The Abuser

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As a teacher I encountered some horrific incidents of parental abuse. My duty was to contact the principal, nurse, counselor or anyone who might have the capacity to help. Often the abuse was physical but most times it was in the form of hurtful words. It does not take bruises and broken bones to damage a young person and seeing the effects of an angry offensive parent always rattled me. 

I often think of a student whose father was a stealth abuser. For all intents and purposes everything about the young man’s home seemed wholesome and healthy but the fact that he almost always wore dark clothing, hung his head as though he was trying to disappear and hid his eyes with long hair made me suspicious that something was terribly wrong. I could tell that he was very bright because he did quite well in my mathematics class. It was one of the few times that I saw him engaged and enthusiastic about anything. Otherwise he was a kind of outlier, someone existing in the shadows. Most of his grades did not match what I knew to be his capabilities and he mostly appeared to be sad, perhaps even frightened. 

I scheduled an appointment with his parents hoping to find out if there was some trouble at home that might be impeding his academic and emotional progress. I wanted to know if there was something specific making him so unhappy. I hoped to make his parents part of a team that might work with all of us at the school to bring out the best in him. We were determined to get to the heart of what might be holding him back. We felt that the boy needed to be part of the discussion and so we gathered in an office and initially began conversing pleasantly in an effort to get to know one another. 

At one point we were all laughing when the father looked at his watch and announced that he needed to move forward because he did not have time for “BS.” He glared at his son and pronounced, “I don’t understand him at all. He just sits in his room moping all the time. His mom let’s him get by with living behind a closed door. He is nothing like me. I like people and they like me. I don’t think he has a friend in the world.”

As the abusive accusations from the dad spewed like an overflowing toilet the the student slouched down in his seat and buried his head in his chest as though he was attempting to become invisible. The mother was wringing her hands and meekly defending her son while her husband talked over her attempting to drown her words and mocking her as the reason that they had a defective son. I tried to get control of the situation by asking everyone to calm down and noting that I had found the young boy to be exceedingly bright with a great deal of potential. I cautiously pointed out that we each have different personalities and that like the student I too liked to spend time in the quiet of my bedroom after a long day at school. The mom nodded with a weak smile as though I had somehow found the heart of the matter. I explained that the goal of the meeting was to allow the boy to express what he needed from all of us. I wanted him to understand that we all saw great good in him and we wanted to help him develop his talents while still allowing him to have the kind of personality that felt the most comfortable to him.

At this point the father told us that we were all wasting his time and that he believed that his son was hopeless. He looked at his watch again and asked if we could just wrap things up. Then without warning he looked at his son with a sneer and said, “Oh I forget to tell you. I got rid of your damn dog today.” 

At that point the mother quietly sobbed and the student clenched his fists as though he was wanting to hit his dad. Instead he simply got up and left the room while everyone except for the father sat dumbfounded and feeling defeated. 

Abuse in the form presented by that man takes the air out a room. It destroys people and inflicts heartbreaking scars. It is foul and difficult to witness. What I saw that day has never left my mind. Luckily with the help of the young man’s mother and a dedicated group of educators we were able to provide the young man with a purpose and to restore his faith in himself. He came out of his shell, ran for a class office and won. He had a knack for planning and executing special events. He learned how to smile again. Ultimately he even found a way to escape the hell of his home and to travel around the country finding joy wherever he went. 

In many ways the first presidential debate reminded me of that situation. Our nation’s president showed himself to be more than just a schoolyard bully. He was like that abusive father and during that debate he exposed the full extent of his dark heart. It was terrifying to watch. Suddenly I could believe that he had once told his struggling older brother who was an airline pilot that flying a plane was like being a bus driver in the sky. I could believe that he had called military men and women losers just as he had done with John McCain. I saw that his disgusting “jokes” about women and disabled people were what he really believes. He is a man who wants to hurt, to get even for perceived slights. Like that father he intended to make disparaging remarks about Biden’s son. He wounds hearts with wicked glee. Somehow as with all abusers it makes him feel more powerful and power is all that really matters to him.

I have watched presidents come and go in my seventy plus years. I have liked some of them and felt that others were not up to the job. Never have I felt that we had a president who was so willing to be so purposely vile. He is our abuser in chief and it should frighten us all. Never should such behavior be excused nor should it be rewarded with our adulation or our votes. He himself may have a wounded heart that dates back to his childhood. I may wish him well in finding solace, but I will never agree that a person with such a defective mind should be in charge of my beloved country. 

During that first debate we all wanted to tell Trump to shut up if truth be told, but most of us would have been afraid to do so. As a mother, an educator and a human being I know in my heart that we all have to speak out when we see someone behaving in that manner. We have to hold abusers accountable for their wickedness. Our White House is dishonored by his presence. It is time to vote him out.

Great Teachers Create Great Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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