A More Perfect Union

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Believe it or not, I really do not like being political. For the majority of my life I have generally avoided political discussions. Most of the time I had little idea how the people that I knew voted nor did I pay much attention to what was happening in the halls of power. I remember overhearing an argument between my father and grandfather over the integration of schools in Arkansas that became rather testy. To this day I do not know what they actually said or how they may have felt about that moment in history. 

It has only been in more recent times that I began to feel concern over the direction and divisiveness of our political thinking. I found myself reading more and more about the founding of our nation and the worries of its originators like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. I learned of the policy disagreements between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I took the time to attempt to understand why the issue of slavery had not been tackled earlier in our nation’s history. I became more and more enlightened through my studies. 

I understand that politics have been a volatile undertaking since the beginning of time. The fact that we disagree on how things should be done is nothing new under the sun. Even a cursory parsing of world history demonstrates that humans have been arguing or even fighting over how to best live together from the beginnings of time. Nonetheless, there are moments when it is imperative to actually choose a side. 

The ancestors that I know of who were here in the colonies fought in the American Revolution. I’m not sure if they had strong feelings about warring against the king or if they simply followed along with some of their neighbors. My great grandfather chose to stand with the union during the Civil War. Given that he was from Kentucky it must indeed have been a well thought out decision. My father and uncles volunteered to fight in World War II. My dad was quite young and entered the fray late, so he did not see any action, but he believed strongly in our nation. 

I am a bonafide Baby Boomer. As a young college student I professed my allegiance to the Civil Rights movement but did little other than taking part in a few peaceful demonstrations. I was against the war in Vietnam because I did not believe that it was in the best interest of our country. I was never against those who had been drafted or who had choses to fight. In fact, my main motivation was to end the war and bring them safely home. 

After that I generally snoozed through the ups and downs of politics. I voted regularly and without any kind of distinct pattern in my choices. I suppose I would be called an independent whose main interests were in social issues. Perhaps this is a result of my own childhood in an economically challenged family and the stories that my mother told me of her experiences as a child of immigrants. Financial issues meant little to me because I had devoted my life to a career in education which essentially meant that I would never get rich.

In these times my political concerns continue to revolve around the well-being of others. I am comfortable and content with my own situation, but I have dedicated my life to helping those less fortunate to climb their way out of difficult situations. I have been a strong advocate for fairness and opportunity for all. That is the essence of what matters to me. 

As an educator I encountered bullies and unkindness. I witnessed abuse and the struggles of children afflicted with learning disabilities or just plain bad luck in circumstance. My goal was to do anything in my power to help the wounded souls who entered my classroom as much as those who talents and characteristics were extraordinary. I advocated for excellence for all of them. I pushed back on those intent on abusing them. 

I write this because I have long been silent on an issue that bothers me. We have a President of our country who by his own admission struggled to speak and to read because of a terrible stutter that he had. Luckily his parents encouraged him to ignore the taunts and work hard to overcome his disability. With great effort he did in fact learn to speak deliberately and slowly enough to avoid the pitfalls of his speech. He rose to be a champion for the underdog just as I always was and became the President of the United States.

Instead of lauding him for being able to overcome what must have been such a public difficulty, we allude to some ridiculous idea that his verbal missteps must be a sign of mental deterioration. We do not stop to think that in order not to stutter, President Biden must slow down his responses. His brain must control his stuttering and answer difficult questions at one and the same time. That has to be incredibly challenging and now again there is sure to be a misstep here and there. 

I have a slight case of dyslexia. Sometimes when I have been teaching for long hours I begin to reverse numbers, copy problems down incorrectly. My students have to correct me. I am not losing my ability to perform mathematical calculations. I have not forgotten the algorithms or theorems. My mind simply twists around what I see with my eyes once in awhile. It a disability which provided me with sympathy and patience for others who for whatever reason must take a bit longer to learn and respond. 

Who among us would hold up to the intensity of the presidency without making a slip or the tongue or momentarily forgetting a word or a name or an idea. I know that I sometimes see a former colleague and have to collect my thoughts before remember his/her name. I often fumble for the word I want to use. I say things that sound ridiculous when I am too hasty in speaking. I have often been accused of being slow, even by teachers who eventually praised my intellectual acumen when I showed them that I simply learned differently. 

