Monday, May 30, 2011

Honoring President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower

On a seven-state 4,000 mile tour, my husband and I toured two presidential libraries along our route: that of Presidents Clinton in Little Rock, Arkansas and Carter in Atlanta, Georgia. We enjoyed recalling events and learning more about the men. We promised to make more Presidential libraries a destination. When our daughter and son-in-law’s birthdays drew us north to Kansas, we extended our stay to visit three libraries: Eisenhower’s in Abilene, KS; Truman’s in Independence, MO; and Hoover’s in West Branch, IA.

The first in Abilene, KS is a campus of five buildings, including a visitor center; the mausoleum where Dwight D. Eisenhower, his beloved Mamie, and infant son rest; Dwight's boyhood home; a museum; and the library. More extensive than either Clinton’s or Carter’s libraries, Eisenhower’s differed also in its focus. More rooms and displays explain his role in World War II than his years in the White House.

Upon reflection, this seems appropriate for Eisenhower would not have been drafted as a candidate for both the Democrat and Republican parties unless he had overseen D-Day, the assault that led directly to the end of the European campaign during World War II. Without his military credentials and experience, Eisenhower would not have been elected so handily, and surely, he could not have governed during times of prosperity and hope unless he had helped to bring the war to an end.

For a man familiar with the wrath and ravages of war, Eisenhower was an outspoken proponent for peace. In more than one place, we read these words: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” They were the words prominently inscribed in the mausoleum, suggesting that they are Eisenhower’s abiding message after death.

His words have weight and credibility because Eisenhower had so much direct experience with waging war and the costs of it. These costs include lives lost and futures altered as well as limbs and faculties left on foreign soil. The hopes and dreams of many men and their loved ones were forever redirected by the events played out in war. As Eisenhower notes, labor that could have built a better quality of life instead builds instruments of death. Scientists who might have cured dread diseases instead devise agents of death. Children who longed to sit upon their fathers’ laps instead found cold comfort in a grave marker or medal.

Eisenhower counseled that money was better spent in feeding the hungry and clothing the needy. He warned us to beware of the military-industrial complex (MIC) that would influence Congress and reshape corporate interests toward a permanent war-machine. In the currenr debate to balance the budget, something that Eisenhower did three times during his presidency, we should reflect upon Eisenhower’s point-of-view. When we consider how much longer we should or must stay in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, we would be wise to ponder Eisenhower’s thoughts: “When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war. War settles nothing.”

Each of those engagements—Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011—was undertaken to prevent something, including terrorist attacks on U. S. soil, the escalation of age-old schisms in Muslim sects and class structures, the spread of (fictional) weapons of mass destruction, and the suppression of freedom. None of these has been successfully prevented. Terrorists, both home-grown and foreign-born, continue to be dangerous. We will never make every alley, boulevard, or building safe from all intruders intent upon doing harm. We can only cultivate egalitarian precepts and provide avenues by which men and women can thrive. War, by its very nature, can never teach egalitarianism, and it creates an environment in which many individuals cannot discern the subtle differences between conviction and megolomania. Indeed, “war settles nothing,” and we should heed Ike’s advice.

Even though Eisenhower had earned the right to offer his thoughts on war, he must have summoned some courage to tell the world that war is the worst possible course for men to contemplate. Ours is a proud, patriotic nation, one devoted to the revolutionary sensibility. To advocate peace is sometimes to be thought a coward, but Eisenhower dared the “conventional wisdom” and argued for a more peaceful world. May we all have such courage.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Do the Math: Find Your Humanity

Across the land, tea aficionados and union-busting rhetoricians have been busy, busy, busy vilifying teachers for their cushy deals, including short workdays and great benefits, especially those holidays. These speakers and writers, full of sound and fury, seem to believe or at least wish to persuade you that teachers are hogs swilling the seven seas of sloth, incompetence, ineptitude, recalcitrance, greed, neglect, and pride.

I must agree, given the math skills of the average American adult. Apparently, high school graduates leave calculation in the classroom, never again caring to check their work to see if 2 added to 2 really does equal 4. Here is why I say this.

Sixteen percent of the women among us--more than twenty-five million women--do not have health insurance. Planned Parenthood serves these women, providing obstetrical-gynecological examinations to check for ovarian and uterine cancers. These check-ups can also help to slow the spread of HPV, a disease acquired by about 5.5 million people each year. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. By offering counsel about birth control and sex, some women may not become infected; others will know how not to pass along the disease to a partner, but without knowledge, diagnosis, and treatment, people will continue to infect each other.

