The Broad is Back!

September 30, 2017

Heading for a Fall of Massive Proportions

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln quoted the synoptic Gospels when he stated, “A house divided against itself will fall”. At the time, the Abolitioist Movement was growing, Dred Scott had been implemented, and the nation faced a decision: would slavery be outlawed everywhere or nowhere? It had to be one or the other.

His contemporaries were not happy with the speech or him. It was too radical, not good politics. It lost him the election to the US Senate, too.

In hindsight we see the speech as political prophecy. Three years later, America was in the midst of a bitter, violent civil war, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. We like to pretend it’s all over, done, settled, but one look at America today, and I think we can see it’s not.

So here we are, 152 years after the end of that war, 151 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and pretty much we’re still seeing a house divided.

I have never seen the US this polarized in my entire life. Granted, I’m not ancient, but I remember my Republican grandfather swearing that Kennedy stole the election. I remember the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, assorted Clintongates, the GWB election, the start of the Iraqi War. Those were pretty rough times in the US.

Although I very much remember the anger and the hatred spewed by the non-Left members of my family and our neighbors, I don’t remember severed friendships, threats of violence. I heard about violence, but not around us.

Perhaps we were just as polarized, but the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle has changed the world. We hear about everything moments after it happens. It’s not that we’re more polarized; it’s just that we know how bad it is.

Forty years of poor education in large parts of the US has also lead to a nation that is unable to critically think. That’s not me being elitist (though when did elite become a bad word?). That’s from a career college professor. Much of my teaching has been in urban community or four year colleges. Currently, I’m teaching the exact same demographic I started teaching in 1988.

My students today are as bright, as talented, as lovely as the students I had then. Not all are wonderful to be around, but on the whole, I teach good people. But the students today are far less prepared to be in college. Their math, reading and writing skills are hovering somewhere between 8th grade and 10th grade. I’m a writing teacher, but if you need to figure out your grade, you need to know math.

They are ill prepared for college and ill prepared for life. And they know it after about the first three weeks of college. The plaintive cry of “why didn’t I learn this in high school” is heard almost every week. I tell them they might have just forgotten, but anyone in education can tell you just how poorly American secondary schools doing.

I don’t want to make this about education–it’s about polarization and our house being divided–but I also see daily proof that education is a major part of our problem. People can’t think. People won’t think.

They also have lost the ability to listen, to reason, and to have civil debates. This is also a topic I’ve written about in the past. Slap my face and call me Cassandra. No one listens to me.

The current president is not popular, especially here in New York City where I live. But it wasn’t too long ago that I was living in Tennessee, surrounded by his supporters. There are many who do not think his actions are racist or bad for America. We can say “that’s because they are racist” but that’s not the whole story.

He’s also called an illegitimate president because he lost the popular vote. He’s not the first, and until the Constitution is changed, he probably won’t be the last. To those who argue that he lost, I say, by three million votes. The final popular vote for the top two candidates was 62,980,160 to 65,845,063. But that translated into 304 electoral college votes to 227. We all know the numbers.

Three million sounds like a lot of votes, but according to the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2016 was 323.1 million, so that’s a less than 1% margin of the population. Of total votes cast it was about a 2.1% difference.

That’s almost half a nation’s voters supporting him. Sure, we can say sexism or Russian influence (and they are valid, Russia seeming more valid by the day), but we also have to address the fact that we are a nation ruled by fear mongering, hatred, and hysteria.

So right now, two sides of the country are at each other’s throat. I know young people who won’t even discuss politics anymore because it’s become dogmatic, intolerant, and personal.

Every day my twitter feed and even the news sources are full of ad hominem attacks against anyone who makes a point or an opinion known. If one of my freshmen tried that, I’d send the paper back with  “take this out–poor logic” in red letters. Actually, many of my freshmen do try this, because it’s what they see around them daily.

Many of the people I know are only able to do the same. I’m not claiming I’m better, but I do think I try harder to listen to people. When they spew hate, I’m more apt to ask why they think that then to spew back.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings are so deeply ingrained in me that I find it repulsive when I respond with hate. I’m human. I think bad things. I’ve said bad things. But at least I know what I’ve done.

Most people on earth are not horrible, soul less, evil, inhumane. In fact, they are very human. We’re not a very nice species. Racism is evil, but if they knew better, they’d do better. So let’s teach instead of firing back hate and insults. Education doesn’t always change minds, but hate doesn’t ever change a mind. Love can change minds. Love can open doors. Oh, I’ll just say it: love can move mountains.

I am, by nature, a Pollyanna, a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a person who is going to believe the best will happen. But I’m also a student of human nature and of history.

We are on a collision course in this country, and we’re pretty much split down the middle. There are nuances, of course, but the polarization is stretched pretty far and pretty tight. It is read to snap.

I do not want to see civil war, violent revolution, or an armed civil rights battle.

But I see it coming.

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September 26, 2017

It’s Official–I’m Woke

I’m a writing teacher, so in our classes, we tend to talk about current events and “issues.” Now that I’m back in New York City, the majority of my students are people of color. I tell them I have a color, too. It’s pink. Sometimes red if I get in too much sun. They laugh at the silly lady. But as you can imagine, the subject of race comes up a lot when we talk about current events.

