A Time For Honest Reflection

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Santa Fe High School is practically in my back yard. I see it each time I travel to the beach in Galveston. It is situated along a stretch of road that is dotted with interesting sights, most of which are antique/junk stores, gas stations, fast food places, used car lots, bars, and many dilapidated houses and trailers with trash strewn yards. In the midst of an almost chaotic looking scene is the school, neat and orderly and usually quiet. I have at times found myself wondering who is inside and what is happening there as I quickly drive by eager to seen the sun and surf that is only a few miles away. I almost always quickly forget about my musings, distracted by the fun that I always seem to find along the Texas coast. I don’t think about Santa Fe again until I am once more driving along the highway that passes by a slice of the town. Still I consider the people of Santa Fe to be my neighbors, so it is with an especially heavy heart that I find myself grieving over the violence that took place there last week.

I believe that most of Americans are decent people, and as such we all want to find answers that will finally help to stop the murders that have become far too numerous in our nation’s schools. We want solutions and we need them sooner rather than later. Sadly it appears that we are so divided in our ideas that we may have to endure more deaths until we finally become so weary of the repeated massacres that we get serious enough to make things happen. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the problem is that there are no easy one size fits all fixes. Instead the issues that we must face are complex and laden with many questions. We may make mistakes as we seek to move forward, but surely the time has come to at least begin to try. That requires that we quit yelling and screaming and insulting one another so that we might successfully tackle this issue, or we are doomed to repeat the deadly scenarios again and again. Our efforts will require patience and understanding and a great deal of love.

One of the things that I have noticed is that we are quick to desire almost instant passage of legislation, some of which may or may not actually work. Instead we need to bring together stakeholders at every level including teachers, administrators, students, parents, grandparents, law officers, lawmakers, and, yes, even gun owners as well as those who would eliminate guns. We have to agree to work with trust and flexibility and honesty so that the end results will be effective. If it costs a great deal of sacrifice to make the needed changes, then so be it. All of us should be willing to pay the price of restoring safety and peace of mind to our schools and places of public gathering.

Guns always seem to be at the top of the list for creating a safer world, and they are certainly a topic that must be discussed. There are definite changes to the law that might help, and we need to be willing to consider such ideas and act on them. Nonetheless, the gun is simply the means of violence, and not the only thing causing so many problems. More important is attempting to understand what the driving force for such horrific incidents may be, so that we may get to the root of the evils that are lurking among us. We have a number of disturbing cultural problems that we can no longer ignore, for they are contributing to societal woes that are creating chaos.

We must ask ourselves why young men in particular act out in such murderous ways. Is it something happening or not happening in the home? Are our educators missing the signs of a disturbed mind or just ignoring behaviors that should be addressed? Does our media inadvertently or purposely glorify mass shootings? Are the games that we allow our children to play for hours on end doing something to affect their brains in a very negative way? Are we to blame for fomenting so much divisiveness and anger between ourselves rather than demonstrating ways of getting along? Is there too much or too little religion in our society? Have we lost our way and confused our young in the process? Have our schools become too stressful or do our students need to engage in more hard work? Are we doing enough for mental illness or do we look away when we see someone who is suffering? Are our movies and televisions programs providing destructive examples for our us and our young? What is missing? What do we need?

There is also the subject of building our schools in such a way that they provide safe spaces in the event of any emergency. We may have to invest in upgrades like stronger doors and locks not just at entrances and exits but also for each classroom. Schools need to have guidelines such as keeping doors locked at all times with only faculty and staff members having keys which they must always carry on their persons. Some campuses have already instituted policies that require anyone entering to pass through metal detectors. Students must carry clear backpacks. Staff members need to inspect lockers regularly. All adults must be in the hallways during passing periods. Visitors must enter through a series of locked doors. Student clothing cannot be baggy or capable of hiding weapons. Such measures may sound over the top, but they are doable. and I have been in schools where they have been successful.

What we do not need are armed teachers. Such an idea will only compound the problems. I shutter to even think about such a situation. I can think of hundreds of ways that doing this sort of thing will actually backfire.  