Given the spread of HPV, just say no does not seem to be the wisest, most effective course of treatment. Medical care seems more prudent, and Planned Parenthood can play an important role in shrinking the number of women without access to health care and perhaps, with access, the number of people afflicted with HPV.

Another set of numbers again suggests that math reasoning is not a life-long skill that people practice. Consider these numbers:

• The average monthly Social Security benefit is $1,076.40.
• Rent, utilities, and garbage and trash collection for renter-occupied homes averages $755. (2007 U. S. Census data)
• $1,067.40 - $755 = $312.40
• The average cost of a Medicare supplement insurance plan exceeds $312.40.
• Zero is the number of figures above that includes the costs for food or transportation.

Yet the House of Representatives, in its infinite inability to fathom the lives of poor and lower income citizens, sought to eliminate or cut by 50%, as President Obama recommended, the 2011 budget for LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), a program for federal dollars that helped the poor, disabled, and elderly stay warm in winter. Federal dollars that saved lives. If LIHEAP cannot help them, how will the elderly stay warm and pay their bills when home heating costs rise along with the costs of oil and coal?

I guess they should have planned better. I guess they should have negotiated with their employers for pensions and better wages so that they could save for their old age. I guess they should have remained healthy, given birth to fewer children, and lived frugally all their days so that they could fend off spending cuts. Perhaps they should have used the actuarial tables and simply offed themselves before the financial pain set in.

Tea aficionados and union-busting rhetoricians, do the math while considering this story problem from the math class:

Johnny has 12 apples. He gives one apple to each of his 12 best friends, but he does not ask for any payment in return. He tells his friends to plant the seeds, grow a tree, and let the apples trickle down to the hungry below. How much money does Johnny have after giving away his revenue source?
Bonus: What are the odds of twelve apple seeds sprouting a fully grown tree? How long will it take for a seed to become an apple-producing tree? How many people will be fed well by a single tree?

Do the math, high school graduates, to find your humanity for surely you will be judged by the manner in which you treat the least among you, and that includes teachers!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Legacy of 9-11

Catastrophic loss. Unimaginable sorrow. Incomprehensible motives. Nearly 3,000 dead. Thousands more displaced.

Feet unaccustomed to long, forced marches walked the sidewalks and bridges, winding their way homeward without taxi cabs, subways, or trains. Soon public surfaces were plastered with photographs of loved ones, lost in the rubble.

Nearby in a Pennsylvania field or at the Pentagon, passersby tried to take in the inconceivable: death and destruction. Further on in the nation and around the world, people wrote checks and organized donations for fire fighters, police officers, and rescue workers. A Victim Compensation Fund was established so that people could reclaim some measure of normalcy and begin to rebuild their lives.

The First Responders drew their breaths in a toxic world of death, decay, building materials, and explosive residues. I feared for their futures and even doubted the wisdom and motives of my government when it announced that New York City’s air was safe. After all, governments, even our own, have been caught misrepresenting the truth, downplaying health hazards, and engaging in abuses. If you doubt my truth as just stated, read about the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments begun in 1932, exposed in 1972, and acknowledged with an apology in 1997. Tuskegee is but one blight upon the enlightened progress this nation holds so dear.

As we now know, the air in and around Ground Zero was anything but safe to breathe. Many First Responders became too sick to work and lost their jobs. With their jobs went their health insurance. Without health insurance, their families were devastated by the costs of treating cancer and an array of pulmonary disease. Some lost their homes. The government promised to help, but help was slow in coming. In fact, only after Jon Stewart on The Daily Show exposed the U. S. Senate’s inattention and inaction did the funding bill for First Responders pass.

Even then, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn held out to reduce the amount. Senator Coburn’s motives were, he said, in behalf of the American people. His interest was the budget, but when human life is in the equation, we must calculate differently.

We bear the costs of catastrophic losses as a result of raging, miles-wide fires. We underwrite the start of new life after tornadoes have decimated the foundations of our lives. We foster new growth with federal dollars after Hurricanes such as Charley and Katrina, especially because the Army Corps of Engineers was culpable and because insurance companies declared the causes of the devastation to be flood, not wind or Nature, but flood, the one category that insurance refuses to cover because—well, flood is just so darned expensive, so common, so unprofitable.

