I Believe

maxresdefault

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.—-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Long ago I was teaching some rather rough and tough characters. Many of my students belonged to gangs and had parents who were in prison. It would be an understatement to say that their lives were difficult. There was one young man who had a checkered history both academically and behaviorally, but for some reason he and I hit it off. I had a sense that there was way more to him than met the eye or was capable of being recorded on paper. Before long the two of us were often conversing and I learned that he was a naturally gifted artist. He often spoke of his dreams for the future and I did everything possible to encourage him. He did well in my mathematics class, but failed so many of his other courses that he had to repeat the entire grade. It seemed a bit unfair that he was not allowed to take the next level of mathematics because he had made a strong “B”  from me and I knew that he understood all of the concepts quite well. The only positive aspect of his retention was that he was placed in my class once again because his reputation as a trouble maker made the other teachers leery of  having to deal with him.

I began the new school year by making him a tutor for the other students, telling them that he was a bright fellow who would be able to help them whenever they became confused. He enjoyed his role and took it very seriously. I decided to do something special for him, and so I purchased a portfolio for his artwork from an art supply store. He had never seen such a thing, and got super excited when I explained that it was designed to store his best pieces safely. Before long he was filling it with impressive works that excited both of us.

One day I learned that one of my female students had been sexually abused by her uncle. He had been living with her family but when her parents learned that he had impregnated her they went to the police. The uncle was furious and sent word that he was going to kill the young lady even if he had to stalk her to get an opportunity to do so. The principal of the school instructed me to be observant and immediately let him know if the uncle showed up at my classroom. Together we agreed on a code word that would alert him when I pushed the panic button. It made me sad and quite nervous because I wanted to be certain that the child would be protected from further harm.

I decided to rearrange the seating in my classroom so that the girl would always be close to me and as far from the doorway as possible. While I was in the process of attempting to design a safe place for her the young man whom I had made my assistant walked in and asked me what I was doing. Of course I was not at liberty to tell him what was happening. I simply mentioned that it was time for a change, and so he began helping me move the furniture and place stickers on the tables to let the students know where I had decided they would be sitting. Somehow he almost seemed to figure out what was really happening because as soon as I placed the label for the young lady he suggested that he should sit at the same table, and he even sat down in one of the chairs as though he was determining whether or not he had a clear line of sight for the door. He pushed the furniture around until it was just right, and then looked knowingly at me as if to reassure me that he was taking responsibility for the girl’s safety.

It would not have been too difficult for this young man to know what was going on even though I had said nothing. He was the leader of a powerful gang in the neighborhood, and very little information got past him. I don’t know how much talking the girl was doing, but her growing belly made it clear that she was pregnant, and the fear in her eyes gave away her state of mind. She literally looked like the very image of a madonna on a Christmas card, so lovely and pure, but she was also anxious and filled with a kind of pain.

Nothing ever happened to the sweet young mother. Her uncle eventually fled to Mexico and never came back, but before the coast was clear my young man watched over her easing all of our fears.

Eventually they both moved on to eighth grade and then high school. I never saw either of them again and hoped with all of my heart that they were happy and doing well, but my good thoughts were not to be. I one day learned that the young man was an inmate at Huntsville prison. He had been found guilty of armed robbery and would be in jail for a very long time. Learning of his fate was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life for I knew all too well that in spite of what he had done and what his future fate would be, he was a truly good person inside. It pained me that he had made choices that so damaged all of the possibilities that most certainly might have been his. My heart hurt for him and for his family. I was angry that he had succumbed to the evil temptations of his lifestyle rather than finding a way out as so many of his friends had managed to do. At the same time I still loved him, and so I still often think of him and wonder how he is doing.

Perhaps if his behavior improved he may have been released from prison by now. I hope that maybe he continued his education and worked toward a positive goal. I know that he has the heart for such things but I worry that he may not have had the will. His story is one of those that haunts me, because it is not all that unusual. There were few who were surprised by his fate. He had not impressed many of my colleagues with his talents and his sweetness, because he had rarely shown them to anyone. He seemed to have become victim to a self fulfilling prophecy rather than realizing how much greatness there was inside his soul.

I’d like to think that maybe he matured and somehow found himself. It comforts me to believe so. Not to believe that he was ever able to rise above his circumstances is too depressing to bear, so I allow myself to have a glimmer of hope whenever I think of him. If my thoughts were somehow able to travel through time and space and reach his mind he would understand that I believe in him and pray that he has been able to believe in himself.

