All Is Well

 

 

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It’s an amazing thing when someone you knew as a baby becomes a peer and a dear friend. Watching a youngster grow into a remarkable adult is one the the best aspects of life. It warms the heart and instills a strong sense of hope for our future. Thus it is with Scott Scheffler, an energetic, hard working and kind hearted young man who also happens to be the son of long time friends that I have known since elementary school.

Scott was an adorable child with his blonde hair and ready smile., He and my daughters became playmates as toddlers along with his younger brother, Bryan. I’ve got photos of Scott dressed in Halloween costumes and wearing Houston Cougar red regalia when he was still just a little boy. My family spent many a glorious time with his family cheering for our favorite sports teams or just chilling while the kids played all sorts of creative games. In the summers Scott took swim lessons with my girls and the best part of those hot days was visiting the shaved ice snow cone stand on Old Galveston road, and trying out all of the flavors.

Scott was a Boy Scout who eventually earned his Eagle Scout badge. Shortly after that he and his family moved out to California and I missed them so much that I went to visit only months afterward. He was in high school by then and he was the consummate host and guide along with his parents. Always a hard worker he was soon holding down very responsible positions at Magic Mountain and then The Cheesecake Factory. He was and still is a very charming soul, but it has always been hard work that defined him. With a seemingly endless supply of energy, he threw himself into whatever task his employers ask him to do.

Eventually Scott and his family returned to Texas and he enrolled in classes at the University of Houston. As always he worked part time while earning his degree. He’s always had many irons in the fire, including continuing his relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. Perhaps the best aspect of Scott’s personality is his sense of humor. He finds a way to laugh at almost anything that happens, lightening everyone else’s spirits in the process. He liked to joke that the University of Houston was going to erect a memorial bench in his name because he had spent so many years there. The reality is that if they did so it would be because of the successful man that he has become. He took the lessons that he learned there and melded them with his charismatic presence and diligence becoming well regarded in his profession.

Never one to waste precious time, Scott got a real estate license in addition to all of the other things that he does. That turned out to be quite fortunate for me and my husband when we needed to sell some property. With his usual enthusiasm Scott threw himself into the process which turned out to be far more complex than any of us had ever imagined it might be. He went out of his way to keep us informed of developments and to walk us through the minefield of regulations and annoyances. He even spent an entire Saturday helping my husband clear out a garage and yard full of junk from one of the houses. He provided my husband with a sanctuary of sanity during the grueling process. I don’t think anyone else would have been as successful at keeping everyone happy. His calm demeanor and sincere interest in our welfare lead my husband to exclaim one day, “I love that young man!”

Each Christmas we gather with Scott and his family and parents along with our daughters. We have dinner and share stories and laughs. Then we exchange Christmas ornaments, a tradition that we have followed since Scott and our children were quite young. We usually close down whatever restaurant we have chosen and then spend another thirty minutes or so saying our goodbyes in the parking lot. I suppose that it would not be too far fetched to say that in many ways Scott is like the son that I never had. I am as proud of him and the person that he is as his own parents most surely are.

It doesn’t surprise me that Scott is such a fine man. His parents are the salt of the earth, people with generous and kind hearts of their own. They taught him not so much with rules and lectures but by example. He emulates the behaviors that he saw from them, and does so magnificently. It makes my heart my heart sing to see that the key to parenting is being the role model that one wants the children to become. It is a simple concept that is often difficult to follow, but it is clear that in Scott’s case the method worked magnificently.

My husband says that he wants to shout from the rooftops that Scott Scheffler is the best real estate agent in the state, but the truth is that he is so because he is the best kind of individual that any of us would ever hope to see our children grow up to be. We do indeed love him and smile when we see others recognizing him as well.

There is still much of that sweet and innocent little boy in Scott, but there is also a strength and determination and a sense of service that truly makes him special. He is my friend and I am all the better because I am lucky enough to be able to say that. The next time I become worried about the future of our world I need only think of him and my soul will rest, assured that all will be well.

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The Benefit of Learning

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An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. —-Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always believed that education is the most powerful way to combat poverty. I used to tell my students that knowledge is power, and that it is a great gift to each of us that the first twelve years of it is free from the government. Sometimes they pushed back on my enthusiasm interpreting mandatory attendance at school as an onerous thing. Many spoke eagerly of reaching the age at which they would be able to drop out and get on with living the way they so desired. I usually confronted them with arguments designed to convince them that learning is a great privilege that is often denied by authoritarian governments.

