Monday, March 28, 2011

Standing Against Bullies

Once upon a time, in Tulsa, OK, 1963, a young man took a chance and a stand against a bully. He survived, and I have been better all my days and all these years since because he did.

Oklahoma peacefully integrated its schools when the courts advised it to do so, thanks, in large measure, to the governor at that time, Raymond Gary. Unlike our country cousins east, where Governor Faubus whipped his Arkansaw-yers into a froth, Governor Gary used his influence to set a high expectation for Okies. His mailbag filled with venom, but the streets did not, and it cost him a second term.

Other kids may have felt the change in student population when their schools integrated. I did not. I lived in Tulsa, one of the larger cities in OK. There, property lines and neighborhoods segregated schools, and busing had not yet been mandated. Busing was for the rare, gifted student, just like the poor, white, very smart kid who joined the Class of 1966 at Edison High School during my sophomore year. His district high school offered only basic survey math and science classes, and someone, somewhere in administration understood that a great mind is a terrible thing to waste.

This guy with glasses and plain clothes was unassuming and reserved, especially during the more social part of the class, also known as Homeroom, a fifteen-minute block at the beginning of every first hour class when students collaborated on school-wide projects such as candy sales for extracurricular activities or yearbook sales. The transfer-boy never participated when we spent Saturday afternoons in someone’s home filling Easter baskets for orphans, and he never ever purchased tickets for school plays and special events. In fact, he was the sole reason that our homeroom never earned the Intercom announcement or cookie incentives for having 100% participation.

This 99% completion rate galled our Honors English teacher. Whenever she spoke of deadlines and expectations, her mouth became a flat line and she peered over her half-moon reading glasses, her eyes boring lasers into the top of that smart boy’s head. He pushed her over the edge at last:

“We need one more person to pay for his yearbook, to bring us to 100% in yearbook sales—the same person who failed to bring a donation for the needy.” She stepped closer to his desk, the one in the exact center of the room, up front, under her watchful eye. She seemed to believe that he would cheat if she ever relaxed her gaze. She stood so close above him that he could not look up without appearing to take too much interest in her anatomy.

At the back of the room, our own Hubbell Gardner, destined to become the quarterback and Student Council president, the boy for whom everything came easily, stood and spoke.

“Stop. Please. What you’re doing is wrong. It doesn’t matter if we win the 100% prize.”

Mrs. English teacher, fashionably dressed, knowledgeable and intellectual, opened her mouth to put Hubbell in his place. The head of the boy seated below her exposed his neck a bit more, waiting for the final blow that never came because right then, someone said, “He’s right. Stop.” Someone else said, “We do what we can.”

Mrs. English teacher, mouth agape, said nothing. She whirled 180°, flaring the hem of her perfectly pressed shirtwaist dress. At her desk, she peered over those reading glasses at us—all of us while feeling for her red ink pen before dismissing us in some show of defiance by lowering her eyes to a set of papers. We breathed again and settled back against our desks, proud of our Hubbell.

We let go of our covetous feelings inspired by his successes. Now we understood that he had the right stuff, that he deserved success. We understood that he had courage, but more important than courage, he also had empathy for the victims of the worst kind of public school bullying—the kind that some teachers dish out, safe behind their lecterns.

Wherever you are, Hubbell, well-done!

Monday, March 21, 2011

May the Miso and Cranes Sustain

After World War II had crushed the Empire of Japan, the United States implemented a program that brought some of Japan’s finest minds to this country through the Fulbright program, created “September 1945, [when] the freshman senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that called for the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the ‘promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.’ One year later President Harry S. Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. . . .

“From its inception, the Fulbright Program has fostered bilateral relationships in which other countries and governments work with the U.S. to set joint priorities and shape the program to meet shared needs. The world has been transformed in ensuing decades, but the fundamental principles of international partnership and mutual understanding remain at the core of the Fulbright Program’s mission” (

In 1996, to honor the 50th anniversary of the U. S. Fulbright and to show its appreciation for the benefits extended to its citizens, Japan implemented the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) Teacher Program. For twelve years thereafter, U. S. primary and secondary teachers applied to become a JFMF honoree. Once accepted, the teachers bore no cost whatsoever for a three-week cultural experience. I was one of those teachers in 2003, and I continue to be grateful for the education I received.

