Respecting the Young

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I recall once reading quotes from ancient Greeks in which they expressed derision toward the teenagers of the time. Adults all too often have expectations for youth that are unrealistic and hardly in line with adolescent development. While it is true that seventeen and eighteen year olds often took on great responsibilities in earlier times, it is also undoubtedly as fact that those same adolescents also made mistakes from which they had to learn valuable lessons. The time between sweet sixteen and about age twenty five is wrought with both wonderful opportunities and major struggles. Becoming a happy and healthy adult is no small feat, especially in today’s world. Sadly those of us who are well beyond those young years often forget how fraught with anxiety and challenges they can be.

I worry constantly about our young. Our world does not always treat them kindly and they are still working to perfect the life skills that will enable them to survive in the on their own. The process of growing up is a grand adventure on many levels and one of the most uncomfortable moments in life on others. Teens and young adults will make many mistakes before they finally figure things out, and it is up to those of us who are older to support them in their efforts, even when they appear to go astray. Many a young person’s life has been unduly scuttled because the adults around him/her lacked compassion and understanding.

I watch grown people who should know better deriding young folk who are earnestly expressing their points of view. Instead of congratulating them for caring enough to form opinions and speak out on certain issues there are those who insult them and even suggest that they should be ignored. A more reasonable reaction would be to have an honest and respectful conversation with them about their concerns rather than insulting them or simply writing them off as too immature to know have a meaningful opinion.

While I think that Greta Thunberg from Sweden has taken the wrong approach in scolding entire generations with a broad brush of disdain, I applaud her interest in bringing attention to the problems of climate change. She is quite sincere in her worries and she deserves to be heard even if we find her ideas hyperbolic and even a bit insulting. In fact, when a teen expresses the most anger and frustration that is the very time when they must be heard. In those moments they are thinking out loud and letting us know that they are attempting to make sense of the world as they know it. Simply writing them off only confounds their anger and does little to help them learn how to channel their anxieties into constructive ideas.

In the past I’ve written about the boy with the MAGA cap who was raked over the coals by adults who should have known better. They made assumptions about him based on a single image that could not possibly have told his full story. It was very wrong of the press and the world of social media to publicly scold him without really knowing him. As it turned out he was unfairly taunted and then judged by standards that most adults would have a difficult time achieving.

Then there is the young man from Parkland High School in Florida who has spoken about against guns. He has been ridiculed and insulted in grossly inappropriate ways simply because he espouses a point of view with which many disagree. Instead of complimenting him for taking the time to attempt to solve a problem that personally affected him and his classmates, he has been continually maligned.

As an educator I watched young teens do very stupid things that got them into much trouble. They were the ones who got caught and often the punishments given to them far outweighed the nature of the crimes they committed. In the most extreme cases too much emphasis was placed on retribution toward them rather than using the instance as a teachable moment. The adults in charge did indeed change the course of the youngsters’ lives, but not in the intended way. They took good kids who had done something wrong and turned them into hardened criminals. Without compassion and counseling they broke and felt as though their lives were so ruined that there was little reason to continue along a path of righteousness.

My grandfather was a storyteller. I loved sitting with him and hearing his tales that always held a kernel of wisdom. Hearing him speak was a calming and learning experience. You might say that he had been around.

  Once he told of a time when he was working in a general store as a young boy. Times were hard then and there were families that were unable to afford even the basic necessities. Many of them ran up tabs with the owner of the store with promises of repayment once things got better. One man in particular owed so much that the proprietor of the store had to deny the man anymore credit. The poor soul ended up stealing a bag of flour in desperation and my grandfather witnessed the crime.

Grandpa felt compelled to tell the owner of the store what had happened and soon enough the sheriff arrived. The lawman and my grandfather went together to confront the man who had purloined the flour. When they got to his house they found a chaotic scene in which the woman of the house was attempting to make bread. Her children were so hungry that they were eating balls of raw dough. When the sheriff saw what was happening he looked at my grandfather, winked, and suggested that my grandfather must have been mistaken in thinking that the unfortunate father had stolen anything. My grandfather understood the sheriff’s reasoning instantly and nodded in assent that he had been wrong.

We would all do well to follow the sheriff’s lead and demonstrate more compassion, particularly with teens and young adults. Our first thought should always be to help them to become better versions of themselves. Stern insults and harsh punishments are not the answer. It’s up to us to be better than that.

