Our Moral Obligation

john lewis

Each of us look at the world a bit differently. Our beliefs about the world and the people around us begin in our childhoods. How much we are willing to trust others is often rooted in our relationships with our parents. Children model the behaviors that they see in their parents’ actions. Children adapt and learn inside their homes. If there is nurturing and ethical guidance they generally become confident, capable and compassionate adults. If there is neglect and physical or mental abuse they are more prone to struggle with dysfunctional behaviors. Bullies are not born. They are made.

Of course there are malfunctions of the brain that cause a variety of mental disturbances that do not reflect on family influences other than perhaps through genetics. Even in the best of situations mental illness can cause problems for both individuals and those close to them. Because we still have so much to learn about the how and why of our brain our treatments for psychological disorders are often limited and sometimes even ineffective. Still, the worst possible response to them is to simply ignore them.

As a teacher I often encountered young people whose behavior indicated either a psychological problem or a toxic home environment or both. Often such children were boastful, aggressive and mean. They had a kind of swagger and inflated sense of self importance. They dominated their peers and sought to dominate the teachers as well. They were masters of deceit and bravado. Generally nobody really liked them but followed them out of fear often emulating their mean spiritedness.

I worked in schools populated by gangs. There were leaders and their followers. It was a way of surviving in neighborhoods stalked by poverty and a lack of interest from the rest of society. Many of my students were virtually raising themselves and sometimes had the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings as well. Their fathers were in prison or had simply left the families to fend for themselves. Their mothers were sometimes “ladies of the night” addicted to alcohol and drugs. They had little guidance and had to navigate independently in the world far sooner than most of us ever must do. It was a harsh environment in which they learned how to adapt as best they could. Sometimes they became tough skinned, angry and mean.

I also worked in schools with middle to upper class students some of whom were living in emotional deserts. Their parents were well known and highly regarded in the community but they saw very little of them. Instead their care was relegated to hired helpers and they were given money to spend as they wished rather than time and attention. Their sense of what is important was confined to the satisfaction of their own desires. Their thoughts focused on things rather than people. They were boastful and domineering for many of the same reasons as the gang leaders I had encountered in my other schools. They were feared by their followers rather than loved.

Generally the healthy and happy children grow into successful adults who rise to the challenges of responsibility. Society has tended to value character over brutishness in selecting people to lead. From time to time a scarred and pitiless bully has incited the fears of enough of a citizenry to overtake the reigns of power but here in the United States we have mostly been wary of such persons. They have tended to be outliers operating on the fringes of influence but of late their tactics are more and more often viewed as a sign of strength and wisdom and even goodness. Meanness has been elevated to an acceptable way of life and it has been accompanied by an unwillingness to call it out.

The effect has been to divide us into “gangs,” tribes, groups warring with one another over our differences. Once beloved friends and family members are turning on one another simply because they have opposing points of view. Rational discussions have been replaced with accusations, stereotyping and name calling. Each side believes that the other is destroying our country. Politics have become a zero sum game that brooks no compromise. Our vocabulary is filled with hyperbole that only further increases our differences. We are being led by dysfunctional souls who were never taught how to love and lead with compassion. They care nothing for us and yet we blindly follow them because winning means more to us than doing what is right.

We are essentially on our own in one of the most critical times in our nation’s history. We now wee entire races of people described by single words and phrases like thugs, criminals, rioters, rapists, purveyors of kung flu. The most broken among us have taken up the cadence of hate. They attack an Asian woman in a grocery store as though she has single handedly caused all of the misery of our pandemic.

We see classifications of entire age groups of people with dismissive descriptions like snowflakes, millennials, Boomers. We more and more hear women being called nasty or “Karens” or skanks who have slept their way to the top. We can’t even agree on whether or not Covid-19 is a hoax or on the necessity of wearing masks to save lives without enduring vitriol. It is as though we have given up even trying to get along or be kind.

It would be easy to lay the blame for our difficulties at the feet of a single individual but our problems are much deeper than that. Ours is a nation of freedom and democracy. Nobody is forcing us to think or behave in a particular way. We have made our own choices and at least for now we are allowing and even encouraging the ugly behaviors. We have made those who would stand up for what is right and just afraid and in our frustration we are faced with the recklessness of protesting as a last resort. In other words we have brought this on ourselves and it will be up to us to end it.

