Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not Everyone Deserves Fifteen Minutes of Fame

If you’ve read this blog faithfully, you know that I endorse the sort of activism that Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird represents, and that sort is:

•    Beginning even if the odds of winning are not in your favor
•    Using your talents to the best of your abilities even if your cause seems lost
•    Teaching your children to oppose injustice while upholding their own dignity and acting responsibly
•    Trying, above all else and at all times, to empathize, to walk in the shoes of another in order to understand him, his plight, and his point of view

With great humility and in awe of their courage, I support those who choose to make a difference in this world, the real world Atticus Finches.

I also advocate speaking up and out for right and good. I closed last week’s post by asking readers to “speak up and stand for justice.” Earlier posts have chastised politicians who failed to speak up when a member of the audience threatened the life of the president or repeated a lie about him. I’ve also taken the media to task for caring more about ratings and profits than about truth and fact. This week, the media are my target once more.

As fictional President Andrew Shepherd said in The American President (1995), “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” Why then has the media wasted a moment of our time asking whether Beyoncé Knowles sang the National Anthem live or synchronized her lips to match a pre-recorded version?

The President of the United States shared the same stage and delivered his inaugural address. Its content and his rhetoric may shape public policy and all our lives for decades to come. The vision set forth may reinvigorate all those who voted for him and renew the opposition’s determination to defeat his agenda.

We have serious problems to solve, and the President named several of those problems, suggesting that he hopes to lead the nation toward solutions in his second term. He is clearly one of the serious people we need to solve our serious problems. Yet mainstream media and even FOX news elected to spend as much time, if not more time, on Beyoncé-gate. The newsreaders and/or puppet masters writing the words they will read either wish to distract us or have no sense of what is and what is not significant. They will stir up a tempest in a teapot for the sake of ratings, but they do not represent serious people, the sort of serious people we need no matter what expression they paste upon their faces.

Similarly, the media have brought forth upon the national stage some worrisome folk. Without media, the so-called Birthers would have been relegated to passing out flyers in parking lots, but the media gave them life. Those Birther Birchers have even doubled-down, now asking for the President’s educational records and his passport. And why not? They have seduced media whores, one Donald Trump, to use their cause to promote himself so why not continue to grab headlines and microphones?

While I would never deny a man or woman his right to express himself, I will demand that the media practice discernment, that media sift and weigh, that they glean the truth by hiring research assistants, investigative reporters, and issue analysts to challenge any and all comers who traffic in half-truth and propaganda. I demand that the media examine the credibility of those whom they promote and feature, and they should begin with Rush Limbaugh whose stock rises from his investments in innuendo and ad hominem. His arguments can be dissected and refuted with fact, yet few newsreaders know enough or have sufficient autonomy to make such an argument. They also treat innuendo, opinion, and name-calling so often found through Twitter as equal to fact, even going so far as to read it on air and thus, enter into the public record. Shame on them.

I can only echo Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Seth Myers who are so adept at saying “Really?” with the right tone and expression: “Really, Media?” You give Beyoncé-gate, Rush, Tweets, Wayne LaPierre, Alex Jones, and David Keene their fifteen minutes of fame; you grant no time or a slight fifteen minutes to serious people with serious information about serious problems. They deserve more so we, the viewers and listeners and online readers, the Tweeters and Facebook posters, must ask for more. We must expect more. If we do not, the media will continue to bring the latest media whore before us, then move on in fifteen minutes to shape another lightweight controversy and stir another disagreement without ever allowing for that full and well-informed conversation that everyone, even the newsreaders, believes we need.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it (MLK)

I’m not sure how old I was when I first enjoyed Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but I remember being puzzled by Atticus’s answer after Scout asked why he defended Tom Robinson when all of Maycomb seemed to believe that Atticus should not do so. Only slightly acquainted with moral dilemmas and ethical conundrums, I had never been required to oppose community norms and standards while standing entirely alone. I had never asked my family to stand with me even if doing so pushed us all to the sidelines.

