The Adult in the Room

Meme

Watching John Lewis’ casket being taken across the William Pettus bridge brought back so many difficult memories from my youth. The struggle for unfettered voting rights for Black Americans was a hard fought cause and John Lewis was in the middle of it. When he crossed that same bridge as a young man he almost died from a crushed skull, the result of being beaten by law officers. He survived to become a conscience for the nation and an unswerving warrior for civil rights. Somehow he always managed to deliver his points without violence and often with a forgiving heart. When a man who had brutally beaten him asked for forgiveness John Lewis humbly and graciously accepted. Congressman Lewis was always willing to make good trouble but he did so with love and a clear purpose.

I have been struggling with the scenes in Portland and other parts of the country and I find myself remembering another time from my early twenties. I became involved in a seemingly unending struggle with someone who was quite dear to me. We were both had good intentions but our ways of doing things were at odds. As we quibbled back and forth bad feelings arose and seemed to escalate each time we communicated. I truly cared about this person and I was gravely saddened by the realization that we were headed for a break up simply because we disagreed on how to resolve a particular situation. I finally consulted a priest for advice and he told me that in such cases someone has to agree to be the adult in the room. Sometimes that means just stepping aside so that the other person has time to cool down. He suggested that I needed to decide if the relationship was important enough that I would be willing to be the one who backed down.

I stewed over the priest’s idea for days but I still was not certain that I felt comfortable with an idea that felt like giving up, losing my principles. I consulted my mother who was the ultimate diplomat and lover of all people. Like John Lewis she was an incredibly forgiving person so it did not really surprise me when she counseled me to follow the wisdom of the priest. Happily I did exactly as suggested and things became calm once again. My friend and I continued to love and care for one another for decades.

I believe that there would be no better way to make an astounding point and also honor the great life of John Lewis than for every single protester to just go home and not return to the streets. They have made their message clear and now it is time to work within the system of laws to bring about change. Think of how stunning it would be if those embattled streets became quiet once again. It would be a more powerful message than partaking in a daily back and forth that will ultimately only be resolved in violence, destruction and maybe even death.

John Lewis and my priest understood the value of being strategic. Sometimes we get more things done by knowing when it is time to just let things simmer down. If the two sides of a disagreement stay at it for too long we end up with a Kent State or a Waco or a bombing in Oklahoma. It’s time for the protestors to be the adults in the room. It’s time for them to get back to the heart of their message which has been lost in the chaos. When there is too much noise or too many words people get confused and lose interest.

As a teacher I knew that I would never get the attention of my students by being brutal or unfair to them. They might toe the line for me but inside they would be seething and my words to them would be little more than babble. I had to first win their hearts before I was able to influence their minds. It took time and patience to get where we all needed to be.

I am greatly troubled because I know that the current state of the protests will ultimately end badly for everyone. I see no desire from our president to take the time to win hearts and minds. He is a believer in a stern approach rather than one that would involve making an attempt to hear and learn. I also think that the ranks of the peaceful protesters are being invaded by both forces intent on destroying their efforts and forces intent on anarchy. In other words it no longer appears to be about Black lives.

When the garbage strike was roiling in Memphis Dr. Martin Luther King went to support the workers. They planned a peaceful march through downtown. At some point their protest was overtaken by people intent on causing mischief. As violence broke out Dr. King insisted that the peaceful marchers disperse because he did not want the cause to be associated with brutality. I believe that his insistence on maintaining peace more loudly proclaimed the injustice than fighting back would have done.

My advice to anyone in any city who supports justice and equity for Black Americans is to go home. Undercut the racists who are using the unrest as a reason to defile the cause. The message has been heard but it will be defiled and forgotten if the unrest continues for too long. Be the adults in the room.

