Food Poverty

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My brothers and I were incredibly thin while growing up, but we never missed a single meal. Our mother’s food budget was often as slim as we were, but she new enough about nutrition to build a menu schedule that provided us with what we needed without breaking the bank. She was a creative grocery shopper who also had great talent for making delicious meals using a small number of ingredients. Thus we enjoyed the luxury of never going to bed hungry. What we ate had a healthful purpose, so it was a rare day when there were empty calorie foods like sodas or sugary snacks in our home.

My mom understood the value of basics like eggs, beans, and milk in helping our bones to grow and our muscles to maintain their strength. We often took egg sandwiches to school for lunch which admittedly embarrassed me, but they actually tasted good and filled us with enough protein to get us through the afternoon classes. She checked the circulars which were left on our door or arrived in the mail to find the best sales on produce and meat. Our jaunts to various stores were based on a well planned journey in search of the lowest prices. What we would consume during the week was based on whatever was seasonably inexpensive. We learned to appreciate whatever was placed before us, and ate only the amount that was offered. Mama enforced portion control to ensure that the food in our pantry would last for a week at a time. We knew that we were never to take something from the refrigerator or the cabinet without explicit permission lest we ruin her carefully laid plans for feeding us. Snacks were an unknown luxury unless it was a Saturday evening during the times of the month when our mother got paid.

We never had free lunch at our school. We had to purchase the meals, so it was rare for us to eat fare other than whatever we brought from home. Once in a great while Mama would treat us to pizza day or something that we really enjoyed like the turkey and dressing feast at Thanksgiving time. The nice ladies who worked in the cafeteria gave me noticeably huge mounds of food whenever I came through the line. Some of my friends would puzzle over why my portions were so much bigger than theirs. I often suspected that the servers looked at my skinny arms and legs and felt a surge of compassion, adding an extra spoonful to my plate. I always appreciated their generosity and eagerly ate every single drop of food on my tray.

I recently saw an article on the BBC website noting “food poverty” in economically wealthy nations including Great Britain and the United States. The story asserted that one in five children in the U.S.A. come to school hungry. I’m sure the data is correct, but I truly wonder why. As a teacher I know that low income children had access to free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch. The meals were generally nutritious and inviting, but I witnessed so many youngsters throwing most of it away, complaining that it was not what they wanted to eat. The amount of food that ended up in the trash boggled my mind, especially since it was often a step up from the fried egg sandwiches that filled my own childhood belly on so many days. Somehow there is a kind of disconnect between the hunger that children have and their willingness to take the food that is being offered to them.

I also know that with food stamps, food pantries and food banks there are multiple sources of food, so I wonder why families with school aged children are unable to provide just one more meal at home in the evening. There were times when our dinner consisted of a pot of pinto beans. We’d fill a bowl and enjoy the flavor of a high protein and fiber item that also contained vitamin C among other nutrients. We went to bed without pangs of hunger, and never thought to complain that it was such a homely meal. I wonder if there is truly a lack of food of any kind in homes or if the problem is that the children simply don’t want to eat what is available or the parents don’t know how to prepare low cost nutritious meals.

I have a long time friend who spent years working in a church food pantry. She insists that it is very rare for a family to have no source of food. She often speaks of the many places where staples may be found for free. I also know that most public schools are open for breakfast and lunch in the summer that is available without cost for not just children, but the adults in their families as well. The offerings that I have seen are both nutritious and appealing, leaving only one meal to be prepared at home. A good soup can be created without a great deal of money, and if it is paired with some bread it fills the belly nicely. I know this to be true because my mom was the soup queen who used leftover bits of this and that to create fine stews.

I don’t wish to downplay the scourge of hunger or to insinuate that it does not exist, but I wonder if we are adequately preparing those who suffer from “food poverty” in the methods for securing staples and then preparing wholesome meals. My mom learned from her mother who managed to feed a family of ten during the Great Depression. Maybe there are simply too many people who have no idea how to make limited resources work to keep hunger from stalking. Perhaps programs designed to feed the less fortunate should also include lessons on how to make the most of a food budget. I wonder how much waste is created from a lack of the kind of knowledge that my mother had.

It seems almost unbelievable that anyone in our country should be hungry, and yet the data shows that we have yet to feed everyone in spite of great efforts to do so. Maybe we need to include menus and recipes with the food that people purchase with food stamps that might help them to gain maximum benefit from what they choose to buy. Surely we need to determine exactly where the problems lie so nobody need complain of hunger. We have a cornucopia of food in this nation, much of which is destroyed each day. Somehow we are doing something wrong, and we need to honestly determine what changes might work to eliminate the scourge of hunger once and for all.