Today, in a class that happens to be all students of color, a student told me I was “woke.” I told him, “honey, I’ve been woke since before you were born!”

A second student added, “we can tell. You’re never gonna not be woke.” That’s up there with one of my favorite student compliments ever. No lie.

I truly don’t understand how people can live in the US and not see the systemic racism and classism in our country. I mean, okay, I teach, so I see the effects up close. I take a deep, personal interest in the lives of my students, so I hear so much–learn so much. But seriously, how can people miss it?

My mom was “woke” back in her youth. Hell, my grandmother was having none of that inequality stuff, either. This is how I grew up–knowing, without a doubt, that we are all brothers and sisters and there is one race: the human race.

Because a student asked how I got “this way,” I explained about Mom and Nana. His response: “you’re lucky.”

And I am. Very lucky. My elders taught me by example that the only way to judge a person’s worth is by their actions. If they are rotten to people, that makes them less. Not worth less than me, but less developed, less enlightened; people to be pitied, not hated. Hate only hurts the hater.

Because some of my students hadn’t done their homework for today, I turned being “woke” back at them (because I am not above poking my students for their own good).

Thinking critically and learning are revolutionary acts, I told them. Vive la révolution.

Learning to analyze things and think about subtext means they gain more power over their own lives. It’s harder to manipulate people who think. Teaching, especially college, is all about empowerment.

The skills we learn in my class are not “school things.” They are “real world” skills that hopefully they will use their entire life.

May they never stop learning and thinking, that’s my prayer for them.

Yes, this is me in my “preacher mode,” but as a preacher, I believe teaching is a vocation with a very high purpose–the betterment of humanity. There’s the idealist in me again, but I’m also very pragmatic. I know most of my students don’t see their educations the way I do. But that’s not going to stop me spreading the word.

And frankly, I wrote this tonight because I was tickled pinker to be called woke by a student. They get me. They get I care. They respect it, too. And that just felt good.

 

 

 

January 27, 2017

Too Big to Fail

When the financial crisis of ’07-08 was addressed by incoming president Barack Obama, many Americans were unhappy with the resolution. Yes, we got “back on track,” and things did get better for many. But banks were declared “too big to fail” and were bailed out.  That, I think, was one of the seeds that led to our current president.

For good reason, people blamed the banks. When banks got help and no punishment, many Americans who had lost homes, cars, jobs, and even a lifetime’s work got rightfully angry. And for the next six years that anger brewed.

Sure we got the ACA, which to me will always be Romneycare as I first encountered in when I came back to the US in ’07 and lived in Massachusetts, but I know people who literally had to choose between insurance and food. Even the subsidies through the ACA were not enough. It depends, of course. When I came back to the US the second time, I used the ACA because I had no health care in my part time jobs. I paid a lot but got excellent coverage. My subsidy was about $500 a month, but since I literally paid more into the government in taxes than American Airlines, United Continental, and Hewlitt-Packard, and now it seems, President Trump, my conscience is clear. I have always paid every penny of taxes due, and I am willing to pay them to cover things like medical care and roads and so on.

So in spite of the ACA, we have millions of people who realized that they were unimportant to the government in spite of all its propaganda. Protecting the banks was protecting them, we were told, because if the big banks failed, the economy would suffer.

Well, you know what else is too big to fail? The United States of America. And failing we are.

We have a sitting president who is totally unfit for the job. Yes, he is a businessman who gets things done, (including bankrupting himself and many, many small businesses left in his wake) but countries are not businesses. It’s not about the bottom line. It’s about people’s lives. He has not divested himself from his businesses. He has named unfit people for almost every position in his Cabinet. Most are now in the position to make the very wealthy even wealthier. Many of them have outright conflicts of interest.

Many don’t know a thing about the departments they’ve been nominated to head. I could see Ben Carson as Attorney General. I wouldn’t like it, but the man is a physician. But as head of HHD? No experience. And don’t get me started on Betsy DeVos. As a career professor, I am appalled. I have been teaching students who have suffered at the hands of federal interference in education for decades. I’ve seen the steady decline in knowledge and skills. Not intelligence—preparedness. The thought of her policies literally makes me shudder. And I know the meaning of literal.

Ironically, in light of people’s growing fears of more wars, I think one of his best picks for a Cabinet position is Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While more hawkish than I’d like, he has the experience needed and is respected by folks in the Pentagon.

But the worst thing I see is the polarization between every day Americans. It’s been growing since the 2016 election cycle started, but instead of calming down, it’s getting worse. We are hating like we haven’t in a long while. We’re mean, petty, bitter, snide, personal, not only to people in government, but to one another.

We call each other names, generalize and stereotype. We’re more openly prejudiced than we have been in the past 50 years, not just against race but against one another based on political beliefs. I was never a fan of being “politically correct,” but I have always been a fan of trying not to offend people. I try to use non-gendered and people first language. I try to use the identifiers people prefer. To me, that’s just good manners and a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. Many quip that the new Golden Rule is “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Not a quip, the truth, and always has been the truth. But if we say we are the best country on earth, let’s treat each other with respect and humanity. Let’s act like the nicest people on earth. Bullying and hatred are not parts of greatness.