Our nation is our child and we have been neglectful. We have looked away too often when problems arise. We have allowed inappropriate verbal tantrums when we should have corrected them. We have become afraid to do want we know is right. It’s time we model the behaviors that we want to see. We must demonstrate a willingness to work together with respect and dignity. We must once again value every person and relearn the ways of honoring our differences. As grown ups it’s time we set things right. It is our moral obligation to do so. 



Happy Birthday

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Fifty years ago on July 18, 1970, I was headed to St. Luke’s Hospital to have my first child. I had no idea whether my baby would be a boy or a girl because there were no ultrasounds back then. My husband and I had picked out male and female names just in case. We wanted to honor our incredible mothers if our child was female and combining their names into one gave us “Maryellen.” We never had to use our other choice because after eighteen hours of labor our beautiful daughter was born and my brother Pat changed his pledge to take a boy on his first fishing trip to accompanying our girl to her first dance.

Maryellen was a big baby at nine pounds seven ounces and the doctor had to pinch her shoulders together as she was emerging into this world. She began life with a broken clavicle which was the first of many challenges she would overcome. She was the delight of our lives and that of her grandparents and our world began to center around her.

Maryellen accompanied me to my first time voting for president of the United States when she was barely four months old. It was a cold November day and she was dressed in a sweet pink sweater with a little hood that an aunt had made for her. It was a doubly proud day for me as I cast my vote and smiled at all of the compliments that she received. She would always be my very good girl.

Maryellen was sick a great deal. She endured one ear infection after another and I spent so much time taking her to see her pediatrician. On many nights a sat awake with her as she raged with fever. She seemed to have allergic reactions to any foods I gave her. I worried incessantly about her health even as she grew but while she had once smiled and loved to sing she grew ever more silent. When she was one year old she still had not walked and some of my friends suggested that there must be something wrong. My anxieties only grew.

Maryellen did eventually walk. In fact her first steps were a run to reach a ball that rolled past her. Because she was always dancing around the house I took her to get lessons and she had an unexpected grace and talent for creative movement. She still got more ear infections than I was able to count and we became more and more frequent visitors to her pediatrician’s office but she always sprang back from her illnesses.

Soon it was time for kindergarten which turned out to be a painful time for both of us. I contracted hepatitis and was sick for over three months. My husband later developed a rare disease that required months of chemotherapy. In the midst of all this her teacher called me to a conference in which she intimated that Maryellen’s intellectual abilities were not as well developed as the other children. The woman used a single worksheet as proof of her theory. The exercise required the student to draw a connecting line between a household implement and either the mommy or the daddy. Maryellen had “failed” the test because she joined the lawnmower, the rake and the hammer to me. I remember laughing my head off because I was indeed the person who maintained the lawn and often repaired things around the house. Sadly the poor teacher would not agree with my arguments about stereotyping the sexes. Instead she insisted that there really was a right and wrong set of answers. Furthermore she informed me that Maryellen was also socially inept.

I grieved for my little girl but then came first grade and a most wonderful teacher who changed Maryellen’s life. This educator had been given suggestions for grouping students according to their abilities. Maryellen began in the section for those with learning disabilities but before long she was doing so well that the teacher moved her to the next group and then the next until she was keeping up with the supposedly brightest children in the class. The teacher also noticed that Maryellen’s eyes followed her like a hawk. She observed that Maryellen appeared to be reading lips and so she scheduled an emergency hearing test with the school nurse. The results were astonishing. Maryellen had an almost fifty percent hearing loss!

I made an appointment with a well respected specialist and Maryellen was soon having surgery to fix the problem. I’ll never forget her reaction as we were taking her home from the hospital and she heard clearly for the very first time. Her eyes widened and she looked around with a smile on her face as she asked, “What is all of that?”

The rest of the story is so wonderful. Maryellen became a top student in high school where she also excelled as a dancer and a leader. She went to the University of Texas at Austin and was accepted into their school of business. She earned a degree in four years along with making wonderful grades and experiencing many friendships and adventures. She met her future husband, Scott, there and once he graduated they were married and began to build a life and a family.