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A Paperless World

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The world is becoming more and more technical, and the trend is forcing us to learn how to use complex implements for living or be left behind. There is such a rush to modernize and improve the way we do things that most of the electronics that we buy are outdated within a few years. Technology is the new driver of industry creating a conceivably better way of living, but also a host of unforeseen problems.

When I attended college as an undergraduate I typed my papers on what was essentially a keyboard that directed a piece of shaped and cut metal to strike an inked ribbon to leave an impression of a letter on a sheet of paper. If I mistakenly hit the wrong key I had to use a white liquid to hide my error and then strike the correct button to hide what I had done. A bit of correction fluid here and there was somewhat unnoticeable, but I tended to have far too many slips of the hand as I typed, and so my entries were more often than not rather messy looking. I invariably lost points for the rather shabby appearance of my efforts, even though I was known to type and retype my papers in an effort to make them perfect. I once begged a professor to allow me to simply hand print my offering on lined paper which he obligingly agreed to accept. He noted with a laugh that my scribing was a hundred times better than my typing.

I was thrilled with the invention of the word processor which permitted me to concentrate on my phrasing rather than the physical construction of my papers. My days as a graduate student were far easier than my earlier years of education, but as usual inventors were not satisfied with leaving things in a simple state. They had to create software that enabled the users to develop professional looking presentation pieces that were often far too complex for me to manipulate. I generally didn’t have the time to study the processes, and so once again I found myself falling behind not in how I said something, but in how it looked on the page.

It was about the time of my graduate studies that the Internet was becoming a thing on college campuses. One of my professors taught us how to use it and required us to send him emails. It seemed almost like magic to be able to communicate so easily with him. It would only be a couple of years later that the concept of email would become a thing and the need for almost everyone to purchase a computer became a reality. Before long the educational world was onboard for creating an almost paperless society.

At first I worried mostly about my economically disadvantaged students. The virtual way of doing business did not always work so well for them. It assumed that they had computers and wifi in their homes, which many of them did not. I was often criticized for allowing them to use my machines and printers rather than the computer lab, but I had learned that the fight for use of the facilities was real. Over time home computers and Internet access became as common as having a stove for almost every person, but I was still concerned about those who were not up to speed with the world of technology. I saw the changes happening so quickly that most students were working with outdated and sometimes unreliable equipment that created huge problems for them. I remember one young man who had worked for weeks on a research paper only to have some quirk of his home computer lose all of the writing that he had done. Because he had been conferring with me on a regular basis I was able to confirm to his teacher that he had indeed been nearing the completion of his great efforts and he was given one  additional night to attempt to recreate his paper.

Now students are being bombarded with technological demands. They register for classes online, receive emails with syllabi and instructions for projects, take online tests under the eye of proctors for whom they must pay, and submit assignments electronically. They must watch for confirmations that their work has been received and be alert for last minute messages. The old face to face meetings with professors during office hours are often replaced by attempts to “speak” with them via text or email. In spite of the fact that messages get lost in the barrage of information drowning students each day and equipment failures at the worst possible moments excuses are rarely considered. Students live and die by their ability to cull the wheat from the chaff, and must hope and pray that there is no power failure or unforeseen problem when due dates loom.

I have heard many stories from my former students about issues that they have encountered because of the assumptions by professors that they will be able to navigate successfully in a fully automated world. One young man spoke of how his dyslexia was not well served by computerized tests. Another called me in a panic one evening when his laptop crashed just before an important paper was due. Others have spoken of having to spend far too much time perusing their email inboxes each day just to be certain that they were not missing some important information from their professors. Sadly occasionally they became so snowed under that one tiny misstep obliterated what had been an excellent grade in the class. The brave new world of technology can be as hurtful as it is helpful.

Technology has been a boon to much of our way of life, but it has also created unforeseen problems as evidenced by cyber bullying, out of control tweeting, and an inundation of information that often creates new anxieties. Without checks and balances the electronic way of doing things can leave individuals feeling alone and isolated. What was supposed to be an aid to better living can become a source of major frustration.

We know full well that each human is an individual with a very specific learning style which highly computerized teaching does not always address. I am a very tactile person who needs to have a paper in my hand with words written on it that I may then highlight and annotate. That is how I best study and how I do well on tests. If I have to deal with a computer screen I still need a piece of paper on which to jot my ideas and create outlines. The paperless world does not work well with my dyslexia and I’m soon transposing numbers and reading words that are not on the screen. I’m certain that there are many others just like me who are struggling with the demands of an electronic world.

