The Car


The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.


The Virtue In The Body Of The People


“The general Government…can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an Oligarchy, an Aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form; so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.” George Washington

People that I love are afraid. People that I love are deeply saddened. People that I love are angry. People that I love have grown cynical. My daughter worries that her beautiful sons may become targets for a crazed gunman at their schools. A former colleague in education just wants to cry as he hears his students asking what they should do if a shooter comes to their classroom. A principal fields the concerns of his teachers who now see every backpack brought into their classrooms as potential trouble. A former student struggles to recover from the trauma of being in the recent shooting incident in Las Vegas, and even as she makes progress news of more tragedy shakes her confidence. She attends a movie to help alleviate her stress and overhears children discussing what to do if an attacker brings havoc to the theater. As a nation we are deeply troubled and we want to do something, but all we hear are the same knee jerk reactions from our President and Congress and little desire to do anything other than say prayers or blame everything on guns. We already think we know that this will end with nothing being done almost ensuring that there will be yet another mass shooting sometime and somewhere in the future.

Washington D.C. has lost it’s resolve and worries most about invoking the ire of the various and sundry bases. Instead of representing all of the people our leaders now see themselves as only being beholden to a narrow group of people who finance their campaigns and mold their political philosophies. They don’t seem to realize or care that vast numbers of citizens need them to work for them as well. This should not be a nation of laws built only on the voices of about thirty percent of the electorate at any given time. Our lawmakers and executive should be attuned to the concerns and desires of the nation as a whole. While each elected official certainly has a foundation of devoted supporters, most elections are won with the votes of independent thinkers who choose sides based on a multitude of reasons. They need to be heard and their opinions heeded. All ideas both pro and con must be considered without knee jerk reactions. Taken together answers to the problems that face our nation will be found, but if our leaders continue to voice the same tired platitudes nothing will be done. It is up to the virtuous citizens of our country to demand a sincere effort to curb the murderous trends.

Gun violence is a plague on our nation. We have all heard that most of the shooters in such incidents would not have been subject to many of the proposed laws. The thinking appears to be that since none of the suggestions for solving this dilemma would be a hundred percent effective then it is best to do nothing at all. On the other hand there are those so focused on gun control issues that they continue to miss the point that law abiding gun owners fear that their rights will ultimately be curtailed. Both of these groups need to set aside their prejudices regarding this issue and open their minds and hearts to the myriad suggestions that are circulating among the people of this country.

One of my former students noted that this is a heart issue. He was of course alluding to the social, emotional and mental health aspects at the core of many of the shooters’ motivations. While there are exceptions, in general most of the killers have displayed signs of gravely deviant behavior long before embarking on their murderous sprees. All too often they live in isolation, growing more and more dark while those who know them either throw up their hands in frustration or turn away entirely. We have to create avenues and programs for helping them even if ultimately that means committing them to psychiatric care facilities. It will be difficult but the process of dealing with those whose minds have become sick is almost always a long journey. We should not leave the individuals or their families to travel alone.

A former principal posted an article about a teacher who uses a simple exercise to find the students in her class who are feeling alone or being bullied. Each Friday before they leave her room she tells her pupils to name four people with whom they would like to sit in the next week. She prompts them to tell her whom they most admire in the class as well as the names of students about whom they are worried. She spends hours over the weekend studying the responses so that she might identify the loners, the unloved, and then she makes certain to reach out to those children and their parents. This same teacher insists that parents attend tutoring sessions with their children. She wants the adults to understand what their children are learning, but mostly she wants to create a bond between the school and the families.

We need far more of this type of involvement from our teachers and our schools if we are to identify troubled souls long before they are so sick and enraged that they are killing others. Dividing large schools into smaller, caring groups can often solve the problem of having students fall through the cracks. In one of my former jobs each teacher belonged to a team that consisted of educators representing each of the core subjects. All of the the team members taught the same students and met several times each week to stay apprised of any brewing troubles whether they be academic, behavioral or both. They discussed ways to support one another and their students. Part of their discussions always included making note of pupils who had become withdrawn or who appeared to have few or no friends. Such a team approach needs to be implemented in all schools so that no child will become a cipher.