The tragedies unfolding in Japan seem more personal as a result of my experience there. In addition, the news makes more sense. For example, when reporters praise the Japanese preparedness, I understand that this is not overstated at all. For example, during one of the three weeks that I traveled in Japan, I was in the city of Okazaki, home to approximately 360,000 people. There, I saw the Japanese investment in infrastructure extended beyond the highly organized, crowded Tokyo to a quieter, smaller city against a backdrop of beautiful, deeply forested hills to the east. There, streets are as wide and clearly marked as any in Tokyo where 1,500 may cross at a green light. Okazaki’s sidewalks feature brightly colored tiles set into the concrete so that visually impaired citizens have adequate warning that the sidewalk’s end is near. Then, when it is safe to cross, chimes sound as a signal for blind residents. Flashing signs and lights let sighted and deaf residents also cross safely. Curb cuts allow people in wheel chairs or with impaired mobility to move from street level to sidewalk level easily. The bridges even have inclined entry rather than a single set of steep steps. Outside the city, hillsides are strengthened against rock slides with a material that looks like dark granite so that the aesthetic of the hills is not destroyed with heavy-duty black plastic and orange cones. Certainly, all this careful construction, designed to protect a small number of citizens, comes at a cost, one that Japan has paid.

We all know now that Japan has also prepared for dire possibilities in construction codes. I saw this is microcosm when I walked past a multi-story building under construction near the hotel where I stayed in Okazaki. Lives and resources were clearly a priority because safety netting enclosed the work areas, thereby preventing work place accidents as a result of falling or dropping heavy equipment. All this forethought and safety is expensive, but during the 9.0 earthquake, fewer people died as a result of crumbling or broken buildings. Even with a mere one- minute earthquake warning--about all that anyone in any culture can expect--people were able to protect themselves from falling debris.

Forty minutes is all the citizens of Sendai had before the tsunami struck. At the epicenter of the quake, the city’s citizens were already displaced, yet approximately one million residents had to move quickly to higher ground. As anyone can imagine, forty minutes is simply not enough time for that many people to exit by the few roads leading from the shore to hills beyond. The loss of life is staggering.

The “perfect storm” of an 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami overmastered the Japanese foresight. Nuclear meltdowns continue to endanger the residents and the world, and that is a terrible twist of fate. Japan sustained 5 ½ months of fire and, in August 1945, back-to-back nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki dropping from U. S. bombers flying high above. Now fires from below--from their own industry--and radiation--molded by their own hands--threaten their futures. For all their foresight and readiness, they still elected to dance with the demon of radiation as we have 104 times. Shall we continue this dance that comes with a death warrant?

As I grieve for Japan, its tumultuous present, and its frightening future, I think of two features of the Japanese culture. Both give me hope.

The first is miso, a blend of fermented soybeans and rice, used to make soups, most often eaten for breakfast. Miso factories are impeccably clean, as spotless as any OSHA officer might demand. There miso brews in huge vats until ripe and ready to be packaged, and there, during a tour, I learned that miso is thought to have cancer-fighting properties. This cancer-fighting power is more than anecdotal. Studies have shown that laboratory animals given a diet that includes miso have a lower incidence of cancers. In fact, after the Chernobyl event, the U. S. S. R. bought tons of miso for those who lived near the reactor. I only hope that Japan has stockpiled or is still able to produce miso for its own citizens.

The second cultural icon is the crane, often beautifully crafted from origami paper and now a universal symbol of peace, especially after the U. S. inflicted fires and bombs in 1945. Emerging from the rubble, reminiscent of the Phoenix, the crane stands, proud, solitary, and tall. Rising to fly, its wingspan, power, and grace amaze. Using the crane’s origami form, children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki craft a sort of lei to present to honored guests, and after tragedies, these same paper cranes hang as ornaments from ceilings and trees in places around the world. With each fold of the paper, the craftsmen, women, and children utter a silent promise to keep the peace, to heal and bind, to overcome and triumph over disasters, both natural and man-made.

May the cranes fly and the miso sustain in the days to come!

To learn more about making an origami crane, visit your local craft store, book store, or To learn more about miso’s properties and promise, take a look at

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wolves Shall Defend the Lamb

Among Aesop’s fables is the short tale about a wolf and a lamb. Readers know immediately that if a fight occurs, it will not be a fair one. The wolf has experience, weight, and carnivorous intent on his side. The poor lamb is slight in both the ways of the world and pounds.

