In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about the ghosts from his past as he taught rhetoric and quality before his nervous breakdown. In Dead Poet’s Society, the character of John Keating played by Robin Williams, invoked the ghosts of former students, urging his students to “seize the day”.
Last night, I walked the halls of Amity Middle School in Bethany, accompanied by these ghosts and others. My wife was a student at this school over three decades ago. The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates was one of my wife’s classmate those many years ago. Did they imagine, back then, that their children would be classmates, carry small devices like the communicators from Star Trek and have access to machines that could print out three dimensional objects? What were their dreams, what were the dreams their teachers and parents had for them back when they walked these halls.
Back to School night started similar to the school day. The principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeakers. We all stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, bringing recollections of the ghosts of those who fought for our freedom. There was a moment of silence, thirteen years after 9/11 as we recalled our friends and neighbors who died in that attack.
Then, it was off to meet the different teachers. There were a few themes that emerged, the total point system was repeated over and over again. There were frequent mentions of the Common Core, and at least to me, it seemed, there was too little focus on the actual curriculum and acknowledgement of the ghosts.
The first class I sent to was World Geography and Culture. There was a good syllabus presented and a discussion about the focus on argument and debate. Fiona, like her parents, loves debate and I’m excited for this class. I did wonder about how much the students will be encouraged to question the assumptions they have about culture based on the culture they’ve grown up in.
The second class was Spanish. I believe both Fiona’s mother and uncle had Mrs. Young for world language classes when they were students.
This was followed by English. I am sure that this will be a fine class and that the teacher will inspire the students, but I have concerns. The teacher will be managing the class using a “behavior management plan” based on corporate structure. I’ve already written to the teacher expressing concern. I am not convinced that CEOs are the best role models for proper behavior. Nor do I believe that they are the best exemplars of the use of the English language.
She spoke about finding examples of good writing to emulate, of “mentor texts”, and my mind went to e.e.cummings, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. Somehow I suspect that may not be the sort of texts they’ll focus on. She mentioned that because of the Common Core, the readings would be based more on the skills being taught than on the titles of famous books. I have mixed feelings about this. Skills are important, but so is being literate in certain classics. I hope Fiona will end up reading Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, A Separate Peace, and other great books that illustrate something more important about language than just skills.
The essay, 'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. comes to mind:
If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.
For those who miss the reference, this is a section of the text book that Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society urges his students to rip out.
That said, I remain hopeful for the class and the work they will do. Perhaps the students can form a union to deal with the corporate structure. Perhaps some can even participate in the National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program. I think everyone should try to write their first novel by the time they complete middle school.
There was a nod to integrated curricula connecting the English class with the social studies class. I was glad to hear that. I’m a big fan of integrated curricula.
The next class was science. The teacher highlighted the classroom and the lab equipment. My daughter wrote that she thought I would like the science teacher, and I do. They will be studying lab safety, metrics, the scientific method, earth movements, meteorology and astronomy. I wondered if AMSB had a weather station connected to Weather Underground. It doesn’t appear as if they do. I figure I’ll have to dig out my ten inch Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope soon. I wonder how much they will get into issues of climate change or the effect of fracking on earth movements. I also wonder to what extent the science curriculum can be connected to the social studies curriculum.
The following class was tech. The teacher recognized me because of my Google Glass and we talked about 3D printing. My daughter is pretty excited about this class as well. As the teacher lauded the school district. We do have a great school district with wonderful facilities, great teachers, all contributing to the success of the students. Yet I remember hearing former New York City school Chancellor Joel Klein talking about equality in education. He spoke about how if the school system is working properly parents should be happy with whatever school their children end up at knowing that they all have the same level of excellence. I thought about students at under performing schools in Connecticut and remembered a great quote attributed to Virginia Woolf, “There is only one thing wrong with privilege, it’s that not everyone has it.”
For the final period, my daughter wrote Phys-Ed/Choir and listed the teachers and rooms for each. I suspect that Fiona, like me, prefers choir over physical education, so I went to the choir room. No one else showed up. Since we were supposed to be following the A schedule, I should have gone to physical education. My daughter had made a similar mistake at one point, missing technology and going to choir instead. Yet it provided one of the best chances to spend time talking with a teacher.
We talked about folk music festivals, expanding musical horizons, and the role of the arts in STEM oriented systems. My middle daughter, with her masters in community arts education always points out that it really should be STEAM, with the A standing for Arts. Without the creativity of the arts, the inventions of STEM projects are too likely to be lifeless and soulless.
There wasn’t any discussion of integrated curricula here, but it would be great if choir expanded the musical horizons of the students to include cultures being studied in social studies.
Like the students, when the classes were over, the parents found time to speak with their friends before heading home. As I drove home, I thought about the Common Core, various ghosts, and seizing the day.
It is the middle of the night and I cannot sleep, again. In the morning, I am off to another funeral. When we learned of this funeral, my wife Kim asked if we had been to a funeral every year that we’ve known each other. The thought stuck with me, and I searched online for the average number of funerals that adults in the United States go to each year. The online answer was best summarized as, adult Americans typically know about 50 people whose funeral they would go to. They typically don’t go to funerals before they are eighteen, so it averages out to around a funeral a year. Others suggested the number is between one funeral every two years and two funerals a year.
Fiona, who is almost thirteen, has been to her share of funerals already. So much so, that when she was about four and we told her we were going to a family reunion, she asked, “Who died?” In her mind, at that early age, that is what family reunions were, funerals.
So, as I tossed and turned and tried to get back to sleep, Harold and Maude met the ancient sleep aid. Instead of counting sheep, I tried counting funerals I’ve been to since I met Kim. Initially, I randomly thought of different people’s funerals. It seemed like a pretty long list, so I tried to organize it in my mind. Before I knew it, I had thought of around thirty funerals, or an average of two funerals a year since Kim and I met, and as I write this, I remember more.
