Seeing, Hearing, Understanding

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I have been close to most of my students but as always happens there have been some with whom my connection was far stronger than with others. One young man in particular appeared to be quite lost and headed for trouble. Seeing his downward trajectory broke my heart because he was incredibly bright and I saw something quite special in him. Over time we spoke often and I encouraged him to create positive goals and to work hard to achieve them.

Life was not easy for the young man. He lived in a rough neighborhood where temptations were a constant. His family struggled just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Gangs often approached him in hopes of recruiting him because he was big and muscular and smart. He had already had some brushes with the law before I met him. In many ways he had given up on himself until I interceded. After our talks he began to view himself in more positive ways and as his grades improved he discussed dreams of becoming an engineer. I felt confident that I had played a small role in saving him from the downward pull of the environment in which he had been living but I had underestimated the power of forces that gnawed at him every single day.

Shortly after the Christmas holidays one year a theft occurred at the school. One of the students had lost some electronic gear and he and his parents were quite insistent that it had happened at in one of his classes. The administration did a search and made inquiries all to no avail. I made a plea to all of my students that they do the right thing and help to return the items to the rightful owner. That lead to a tip that broke my heart. The student with whom I had invested so much time and emotion had been seen with the stolen gear.

I did not want to believe that my protege had fallen from grace but I had to interview him to hear his side of the story. At first he concocted several lies but eventually broke down and admitted that he had taken the item and even a few other things that nobody had reported. He was planning to sell them in his neighborhood’s black market. The change he made from such deals provided him and his family with a little bit better life than they might otherwise have had.

To this day my stomach clinches and I want to sob when I think of what happened. I realized in that moment that my student lived in a world that I would never quite understand. I could not justify what he had done and of course I had to report him to the administrators but I was sickened that the progress he had made in redirecting his life had been so suddenly altered. As he sobbed in front of me and proclaimed, “I know you hate me now” I was stunned. Without hesitation I assured him, “I will never hate you. I love you, but I hate what you have done.”

I suppose this is the state of my conflicted emotions during this difficult moment in our nation’s history. I will always love my country and unlike many I will never have thoughts of leaving it because in spite of its flaws it is a great but still imperfect nation. I am willing to see those flaws and know that they are wrong. I dislike them intensely, but not the idea and ideals of America. Being a firm believer in reconciliation I am always willing to forgive but I also know that we must first squarely face problems, admit they are present, and then do our utmost to begin the process of repairing them. To do anything less for our country at this moment in time would be akin to my covering up my beloved student’s infraction, pretending it was not there. It would be the least patriotic thing that I might do.

I was ultimately able to defend my student as someone whom I believed to be innately good and worthy of help, but I made it clear that his actions were wrong. He ultimately returned the stolen items, made restitution and underwent a program of extensive counseling and support. I have not heard from him in many years so I don’t know how things ultimately turned out but I’d like to believe that we somehow saved him from a life that seemed so inevitable back then.  So it is with the United States of America. I believe that we are the good guys but many of us have been lying to ourselves that all is well. We have overlooked problems because they have not affected us personally.

It is quite human to want to avoid conflict particularly when it does not appear to be worth the effort. Some people even endure abusive situations rather than shake up the status quo. The great unknown of change can be frightening and so we fall back on comforting routines. Unfortunately if there are problems they inevitably grow until they can no longer be ignored.

I have been hearing concerns from my Black friends, colleagues and students for decades. At first they were rather quiet and somewhat nervous whispers and like so many I did not take them very seriously because in truth they did not affect my personal life. As time went by they became more and more insistent and so I tried to quell the fears of those who were confiding in me. Before long I began to notice the kind of things that they were telling me. I saw that they were indeed being treated differently than I was only because my skin was white and theirs was black. It made me feel uncomfortable to face that truth but I still felt that there was little more that I might do than to assure them of my love for them. Because nothing was ever really done to address the very real problems that they had described the impact of them became more and more noticeable over time until we finally reached this moment when our country seems to be on fire with rage.

I now see them. I now hear them. I now understand that something must be done but I am filled with fear because somehow the message is being lost in the furor of the moment. I know without a doubt that the looting and the graffiti and the destruction is wrong but those are actions, not the essence of what the vast majority of African Americans are attempting to tell us. I believe with every fiber of my being that in spite of the horrific scenes playing out we must remain calm. We must let our Black brothers and sisters know that we love them. We must begin a dialogue that has been too long in coming. We must join them in the work to bring the change that we need to see in our country.

We can show the true strength of this nation only by using what is best about it. The first amendment is perhaps the most important tool that we have. It assures us that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to petition will be protected. Our goal at this moment should be to use these freedoms to loudly and strongly defend and protect our Black citizens in their cry to be heard.

I long for a leader regardless of party affiliation or economic status to bring calm and comfort to the situation. I long for a leader with a real interest in discussing what needs to be done. We must find such people for surely they are in our midst. We must use the most wonderful tool that we have to bring them to the fore. We must bring them to our aid with our votes. I pray that with that power we will be able to find individuals who are willing to set aside their own agendas to do the work necessary to bring our country to the place where it always should have been. Our votes should be our voices.