Seeking to justify slaughtering the lamb, the wolf accuses him of a personal affront, a charge the lamb easily deflects by saying he was not yet born when the wolf claims to have been insulted. Next, the wolf attacks the lamb on grounds that the little creature has invaded the wolf’s pasture and watering hole. The lamb honestly and innocently proclaims that he has not yet tasted grass or water. Mother’s milk sustains him.

Having run out of rationales for his bloody, bad behavior, the wolf simply asserts the evolutionary principle that has so often led to the slaughter of innocents. He declares that he will not go hungry even though the lamb has defended himself so well. The wolf falls upon his prey and consumes the delicate lamb just because he can.

Human kind has often been the wolf. As this blog has suggested, wolves preyed upon early Native Americans, justifying the wolves' possession of lands and, in some cases, wholesale slaughter by arguing the privileges and rights of Manifest Destiny, also known as social Darwinism. British wolves took lands and lives in Africa, India, and much of the world simply because Britain granted itself the right on the basis of skin color, religion, and productivity. African Americans in America from the 17th century forward have faced and survived enslavement and domestic terrorism. One threat of domestic terrorism occurred this year, last month.

NPR* reported (February 25, 2011) that a man in the crowd at a town hall meeting in Georgia on February 22, 2011 called out a question: when (or who) is going to shoot Obama? The crowd laughed at the question, and the Representative, Paul Broun, moved on, saying: The thing is, I know there's a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president that will take a smaller, [sic] who will sign a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Broun should have quelled the crowd. Good sense, common sense and common decency demand a stern reaction. When is it ever acceptable to suggest the death of a public figure, a neighbor, a friend? It is never acceptable, yet Congressman Broun dodges the real offense and reverts to the tried and true Obamacare complaint. He, as a doctor, had an opportunity to speak some truth about the new health care reform act of 2009.

That bill will require health insurers to spend 80-85% of every insurance dollar on direct medical care, not dividends, private jets, expensive corporate conferences, and other non-medical care costs. The new health care legislation will prevent insurers from denying insurance to people with pre-existing conditions or expensive conditions such as childhood autism or cancer or muscular dystrophy. (Beginning to see why health insurers want the public confused and the law repealed? But if they must live with the legislation, they want everyone to be required to buy insurance. Why? Money, money, money . . .)

Representative Broun had a chance to set the record straight--to say, the Palin accusation that the bill includes a provision for death panels is just plain untrue. Broun had a chance to explain that every citizen already pays for every other citizen’s health, including the health care required for a twenty-year-old who saw no need for health insurance and bristled at the requirement to buy some. After all, he did not smoke, he exercised, and he was not overweight. His only vice was his motorcycle. Not only was it a fast, fun ride, it was also inexpensive to maintain. He carried motorcycle insurance--sure; the law requires insurance in exchange for the privilege of holding a license to drive and owing money on the motorcycle. He had to have motorcycle insurance, but he declined when asked to purchase insurance against uninsured motorists and any health insurance.

This young man, one fine sunny day, on a dry clean roadway, looked at the scenery beside the road only long enough to miss the oncoming pickup truck drifting left of center. When the cyclist saw the truck, his reactions, even at 20, were not sharp enough to avoid the collision. He lost a leg and was thrown, landing so hard that he could no longer speak, read, write, or see to his own hygiene.

This young man died on that roadbed, but extraordinary medical care saved his body and what is left of his mental abilities. He requires long-term, nursing care. No insurance company was there to offset the emergency, hospital, and rehabilitative care. Taxpayer money will provide; it comes to him through Social Security disability benefits, SSI, or Medicaid. These will provide for this young man from the moment of his collision to his death sometime in the future. He’s 20, remember? His parents, if they are still living, are not responsible. If they try to pay their son’s debts, they may become poor themselves.

Had this young man been required to purchase health insurance, the taxpayer would be off the hook--unless the insurance company could install lifetime limits as a ceiling for his and anyone’s care. But the new health care legislation removes those limits. Insurance companies can no longer pay until the patient reaches his limit, then hand him or her over to the taxpayer.