At least for a time we cannot be lax, nor can we just continue to do what we have always done. We must be willing to admit that no one thing will be effective. We also need to begin to model caring attitudes for our children because they ultimately learn from what they see. Unfortunately, they are witnessing far too much rancor, and few of us are innocent in that regard.

As a mother and an educator I learned rather quickly that continually insulting or degrading someone does not result in improved behavior. To the contrary, it generally breeds discontent and urges to get even. Right now we are in the midst of considering anyone with whom we disagree or who appears different from ourselves to be deplorable. In truth we humans are simply unique individuals each of whom wants to be heard and accepted just as we are. The message we are sending our children is that half of the population that does not concur with our beliefs is horrific. With our votes we are encouraging to our elected officials to be inflexible and aggressive in their dealings with one another. We seem to want to indict entire groups for behaviors of a few whom we disapprove. We are so busy fighting with one another that we are hardly noticing the effect it is having on our children. All too often our response is to shun anyone whose ideas do not mesh with our own, rather than getting to know them better so that we might realize that they are actually good people.

We have much work to do. From what I am seeing we don’t yet seem ready to suspend all of our preconceived notions in order to ultimately do the right thing. Until we reach that point I fear that we will continue to see needless deaths. We are in dire need os thoughts and prayers, but they must begin to focus on asking God to guide us to the solutions that we so desperately need. This is a time for honest reflection.

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Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

Grace

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I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

The Geniuses Among Us

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I’ve never forgotten a moment during a mathematics test when I was walking up and down the aisles of my classroom monitoring the progress of my students who were working away to complete the calculations before the bell rang for the next period. I quietly looked down at their test papers as I strolled from one desk to another trying not to disturb them unless one of them had a question. I was happy to note that all of them appeared to be working away in a frenzy of understanding, ratifying my hopes that I had somehow done my job of teaching them well. As I neared the end of my route on the last row of desks I noticed a boy staring intently at the bulletin board that was located adjacent to his desk. He appeared to be in an almost hypnotic state, so I worried that he was somehow confused by the questions on the test paper that lay on his desk or perhaps concerned about a personal problem. Whatever the reason, it seemed to be all consuming.

As I made an uncharacteristically swift bee line to his location he didn’t even notice my impending arrival. Instead he continued to almost burn a hole in the display on the wall with his unmoving eyes. Even when I was standing right behind him he did not move a muscle, seemingly unaware of my presence in his personal zone. Before I had time to interrupt his thoughts I noted with horror that he had only finished half of the problems on his test and the clock was ticking rapidly toward the final ten minutes of work time. I was about to shake him from his reverie when he suddenly turned in his seat with a smile and triumphantly announced, “I found him!” Only then did he glance my way and notice me for the first time. He looked at me in wonderment and repeated his words once again as though he believed that I understood their meaning, “I found him!”

I was agitated and confused, but he was disturbingly calm as I asked  him what he was doing and why he was making such an enigmatic comment. He looked at me with a kind of amusement that I was so dense, explaining that he had managed to find Waldo. That’s when I realized that he had been peering at a gigantic poster that featured the little guy with a stocking cap who over and over again becomes lost in a sea of humanity. The student had become mesmerized by the hunt to the point of losing his way into the world of a make believe puzzle rather than attending to the work of the test. As I stood incredulously before him I didn’t know weather to laugh, cry or visit an outburst of anger upon him. I chose quiet resignation instead, and gently congratulated him on his victory while reminding him that he had only a few minutes to complete as much of the test as possible. I physically handed him his pencil, focused his gaze on the teat paper and indicated the urgency of the matter with a concerned expression on my face.

Later that day I felt compelled to grade the boy’s test first to determine how much damage he had inflicted on himself with his distraction. Perhaps not so amazingly he had actually finished all of the problems and his mistakes were minor enough to earn him one of the few almost perfect scores. It was only then that I burst into unmitigated laughter, because I had always believed that this quirky child who often challenged me and his other teachers was in truth a kind of little genius in our midst. I understood that his mind was on a slightly different plane than the rest of us, and that his utterances revealed the workings of a mind running free through a world of thoughts that were often provoking and sometimes strange. Indeed he was gifted, of a mind that confounded us as it raced from one idea or question to another.