As we educate individuals we must ask ourselves why someone might make all A’s on traditional work in our classes and then suddenly make a failing grade on a computer generated assignment. Surely we need to take the time to find out what happened and then adjust for that student accordingly. The key to good teaching has always been to understand that there can never be a one size fits all way of operating. We have to be ready to deal with the exceptions to rules.

I was the valedictorian of my high school class of 1966. I was proud of that accomplishment then as now because I earned it with old fashioned hard work, not native intellect. What it taught me was that goals are achieved through persistence and effort. The playing field on which I excelled felt level and fair because it allowed me to learn the way I am best suited. I’m not so sure that I would have done as well in today’s environment. The learning difficulties that I overcame would be sorely challenged by the letters that seem to jump around and glow on electronic pages. There would be no place for me to set them right with my markers and pens and little drawings. Like my blind student who required braille books, I need materials in my hands to learn most efficiently. I wonder how many more like me are struggling to demonstrate that they have what it takes because it is so often assumed that everyone does better when no paper or textbooks are involved. It’s something that we need to think about and address.

Legacy

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I recently saw an interview with politicians, celebrities and sports figures who were asked to describe what they would like their legacies to be. Most spoke of accomplishments related to their craft, which is certainly understandable given that society so often judges us by our occupations and what we do with them. Surely, I thought, there must be more to what we leave of ourselves than the body of our work life since there is so much more to each of us.

Of course I truly enjoyed being an educator and hope that I somehow will be remembered for my efforts in that profession. I honestly never saw myself as the most remarkable mathematics teacher ever, but I did put a great deal of effort into finding the best in each of my students, and helping them to realize the amazing potential that each of them had. I know that I loved each of them and toiled to make the learning process a bit more important to them.

I took particular pride in my work with teachers as well. We need exceptional educators and I’ve had the privilege of mentoring some of the most extraordinary ones. It has swelled me with pride to see both my students and my teachers go on to shine more than I ever might have. I like to think that my mark on the world is enhanced by the very small influence that I had on their successes, but in the end what they accomplish is theirs, not mine.

I tried to be a good mother, but I continually found myself in awe of moms who have it more together than I ever dreamed of being. I painfully recall every mistake that I made, and they were many. I was ultimately just happy that my daughters became such fine women in spite of my blunders. Being a mother is indeed one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. At the same time it is a joy and a great blessing to have the privilege of molding a life. The pride and the worries of parenting never really end so my grade as a parent is still listed as an Incomplete. Being a mom has been the central focus of my efforts and has created the most glorious purpose in my life, but also the one in which I often felt the most inept. I suppose that most mothers have those kind of feelings because it is such a daunting responsibility.

More than anything I would like my legacy to be that I was always a person of integrity. Fame and fortune have never meant as much to me as being honorable. My life is truly an open book. Aside from some missteps here and there I have never knowingly tried to hurt someone, nor have I lied or cheated to get ahead. My heroes are not necessarily the people who have been the most successful in life, but rather those who stood for a set of principles at all times. Nothing disappoints me more than learning of betrayal. I instead try to be steadfastly loyal, and I surround myself with people of a similar bent.

Our world is too much concerned with so called “winners” these days and if I were to leave any message to the people that I love it would be to be true to yourself and the people around you. I may not have a great deal of money in the bank or a list of grand titles when I die, but I have done my best to be worthy of trust. I know that there are liars and cheats in this world, but I choose not to be one of them, even if it means appearing to lose. I truly believe that at the end of the day each of us will earn our just rewards for doing our best to live good lives. Winning through deviousness is an earthly thing that doesn’t not last through eternity.

The people that we recall with the most respect are those who are kind and loving and sincere. We are dust and to dust we shall return just as our possessions will eventually rot and become useless. Our good names will live on in the minds of those who have known us if we tried to be truly good people. That is the kind of legacy I hope to achieve. It’s something that I work on every single day.

My mother died with few material possessions left behind, but her simple gestures of concern for people are remembered to this very day. My grandfather was penniless but my brothers and I recall his wisdom and optimism. My grandmothers were so gentle that everyone felt serenely safe with them. I hardly had time to know my father and yet his imprint on me is as deep as if he had been guiding me for all of my life. He gave me a love for learning and travel and the beauty of many art forms. My mother-in-law demonstrated how to be elegantly strong. None of them reached too far beyond the confines of their tiny network of friends and family, but each of them left a footprint on this earth that really mattered, for in their actions was character of the highest order. It was from their examples that my own desire to be a better person grew.

