The Heartbreak of Misbehavior


In my early years of teaching I worked with many students who had very troubled lives. My kids were known for moving from one school to another in three month increments. That’s because it took about that long for them to either exhaust the free rent promotion at apartment projects, or for their families to be evicted for nonpayment of rent. I used paper grade and attendance books back then and they were riddled with marks denoting subtractions and additions of students. My classroom was like a revolving door with many tearful goodbyes on Friday afternoons and greetings of new faces on Monday mornings. It was hard enough on me as a teacher to maintain a sense of continuity, but even worse for the students whose lives were constantly in a state of flux. In some ways the ones who went from one low rent apartment to another were the luckiest ones, because I also knew of kids who were living in someone’s garage or in the family car.

I struggled to manage my emotions in those days and often felt as though I was making little educational progress with my pupils. Sometimes I focused my anger on the parents and in other moments I simply felt a sense of extreme frustration. So many of my kids were listless and seemingly unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities that education afforded them. They didn’t appear to care about learning no matter how exciting I attempted to make it. They came without supplies and rarely did homework. Many possessed skills far below grade level. It was a daily battle to keep them engaged and all too often just as I had finally reached them they left for a new school.

I remember voicing my complaints to my mother who had been a teacher herself. I literally ranted about the situation and the fact that I felt as though I was the only one who cared. My mom listened calmly and then turned the discussion on end when she calmly but forcefully suggested that I needed to take the difficulties of my students into account. She noted that a hungry child can’t think of anything but the pains in his/her belly. A frightened child is only focused on the dread of going back home to a bad situation. An abused child doesn’t have time to worry about homework. In other words I had to consider the most basic needs of my students first and then worry about learning.

I knew from my mother’s stories about her own childhood that she was in many ways much like my students. She grew up in a tiny house with seven siblings who shared two bedrooms. Hers was an immigrant family that was often scorned and even abused by the people in her neighborhood. When she first began school her mom was in a hospital recovering from a mental breakdown. I suspect that there were many moments when she was too worried to learn, but she always spoke of how her teachers made school a haven for her, a place where it felt comfortable. For that reason education became a source of positive reinforcement in her topsy turvy world.

I changed the way I did things with my students after that conversation with my mother. I got to know my students and mastered the art of showing sincere concern for them. The stories that I heard were often heartbreaking, but I began to also see the courage and resilience that they possessed and I praised them for that. Once I adapted my methods to their needs my students began to demonstrate talents that had been hidden. They bloomed like lovely flowers and my classroom became a happy place where all of us wanted to be.

What I learned about my kids was at times so tragic that I had to steel myself to keep from crying in front of them. There was the girl with thick wavy black hair whose mother shaved those locks in a fit of anger. There was the boy who was an emotional wreck because his mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only three. Then there was Robert whose mom was a prostitute who left him in charge of his younger sister while she worked each night. He was little more than a child himself but he bore the responsibilities of an adult. When his sister was raped one evening it was Robert who called the police and waited up until dawn to tell his mom what had happened. She flew into a rage, not at the man who had committed the crime, but at Robert who in her mind had shirked his duty to protect his sister.

Students with such severe problems acted out and sometimes appeared to be lazy or even defiant. The reality is that they were simply attempting to deal with the horrific realities of their lives. Somehow learning how to perform operations with fractions was not at the top of their priorities list and I had to learn how to help them to concentrate on the moment rather than fretting over what might happen when they returned home. It was a balancing act that took great compassion on my part.

Whenever I would witness bad behavior from kids who had such terrible lives it would break my heart. I knew their stories all too well and only had control over what happened to them when they were with me. I wanted to make that time as positive as possible, even in the face of horrific challenges. I’d like to believe that in some small way I gave them a tiny break from the ugliness and maybe even taught them something along the way. All too many times they left my care just when I felt that we were on the verge of breaking through the issues that were holding them back. I would never see them again but I would always remember them and worry about them and wonder how things turned out for them.