I’ve taught a number of students like that during my career. They are quite different from their peers and more often then not misunderstood. They rarely fit into a mold that defines them and many times even their teachers wonder if they are really great thinkers or simply frauds who enjoy rocking boats for their own entertainment. Genius does not always reveal itself easily. Sometimes we don’t see the clues and we misinterpret the behaviors.

We’ve all heard about the difficulties that Albert Einstein endured in his early years. His questions and frustrations were viewed by his teachers and those who attempted to manage him as audacity and laziness. Even after earning a degree he was unable to land a position as a teaching professor because his thinking was so orthodox that nobody was willing to provide him with a reference. Instead he was reduced to working as a clerk at a government patent office where he often became the target of his frustrated boss who complained that he worked too slowly and without any discernible enthusiasm. It was not his job that fascinated him but rather the research that he conducted in the evenings that occupied his mind. He prolifically published one theory after another until his thinking finally caught someone’s eye and eventually that of the entire world. Even at the height of his fame, however, his beliefs were often controversial, exposing him to criticism and even investigations and persecution. Somehow like most geniuses he lived in a world of his own creation inviting those with an open mind to partake of his thinking.

We have geniuses in our own time and in almost every case there is something almost other worldly about them. They are creators and free thinkers who see the universe through lenses that are different from the rest of us. Their minds are ablaze with thoughts which when uttered may seem bizarre, impossible or even controversial. We may view them as being a bit crazy because they are willing to suggest ideas that appear to be foolhardy or out of touch. They many times endure the ire of society when they innocently express their beliefs. They often live in ways that fly in the face of convention and refuse to apply filters to their behavior and utterances. They make enemies, but also force us to pause for a moment to consider possibilities that have never before crossed our minds. They provide the engines of progress and debate that we humans require to solve the mysteries of the world.

Of late we’ve been hearing about Kanye West, a celebrity who at first glance appears to be little more than a spoiled entertainer whose wealth has isolated him from reality. Things that he does and says sometimes  appear to border on insanity and other times seem more like heresy. He becomes an annoyance that we want to crush, but then we study the body of his work and his many careers and realize that he is much more complex than he at first appears to be. He is more akin to the boy who has found Waldo than a trouble maker. While we are doing our best just to get from one day to the next, Kanye is constantly thinking about things and rearranging accepted beliefs and values. He is asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. Taken in soundbites his utterances may seem to be the product of someone who lacks empathy or manners, but when considered against the backdrop of all that he has achieved they become the intellectual considerations of a true genius. Rather than condemning him we would do well to allow him the free reign to develop critical questions and thoughts that few of us would have the courage to utter.

Kanye West is a true genius who was writing poetry at the age of five and went on to create some of the most poetic lyrics in hip hop. The world is his canvas and the wanderings of his mind rarely stop. We may not like some of the things that he does and says, because he is a free thinker who does not hide even his most controversial ideas. Like so many geniuses before him he is unwilling to be fettered by convention or political correctness, and the truth is that we should all want to protect his right to be who he is regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us. He is thinking out loud and his stream of consciousness may be confusing unless we take the time to contemplate his thoughts in context and with deliberation. Like all geniuses he ultimately is not worried about what we may be thinking, so it is up to each of us to carefully parse his words and allow him the freedom that each and everyone of us deserves. In the end his are simply opinions that we may take or leave. It would only be wrong if we were to dismiss him only because we disagree. Kanye West is figuratively searching for Waldo and it is important that we encourage him to find what he seeks. 

Kindness Hope and Love

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The little priest walked slowly down the aisle of the church pushing his walker. He appeared to be so frail and yet there he was saying the prayers of the Sunday mass. When it came time for the homily I wasn’t expecting much. I supposed that he was long past his prime, a minister put out to pasture so to speak. It was wrong of me to judge, but he walked like Carol Burnett did whenever she was imitating really old people in one of her hilariously funny skits. I listened politely as he began to preach, and by the end I was in tears.