Don’t like someone’s choices? Think their life is a sin? Fine. But don’t curse them, threaten them, harm them or kill them. That’s not acceptable. And I’m not looking at one side or another or another here. I see people on ALL sides of the political spectrum acting unacceptably.

The true core values of our country, democracy, equality, and freedom, have eroded at a pace that frightens me. America is the only thing that’s too big to fail. And we are. America is an idea. And ideal, really. And because we are no longer living up to our ideals, because democracy was trampled on for decades, because corporations have the same rights as citizens, we’ve been a functional oligarchy for a long time. Equality in this country is a joke. Some lives are just worth less. Many see this on color lines, but I believe it’s more on wealth lines. The poor of this country have been abused, manipulated, lied to, and used as tools of the ruling powers since the beginning.

Race is also a problem. A middle class person of color does face stereotypes and prejudice. I am not unaware of the problem, and I’m not stupid. My own son identifies as “non-White” and has faced prejudice both from law enforcement and regular folks. But a poor white person has more problems and inherent difficulties than that middle class person of color. I live in a predominantly white place and the problems of poverty I see are only slightly different than the ones I saw in NYC. Drugs, poor education, lack of family structure (I’m not saying a traditional family is necessary, but when mom and dad are meth dealers, life is nowhere near normal), poor nutrition, poor medical care, and the list goes on.

This economic disparity, this racism, this throwback to “traditional Christian values” of intolerance and hatred for those who choose to live outside one’s ideas of Christianity, these are also seeds that led to Trump’s shocking victory.

Folks like to argue that race is the only reason he’s president, but that’s balderdash. Back in ’92, Bill Clinton’s famous campaign reminder was “it’s the economy, stupid” hasn’t changed these 24 years later. We allowed the oligarchy to grow, and now the White House has become the Palace of Versailles, especially the gilded New York White House in Trump Tower. Cronies and supporters are put into positions of power, regardless of ability, and dissent is harshly treated.

I’m not buying into Trump’s rhetoric of “make America great again.” It has needed work my entire life, but it’s always been a great country. Things are possible here. I am the daughter of a construction worker who earned a PhD. I have taught young people who have literally gone on to change the world, young people who grew up in poverty, or were immigrants, or were people of color, or all of the above. They are America. I love my country, and I love its people. We are what’s made America great, but America has failed too many because money rules.

Greed is not one of America’s values. We’re too great to fail, and this is something that needs to be addressed. I am not calling for communism. That was tried and failed in the USSR and China, among other places. I’m calling for competence in government, experts in charge of departments, not political cronies, corporations losing the rights of citizens, and support for measures that give a leg up. I’m calling for democracy to come back, unhindered by lobbyists, restrictive voting laws and outside manipulation, for freedom to come back through solid educations so that people can make good choices and for humans to live as they wish as long as they remember that their rights extend no further than the tip of their noses. That’s what I learned in 7th grade social studies. My rights are for me, and I can not force others to do what I think is right unless it’s something protected by the Constitution. And finally equality. No human being is born better than another. There is one race, the human race. Because of my personal beliefs, I believe we are all brothers and sisters, and I should treat you as I would a sibling. You may infuriate me, you may test me, but at the end of the day, I do love you. But you do not have to share my beliefs. Believe me, most people don’t as I don’t identify as any specific religion. But as members of the same race, we have to work together.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is my manifesto, I guess. We’re too big to fail. We’re an experiment in democracy that needs to backtrack a bit and see where we went wrong. I’m pretty sure I know where that was. Who will join me?

January 13, 2017

Fasten Your Seatbelts…

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about politics, so I have to start today’s post with some backstory. Sit back and relax. This one’s been brewing for about a year. I’m gonna be wordy here.

The first time I came back to America to live it was 2007, and the country was gearing up for the 2008 election. I blogged quite a bit back then about that race. I was a Kucinich supporter, saw him speak on the campaign trail, spoke to the man myself and really believed in him. Didn’t think he had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the party nomination, but I’m a self-avowed idealist. The good thing about the primary elections in America is that we don’t have to vote strategically.

How the press marginalized that candidate showed me a lot about how things worked. When he finally quit the race, I moved on, reluctantly, to support Obama. His inexperience and relative youth (I’m 6 months older and knew I was too young to run America), were the major problems I had with him as a candidate. But I am much more left than right, as impossible as these labels are, so most times I’m gonna vote Blue on the national level.

I blogged those first four years, but by the time of the 2012 election, I was jaded. I don’t always agree with President Obama’s policies and choices, which is to be expected, and frankly, it is politics as usual in Washington. Gotta play the game. He did it well, but faced incredible racism and obstructionism. Anyone who says race wasn’t an issue must live in white bubble of ignorance about race and privilege. That’s not meant to be an insult. I geographically live in one now. There are so few people of color here that race issues aren’t “real” for most folks. Coming, as I do, from a large, multicultural city, I have a different perspective.

I’ve taught in poor New York City community colleges for many years. I’ve seen systematic, entrenched racism up close and personal, thanks. Those students are mine. I love them and want the best for them. The obstacles that are built in to block their success are things I take personally as well see as insults toward what I think my great country stands for. So to see it at the highest levels, while unsurprising, was enervating in a way.