Our Moral Obligation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    

We Are Not the Enemy

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When the news of Covid-19 first sent warning signals I decided that I would write about its effect on my little slice of the world each day. I have often wondered what life was like for my grandparents who were young adults during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and it occurred to me that if any one of them had recorded observations and thoughts about the deadly virus our family would have a priceless treasure. I love reading first person accounts of historic events. They provide an emotional context to factual renderings. Hard times come alive with stories of everyday life and survival. Thus I pledged to devote my blogs to our current situation until things simmered down and we began a process of returning to a more normal state of affairs. It never dawned on me that I would still be recording commentaries about the pandemic in the later weeks of July with no real end in sight.

I suppose that I believed that we might somehow slow the spread of the virus by shutting down for a short time. I hoped that the heat of summer would somehow burn the virus out giving us a reprieve until the winter months when hopefully we would have a vaccine. My daughters were not nearly as optimistic as I was but I tended to believe that they were viewing the world as though the sky was falling. They insisted that because we were not working together as a nation things would surely go awry. They witnessed guidelines being ignored, people believing in all manner of crazy theories, and a president who preferred to paint a happy picture of our progress in fighting the virus rather than facing the facts.

I hoped the purveyors of gloom were wrong but even the doctors that I consulted cautioned me that the trends of contagion were still moving in an upward direction. They advised me to hold steady to my isolation and safety procedures until the end of June and then I saw an exponential explosion of positive cases and hospitalizations in my own backyard. I had to face the reality that the new Covid-19 world order would be with us for many more weeks and possibly even months unless we find a way to bury our divisions and work as a united country. Unfortunately I see no way forward with that idea and so I am gravely disheartened.

I hear people turning to prayer and I certainly do my share of talking and listening to God, but I do not think that there will be a sudden miracle to make all of this end. Neither God nor the virus play favorites which is why bad things sometimes happen to good people. God has instead given us our minds to think things through and determine a good course of action. He has taught us to be unselfish, never ignoring the most vulnerable among us. He exhorts us to be loving in our care of one another. These are the things I believe him to be telling us.

My mother and my grandmothers taught me that God is present in every human soul. My mama said that when we ignore or mistreat even the most seemingly deplorable person we are slapping the face of God. I have grown up believing that idea and attempting to be a peacemaker in times of trouble. I believe that we desperately need someone who has the power to bring us together, not drive us apart. When our scientists and medical experts are accused of lies and greed with respect to Covid-19 we are indeed far away from my desire of walking together in our time of great sorrow. When people defy the dictates to dance in a bar while people are dying in nearby hospitals my heart cries out. I wonder where the common sense and compassion have gone.

It should be apparent to everyone that we are in trouble on multiple fronts. There are refrigerated trucks in several states waiting for the bodies of the dead. The military is setting up field hospitals. Our medical workers are being pushed to the limit. Our hospitals are running out of protective equipment. Our teachers are fearful of the chaos that may ensue when schools reopen. Crime is on the rise in our cities. Our minorities are bearing the brunt of essential work and illness. Our criminal justice system is sick. Millions have lost their jobs and will soon see their unemployment checks end, not because they are too lazy to look for work but because they cannot find employment. People are on the brink of being evicted with no place to go. Businesses are failing. Our once strong nation is badly wounded mostly because we have been unwilling to patiently take measures to stop the spread of the virus as a group. It is so widespread now that we cannot even keep track of where it is attempting to go. We fight and bicker and unfriend one another rather than joining in a nationwide effort to stem the tide of Covid-19 no matter what sacrifices it may take to do so.

Now I am truly worried. Politics rather than rationality have overtaken our response to the virus. Our progress has been set back by weeks, maybe even months.Our situation is the worst it has been. Winter is coming and we have yet to speak of what that might mean. I wonder if our lack of a unified effort will result in a destruction of our healthcare system, our economy and our educational infrastructure that will take decades to repair. My happy instincts are being pushed aside by reality. I want to climb to my rooftop and warn everyone of what I see happening but I suspect that I will not be heard. I don’t know what it will take to bring our country to its senses but I believe things will become even more grim before we get there. Perhaps this is a time of reckoning that will either crush us or demonstrate the moral character that we have mustered in tough times of the past. I surely hope and pray that we will sooner rather than later understand that Covid-19 is our enemy, not one another. 

