A Time for Changes, Not Slogans

Critical Thinking

When I was a teacher there always seemed to be at least one person on campus who was not particularly good at doing the job. Sometimes the individual was just lazy, always sitting behind the desk giving the students work to do with very little instruction. Sometimes the person was dispensing erroneous information. The worst of the bad teachers were the ones who were abusive toward the students. It was a well known fact that firing a teacher was almost impossible unless they had stolen money or done something sexual with either another teacher or a child.

It was frustrating to have those kind of people in our midst because they made the same amount of money as the rest of us while also making our profession look very bad. Some of them would last long enough to even earn a pension for the remainder of their lives. There was a hushed practice among principals known as “passing the trash.” They would agree to take someone who was not doing well in another school in exchange for sending away one of their own problem teachers. As a result the troubles continued year after year with nobody able to find a way to clean house. The contracts and unions protected even the teachers who should not have been in the schools.

The same type of system plagued the Catholic Church until very recently. Priests who were discovered to be pedophiles were sent away for counseling and many eventually found their way back into other parishes where they sometimes continued their foul behavior. They were protected and passed from one place to another, usually without any retribution.

Most organizations in at will employment states are able to fire employee who do not meet particular standards. Sadly our police departments exist with systems much like education and the Catholic churches of old. The unions operate more to protect officers than to guide them. Often times when a cop behaves in egregious ways there is a note in his or her file but little is done to remove that person permanently from the force. These bad actors defile the good name of the majority of law enforcement officers who work hard to serve and protect the public. Much of the problematic policing that we see is a result of covering up behaviors that should be grounds for expulsion from the service. Often departments simply pass their trash to other municipalities, creating ticking time bombs in their midst.

We are so divided in this country today that there seems to be a schism that requires us to either be all in for the blue or all in for the Black citizens who are protesting the all too frequent abuse that they receive at the hands of trigger happy police officers. Instead it would benefit everyone, including the truly decent men and women who police our streets to rid themselves of those who degrade the badge. All police officers and their supporters, which include me by the way, should want to create a system of transparency that provides a means of eliminating any cop who is racist or too quick to use force. Just as I was embarrassed by teachers who were subpar, so should all good lawmakers and citizens be ready to clean house.

The most wonderful thing we might do for our police officers is to demonstrate that the bad cops will not be tolerated. We must demand that substandard cops will not be allowed to diminish the dedication and hard work of the many. I worry when I hear blanket statements of support without consideration that there are systemic problems that require needed changes. I get irritated when someone suggests that I am somehow against all police officers if I point out solutions that may help the profession.

It is interesting that the United Kingdom only had three victims of police shootings last year and Germany only had seven. The police in those countries do not carry guns. When fire power is needed they call special forces that are armed. It would behoove us to find out how they manage to make this work. 

There are a number of solutions being offered and many parties with great interest in what may eventually become law. I would like to think that just this once our elected officials will work together and not at odds. Frankly their failure to think of the country first and their own elections last has created a divisive and unproductive environment for years. How can they expect any of us to trust them when they get along about as well as children in a schoolyard with no adult supervision.

These are very serious times. We have to have a willingness to be honest with one another. Showing uncritical allegiance to any group will only result in a standoff. I want the juvenile sound bites  to stop and real critical thinking to begin. Our country does not need cheerleaders with slogans, it needs honest assessment and thought. That means a willingness to question, examine, debate, challenge and evaluate with honesty and a place at the table for all stakeholders. 