Every educator and psychology student learns about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It appears to be such a simple and common sense theory. We should all understand that until the most basic requirement are satisfied little else will happen, and yet we still ignore the signs of trouble far too many times. Hunger, hurt, fear, pain overtake a mind and shut it down. Once we understand that basic truth and begin to address those things, then and only then will we be able to extract the full potential of our young. It’s a big goal, but one that we must pursue just as my mother taught me to do.


In Defense of Boys


My time as a child was filled with boys. I had two brothers and a gaggle of male cousins. The only other girl, Ingrid, and I were the only girls at extended family gatherings, at least until the guys began to marry. When I became a mom my world changed completely when I had two girls. I sometimes wondered if my husband felt overwhelmed by all of the estrogen. As a grandmother I was back to what I had known as a young girl when six of my seven grandchildren turned out to be boys. I adjusted to the rough housing and gross jokes quickly because the habits of young males were all quite familiar to me. 

I have to note that neither my brothers nor my cousins ever treated me as though I was somehow less than they were just because I was a girl. The only abuse that I sometimes endured from them came in the form of crass jokes that I soon enough learned to laugh about. All of those guys celebrated my successes and encouraged me to reach for all of my dreams. When I met my husband the supportiveness continued on steroids. I grew up believing that I was one hundred percent equal to any man which is why I find myself wanting to defend young boys these days from a kind of implied assault from rabid feminism. As sometimes happens the effort to create a level playing field for women has at times resulted in some people believing that the only way for girls to rise up is to pull down the guys. Because of my own positive relationship with boys I find this kind of thinking not only to be troublesome, but more pervasive than it needs to be.

Of late, and in particular during Women’s History month, I have read a number of opinion pieces that are tearing into parenting practices for young boys and even the record of male accomplishments in the past. It is as though our society is in attack mode when it comes to maleness and that worries me for the sake of the boys as well as the girls. It’s important that we keep our perspective when it comes to raising our children and preparing them for the adult world. We have to remember that there are physical and psychological differences between all children and most especially between males and females. Teaching each person how to become healthy and happy requires individualization and an appreciation of diversity.

We sometimes hear of the battle of the sexes, and in truth we should not think of the realization of goals as being a kind of war. Certainly there are instances when girls are abused or harassed by men, but we all know of cases when women have taken advantage of good men as well. We should be aware of such outlying behavior, but also admit that for the most part the relationships between boys and girls, men and women is more akin to my own positive experiences. Our goal in raising our children should be to continually emphasize a spirit of mutual respect between all people regardless of sex. We only create more tension by insisting that boys are somehow a privileged lot who must be humbled so that girls will finally get their turn.

I go to the gym five or six times a week and I am steadily becoming stronger but I can’t help but notice that even the weaker men who use the weight machines before me are capable of lifting poundage that is far beyond my capacity. I don’t believe that this is because we have somehow given men more opportunities and encouragement for physical development, but because they have a different genetic and physical structure. When it comes to intellect the playing field is much more equal. Through hard work I was able to rise to the number one rank in my high school class. I did that not because someone held back the young men so that I would make better grades, but because I put in a bit more effort. Nonetheless, I always understood and appreciated that the males in my classes were as capable as I was. I just ended up with a slightly higher GPA than they did. In the end we were generally equal in abilities.

I had every opportunity accorded to the men both in college and in my career. I made my own choices and when I encountered the occasional male chauvinist pig I ignored him and worked even harder. Mostly the males with whom I worked pushed me to advance and be successful just as my brothers and boy cousins had. Ironically I was more likely to find problems with women than men when it came to road blocks on the job, so I’ve always wondered why our society is more and more often setting up barriers for boys while opening the gates for women.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the efforts of women to tackle male dominated jobs, and I am a realist when it comes to accepting the fact that there will be those who still harbor very old fashioned ideas about the roles of men versus women. I just want to be certain that in our enthusiasm to remember the women we do not steamroll the men. Progress is of little value if it comes at the cost of damaging half of the population.