I left the country again during Obama’s second term, and was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to be here for the 2016 election. I really didn’t see anyone I wanted to support, and being half a world away makes it a lot easier to avoid American politics. Unfortunately, I had to come back to the US to live. I love my country, but love being an ex-pat. And I was here for the worst political campaign in my memory.

Trillions of pixels have been spent talking about the divide in our country this past election exposed. My candidate didn’t win the nomination, but I switched over to HRC for expediency’s sake. She wasn’t who I wanted. Sorry, fellow feminists, but I don’t support women because they are women. HRC has done a lot for women, and she’ll go down in history, which I hope will be kinder to her than America has been, but she’s politically coming from a different place than I am.

But the prevailing Republican candidate made me wonder what had happened to my country. This was worse than 1980 when Reagan got the nomination. People joked that a bad actor had gotten the nomination, but at least the man had political experience—he’d been governor of one of our largest and richest states, one with a diverse population and warring needs. He had some experience, and while not a genius, he was no idiot. He had principles and morals and loved America with a strong patriotism. No one ever thought otherwise.

But this one? Our new POETUS? As a New Yorker, I’d been subjected to tabloid headlines about this man’s self-centeredness for the past 30 years. He’s shown himself to be sexist, racist and morally corrupt for decades.

He’s a master showman and an expert in smoke and mirrors, I’ll give him that. As good at creating a national fantasy as he was in creating the worlds designed in his casinos, places purposely constructed to keep reality at bay and fleece the suckers. No one ever beats the House. That’s a maxim as old as gambling dens themselves. He sells a dream and gives enough of a taste to build a need.

His promises to America will be as hollow as his promises to Atlantic City. He will suck out the life, destroy the middle class, make the poor poorer and increase crime. Don’t believe me? Look at Atlantic City today. Ask people from there. The casinos promised prosperity. They created it, too, and it was sucked out by the owners who lived anywhere but Atlantic City. Organized crime moved in with its drugs and its prostitution, its corruption. But today, organized crime is the least of America’s worries.

This is a man who has never shown the smallest amount of compassion for his fellow humans, who calls heroes stupid, and glorifies the worst traits of this nation: ignorance, self-glorification, anti-intellectualism, false piety and self-aggrandization.

I don’t actually hate him, though. I pity him. Because while he’s a master showman, he doesn’t run this circus. I truly believe he’s the tool of masterminds, people much better at the game of manipulation than he is. He’s so out of his depth, he even looks lost. He’s not the first US president to have “handlers,” or even a power behind the throne. But I do believe he’s the first to be handled by a foreign power. He’s a puppet. A bold, brash, self-serving puppet, but a puppet in the hands of people so much smarter, so much more in control of themselves and their actions, that our country is in the worst danger it’s been in years.

Rumors about sexual peccadillos and pettiness? Smoke and mirrors. Thirty years of poor education has created an American voting populace with no critical thinking skills. If you’ve read my writing, you know I’ve been singing this song for the past 10 years. A large percentage of American college graduates cannot tell the difference between a fact and an opinion. And they are the “educated” ones. Many Americans don’t know how to find reliable information on the internet. 

Another problem is that our press is no longer free. It’s in the hands of too few controllers.  On top of that problem, reporters too often see themselves as the shapers of news narratives instead of the people tasked with reporting it. The job title kind of says it all.  In Journalism 101, I learned rule one of writing a news story: get verification. Have none of today’s reporters even watched All the President’s Men much less read it? Woodstein went to great lengths to verify, verify, verify. Ben Bradlee, where are you when we need you?

The salacious bits become the focus, comedians mock the politicians (which is part of their job) then the reporters pick up the jokes as news. It’s an endless cycle that leaves many Americans morally outraged or entertained depending on their worldview yet unaware of what’s really happening. The American press has been a weapon of mass distraction for going on two decades now.

Sadly, over three years ago, I wrote about how the American people had to rise up and take control again.  And someone else sensed this need, this anger, this frustration, and tapped into it. An “outsider” who was relatively new to politics, though he had run for president before. A showman, quite literally, who is an expert at “give the people what they want.” But this time, unlike his 2000 run, he had expert backing. Millions and millions of angry, frightened people flocked to his campaign.

Folks who decried the “softening” of America enjoyed his taunts, his violence, his hate, his pettiness. Here was a tough man who put women in their place, knew that “retarded” was an all-purpose taunt, and didn’t take shit from no one. And he was a TV star! He made them laugh and always gave a good show. He didn’t rely on boring facts to make a point. He echoed their desires with his pithy soundbites.

He probably wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for some help from people who needed a puppet in the White House. This man’s narcissism played into their hands perfectly. There were plenty of other, more qualified Republican candidates—one of them surely should have gotten the nod. Ted Cruz was more experienced. And he also had the “angry outsider” schtick down pat.  Marco Rubio was more photogenic and appealed to many of my students. Why not them? Was it just the will of the American people? How long has outside influence been at work? Frankly, I didn’t think the poor Republicans had much of a choice going in, but their ultimate choice surprised many.

So now, instead of healing, the crack is getting wider.  Over 65 million Americans out of 200 million registered voters are terrified about what will happen next week. Another 63 million are mostly jubilant (though like Brexit voters last year, there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse being reported). And 80 million registered voters didn’t bother to vote, so who knows what’s up with them.