Ripper Street

administration architecture attractions big ben
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Mike and I just finished binge watching five seasons of Ripper Street on Netflix. It was one of the most well written and intriguing series that I have followed since Breaking Bad. The story begins in 1889, right after one of Jack the Ripper’s last victims was found, but it is not just a story of that killer’s crimes. In fact the title is more of a metaphor than an indication of the way the plots will unfold. More than anything it is a look into the gritty world of Victorian England in Whitechapel and the horrific conditions there that troubled otherwise hard working and hopeful people. It centers on four characters associated with the H Street Police Station, one of the roughest law enforcement assignments in all of London at the time. The lead investigator is Edmund Reid, an man tied to his job by memories of the horrific murder of a possible Jack the Ripper victim. He is nobly assisted by Detective Bennet Drake, a man filled with tragic demons whose heart yearns only for goodness and love. Captain Jackson is an American expatriate with a murky past who reluctantly serves as a medical examiner for the police. His wife “Long” Susan Hart is the madame of a Whitechapel brothel with a questionable story as intriguing as her husband’s.

The series features beautiful phrasings and word pictures from the characters who use language to communicate the intricacies of their minds and hearts. As the five seasons unfold we learn of the tragedies that have haunted each of the very real people who inhabit the stories. It is a kind of Shakespearean tribute to the difficulties of living during that era told through the eyes of sympathetic but imperfect people. It grips the viewer with both compassion and revulsion. Much like Breaking Bad almost everyone is neither all good nor all bad, but simply doing whatever it takes to survive. The stories challenge us to think out of the box with regard to human nature and individual worth. It is a fascinating look at both history and the complexities of the people who live it.

There is a kind of gritty realism to the stories, but in the end it is in the relationships and their complicated intertwining that the best of the writing takes place. Each role is so beautifully acted that by the series end there is a sense that we have known and loved such people. The writer is realistic in his portrayals of the times and the characters, so much so that even the most outlandish storylines seem plausible. Everything in Ripper Street is a metaphor for life and death and the challenges that people faced in a time that is almost unimaginable to those of us who live in the modern days of plenty.

The series originally aired on BBC but was canceled after only two seasons. Netflix picked up the option to continue it for three more seasons and it has proven to be one of the most popular offerings ever. It actually ended in 2016, but has garnered such a faithful following that it continues to rank high on both Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix viewership. It is the kind of series that bores an ear worm in the brain, causing one to think about the times and the people long after watching one of the episodes.

Mike and I discovered the series after we had enjoyed a number of BBC and Netflix detective shows. We joked that the title was perfect for me because I have always had a morbid fascination with the Jack the Ripper cases. We soon enough found that the title was somewhat misleading, but we had almost immediately fallen in love with the story and the amazing characters. Soon we were sitting down in the evenings watching one or two episodes each night. Sometimes we spoke of the plots and the people during the day wondering what would happen next as though we were following the adventures of dear friends.

If you enjoy a good detective story, tightly described characters, the allure of Victorian England, and a brilliant use of the English language Ripper Street will most certainly delight you. It has elements of all the best and most popular series of our times. There is a bit of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad in the evolution of the stories and characters. As with those brilliant classics, saver perhaps House of Cards, the writing stays amazing until the very end.

So many writers begin to lose their mojo as the years on the air take their toll on originality and believability. The plots jump the shark and the players become caricatures rather than believable individuals. Ripper Street sometimes flirts with such disappointments but always finds a way to redeem itself. It is well worth a watch, especially for those who are fans of good old fashioned sleuthing with a touch of the exotic.

I’ve been chasing after mysteries from the time I was a girl poring over my Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured Sherlock Holmes and graduated to Agatha Christi, eventually moving on to the more modern authors of brilliant detective work. Ripper Street has won a top spot in my list of favorites. I only wish that somehow the stories of Reid, Drake, Jackson and Hart might somehow be resurrected for a prequel perhaps. I still long to know more about them and dream of the kind of reincarnation that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled off when the demands of fans urged him to bring Sherlock back to life after his seeming demise. I guess I’ll have to find solace in Better Call Saul until something  akin to Ripper Street come along.