Maryellen now has four magnificent boys of her own. She works as an accountant but is first and foremost an incredible mom. Each of her sons is unique and she has helped them to develop their own talents. Mostly she has taught them how to be fine men with respect for all people. She has done this through one challenge after another always being the steadying force in her family.

Maryellen has always made me puff out with pride and she has lived up to the legacy of the grandmothers for whom she was named. They were strong women with gentle hearts and like them she is a warrior whose cause is to compassionately love and care for all people. She is her own person and with a quiet steeliness that champions the causes of equality and justice. She is exactly as I hoped she would be.

Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Maryellen. The world has always been more wonderful from the day you were born. Here’s to many more years of making a difference in people’s lives. 

The Innocence

Babies sitting on floor together

Children are so beautiful. They are born with such innocence. A newborn baby is capable of learning any language on earth and embracing any culture. There is not a hint of prejudice in a tiny human’s heart. Children are filled with curiosity that naturally prompts them to explore their world and learn about it. They are fearless in that journey, so much so that we have to protect them from tasting toxins or putting their hands into fire. They look to adults to guide and influence them. If they are surrounded by love and care they tend to thrive but if all they see is anger and abuse their unblemished purity of heart can slowly become tainted. Adults who hate have been somehow taught to be that way.

I have been thinking about children a great deal of late, but then I suppose that I really always think about children. It is in them that I have found my greatest purpose and joy in life. They are my calling, a reason for maintaining optimism and hope. They are precious gifts whose guilelessness is waiting to be directed toward honor, compassion, purpose, courage.

I have been thinking about my mother a great deal of late. I suppose that hearing George Floyd call for his mama with his last breaths has awakened a sense of how important the relationships between mother and child, father and child, teacher and child truly are. When I think of my own mama I see unconditional love. I have tried to remember if she ever spanked me and I honestly can’t think of a single time when she did that even though there might have been occasions when I certainly deserved such a consequence. I suppose that I learned more from witnessing her example than from any lectures or lessons she may have given me. As children we watch and learn from action.

My own mother was a model of kindness and generosity. That is what my brothers and I saw on a continual basis. At the end of each day she tucked us in, reassured us of her love, apologized for any mistakes she may have made. She was not flawless, no human is, but the pattern of her life demonstrated the selflessness that was her vocation. If I have even a smidgen of goodness in me I most certainly learned it first from her.

As I grew people were mostly kind to me. In that regard I was fortunate, but as happens with virtually everyone I also encountered tortured souls who taught me lessons in their own perverse ways. The grossly unjust teacher that I had in the fourth grade showed me how not to be. The man whose racist political views stunned me enlightened me in how not to think. The boss who publicly raged against his employees convinced me that there were better ways for dealing with problems at work. In other words I was not swayed by forces that were so contrary to the foundations of character that my mother had built in my soul but rather her influence strengthened my resolve to emulate her.’

Some children are not as lucky as I was. They endure neglect, physical and emotional abuse. They are psychologically torn down. The are taught that violence is a natural way of living. They hear adults spewing hate as gospel and they begin to believe it. Over time they endure insults and degradation so often that they perversely see it as a sign of strength. They hide behind violence to solve problems. They have learned this from watching and hearing the adults in their little corner of the world. Their innocence has been transformed into meanness, brutality, racism. 

Perhaps the most difficult memories from my long teaching career occurred when I met parents that I knew were somehow teaching their children to be angry bullies. It pained me to wonder how their own twisted ideas had been so firmly implanted in their youngsters. Often they would boast about the firm control they had over the members of their family. They viewed the world as a zero sum game in which the only way to win was by crushing competition. I knew after meeting them that my own influence on their sons or daughters would most likely be minimal and yet I understood that I had to nonetheless provide an example of a more positive way of being. I hoped that I might somehow spark a realization in my troubled student that life does not have to be about dominance.

It can be discouraging to see people who are so obviously mean and self absorbed. It is even more disheartening to witness them having a negative impact on the shaping of a young person. Even worse is how often their ugliness is enabled either from fear or hopelessness or because those around them actually hold the same disturbing views. Sweet babies subjected to such influences all too often become broken souls capable of indescribable acts. The cycle of physical and emotional violence is handed down from one generation to the next.

