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. 

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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.

On the Road or At Home

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We humans are funny. We want to explore, but we also need a sense of security, safety. Who among us has not had the urge to just drive away, while still longing for the tranquility and familiarity of home? We love those glorious vacations when we throw caution to the wind, but almost always find ourselves longing for the comfort of the routines that await us. We oscillate between wanting to just chuck it all and drive away, and needing to spend time wrapped in blankets in our beds. It is as though we can’t really decide what makes us the most happy, and so our level of contentment all too often wavers.

We have so many choices, and yet it seems as though we have too few. Why is it so hard to decide what we really want? Would we indeed be better off if our lives were more constricted to fulfilling our basic needs rather than offering endless opportunities? Such is the conundrum for those who question what form of government intervention is best for the most people. The socialists offer a safety net for all when it comes to what Franklin Roosevelt called the four freedoms of speech, want, fear and worship. In an ideal world each of us would have total assurance that we would never again have to worry about whether or not we had food on the table, a place to live, healthcare when we needed it, the ability to speak our minds or to praise the God of our choice. Still the cost of such programs would almost certainly lessen the likelihood of having great differences in the manner in which we all lived. Our choices would be reduced, but we would not be without.

In a free enterprise, capitalist system each person has the possibility of making it big, attaining levels of wealth that also insure a life without want. The very nature of the system is competitive and results in disparities, but there is a great deal of freedom to experiment and try all sorts of ideas. It breeds creativity and excitement, but also some fear. It’s difficult to rise up from the bottom of the socio-economic heap, but not impossible. Many a person has found great success because the opportunities are indeed abundant. Still there are constant fears of losing all in the event of a tragedy or disaster. There is a push and a pull that creates tension and worry while it also nurtures our adventurous spirits.

It’s difficult to decide what is actually best for a society. I know that human nature is such that if we remove all of the incentives characteristic of a capitalist society we tend to be less inventive. At the same time if we are too worried about our futures our stress can work against us as well. Then too there will always be souls who are plagued with the bad fortune of illnesses and tragedies over which they have no control. I think of my mother who was left to raise three children with so little money that just surviving was a constant worry that was exacerbated by her mental illness. She somehow muddled through, but I wonder if our society would not be better if we had more mechanisms for assuring people such as her that they need never worry, because we will not let them down.

I truly believe that we might do such things without completely tearing down our economic system. Thee are brilliant aspects of capitalism that bring hope and dreams to all of us. At the same time we need to find ways of supporting those who truly are unable to help themselves. We have much room for improvement without taking away from those who have worked hard to achieve success. The problem is that the differing ways of thinking about economic matters have created such a chasm that we find it difficult to find common ground. One side raves that the more fiscally cautious are little more than greedy ogres, and the other side accuses the people who want more security of attempting to destroy our government. Surely there is a midpoint at which we might meet. Do we really need to throw the baby out with the bath water?

I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents who had fled from an authoritarian government that eventually had been forced to bow to Communism. I heard horror stories of what happens when there is a kind coup that overturns most of the customs and ways of doing things too quickly. For that reason I am still wary of trusting that quick overhauls will bring satisfactory results. I much prefer an approach that considers many different points of view and finds a way of fixing only the most broken aspects of society. I know that we need to do something, I just don’t want that process to be extreme.

I’ve read a great deal about the Russian Revolution. It is true that the common people were suffering, but the promises from Lennin and his ilk did not pan out the way most had hoped. Countless were purged simply because they disagreed with what was happening. Life was restrictive. The four freedoms were all but nonexistent. The new government was formed with too little thought, too little input from all sides. It was founded on fear rather than wisdom, tribal thinking rather than inclusion. I would hate to see such a movement take place in my own country.

At the same time the naysayers have to realize that we are reaching a tipping point. For too long there have been too many who feel like outsiders in a society that is supposed to feel free. Until we demonstrate a willingness to listen to what they have to say and then search for ways of helping them, the gap between groups will only widen.

I love my country with every fiber of my being. I think that in spite of its imperfections it is still a great place to be. I want to see progress in addressing our needs, our dreams, our wants. I want each of us to demonstrate care, concern understanding even for those whose ideas are complete opposites of ours. No president or lawmaker should be working for a particular base, but for everyone. Until we reach that point the uncertainty that we all seem to despise will continue. I hope that we are able to find solutions without creating so much division that we resort to embracing and enforcing only one way of thinking. We need variety in our government as much as we need it in our lives. Sometimes that means seeking adventure, and sometimes that means staying at home.

