What’s In A Name?

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My maiden name was Little, a moniker that I milked for a very long time because I was under five feet tall until my junior year in high school. I’d tell people that they would remember my name just from looking at me. It was a bit of humor that actually worked and made me a somewhat unique. It was not until I was an adult that I learned from my grandfather how our family actually got the handle.

My paternal grandfather was born William Mack. His mother died within days of his birth and his father decided that fatherhood was not a good fit, and so Grandpa went to live with his grandmother. Sadly she was advanced in age and when he was thirteen she died leaving him orphaned for all intents and purposes. She left him a small amount of money that required a guardian, and so he ended up in family court choosing the person whom he believed would do the best job of protecting his interests. Since his father had shown given little or no attention to my grandfather’s welfare up until that point, it was decided that an uncle would assume responsibility for both my grandfather and his inheritance.

Grandpa told me that his uncle was an honorable man who graduated from West Point. His name was John Little and he had a grand if short lived military career. In the early 1900’s there was a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico and Captain Little was sent to head the recovery efforts. He was doing a yeoman’s job until he contracted typhus which unfortunately was fatal. By then my grandfather was a full fledged twenty one year old adult so he no longer required his uncle’s guidance, but he still felt a strong sense of gratitude toward the man who had helped him to reach the age independence. To honor the good man Grandpa had his name officially changed to William Mack Little.

I haven’t been able to find any information about my grandfather on ancestry.com, but I have learned that John Little was born in Tennessee. After attending West Point he married a niece of General Sherman of Civil War fame. The two of them had a daughter but their happy life together was brief. I’ve contacted members of his family to see if anyone ever heard of his guardianship of my grandfather, but nobody knows of any such thing. I suppose the history of his relationship to me has somehow been lost, a reality that pains me. It also saddens even more me to think of how many losses my grandfather had to endure before he was even fully launched into the adult world. He never knew his mother. He was abandoned by his father. His beloved grandmother died when he was just entering adolescence, and the man that he most admired died far too early. 

John Little’s obituary outlines his service to his country. It mentions that his career was promising before his sudden demise. He is buried at Governor’s Island New York on the ground of the West Point Military Academy. I would very much like one day to visit the grave of the man who so impressed my grandfather that we ended up carrying his name.

We’ve struggled a bit to keep our last name going, because only one of the youngest male descendants has married and had children, three of whom are girls. There is a lone boy who will continue forward as a Little and I would like very much to one day be able to tell him how he came to have that name. I think he would bear it even more proudly if he knew of the honor bestowed upon it by my grandfather’s uncle.

There must be other Littles out there who are distantly related to me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. They don’t know us and we don’t know them. Our connections are lost to unfortunate circumstances and time. Still, it would be fun to find out who they are and to speak of the gratitude that my grandfather had for a long ago member of their family.

A name is little more than a string of letters unless it is attached to someone that we can identify. I feel a sense of pride in knowing what I do about John Little. I can imagine him toiling in the tropical heat of Puerto Rico to help the people of the devastated island. There is something particularly noble about that, much more so than fighting on a battlefield. I’m sure that he saved many lives before he became ill. His was an enormous sacrifice that makes me proud to continue to use his name as the middle part of my own. I somehow feel as though I know and understand him.

His photo shows a handsome, serious individual, but I suspect that he also had a sense of humor and enjoyed a good laugh now and again. How good of him it was to agree to be the guardian of an orphaned boy. Little wonder that my grandfather admired him so. I’d like to think that somehow, some way he knows that I too appreciate all that he did.

I now understand that Little is a grand name, the name of a hero, a compassionate man. It makes me hold my head a bit higher. It tells me why my own grandfather was such an honest and hard working man. In a brief moment he learned the qualities of an exceptional person from an uncle who was there when he was most needed. Thank you, John Little. We will never forget you. 

John Little

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Our Fallen Unity

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When I was growing up my mom became emotional every December 7. With tears welling in her eyes she would attempt to describe the fear that she felt upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the confidence that the nation gleaned from President Roosevelt’s address to the nation. In all honesty I was hard pressed to understand why she remembered that event each year with such great reverence. I’d listen to the repetition of her story and view it through the lens of ancient history rather than that of the life changing event that it was for her. It was not until I experienced the assassination of President John Kennedy that I began to have a fuller appreciation of why it was so important to her to never forget what had happened in her own youth.

When the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded in real time as I was getting ready to go to work seventeen years ago, I realized for the first time just how soul searing a violent act against our country felt. In that moment I knew how my mother had felt on December 7, and why she was never able to forget the shock of what had happened. Like her, I now find myself reliving the horror of September 11, and it never fails to leave me untouched by a kind of grief and longing for the world as it had appeared to be before that fateful day.