Recently, the plains have been afflicted by drought. As I drive the interstates and turnpikes criss-crossing the state east and west, north and south, I feel my heart constrict and my breathing arrest. Ponds, once level-full, cooling places for cattle and watering holes for all livestock and wildlife, are little more than puddles. Some are even dried red mud depressions, suggesting some mighty meteor has just splashed them dry. Fires, both intentionally set and an unintended consequence of human action, have seared the soil, charring homes and livelihoods in its path. The governors of affected states have been quick to file for remedies in the form of federal dollars for emergency assistance just as they have been quick to file after tornadic storms lashed states from Oklahoma to North Carolina and Alabama during a prolonged show of Nature’s might in mid-April.

What makes these dollars so available and so easy to accept? Why are people quite content to see their tax dollars spent to rebuild communities, offset the costs of additional manpower, and clean up after devastating storms? And why did Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin extend an open palm for these emergency federal dollars while spurning the $54 million grant available to implement health insurance exchanges?

Are those First Responders afflicted with lung disease less devastated than those who have lost their homes to fire? Are those children beset with autism less valuable than children whose homes were blown away by tornadoes? Are those whose genes lead them inexorably to Lou Gehrig’s end somehow responsible while hurricane survivors are not?

The number-one reason for declaring bankruptcy is medical cost, followed by job loss, uncontrolled spending, divorce, and catastrophic loss as a result of fire or water or wind. We help the latter without hesitation, but if a man is felled by illness and disease or disability, whether caused in the service of this nation overseas or in New York City at Ground Zero, our national will recedes.

Shall we not be a nation willing to help a man, woman or child become strong again? Shall we not bankrupt the family because one member falls? Shall we not care when an invisible germ or gene twists a man’s fate as much as we care when a very visible force of Nature stunts his growth?

I think we must help all people grow strong, straight and true even if we must bear more of the cost ourselves. As I said in this blog last week, please give and give generously. Our desire must be to give the best that we have within and without. Our desire must be to extend a hand, through tax dollars as well as personal investments, so that those living in hard times can stand again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Help Teachers Fight for Your Children

I am a teacher, proud to claim the profession now besieged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Hamlet). I began in this profession in 1970, a mere two years after women began to assert their rights for equal treatment under the law and equal pay for equal work. Although many might assume that a woman in a profession dominated by women earned the same pay as her male counterpart, they would be wrong.

When I began teaching, I earned less than my male counterparts because “as heads of households and bread-winners, they needed more money.” I guess I did the same job for “pin” money as they used to say—as a bit of a lark in order to enjoy a new dress or hat, to fix myself up nicely for my man.

I didn’t have a man at the time. Every penny I earned put a roof over my head, food on my table, money into savings, and professional clothes on my back. The government deducted money for taxes, Social Security and such; the school took money to pay for my health insurance. I struggled, especially because I only received a paycheck from mid-August through mid-May. The other weeks in the year were on me. I could save 1/12 of every pay check to see me through, or I could find a temporary job.

Many of us competed to teach summer school. The pay was even less than the regular contractual pay, but it could be stretched very, very thinly so that it spanned the weeks. We had a piece of paper that promised us a job in August if enrollment warranted the position. The future was murky, security like a poorly built bridge.

When the average income was between $7,000 and $8,000, I earned $6,000 as a first-year teacher with a college degree. As I said, men with the same education and experience earned more, but I did not know that then. We still signed Loyalty Oaths and promised not to discuss salary with each other.

Of course, my salary increased over the thirty-seven years that I was in the classroom, Legislatures came and went as did public support for public education. I earned two more degrees, both at the Master’s level, and some hours beyond that as I pursued interests and needs to become a better teacher. This added education was rewarded, but as most teachers know, the actual cost of acquiring advanced degrees is not rewarded dollar for dollar.

I also joined the ranks of teachers who strive to work harder and achieve more. I trained to become an Advanced Placement teacher, thereby giving my students the opportunity to be better prepared for college and perhaps earn college credit as high school students by scoring well on a national exam administered by the College Board and ETS. I also became a graduate of a state Writing Project, a six-week summer investment that transformed my teaching for the next decades. Even in the last years of my career, I still sought to become better by submitting myself for the rigorous examination known as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The analysis and reflection necessary to earn this level of professionalism made me a better teacher, one that served my students well, better than they had been served prior to that level of rigor.