We have applauded ugliness and insults for too long. It is time that we return to respectfulness and a sense of unity for the sake of each other and our nation. Our founders purposely called this country the United States of America. If they had wanted us to continually be divided we would have only been The States of America. It’s time we remembered that there are many countries that are part of north and south America. There is only one nation that is who we are and should be, The United States of America. Our founders wanted to form a more perfect union. They understood that there is no perfect union. Let’s stop the ridiculous bickering. It does no good for any of us. Let’s make the United States great again by being a nation that is respectful, empathetic, accepting and courageous. Let’s strive for that more perfect union.

Now More Than Ever

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There is a great deal of talk these days about civil rights, voting rights, equality and justice. As humans our history is sadly littered with prejudice, hate and even genocide. As I type this there are people being abused by governments and their fellow citizens all over the world. The arc of history is indeed long and while it has often bent towards justice, it is all too often a slow and cautious process. Meanwhile those bearing the brunt of unfairness are expected to simply wait patiently. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the world’s most well known advocates for civil rights he understood the impatience of those who continued to suffer from segregation, violence, and injustice longer than they should have in a country that idealized freedom. He dreamed of a day when all people would be equal. He hoped that such a condition would not be too long in coming. He understood that the pillars of justice included economic security, educational opportunities, and the right to vote and be both heard and represented. 

Dr. King was the eloquent voice of the civil rights movement that resulted in tearing down many of the barriers that had kept the children and grandchildren of slaves bound by the chains of poverty, hatred, lack of opportunity, segregation. He became a martyr to the cause and a renowned figure in the years after his death, but many have forgotten how much his hopes and dreams had angered significant numbers of American citizens during his lifetime. 

He had been hounded and spied upon by the F.B.I. He had been arrested and jailed. An attempt was made to kill him with a bomb left at his home. Police set snarling dogs on him and wielded hoses designed to knock him and other protestors down. He was taken for a ride in a police car on a dark road in Mississippi as a threat designed to discourage him from continuing his work. Dr. King and the thousands who worked to bring all citizens the rights they deserved understood that their very lives were in danger from those who were unwilling to accept that justice must be for all.

Those of us who have not experienced the suffering of being abused simply because of the color of skin or differences of any kind tend to believe that the story ultimately ended well with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the nineteen sixties. They see the progress that has been made and assume that there is nothing more to be done, but that would be an error because we have seen situations that should alert us to the truth that we still have work to do. 

I was actually one of those people who thought that the hate and prejudice that I had seen in my teen years had been wiped from the American psyche. I balked at the idea that some people hated President Barack Obama because he was Black. Then I began to hear the racist epithets railed at him and his wife. I was stunned to realize that such thought was still alive in our society. Over the past many years I have watched the hatred only grow and become more and more visible. I have personally heard and witnessed horrific forms of racism.

We cannot stop the struggle for the rights that Dr. King once advocated just because we wish to just be comfortable. It is usually very difficult and even a bit frightening to make systemic changes, but I realize that this is what we must continue to do. We have to ask ourselves why poverty is still so prevalent. As an educator I know full well that criminal behaviors and addictions often begin in desperation. it’s up to all of us to consider ways of improving lives. If our current programs are not accomplishing what we had hoped, then we must consider new and better ways of ensuring that everyone has access the food, housing, healthcare and a strong education. 

We also must be certain that everyone has fair access to the ballot and to representation. That means looking at voting districts and asking if a poor minority neighborhood is benefiting from being zoned with a number of wealthy white areas of town that water down their voice in the halls of power. It requires us to consider whether or not our processes for voting work well for those who work long hours and can’t leave jobs to vote during the scheduled times. Most of all, it means that we must be willing to listen when any group is feeling belittled and beset upon. We have to be certain that we are hearing their voices and taking them seriously. 

We can be proud of our progress, but we can never be complacent. We have issues to address right now. Senate rules that are barriers to needed changes may need to be updated. Lawmakers who only tow the party are too often part of the problem. We began the process of civil rights with a coupling of courageous Democrats and Republicans who were willing to do the right thing even if it meant that they would never again win an election. This is the kind of patriotism that our country needs now more than ever.