 

We Must Lead Ourselves Into the Promised Land

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I began my personal journey through the pandemic back in March. When I decided to write my thoughts on what was happening in my tiny corner of the world I did it to leave a record for my grandchildren and great grandchildren yet to come. I would have liked to have had a written day by day account of how the Spanish Flu of 1918 affected my grandparents, but of course they were too busy simply surviving to have the luxury of journaling about their experiences and thoughts. Neither of my grandmothers were literate and both of my grandfathers were laborers who only got paid when they showed up for work. I feel certain that they simply pushed through that pandemic hoping that they would stay well so that they might provide for themselves and their families.

My writing has not so much been an unbiased historical account of Covid-19 as a depository for my feelings. In describing what I see happening I almost naturally draw on a lifetime of experiences and perceptions. At first I viewed the virus as a kind of adventurous challenge. I would surely show my mettle in being able to stay well and navigate through the restrictive days of isolation. I saw it after all as mostly a matter of staying busy and creating purpose for myself, but over time my emotions overtook my resolve. I looked outward and saw suffering on a grand scale. It became more difficult to simply enjoy the quiet time in my home when the numbers of sick and dying steadily increased. These were people and I could not even begin to imagine how their lives had been turned upside down. My goal became less and less about protecting and entertaining myself and more and more about doing whatever I needed to do to flatten the exponential curve of disease.

I was bemused and saddened as I saw great rifts developing within our population over how seriously to take Covid-19. I am a mathematics teacher and from a family of engineers and scientists and doctors. I suppose that I am inclined to make decisions based on research and data from experts and so it seemed ridiculous to listen to anyone other than those respected for their work with medicine. As the anger in the nation grew and armed citizens stormed state capitols I found myself harking back to the year in which I married.

It was 1968, and at nineteen I was far too young to be making a lifetime commitment and yet events from that year had convinced me that reaching for love was the best decision I would ever make. In that fateful year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Not long after presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, was gunned down following his primary victory in California. The year was filled with student protests and when the Democratic Convention was held that summer in Chicago things turned violent as protestors clashed with the police. I would always remember 1968 as both the year that I married and perhaps the worst year in the country’s history during my lifetime.

At my wedding the priest who gave the homily spoke of how much courage and optimism it took for two people to look to the future given the violence and divisions that seemed to permeate every corner of the nation. He applauded Mike and I for demonstrating the certainty of our love in uncertain times. I felt and understood every word that he spoke and prayed on that evening that peace and justice would one day become the rule for America.

Now more than fifty years later I was spending day after day inside my home with Mike and we both somehow felt as though what was happening was profoundly worse than anything our country had endured in our lifetimes. Little did we know that in the very week when the nation recorded its one hundred thousandth death that ghosts from our past would rise once again.

I wonder how it can be that only about a week ago we watched in horror as police officers took the life of George Floyd in a brutally cavalier fashion. He was only forty six, young enough to have been one of my children. He had grown up in Houston, my hometown. He attended Yates High School and played on their football team. By all accounts from those who knew him he was a sweet man who traveled to Minnesota to get a fresh start in life. On the day he was murdered he had used a counterfeit twenty dollar bill to make a purchase. We don’t know if he was even aware that it was bogus but that is neither here nor there. The manner in which he was ultimately mistreated is all that really matters and as I watched the painful last moments of his life it felt as though all of those years when I chose to set the pain and injustice of 1968 aside had been a selfish unwillingness on my part to face bitter truths. We have problems that have yet to be addressed and no slogans or hats or pretense that they are not still with us will make them go away anymore than pretending that Covid-19 is a hoax will allow us to resume business as usual without fear of more sickness and dying.

I have forced myself to watch the unfolding tragedy of pent up anger night after night. It is a painful thing to see. I do not like it. I want it to stop, but I know deep down inside that it will not go away permanently until we face it squarely and fairly just as we must face the virus. The tragedy of what is happening in our country today is not that we don’t have normal graduations or that our European vacations have been cancelled but that people are suffering and yet we are anxious to get everything back to normal even as we sense that nothing is normal. We are fooling ourselves if we just ignore the cries for our attention, for our help.

Using dogs and force to control human beings was a common method for those who enslaved the ancestors of many of the young people who are shocking us with their behavior in the streets of America’s cities. Vigilante lynching was used to keep the newly freed slaves in line after the Civil War. Even when Martin Luther King led peaceful protests the great grandparents and grandparents of today’s young people met with billy clubs and rubber hoses wrapped with barbed wire. When American athletes quietly kneeled during the National Anthem to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter they were loudly criticized and their efforts were mocked and ignored. I wonder how far any group of people can be pushed before their anger boils over in the kind of lawlessness that we are seeing? I wonder how we and our children and grandchildren would be acting if the tables were turned?

There are forty two million black Americans living in our country today. Only a handful of them have taken to the streets and even among those who are protesting an even smaller number are committing illegal acts. Nonetheless the vast majority of all African Americans are viscerally hurt and filled with grief and anger that even after all this time discrimination based on the color of their skin still exists. They are the group most affected by Covid-19 in this country. They are the most affected by the massive unemployment that has resulted from the pandemic. Nearly every problem our country has affected them more than any of us.