I am a mama to my daughters but also to the many students that I have taught. I have tried to be the kind of example that my own mother was to me. I did my best to demonstrate the power that love always has over hate. I tried to defended the  young people in my care from harm and prejudice and hate, but every child eventually has to make his/her way through a world that has far too much cruelty. Few of us have never encountered such things. My only hope has always been that the hurts that my babies endure will be minimal and that they will have the strength of character to push back on its fury. The battle for good over evil begins in the home, in the classroom, in our relationships. It’s up to us to keep the love and the understanding alive, especially when we see it’s adversaries rising up.



You Never Know What You May Find

bumpy road

June 1, 2020

To my incredible children, grandchildren, students, nieces, nephews and young people who are like family,

I wrote a letter to you when we first began our stay at home orders here in the United States. At that time most of the Covid-19 cases were occurring in Washington State, California and New Jersey. Here in my hometown of Houston, Texas there were no more than a couple dozen folks who had tested positive for the disease so it was a bit difficult to believe that our area would get hit very hard with the virus. While we were locked away in our homes we watched as the illness penetrated almost every corner of the world in one way or another. The images of empty streets in London, Paris, Rome, and New York City were a haunting backdrop to the rising numbers of sick and dying. Now as I convey my thoughts to you the United States there have been 100,000 deaths even as we begin the process of reopening our cities and towns. At the same time the tragic murder of a Black man, George Floyd, by a police officer in Minnesota has led to an outpouring of grief and rage not just in our own country but across the world. 

So much has changed in such a short amount of time. The world as we expected it to be feels very different. People who able to do so are still working at home and students are finishing the school year from their bedrooms. The proms and graduations and track meets and school competitions were mostly eliminated from the end of the year calendar. Some of you took your Advanced Placement tests online without the usual review sessions from your teachers. Being part of this historical event has been tough and the coming times feel almost as uncertain as the last several weeks have been. Who knows what all of us will face as we begin to rebuild the world again? Now with the added difficulties of the protesting and the unfortunate destruction that has sometimes come with it, we are all asking ourselves what we might have done to prevent the suffering.

I have watched all of you working hard to comply with the directives designed to flatten the curve of contagion and protect the vulnerable in our midst. I have heard your impassioned pleas for justice and equality and the recognition of Black Lives. I’ve witnessed you continuing your studies and preparing for a future whose form is evolving even as I type these words. We simply don’t know what the next weeks and months will be like for anyone and yet all of you are maintaining your optimism and your resolve. Regardless of what the world is going to be like as we move forward I sense that each of you will be ready.

I’ve had conversations with some of you regarding your concerns about the environment, the cost of attending college, the inequities of this world. I know that you are thinking well beyond your own needs and you have proved your mettle in this difficult time. With little or no guidance you have worked as hard as you would have if there had been directives and deadlines. Nothing has stopped you and that is the mark of greatness. I have also been exceedingly proud of your compassion and willingness to speak out for those whose lives are being turned upside down.

I recently heard a woman speaking about the effect of Covid 19 on the psychological health of the nation’s youth.  With a smile on her face she insisted that those of you who are young possess an inordinate amount of grit, the quality of maintaining determination even when life is challenging. She assured her audience that true grit will propel people like you forward regardless of what kind of changes are wrought by this pandemic. She pointed out that some of the greatest discoveries and positive developments were born in tough times. Isaac Newton invented Calculus when he was sent home from the university during an outbreak of plague in the 1600s. That same terrible time resulted in sanitation improvements and new medicines. She believes that it will be the young men and women of the world who will define the problems that the pandemic has exposed and then invent new ways of enhancing the world. You are the explorers, entrepreneurs, creators and leaders of the future.

I know that you have faced so many disappointments and the possibility of even more as the virus and the unrest dictate how we will return to a new kind of normal. I really hope that the older generation will listen to and consider your ideas. You are dreamers and your thoughts have the potential to fuel a worldwide renaissance. You have seen the possibilities and now it is time to begin to bring them to fruition.