I Choose to Stay

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A few weeks after I was born my mother and father took me to All Saints Catholic Church to be baptized by the Reverend John Perusina. My Aunt Polly was my godmother and like my mom she was a very devout Catholic. In fact all of my cousins from Mama’s side of the family attended Catholic schools where we spent as many as twelve years learning about our church and participating in the sacraments. On Sundays we dressed in our best and attended mass at various parishes across the city of Houston.

The first Catholic community that I actually remember is St. Peter the Apostle where I attended first grade. I was quite young then, barely five years old. Much of that time is a fog because here was much havoc taking place in my home with the birth of my youngest brother, the constant illnesses of my middle brother and the death of my dear Uncle Bob. What I do remember is the great kindness that was extended to me by my teacher, Sister Camilla, and a friend, Virginia. I also enjoyed visits from my Aunt Polly who lived just down the street from the church. She checked in periodically to be sure that I was doing well. I suppose that none of the wonderful people who took the time to care for me that year ever knew how much their consideration meant to me, but in my heart I began to associate my Catholicism with love.

My family moved to another home just before I began second grade. We lived within walking distance of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. With only a brief interruption I would spend the rest of my growing up years in the hands of Carmelite priests and the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I made many lifelong friends during those times and it was at Mt. Carmel that I made my first confession and my first communion. In the fourth grade I was confirmed in my faith. Those were glorious years in which I felt safe and loved and supported. My church family was like a great big extension of my own family, and when my father died all of the wonderful people from the parish watched over me and my mother and brothers. I was often frightened then, but the steadiness of the Church always came to my rescue.

I married my husband at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and the same  Father Perusina who had baptized me was the priest who performed the ceremony. For a long time I kept driving back to Mt. Carmel for mass on Sundays but it was just too far away from where I lived. I ended up going to Sacred Heart Cathedral in downtown Houston but it felt so unfamiliar and I did not know anyone there. I floated around from parish to parish as we made our moves, but once we purchased a home I found St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church where my own children would grow up as Catholics. I felt that same sense of family that I had enjoyed in my youth among the priests and parishioners there. My young adult life was spent teaching there on Sundays, managing the religious education program for a time, and making some of the very best friends that I have ever had.

When we moved from the house that had been our abode for over thirty years I found myself once again driving a rather long distance just to remain at St. Frances Cabrini but that became rather tedious and so I began searching for a closer parish in which to invest my faith. By happenstance I found Mary Queen Catholic Church.

The summer of 2017 had been wrought with pain for me and my husband. He had endured a stroke and we felt so much uncertainty about the future. Only a few short weeks later hurricane Harvey inundated our area. For days on end we sat in our home worrying that the waters might find their way inside while watching dreadful images of destruction in places that we knew quite well. When all was said and done we were fine but many of our family members and friends had lost most of their possessions and the security of their homes. It felt as though nobody was completely immune.

Two of the mothers of friends with whom I had gone to school at Mt. Carmel died during the time of our city’s recovery. Sadly Mt. Carmel had not been spared by Harvey. It’s roof had collapsed from the weight of the rain and it would be months before it was repaired. The families had to find alternative places to hold the funerals and it was Mary Queen Catholic Church that agreed to open their doors to provide them with a proper service. At the very same time the ladies of the quilting group at Mary Queen sent a prayer quilt to my husband with assurances that they would pray for his recovery and improved health.

We were so moved by the generosity of the people at Mary Queen that we decided that we had finally found our new home parish. We have not regretted our decision because we once again feel the kind of love and generosity that I experienced at St. Peter the Apostle, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and St. Frances Cabrini. The community of worshipers are the true leaders of a parish. It is in the people who fill the pews each Sunday that I find the word of God living and breathing around me. My new Mary Queen family quenches my spiritual thirst.

I am a Catholic. My parents brought me to the church as a child. I have stayed as an adult. There are many problems within the Catholic Church because even though it was founded by Christ, it is run on this earth by humans who by nature are sometimes frail and prone to mistakes. My faith bears the scars of many sins but it also represents the message of love that has sustained me during my most difficult times.

I have seen priests who failed in their stewardship and even felt uncomfortable around two of them that I purposely avoided. They were both later found credibly guilty of sexual abuse. It has saddened me to face the reality that the Catholic Church has for so long abrogated its duties to protect the flock, but I do not view the sinfulness of a few as a reason to leave. For most of my seventy years the priests and nuns and members of the Catholic Church have given me love, understanding, support, and a feeling of moving ever closer to God. I see no reason to leave or to turn my back on a religion that has been a source of sustenance and strength. I will stand by my church just as it has always stood by me.