Of course, I like most of my fellow Americans had been far too blissfully ignorant of the undercurrent that had been building toward that brazen act of terrorism that might as well have been called an act of war. I was enjoying my life as never before, having reached a peak in my career, and measuring my contentment with a host of friends and the arrivasl of my first grandchildren. The times were so good, almost perfect, and my worries were few. I was far too busy living the good life to worry about signs that things were not as right as I thought. Suddenly on that September day I felt my confidence and even my trademark optimism collapse along with the twin towers. A kind of fear that I had rarely known invaded my psyche, strangling the fairytale world that I had created for myself.

I remember wondering if our country would ever again be the same, and in many ways that concern was well founded. I tend to believe that most of the political problems that our country faces today rose to the forefront on that day. In the ensuing seventeen years they have become more and more complex because of the divides in the way the citizenry viewed the event. Literally one fourth of the present population was not even born on September 11, 2017. Another significant portion was to young to really understand what was happening. Then there are those who watched the attack unfold forming the differing reactions that are inevitable given our human complexities.

I tend to believe that those who are of a more conservative bent are not really racist or any of the other isms that are bandied about so frequently. Instead they were simply shaken to the very core of their beings on that day. They see progress as being a way to reinstate the sense of security that they felt before that day. Others have a perspective of hoping to defeat terrorism by providing a sense of contentment and justice to more people. They truly believe that if we try to be understanding and make life better for everyone that we will finally be able to live in peace. Then there are the youngest among us who have moved on to other issues that seem far more important than dealing with terrosism. It is the friction, the push and the pull, between contrasting solutions that is causing the rancor and distrust between us.

In many ways the events of September 11, 2001, did so much more than take down two buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. It damaged all of the citizenry. We are scarred and our wounds still have not healed. The terrorists accomplished the unthinkable in turning us on one another. I doubt that even they ever thought that the ultimate result of their attack would create a psychological battlefield within families, friendships, cities, states and the nation. Essentially we have yet to come to terms with our biggest fears therefore everything that we touch is tinged with distrust.

I am reminded of my teaching days whenever I witness the misunderstandings between individuals with differing opinions that are now so commonplace, and often filled with hatefulness. It occurs to me that everyone is chattering, but nobody is taking the time to quiet the scene and make a genuine effort to hear and understand what each person is trying to voice. We can’t get to the heart of the issues because there is so much confusion about what people actually believe.

I suppose that if we were to really learn anything from 9/11 it would be that we are far more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. We all suffered in some way on that day. We internalized our emotions and considered ways to move forward, but we weren’t willing enough to share what we were thinking. As our pain grew we allied ourselves with those who appeared to be like minded and turned our backs on those whose beliefs differed. Over time we fell into the trap of justifying ourselves by vilifying anyone with whom we did not agree. The battle lines were drawn, and few among us have the courage to admit that in many ways we have all been wrong and in many ways we have all been right. Our real enemies have won, while we bicker among ourselves.

I had a more difficult time thinking about 9/11 this year than ever because our nation is so fractured. I even attempted to push it from my mind until my granddaughter interviewed me for a school project. All of my old emotions came rushing back into my mind. It was as though I was watching those terrible images all over again. Then on the anniversary of the event I cried as I heard the national anthem being played at the 9/11 memorial site. My chest heaved as I watched a New York City firefighter ring a bell for the fallen. I was reminded of how united we had been for a brief moment. I thought of President George W. Bush climbing onto a pile of rubble and assuring the rescue teams and all of New York City that we heard their plaintive cries. We were the United States of America, the united people ready to do whatever it took to restore a sense of well being.

Somewhere along the way we forgot what we had set out to do. We lost our way. Now is the time to open our hearts and our minds and to remember who we really are as people. We should not fight with each other anymore. If we are to honor those who lost their lives, then we must find ways to get along or the very foundations of what we most cherish will fall. 

Finding Refuge From the Storm

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I’ve had to take a deep breath of late,  and step back for a time. The furor over politics is ratcheting up as we draw nearer to the midterm elections, and the sheer lunacy of it all has been wearing me down, I found myself stewing over the craziness of each day’s episode of election tales deep into to the night. Then I found myself sleeping later and later in the morning to make up for my attacks of insomnia. In spite of the fact that all is going well in my life, I was getting sucked into the vortex of anger that was swirling all around me. It was not until I saw a single hummingbird perched on the branch of a tree near my bedroom window that I found the peace of mind that I had been seeking. Thanks to the feeder that my youngest daughter brought me from Colorado the tiny creature has been attracted to my yard, providing me with some unexpectedly comforting moments.