You still have dues to pay and hoops through which you must jump but you are quickly earning your wings and respect for your hard work and patience. The sacrifices you are making now and  the challenges you will most certainly face in the coming times will make you strong as long as you refuse to allow them to defeat you. You are creative and flexible. Use those natural tendencies to keep your optimism flourishing. Think beyond the confines of the way things have always been. Continue to be curious and unafraid to notice problems and address them.

I smile when I think of you and my chest puffs up with pride. Learn from this experience but do not allow it to pull you down. Be ready to teach some tricks to old dogs like me. Be open to unexpected opportunities and be willing to take a side trip down a bumpy road. You never know what you may find.  


Mama, Gammy, Aunt Sharron, Mama B. 

I See You, Moms


After my father died I rarely spoke to school mates about my family’s situation but one day at recess one of my friends asked me what I would do if my mother also died. I fielded her question rather deftly and bravely by insisting that my Aunt Valeria would take care of me. When my classmate persisted in her interrogation by suggesting that I would probably end up in an orphanage I parlayed by boasting that my aunt already had an extra bed in her home which was proof to me that she would never allow me to be taken away. My false bravado hid the very real fear that my buddy’s analysis of my situation was actually be more accurate than I was willing to admit. I was only eight years old and I had two younger brothers. In the silence of my heart I worried that if anything ever happened to our mother we would be split up as a family and sent who knows where.

I’ve been seeing and hearing comments from a number of single mothers who are deeply concerned about becoming ill with Covid-19. They worry openly about what might become of their little ones if such a dreaded thing were to come to pass. I have felt their anxiety in a visceral way because it was only after I too became a mother that I realized the enormous burden that my mother carried in wondering what would happen to me and my brothers if she were to somehow become incapacitated.

Mothers are struggling with this virus not just because of the many responsibilities that they are juggling, but from the very nature of their love for their children. Whether the kids are babies or grown adults protective maternal instincts are in full force and being stressed by the uncertainties of the situation. While I witness valiant efforts on the parts of mothers across the globe I also feel the underlying terror that many of them are feeling.

As the days in isolation continue and the stories of the sick and dying increase I also hear of moms wondering out loud if their best efforts to keep their children safe and calm will be enough. Even the most confident among the women that I know are wavering and worrying. In the past week I have begun to get messages late at night from mothers who feel the earth moving under their feet and need some reassurance that they are really doing the best for their children.

I’ve lost count of the women that I know who have been laid off from their jobs in the middle of all the chaos. They are genuinely worried about losing their homes or their cars and they know that quickly finding new employment is unthinkable now that they have their children at home all day. They rely on the kindness of family and friends but worry that at some point they will be on their own with few prospects for rebuilding secure lives for themselves and for their children. Because they do not want to frighten their youngsters they remain calm and carry on during the day only allowing themselves to fall apart when everyone else has fallen asleep. That’s when I get the dire texts from them asking if I know of any resources to which they might turn.

It’s difficult enough to be a mother in the most normal of times. It’s incredibly challenging during a rare moment like the one in which we now find ourselves. Few of the usual avenues of support are available right now. All of the social ministries are flooded with requests for help. Getting a phone conference with a doctor takes some doing. Even the churches are somewhat locked down.

I see and hear those moms. I know the intensity of the love that they have for their children. I understand their worries and I want to speak to them from the point of view of their little ones because I have been there before. I was a child who relied so totally on my mother. I knew that she was the everything in our household, the only adult who had to play every role. She was not perfect but in my eyes she was a saint because I saw that she was devoting herself to me and my brothers. I realized that we were the center of her universe even when she was working or going to college to earn a degree. I knew that her entire life was focused on making us feel safe and loved.

I see and hear all of the moms and they remind me so much of my mother. I know that they are amazing women whose children will never forget the sacrifices that they are making. In fact I suspect that one day their kids will view them exactly the way I saw my mother, heroes who kept them safe and secure. I want to tell them to be kind to themselves and to rest easy each night in the assurance that the lessons they are teaching their children are beautiful and never to be forgotten.

Take care all of you mothers. You are the bedrock in an uneasy time. You’ve got this and so do your children. Nobody needs perfect, all they need is love and you have an endless supply of that to spread around.