Advertisements

Sound and Fury

texas-church-shooting-victims-comp-18-1530_bf40109d18256874b2e36df40ca16083.nbcnews-fp-1200-800Death is as much a part of the human experience as birth and all of the milestones in between. We never know exactly when our time here on earth will end unless we consciously choose to take our own lives. Even then our bodies may resist the harm that we inflict. We may awake to find that we have been saved. If we or a loved one contract a terminal illness we may begin to prepare for the inevitable fate, but still there is an uncertainty. Miracles do indeed sometimes happen. Thus we all understand that while death will be our ultimate end, it is up to each of us to make the most of the interim that defines our time here on earth.

It is in the goodness of our natures that we find the desire to make the world a better place. Our unselfish tendencies nurture the people that we encounter. It prompts us to put ourselves in harms way to save strangers. It urges us to share our bounty with the less fortunate. It results in democracy, justice and integrity. Each of us possess the traits of angels, but in our humanity there is also a dark side. Just as Cain allowed his jealousies to overcome his better instincts, so too do we find that within our same glorious minds we have thoughts that frighten us. Most of the time we control our baser sides, and so most of us are generally very good. Sadly, now and again we witness evil on a grand scale and it both frightens and befuddles us. We want to control it and drive it away, but we have yet to completely eradicate it. Even in the heavenly realm we are told that Lucifer fell from grace. We wonder how we can ensure a more peaceful world if the humanity of mankind continues again and again to bend in the direction of hate.

We have grown weary of witnessing death that results from the hands of individuals with warped minds. We understand that the enormity of their actions is complex and not easily addressed, but our instincts tell us that surely there must be ways to curb the violence that dominates the headlines all too often. Because of the infinite diversity of our backgrounds and thinking we have a difficult time agreeing on how to proceed in the face of mass murders that make schools, churches and entertainment venues unsafe. We respectfully take off our shoes, walk through x-ray machines, have our purses searched for potentially harmful items, follow speed limits, put our phones away while we are driving, limit our personal freedoms for the safety of the whole. We may find such intrusions to be annoying, but we endure them nonetheless because we believe that they are designed to help the greater good. Even though we also understand that any rules have an element of imperfection, we would rather try to prevent crimes than to ignore them.

There is a great debate over guns in our country that runs through a spectrum from those who would demand that nobody be allowed to own them to those who insist that it is a guaranteed right to possess any number or type of firearms as long as an individual has not been legally deemed unfit to do so. Each time a monster chooses to murder innocents with a gun we are horrified and the old debates ensue, but we are unable to find an answer because we seem to fear that one extreme or another will win the day. We appear to be incapable of engaging in a discussion that will lead to a compromise. We are at a standoff that accomplishes nothing. 

The arguments are all too familiar. We hear that those who kill are anomalies, and even if all of the rest of us were to surrender our guns tomorrow evil would still find a way to perpetrate foul deeds. We hear that people kill, not guns. We are told that in the immediate aftermath of tragedies we should not dishonor the dead with political discussions. We are urged to have more conversations of how to deal with the mental illnesses that so often fuel the rage of killers. It is suggested that we create stricter laws regarding the numbers and kinds of firearms that anyone may possess. We are urged to make the purchase of guns more difficult so that we will have fewer of them in our midst. We are reminded that criminals never follow laws anyway, so why have them. The arguments stretch on and on, and so we cry and mourn for those affected by tragedies, but remain at a stalemate regarding how to prevent them.

We see mass murders happening at an all too frequent rate, and we wring our hands in agony and fear that we may not be as safe as we would like to be. We don’t quite know what to do. We wonder and worry that any effort that we make will be in vain, and yet surely we have enough intellect and courage to devise a plan that will at least quell the violence even if it does not eliminate it entirely. We grow weary of the arguments and unwillingness to tackle an obvious problem. We understand that our leaders adopt points of view that they believe will get them reelected rather than being willing to venture into discussions of a plan aimed at ultimately reducing the probability that innocents going about their daily business will needlessly die.

I have prayed with all of my heart that those in whom we entrust the functioning of our nation will begin to listen to not just those who support them, but also those who disagree. Each of us must have a voice and yet there are all too many occasions in which those in power ignore half of the citizens. It has become the accepted way of doing things and as such little is ever accomplished. At any given moment in political time far too many feel disenfranchised. When they protest they are ridiculed. We are expected to take sides and then remain loyal to a particular set of beliefs no matter how questionable they may become. While engulfed in sound and fury signifying nothing, terror rains down on us, unborn children die, we fight even with those that we love.