I recall a teacher with whom I worked talking about the community efforts to help children when we were growing up. She noted that if one of the neighborhood kids did something vile his/her actions were immediately reported to the parents. The youngsters understood that they were being watched and protected. They realized that there were many people who cared about them. I loved such stories because they reminded me of my own situation. My father had died when my brothers and I were very young. The people of our neighborhood quietly took on the job of helping us. There were wonderful men who encouraged my brothers to join sporting teams and taught them how to build things. All of us were included in the family circles of so many of our nearby friends People took the time to let us know that we were not alone and should not be afraid. We turned out well through the efforts of my mother, but also because of a vast support system from the people who lived near us. Thus it worries me that we have so little interaction in many of our local communities these days.

Of course there is also the issue of controlling the use of guns in our nation, even knowing that there will no doubt always be an illegal underground just as there always is in such instances. There are many common sense things that we can try that will have no effect on law abiding gun owners. The old Brady Bill from the Bill Clinton era had some notable ideas. Perhaps we should revisit that law and then find ways to improve it. It makes sense to strengthen the kind of background checks that we presently have to fill in the cracks that exist. We can take another look at tightening the ages at which individuals can purchase and own guns to mirror the laws for alcohol. We have to ask ourselves what type of guns and ammunition need to be prohibited. The average gun owner doesn’t require an arsenal for protection, so instituting such changes will hardly affect most people but it may help to reduce the availability of weapons for those contemplating mass murder.

We can tighten security at schools with architectural changes and the use of technology. We don’t need to arm our teachers. That will only create a whole new set of problems. If we want to hire well trained guards, we need to understand that they will not provide a complete answer. It will only be by admitting to the complex nature of overhauling the many problems that lead to such tragedies that we may begin to reduce the violence.

When I was as young as many of the victims of the horrific massacre in Florida movements to end the egregious war in Vietnam and to provide basic civil rights to all Americans began on high school and college campuses. It was when students across the country joined the efforts of adults who were already working to foment change that more attention was drawn to these issues. A revolution not unlike that of the founders of our country began to unfold and it continued until all of the collective voices exerted enough pressure that they were finally heard.

In this present time there are plans for young people to mount a campaign to bring about changes to make our schools and our movie theaters and our music venues safe again. I applaud them in advance and urge them to remain patient and willing to stay the course. I believe that this is a watershed moment in our country being lead by the virtue in the body of the people. I suspect that George Washington would approve.


Our Better Instincts

38869597_303They were a sweet family with a good home, and best of all they were happy. But then came war, unsafe conditions. Bombs went off continually so close by that they could hear the falling rubble created from the blasts. They were on the wrong side of the fight. Sooner or later the invaders were bound to get to their street, their house. Sleep began to elude them. Their small children continually cried. They knew that they had to leave no matter how much they wanted to stay. They became refugees, members of a wandering group of people from war torn parts of the world searching for a safe place to live. They are unwanted in many places, thought to be pariahs, criminals, maybe even terrorists. All that they seek is safety, a new start, a place to call home.

It would be easy to simply ignore these desperate souls. After all, what have they to do with us? We have our own problems. We have yet to help all of our own people. They are foreigners with beliefs so different from ours. We barely have the resources that we need for the people who are already here. How can we possibly stretch ourselves any more? Besides, what if they are not really just good people caught in a bad situation? What if their intent is to harm us? Why should we risk our own safety for theirs? What’s in it for us? Will they even be able to work, or just be drains on our social programs? These are the questions that plague us and there are few clear answers. In truth there is a certain level of risk in taking in strangers from lands far away. It takes a leap of faith to consider both the problems and possibilities and still agree to do what seems to be the most humane action. What if we choose wrong? How will we live with that?

Thus is the difficulty that we face. Across the world the population of refugees from violent places continues to grow, and with it so do both our fears and our desires to be compassionate. The stakes are high for everyone concerned, most especially those waiting hopefully for someone somewhere to provide them with the breaks that they need to create better lives. While we debate the merits of inviting some of these people into our cities and towns, they are growing ever more discouraged and wondering if anyone truly cares about their situations.