Priceless

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i remember when people had cookie jars or candy jars in their homes. My Grandma Minnie had both and she managed to keep them filled for the times when we visited her house. My mother never had a cookie jar until my brothers and I put together the money we had made from doing odd jobs like babysitting or cutting grass. We found a small ceramic jar that was shaped like a little house. It was painted in pastel colors to resemble a sweet shop. It had a little handle crafted from woven strips of wood. We thought that it was magically delightful as only children would.

We were so proud of that gift because we had usually just made something for our mom. She seemed to like the pictures that we drew, so that was often our present of choice. One time we traced the image of a little boy onto a block of wood. Then we used a hand jigsaw to cut out the figure. One of my brothers used a magnifying glass and the rays of the sun to burn the boy’s features into the wood. We stained the whole thing and put a hook on it so that Mama would be able to hang it on the wall. She proudly displayed in the kitchen for many years until she finally stored in a drawer.

Having an actual store bought present was a big deal for us, so we chose that cookie jar very carefully. We wanted something nice that we might afford with our very limited budget. I can’t remember where we purchased it, but it most likely was from the local TG&Y. Mama treasured it for many years, but I don’t recall her ever using it to store cookies. She was afraid that the lid was not tight enough to keep the ants at bay. In all likelihood she was exactly right about that. 

Today that cookie jar sits on one of the shelves of my secretary desk. The doors are made with glass so it is visible to all who sit in the area that I call my sitting room. It is where I talk to friends on the phone, write my blogs, read and plan the math lessons for my students. The room is my refuge and I have filled it with things that make me happy. Knowing that my mother treasured the cookie jar, even if she never used it, is a wonderful feeling. It was not much, but she understood how hard we had to work to purchase it for her. 

Next to the cookie jar are two pieces of children’s china that were Mama’s when she was a child. Generally she did not have toys but she had that little plate and cup from a set that somehow survived the wear and tear of a house full of seven rough and tumble siblings. I can almost imagine her hiding the precious pieces so that they would not get broken. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the set or if there was even more at all. It simply is precious to me to have something from my mother’s childhood.

I have a small Eleanor Roosevelt doll tucked in the corner of the top shelf of the secretary. I bought it for myself because I have always been inspired by First Lady Roosevelt. I suppose I became a fan when my mother so vividly described how important both of the Roosevelts had been to her family. She literally gushed when she told us how President Roosevelt had save the nation. She proudly recalled how she stood on the corner of her street to watch Roosevelt  and his entourage pass by when he visited Houston. She shed tears when speaking of his death. She always insisted that Eleanor Roosevelt had been the greatest First Lady ever and told us stories of listening to her speak to the nation on the radio.

When I read books about Eleanor my mother’s opinions of her were confirmed. I fell in love with that remarkable woman and when I look at the doll representing her I always think of my mother. In fact, my mother’s name was Ellen, which I think is beautiful. Ironically Mama often commented that she would have preferred being known as Eleanor. At birth her parents named her Elena as would have been a more customary name in Slovakia. Any way I look at the different versions of my mother’s name, I find them to be wonderful and much more pleasing than my own. I suppose we all dream of having a different, more elegant name.

My mother used to collect salt and pepper shakers on her travels with my father. Her collection was abruptly finished upon his death. Nonetheless they had packed a lifetime of seeing the country in their eleven years of marriage. Mama’s tiny mementoes filled a small bookcase and I had to dust each one of them every single week. I remember carefully wiping down the tiny shakers that represented so many different places. What might have been a tedious task became fun as I imagined all of the wondrous cities and towns and National Parks she and Daddy had visited. 

Sadly something happened to all of those little treasures. Perhaps my mom grew tired of them and gave them away. Maybe she accidentally broke some of them. For whatever reason only two sets were still intact when she died. I was so proud of them that they ended up in my curio shelves as well. One day I accidentally broke one of the sets as I was cleaning. It shattered my heart, but I had to remind myself that they were only things. I still had the great memories of all of the original pieces, and nothing would ever take that away. I recalled the replicas of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. I thought of the tepees from a Native American reservation and the Cacti from Arizona. There had once been birds and bears, canoes and trains.