No Time Like the Present

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Like everyone else I am tired of the pandemic, the chaos, the fighting and division in our country. Somehow we have not been able to come together as a nation and that saddens me to the point of tears. We have been unwilling to set aside political strife in the common interest of stopping the spread of Covid-19 by whatever means possible. In many ways our response to the virus has been tainted by the same tendencies that have left us unable to honestly face the evils of slavery and racism from the very beginnings of our nation. We want to look away from difficult topics and go about our business as though there are no problems. We speak of our rights and our greatness and our goodness as though they are givens with no exceptions. We allow both the virus and our history to fester until they are out of our control. Then we demand quick fixes without ever answering hard questions or demonstrating a openness for healing our people by sacrifice and the sharing of our burdens.

There have been many mistakes in the handling of our response to Covid-19 and they are not limited to one individual or group. We started out well but were overly anxious to rid ourselves of safety measures that sometimes felt draconian. We listened to people who wanted to believe that if we just risked a bit of exposure we would still be okay. We believed that we had to get back out into the world as quickly as possible, so even though the virus hit our shores later than Europe we opened back up while they were still taking a conservative approach to relaunching normalcy. The results have been disastrous for our country and all of the wishing and explaining away the reasons why it happened cannot change that fact. Magical thinking simply does not work.

We admittedly still do not totally understand Covid-19 and for that reason we should be handling it with caution rather than attempting to convince ourselves that it is little more than a new form of flu. We fill our minds with conflicting theories in the hopes of finding the one that makes us feel good. We push everyone to accept what we personally believe when the truth is that the only thing certain about this virus is its uncertainty.

Those who have mostly been unaffected by Covid-19 believe that we have over-reacted to its danger. They are puzzled by the fear of those who are more circumspect. When spikes in the number of cases occur they explain them away. Somehow the virus has yet to become real to them and so they flaunt their liberties and urge the rest of us to follow their lead. They ask us why we can’t be happy about their good news that there is nothing about which to worry.

So too are we divided on the issue of civil unrest in our society. Many believe that it is much ado about nothing. They believe that our nation should have gotten over the ills of slavery and racism long ago. They view the current protests and discussions as an unnecessary stirring of a pot whose purpose is to destroy the country and its principles. They cannot see that much of the rhetoric is coming from our divider in chief, the President of the United States. Rather than genuinely hearing the voices that are crying out for understanding his approach is to poke fun and bully anyone who disagrees with his point of view. He rids himself of anyone who does not walk in lockstep with his thinking and so those who should be leading us are afraid of him. Therein lies the greatest problem that we face. Blind allegiance to his dictatorial style has left us floundering while other countries are showing signs of recovery.

Politics led to the revolution that created this country. Politics influenced the writing of our Constitution. Politics left slavery in place with the fanciful hope that politics would sooner rather than later rid our nation of its stain. Instead we have been engaged in a long and painful journey to once and for all time attain the ideals of our country. Sadly politics continue to get in the way of finding a semblance of that perfection. Politics should not, however, be reason for fighting over how to care for our people during this pandemic.

There is much that must be done and it will require concerted and collegial effort on everyone’s part to pull ourselves out of the mess that we have made thus far. Our children will be returning to school in a matter of weeks and yet we continue to quibble over how to safely accomplish that goal. We still have millions among us who are unemployed who are wondering where they will live and how they will eat when the money runs out. The questions of civil justice still loom large and we cannot simply and quickly fix the problems that have roots from as long ago as 1619, when the first slaves were brought to our shores.

We have no time to lose. We have to get to work with or without our elected officials. Long ago our founding fathers took on a king who was taking his people for granted. They created an imperfect nation that has the potential to rise above its mistakes. I can think of no better time than the present to do what we must surely know what is best for all.

An Advocate for Teachers Forever

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I’ve been thinking about history during the pandemic. I’ve considered what life may have been like for people who braved the expanse of the Atlantic ocean to set up colonies in a foreign land. I’ve thought of pioneers who left everything behind to secure homesteads far away from family and friends. I’ve considered my grandparents who sailed to America never again to see the people that they had loved. There is a loneliness about their choices because there must have been times when they awoke each morning to quiet and sameness that was devoid of contact with other humans. As I spend my days inside my very comfortable home I find it difficult to understand how they made it because I find myself missing people more than anything else.