A legacy is strictly defined as an inheritance, a benefaction, an endowment, but it is really anything handed down from the past. It is a kind of gift to the present that need not be material. In fact the best legacies tend to be those that show us ways to be our personal best. I hope that I will be remembered for the good that I have done. It’s a challenge, but one that I take seriously.

It’s Complicated

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I recently freaked out over the results of my annual bone density test. I have had osteoporosis for years which isn’t too surprising because it is rampant on both sides of my family. For two years I injected myself daily with a drug called Forteo. It was a pain to carry the medication in a little bag that kept it cold no matter where I went. I had to bring my prescription papers to airports and check with hotels to be sure that I would have a refrigerator in my room. The shots themselves were easy and I had no side effects, so essentially all went well. I was exhilarated when a followup bone scan revealed that I had grown so much bone that I no longer had osteoporosis.

I set out with determination to keep my bones strong. I took double doses of calcium pills and included every form of natural calcium that I could put in my diet. I took vitamin D to help with absorption and gave up sodas lest they have a negative impact on my progress. I walked for miles and miles and went faithfully to a gym. It was hard work, but for a good cause, and I was feeling better than ever. When I went for my bone scan this year I expected to have wonderful results, but that is not what happened. The had osteoporosis returned. I had lost some of the bone that the Forteo had grown.

I ranted on Facebook and worried about what my future might be. I saw myself in a wheelchair like my aunts. I even went so far as to mentally redesign my home for what I was sure would one day be my handicap status. I went for an injection of Prolia that my doctor prescribed, but I felt defeated. I wondered if my efforts were of any use. Finally I sent a message to my doctor asking about my pathway forward after I did hours of research on the Internet. His response was call me in for a conference and walk me through the complexities of my situation.

After a thirty minute talk I understood what was happening, why it was so, and how to move forward. I had not seen all of the facets of my situation, and my doctor clarified them for me and left me with hope and optimism. He reminded me that above all I was still very young, even at the age of seventy, and that there were already people diligently researching solutions for my problems. He indicated that within the next ten years he believes that we will see amazing results that may eventually make the symptoms of severe osteoporosis a reality of the past.

My personal difficulty and its sweet analysis by my physician has caused me to think about even bigger problems that the world faces, and to understand that we all too often get tunnel vision about a particular situation. We want quick fixes, instant answers based on a limited vision of all of the ins and outs of a particular question. We base our analyses of what is happening on our incomplete knowledge of the present with little regard to what may happen in the future. We forget just how complex every single human interaction truly is. Nothing operates in a vacuum. To believe that we only have to do X,Y and Z to set things right is ridiculous. We in fact need those people who can help us to see all facets of a situation rather than just what we wish to see.

As a teacher I learned quickly that there is no one size fits all magic pill for turning a classroom into a dynamic place. Things change from one minute to the next. Each person is individual and requires a unique approach. So it is with questions about immigration, abortion, climate change, the economy. The truth is that we need to hear from all sides, not just those with which we agree. It would be a profound mistake to silence the voices of people who are able to see the glitches in political ideas. We should be loathe to shout down anyone who asks us to consider a slightly different way of thinking.

When we speak of immigration there appear to be two very distinct ways of dealing with the issue, but in reality each side is a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Unfortunately neither is willing to admit that there is something to be learned by incorporating a plan that is a fusion of the best ideas of progress and caution. Somehow we have to either hold the line and build a wall, or welcome everyone with open arms. We categorize sides as all good or all bad depending on our point of view. We rarely stop to think that everyone truly cares about people and what will happen to them, they just see the solutions a bit differently. We actually need to truly and respectfully hear each voice and then make difficult and complicated decisions. 

So it is with any question that we face. We have to curb our desires to just jump in with whatever fad or idea that makes us feel good for the moment. As with my doctor we need to seriously analyze all of the possible outcomes with seriousness and respect for opposing ideas. We can’t just fall for imagery and emotions. When sorting life we have to remember that it’s complicated.

In the Heat of the Day

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It was an unseasonably hot day for April, but then every day has been unseasonable this year with cold weather returning in spring and violent storms blowing in for an hour to tear things apart and then leaving as fast as they came. There was a track meet that afternoon and somehow it seemed far too warm for the long distance runners, but their heat was scheduled for late in the day when the temperatures ease down a bit, so all seemed well. Then we received the last minute news that the schedule had been turned topsy turvy like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. First was last and last was first. Everything was in reverse which meant that there would be young women and men running the 3200 meter race in the hottest part of the day with the sun bearing down on them at near ninety degrees.