Our African American coworkers and neighbors and friends need us to finally hear their pleas and understand that while slavery was long ago the indignities associated with it have yet to be fully resolved. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that just because we do not personally discriminate that there is no need to continue the efforts to eradicate the underbelly of racism. We can no longer rely on an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King to do the heavy lifting for us. We must lead ourselves out of this wilderness and into the promised land by setting things right once and for all. For surely if we only clean up the damage and go back to our normal lives the ugly stain of slavery will continue to haunt us all. 

In Memoriam

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Memorial Day is always a pensive time for me on so many levels. This year I felt the spirit of all of the souls who lost their lives in the service of our country more than ever. I also thought of those who made it through wars but whose lives were forever changed by memories of battles that they fought. War is a terrible thing and we have generally tried very hard to use it as a last resort. Nonetheless even now we have soldiers serving in war torn countries knowing that they may lose their lives at any moment. Such courage is difficult to understand but many who served in the military have told me that in the heat of a battle the focus becomes the preservation of the members of the corps. It is all about attempting to insure that everyone survives and leaves the battlefield alive. That profound human instinct to protect takes over to create magnificent acts of heroism.

I am a pacifist by nature but I understand that there are indeed times that require humans to defend themselves, their families, their country. If I had my way diplomacy would be rational and powerful enough to end war forever but I know that somehow people have a very difficult time setting aside their differences in a spirit of compromise. Throughout history we have found ourselves engaged in combat again and again and our young men have been called upon to fight. On Memorial Day we remember those whose lives were cut short and while we honor them, we also silently wonder why they had to much such a profound sacrifice for the rest of us.

I spent time this past weekend watching some movies about the brave men who have fought for our cause. First I viewed Glory, one of my all time favorite films. I cannot watch it without ultimately sobbing. It encapsulates the mixed emotions that surround the history of our country including perhaps the worst political mistake we ever made in allowing slavery to coexist with the ideals of democracy. While the nation was growing and prospering the politics of slavery that divided the people became more and more inflamed ultimately pitting state against state, region against region, brother against brother.

My great grandfather who was living in Kentucky chose to fight for the union forces. He spent four years first as a foot soldier and then a calvary man. The war placed a toll on his health. Somehow he was never as robust as he had once been and surely the horrors that he witnessed must have haunted him. His unit was tasked with collecting the bodies of the dead and wounded soldiers after the battle of Shiloh. It had to have been a gruesome sight that haunted him even as he settled into a somewhat normal existence had began a family. I think of them often and feel both pride for his service and regret that he had to endure such a thing. 

I also watched We Were Soldiers another film that brings out emotions from my youth. It takes place during the Vietnam War in the year when I was a senior in high school. Seeing the brutality of the battle it depicts only reinforces the sorrow that I felt whenever I learned of the death of someone who had been a classmate or a friend. While many of them had enlisted, others were drafted into service. The country was conflicted about the necessity of our involvement in what was essentially a civil war in a place so far away from home. While it was touted as a stand against communism it became clear over time that somehow we were outsiders attempting to protect Vietnam from a war that the Viet Cong was determined to win no matter how long it took.

The wall in Washington D.C. lists the names of all of the almost sixty thousand souls that we lost in that effort. I am haunted by the humanity of it each time I visit and run my fingers over the names of those that I knew. They were brave individuals who believed that theirs was a just cause but to this very day I wonder if losing them might have been prevented if we had known beforehand how the conflict would ultimately end. How different would their lives and the lives of those who loved them be if they had never gone to Vietnam? 

History, and particularly military history, is riddled with questions. It is easier to see the might have beens in retrospect. An armchair general can consider what went wrong with great clarity but the reality is that we will never really know what would have happened if we had chosen different routes. Wars are caused when humans cannot agree on how the world should be. Our young people go out to fight the battles for the philosophies of politicians and sometimes tragically lose their lives. I consider how wonderful it would be if we never had to engage our youth in such horrors ever again while realistically understanding that such an ideal will never come to pass.

This Memorial Day was haunted by the growing divide amongst us regarding Covid-19, a virus that has taken close to one hundred thousand souls in a span of  only three months. While the disease stalks the world in search of bodies to invade we argue with one another and point fingers at those who are attempting to lead us. We choose sides and sometimes even viciously attack those whose beliefs differ from our own while our courageous essential workers have been drafted into the role of keeping us safe. It is a new kind of battle with so much uncertainty that none of us can truly know exactly how to react.

I cannot understand why we humans choose to argue with one another so often and why we so seldom choose to find a road that eschews hostility. Perhaps it is in our natures, something that we have never been able to totally control. We have gone to war with one another in an endless loop of death and destruction that rears its head more often than we wish and yet we still work at odds with one another and follow those who actually encourage us to do so. We repeat the mistakes and the sins of our ancestors because in the end we are not so different from them. Memorial Day should always remind us of the cost of disagreements that become so entrenched that we no longer communicate. The spirits of all of the lost humanity should spur us to find ways of loving instead of fighting. 

I Have Seen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating Our Magnificent Snowflakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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