But Atticus was well acquainted with moral and ethical dilemmas. He understood that living with a stain on one’s conscience is a terrible way to live, and he said to Scout that he wouldn’t be able to tell his own children what to do if he failed Tom Robinson. Atticus stood for truth and justice, choosing to defend a black man against the accusations of white people, and this, he believed, was essential to his good name, his children’s respect for him, and his conscience.

The late 1960s and 1970s, when I came of age, were days of activism and causes, and I played my part, but there were so many like-minded people that I never had to stand alone against harsh social judgments. I was never in danger either. No one threatened me with tear gas, and no one picked up fire hoses to turn me back. I moved in and out of protest mode without penalty or setback. A conscience was an easy accessory to put on each morning, and I could stow it away just as easily for my life was charmed. I had never known prejudice, never lost anyone I counted as friend to a bloody war, never had to choose between Canada and the draft, between convenience and environmental health. I lived the struggle in theory, and although plagued with an overly active gene for empathy, I never cried over personal losses and public shame.

But soon after graduating from college, I found myself in Atticus’s shadow. Granted, my dilemma was on a smaller scale, but in that moment, I could choose to act in such as way as to live with myself contentedly or betray myself. I chose to dodge shame.

In a brand new town where I landed my first job, I stood in one of two parallel lines behind a large white man in overalls. The other line, at the end of the counter, held just one black man. It never crossed my mind that this was a segregated service arrangement. I was sure such things were long dead in 1970.

A single clerk went back and forth from line to line, but when the man in front of me turned to leave, the clerk asked me how he might help. I answered that the gentleman in the other line had been in line longer, that it was his turn. The clerk told me, and even after all these years, I still remember his words and their tone: “He don’t count,” the clerk said.

“Please wait on him first,” I answered, my manner imperious, as commanding as if I were the Earl of Grantham speaking to a newly hired footman for in that moment, I understood that I had stumbled upon a relic of segregation.

The clerk did as I directed after registering several emotions on a continuum of disgust. I was satisfied with the outcome of this minor skirmish, satisfied that I had stood for right. Except that I presumed to speak for another man, one about whom I knew nothing. In fact, I obviously knew little about the community and any consequences the black man might face. I failed to consider if that man needed or wanted my intervention although he did thank me for my gesture. I can only hope that my good intentions were good for others.

But good intentions often lead to unpleasant consequences. Atticus children endured taunts and poor, hungry Walter Cunningham was caught in the crossfire of Scout’s impulse to speak up in his behalf. Atticus even put his own life on the line to face down a lynch mob, the lone defender of justice and human rights, of Tom Robinson’s life. But those are the risks we take when we take a stand. Others may deride our actions. We could put ourselves in physical jeopardy, but surely, remaining silent is worse.

Today, two days after the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., a day when the first African-American president began his second term in office, we should remember King’s admonition: He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. We must choose not to be passive. We must be caring, contributing members of this village in which we were born. We must rescue children neglected and abused. We must feed those who are hungry and wounded. We must knit together a strong net so that when we fall, we will not drown. And all of that begins with our voices. Speak up and stand for justice. Together we can overcome.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lessons from High Waters in 2011 and 2012

On an unusually chilly day in April 2011, my husband and I made our pilgrimage to Hannibal, Missouri where Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and the mighty Mississippi are the heart and soul of a small city. Clouds still gathered and leaked, so much so that the flood gates had been closed against the muddy waters rising and spreading beyond their banks. Officials aired their cost-benefit analysis in favor of letting the river flood bottomland in order to spare more densely populated places downstream.

I tried to imagine being one of those citizens who lived on family farms, far from neighbors. I wondered how he and she might save their cattle or sheep, how they might survive the crops lost and the income provided by their harvest, how much they could or would pack in the time they were given to evacuate. I summoned Atticus’ advice to Scout and walked in their shoes. The weight of their burden grew heavier with each step, and I mourned as we drove interstates well above the water.