So as we celebrate the advances of women and do our best to continue the progress that has been made, let’s all agree not to trample on the boys in our enthusiasm. We need for all people to be able to make the best of the talents and intellectual abilities that they have. Our goal should be to raise each child in an environment that motivates and inspires. Our focus should be more on the future and less on the mistakes and injustices of the past. If we are constantly indicting the boys for sins that we worry that they might one day commit we will stifle them in nonproductive ways just as was sometimes done in the past with girls.

Girl power is wonderful, but so is boy power. Together we can make a better more equitable world, but if we continually devolve into quibbling and put downs we haven’t got a chance. It’s time to work for everyone in a spirit of fairness. That’s how we create the adults who will one day be able to carry on the work of humankind.

The Strength Of Joining Forces


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. Coincidental with that event were a number of articles and programs dedicated to women’s issues. Among them was a piece discussing a women’s conference that was held in Houston, Texas back in the nineteen seventies. It was attended by the feminist stars of the day including Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, and Gloria Steinem. My good friend Marita was among the thousands of attendees and she gushed for weeks about what she had seen and heard. With her ever present Irish humor she also purchased a couple of towels at the event bearing an image of a pig and the words “male chauvinist pig.” She impishly presented them to her husband and mine causing all of us to laugh because neither of the two men had a chauvinist bone in their bodies. They were instead very supportive of both of us and proud of whatever path we chose to travel.

Marita ultimately became an attorney and I went all in for education. We were independent women who wanted different things which to me was the real point of women’s rights. Sadly not everyone, including Marita agreed with my thinking. In fact, one of the surprises of the Houston Women’s Conference was that it ended up with a schism among the ladies that has never really healed. As Gloria Steinem explained there was a rival conference across town designed to discuss issues important to women with more fundamentalist religious views. It was chaired by Phyllis Schafly and is sometimes credited with being the moment of when the religious right movement was born.

Ms. Steinem recently opined that the conference that should have launched a huge shift in women’s rights ultimately fizzled when the report that they sent then President Jimmy Carter was never addressed, but the fever of conservatism actually caught fire and began to burn brightly. “We lost,” she recently proclaimed. The conference that had been so hopeful for her became the important meeting that was seemingly forgotten.

I recall thinking at the time that the competing meetings represented a tendency of women that has been troublesome for centuries. Namely, for some reason too many of us of the female persuasion seem to believe that we must achieve all or walk away with nothing. We continually compete rather than compromise and our divisions make progress more difficult than it needs to be. We might find true power if only we were willing to honor all women regardless of differences. Instead we quibble and lose our advantage of numbers. We are not only fighting the status quo, but also battling with each other.

As someone who taught in middle school for a number of years I vividly recall the verbal spats between the girls that often became ferocious. In their adolescent frenzy they formed cliques that were akin to battle lines and attacked one another with hurtful wars of words. On any given day I was drying tears and attempting to arbitrate between conflicting groups and vicious comments. In some ways the continued divisions in the world of women remind me of those junior high days.

I suppose that if we had the power of going back in time to redo critical moments I would suggest to the female leaders of both the left and the right that women need to genuinely join hands to honor one another. It should not matter what choices each female makes, but that every girl is supported in her quest to live life to its fullest. I was intensely proud of Marita not because she was a lawyer, but because she achieved her own personal dream. I marvel just as much over my friend Linda who stood by her belief that the most important work that she might ever do was to be found in caring for her family and home. I have found few people as dedicated as she is and I am continually humbled by her example.