He told us that he was going to paint a beautiful picture with his words. He began by explaining how he had come to our town. An old friend had invited him to retire in the warmth of the south. The two thought that it would be wonderful idea for everyone, and besides they would have so much time to be reunited, telling their old stories and having a few laughs. He had decided to be adventurous even though the only thing that he knew about Texas was the stuff of legends and folklore. He really didn’t have any idea what to expect when he arrived in August, but his buddy had assured him that he would love every minute of his stay.

By the end of that month the rains began to fall from the effects of hurricane Harvey, a new experience for him for certain. The heavens opened up and refused to stop for days and days. By the time the sun finally came out more than fifty one inches of rain had fallen on the area. He had watched the rescues and the heartbreaking stories in horror, but then he realized that something utterly stunning was happening. He saw the love, hope and kindness of humanity unfolding in front of the eyes of the world.

Over thirty percent of the homes located near the church where he was staying had flooded. The parishioners swung into action turning the halls and the classrooms into a haven for those who had lost everything. They brought food, water, blankets, clothes, money, anything that the victims might need. They worked tirelessly day after day as the lines of people seeking help wrapped around the property. It was in that moment that he saw the utter beauty of humankind being revealed so magnificently. He realized that this was exactly the way God wanted his followers to be. It was as though all the best qualities of the human race were present for him and the world to observe It was a lesson in how we all should behave, not just in an hour of need, but for all of our days. He knew that he had come to a place that he would call home.

He told us to close our eyes and imagine the goodness, feel the hope, and luxuriate in the love. He reminded us that it is all around us, and that it is God’s way of assuring us that we are never alone. There will always be someone who will take our hands and guide us to a place of safety. We need only look around and we too will see the lovely image that we as people have painted.

I suppose that it is sometimes difficult to noticed just how wonderful humans really are when our media focuses so much on the horrors of our society. We have entertainers saying very ugly things about people in the name of humor. Our leaders have jumped the shark with their obnoxiousness. We see violence seemingly in every corner of the world. People shoot the bird and scream in anger at the smallest provocations. We align ourselves with groups and political ideologies. We argue and stuff our ears with our fingers lest we hear something that differs from our own points of view. We seem unwilling to compromise or get along, and so when a terrible disaster or tragedy occurs we are somewhat shocked to see kind hearts and heroes emerge. In reality the people who rise to the occasion have been around us all along. We were just so busy believing the naysayers that we failed to notice that most of us are truly and exceptionally good.

The priest said that God was smiling as He saw His ultimate creations demonstrate the kind of behavior that He had hoped for them. It filled Him with parental pride to watch his children performing acts of generosity without any consideration other than doing the right thing. Humans had made something horrible become beautiful and everyone took note. The priest got phone calls from all over the world from individuals that he had known. They were checking on his welfare, but also expressing their astonishment at the scenes of courage and warmth that they had witnessed. It had changed their perspective and reminded them of what makes humans truly exceptional. They too wanted to help, and so they did, just as thousands of others whose hearts had been touched.

I still think of those four days of inundation. I remember the fear that I felt as I saw the images of people being carried from their homes in boats. I believed that our city would never be able to recover from the devastation, but I had underestimated the spirit of humans. I had bought into the negativity that is swirling around us in abundance. I had been so very wrong.

We struggle and waver and even have moments of hopelessness, but the reality of who we are is so much better than the doomsday predictions. Our innate goodness rises up again and again to repair the wounds of our fellow beings. We get up after we have been knocked to the ground and check to see if anyone else needs our assistance. Life is far more wonderful than we may have thought it was, and people in all of their variety are ultimately the sparks that light the fires of optimism and love.

The good father painted a beautiful picture indeed. It is an image that I will cary in my heart to bring to mind when times get tough. It is a canvas painted with the colors of  kindness, hope and love.