In my own lifetime I have heard of grievous examples of governments that persecuted and even executed teachers, leaving entire generations of children without even the most basic educations. This was done, of course, to eradicate thinking and the ability to discover truths. Dictators want to be in charge of the dispensing of information so that it benefits their causes. Sometimes when I explained such things I would challenge my students to never ever allow anyone to take away their rights to schooling. When I put it that way, many of them suddenly became far more eager to partake in the lessons that I and my fellow teachers presented to them.

Unfortunately there always seemed to be a few who were not the least bit interested in pursuing knowledge under any circumstances. Instead they wanted to get out of the need to attend school as soon as possible. They had big plans that did not include what they considered to be a waste of their time. Some also had to deal with poverty. Their parents wanted them to get to work as soon as possible. Extended schooling did not appear to be an option for them. Sadly by following this pathway they generally only managed to keep the grinding cycle of economic disadvantage continuing for one more generation.

I truly enjoyed being part of the KIPP Charter schools because above all were the ideas that there could be no excuses for not taking full advantage of all educational opportunities, and each day at school was focused on hard work. Our promise as teachers was that we would support our students in their journey to and eventually through college. The attitude that we all believed was that together we would be to provide our KIPPsters the necessary tools and attitudes for living better lives.

I have happily witnessed extraordinary results among so many of my former students. I have watched them earning multiple degrees and landing extraordinary jobs. I see photos of them standing in front of the beautiful homes that they have purchased and vicariously enjoyed their travels all over the world. Most of them have broken the crushing routines of grinding poverty that had sometimes stalked their families. Not only are their own lives more prosperous, but they have also been able to help their parents, It is so gratifying to see them using the skills, knowledge, and values that they learned first from all of us who are known as Big KIPPsters and later from their professors at universities and their mentors at work.

I recently became involved in a situation that brought home the sadness that I have always felt when I see young folks eschewing the marvelous opportunities that education provides. I was helping a very sweet woman move from one place to another. As we worked side by side for days I realized how bright she was, but also how her lack of resources had made her life so incredibly difficult. She had no savings, but rather had to rely on one paycheck to another just to provide the most basic standard of living. This meant that she was unable to scrape together enough money for the kind of deposits and down payments that are so often required in today’s real estate market. Unfortunately nobody in her family was able to help her either. In fact, she was quite distraught that so help was forthcoming from either her brothers or her adult children. She was on her own, and realizing that she had no way out my husband and I helped her.

Once we gave her the funds to secure a place to rent she realized that she was also alone in having to move her belongings and those of her elderly mother who lived with her. My husband and I spent a very long nine hours loading furniture and other items into and out of a moving van that we rented for her. While we worked side by side she reflected on her life and admitted that if she had been more attuned to becoming better educated, then perhaps her children might also have been inspired to stay in school and even earn degrees. Everyone’s lives might have been better in the long run instead of being so difficult.

I felt quite saddened by the woman’s situation because I know that her circumstances are repeated many times over in our country. Not all schools take the time or expend the effort to help young people and their parents understand the true value of education. They do not provide the unwavering support that is necessary to help those with few resources to navigate the treacherous waters of being admitted to college and then being able to earn a diploma. It takes money and relationships with people who care to help our poorest citizens to better themselves. 

The key to so many of the social problems faced by our society is to teach our young the importance of a lifetime of learning. Knowledge earns interest indeed. The more we all invest in it, the less we will have to spend on welfare programs in the future. Our bipartisan goal should be to insure that the greatest possible numbers of today’s children embrace and appreciate the value of schooling. When they learn, they earn, and we all benefit.

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

Show Them How Tough You Are

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One of my educator friends posted an article about a more and more prevalent kind of enabler known as a Lawnmower Parent. In general this is not just one who constantly watches over children, but also goes out of the way to pave the way for them, make things smoother sailing. In the example presented in the article a father calls a teacher out of the classroom to ask her to deliver a water bottle to his child. The teacher is stunned that the father has gone to such lengths to accommodate the student, and proceeds to provide additional examples of a worrisome trend that she sees all too often.

About the same time that I read about Lawnmower Parents I listened to the moving eulogy of Meghan McCain for her father John. There was much to talk about in her words, but one of the ideas that really struck me was her description of an incident in which she was fearful and ready to give up. Her dad encouraged her by urging her to “Show them how tough you are.”