In the gift shop at the end of a self-guided tour through Mark Twain’s childhood home, I bought an audio version of Twain’s autobiography, Volume 1, released one hundred years after his death in order to spare the rascals and rogues that Twain skewered within the pages of his memoir. I thought Twain could speak to me as we added more miles to our spring tour, and he often did.

Twain’s elegy for his brother, Henry, who died after a river boat explosion, proved so raw and poignant that we had to pause and grieve anew for a man we did not know, a man long gone except for the words recorded by his brother. Twain recalls that Henry “lingered in fearful agony seven days and a half, during which time he had full possession of his senses, only at long intervals, and then but for a few moments at a time. His brain was injured by the concussion, and from that moment his great intellect was a ruin. We were not sorry his wounds proved fatal, for if he had lived he would have been but the wreck of his former self.” Still, Twain’s dread of having to inform his mother, of having to accompany his brother’s body home for burial, of having to bear unimaginable sorrow for the rest of his days helped me in my own journey to walk in the shoes of others whose losses wrought by nature and fate are greater than any court of law would exact upon them.

Those others included the victims of a targeted Mississippi River flood. I wondered if they would find comfort in their sacrifice for the greater good and learned that they had, in fact, fought back. Landowners appealed to the courts in an effort to stay the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hand in blasting levees to relieve pressure and spare downstream cities, but the courts ruled against them, altering entire ecosystems and upending the lives of countless citizens who became the sacrificial lambs upon the altars of urban centers and businesses. (To view some photos of the 2011 flood, visit =univ&sa=X&ei=bqv1UPD_C4HF2QW12oH4Bw &ved=0CD0QsAQ&biw=1376&bih=917)

Those refugees from a planned flood understood, as few of us ever will, that:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
     That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
     And could not hope for help and no help came
    (from “The Shield of Achilles” by W. H. Auden)

The 2011 flood victims fled and endured. They teach us, if we walk in their shoes, that human beings can and shall overcome. May they always, but most of us need help to do so.

We need good insurance, well-funded FEMA assistance, friends and neighbors with resources, and family to give us shelter and character. So it is for those along the east coast, victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. They can and shall overcome, especially if help arrives.

Last night, the House of Representatives passed a second bill to fund aid for the states affected by Hurricane Sandy, but 179 Republicans and one Tennessee Democrat, Jim Cooper, voted against the bill. Those voting no stand firm in their belief that the federal government should not render aid to citizens suffering or they worry about primary challengers in 2014 or they lack a sense of duty to the nation as a whole--at least, those are the reasons that have been offered by some who have explained their vote and/or by the media.

I too worry about the national debt. I too would like to see some spending restraint, but not at the expense of people who buried loved ones, who have no home to retreat into, who lost decades-old, successful businesses, and who await insurance checks that often fail to restore people to the security they once had. Let us examine our corporate entitlements instead. Let us rather reconsider our military spending for contractors (never the soldier him or herself).

Let us invest in our most important resource: human beings who have had the great good fortune to live in a nation committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dysfunctional Schools? Lousy Teachers? No! Hype and Hysteria Instead!

The film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird eliminated Scout’s first public school teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, in the interest of telling a complicated story in two hours. Miss Fisher receives only a passing reference when Scout acts out after her first half-day in Miss Fisher’s classroom; she fights Walter Cunningham in the school yard and later cries because Miss Fisher told her she should not read at home with her dad. Demonstrating the enviable parenting that Atticus provides, he comforts Scout while teaching her the meaning of the word compromise and promising not to inhibit her love of reading in spite of Miss Caroline’s admonitions.