A Knock at the Door

knock-door-e1412094721215.jpg

It was nine thirty on a Saturday night. We were watching a Poirot mystery on television when there was a loud knock at our door. By the time I walked down the hallway to peek outside whoever had been there was gone. I had just settled back into my chair when there was another banging noise. This time I dashed to the entryway more quickly and turned on the porch light. I saw two young boys who appeared to be around fourteen or fifteen years old. One of them sprinted away quickly and the other stood like a deer in the headlights exclaiming his sorrow for bothering us and adding that he was just trying to sell Girl Scout cookies. Of course I understood immediately that we had been pranked. I sensed that the boy who didn’t manage to get away was someone I had seen in the neighborhood. He seemed very familiar and the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that he often plays basketball just down the street with a number of his friends.

There was a time when teenage mischief was almost a right of passage. My own girls wrapped houses with toilet paper and celebrated when our home was decorated with long strands of tissue as well. I did a bit of knocking on doors and making silly phone calls in my time. Such tricks are generally done with no ill intentions and I suspect that the young boys who visited our home were just continuing the tradition of being silly on a Saturday night. Nonetheless I found myself quite troubled after our surprise visitors had left, not so much because they had bothered me, but because I worried about what might happen to them if they continue their nighttime visits to other homes.

The world is not the same as it once was. When I was young we rarely locked the doors to our home until just before going to bed. Even then we slept with our bedroom windows wide open because our home was not air conditioned. The only thing between us and a home invader was a screen which might have easily been removed. In those days it never even occurred to us to worry that someone might attempt to do us harm while we were dreaming. Our world seemed so innocent and safe.

Now we live in times of uncertainty. We hear of criminals breaking into houses on a regular basis. There is fear in people’s minds. Many of them install cameras and alarms to warn them of danger. Others add an arsenal of guns and ammunition to their security program in case they need to defend themselves. Doors are now routinely locked all day long. In some ways we act as though our castles are under siege, and I suppose that it is rather prudent to be safe rather than sorry. The problem is that in such an environment individuals may act before they have all of the facts. Those same outrageous boys who came to my door might find themselves on the wrong side of a gun if they hit a home with a very nervous and excitable person inside. They might literally be injured or even killed all because they thought it was funny to scare people.

Years ago two of my daughter’s friends decided to pull a prank on her. They dressed in dark ninja style clothing and crept up to our back window and peered inside while we were watching a movie. Since I recognized them immediately their joke backfired. I was livid, not because I did not have a sense of humor, but because I knew for a fact that many of my neighbors were armed and would not have hesitated to shoot at strangers wearing dark masks while creeping through the dark of night. I scolded the boys for their stupidity while my heart raced at the thought of what might have happened to them had they been seen by someone who did not realize who they were. I was upset that they had been so unthinking.

I feel the same way about the two boys who were out having fun when they targeted our home. I know from an online neighborhood chat room that there have been several incidents of strangers knocking at night to determine if anyone is at home. So far nobody has been robbed or hurt but the comments that people make regarding what their response will be if anyone threatens their personal space make me realize that those boys are at great risk. Many of my neighbors insist that they will call the police. Others assert that they will shoot first and ask questions later. Such is the reality of today’s world, and such is the danger that the boys might encounter.

On that chat line I asked parents of teenagers to have a talk with their children emphasizing that they should not engage in reckless behaviors. I would be gravely upset if I learned that the young people were hurt or killed, but I would also understand why someone might overreact when they feel threatened. It’s up to teachers and parents to instruct the young on the folly of pranks that involve frightening people. What may have once seemed to be innocent fun is likely to be interpreted as a reason for defense in today’s environment.

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. They often do things that are more risky than they ought to be. I was the quintessential good girl and yet I also engaged in adventures that in retrospect might have resulted in great harm to me and my friends. I once crawled under the fence of a property where trucks were stored near my grandmother’s house. An armed guard roamed the area. I had no business in there but I thought it was exciting to be able to come and go without being caught. My antics were silly but they gave me a rush, made me laugh and felt liberating. It never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger.

It is imperative that we speak frankly to our kids before we let them lose on the world at large. Sometimes we shelter them because we do not want them to be fearful when we might be wiser to discuss the realities of various situations in which they may find themselves. We need to be frank with them about peer pressure and how to extricate themselves from situations that feel uncomfortable or wrong. We should discuss how to behave if they are stopped by the police. Just as most parents practice fire drills and show their kids where to go if a tornado hits, so too must we review the skills they will need when they are not with us.