The truth is that many progressive women will fiercely defend a Muslim woman wearing a burka, but then poke fun at a fundamentalist Christian female who is pro life, somehow never noticing the hypocrisy of such thinking. At the same time, some very religious women are unwilling to accept or understand those who support Planned Parenthood or a lesbian lifestyle, They seemingly forget the parts of the Bible that tell them not to judge and to follow the commandment of love. There is a great wall between the two sides with most of us stuck in the middle feeling like I did when I attempted to quell the furor between my middle school girls. Until women everywhere stand up for each other without judgement or rancor we will all feel as if we have failed just as Ms. Steinem does.

The truth is that we really have come a long long way, but we still have problems that we must address. Culture is very difficult to change, but it is happening. There are now more women attending universities than men. Women are more and more often choosing majors and careers that were once male dominated. The barriers keeping women from breaking the glass ceiling are falling away. It’s a far better world for women than it was back in the nineteen seventies. That conference really didn’t fail after all. We have much to celebrate, and we need to do so together.

I long for the day when we women are capable of honoring Condoleeza Rice along with Hillary Clinton, Sara Palin with Elizabeth Warren. Our heroines should not be just those who think like we do. They should be all women who become successful at whatever they have chosen to do. The true women of distinction do not fit into a particular mold, but instead represent every possible point of view. Their strength is not found in their philosophies but in the capacity to love and survive.

Neither of my grandmothers were able to read or right, and yet they are two of the most powerful women that I have ever known. They taught me that I have the capacity to be as strong as any man. The showed me how powerful love can be. They helped me to understand the importance of honoring every single person.

I suppose that I will never forget a time when my grandmother Minnie Bell took me to see one of her Arkansas neighbors, a woman with ten children who lived in abject poverty. Before we arrived Grandma cautioned me to treat the lady with the utmost respect. She insisted that I was about to meet one of the greatest people ever, and in fact I was so taken by my grandmother’s admonitions that I was able to see past the dreary environment in which the woman lived. Instead I noticed her understated elegance and heard the intelligence in her conversation. I suppose that my grandmother in spite of her lack of education was a bit wiser than many of the leaders of various political movements aimed at women. She had the right idea and I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me. We women are capable and beautiful just as we are. If we stop long enough to actually listen to one another I think that we will begin to make the progress that we seek. There is power in our diversity, strength in joining forces.



Try to imagine living on a net monthly income of about one thousand dollars a month. It would create a constant struggle to meet even the most basic needs of food and housing. In the Houston area we have a lower cost of living than most places, but even here it’s difficult to find housing for less than seven or eight hundred dollars a month. Just paying rent alone takes a huge chunk from such a meager monthly budget, and when utilities are added to the bottom line there is very little left to take care of other basic needs.

Sadly there are very good people who work but still don’t manage to move past the level of poverty. Then, of course, there are the elderly who are no longer physically able to hold down jobs whose monthly checks provide them with ever diminishing spending power. To offset the hopelessness of living in such situations the federal government instituted the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP.

Recipients of SNAP benefits must certify that they meet the standards of one hundred percent of the designated poverty income levels. They may have a home but no more than a few thousand dollars in savings and other assets. Once they have been verified they receive an EBT card that has been preloaded with funds that they may spend at designated grocery stores for the purchase of food. Eligible recipients are free to choose the items that they prefer but may not make nonfood purchases with the card, nor may they include certain products like beer or wine. SNAP requires individuals and families to continually certify their financial status to insure that eligibility requirements are being met.

While it is generally known is that many Americans are lacking proper nutrition in their diets, the SNAP program does not restrict particular food choices, even if those include soda, candy and other questionable snacks. Studies have shown that enforcing nutritional standards would make the program far too costly, as well as creating paperwork nightmares. Efforts to improve the delivery of wholesome foods to those needing assistance have been mostly unsuccessful. Recently President Donald Trump recommended a major change to the program that would take the element of choice from those receiving the benefits. He proposes a system that would send boxes of nonperishable food items to individuals and families each month rather than reloading funds into an EBT card. The suggestion has created a firestorm of criticism and concern.