There are family members, both close and more distant; mothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, in-laws, and beyond. There are friends from church, work, and politics. There are cancers, car accidents, suicides, old age, and friends who have died way too young.
It is tempting to wonder when we will get a break, to talk about meeting less frequently at funerals, about trying to find time to celebrate people’s lives while they are still living. Yet as I think about it, a little bit of Harold and Maude rubs off on me.
I am blessed to get to go to so many funerals.
Yes, I am blessed to get to go to so many funerals. It sounds odd, but it is true, and something we should all think about.
When I write about funerals, I often quote John Donne,
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
It is easy to think about how death diminishes us, but it is more important to think about how blessed we are to be involved in mankind. A bunch of funerals we would not have gone to if we weren’t involved in politics. Yet we’ve met many great people through our political involvement and I urge all my friends to become more politically involved. Many funerals we’ve attended were of friends we’ve made at churches we’ve attended. I urge my friends to find communities that share their beliefs. Our lives have been so much richer because these people were in our lives.
Monday was Labor Day and a great quote from the movie Norma Rae comes to mind.
On October 4, 1970, my grandfather, Isaac Abraham Warshowsky, aged eighty-seven, died in his sleep in New York City. On the following Friday morning, his funeral was held. My mother and father attended, my two uncles from Brooklyn attended, my Aunt Minnie came up from Florida. Also present were eight hundred and sixty-two members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Cloth, Hat and Cap Makers' Union. Also members of his family. In death as in life, they stood at his side. They had fought battles with him, bound the wounds of battle with him, had earned bread together and had broken it together. When they spoke, they spoke in one voice, and they were heard. They were black, they were white, they were Irish, they were Polish, they were Catholic, they were Jews, they were one. That's what a union is: one
We are one, as co-workers, as Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists, as neighbors and as relatives; as Americans. It is something that we have lost in our political discourse that we need to rediscover.
Today, I will celebrate my wife’s birthday. I remember her mother on the anniversary of her mother’s death. I will attend the funeral of her grandmother.
And I will weep and hug those around me. I will remember wonderful moments of people’s lives. I will kiss my wife and tell her I love her. I will celebrate the lives of those living, those dead, and those yet to be born. If I am lucky, my words will bring comfort and joy to some of those around me and perhaps, if I am really lucky, help some of those around me rediscover the value of what we have in common.
On Tuesday evening, I was in a car accident. (This is why I didn't post on Wednesday or Thursday). No one was hurt and both vehicles received only minor damage. However, minor damage to a rusting out seventeen year old car with close to a quarter million miles on it that just barely passed inspection last time around was enough to render it beyond repairing.
We moved our vehicles off to the side of the highway and waited for the police to come. They made it about as quickly as you would expect during rush hour traffic and quickly and courteously made their report.
I am grateful for the job these policemen do. It is a difficult subject to talk about right now, in light of what has been going on in Ferguson, MO. Would things have been different if I were a young black man in Missouri? Perhaps.
I also don’t want to get into a variant of the Not All Men Meme. We should all know that not all cops are bad. Not all cops are racists. Not all cops are involved in police brutality. In fact, I believe that most law enforcement officers are good honest caring people that are trained to avoid escalation of the use of force and to examine their racial assumptions.
These days, politics and social media seems to be stuck with a focus on all that is messed up. I believe that we need to change our focus, to focus on gratitude for people who are doing the right thing, and helping making doing the right thing more of the social norm.
We need to focus on supporting young college men who confront their peers and tell that that it is just plain wrong to get a woman drunk so you can take advantage of her. We need to focus on law enforcement officers who stand up to racism and police brutality and who know that any racism or police brutality by law enforcement officer hurts all law enforcement officers.
So, I’ve been very interested in learning more about Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. A picture of him showing a Kappa Alpha Psi greeting, being mistaken as a gang sign illustrates so many things. It illustrates the racism that many hold onto, immediately assuming a hand signal by a black man is a gang sign, instead of a sign of being a member of a college fraternity. It illustrates the good that can come from a good man getting involved with a good organization.
Fiona ran through the darkness, her heart pounding, fueled by adrenaline. Catching up was an adult with a flashlight. She ducked into a barn. The horses spooked and reared, yet Fiona found a safe place to hide.
I was at home, after a conference on Racism. I wasn’t sure where my daughter was, other than that she was out with some friends. I thought about the riots in Ferguson.
If I were black and living in Ferguson, or many other places around our country I probably would have been worrying about my child’s safety but I am white and living in a part of Connecticut where racial tensions are much better concealed.
I am grateful that my daughter can run around with friends after dark, screaming and laughing and I don’t have to worry. It is a privilege I have, being white. It is a privilege I wish more parents had.
I don’t normally quote conservative blogs, but this one is priceless. Apparently, Republicans in Missouri are outraged that liberals are trying to get the people of Ferguson to express their frustrations at the voting booth. From Breitbart:
In an interview with Breitbart News, Missouri RNC executive director Matt Wills expressed outrage about the reports.
“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Wills said, “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”
Wills explained that the shooting death of Michael Brown was a tragedy for everyone.
“This is not just a tragedy for the African American community this is a tragedy for the Missouri community as well as the community of what we call America,” he said. “Injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy, not only is not helpful, but it doesn’t help a continued conversation of justice and peace.”
If registering people to vote is “fanning the political flames”, then we need more people fanning the flames. Personally, I think registering to vote is the most appropriate and constructive thing that can be done in response to the tragedy. But maybe Mr. Wills would rather see looting.
As to “injecting race into this conversation”, well, a continued conversation that ignores the elephant in the room doesn’t seem particularly helpful either.