We rushed to the track to view the contest and had barely found our seats when the young women took their positions for the 3200 meter race and were off at the sound of the gun. At first they did not appear to  be affected by the heat that was burning the back of my neck and causing my blouse to stick to my skin. I presumed that they were in such good shape that they would hardly notice that it was not a time conducive to attempting to run at top speed for around two miles. After about four laps around the track the toll that the temperature was taking on their bodies became more and more obvious. Their faces were turning beet red and the strain registered on their faces. By the time they had finished the course many were vomiting and others were crumbling in exhaustion or even fainting. They had made it apparent that have such a long race in far too hot and humid conditions had been overly stressful to their bodies.

When running the body responds to the outside temperature in multiple ways. The longer the time spent pushing for speed, the more negative forces are placed on the mechanisms of the body. If it is sixty degrees the runner feels as though it is eighty degrees, so running for a prolonged period at eighty nine degrees means that the runner is experiencing a feeling inside his/her body as though it is actually one hundred nine degrees. If the humidity is also high it becomes difficult to sweat, which is a necessary way of keeping the internal body temperature within safe limits. The body begins to react to what it sees as an assault which is why some of those girls eventually puked and fainted. They had unwittingly sent their internal systems into a state of emergency.

The 3200 meter race for that day had originally been scheduled for around seven in the evening. Had that tradition been followed the sun would have been lower on the horizon and the temperature would have been more amenable to a prolonged physical effort. The short sprints should have been first just as they usually are. Those runners would not have been as affected by the heat because their attempts last under a minute. Putting the most grueling race first was a questionable decision for adult coaches who should have known better. They were lucky that nobody was hurt even more seriously.

My grandson was one of the runners in the boy’s 3200. He is usually a beast on the track with a final kick that sends him in front of his competitors on a regular basis. He is highly respected for his prowess and his ability to garner some inner force to get the job done. On this day with the heat raising the temperature to what felt like over one hundred degrees his body told him to be cautious. He was a contender for a mile, but then he felt everything inside him shutting down. He became seriously dehydrated and his muscles felt uncharacteristically weak. He sensed that pushing himself unnecessarily would be hazardous to his well being, and so he slowed his pace to a trot that allowed him to breathe and brought him a measure of control. Sadly this was the district meet that determined whether or not he would represent his school at the state contest, and he was considered to have a better than good shot at being one of the top four runners. On that day it was not to be. He finished in the middle of the pack with his face red from the exertion and his skin feeling as hot as if he were in the throes of a serious illness. It was a disappointing moment, and one wrought with a sense of anger that the adults who should have understood why having the longest race of the meet in such conditions was a bad, unfair and dangerous call.

As an educator I was taught to consider all of the possible unintended consequences of my decisions before enacting them. I understood that I was ultimately responsible for the well being of my students as long as they were in my care, and so I had to be conscious of everything from the structure of my classroom to the words that I uttered. My job was almost akin to policing or being on a battlefield in that I had to observe, and think, and be ready to change course in an instant in response to each of my kids. There were no excuses for letting down my guard. I was the bulwark against any harm that threatened to come to my kids, and if I was careful and on my toes things generally went well. It was only when I didn’t think things through that problems occurred. Luckily few of my faulty decisions involved the physical well being of my charges.

I would warn those who deal with sports or band practices or any sort of activity that is affected by extremes of temperature that they consider the possible problems with their schedules and the order in which they do things. The runners on that hot day that I witnessed had only exited their buses thirty minutes before the events began. That was hardly enough time to warm up for a very quick sprit halfway around the track much less an eight lap endurance test. That should have been obvious to the adults in charge by the end of the girls’ race. Sadly, to add insult to injury some of the coaches chided the long distance runners for being unable to prove their mettle regardless of what the heat was doing to their bodies. Of all people they should have been the most aware of the error of their decision, but they staunchly denied any problems when confronted by parents who were concerned by what had happened.

There will be other races for most of the kids, and they will learn and move on from the disappointment, but if the coaches don’t also learn a tragedy is waiting to happen. There is a reason that the 3200 race is usually the second to last event and it has a great deal to do with providing the athletes with time to warm up their bodies, and a consideration of the humid heat that reaches it peak in the shank of the afternoon. This travesty in timing should never happen again, and the coaches should be willing to admit the error of their ways.