I spent my life working with people, albeit young people. Human nature tends to be the same whether dealing with adults or children. Individuals have certain basic needs that must be met or they begin to react in unpredictable ways. They must feel safe and that means providing them with an environment that is as free of dangers as possible. It requires that they have food to abate their hunger and at least the bare necessities to protect them. When those things are lacking they are unable to rise to higher levels of development. Each day is a quest just to make it to the next. Survival is the only idea that captures their attention. Being continually subjected to a search for the most essential of our human needs takes its toll. Some will give up and wither away. Others will grow angry and lash out at a world that feels so unfair. Many simply persist until they somehow manage to change their circumstances.

As a society we never truly know how anyone will react to extreme difficulties. There are no doubt cases over which we have no power to inspire the good, but for the most part we do in fact have the opportunity to become positive influences. Some people are psychopaths or sociopaths who will not respond to our kindness. Even our best efforts with them may be ineffective and we may not be able to detect them until it is too late and they have done great harm. Generally speaking, however, the vast majority of humans will react positively to encouragement and compassion. When someone provides our fundamental needs and we are treated with respect, we are filled with gratitude because it is in our natures to want to be accepted members of society. Once we feel safe we are ready to contribute to the rest of mankind.

I watched a Frontline program on PBS which featured a number of refugees seeking asylum in different parts of the world. They had been ordinary souls before their homelands were torn apart. They shared a common desire to be understood and accepted by people willing to provide them with a new start. They had done desperate and even illegal things to protect themselves and their families from the violence in their home countries, each with differing levels of success. One family had quickly found relief in Germany. They were welcomed by the community and began the process of learning the language and adapting to the culture. They are now studying so that they might secure better employment. They want to be far more than just drains on the governmental programs. They work at difficult and menial jobs while they become more educated. They watch as their children forget the old ways and embrace the new. It seems that those who are not just welcomed by the locals, but are also actively supported and educated are happier and doing better than those placed in dreary camps with nothing to do all day long. Having someone believe in their worth has been the key to helping them to become part of the community.

When I teach mathematics the first thing that I do is build confidence. We humans can’t operate if we feel discouraged. Psychological barriers impede progress, so they must be dealt with from the outset. The same is true of refugee populations. What are they to think if people are reacting negatively to them without ever knowing who they are?

President Obama often suggested that much of the hatred in the world begins with rejection by society. In that idea he is correct. We tend to become who the people around us tell us that we are. If we are constantly criticized and given no occasions to define ourselves we sometimes believe the hateful slurs that we hear. We doubt our own abilities and fall prey to the truly evil who tantalize us with offers of being somebody important. All dictators, anarchists and terrorists use the worries of people to recruit their minions. If those of us who are good do not reach the hearts and minds of the needy, someone with nefarious intentions will, exacting a terrible price on all of us.

We have to open our eyes to the suffering of the world. We must work together to ensure that the downtrodden are able to find the peace that they seek. We cannot ignore their plight and then pretend that we are doing so just to protect ourselves and those we love. We will always have individuals who turn against us even when we are kind. Because that sometimes happens does not indicate that we should suspend humane treatment. It would be akin to saying that just because there is a chance that we might die in a car accident, we should never get inside an automobile again. We have to overcome our fears, and deal with the consequences of each individual decision that we make. This has been our human conundrum since the beginning of time. What is certain is that we cannot isolate ourselves from harm, but we do have the power and the responsibility to help as many souls as possible to find good and worthy lives.

While we are arguing over who should come to our shores there are hundreds of people living in want and fear. We can’t assist every one of them, but surely we can do more than we have done most recently. If we were the ones in need we would hope and pray that the better instincts of humans would find a way to help us. Perhaps it is time for us to consider what each of our responsibilities should be in this regard.