Find me perfect people, perfect religions, perfect institution, perfect nations and I may be willing to admit that I should be disgusted with the Catholic Church. Since there are no such organizations that can claim to be without sin I choose instead to stay to help build my church on more solid ground. Jesus was all about love and forgiveness. That is how I view my own part in the Catholic Church. I will stay and I will love the family who joins me each Sunday to focus on what faith is really about. 

In Search of Criminal Justice

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People sometimes do very bad things, things so egregious that we do not feel safe having them live among us. We have to find them, try them for their crimes, and if found guilty sentence them to punishments that fit their actions. We have a criminal justice system for that which is struggling on many fronts. At this moment in the United States we have the largest prison population in the world both in actual numbers and percentages. We struggle with ethical questions of what we should do to prevent crimes and how to treat the perpetrators once they have been convicted. We can’t seem to decide whether our system should focus on punishment, rehabilitation, or some effective combination of both. We wonder what we might have done to prevent crimes in the first place thus eliminating the need for so many centers of incarceration.

I’m fascinated by the criminal mind. I have always wondered what drives an individual to the point of committing unlawful acts, especially those that are violent. I’ve been a reader of mysteries from childhood and my favorite television programs and movies have always been those that depict detective work, the law, and the frightening world of prison life. I suppose that I have always believed that if only we were able to unravel the threads of lives gone so bad we might learn as a society what causes them to reach a point of breaking the law. I suppose that such a dream has confounded humans since Cain murdered Abel.

I am a frequent viewer of programs like Dateline, 20/20, and 48 Hours. I watch Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. Recently Dateline featured a hard look at the country’s criminal justice system by way of Angola Prison in Louisiana. The episode focused on the problems of housing large populations of prisoners for long periods of time and asked the burning question, “Should criminal justice focus on punishment or rehabilitation?”

One of the most pressing problems in our country’s prison systems resulted from the hard line of the war on drugs. Because of the no nonsense feature of our efforts to eliminate the drug trade by giving drug users harsh sentences the prison population swelled and many of those found guilty are serving excessively long terms. The medical community has learned through research that illegal drug usage and addiction is in truth a medical problem rather than a criminal one. What most drug addicts need is assistance in beating their habits. Instead we have all too often put them away in jails where they interact with murderers and other violent sorts. The money  that we are spending on warehousing them for decades might have better been spent on sending them to centers for rehabilitation.

Another concern has to do with another outdated trend to try minors accused of violent acts as adults. There are now individuals in their seventies who received life sentences when they were only sixteen or seventeen years old. They have spent their entire adult lives behind bars with no hope for parole until the Supreme Court recently ruled that minors must always be tried in an age appropriate manner and their sentences must reflect the extenuating circumstances of their ages. We now know that the human brain is not fully formed until around the age of twenty five, In particular the centers of the brain that control behaviors are often the last to form, Thus the kinds of risky and inappropriate acts in which teenagers are known to engage appear to be part of development. Courts have ruled that inmates who were convicted and sentenced as adults for crimes committed as minors have the right to parole hearings even when they were sentenced to life without any hope of reconsideration.

The optics of the Dateline program were disturbing. Many of the inmates at Angola work in fields cultivating crops day after day in harsh weather conditions. The vast majority of them are black, begging the question of why this is so. What is so wrong with our society that so many resort to criminal behavior and what might we do to change this trend before such individuals end up in the prison system? These are dire needs that we have yet to fully meet. We have to break the cycles that plague the poor, the undereducated, the hopeless.

President Trump recently signed a bill offering many reforms of the federal criminal justice system, but the vast majority of the prison population are governed by state laws that do not fall under the umbrella of the changes made by the president. There are also still many citizens who sincerely believe that the only correct answer to discourage criminal acts is to follow a hard line. The debate continues while the number of the incarcerated grows.

More and more criminologists are learning that people can and do change if given opportunities to redirect their lives. They know that removing all hope only creates even more violence. Prisons now use more women guards who have the effect of calming the prisoners. Conditions are improving as research teaches more and more about how to rehabilitate the fallen.