I would be willing to do without movie theaters, malls, restaurants if I had to give something up, but I cannot imagine being this distanced from people for a much longer stretch of time. There is nothing in this world that means more to me than people and the joy of being with them. I think the vast majority of us feel the same way. We long to sit in a room laughing and talking with friends and family. We realize that our children need to be learning how to build relationships and become independent by joining their peers at school. We are social creatures who need time together as much as we must have air to breathe and food to eat. Even the hunters and gatherers of old moved in search of sustenance in groups. We generally do better together than apart.

Nonetheless I fully understand the dangers of throwing caution to the wind during this time when a novel virus continues to stalk us. It seems that each time we attempt to ignore its power we are burned. Large extended gatherings of any kind only stoke the fires and the energy of Covid-19. Kids and counselors at camp in Missouri get sick in numbers too high too dismiss. Congregants who flaunt social distancing at megachurches begin to die. Families that throw large parties watch as relatives end up in the hospital. The reality is that we cannot ignore the consequences of taking the virus lightly no matter how eager we are to return to our old habits.

We all wish Covid-19 would go away but the virus itself has other ideas. Parents understand that their children are happier and more successful when they go to school. Teachers miss their students and long to be back with them once again. We are not comfortable with the situation in which we find ourselves. Everyone wants what is best for our students and yet we are unsure what that should be. So here we are only weeks away from the start of school and instead of working tirelessly together to plan for the safest possible return to learning for our children and their teachers we are engaged in an endless argument about what we should or should not do. The clock is ticking and our president’s dictate is that every school must open and every school district must figure out how to do that with little guidance and virtually no funding.

I spent the last years of my career as a Peer Facilitator and then a Dean of Faculty. My principals charged me with the duty of making certain that the teachers had every bit of support that they needed to be able to perform their exceedingly difficult jobs. The school leaders for whom I worked believed that if the teachers were provided with a strong support system the students would be the ultimate winners. I was to be the conduit for material and mental assistance for every educator in our school.

I know all too well how dedicated teachers are. I have witnessed the stresses that they endure. Sometimes I worked fifteen hour days to lighten the load of responsibility from their shoulders. My goal was to help them to maintain the stamina to do their magic in the classroom. I did this in ordinary times when there was no specter of Covid-19 threatening them and their students and yet even then sometimes my greatest challenge was to ease their fears. I have wiped away many tears and often chased away the uneasiness that comes from teachers caring so much that emotions overtake them.

At this very moment it is not only the parents who are losing sleep at night wondering what to do when it comes time to send their children back to school. The teachers who anticipate the hundreds of ways that things may go wrong are beside themselves with worry. The possibilities of a reopening of classrooms without sufficient planning gives them nightmares. Educators are running the many scenarios through through their heads and they have more questions than answers. It is in their natures to be fully prepared for any contingency with a well reasoned response but this time in the rush to return the unanswered queries are piling up in their minds. The “what ifs” outweigh the solutions.

Anyone who thinks that returning to school will be a flawless process has never worked inside one. Sadly many of the people providing directives don’t even send their own children to public institutions. Schools are notorious hotbeds of contagion. Even though younger children appear to be less affected by Covid-19 than others they have the potential to take the virus home their parents. Teachers have families of their own whose members may infect them. The possibilities are exponential. The sticky web of potential contagion is enormous and educators understand this better than politicians. Our teachers know to proceed with caution.

I weep for and with the teachers just as I have done so often before. I am their advocate, the person who is supposed to fight for what they need. Being retired does not release me from that responsibility. I will be their voice forever only this time I feel helpless in knowing what to do. I can only urge every single citizen of this country to champion our teachers, our schools and ultimately our children. Call the school district. Call the state education agency. Call the governor’s office. Call the Congresspersons. Call the White House. Do not be silent about the most important resource we have.