Not Yet Down and Out

shutterstock_441927634-1024x683.jpgIt was a sunny day in Houston, Texas on a January afternoon. The streets and highways were filled with people enjoying the break in the cold weather. It somehow seemed impossible that only five or six months ago those same roads were filled with flood water from hurricane Harvey, creating unbelievable images of devastation. Everything appeared to be so normal, and it felt as though the recovery and healing of our scarred city had gone smoothly and far more quickly than anyone might have ever imagined. We had even begun to believe that we might have a good chance of winning the big Amazon prize that would bring thousands of jobs to our area along with millions of dollars to boost our economy. Perhaps it is in our Houston DNA to be upbeat and unwilling to be counted out. We’d done the impossible so many times before that those of us native to this flat featureless plain see our city with different eyes than those of outsiders.

This is a town built on land encircled by bayous that is otherwise landlocked, and yet we have one of the busiest ports in the country, dug from the Gulf of Mexico to a site in the shadow of the place where Texas gained its independence. Somehow our town took a field that had once been home to grazing cattle and transformed it into the center of the worldwide space race. A wealthy academic from the east coast imagined a Harvard of the south and founded the prestigious and renowned Rice University. A doctor imagined a home for cutting edge medicine and convinced benefactors to build a medical center that would one day be a leader in research and talent. We have done the impossible time and again with the help of visionaries who saw beyond the limitations of our geography, and on any give day it feels as though we have miraculously moved beyond the horrors that beset our beloved Houston on those three days in August when the sky rained its fury on all of us.

We all know that things are not always what they seem to be. Those whose homes were filled with brackish water that rushed in through the weep holes inundating their rooms and their peace of mind are mostly still working to get back to normal. The piles of debris that represented the destruction are generally gone misleading observers to believe that all is well. Inside the repair work continues at various stages. The mucking out of water and dirt is done. The walls of water soaked sheetrock have been removed leaving frameworks of studs marking load bearing structures and outlines of rooms. In some cases fresh new sheetrock and paint now brighten the areas. In others the skeletal frames await the resolution of claims that may one day bring the funds for repairs. Carpet and flooring is difficult to find even when there is money to purchase it. Cold concrete has become a way of life for many Houstonians who celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year with their homes torn apart, and still wait for normalcy to return. They sit on lawn furniture and sleep on air mattresses attempting to stay calm and carry on when in truth they are exhausted and broken hearted.

On that sunny day when all seemed so normal, of course it was not. I drove through a neighborhood that had been heavily impacted by the storms and at least a third of the homes still had huge dumpsters parked in the driveways. Trailers and RVs dotted the landscape and told a tale of homeowners still camping out while their homes recovered very slowly. Daily life has become a marathon for them as they cope with realities and fears that sometimes feel overwhelming. They walk through their days attempting to be as positive as possible even as they worry about the impact this all has had on their psyches and savings.

It has been estimated that eighty percent of those affected by hurricane Harvey did not carry flood insurance. They have had to rely on FEMA for funds to repair their houses and many of them still wait for that money to be forthcoming. Generally the most that they might receive is only slightly more than $30,000, and in the majority of cases it will be far less than that. FEMA does not replace their household goods, so many people are creating massive debts just to begin again. Those who did have flood insurance are all too often waiting even longer for the relief that they need to put their homes back into working order. Supplies are scarce, and the great deals that merchants offered in the early days after the disaster are mostly long gone. Nobody thought that there would still be people in need this long after the catastrophic event.

Our city is wounded and our spirit is being sorely tested. Naysayers warn us that we will never again be the same. Our luster feels somehow diminished as investors and dreamers grow wary of locating here. Amazon passed us over, choosing Austin and Dallas as more worthy possibilities for their center. People from outside our area view our town as an ugly humid place more suited for mosquitoes than humans. They underestimate our determination to overcome the odds that have often appeared to be stacked against us. Houston has always been a city that should never have been, and yet here we are winners of the World Series even as we limp through the worst days of our history. It seems that Amazon missed the essence of who we are as people and may have ignored the very qualities that would have made their venture truly great. They did not understand that the images of courage and community that they witnessed when nature had battered us mercilessly were not aberrations, but rather an unvarnished revelation of who we really are. The secret of Houston is that we are willing to take on any challenge and rise from the muck and the mud to triumph over adversity. This is a hard working city with dirt under its finger nails and visions of a better future in its soul. 