We’re in for a bumpy ride. I do believe there are ethics violations already in place. The word treason is also not too strong for me. Others, with more powerful voices, agree with me. We wonder what will be done.

Unfortunately, I’m a scholar, far too familiar with history not to have some uncomfortable moments. Things I see happening in my nation’s capital have me deeply concerned and writing my representatives. As I live in a Red State, I know this is like spitting into the wind, but like I said, I’m an idealist.

I will be blogging in the future. Change is coming. Real change. Often terrible change. I tell my students I want them to use their voices. I have one to use, and I will.

November 14, 2016

Some Timely Advice for College Students, Mostly Freshmen

I just realized that it’s been 4 months since I’ve blogged. It’s been that kind of year. But today as I was preparing a weekly “letter” for my online students, I started to pass out advice not only for writing the final draft, but for surviving the last weeks of term.

Although this has nothing to do with culture, culture clash or other things I usually write about, I decided to post it because frankly, it’s good advice.

So, here you go. I teach English, but this works for all students, especially those facing writing projects:

You’ve done the outline you’ve done the research. Now it’s time to write the first draft.

My best advice to you? “Get it down, then get it right.” That was something I learned from a master teacher when I was in grad school learning how to be a composition teacher (yes, I did take a number of classes on how to teach and how to teach on line.)

What does that mean? It means try very hard to write your first draft without stopping to correct. Get those ideas down on paper because you can always polish them up later. Often when we write we agonize over a sentence and in doing so forget where we were going with the thought. You have the information in your head. Just write it!

Then give it a day to “settle” and step away from it to clear I from your head. Then go back and work on the revision. Clarifying the logic, making the words pretty, making sure you have enough evidence. THEN go back and edit it, preferably on a different day. Again, you want to give your brain time to “forget” what you’ve written. See, our brains are smarter than we give them credit for. They know what we want to say, so when we read something we’ve written, our brains see what we think we wrote. By giving ourselves some time off, it becomes a little harder for our brains to trick us into seeing what we want to see.

And for people with learning disabilities like me, the end of term means stressing and rushing. I find myself struggling more and more with my dyslexia under these circumstances. I force myself to slow down and calm down. Breathing helps. I know you’re breathing, but when we’re stressed, we breathe much more shallowly, which deprives the brain of the oxygen it needs to function at its best. Take some good deep breaths, in slowly, out slowly, to oxygenate your brain.

I’m a big believer in the science of high performance. Our bodies are the greatest machines run by the most brilliant computers on earth. We can’t run them on substandard care and expect their peak performance. If your life is anything like mine, sleep gets cut first, but I am also trying to avoid junk food, eating lean proteins, mostly vegetarian, unrefined carbs and fruits and veg.

Eat breakfast. It really helps! During the week I don’t have much time, so I make a peanut butter on a whole wheat sandwich thin and bring my travel mug of tea. Filling and easy. And a multivitamin won’t hurt. I actually take a lot of different vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements to support my crazy life, especially D as I don’t drink milk. I had low D this summer and was exhausted. After a blood test and a prescription I was much, much better.

Sorry about the life advice, but I teach humans, not just names on a screen. I have a lot of experience, so I want to share. I would be saying the same in a f2f class!

So, that’s what I said to my students and I share it with all students. Good luck with the end of term.

I will be back soon. I have SO much to say but no time to say it. Hold on to your hats, folks, the Broad is coming back!

July 13, 2016

Eternal Rest Grant to Her, Oh Lord

In September of 1983, I started graduate school at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. I was clueless as to what that meant; clueless as to what I wanted to be, other than “a writer;” and I was basically playing it by ear.

My second semester there, I had a class with Dr. April Selley. To my 22-year-old self, she was an elder, very strict, kinda scary, and frankly, sometimes odd. She was the best professor I have ever had and have ever known. She went on to be one of my dearest friends. Today she died. Demon cancer.

april

My beautiful friend. I barely have any pictures of her.

While April and I became close friends–she once said I was probably one of the few people on earth she could live with–to me, she was also always “my professor”. To me, teaching is a sacred bond between two people. When we’re very lucky, that bond extends beyond the classroom, but the pupil always owes the excellent teacher respect for the knowledge given. I respect and love many of my former professors, and I try hard to be the professor who honors the sacred bond with my students. I learned that from April. She complimented me on my passion and love for my students once. She cried when I said, “but that’s what you taught me. I am only trying to be like you.”

I can’t even explain to you her brilliance. She earned a PhD in literature from Brown, so that should tell you something. Her scholarly focus was on Cooper, Poe and the Transcendentalists, but her passion was Star Trek. She’s a contributor to the Star Trek Encyclopedia and has done much work on the topic. She’s lectured on it, written on it, and frankly, fangirled about it, though I doubt she ever used that term.

She was an award winning poet. Her poetry was often deeply imbued with her Catholic faith as well as her feminism. “The Three Middle Aged Women in Speed” is about the three women who die because middle aged women are expendable. She wrote about Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe talking in Heaven about the pressure of being icons,  and the murder of a great-aunt by a rival in Portugal. A poem I’ve been thinking about today is her “Cleaning Out the Refrigerators of the Dead.” That is the last service we do for our friends, and it always tells a story.