  

Show Them How Tough You Are

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One of my educator friends posted an article about a more and more prevalent kind of enabler known as a Lawnmower Parent. In general this is not just one who constantly watches over children, but also goes out of the way to pave the way for them, make things smoother sailing. In the example presented in the article a father calls a teacher out of the classroom to ask her to deliver a water bottle to his child. The teacher is stunned that the father has gone to such lengths to accommodate the student, and proceeds to provide additional examples of a worrisome trend that she sees all too often.

About the same time that I read about Lawnmower Parents I listened to the moving eulogy of Meghan McCain for her father John. There was much to talk about in her words, but one of the ideas that really struck me was her description of an incident in which she was fearful and ready to give up. Her dad encouraged her by urging her to “Show them how tough you are.”

In my own childhood, my mom often reiterated stories of hard times when she was just a girl when her father insisted that she hold her head high and ignore the taunts of those who attempted to deter her from feeling confident. He even held weekly family meetings in which he insisted that each of his children had much of which to be proud even though they were often viewed as different, poor, immigrants. He wanted no excuses, no bad behavior, and to his credit they all turned out to be exceptionally hard working and honest adults who passed down the notion of self reliance to their children and grandchildren.

Luckily I have seen very little Lawnmower Parent behavior in my own dealings with the education of students. I suppose that there have always been well meaning adults who over pampered their kids, but on the whole it has not really been a trend in my circles. I was once offered a bribe from a wealthy father if I would change his son’s final average in mathematics. Of course I adamantly declined the offer and then explained to the man why I believed that aiding his son in that manner was an horrific idea. By the end of the conversation the parent had realized that softening the blow of a subpar performance by his son would be the worst possible way of dealing with the disappointment. I had made it very clear that the student would learn far more from the experience if the full responsibility were placed at his feet rather than those of the adults. It was time to demonstrate that life is about hard work and self reflection, changing bad habits rather than covering them up.

All of us have been faced with situations that nearly broke our spirits. There will also be moments that are so difficult to face that our inclinations will be to run away. Still there are situations in which the only honorable thing to do is to show the world how tough we are. We have to work through the pain, the sorrow, the humiliation and keep moving forward.

The people that I most admire are imperfect beings, many of whom failed horribly at something. Rather than giving up or relying on someone else to fight for them, they picked themselves up and kept trying again and again until they ultimately succeeded. They overcame great problems at great prices. They were unwilling to be defeated. They showed all of us who were rooting for them just how tough they were.

I was quite excited about a post from a young woman who had attended one of the schools where I worked. She had become pregnant in her senior year and it seemed that she would not be able to fulfill her dreams with her new responsibility of raising a child. She remained undaunted and worked sometimes to the point of exhaustion while she held down a job, took care of her child, and studied at one of the local universities. She literally took one step at a time day by day, and ultimately earned a college degree. Knowing that her earning capacity would be improved with an advanced degree she continued her regimen of working, mothering and learning until she had also earned a Masters degree. She found a wonderful job, married the father of her child, and before long bought a beautiful custom built home. She showed us how tough she was, and we all celebrated her as an inspiration, a model of determination and grit.

I also know about certain instances when parents are compelled to stand up for their children. They are not being overly protective in such situations, but rather making certain that justice prevails. I have seen many occasions in which teachers were unmoving, even rude when students requested consideration for extenuating circumstances. They were so hard nosed that parents had to intervene. I’ve had such encounters with unfair teaching practices with my own two daughters. I felt compelled to speak out, particularly after my children had been ignored.

As educators we certainly hope that parents will not constantly make excuses for their youngsters, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves if we are somehow being unreasonable. Sometimes our hard and fast rules simply do not work for specific situations. We must be willing to demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to listen to our students’ pleas. When we don’t, it should not be too surprising if parents intervene.

Teaching is quite demanding, but so is being a student. Kids today seem to have virtually every hour of every day filled with tasks they must perform. We ask much of them, and sometimes forget that we are not the only ones piling assignments on them. We would do well to hear what they have to say before exhorting them to “deal with it.” We all reach a point after which we simply can do no more.