I suppose that anyone looking inside my secretary might wonder why I have such a hodgepodge of items. Nothing in there is particularly rare or of monetary value. It is the memory associated with each piece that is important. My treasures are of the heart. Gazing at them almost make moments from the past come alive. That makes them priceless for sure.  

Breaking Down Barriers

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I got a late start with my writing on the morning of January 17, because it was quite cold and I did not want to leave the warmth of my covers to arise, so I slept in just a bit. It was very quiet in my neighborhood due to being the Martin Luther King holiday. There were no children laughing on the corner, no buses shuttling them to school. The cars of the working folk on my street were still parked on the driveways and streets well after ten. I suspect that everyone was enjoying a slower beginning to the day thanks to Dr. King. 

I had decided not to write about my hero worship of Dr. King one more time. I seem to address that theme every single year and it felt as though I had said as much as I needed to express on that topic. Somehow when I finally did awaken and begin my morning routines, I felt compelled to compose a blog centered on Dr. King and the work that still must be done to fulfill his dream. As I read that his family wants us to take action to insure the rights of all Americans rather than just attend parades or run in marathons or post quotes from the great man, I realized that the journey to the Promised Land continues. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert we still have miles to go before the job of ensuring justice and equality for all is done. 

I was a fortunate soul back in the days of Jim Crow. Because I had white skin everything was open to me, including opportunity. While my family suffered economically after my father died, I was able to attend private school through scholarships and ultimately because the religious community there gave my mother a job and free tuition for me and my brothers. With a uniform like those everyone else wore I blended in with no effort. Nobody knew how we lived on the edge of an economic razor and few realized that I came from a single parent home. With hard work I rose to the heights in the ranks of my peers and easily gained admission to virtually any university of my choice. Only finances and troubles at home kept me from launching myself into the high society of the Ivy league, but I nonetheless received an excellent education that led to a wonderful career. 

I was a fighter for the civil rights of the Black citizens that I did not really know because I had been segregated from them for all of my life. I knew where they lived and I had an occasional interaction when I visited the home of my aunt and her maid was busy cleaning her home. Other than that, I only saw that our treatment of Black citizens was wrong even as I understood so little of what was really happening to them. It was only when I entered college and actually had classes with Black students that the veil of ignorance began to fall from my face. 

It was long after the Civil Rights Act of the nineteen sixties had passed that I began to understand even better what life had been like for my Black colleagues at work. It was then that I realized that my belief that we had done all that needed to be done was false. In my teaching career I met brilliant men and women who had spent their childhoods at the back of buses and in homes and schools tucked away from the white population. I learned of their struggles and determination to become an integrated part of American society. They were real and wonderful and I so admired them just as I had Dr. King. 

I taught students of color who had economic struggles that made those of my own family seem trivial. They had no print matter in their homes, no Internet, no computers, no transportation to libraries. Sometimes they had to care for younger siblings while their parents went to second jobs in the evenings. They told me stories of mothers coming home in the early hours of the morning while it was still dark to catch a few hours of sleep before dashing off to their main jobs. Even then their income was so low that it barely covered the basic necessities. 

These parents were unable to to attend open house or teacher conferences. Missing a few hours of work might result in loss of a much needed job. They never came to band or choir performances. Their children accepted academic awards without a cheering section. They were good mothers and fathers trying hard to keep their children fed and under a secure roof. The luxury of holidays and evenings at home were not always available to them. 

I began to see how the sins of slavery and segregation had a compounded effect on generations. I saw that it was going to take time for them to catch up to the rest of us, and that this would only happen if everyone supported them in their efforts to be welcomed into an integrated society. We have certainly come a long way, but we are not there yet. If we are honest we see the racism that still exists both overtly and under cover. We know that our Black friends and neighbors still suffer from many prejudices and ugly beliefs. 

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act addresses some of the problems, but not all. I know that the simple act of voting is exceedingly difficult for many people who work multiple jobs. They do not have the time to stand in long lines or even to get to those lines without endangering their jobs. They do not get holidays on which they might vote. They cannot chase down voter registration offices that are only open from nine to four. They do not deserve to be gerrymandered into districts that dilute their voting power and representation. 