Miss Fisher had a difficult half-day herself. She is the new first-grade teacher in Maycomb, and though she grew to maturity in Alabama, she comes from northern Alabama, a county that seceded from Alabama itself when Alabama seceded from the Union. Thus, Miss Caroline is already an “other,” someone different, an outsider to Maycomb and its ways.

For her first day as a first-year teacher, Miss Caroline painted her nails red, wore impractical high heels on her feet, and chose a bright red and white striped dress. She read a fantastic tale about cats and enjoyed it very much, unaware that her classroom full of children was less entertained. As Scout points out, Miss Caroline did not notice “that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature.”

Miss Caroline had also planned a first lesson to teach the children to read. She wrote the alphabet on the board and asked if anyone knew what it was. Scout observes that all the children most likely knew because most of them were in the first grade for the second year, but Miss Fisher asks Scout in particular to answer her question. Scout reads the letters and some material from the local newspaper, upsetting Miss Caroline’s plans for the school year. She advises Scout to “tell … [her] father not to teach … [her] any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. … [that she’ll] take over from here and try to undo the damage.”

Most readers understand that Miss Fisher is wrong. Whether she is merely naïve and inexperienced or stern and controlling does not alter the fundamental error in her thinking. Scout’s ability to read is not damaging to anything except Miss Fisher’s lesson plans. An advanced student in any classroom requires specialized, individualized planning to further that student’s knowledge and understanding, and that’s tough for any teacher.

Consider how challenging it is for you to multi-task well for prolonged periods. Can you drive in heavy traffic while also making and taking phone calls without endangering yourself and others? Of course you can because you have done so, but evidence, both anecdotal and factual, exists to show that driving and telephoning is hazardous. A distracted driver is a road hazard.

Can you listen to a patient’s list of complaints while reading the on-screen chart and entering data without sacrificing something? No, you cannot. Eye contact is the first to go. Patients end up talking to space while the physician engages with the computer, glancing back and forth between the patient and the screen in a gesture to human interaction. Worse, physicians may not record an important symptom or clue because their brains are no better at processing information quickly and accurately than any other human.

But we ask teachers to multi-task effectively for several sustained hours every day. We ask them to be aware of who is present and who is not. We want them to read the room quickly, their eyes picking out potential hazards and acting immediately to insure the safety of everyone present. They need to be proficient with technologies of all kinds: SmartBoards, computers, sound equipment, video equipment, and more, but when and how they become proficient is almost an after-thought. One hour of training might be offered, but that training may occur weeks or even months before the teacher has an opportunity to use it. Schools do not often purchase expensive equipment for every classroom; teachers usually have to share, making the learning curve much longer.

Districts also buy new grade programs, online practice tests, and textbooks with little regard for how much support teachers need in order to master those and use them most effectively. In fact, sometimes teachers begin school years without a book in hand or must become proficient with software over a weekend.

Add to these expectations the need to know every student’s learning modality, learning style, home situation, reading levels, learning challenges, and motivators in order to design lessons that meet every student’s need, using complex sets of goals and objectives, brain-based research about learning, deep and broad content knowledge, and available resources. Indeed what we ask of teachers is exponentially greater than simple multi-tasking. No wonder the Miss Fishers of the profession need to categorize and generalize about students.

In reaction to increasing demands upon one person at the head of the class, teachers organized and asked for certain controls. In Chicago, 2012, for example, the striking teachers’ demands included a textbook for every student in every classroom on the first day of every school year. Who among you would define such a demand as greedy, irresponsible, or self-serving? Such a demand is in the best interest of children, not teachers alone. Such a demand has little to do with job security, a favorite indictment made by those who do not stand at the head of classrooms. Critics charge that teachers care more about their own jobs than for and about children. That charge is a lie.

Teachers also know that fewer students each hour throughout the school day foster excellence. Teachers can multi-task and individualize more effectively when there are fewer students to serve. They also know that fewer students enrolled each hour facilitate classroom management for without safety and respect, no child can learn easily.