I am a teacher whose students performed well on District, State and national exams. I am a teacher who loved coaxing, guiding, coaching, abiding, and nurturing students. I am a teacher who took work home at the rate of 10-20 hours every week. Add those to the 37.5 contractual hours, and you will see that I, like most salaried employees, worked beyond the stereotypical 9 to 5. A 40-hour week really does not exist for public school teachers.

Summers are not really “off” either, but it would be okay if they were. Teachers are not well paid, considering the responsibilities and education and hours that they must put in. Still, most teachers use summers for institutes, workshops, training, college hours, and committee meetings where they develop tests, programs, and plans for the coming year.

In OK in 2010, a first-year teacher could expect to earn $31,600 for a 185-day contract. In other words, that teacher, with college degree in hand, could earn $170.81 per day or for the minimum 6.75-hour day, $25 per hour. Sounds good, right? Sounds rich? But that teacher makes a contribution to the State Teacher’s Retirement Fund, mandated by law, and loses 7% of his/her annual compensation from that salary. By the way, annual compensation is salary plus fringe benefits such as pay for serving as department chair or District contributions to health insurance.

In OK, teachers do not receive health insurance fully paid for by their districts or the State so teachers must find about $1,000 monthly to pay for insurance for themselves and their families. Then, taxes, Social Security, and all the other stuff that every other employed person in the U. S. must pay comes out of the total compensation package.

No, teachers are not getting rich, and they are not bankrupting states. They pay for their retirement pensions. If States had kept the faith and not used retirement funds, as Congress used Social Security funds, then pension funds would be healthier. But there is one other thief in the pension fund crisis: Wall Street. States took the bet just as many 401Ks, investors, and Average Joes did. They put money into funds and money-making opportunities recommended and backed by Wall Street. In 2008, we all lost huge amounts of our savings, our investments. Wall Street walked away with bonuses equal to or greater than their malfeasance. Everyone else sighed and put off retirement.

Now States cry foul. Now States wish to rewrite history. Now the voters, who have the shortest of short-term memories, heed the crisis call and wonder if we shouldn’t punish the big, bad unions for having the temerity and wit to organize and ask for a living wage as well as improved working conditions. I ask voters to recall:

• The teacher who told you it’s okay to color outside the lines
• The teacher who complimented your choice to color the sun bright green
• The teacher who gave you wings by teaching you to read
• The teacher who had faith in your talents
• The teacher who taught you to calculate and reason
• The teacher who suggested the life’s work that you do today
• The teacher who remembered your birthday when your grieving father, just weeks after he lost his wife, your mother, forgot all about your day of birth
• The teacher who gave you a second, third and fifteenth chance when you had lost your way
• The teacher who was firm and steady so that every student in the room was safe
• The teacher who listened to your dreams with a sparkle in his/her eye
• The teacher who nominated, recommended, and endorsed you so that you could reach another level
• The teacher who stayed after school to help you
• The teacher who sewed your graduation-gown collar in place just before Commencement when you and your family forgot all about it
• The teacher who sent you a get-well card or a sympathy card when sorrow touched your family
• The teacher who taught you a lesson, maybe even one outside the curriculum--a lesson such as stick-with-it or persevere or you can do it, whatever it is
• The teacher who smiled
• The teacher who laughed
• The teacher who made a mistake and admitted it
• The teacher who wanted your success more than his/her own

For the last fifteen years or so, I asked my high school seniors to adopt an attitude of gratitude and write a letter to a person who helped them reach the milestone of a high school diploma. At least one wrote to himself. A few chose brothers or sisters. Several thanked a youth minister or coach. Many thanked at least one parent. Just as many thanked a teacher.

Public education is not a failure. There may be some bad teachers just as there are lousy lawyers, incompetent physicians, corrupt officials, and sinners masquerading as holy men. There are schools without the best resources and schools that do not or cannot offer advanced courses. There are lazy, self-absorbed people everywhere, some in student desks and some behind teacher desks.

What we lack as a nation is a public will to insist upon equal opportunity to excellence for every child. Each of our children deserves nutritious foods to eat, health care to keep him strong enough to learn, parenting that is nurturing and loving, safety at home, school, in cars, and on public thoroughfares. To accomplish excellence for our children, we cannot vilify teachers, blame organized labor, and separate kids by voucher. Doing so is simply to wage a class and race war with the only losers our children, our international reputation, our future as inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Doing so is to be devoid of genuine courage. Doing so is to fail as adults.

