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. 

Just Skate Away

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It’s prom season and the media is all abuzz about exclusion, promposals  and other things that are triggering a variety of emotions including a great deal of indignation. Somehow I find myself chuckling just a bit in wonderment over all of the concern. Talk about first world problems! Maybe we would be better served if we we worrying a bit more about all of the unfortunate souls from Syria who have been displaced, and in many cases left wondering if life will ever again be normal. I heard last week that somewhere in Africa there is another ebola outbreak. Now that’s a real life problem, and what about the erupting volcanoes in Hawaii?

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the teenage angst that sometimes centers around proms. I know all too well the sting of being left out because I did not get to attend my prom, and according to my classmates I was just about the only one who did not manage to round up a date so that I might go. Instead I stayed home because nobody had asked me, and I worked myself into a state of frenzy of sadness and self pity. I recall watching a sad romantic movie that evening that gave me cover for crying my eyes out. In spite of my temporary breakdown I did recover. I had worried that I was going to be doomed to a life of loneliness, but that didn’t happen after all, and when my husband heard my sad tale he actually took me to a formal dance so that I would know what it was like.

Ironically my mother was correct in suggesting that proms were probably not as much fun as I imagined. She even told me the story of how she showed up in front of her high school on the night of her prom wearing roller skates and bearing two skinned and bloody knees from an untimely fall. She was surprised when she saw all of the couples arriving in their formal attire because she had completely forgotten that there was a dance that night. Taylor Swift style she just shrugged off the embarrassment and skated back home.

I actually believe that prom has become a great deal more democratic than it was in my time when everyone was expected to come with a date. Since I decided that I would only go if someone asked me, I in essence made my own bed. I’m certain that one of my very handsome male cousins would have gone with me if I had asked, but I was way too proud to do that. Today the kids often just come in groups with no particular romantic attachments. Some of the kids even come by themselves sans even a hint of feeling peculiar. I really like that way of doing things. It takes so much pressure away from the occasion and actually makes it a great deal more fun.

There is also an over the top concern over cultural appropriation which to me is somewhat ridiculous. If I had to determine which culture was mine I would be up a creek. The fact is that I am a mixture of so many different countries that I’m what some might call a mutt. It’s likely that there is a little bit of everything in me. Besides, why is it so terrible to appreciate the fashion of another ethnic group than one’s own? One year the high school where I worked had a Bollywood theme and many of the students and teachers showed up in their finest Indian formal wear. It was really so much fun and everyone talks about how great it was to this very day. Nobody was stereotyping or poking fun. They simply wanted to enjoy the evening as authentically as possible. In truth the girls were elegant and beautiful and the young men were like handsome princes.

The promposals may be a bit over the top, but then so much of what we do these days is. My only concern would be if someone wanted to say no but felt compelled to agree because of all of the attention. Perhaps a more private invitation is better, but then I suppose that this will be a passing phase, so why get bent all out of shape.

I’ve heard that from time to time there are some teens who do and say inappropriate things in the promposals and my answer to that is for the adults to have a conversation with those particular individuals. To turn the entire process into an indictment of a generation or group is absurd. We’ve always had those who are an embarrassment and there always will be. We deal with them as needed and don’t attempt to make those innocent of bad behavior suffer. For the most part all of it is as usually innocent as can be. We need to quit rushing to judgement and stereotyping just because of a few knuckleheads. We really do not have an epidemic evil of  on our hands. Young people today are refreshingly open, democratic and fair.

The teenage years can bring a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s best that we help our youngsters deal with them on an individual basis rather than complicating them with our own biases. I certainly understand the sadness of feeling as though I was the first and last person of all time to be left out, but I now understand that nobody meant to be mean. It just happened, and I myself might have done something to change the situation. I grew beyond that moment and learned from it. I became more empathetic from it, but also know that it was not nearly as bad as I imagined it to be back then.

There are so many real concerns for which we should all be searching for answers. Why expend too much energy on incidents that matter so little in the grand scheme of things? Let’s keep prom season in perspective and show our teenagers how to do the same. Help them to have fun and to understand that a lifetime of experiences lie ahead. Show them how to take control of even the most uncomfortable situations and just skate away. It’s what my mom did and she very much had the right idea.

Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.

Grace

Nancy

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.