I am not there to do that for my friend. This is the down side of living in America–it’s so big. She died in Rotterdam, NY, where she lived. She taught at Union College. But she’s going home to Bristol, RI to be waked and buried. There’s no way I can be there and back next week. I have responsibilities here. April will be the first to totally understand.

After I earned my MA, I went on to a PhD program. April would write to me and give me advice.  This was before email. She’d actually handwrite a letter in her beautiful handwriting. She helped me more than any other professor I’d had. My other professors were thrilled that I was going on, but she took the time to write and encourage. That meant so much to me–the first college graduate in my family–the first to go to graduate school–the first to earn a PhD. I was a working class kid. What did I know?

A year after I moved to Taiwan, she got a Fulbright grant to teach in Japan. One of her poems about that time can be found here. Since I was so close, she came to visit me and Taiwan. We did a few things together, but I was busy with my son–it was the Chinese New Year holiday and my mom had gone to the US. But we sat up late one night singing along to the Dogstar CD I’d bought. We both loved the band–me for the music, her more because it featured Keanu Reeve, and I think she was his biggest fan.

She actually wrote an analysis of every film he ever did, rating his performance. She loved his acting and thought the man erudite and charming. She once drove hours over a mountain into Vermont during a snowstorm to hear him do a talkback after a film during a festival. She found him modest, polite and nothing like his public image. She also thought he is the most beautiful man on earth, but honestly, it wasn’t a crush. She admired him. She got me to, as well.

After the Dogstar we started rocking out to The Monkees and The Jackson 5, dancing around the room until my 5 year old came in to check on the crazy adults.

That’s when I realized April wasn’t old. I was 35, she was 41. Not a big spread.

And she was so funny. We could laugh together for hours.

So brilliant and funny and kind, but she was good. A good, good person.

When the secretary of her department had to retire due to dementia, April was the one who took over her care. Thora had no family, so April got home health care, did her shopping, made sure things were maintained. Thora has now outlived April, and I hope someone steps in in April’s name. April got nothing from Thora’s estate nor did she expect anything. That’s April.

When I had to move back to the US in 2007, April found me at least a summer job for the AOP program at her college, Union. She let me stay in her house rent free. She took me out to dinner. She let me stay the next two summers as well, so I would have summer income as I couldn’t find a full time job. That’s April.

She lit a candle for me in church every Sunday for ten years, before I even returned, so I could get a job. She said I was the hardest case she ever had, but that was April. She refused to give up. And she had total faith in God. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t nag him.

She fought leukemia a while back, but lived to tell the tale. But this time, a rarer, more virulent form of cancer attacked. She fought so hard. The last time I heard from her she told me she couldn’t die. She’d paid too much for the damn computer she’d just bought. She had to live long enough to make it worth it.

I’m not sad today. Sad isn’t my style.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that I’ll never get to read more than the first two chapters of the novel she was writing. She’d asked me to be a reader, and I loved it. Funny, poignant. Now I will never find out what happens.

I’m angry that she didn’t earn more fame for her writing. She was honestly brilliant at it.Her voice should have been heard by millions, not thousands.

I’m angry that I’ll never see that beautiful handwriting on a birthday card or the annual Christmas letter in July because she never actually had time to write them in December thanks to teaching.

I’m angry that she never got to read my paper on Louisa May Alcott that was so rudely rejected by a literary journal last winter. I was supposed to mail it to her in March, but I didn’t have time. Hers was the opinion I valued most on the topic. And she seemed interested, too.

I’m angry that she’s been so ill lately that she couldn’t talk to her friends on the phone.

I’m angry that she’ll never get to see my kid on film. She was such a booster.

I’m angriest that the last letter I sent telling her I knew I’d never see her again on this plane, but that I will love her forever, my sister of the heart, would have arrived in today’s mail. She died in the morning.

No, what I’m angriest about is that we won’t get to be crazy old women together. She was determined, stubborn, goal-oriented, brilliant. She’d have been a hoot of an old gal. She was 61. That’s not old enough, not by a long shot.

Everybody says good things about the dead, but April Rose Selley was one of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. The world has lost more than it realizes.

I know that you will be resting in peace, my darling April. If anyone deserves Heaven, it’s you. Well, for all I know, you’ll be nagging God face to face because you really are that stubborn.

 

July 6, 2016

Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night

Today I am broken-hearted. I was upset about the state of humanity this morning, but this afternoon is when the blow came. I lost a former student.

I hate that euphemism. He died. Ethan Taranto-Kent, a young man I taught in 2007-08. Thanks to the internet, we stayed connected and got to know each other as people. He was a fine one.

ethan pawla truck

He was also a young story teller, author, director and lead of the web series Mad Nation, which you can watch on his YouTube channel, Pernicious Paradise.  A post-apocalyptic action/adventure/rumination on humanity, he had hopes of growing the show. Now that will never happen.

Ethan and I would talk a lot, chat online more, about all sorts of things: humans, responsibility, politics, art, the Constitution, guns, knives, dogs, LA, acting, people. I really enjoyed out chats because Ethan was a thinker. He was serious and he cared. He never let me give the blithe answer–the joke. He pressed me to be serious, not something people commonly do these days. At his heart, he was serious and talented and deep.

