of mathematics have checked in on time for all of our scheduled sessions. They are alert and filled with questions. They send their homework without fail. They literally make me smile each time I see them because they are soldiering forward without a hint of complaint. We are excited to be nearing the end of this school year and planning for the new one in August however that may prove to work out.

I know that the children in my cul de sac study for most of the day and then emerge in their yards to run and play and engage in games that keep them at a distance from one another but still provide lots of fun. Their laughter brightens my afternoons and convinces me that they will be more than just fine. They have adapted more quickly to the new normal than most of us old coots have. I sit in my living room and watch their antics with so much delight. They are so alive.

My own grandchildren have been more than amazing. They have put as much effort into their online learning as they would have done in a regular classroom setting. They have offered tutoring to those who are struggling. They have continued to complete community service projects. They are entering online speech contests and trying out for offices like Drum Major of the school band. They have sought out opportunities to learn and grow outside of the required assignments from their teachers. They read voraciously and write about the kind of future they hope to see. They keep themselves in shape with regular exercise. They continue moving forward even as they realistically know that many of their dreams may have to be adjusted.

I could go on and on and on. The young ones are continually inspiring me and giving me so much hope. They are showing their flexibility and their willingness to adapt quickly. They continue to look to the future, even as they know that it may be uncertain. They are filled with ideas and are willing to make needed changes in a split second. We are very wrong if we believe that they are only focused on proms and ceremonies. They are far more mature and realistic than that. If anyone wishes to continue to call them “snowflakes” they need to bear in mind that a snowflake is a mathematically complex and stunningly beautiful and unique creation. When all of those snowflakes come together they create a wonderland that is breathtaking. We should be celebrating their magnificence. 

Doing It Because It Is Kind

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The battles between those who want to wear masks and practice social distancing versus those who demand their right to choose how they will or will not protect themselves from Covid-19 rage on daily. Sadly some of the commentaries have devolved into schoolyard insults and taunts reminiscent of my years as a middle school teacher. While I am willing to accept that people have differing points of view, I can’t quite wrap my head around the behavior of those who shove, spit and threaten anyone who is attempting to follow the recommended and sometimes imposed safety guidelines. What is even more concerning to me are the insinuations that the procedures have only been enacted in order to defame President Trump and lessen his chances of winning the election in November. The chorus of thoughtless chants urging those who are” scared” to just stay home has irked me beyond my ability to continue to ignore them. Instead I feel more and more compelled the issue.

Let us suppose that there is a woman who faithfully goes to work each day to support her family. She has children who have not been in school for some time that she leaves in the care of her husband who lost his job in late February. Sadly he worked in the oil and gas industry tanked just at the moment when the pandemic reached worldwide proportions. It is now up to the woman to keep food on the table and pay the bills. She is quietly stoic as the world appears to be crumbling around her. She doesn’t sleep well at night and conditions at work do little to lessen her anxieties. 

Unfortunately the woman has a number of underlying health issues that worry her, so she wears a mask to work and brings gloves to use when she comes in contact with things that others may have also touched. She keeps disinfectants in her desk for when she must use the office bathroom. She is exceedingly careful because she knows that if she gets sick with Covid-19 her family will be in impossibly dire straits. She does not have the luxury of taking risks.

The other people in her office have become convinced that the whole pandemic is a hoax cooked up by fake new and democrats. They gather together in groups without regard to social distancing, never wearing  masks or gloves. They often disregard the woman’s obvious attempts to limit contact with others by getting way too close when they come into her office or pass her in the hall. They bring members of their family with them to the work making the environment even more crowded than it should be. They  leave during the work day to eat lunch in restaurants or to run errands at the mall. They boast that when they can get away with it they toss their masks aside. They look at the woman wearing her mask as though she is a silly goose, a paranoid mindless sheep.

The woman knows how her fellow workers feel and sometimes wonders if she is indeed paranoid. Then she thinks about her situation and sticks with her determination to be safe. Not only does she have underlying health problems but so does her husband and one of her children. She is also caring for elderly parents. She knows that she has to be vigilant.

The woman wishes that her coworkers, her boss,  and the rest of the people around her were taking Covid-19 more seriously because she is genuinely worried and realizes that nobody who is boasting about being unafraid is going to help her if she does somehow get sick. She is on her own.

She hears the people in her office chattering about the push to extend unemployment benefits beyond July. They sound like parrots as they insist that doing such a thing will only encourage people to stay home rather than accept a job and go back to work. She wonders where all of these jobs that will be offered to people like her husband will come from. He has been spending many hours every single day for almost three months now searching for work. So far he has had only one interview for a position thousands of miles away. In a normal time people would be recruiting him. Now he struggles to find anything and knows that he is competing with thousands when he does find a match to his degree and his experience. 