Time and again experiments show that our children just don’t think when danger is lurking. They go with strangers to look for a lost dog. They follow other kids into strange places. They simply have not internalized the necessary skills for keeping themselves safe because we haven’t instructed them as well as we should.

We certainly don’t want to make our teenagers paranoid. Most of the time they will be just fine. What we must do is provide them with the survival tools they will need in those rare cases when things just don’t seem right to them. If we have practiced such things and given them the reasons why they should be vigilant and resourceful they should be okay.

I can’t help thinking about the two visitors to my home and wondering if they are still engaged in an activity that may one day end in tragedy. I hope that perhaps their parents will be informed by someone who knows them and that they will put a stop to their dangerous behavior. It’s sad that we have reached this point, but it is the new normal. It’s up to us to instruct our youth and then hope that they remember what we have taught them.

The Little House

2012114-collations-cottageLBLLast week we had some of the most beautiful weather that I have experienced in a great while. The air was cool and crisp, and the sky was a brilliant blue with the sun shining so brightly that it brought a smile to my face. I happened to be tutoring at a high school back in the old neighborhood where I grew up and I suddenly felt a sense of deja vu. The conditions reminded me of the days when I was young and my whole life lay before me. Suddenly I had an urge to drive to my former home just to see how it was doing on such a glorious day. Somehow I imagined that it might have been transformed from its rundown state by the sheer wonder of spring just as the formerly barren trees that were now filled with green had been with the bloom of spring in the air. My thoughts of returning to the center of my youth faded as quickly as the silly idea that my mama might be waiting for me there. Instead I headed for my present home in the opposite direction.

Perhaps my mother had been looking out for my welfare after all. I later learned that a Houston Police SWAT team had been engaged in a four hour standoff at Belmark and Crosswell just down the street from where I once lived. It seems that one of the residents had taken to shooting his gun anytime that he wished and on this particular day one of the bullets had found its way inside the home of a neighbor who decided it was time to report the inconsiderate resident to the police. The rest as they say is history.

After hearing of the latest difficulty in the area I was reminded of the need to be vigilant when I drive over there for my sessions with students. The loveliness of the trees and the sounds of the birds had lulled me into believing that all was well in a part of town now known more for its toughness than the pastoral feel that it once had. I should have been warned by the burglar bars on the windows and doors of the nearby houses, but somehow in my daydreamy state I had forgotten that things had changed so much.

I thought of a book that had been one of my very favorites when I was no more than five or six years old. It was about a delightful little house that stood in the middle of a country field and belonged to a big happy family. Initially life for the house was grand but as time  passed its paint began to fade and peel. As it aged so did the area around it. More and more buildings popped up here and there until one day the little house was surrounded by skyscrapers and tenements. It was only a shell of itself, an abandoned heap of broken glass and rotting wood that had once been so loved. Because the book was a story for children it naturally had a happy ending as someone purchased the tiny place, renovated it, and moved it to a hill filled with wildflowers and lovely shade trees. The little house was smiling once again.

Sadly the real world if far less like that story. I often envision a time when my old neighborhood will be rediscovered by people willing to return it to its one time glory. So many of the folks who now live there appear to be trying hard to make it a good place for their families, but as long as there are those who seem not to care about the rights and the safety of their neighbors it remains a dangerous place to be. I suspect that when the sun sets and the streets get dark there is much fear inside the walls of the houses surrounded by high fences that sometimes sport concertina wire as an added way to keep out marauders. Given that most of us at one time slept in the same structures with our windows wide open at night, it is difficult to imagine having to live with the worries that must surely plague the good people who want to provide a nice family atmosphere for their children.