I suppose that I set myself up for the anxiety that has been stalking me. I was so taken by the calm and bipartisan sweetness of John McCain’s funeral that I had naively believed that the political landscape would be suddenly transformed into a kind of Kumbaya sanctuary. I had been forewarned by one of my wiser and more logical friends not to hold my breath, but being ever the cockeyed optimist I truly thought that we had reached one of those watershed moments in history. Boy, was I wrong, not just in left field but outside of the ballpark entirely.

For a time I was unable to escape the chaos that spoiled my mood. I don’t know about you, but my email account is filled with political adds from all sorts of folks who want to part me from my money for their causes. They have become rather annoying with their daily rants that I guess are supposed to rile me up enough to take out my credit card. Little do they know that they are having the opposite effect. I just want them to go away.

Watching the news on television or listening to it on the radio isn’t any better. I’ve sworn off of CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and NPR. Instead I tune in to the local stations mostly to hear the weather report since this is prime hurricane season and my city is often the target of those kinds of storms. Otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the posturing or have to watch the embarrassing behavior of most of the folks in Washington D.C. or those who are hoping to get there. I truly wonder if they all believe that I am as much of an idiot as their commentaries seem to assume. Sorry folks, I’m not falling for any of the propaganda. I can spot the techniques from a mile away. You won’t see me jumping on any kind of bandwagon.

I love catching up with friends and family that I don’t always get to see by way of Facebook. I enjoy knowing how people are doing. Now that I am retired I might lose track of them were it not for all those comments and photos on my wall. Nonetheless, my space has been bombarded with the pros and cons of the newest Nike ad and dire warnings about Brett Kavanaugh. It’s all way too much over the top for me. I’ve had to mostly stay away from it lest I surrender to the temptation to make comments that might cause me to enrage friends and family whom I love. I’ve tried to just leave them to their beliefs, because in the end each of us is entitled to our individual opinions. I’m not going to change mine because someone else is ranting, and I suspect that even if I submit a carefully crafted persuasive piece it will make little difference in the grand scheme of things.

The one thing that I have seen that most infuriated me was an article in which the author submitted an argument that presumed to know what all white people think about the various issues of our time. He laid the blame for most of the world’s ills directly at the feet of anyone of western European ancestry, but most especially those who eventually became Americans. To be fair the author was also white and his intent was to write a kind of mea culpa for being born into such an horrific race. He apologized in the name of all of us.

I did not find his ideas to be as redeeming as many of my friends did. Instead I saw it as patronizing and highly insulting, not to mention presumptive. Only a handful of the world’s people actually know me or anyone else for that matter. It is impossible to make sweeping generalizations about individuals, and it is dangerous to place large groups of people into a single category. The complexities of humans are far too great to assume that we completely understand what makes each person tick.

As for myself, if truth be known I am a political misfit. I have rarely found anyone with whom I totally agree in matters of national concern. I would be maddening to anyone at the extremes of political life, and in turn I long for politicians of old like John Kennedy or Barbara Jordan. I liked George H.W. Bush’s kinder, gentler nation, and I loved bipartisan efforts like those of the Gang of Eight. I advocate for immigration reform and fiscal conservatism at one and the same time. I am against both the death penalty and abortion. I think that it is high time that we fully embrace the idea of gay marriage, but I don’t think that it is right to ignore the religious beliefs of those who disagree. I believe that minorities still suffer at the hands of racists, but I do not believe for a second that all white people are racists. I have seen bad teachers, bad business owners, bad lawmakers, so I assume that there are bad police officers hiding in the mix of the good guys who serve and protect us. I have a theory that there are evil doers who are having a great time watching us tear at each others’ throats. It’s an old political trick that has been around for centuries and to my chagrin it is working rather well.

So for now I will spend more time with my little hummingbird, and less keeping up with the news. Besides, my grandchildren need me to help them review for tests in Geometry and Algebra II, so I have some planning to do. I will ignore the chaos and devote myself to more worthy pursuits.

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

It’s A Sin To Kill A Mockingbird

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Over the summer I reread To Kill a Mockingbird along with my grandson, Eli. Much as Scout and Jem grew emotionally in the course of the story, so I realized how differently I saw the novel more than fifty years after I first eagerly turned its pages. Even though I was in high school at the time of my first encounter with the tale, I was still quite naive, innocent and filled with ideals. I have seen much and learned much in the five decades that have passed and I suppose that while I still lean toward optimism, I understand that I must admit to a bit of cynicism in judging society’s progress with regard to justice and equality. Like Atticus I see the evil that exists in the world, but I am still convinced that on the whole there is far more good than evil.