Obviously the cost and logistics of delivering the food would be enormous. There are a number of nagging questions about how to make such a system effective, and many concerns about whether or not it is even possible. Take for example the situation of someone who is not home when the box arrives. Does the delivery person just leave the food hoping that it actually ends up where it is supposed to be, or does he notify the recipient to reschedule? How efficient would such a system be when deliveries have to be made to far flung rural areas? Who will be in charge of the distribution process? Will this kind of system require whole new staffs of people?

Of course the most obvious question literally becomes one of taste. Each of us has certain dietary preferences. I can’t imagine not having the freedom to decide what kinds of foods I might purchase, and I find it insensitive to think that the poor should not be allowed the same liberties that I enjoy. I also prefer fresh fruits and vegetables and the idea of only having canned varieties is a very unpleasant one.

My mom was a widow who never made a great deal of money. There was only a brief period of time in her life after my father died when she enjoyed a high standard of living. Most of the time, especially in her later years, she was only barely above the one hundred percent poverty level. At the time of her death she missed that standard by one hundred dollars a month. Even though she owned her home by then, she barely scraped by. She reached a point at which she was stretched to the maximum and yet she was not spending money frivolously. She rarely purchased new clothing or shoes. She did not own a car. Her house needed major repairs that had to wait. Much of her income went toward utilities, medical expenses, insurance costs, and food. She pinched every single penny, especially when it came to purchasing food, and yet she always managed to have a very healthy diet. Her secret was in choosing very carefully. Rarely did she buy canned items. Instead she bought seasonal vegetables and cuts of meat that were on sale.

My mom used the skills of meal planning and her knowledge of nutrition to prepare healthy meals. A carton of eggs lasted for a week and gave her a good breakfast to eat in six of the seven days. She searched for the stores that had the best prices and always bought her food for a bargain. She regularly chose meats that would provide her with multiple meals and vegetables that would be sides as well as ingredients for soups. She loved dried beans and there was rarely a week when she did not prepare a large pot of some kind of legume that would serve as lunch or dinner for many days.

I took my mother grocery shopping on Friday evenings and she would spend hours determining how to get the most bang from her buck. Rarely did she spend more than twenty five dollars and yet she managed to get bags and bags of items. She made it a kind of challenge to walk out of the store with a wonderful variety that she had purchased at a very low cost. In fact, she often urged me to join the competition and would raise an eyebrow at any extravagant purchases that I made, pointing out that the sale apples were just as good as the more expensive ones that I had chosen.

It was difficult for my mom to make it on her low income, and yet she did. She was profoundly independent and she was proud to be able to be the mistress of her own budget. She sometimes grumbled that she was just shy of receiving some assistance from the government, but she would not have taken anything away from those who did because she understood their plight. I suspect that she would have allowed more treats in her diet had she been given a bit more purchasing power. Mostly though she enjoyed the ability to choose. I think she would have found it distasteful to have someone insinuating that she was somehow ignorant or less than able to be her own mistress simply because her income was so sparse.

I understand all of the arguments from people who worry that the taxpayers’ money is often wasted on frivolous items that don’t seem to be necessary components of a healthy diet. What I find hypocritical is that some of the very same people complained loudly when First Lady Michelle Obama helped create nutrition rules for school lunches. They voiced their objections to being told what their children might eat. Many of them often insist that their private decisions should be their own, and I agree with that concept. I just don’t think that it is right to exclude the poor from the right to determine what will be on their tables at dinner time. It’s not up to us to make decisions for them even when they slip in a bag of cookies for their children. It’s good for the soul to have a treat here and there. Why would we want to deny them?

I am open to the concern that some of the SNAP funds are not being spent properly, but I just don’t believe that we need to be nannies or create programs that will become more complex than they need to be. Let’s think of better ways to help people bring nutritious meals to the tables of our fellow citizens without insinuating our own preferences on them. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and demonstrate a bit of understanding. But for circumstances we might one day find ourselves in their shoes.

Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.