Let us not return to the days when parents were so desperate and children little more than a commodity, when parents sold their children to become chimney sweeps and die long before their promise had been realized. Let us not return to days when children did not matter for if we do, we have made a bargain with the devil and sold him our country.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Give What You Would Like to Receive

In 1999, I taught in a community leveled by an F-5 tornado. Our students went home from school on Monday afternoon, May 3, and did not return to school until the following Monday. The intervening six days were fraught with desperate attempts to find alternate housing for all those displaced. Most of those affected had only the clothes they happened to be wearing when they ran for shelter. Many had no shoes so the need for medical treatment included tetanus boosters for victims who had to walk on broken glass and metal to find a place to rest. Everyone needed shelter, power, and water, and the world met those needs as it is doing now in Alabama and earlier in North Carolina and all recently affected states.

Here, in 1999, churches organized food banks overnight. Drop-off locations for clothing and household-goods sprang up like fungus after heavy rains. Rescue squads from near and far worked through the night, and both the Salvation Army and Red Cross were on the scene so that needs did not go unmet. Volunteers stepped up to help in any way they could.

Some of those volunteers were people who had lost everything. Several of them said that they had their lives and they had each other so they were helping those who had lost more, those who might not recover from the trauma and fear, those who were broken in mind and spirit. Reports honoring these humble servants made me proud of the human race for they were the living embodiments of what we are capable. They proved that we can and do triumph over tragedy.

I knew several women who lost all their material possessions. One, choosing her words carefully, deliberately, said that she did not want charity from others, going on to say that many of the donations were items she would have to throw away. I pondered that comment before understanding that a fair share of the donated goods were so used or dirty that they were another insult, this time not Nature’s but their neighbors’. Since then, whenever I have dropped off charitable donations, I have observed torn and frayed fabrics, three-legged tables, and cracked dishes. I can only imagine that the donors thought someone would be grateful for anything they could get or that someone else would patch and repair what was broken before distributing it.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes about the women of the Congo who were indeed grateful for any and every scrap given to them. They had developed talents for re-purposing cast-offs. Old hub caps became cooking pans. Striped pants, perhaps thin and patched, met polka-dots, each standing out against the predatory forest. Style and fashion did not exist because basic biological survival was the single most important business of every day. The people spent all day getting and preparing food or in finding water and nourishing children.

If I believed that donors understood this and gave in the full knowledge of the conditions in which receivers struggle, I could find no fault. I do not believe that donors understand at all.

Walk in the shoes that Atticus tells little Scout to try on. Close your eyes, if you must, but imagine your favorite article of clothing. It’s the one that makes you feel pretty. It’s the one that never fails to gin up at least one compliment. It’s the one about which you are sentimental, remembering when you acquired it and from whom.

It’s gone. The wind or the water or the fire or decay snatched it from you. In its place, a stranger offers a dull fabric, worn slick with years of use, its hem sprouting threads, a button gone and a safety pin in its place. This is what someone thought could or would make up for what you lost? No, this is what someone was more than willing to part with as it is no longer of any use to him or her. This is what someone can release without a backward glance or tear of regret.

Play along just a little longer please, this time imagining that piece of furniture that mattered to you. Perhaps it is the first item that you and your husband saved to buy. You used the envelope system, each payday depositing a few dollars until you had enough. You were so proud. You are proud still even though many years have passed, and it no longer resembles its former beauty.

Perhaps the item is one handed down to you through the generations—a legacy from a great-aunt you barely remember. What you do remember is how comfortable you were in its presence. You used finger paints for the first time, swirling and slapping on that table, or you fell asleep in its soft chair shape, your cheek resting against the velvety fabric.

That piece of furniture is gone. It’s water-soaked and swollen. It’s broken, charred. In its place is particle board, scarred by chunks missing along the raw, unpainted edges. Cobwebs and some sort of cocoon droop below. A good dusting will not make it clean. This has spent its last days in a storage shed or a forgotten corner of the garage. This is something the first owners simply forgot to put on the sidewalk during the city’s clean-up days.

This is the spirit in which budget reform and assistance programs have been undertaken. Little is good enough for those who want. Nothing is good enough for those we suspect of malingering. Our advice to you malingerers is: Bundle up in the winter, baby; it’s cold outside.

Our desire should be to give generously, to give the best that we have within and without. Our desire should be to extend a hand so that those living in hard times can stand again. Please give. So many, especially those in Alabama right now, need your best.