The signs are all there that caring people inhabit the neighborhood. There are still lovely roses growing in many of the yards and fresh coats of colorful paint brighten the exteriors. Sadly here and there are the marks of neglect, eyesores that clash with the efforts of the vast majority of residents and everywhere there are the barriers erected in an attempt to keep intruders at bay.

Schools like the one where I tutor are doing their best to bring a light of hope to the people who live nearby, but their hard work is too often offset by stories like the SWAT standoff just down the street. On the same day as that horrendous event there was also a news item about a teacher at the local middle school who had impregnated a thirteen year old girl. Little wonder that so many of the people who live where I once found so much innocent adventure and security feel as though they are forgotten.

I’d like to believe that the work being done inside places like the school where I help young people is the key to changing the fate of those who live in less than ideal circumstances. Education will surely make a difference. The men and women who toil each day at Cristo Rey are providing hope one student, one family at a time. Many of the youngsters that they teach will be the first to graduate from high school and then continue on to college. The knowledge that the students acquire will most surely bring them the power to take control of their destinies.

The criminal element is everywhere, all over the world. Seeing evil is an inevitable part of life, but being continually victimized by it is not. I still harbor dreams that we humans have the capability of reviving even dilapidated neighborhoods into vital and inviting centers for living well. The spirit of hope is still evident in my old stomping grounds. Most of the people there really care and want to eliminate the hopelessness that sometimes overtakes them when they see the gangs and the drug deals just outside their doors.

After the SWAT team had subdued the trouble maker who lived on the street where I once did a newscaster interviewed an old man who voiced my own thoughts. He proclaimed that his was a nice neighborhood with good people who just wanted to feel safe. He hoped that the man who had been stealing their security would go away for a very long time so that they might live in peace. Even though I no longer live on Belmark Street like that man, I felt a kinship with him and I too would like to think that things will get a bit better for the folks who might have been my neighbors had I stayed. Today is a beautiful day and tomorrow should be quite fine as well. I pray that the sunshine will bring a ray of hope to Belmark Street and all of the places where darkness sometimes descends and that there will be better days just like there were for the little house in the story that I read so long ago.

Easy Does It

toleranceI’ve only felt total revulsion for a handful of people in my lifetime. One was a boyfriend that my mother had who was a real true blue racist and emotional abuser. Listening to him spout his political views made my skin crawl. Even worse was the power that he seemed to have over my mom. She eventually rid herself of him but not without a great deal of trauma. Around the same time I also abhorred President Richard Nixon. I sensed that he was a crook long before the rest of the world caught up to my thinking. I suppose that there are moments in everyone’s life when they find themselves in the role of a hater. It was an uncomfortable feeling for me because I generally attempt to find redeeming qualities in virtually every soul that I meet. For some reason those two were so vile that I was unable to open my heart to them.

In spite of my own experience of falling victim to hateful ways I still believe that the vast majority of people worldwide try very hard to be good. For the most part the haters are outliers and yet when we are victimized by them we tend to generalize their evilness to entire populations. The young man who shot up the church in Charleston was a white power deviant who represented only himself and a small group of people who lean to the far right. He in no way was typical of the average white person. The black man who shot five police officers in Dallas had his own set of problems none of which reflect the hearts and minds of African Americans in general. The list goes on and on. Muslims who kill party goers in San Bernadino are actually quite different from the majority of peaceful Muslims who live in our country. The shooter of school children in Connecticut was not a typical gun owner. Criminals and rapists come in all forms. To assert that they are mostly confined to a particular ethnicity is faulty thinking designed to rile unhealthy emotions. Of late so many of our politicians seem intent on making sweeping generalizations designed mainly to feather their own nests rather than to solve our real problems. The divisiveness that they are spreading does little good for any of us and leads to a choosing of sides that has no room for compromise.