Think of us now and again. We are still here even though we have not yet totally healed. There remains much to do, but you will rarely hear us complain. We don’t want to be pitied or thought to be beyond hope for we still believe that our city has a great future. Don’t pass over us or assume that we are out of the game. This city called Houston is a miracle built on unstoppable dreams. Plan to keep hearing from us. We’re not yet ready to be down and out.



1933604_774098892733890_4368455666911963627_o.jpgI didn’t know Edi Cruz as well as I might have liked, but what I do know is that he was a KIPPster and I was a Big KIPPster and that makes us family. I recall seeing Edi in the hallways at KIPP Houston High School and what I noted about him was his always pleasant demeanor. His smile was of the legendary sort, and just spotting him made me beam inside. I wish I’d taken more time to get to know Edi better because from what I can gather he was greatly loved for being a truly genuine and caring person. Edi was slated to graduate in a few months from The University of Texas Permian Basin, but his dreams and those of all who knew him were tragically cut short when he was recently killed in a terrible car accident. All too soon a wonderful young person has left us all wondering why such horrific things happen to such good people.

Edi Cruz was known around the school for his unending sense of humor. He approached life with a joke and a feeling that every day was a good time for a laugh. He made people feel good about him and about themselves, and now they are left to consider all of the ”might have beens” for their good friend. Edi was not just about being hilariously funny, but also quite serious about earning a college degree, and he had worked hard for so many years to achieve his goal. It is a testament to his dedication that his plans were so soon to have come to fruition. No one could have known that his life would be so suddenly snuffed out. Even his college roommate is still stunned.

Edi Cruz was a very good friend. He gave fully of himself to others and his loving nature was always reflected in his face. After his death those who knew him spoke of his considerate nature and revealed things that he had done for them so unselfishly. He was someone who would take the time to thank a teacher with a sincerely written note, or stop to help a classmate who was struggling with some issue. He didn’t mind being a bit silly if it reduced tensions, or just made everyone enjoy the moment. He embraced life with an open heart that lead him to a loving relationship with a beautiful young woman who had hopes of her own for their future together. Everyone believed that they were going have had a wonderful time.

Edi had so many talents and interests. He liked to ride horses and looked as natural in the saddle as walking down the street. He was a people person who once served as a representative at a National Council of La Raza conference. He was a favorite of his high school art teacher who saved a caricature that he had created of himself long after he had left her class. The drawing captured his wonderful essence. It was as though he really knew and understood himself and felt confident in being a person who spread sunshine with his mere presence by his willingness to be humble and self deprecating.

Edi Cruz.jpgThere is a great feeling of sadness in losing someone of his moral stature, particularly at such a young age. In our humanity we can’t quite comprehend why such a terrible thing would happen, even as we console ourselves in knowing that he had lived a glorious life while he was here. Somehow thinking about Edi Cruz reminded me of a poem by an unknown author that I once read.

Do not judge a biography by it’s length,
Nor by the number of pages in it.
Judge it by the richness of it’s contents

Sometimes those unfinished are among the most poignant

Do not judge a song by it’s duration
Nor by the number of it’s notes
Judge it by the way it touches and lifts the soul

Sometimes those unfinished are among the most beautiful

And when something has enriched your life
And when it’s melody lingers on in your heart
Is it unfinished?
Or is it endless?

I am quite certain the Edi Cruz touched hearts so fully that he will live on in the cherished memories that friends and family have of him. For now they will grieve as they remember the good times that they had with him and think of the future that is no more, but one day their hearts will be healed and remebering Edi will make them smile again. 

I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking than the death of someone so young. Thoughts of what we might have shared never quite leave us. That person is permanently fixed in our minds as a never aging soul as we ourselves grow old. I can tell you from experience that everyone who knew and loved Edi Cruz will remember him from time to time even as the years go by. The impact of a person as wonderful as he was is in truth endless.