He was also sweet and loving. I’ve digitally met his fiance Nikki. My heart grieves for her, too. Just a few months ago, Ethan was griping about something and said it was what he lived for. I said, no, Nikki and Pawla are who you live for, and if he and Nikki broke up, I would cry. Today I cried for her. Pawla is their rescue dog. If you want the essence of Ethan and Nikki, watch their beautiful video about Pawla’s adoption.

ethan and nikki

Ethan’s not the first student I’ve lost, but that doesn’t make it any easier. There have been cancers, accidents, suicides, the usual suspects that take young lives. I don’t even know how Ethan died, only that it was sudden and totally unexpected.

But if we love people, we’re probably going to lose some of them, and that’s the price we pay for loving. As with most people, it was totally worth the price of loving this young man.

Ethan, I will miss you. Thank you for being my friend, for pushing me when I didn’t want to be pushed, for living your dream, for loving Nikki and Pawla, for letting me into your world and sharing your loves with us, for being a Light in the world. That Light is gone, but the art you leave behind you and the memories you leave those of us still here will keep you evergreen.

ethan peeingethan and pawlaethan in costume

June 24, 2016

Southern Hospitality

So yes, I’m back in the US, but I still have some culture shock because now I’m living in Tennessee, in an area some folks refer to as “the buckle of the Bible Belt”. My mom’s dad was a Southerner from Virginia, but as he lived in NYC and I lived in NYC, there’s very little Southern influence in my upbringing.

We see America becoming more and more homogenized thanks to television, the internet and less poverty. But there are still regional differences.

Southerns are polite. Southern hospitality is a real thing.

People take the time to say hello to strangers. I am addressed as “ma’am” by strangers and even by acquaintances. People use please and thank you on a regular basis. And instead of calling each other “idiots,” “jerk-offs” or “stunad” (I come from the NYC area so lots of Italian influence), it’s “bless your heart”. Basically, it means the same thing (geez you’re being an idiot), but it’s so much nicer to hear. To be fair, it’s also used when people are overworked or doing something difficult, but I get it a lot at work when I trip over something or break something.

My students are polite and helpful. The young couples living on both sides of my Mom have offered to help her if she ever needs it, and I have yet to encounter someone surly behind a counter or serving in a restaurant.

Now, before you tell me that people in other parts of the country are polite, good to elders and all the rest, I actually agree with you. I’ve always encountered great folks and had good neighbors in NYC. My students were a mixed bunch, but if I ever asked for help, someone would help me. I think New Yorkers would give the shirt off their back to help people–but we can be curt, rushed, and sometimes even potty mouthed. Imagine that.

Down here, I’ve never felt rushed (of course as a  New Yorker, it’s pretty difficult to make me feel rushed. I’m usually the one doing the rushing. And I don’t hear much cussing at all. Even I’ve cleaned up my act and only drop the F-bomb around my family. And some people at work. And some young people. Mostly.

I find myself constantly trying to slow down my pace. It’s not easy, but I realize that I unintentionally fluster folks when I move or talk or speak my thoughts too quickly.

This slowness in Southerners has led to the stereotype that they are not so smart. One of the easiest ways for an actor to portray “dumb” is to assume a Southern accent. Well, bless your heart, you just go right on and believe that one. Southern folks encourage it. The easier to pull the wool over your eyes and fleece you.

The smartest person I ever knew was my grandfather, the southerner, so that’s not something I’ve ever believed. And I’ve taught local students long enough to know that there are sharp brains here. Polite and slow speaking, but never confuse that with slow thinking. I mean, really, think of all the brilliant American minds that have come from the South. Google if you must.

Many folks from other parts of the country often stereotype Southerners as “hicks” or “rednecks” or ünsophisticated or flat out ignorant and violent because many have guns, support the 2nd Amendment, hunt and fish. Many are also religious, conservative, and patriotic.

I have no problem with hunting and fishing, and many of the folks I know who engage in those sports eat what they catch and appreciate the lives they are taking. Guns are tools, not toys or weapons to be used during crimes. Is there gun violence? Yes. Are there accidental shootings or intentional murders? Oh, yes.But it’s a small portion of the gun owners who are shooting and killing.

I’m no NRA member, and I support tighter controls on who has access to guns and what type of guns people have access to. One of my favorite lines in film is spoken by Samuel L. Jackson in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown: “The AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every m—–f—– in the room, accept no substitutes.”

It’s a rare situation when one has to kill everyone in the room. And I understand that if we ever need to overthrow the government as a militia, an AK-47 would be handy to have. There is a conflict there for me. But then there’s Orlando and and and. I know guns don’t kill, but people do, but we allow some crazy people to have those guns. It’s a conundrum, but I don’t think it’s just a Southern problem.

I grew up in a very patriotic family. Anyone who’s read my blog in the past knows that I love my country deeply. That doesn’t mean I follow my government blindly. Being around patriotic folks doesn’t bother me. Being around blind followers of anything does. And I have seen that attitude on both sides of the Mason-Dixon.

I can be conservative about some things, but I’m incredibly liberal about others. I do believe very much on self-reliance, but I also believe in safety nets and social programs to help those who need it. So again, this isn’t something that bothers me. Some of my own New York relatives are conservative Republicans. As long as people are respectful and open to learning facts instead of soundbites, we’re good.