We sadly play along with this ridiculousness all too often. If we decide that we don’t like some of President George W. Bush’s actions, we refuse to give him credit for doing anything right. He becomes a caricature that we only view as a lying idiot. If we have problems with President Obama we never allow ourselves to congratulate him even when he in fact does something remarkable. We only note his flaws and mistakes. We assert that haters are going to hate but never put ourselves in that category. We complain that our presidential candidates are ethically challenged but rarely mention our own making our country like the most dysfunctional of families. Perhaps it’s time for each of us to reflect a bit to determine if we are unfairly judging individuals or entire groups. If the recent spate of violent events has proven anything it is that we have problems that will require us to work together and yet we generally continue to carp back and forth. It is long past time for each of us to admit that all humans, including ourselves, are imperfect but rarely all bad. We should save the hatefulness that we dredge up so readily and so often for those who are truly evil.

I recently saw a video on Facebook of rival protestors who took the time to talk with each other and find common ground in the midst of what might have been a heated encounter. They broke through their own preconceived notions and by the end of their discussion they realized that they actually wanted the same things. Instead of being distracted by anger and division they realized that they would be more powerful by joining forces. It was a beautiful sight to see them linking arms and hugging one another. It’s something that I believe we need to try more often because the anger that seems so rampant surely isn’t helping anyone.

The Black Lives Matter group has brought our attention to the concerns that so many of our African American brothers and sisters have. The statistics show that they are far more likely to be stopped by police officers than any other group, often for little or no reason. For a perfectly honest, hard working black man to be killed over a broken tail light is absurd and yet such tragedies do occur. Unless the Black community raises awareness of such injustices we may never truly understand what life is like for people of color. Sadly some of the recent unnecessary killings of innocents or those whose infractions were minor have placed a spotlight on a dirty little secret that most of us never have to endure.

I often invite my former students to visit my home. I should not have to worry about whether those of minority status will be stopped by the police as they travel in my neighborhood but I always do. I warn them to stay within the 30 mile per hour speed limit that is strictly enforced by local law enforcement officers and pray that if for some reason they are targeted they will remain calm and not exacerbate the situation. I can only imagine how their parents feel whenever they go out into the world if I am so nervous for them.

On the other hand, the vast majority of law enforcement officers take grave risks on a daily basis just to keep us from harm. I cannot even imagine how much courage it must take to run into a dangerous situation when the rest of us are fleeing from it. We cannot generalize bad motives to all of them. Instead we need to work to ensure that criminal justice reforms enhance their jobs while extending fairness to all people. Perhaps we need to rethink how best to use their services. It may be time to relieve them from having to worry so much about broken tail lights or past due license tags.

Whenever we find ourselves leaning toward group think we should pause to assess the situation and our own prejudices. It is never healthy to jump to conclusions or accept statements based solely on appearances or alliances. We can’t fall into that kind of trap regardless of how we believe that our problems should be solved.

I remember a time when I took a group of honor students from South Houston Intermediate to Moody Gardens in Galveston. They were exceptionally well behaved and I was quite proud of them especially in comparison to a more middle class set of students who were also there. I was stunned when the employees continuously yelled at my kids for no apparent reason. It was as though they believed that my pupils were bound to create problems simply because of the way they looked. Like me, my principal eventually became so fed up with the workers’ negative attitudes that he reported them to their supervisors. I have never quite gotten over my embarrassment and outrage over the totally unfair treatment that traumatized all of our group. Since my kids were both well behaved and polite the only explanation for what happened was that they were being targeted because of their brown skin.

If anything positive is to come of the horrific days that we have been experiencing it should be a willingness to embrace all good people, which we know is the great majority. It’s time for us to be honest with one another and quit reverting to soundbites, absurdities, propaganda, and stereotyping. We have to consider that most Republicans may actually be nice and that the majority of Democrats have the best of intentions. It’s important for us to dialogue rather than revolt, show tolerance rather than prejudice. If those who would be our leaders can’t seem to work together without casting generalized aspersions on all members of the other side then we citizens need to take the lead. It is important that we not allow ourselves to fall victim to hyperbole regardless from whence it comes. We need to be the kind of people who cross over the lines that divide us to embrace our fellow human beings. We know its the right thing to do.