In my own childhood, my mom often reiterated stories of hard times when she was just a girl when her father insisted that she hold her head high and ignore the taunts of those who attempted to deter her from feeling confident. He even held weekly family meetings in which he insisted that each of his children had much of which to be proud even though they were often viewed as different, poor, immigrants. He wanted no excuses, no bad behavior, and to his credit they all turned out to be exceptionally hard working and honest adults who passed down the notion of self reliance to their children and grandchildren.

Luckily I have seen very little Lawnmower Parent behavior in my own dealings with the education of students. I suppose that there have always been well meaning adults who over pampered their kids, but on the whole it has not really been a trend in my circles. I was once offered a bribe from a wealthy father if I would change his son’s final average in mathematics. Of course I adamantly declined the offer and then explained to the man why I believed that aiding his son in that manner was an horrific idea. By the end of the conversation the parent had realized that softening the blow of a subpar performance by his son would be the worst possible way of dealing with the disappointment. I had made it very clear that the student would learn far more from the experience if the full responsibility were placed at his feet rather than those of the adults. It was time to demonstrate that life is about hard work and self reflection, changing bad habits rather than covering them up.

All of us have been faced with situations that nearly broke our spirits. There will also be moments that are so difficult to face that our inclinations will be to run away. Still there are situations in which the only honorable thing to do is to show the world how tough we are. We have to work through the pain, the sorrow, the humiliation and keep moving forward.

The people that I most admire are imperfect beings, many of whom failed horribly at something. Rather than giving up or relying on someone else to fight for them, they picked themselves up and kept trying again and again until they ultimately succeeded. They overcame great problems at great prices. They were unwilling to be defeated. They showed all of us who were rooting for them just how tough they were.

I was quite excited about a post from a young woman who had attended one of the schools where I worked. She had become pregnant in her senior year and it seemed that she would not be able to fulfill her dreams with her new responsibility of raising a child. She remained undaunted and worked sometimes to the point of exhaustion while she held down a job, took care of her child, and studied at one of the local universities. She literally took one step at a time day by day, and ultimately earned a college degree. Knowing that her earning capacity would be improved with an advanced degree she continued her regimen of working, mothering and learning until she had also earned a Masters degree. She found a wonderful job, married the father of her child, and before long bought a beautiful custom built home. She showed us how tough she was, and we all celebrated her as an inspiration, a model of determination and grit.

I also know about certain instances when parents are compelled to stand up for their children. They are not being overly protective in such situations, but rather making certain that justice prevails. I have seen many occasions in which teachers were unmoving, even rude when students requested consideration for extenuating circumstances. They were so hard nosed that parents had to intervene. I’ve had such encounters with unfair teaching practices with my own two daughters. I felt compelled to speak out, particularly after my children had been ignored.

As educators we certainly hope that parents will not constantly make excuses for their youngsters, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves if we are somehow being unreasonable. Sometimes our hard and fast rules simply do not work for specific situations. We must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to listen to our students’ pleas. When we don’t, it should not be too surprising if parents intervene.

Teaching is quite demanding, but so is being a student. Kids today seem to have virtually every hour of every day filled with tasks they must perform. We ask much of them, and sometimes forget that we are not the only ones piling assignments on them. We would do well to hear what they have to say before exhorting them to “deal with it.” We all reach a point after which we simply can do no more.

I’ve had to be tough throughout my life, but there have indeed been times when I knew that I was about to break. I often allowed myself the luxury of a bit of self pity, a mental health holiday, a pile of unfinished duties. It was how I built up the strength that I needed to keep moving forward, and because I understood how easily such a state of mind can appear I tried to be understanding with my students, my teachers, and the parents. Perhaps instead of pointing fingers at one another with insulting labels we just need to take the time to find out what is really going on. It is then that we will begin helping our young to learn how to show how tough they are.

It’s A Sin To Kill A Mockingbird

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Over the summer I reread To Kill a Mockingbird along with my grandson, Eli. Much as Scout and Jem grew emotionally in the course of the story, so I realized how differently I saw the novel more than fifty years after I first eagerly turned its pages. Even though I was in high school at the time of my first encounter with the tale, I was still quite naive, innocent and filled with ideals. I have seen much and learned much in the five decades that have passed and I suppose that while I still lean toward optimism, I understand that I must admit to a bit of cynicism in judging society’s progress with regard to justice and equality. Like Atticus I see the evil that exists in the world, but I am still convinced that on the whole there is far more good than evil.