When it comes to religion, I have no problem with people’s religion. I have no problem with people asking me where I worship. I have had fewer problems dealing with my Christian friends questioning my beliefs than with my atheist friends questioning my beliefs. Most Christians pray for me. Most atheists mock me. Guess which I’d prefer?

I have a problem with people’s religion being codified into restrictive laws, and that’s something I’v had to deal with here, but only tangentially.I don’t teach young people, and I refuse to teach young people because of the things I’m not allowed to talk about. That’s something that bothers me, I admit.

I currently work for a domestic abuse and sexual violence prevention organization, and the folks who do programs in schools are not allowed to use “gateway words” like sex, alcohol, drinking and so on. It frustrates them and makes the kids laugh. “Gateway words”? Seriously? Religion getting in the way of science is something the rationalist in me can not understand and will not accept.That’s a big culture shock for me.

Overall, though, I enjoy the slower pace, the friendlier faces, the openness. The guns were prevalent where I can from, too, so nothing new there. Even concealed carry permits don’t really bother me. It’s not like the armed folks in NYC were wearing the guns on the outside of their clothes.

In upcoming blogs, I want to look at some of the things that flummox me and have my students laughing at me.

March 15, 2014

A Question of Ethics

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”   ~ Albert Camus

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics this week because I had my students reading an essay that flat out said that students arrive at college these days lacking ethics, so it’s something that needs to be taught. This was in terms of the enormous plagiarism problem we face in schools these days–that students don’t have a sense that stealing, at least stealing of this sort, is wrong.  That’s true, we do have a problem, but no ethics?

 

 

I thought my students would be outraged, but this wasn’t a part of the essay they brought up in their comments. I was ready for my students to attack the author, but no one said anything.  Amazed, I pushed the question, and asked what they thought of the statement.  To my amazement, they all agreed with the author, far too nonchalantly, I thought. One young man even said, “My generation is basically screwed.  Parents aren’t doing their jobs.”  There were nods of agreement, and a number of students added stories and gave insights.  I was proud of them, because obviously they are paying attention.  And this insight and commentary tells me they absolutely do have ethics, perhaps not fully developed yet, but they clearly have a sense of right and wrong.

 

 

One student, one of my very bright ones, added that because I was older, my ethics were more firmly established, so it’s easier for me to live by them.  She’s right, of course, but I also think I had a more finely tuned sense of guilt when I transgressed at their age.  I never knowingly plagiarized when I was a student, but when I did transgress–skipping the reading, being late on a paper, skipping class–I did feel guilt. Misbehavior was always a struggle between “what will I gain vs the guilt I will feel.”

 

 

This lack of ethics obviously worries me.  I don’t mind shifting ethical standards, but missing ethical standards is a problem. I am positively irked each year when my employer has me attend a mandatory one-hour training on ethics. I am taught that I shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal or undermine people.  Um, I got that when I was 8, I think. I was telling my students about it, and the same bright one from above said, “Well, you’re obviously observant enough to know why they have to have that course, right? You can’t blame them.”  Yes, sadly, I am aware of the why.

 

 

Since I’ve come back to America almost seven years ago, I’ve seen more and more to upset and worry me.  I am very much heartened by the students I teach who have finely tuned ethics and values.  But I have to say they are in the minority.  What has happened in this country?  My students who blamed parents obviously are on the right track.  Teachers also got part of the blame, both from students and from the author of the original article. We allow poor behavior to go unchecked, so we are tacitly giving approval.  Well, not me, of course. If I suspect it, you’re going to hear about it.

 

 

But something to think about, to worry about, and hopefully to change.

October 22, 2013

Infant Nation

My students are currently reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” one of my favorite Emerson pieces. Ironically, I didn’t even assign it to them–the department did.  As I tell my students, I’m not a fan of Emerson’s style, but what he has to say? Wow!

Rereading the essay, I’ve been struck by how very relevant it is in 2013.  There’s one line I particularly wanted to talk about today:

“Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”  Taking in stride the 19th century use of mankind to mean all of us, this is pretty much what I see every single day of my teaching career.

I teach at a college. I do not teach at a high school or lower because frankly, I don’t like having to deal with children’s recalcitrance. And I don’t like spoon feeding information.

But American society treats young people like children far into their adulthood. We know this is getting worse. Just google “extended adolescence,” read and weep.

My students have been infantalized throughout their k-12 educations, by teachers and parents alike, and information is spoonfed into them. They no longer take responsibility for their own learning, but worse, they don’t like to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Emerson would despair.

I despair.

We have crippled a good chunk of a generation with all the good intentions in the world.  Maybe. But what if the point of infantalization was to create a generation of sheep more easily manipulated than many generations that went before?

I have been told, point blank, that I must change the standards I set for student behavior, lower them, because this is what we do now.  The Transcendentalist in me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s as good a label for me as any other, roars in pain.

I am calling for a revolution. It’s not just our government that needs to be changed. Our whole society needs reform. I’m not saying go back to some “good old time” in the past. I’m saying look at the mistakes we’ve been making and change. Change radically.

We are too married to the old ways of thinking and the old dead forms of authority.  It’s time to take bold measures. As Emerson says: “It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; their property; in their speculative views.”

I say, “bring it on!”

Points to ponder, I hope. And in the meantime, take a look at “Self-Reliance.” It’s a doozy.

 

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