The woman sits quietly in her office faithfully completing her work and feeling profoundly sad that there are people who have taken the liberty of misinterpreting the situations of countless Americans rather than attempting to understand them. She has no problems with the idea of opening up country but she would like to see it done in a way that does not cause her so much worry. If only they would wear masks when they are all gather together or when they went out in public. It is such a little thing to request, not all that inconvenient.

She feels so very alone as the office sounds as though it is the site of a party. She knows that the others think she is strange. She actually hopes that they are right that we will all be fine, but something tells her that they are wrong. She has to pray that God will protect her in spite of the risky behaviors of her colleagues. She is the last hope for her family and the July deadline of increased unemployment benefits for her husband is on its way. She cannot get sick!

I do not understand why people find conforming to the needs of the common good to be so contemptible. Why are there so many inaccurate and judgemental conclusions being drawn about those who want to be precautious? Why can’t we Americans come together in a sense of compassion and responsibility? Social distancing and mask wearing are not tyrannical attempts to deny us of our basic rights. They are an effort to protect one another. While they may be imperfect methods for making us safe, they are better than doing nothing at all.

As we go to work, walk through stores, go back to old routines we should bear in mind that there are many people like my hypothetical woman. They desperately need kindness and a sense that people care enough about them to make an effort to keep them safe. Honor them by cheerfully wearing a mask and staying six feet away at all times. Don’t make fun of their precautions. They know best what they need.  Sometimes we must look beyond our own horizons and take action not because it is defined or undefined in the Constitution, but because it is the kind thing to do. 

Life Will Go On

lv-circle-of-life920I’m reminded every May 31, just how difficult life can be. Of course that is the anniversary of my father’s death. I might have forgotten exactly when he left this earth but for the fact that his fatal accident coincided with Memorial Day of 1957, a time when it was celebrated on May 31 rather than the last Monday of May. I have not celebrated that holiday from that fateful time. Having it roll around each year is like rubbing salt in the wound that scarred my heart back when I was an eight year old child.

I am essentially an optimistic soul. I learned soon enough after my father died that our little family would survive. My mother kept us safe and sound and family and friends continuously rallied to our sides whenever we needed anything. My youth was idyllic save for the loss of my dad. I adjusted to the new normal but never really got over the void in my life that his death created. With each passing year after he was gone I found myself wondering what he would have been thinking about how my brothers and I had developed. I felt his influence on us genetically and in the memories that he left for us. Somehow he was always a factor in our lives even in his absence.

As time has passed I see my father in my brothers and in my nephews and even some of my grandchildren. I suppose that unbeknownst to me there are also hints of ancestors whom we never met in me and my brothers. The circle of life on this earth is an infinite loop that may at times appear to be bleak but the progression and evolution of humanity always finds a way to continue.

I have been cautioned by the doctors in my family to wait out the reopening of the country for another three or four weeks. Covid-19 still restricts me but i refuse to allow it to overwhelm me regardless of how it presents itself in the future. I have learned that I am capable of dealing with great sorrow and even fearful moments. I know that I will handle whatever blows the virus sends me and the members of my family.

If all of us are very lucky we will be laughing and celebrating our good fortune as the weeks and months go by and Covid-19 vanishes with little more than a whimper. If instead the virus battles on with a vengeance I am prepared to do my part in fighting back with everything that I have inside me. Experience has taught me to be patient when times get tough. I have learned that there is light even in the darkest hours. When I battled the mental illness that infected my mother I would sometimes become angry and frustrated, but I always knew that determination and time were on my side. Over and over my brothers and I were able to get her the therapies and medications that she needed to become whole again.

Life is littered with ups and downs and in this moment it feels as though the downs are overtaking all of us. Nonetheless as I look around I see the points of light that will guide us to better days. Our future joy is not to be found in false promises that are unlikely to unfold but in the quiet work of people whose goal is the betterment of all of us. The doctors and nurses and aides and researchers who continue to provide us not just with care but with facts and truths about how we should contend with the virus are heroes with no hidden agendas. They are not running for office or lining their pockets with profits. They are driven by the sole purpose of keeping us safe. When I think of them I believe that we may be wounded but we will not be crushed. This makes me smile.

I see stories about ordinary citizens making masks and little children raising funds to help those who are in financial trouble. I watch the good news from John Krasinski and I see the kind of hope that has guided me through every juncture of life. I smile at the earnestness of people all over the globe who are doing phenomenal jobs of dealing with the health and economic blows that have been inflicted on them. I laugh at the jokes that lighten our spirits remembering all the times that my father roared with delight over a good cartoon or satire. I feel him telling me to lighten up and look around at the positives that are everywhere.