I have been filled with great sadness of late. It is not a place where I wish to be. My innate nature is to be happy and optimistic. I believe with all of my heart that people are truly good. I have seen proof of this on a grand scale during the floods that threatened to destroy my city. I have celebrated after our baseball team won the World Series and noted how magnificently we came together without thoughts of our differences. I know that it is very possible to set aside our polarities and work together. The outcomes of our efforts will no doubt be imperfect but my mathematical mind tells me that it is possible to make closer and closer approximations to a perfection that may one day save lives.

Far too many of us are abrogating our rights to having a voice in our government. We shy away from discussions among ourselves. We are too busy to tell our representatives how we feel. We take our freedoms for granted and somehow believe that silence is preferable to making waves. We walk away from those whose opinions are different from ours rather than calmly engaging in discourse. We are afraid of disagreements and close our ears to ideas that conflict with ours. We wait for change rather than attempting to create it. We accuse those who demonstrate their concerns of being unpatriotic rather than pausing to understand what is bothering them. We fall prey to propaganda and soundbites rather than becoming truly informed. We all feel that something is very wrong but we fear what may occur if we pay attention for too long. Deep in our hearts we abhor what is happening but we are not willing to endure the process of setting things aright again.

I recently had a discussion with someone who had become disenchanted with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas because of his defiant speech at the Republican National Convention. Ironically I had always disliked the senator until the moment when he chose to stand up for his own beliefs. I still disagree with most of his ideas, but I thought it rather remarkable that he was willing to do the unthinkable by urging  members of his party to vote their consciences rather than blindly following the crowd. I was quite sad when he eventually fell in line for fear of alienating his party and losing his position. I would have preferred that he remain steadfast in feeling that we must stop the rock solid allegiances to people and philosophies even when we realize that they are hurting our country.

I cannot be certain that there is one action that will help to curb the gun violence that so plagues us. We need to address not just the ownership of guns but other issues as well. We continue to be confounded by the prevalence of mental illness. We must discuss the abuse of young children and the violence to which they are often exposed which leads them to become troubled adults. We should be willing to consider many different points of view and then craft a plan that at least attempts to consider changes in the ways that we presently do things. Some argue that we must have restrictions on who is able to migrate to our country in the interest of national safety, but those same people do not believe that we should also place restrictions on gun sales and ownership. There is a bit of disconnect in such logic that we must study. Perhaps there is a middle ground for both issues if only we have the willingness to begin a process of national healing. I’m not sure what it will take to convince us of the need to try, but I believe that it is what we must do.

Arming for the Good

CkgWhiteBackPeopleThere were no guns in the home where I grew up. My mom was a widow and had never felt particularly comfortable around weapons of any kind and so I never really thought much about owning a pistol or a rifle. I did, however, have a number of relatives who were rather casual about having and using guns. A bachelor uncle who lived with my maternal grandmother kept a loaded pistol on his dresser that fascinated me and all of the cousins, but we had been schooled in respect for personal property and so we never thought to even run our fingers over the the object that was a fixture in our uncle’s room along with matchbooks, cigarettes and loose change. Several other uncles were hunters who braved cold damp weather each year and enjoyed telling stories of their rifles and their adventures. My cousins who were their children eventually learned how to use firearms safely and tended to take it for granted that everyone felt as comfortable around them as they did. I suspect that I was most amazed in knowing that my paternal grandmother often hunted in the hills behind her farm. We were often treated to wild animal delicacies that she had bagged and then turned into gourmet fare. While my brothers enjoyed the tastes of wild game I was unable to erase the images of the animals from my mind, and so I was never able to bring myself to even taste those dishes. When my brothers and I were grown only one among us became an avid hunter in the tradition of so many of our relatives. I never developed a comfort around guns, not even when I married and learned that my spouse was as relaxed with the idea of owning arms as most of my kin had been. He had grown up around men who regularly hunted, but he actually disliked that sport and only enjoyed testing his weaponry on paper targets rather than living creatures. We installed a safe to lock his armaments away and forged a separate peace in terms of having them inside our home.

What I know is that every single person in my family always handled their guns with respect for their power. They understood and followed the rules of safety so well that I never felt threatened by the fact that they were hidden somewhere in their houses. I never had any fear of them being used in an evil fashion. My uncles and grandmother and cousins and husband were responsible in the way in which they handled the ownership of weapons, and so I took it for granted that I would be safe not because they would protect me with their arms, but because they had been well trained in the proper use and storage of them.