I’ve had to be tough throughout my life, but there have indeed been times when I knew that I was about to break. I often allowed myself the luxury of a bit of self pity, a mental health holiday, a pile of unfinished duties. It was how I built up the strength that I needed to keep moving forward, and because I understood how easily such a state of mind can appear I tried to be understanding with my students, my teachers, and the parents. Perhaps instead of pointing fingers at one another with insulting labels we just need to take the time to find out what is really going on. It is then that we will begin helping our young to learn how to show how tough they are.

Why I Love Men

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A professor from Northeastern University recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times entitled Why I Hate Men. It was a kind of screed outlining all of the worst traits of the male half of the population and lamenting the unfair inequality of women. The author argued that it was time for all women to begin telling the truth about the horrific treatment that they have historically been forced to endure so that much needed changes might be made. She furthermore insisted that all of us who proclaim our support for feminism stop making excuses for the males who have, according to her, held us down.

I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy as I read her arguments and wanting to debate so many of her points. Mostly I wondered what had happened to her that had made her so angry. I suspect that if truth were ever told she would have a heartbreaking story in her past that had to do with abusive treatment from a man. Otherwise I can’t imagine why she would bear such a grudge against an entire group of humans.

First of all, I was always taught that the best way of living was to learn from the past, put it behind, and then look to the future. All of this dredging up of horrific acts committed by ancestors from another time reminds me of those folks who run around in hair shirts and have whips to beat themselves as penance just for having human frailties. I’ve always found such guilt trips to be nonproductive. To quote a feminist who recently ran for President of the United States, “At this point what difference does it make?” What was done was done. Now move on with resolve to do better.

Additionally, indicting the entire other half of society is akin to those times in school when the teacher punished the entire class for something that only a handful of students actually did. I recall with great disgust the times when I was subjected to a group detention or harangue and then told by the teacher that she knew that I had not been involved. I always thought that if that was the case, then why didn’t she leave me out of the indignity of the affair? It is not just bad psychology to use such methods, it also bad science. We all understand that we are a collection of individuals, each of whom differs from one another. While we might have similar traits, it is unlikely that we will all behave in the exact same manner simply because of gender.

It is true that there have been some very bad men in the world, and there are still far too many to this very day. There are men who are violent with women. There are men who are truly sexist in their thinking. There are men who are unfair to women. At the same time every one of us know men who are kind, loving, and eager to help everyone to be his/her very best.

I frustrate my husband from time to time, but in close to fifty years of living with him he has been mostly patient and loving with me. He has encouraged me to pursue my dreams more than any other person I have ever known. He is proud of my accomplishments and does not feel the need to be competitive with me or to somehow outshine me.

Is he an exception to the rule? I think not. I can name hundreds of wonderful men like him just from my own small circle of family, friends and acquaintances. In fact I would argue that the oafs and mysoginists are more the exception than the rule. We are horrified by their behavior because it is so unlike most of the men that we know.

Certainly we need to do a better job of protecting women from anyone who would do them harm. We must take firm measures to send the message that acts of abuse are not ever to be tolerated. We might also work harder to narrow the gaps between men and women in their careers. We have already achieved a great sense of progress in sending more women to college than men, but we must be careful that those same women do not emerge with their degrees intent on wreaking vengeance on the males.

I have six grandsons who are true gentlemen. They have learned how to treat all people from both their mothers and their fathers. They have terrific role models in that regard. I would be crushed if I thought that they were going to be hated even before someone knew the essence of their character. It would worry me if I thought that they were going to be denied possibilities simply because they are male. The way to reach true equality is not to take away from one group to give to another. That just creates yet another lopsided situation. The best way to even the playing field is to provide everyone with the education and the training that will ensure that their talents will be utilized to the fullest extent.

I am who I am and where I am today because of a huge cast of both men and women who loved me, taught me, mentored me and pushed me to be the person I wished to be. There was nothing in the equations of my life that was marked with a preponderance of male domination. Both sides were kept equal by people who supported me. I encountered a few men who attempted to use their masculinity to side track me, but other men (and women) always helped me to move right past them.

I have to say in all truth that I love men because I know all too well that they are an important part of our world. We need them and they need us. Together we make a great team. I will continue to fight for more opportunities for women, but I refuse to hate men as a weapon for achieving that goal.