There are those whose acts were so horrendous that they should never again walk amongst us, but there are also people who have paid for their mistakes and truly changed. It’s time we consider humane and caring ways of helping them to become contributing members of society.  States should follow the president’s lead in enacting justice and prison reforms. We need programs that understand and support the unique needs of those who are attempting to reenter the world of freedom. We need to focus on education and counseling at the earliest possible ages. It’s not about letting monsters run lose but about providing purpose and direction for those who have genuinely changed. It’s about compassion and forgiveness for those deserving of our consideration. It’s a focus that should be a priority for all good minded people everywhere.

A Dark and Shady Place

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When I was in the second grade I stole a fifty cent piece from the dresser of a friend. I rather impulsively grabbed it when she was out of the room and stuffed it in my pocket. Even before I had taken it home I was beginning to feel queasy about what I had done but I was unable to find a way to return it without being caught in the act. My regrets grew into full blown guilt by the time I was hiding the coin in my room. I had no idea how to pay for my sin other than to carry my ill gotten gains with me each time I visited by friend in the hopes of finding a moment alone when I might return her money to her. It took a number of tries but I eventually placed the shiny half dollar back where it belonged.

Somehow my conscience would not allow me to feel as though I had done enough. I found myself leaving quarters and even dollar bills in my friend’s room as compensation for what I had done. I even considered confessing to her but never had enough courage to do so. Instead I began repeating the story of my theft over and over again when I went to confession in my parish Catholic church. Nonetheless I wasn’t able to shake the feeling of regret that seemed to follow me like a bad penny.

It never occurred to me that any of the priests to whom I admitted my sins might remember my story but one of them did and when I told him what I had done for the umpteenth time he cautioned me in frustration to either believe that my transgression had been forgiven or quit coming to him with my lack of faith that God had already absolved me. He went so far as to tell me that my unwillingness to pardon myself was far worse than the small transgression that I had so thoughtlessly committed against my friend. He urged me to move forward with my life and not keep looking back.

That moment was crucial in my development as an adult. It taught me the true meaning of reconciliation, a willingness to acknowledge that we humans may fall but we also have the possibility of reforming our ways. When such a change takes place it is time to focus on the beauty of the salvation that has occurred rather than to obsessively keep returning to the past. Just as I grew and learned from my experience as a very young child, so too do we all become different and often better versions of ourselves as we journey through life. Until we draw our last breaths there is always the possibility of righting wrongs we have committed and making peace with those that we have hurt. Once we do that it is toxic to either carry our own baggage of guilt or to force someone else to be weighed down by theirs. If forgiveness is to be real it must blot out the past.

There is a new trend to search through the words and actions of mostly famous people to find something that they may have done or said many years ago and hold them up to judgement and ridicule. It doesn’t appear to matter that they may have changed or that they have apologized. They are shamed and held accountable to such an extent that they sometimes lose their jobs and their reputations. It is a kind of modern day witch hunt with comments being taken out of context or twisted to the point of losing their original intent. This practice is intended to create havoc for the targeted individual and often comes with personal information that leads to harassment. Even when the people victimized by this technique attempt to provide explanations or make atonement they are often deemed eternally guilty without hope of forgiveness.

There is something quite wicked about refusing to allow a person or an entire group of people the benefit of reconciliation. It implies a kind of dictatorship of the mind that binds transgressions into a cycle of eternal punishment. Once someone has fallen there is no hope of rising again with this type of thinking. It runs contrary to our very humanity and pits us in lifelong struggles with one another. We become a nation of Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets engaged in a never ending feud.

The reality is that most of us have done something in the past for which we ultimately felt regrets. We evolve as adults hopefully becoming better versions of ourselves. We each deserve the opportunity to be redeemed and seen as our wiser and kinder selves. Unless our former transgressions were so egregious as to require jail time, our sins should be forgotten once we have made peace with ourselves, our God and those that we may have hurt. The focus should be on who we are now, not who we once might have been.

People have the power to change. Nations have the power to change. Just as we should not hold the children of Germany responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents, so too should we be willing to focus on good intentions and efforts rather than only on the bad. It accomplishes nothing to spend time dwelling on past transgressions when there is more work on improving to be done. Throwing us into the shade of continual guilt trips is as wrong as I was when I so childishly obsessed over my own flawed character. It’s time we genuinely embrace forgiveness for those who earnestly seek it.

  

Those Kids

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A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.