Atticus tells his children that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, an guileless creature undeserving of harm. So too do I believe that it is up to us to protect the young, the weak, the sick and the blameless souls in our midst. I suppose that I was drawn to teaching because I saw it as a way to strengthen our youth by providing them with skills that would allow them to navigate through the contradictory aspects of human nature. It is often difficult to conceive of a world that fosters the gentleness of a Jimmy Carter also spawning the pure evil of an Adolf Hitler, and yet the reality is that we do indeed have the good, the bad and the ugly among us.

It is difficult to know when it is time to introduce our children to the underside of society. As parents and educators we so desire to shield them from unpleasantries. We monitor their friendships and activities. We are careful about the programs that they watch, the language that they hear. Ultimately the time comes when even our best efforts are not enough to shelter them from reality. They will encounter a bully or hear a racist utterance. They will be hurt by unkindness or the blows of violence. They will see things that are foreign to their natures. We will be bereft when we see them hurt. It makes sense to slowly introduce them to certain truths, but it is a balancing act to do so without frightening them, killing their spirits.

I found sharing this powerful book by Harper Lee to be a profound way to touch on topics that were somewhat foreign to my grandson. He understood the concept of bullies. He had seen ugliness at school, but his life has been mostly untouched by even hints of racism. He was curious about a time in history that I had seen firsthand when the black race was treated almost as being inhuman. He listened intently as I spoke of the separate water fountains, bathrooms, schools, neighborhoods that were the norm. It was almost unfathomable to him that such conditions existed and were even embraced by a significant portion of the population. When we read about Tom Robinson, the unfortunate black soul falsely accused of raping a white woman, Eli was certain that the evidence would clear him. He was literally devastated when the final verdict was read. It was an eye opening experience told in such a powerful way in the pages of the remarkable book.

We hear about the parents of black children having “the talk” with them about the dangers that lurk due to a residue of racism that sadly still exists in some quarters. I suggest that each of us needs to have a conversation with our youngsters to discuss the inequities that they may encounter either personally or in others, and to help them to determine how to react when they see such things. Just as Atticus helped to develop a moral foundation in his children, so too must we speak of even difficult things with our kids.

We don’t have to throw everything at them all at once, and often we can use literature or movies or experiences to convey the important information that we want them to learn. We have to be willing to take the time needed to allow for questions that might be difficult to answer. Above all we must be honest and gentle. It is far better for our children to learn about injustice, inequality, trust, loyalty and values from us than from a tragic incident that may rock their sense of security and confidence. We can slowly build up their principles and their knowledge of the world without frightening them in the process.

Our best method is to be like Atticus, adults who model what it means to have unimpeachable character. We must always remember the maxim that what people believe is what they do, not what they say. Our children are monitoring our every move and imitating the behaviors that we model. They will learn as much just from seeing us interact with our fellow humans from day to day as they will from listening to our advice.

Guiding our children to be unprejudiced, just, and kind is hard work, but in making the effort to be good examples we ourselves grow and become better people. When we realize that those little eyes are constantly looking to us we try harder, simply because we love them and want the best for them. We don’t have to be perfect. Our kids will learn as much from our admission of mistakes as from our best moments.

Senator John McCain died shortly after I had finished To Kill a Mockingbird with Eli. Somehow I found myself thinking about his life and how he had shown us all how to live. Then I read his final letter and I was as moved by his words as I had been by Atticus Finch. In that letter are all of the elements of a life well lived, so herewith is his message to us all:

My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for 60 years, and especially my fellow Arizonians, thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I’ve tried to serve our country honorably. I’ve made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them. I’ve often observed that I am the luckiest person on Earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I’ve loved my life, all of it.

I’ve had experiences, adventures, friendships enough for ten satisfying lives and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets but I would not trade a day of my life in good or bad times for the best day of anybody else’s. I owe the satisfaction to the love of my family. One man has never had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America to be connected with America’s causes, liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people brings happiness more sublime that life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but are enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

Fellow Americans, that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic. A nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates.

But, we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we’ll get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still. Do not despair of our present difficulties, we believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history, we make history. Farewell fellow Americans. God bless you and god bless America.

Consider sharing this letter with you middle schoolers or high schoolers. I think that they will understand what Senator McCain was trying to say. It will be a great way to begin important dialogues with them.