I’ve made it through one more Memorial Day. I’m now more than twice as old as my father was when he died. I’ve overcome one crisis after another. Like my father I have a great interest in history. I read all of the time. I have learned that the world has been on the brink many times over. Somehow we have overcome evil, war, disease and natural disasters each and every time that they have threatened us.

While I tend to think that we have not yet seen the worst of the effects of Covid-19 I revel in the thought that we will find a way to extricate ourselves from its deadly grip. Life will go on. Memorial Day will return and my father’s spirit will be part of future generations. It has always been the way we survive. 

Mass Confusion

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When I was still a pup of a teacher I decided to construct an elaborate system for managing the behavior of the students in my class. I created a bulletin board sized list of rules with consequences for those who chose not to follow them. I spent days attempting to drill my demands into the minds of my pupils. I tried to stop immediately to apply the proper warnings or punishments for infractions. Before long I was spending so much time on classroom management records that I was struggling to keep up with the lessons I had designed. My only way out was to begin ignoring or changing my original ideas or risk drowning in management paperwork. The atmosphere in the class was strained and a kind of student led anarchy became the mode of operation. With great frustration I went to my principal for guidance. What I learned from her would prove to be effective for all of the days of my career as an educator

Her first bit of advice was that I keep things simple by listing only the rules that were essential and then applying them uniformly. She told me that once I allowed students to take over my classroom it would be extremely difficult to get back control of the situation, so she suggested that I think long and hard before putting anything in writing. She cautioned that wavering would mean that my students would just do whatever they wanted to do and not listen to me ever again. She also promised to back me up once my new and improved system was in place. 

I took her advice and limited my behavioral guidance to four basic rules. I went over them with my students explaining the reasons for each of them and allowing the kids to ask questions. Then I made certain that they were followed. Things settled down and before long my management system was on autopilot and we were all much happier.

I’ve thought about that with regard to the directives that we have received from both the federal government and the state and city administrations regarding how to proceed during the pandemic. Sadly the chain of guidance has broken down. One day we are told that masks are worthless and the next the instructions tell us to wear them. Certain businesses have been closed but when someone protests by opening up despite the decrees the powers that be who initiated the closures don’t enforce their own regulations. The federal government outlines a remarkably sensible procedure for opening states and cities but when those guidelines are ignored the president almost seems delighted. Our country feels like the wild west with maskless groups protesting with guns, Confederate flags and disgusting signs in defiance of the edicts. Little wonder that there are actually people who believe that the danger is over and that probably it was never there to begin with. The government has created a state of citizen anarchy much like the one that developed in my classroom when I kept changing and overlooking rules.

Even I was beginning to question the safety measures that I have been dutifully following. When I go out wearing my mask I am lucky to encounter anyone else who is buying into the idea of using protective gear. At least for now most stores are still requiring such things but I wonder how long they will be able to hold their customers to their demands when the government pronouncements are literally ignored from one day to the next.

I was beginning to feel as though somebody was gaslighting me and I honestly could not decide who it might be. I questioned my own thinking so I finally contacted some doctors that I implicitly trust to see what kind of advice they had. It was like asking for counsel from my principal of long ago and I was ultimately comforted by what they told me.

According to my doctors, who are highly regarded professionals in their specialties, the numbers of cases in my area continue to rise and they are concerned by the numbers of  people who are refusing to adhere to the guidelines of wearing masks and avoiding close contact with others. For that reason they have advised me to continue to mostly shelter in place until further notice. They believe that the number of cases and deaths that we are seeing are being fueled by people who ignore the guidelines and leaders who look the other way when they see that happening. Local governments where numbers are still higher than they should be are being left holding the bag. The buck is being passed from one person to the next with nobody wanting to get caught with it when the music stops. The coordinated efforts and supports from federal to state to local government are lacking and it is causing massive confusion, especially when guidelines are continually being tossed aside only days after they have been enacted.

Add to that, there is a growing ugliness surrounding the massive confusion that has become far too prevalent. People are being ridiculed and insulted for doing what they think is right or need to do. I’ve been told that I should leave Texas and take my ideas to California or Washington State just because I mentioned that I wear a mask when I go outside of my home and make contact with others. I see women holding signs that suggest that wearing a mask is like a muzzle that should only be worn by slaves and dogs and I am horrified. I truly worry for my country when there is no leader willing to be the adult and rein in the disgusting demonstrations by calling them what they are rather than giving them a thumbs up by noting that such folks are good people. 

The doctors tell me that there will be more illness and death to come. We may have to deal with it while also attempting to repair our ailing economy. People need to pick up the pieces of their lives while staying relatively safe at the same time. This can be done in tandem if our leaders model the behaviors that they want us to follow. They must create a plan, stick with it and encourage unity not just among the citizens but in the halls of leadership as well. Our future may depend on how well or how badly they manage to do that.