Dr. King’s family is correct. If we sincerely want to honor the great of Martin Luther King we will continue the work that he and others began even before the slaves were freed. Dr. King wanted all men and women to live in a fair and just society. We are still working our way toward that goal.

In wonderfully diverse nation it’s time that we considered the circumstances of everyone, not just those like ourselves. We have to take off our blinders and be willing to finally see that many of our voting laws work against hard-working and honest people. Our goal should not be to make voting more difficult, but to provide the vote to as many of our qualified citizens as possible. It’s our duty to break down the barriers that keep them away. Both Democrats and Republicans need to work together to get this done.

Finding A Routine

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I have to admit that I am someone who enjoys the calmness of routine. I like red beans and rice Mondays and taco Tuesdays. I always thought it was cool that my cousin was able to look forward to hamburgers every Saturday. I suppose that it is boring to some people to always know what is coming next, but I have often found such a situation to be very comforting. Perhaps it is because there is always a good share of uncertainty in all of our lives, so clinging to a routine at home feels nice, even if it is just designating a certain day of the week as a time to eat a particular food. 

My friends Pat and Bill always had a Thursday night date. They regularly scheduled a babysitter to watch their children and took a few hours each week just to celebrate each other. They might go out to dinner or find a movie to watch. Sometimes they just drove around and talked. They were certain that this routine kept their love and affection for one another alive even through difficult times. 

The visits to my grandmother’s house every single Friday night of my childhood kept me going and made me certain that I was never alone. I loved those raucous evenings with my cousins. The sound of my aunts and uncles arguing over poker games in a smoke filled room still make me smile. The vision of my grandmother with her enamel cups of sugary coffee is one of the most wonderful memories that I have. 

My mother saw to it that we went to church every single Sunday. The people in our parish were my extended family as far as I was concerned. Many of them are still very much part of my life. I always understood that they were good folks upon who I would be able to count in even the most horrific times. 

I suppose that we humans enjoy adventure, but most of us need a bit of order as well. It is a kind of safety net, a way of reminding ourselves that ultimately everything is probably going to be okay. I suspect that the lack of fixed way of doing things is part of the reason that so many are confused and depressed these days. Having to constantly switch gears and adapt to new protocols can be daunting, but in reality doing so is a part of life. Nothing ever stays exactly the same. Those who know how and when it is time to change are the healthy and happy ones among us. It really is possible to be adventurous while clinging to beloved ways of doing things.

I saw a post about a famous athlete who was spotted with a phone that had a cracked screen. When asked why he did not just get another one, given that he earns enough to have almost anything he might want, his answer was that he did not desire his fame and fortune to be used for luxuries that he did not really need. He preferred instead to share his wealth with others who are suffering. He insisted that he was going to continue to follow the frugal ways that he had always lived 

I remember reading that Katherine Hepburn lived for most of her adult life in the same small apartment in New York City. She might easily that found a bigger and more modern place, but she saw no reason to do so. She was comfortable and liked her neighbors. Her home was a place of solace for her. She could see no reason to rock the boat just to impress others with her wealth. 

As a teacher I found that my students liked a semblance of order in the classroom. They wanted me to list the date, the objectives for the lesson and the homework in the exact same place every day. They liked that I had a designated area for turning in work. They appreciated that I graded papers quickly and gave them an updated average each Monday. They knew what to expect and it brought them a sense of well being. Given that many of them were living in highly dysfunctional conditions at home, my little corner of the school was a kind of refuge for them. 

Boring can sometimes be very nice. Schedules provide us with a sense of continuity. The world seems to be spinning off of its axis these days and most of us are weary. So maybe it’s time to find little things that bring us a sense of control. What that is will be different for everyone, but always important. Read that book for an hour each day. Have that meal around the table. Have bedtime routines for everyone. Eat ice cream on Sunday. 

We have to take care of ourselves and the people that we love. We may not get what we want, when we want it, for the price we wish to pay, but we might have that little slice of peace. Routine provide us with the patience that we need in these times. Adjust, adapt and then choose something to do regularly that makes you happy.