The Gates Foundation and other non-educators influencing educational practice argue that a good teacher can manage and teach more students every hour; thus, their solutions begin and end with a good teacher in every room. They want excellence right out of the gate--a teacher with deep and broad content knowledge, plenty of heart and love for students of all kinds, and a large bag of tricks to deliver information in ways that appeal to students. They behave as if teachers do not want the same.

Teachers do, but teachers know that people grow into excellence and mastery. Mr. Gates was not as wise or polished at twenty-two. Life experience helped him become who he is. The best physician was not the best when he completed medical school, rotations, and residencies. He and she evolved and became the best. Indeed few individuals, including teachers, physicians, and CEOs, are masters of their craft without years of apprenticeship and experience.

Such perfection requires time. The seed does not grow into a ripe, nutritious fruit without time and optimal conditions. A teacher is not different. He and she need time to learn, reflect, plan, evaluate, and confer, and they need this time every day of every school year. A few minutes set aside for a planning period is insufficient. Longer days or protected days or fewer students and increased time to train are each and all good options--far better than plucking recent graduates from colleges and universities, giving them several weeks of training and a promise of retiring some of their college debt, then sending them into the worst-performing schools. Most of them leave as soon as they qualify for the bonus that will reduce their debt. Few of them are committed to teaching as a career; few of them stay long enough to become masters of their art and craft.

We need committed, career-minded apprentices who will return after a tough first day, a more difficult three-thousandth day, and a challenging seventeen-thousandth day. We need Miss Fishers who will let Scout read and excel while nurturing all those kids who have no money for lunch, those who will drop out to work the fields, only to return when the law requires. We need teachers who will help entire communities prosper, and we won’t get there unless critics stop believing they and they alone have the answers. They’re acting like Miss Fisher, and as I said above, we all recognize that Miss Fisher is wrong about undoing damage done to Scout.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Rogues and the Rest of Us

In 2012, I called out several rogues. Such a vitriolic election year brought to my attention several citizens who did not, in my opinion, seem to care about the good of the nation. Instead they were self-serving, irresponsible, and mislead or uninformed. Today I celebrate everyone else:

·      Parents who put down their cell phones, iPads, and remotes to sit with their children as they do homework. These parents listen, guide, mentor, and encourage. They are leading the next generation.
·      Employees who refuse to wield rules and regulations like a sword. They understand when a customer forgets. They find ways to make one phone call or in-store visit sufficient. Their voices are calm, their sense of responsibility keen.
·      First Responders who push against the tide of those who flee. They swim into harm’s way, and they carry us to safety. They also carry us in their hearts forever--a heavy burden.
·      Teachers who believe in every child. They look beyond the moment to see a capable adult pursuing his dreams, and they create lessons to last a lifetime.
·      Clerks and cashiers who simply wish to be of service. They ask little of us except, perhaps, an acknowledgement as they follow-through on their training requiring them to greet us and ask if we found everything we need. They also bid us farewell, sending us away with good intentions. Such blessings were once thought precious; now we often take them for granted.
·      Civil servants who care enough to represent their cities, counties, states, and nations well. They know that tourists and residents often judge a place by their actions, and they take pride in earning the good favor of others.
·      Kids who do the right thing even when they don’t know why. They trust the messages they’ve heard and read: that a good education will empower them, that abiding rather than breaking the law will draw respect, that kindness is the surest path to long-lasting relationships.
·      Athletes, celebrities, and flashes-in-the-pan who know that fame is ephemeral. They value hard work instead, trusting it to bring more opportunities to them. They also know that they must be worthy if and when Fame focuses attention upon them.
·      Faithful citizens who are not slaves to dogma. They believe in higher law, spiritual principles, and multiple paths to self-actualization. Most important, they do not insist that you make your way upon the path they've chosen.

Let us find ourselves among those who deserve our acclaim. Let us restrain the rogue within as we grow in generosity and forgiveness.