A great debate is raging in our country over whether or not ordinary citizens should even own guns or if there should at the very least be restrictions on the numbers and types of firearms that should be available. It’s an emotional topic with good and bad arguments on both sides. It is true that millions of people own guns and never even have the thought of harming another human with their weaponry. They are good individuals who take their duties seriously and can’t understand why they should surrender their guns simply because now and again some murderous and evil scumbag wreaks havoc on society using firearms. Even with the alarming rate of gun violence they argue that it is still a minuscule portion of society that misuses weapons in such ways. They further contend that if someone is intent on harming others they will find a manner in which to do so whether the laws are in their way or not. I suspect that there is some merit in their contentions, but I’ve never quite been converted to felling absolutely comfortable about the laxity of our gun laws, and in many regards I am bothered by the sheer numbers of them and the fascination of them by so many whom I do not trust as much as my relations.

As I attempt to become thoroughly familiar with our nation’s gun laws I see problems that create the potential for grave abuses and I can’t help but wonder why responsible gun owners are so against at least closing the most glaring loopholes. In the most recent carnage caused by a killer almost sixty humans were mowed down in a nine minute time frame. The first thoughts were that the mass murderer had used an automatic weapon because the shots were obviously fired more quickly than possible with a semi-automatic weapon. It was confusing because automatic weapons have been illegal since 1986, but we soon learned that there are ways to get around that dictate, and it seems that the evil doer had taken advantage of them. It seems that mechanisms known as bump stocks are legal and often used with semi-automatic guns to simulate the same effects as an automatic gun. What I want to know is why in the name of logic would our lawmakers allow such an item to even exist when the intent of the 1986 legislation was to keep automatic weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens? The shocking truth of this matter is absurd.

We also have other glaring omissions that pro gun supporters continue to endorse even though they make no sense whatsoever. Most gun show dealers are heavily regulated and require customers to register for permits, but if someone attends one of those events and walks into the parking lot where a private citizen is selling arms from the trunk of his car the reach of the law breaks down. We also have no idea whatsoever who owns what and how many. We take a numerical counting of how much money people make, how many people live inside homes, what cars they drive and so on, but we are completely lax when it comes to an accounting of firearms. Some of the same advocates of voter ID cards contend that owning firearms should be a private thing that is none of the government’s business, and so once a citizen has passed muster to purchase a gun the record is eventually destroyed.

The most popular guns in the country are semi-automatic firearms that were illegal until the legislation outlawing them lapsed. They may be fun to shoot, but they are hardly necessary in our society, especially in light of the most recent information about how easily they are adapted to be more like automatic weaponry. I frankly can’t understand why anyone would ever need such a thing.

The most frequently expressed fear of gun owners is that if we tighten the laws here and there it will be just a matter of time until the government decides to confiscate all firearms. They further contend that criminals will always find a way to find weapons and that anyone intent on evil will be successful regardless of any measures we may take. They may be right, but I see no harm in taking a few steps to clean up the wild west feel of our laxity when it comes to managing the reasonable ownership of guns in this country. I am quite frankly appalled by the spread of open carry laws that are slowly but surely bringing more and more firearms even onto places like college campuses. The idea that we should just throw up our hands and surrender because nothing will work anyway is an absurdity. We have speed limits even though some people ignore them. We are required to pass a test before driving a car even though some people skip that step and just jump behind the wheel. There are rules of all sorts that are broken but we don’t toss them out. We have ten commandments from God that people continually sin against, but we still value those basic laws. So why can’t we at least attempt to slow down the manufacture and purchase of implements that are so dangerous?

I think that we need to do something to send a message to our society that we value human life so much that we are all willing to work together for a compromise that cleans up the gooey mess that gun legislation or lack of it has created. We don’t have to take away arms from the ordinary guy who means no harm, nor should we neglect to tighten up our rules just because we don’t believe that they will make a difference. There is a middle pathway that will begin the process of healing. I hear so many advocating prayer and saying that we need to unify. Why not use this moment as the time in history when we chose to become brothers and sisters once again? This is an opportunity to arm ourselves with a spirit of brotherly love. U fail to see how that is bad.

A Knock at the Door

knock-door-e1412094721215.jpg

It was nine thirty on a Saturday night. We were watching a Poirot mystery on television when there was a loud knock at our door. By the time I walked down the hallway to peek outside whoever had been there was gone. I had just settled back into my chair when there was another banging noise. This time I dashed to the entryway more quickly and turned on the porch light. I saw two young boys who appeared to be around fourteen or fifteen years old. One of them sprinted away quickly and the other stood like a deer in the headlights exclaiming his sorrow for bothering us and adding that he was just trying to sell Girl Scout cookies. Of course I understood immediately that we had been pranked. I sensed that the boy who didn’t manage to get away was someone I had seen in the neighborhood. He seemed very familiar and the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that he often plays basketball just down the street with a number of his friends.