Atticus tells his children that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, an guileless creature undeserving of harm. So too do I believe that it is up to us to protect the young, the weak, the sick and the blameless souls in our midst. I suppose that I was drawn to teaching because I saw it as a way to strengthen our youth by providing them with skills that would allow them to navigate through the contradictory aspects of human nature. It is often difficult to conceive of a world that fosters the gentleness of a Jimmy Carter also spawning the pure evil of an Adolf Hitler, and yet the reality is that we do indeed have the good, the bad and the ugly among us.

It is difficult to know when it is time to introduce our children to the underside of society. As parents and educators we so desire to shield them from unpleasantries. We monitor their friendships and activities. We are careful about the programs that they watch, the language that they hear. Ultimately the time comes when even our best efforts are not enough to shelter them from reality. They will encounter a bully or hear a racist utterance. They will be hurt by unkindness or the blows of violence. They will see things that are foreign to their natures. We will be bereft when we see them hurt. It makes sense to slowly introduce them to certain truths, but it is a balancing act to do so without frightening them, killing their spirits.

I found sharing this powerful book by Harper Lee to be a profound way to touch on topics that were somewhat foreign to my grandson. He understood the concept of bullies. He had seen ugliness at school, but his life has been mostly untouched by even hints of racism. He was curious about a time in history that I had seen firsthand when the black race was treated almost as being inhuman. He listened intently as I spoke of the separate water fountains, bathrooms, schools, neighborhoods that were the norm. It was almost unfathomable to him that such conditions existed and were even embraced by a significant portion of the population. When we read about Tom Robinson, the unfortunate black soul falsely accused of raping a white woman, Eli was certain that the evidence would clear him. He was literally devastated when the final verdict was read. It was an eye opening experience told in such a powerful way in the pages of the remarkable book.

We hear about the parents of black children having “the talk” with them about the dangers that lurk due to a residue of racism that sadly still exists in some quarters. I suggest that each of us needs to have a conversation with our youngsters to discuss the inequities that they may encounter either personally or in others, and to help them to determine how to react when they see such things. Just as Atticus helped to develop a moral foundation in his children, so too must we speak of even difficult things with our kids.

We don’t have to throw everything at them all at once, and often we can use literature or movies or experiences to convey the important information that we want them to learn. We have to be willing to take the time needed to allow for questions that might be difficult to answer. Above all we must be honest and gentle. It is far better for our children to learn about injustice, inequality, trust, loyalty and values from us than from a tragic incident that may rock their sense of security and confidence. We can slowly build up their principles and their knowledge of the world without frightening them in the process.

Our best method is to be like Atticus, adults who model what it means to have unimpeachable character. We must always remember the maxim that what people believe is what they do, not what they say. Our children are monitoring our every move and imitating the behaviors that we model. They will learn as much just from seeing us interact with our fellow humans from day to day as they will from listening to our advice.

Guiding our children to be unprejudiced, just, and kind is hard work, but in making the effort to be good examples we ourselves grow and become better people. When we realize that those little eyes are constantly looking to us we try harder, simply because we love them and want the best for them. We don’t have to be perfect. Our kids will learn as much from our admission of mistakes as from our best moments.

Senator John McCain died shortly after I had finished To Kill a Mockingbird with Eli. Somehow I found myself thinking about his life and how he had shown us all how to live. Then I read his final letter and I was as moved by his words as I had been by Atticus Finch. In that letter are all of the elements of a life well lived, so herewith is his message to us all:

My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them. I’ve often observed that I am the luckiest person on Earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I’ve loved my life, all of it.

I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships enough for ten satisfying lives and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets but I would not trade a day of my life in good or bad times for the best day of anybody else’s. I owe the satisfaction to the love of my family. One man has never had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America to be connected with America’s causes, liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime that life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

Fellow Americans, that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates.

But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we’ll get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still. Do not despair of our present difficulties, we believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history, we make history. Farewell fellow Americans. God bless you and god bless America.

Consider sharing this letter with you middle schoolers or high schoolers. I think that they will understand what Senator McCain was trying to say. It will be a great way to begin important dialogues with them.