Yes, Representative Broun could have explained all of this to his public rather than justify the egregious words of a man in the crowd. Even more important, Representative Broun could have shown some moral courage by saying: How dare you, sir? Barack Obama is the President of the United States. I value his life for many reasons, foremost among them being that as a physician, I value all life. I will not tolerate hate and threats, sir. I wish the President success. We all should.

By the way, Broun’s aide said that Broun simply moved on because the remark was inappropriate, and he did not wish to acknowledge it. But you read what Broun moved on to say. He simply suggested that we need someone else who will repeal legislation that is unpopular, thereby feeding in to the misinformation and misdirected hostilities.

More to the point, had any one of us overheard a threat made against someone, our legal and moral duty is to report that threat in order to save a life. Representative Broun and his aide are not exempt from that duty.

We may take some comfort from the work of the Secret Service. After interviewing the man who was so outspoken, the federal officers learned that he regrets the question.

I will be comfortable when people do not step back when the wolf sees its next victim. I expect people to speak up and out against injustice and carnivorous instincts. I expect the eyes of civilization to have grown wiser and less crafty. I expect each of us to be the shepherd, insuring that the entire flock is safe, rather than cutting one from the herd before running back to the corral.

*Thank you, NPR, for reporting the story and for doing so in an impartial manner. Woe to us if a truly impartial news source fades.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Heart of the Matter: To Kill a Mockingbird

This blog began as a celebration of one of my favorite novels to read and teach, To Kill a Mockingbird. One reason for this book’s appeal is that Harper Lee brings to life characters with heart, and her point of view never fails to have some measure of compassion. Two of the worst characters, Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob, are almost inconsequential cogs in a much larger evil machine: racism--until their actions lead directly to the death of a good man, Tom Robinson, and hard times for the family he leaves behind. The Ewells become villains when false pride leads them to deceive.

What Atticus underestimated in his defense of Tom Robinson is the length to which a man will go when he loses his only possession: false pride. Bob Ewell hangs on to the belief that he is something in this world simply because he steps into it as a white man. When his daughter Mayella defiles the family name by consorting with a black man, Bob beats her so badly that he must seek medical care for her and invent a lie to cover his own savagery. Thus, he labels an innocent man a brute to deny his own brutality.

In a racist world, such a charge cannot go unanswered. Such a charge feeds into the lies that white men and women told themselves for hundreds of years. Such a charge must be upheld so that the veil of superiority will not fall, but the cost for upholding the lie is high: a jury must become complicit, a judge must issue a sentence, an innocent man must lose his freedom, and the perpetrators, Bob and Mayella, must continue in a community that now has one more reason to hold them in disdain.

When given the chance in court and beyond, the Ewells lack the courage to recant and the wit to comprehend that their lives, lived on the edges of the town dump, are reprehensible. While they cling to their innate superiority as members of the group with white flesh, everyone else recognizes that they are outliers. They have cast themselves from the group by living in filth, having no discernible moral standard, and flaunting any ambition to learn and improve.

Bob Ewell cannot allow the final assault on his false sense of security to go unchallenged. He stalks the judge and defense attorney, Atticus, but unable to confront them in the marketplace, he works in stealth, striking at innocent children, Scout and Jem. His shame is so complete that he cannot risk losing against men well armed with intelligence, the law, or even weapons. He wants to deliver a blow as most cowards do--by wounding those who are weaker than himself.

Bob does not succeed. Boo Radley, another outlier, delivers a final judgment upon Bob for his crimes against Tom Robinson, Scout and Jem. Mr. Arthur Radley kills Bob while defending Atticus’ children, and the executioner goes free. The sheriff and Atticus agree to protect Radley’s shy ways and prosecute Robinson’s killer a second time, this time without the benefit of a courtroom. Their verdict is that Bob Ewell
died when he fell on his knife, an explanation that the town will surely agree to believe, just as surely as they agreed to believe in Tom Robinson’s guilt. The scales of justice have been balanced without ever having to expose the original lie: racism. All’s well that end’s well (Shakespeare), the citizens might have said.

Still Lee does not condemn the town. She places a man like Atticus among them. Fully aware of Maycomb’s disease, he dwells among the sick, even treating its afflicted citizens, like the venomous Mrs. Dubose, with respect for her virtues in spite of her vices. More important, as an attorney and legislator, Atticus speaks against injustice and acts for good. Is there any better way to live?