There was a time when teenage mischief was almost a right of passage. My own girls wrapped houses with toilet paper and celebrated when our home was decorated with long strands of tissue as well. I did a bit of knocking on doors and making silly phone calls in my time. Such tricks are generally done with no ill intentions and I suspect that the young boys who visited our home were just continuing the tradition of being silly on a Saturday night. Nonetheless I found myself quite troubled after our surprise visitors had left, not so much because they had bothered me, but because I worried about what might happen to them if they continue their nighttime visits to other homes.

The world is not the same as it once was. When I was young we rarely locked the doors to our home until just before going to bed. Even then we slept with our bedroom windows wide open because our home was not air conditioned. The only thing between us and a home invader was a screen which might have easily been removed. In those days it never even occurred to us to worry that someone might attempt to do us harm while we were dreaming. Our world seemed so innocent and safe.

Now we live in times of uncertainty. We hear of criminals breaking into houses on a regular basis. There is fear in people’s minds. Many of them install cameras and alarms to warn them of danger. Others add an arsenal of guns and ammunition to their security program in case they need to defend themselves. Doors are now routinely locked all day long. In some ways we act as though our castles are under siege, and I suppose that it is rather prudent to be safe rather than sorry. The problem is that in such an environment individuals may act before they have all of the facts. Those same outrageous boys who came to my door might find themselves on the wrong side of a gun if they hit a home with a very nervous and excitable person inside. They might literally be injured or even killed all because they thought it was funny to scare people.

Years ago two of my daughter’s friends decided to pull a prank on her. They dressed in dark ninja style clothing and crept up to our back window and peered inside while we were watching a movie. Since I recognized them immediately their joke backfired. I was livid, not because I did not have a sense of humor, but because I knew for a fact that many of my neighbors were armed and would not have hesitated to shoot at strangers wearing dark masks while creeping through the dark of night. I scolded the boys for their stupidity while my heart raced at the thought of what might have happened to them had they been seen by someone who did not realize who they were. I was upset that they had been so unthinking.

I feel the same way about the two boys who were out having fun when they targeted our home. I know from an online neighborhood chat room that there have been several incidents of strangers knocking at night to determine if anyone is at home. So far nobody has been robbed or hurt but the comments that people make regarding what their response will be if anyone threatens their personal space make me realize that those boys are at great risk. Many of my neighbors insist that they will call the police. Others assert that they will shoot first and ask questions later. Such is the reality of today’s world, and such is the danger that the boys might encounter.

On that chat line I asked parents of teenagers to have a talk with their children emphasizing that they should not engage in reckless behaviors. I would be gravely upset if I learned that the young people were hurt or killed, but I would also understand why someone might overreact when they feel threatened. It’s up to teachers and parents to instruct the young on the folly of pranks that involve frightening people. What may have once seemed to be innocent fun is likely to be interpreted as a reason for defense in today’s environment.

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. They often do things that are more risky than they ought to be. I was the quintessential good girl and yet I also engaged in adventures that in retrospect might have resulted in great harm to me and my friends. I once crawled under the fence of a property where trucks were stored near my grandmother’s house. An armed guard roamed the area. I had no business in there but I thought it was exciting to be able to come and go without being caught. My antics were silly but they gave me a rush, made me laugh and felt liberating. It never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger.

It is imperative that we speak frankly to our kids before we let them lose on the world at large. Sometimes we shelter them because we do not want them to be fearful when we might be wiser to discuss the realities of various situations in which they may find themselves. We need to be frank with them about peer pressure and how to extricate themselves from situations that feel uncomfortable or wrong. We should discuss how to behave if they are stopped by the police. Just as most parents practice fire drills and show their kids where to go if a tornado hits, so too must we review the skills they will need when they are not with us.

Time and again experiments show that our children just don’t think when danger is lurking. They go with strangers to look for a lost dog. They follow other kids into strange places. They simply have not internalized the necessary skills for keeping themselves safe because we haven’t instructed them as well as we should.

We certainly don’t want to make our teenagers paranoid. Most of the time they will be just fine. What we must do is provide them with the survival tools they will need in those rare cases when things just don’t seem right to them. If we have practiced such things and given them the reasons why they should be vigilant and resourceful they should be okay.

I can’t help thinking about the two visitors to my home and wondering if they are still engaged in an activity that may one day end in tragedy. I hope that perhaps their parents will be informed by someone who knows them and that they will put a stop to their dangerous behavior. It’s sad that we have reached this point, but it is the new normal. It’s up to us to instruct our youth and then hope that they remember what we have taught them.