Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Wealth of Education Articles

The New York Times, under the ever-present claim that it contains “All the news that’s fit to print,” published no less than four full articles and one sidebar about education in its Wednesday, August 29, 2007 issue.

The College Board, the nonprofit organization responsible for the SAT and other assorted tests, released its 2007 results for students taking their most famous test. It seems scores this year dipped slightly.

The average score for the critical reading portion was 502 out of a possible score of 800, “a decline of one point from last year” according to the Times. It was also the lowest average in the last thirteen years.

Math fared no better, declining three points to 515 out of 800.

On the writing portion, added two years ago, students scores dropped three points as well to 494.

The article quotes Wayne Camera, vice president for research and analysis at the College Board as saying that the declines from 2006 to 2007 are “statistically insignificant.” Yes, but in the long view, over several years, can he make the same claim?

The article goes on to discuss how the scores break down by race, and not surprising, of the 1.5 million students taking the exam, white students did the best with critical reading, math, and writing averages of 527, 534, and 518 respectively.

At the bottom of the list, after American Indians, Mexican-Americans, and Puerto Ricans, were “other Hispanic” at 459, 463, and 450 for reading, math, and writing.

The article is an interesting statistical data base. The question, however, remains clear: what does the SAT score really represent? A few years ago, the University of California system was ready to drop the test as a measure for admitting students. This is what led the College Board to revamp the test and add a writing portion. Some colleges do not require the test scores any longer when considering students for admissions.

What might be indicated by the minority breakdown of scores is that ethnic students in this country still suffer from insufficient education. The other side of the coin is, are we testing our students to death, and do the results of such tests as the SAT really indicate anything. I have seen numerous incidents in my time in the classroom where very bright students do not test well on the SAT. How fair is this test? It is a long and contentious debate.

On the subject of minority education, the second article, under the title of “Face Book: A New Role, but for Her, Familiar Turf, profiles the new New York City deputy chancellor of teaching and learning, Marcia V. Lyles. Ms. Lyles, an African-American, is not your average educator. In her sophomore year of high school, she was caught ditching class at her high school in Harlem. According to the article, she is still embarrassed about her conduct. The article is a good piece about a dedicated educator who is hoping to bring some measure of reform to the school system in the city.

Next to Ms. Lyles’ profile, is an article by Samuel G. Freedman on the uproar over New York education officials’ decision to open a school this fall where half of the classes would be conducted in Arabic, and the curriculum would include studies of Arab culture. Khalil Gibran International Academy is still scheduled to open, but has faced overwhelming negative criticism. The appointed principal, Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim immigrant from Yemen, resigned recently to try to stifle the uproar to no avail.

Finally, as the nation heads back to school, we have a sidebar that focuses on statistics. The total number of children enrolled in nursery school through college in October, 2005: 75.8 million. Number of teachers in the United States: 6.8 million. Average salary: $46,800, with the highest amount being paid in Connecticut, and the lowest in South Dakota.

Interesting reading on this back-to-school week for most of us. The articles can be accessed at

Sunday, August 26, 2007


“Time is the school in which we learn,/ Time is the fire in which we burn.”
Delmore Schwartz

So here we are. Tomorrow, it all begins again, the real New Year. I will not be teaching tomorrow; that starts with the students’ arrival on Wednesday. Tomorrow begins the classroom preparation—new bulletin boards, reorganizing closets and cupboards, straightening the bookcases, familiarizing myself with the new equipment and technology added to my arsenal over the summer. I took a sneak peak a week ago—we have projectors hooked to our classroom computers now. We will be able to pull up web pages and programs and display them on an overhead screen in front of the classroom.

Tuesday, we have to attend a mind-numbing number of meetings: a general faculty meeting first thing in the morning; (Or as I like to call it after a summer spent going to bed between three and five o’clock AM, “the end of the day.” This is the time of year I feel the most backassward.) an English Department meeting before lunch; ( A meeting I am supposed to run; currently, I have one item on the agenda: a nap.) and finally, a video and workshop in the afternoon.

Then, we have Wednesday’s invasion.

The beginning of the year always comes at us too fast. This year was no exception. It seems like only yesterday we just finished up. Students will likely find it interesting to know that teachers feel the same way they do about the approach of the return to school. We dread it.

We also anticipate it.

Preparing the lessons, writing, or rewriting syllabi, reading or rereading the summer books—if you asked me, I would tell you I wish all of it would go away. Yet, I never feel completely in tune unless I am working on school stuff. I guess that is how you know you belong where you are: the work might be difficult, but you feel like you are humming along on all eight cylinders when you are doing it.

The daunting thing about being a teacher is that every year, the students stay the same age. Only we, the teachers get older. In the end, I think that will drive me out of the profession. Otherwise, I could be a teacher until I die. Each year, however, it gets harder and harder to keep up with the eternal fifteen year old. There are things about childhood that never change. As long as I can remember how it was for me, I can relate to how it is for them. The problems come in the area of culture.

I never wanted to be the kind of older person who puts down the teenagers’ music. Yet, I can only grit my teeth through most rap and hip-hop.

I cannot get used to the vapid emptiness of “reality television.” It’s not my reality. I can understand that kids are different today, and that these kinds of programs hold an appeal for some of them, but I cannot fathom people my age watching such crap. I have a few friends who know which year the Real World was in Boston, and who view The Simple Life as “must see TV.” Not me. What gives me hope, I am often pleased to discover, is my students aren’t interested either. They’re way too busy posting videos of their exploits on You Tube.

After this it gets scary. The level of violence on the street means my students don’t ride their bicycles to school anymore. Pedophiles and opportunists lurk around every school yard and playground. Kids do not have a lot of time to be children anymore. In addition to all the fearful things out there, we load them down with homework and we start talking about SAT scores and resumes and grade point averages beginning in the womb. We make them into heart attack victims by the time they are eighteen and they get their first rejection letter from college. So we seize the teachable moment: life is full of rejections. It is how you bounce back that determines the players in this world. Get up, dust yourself off, and get back in the game. These days, it’s survival of the fittest.

So I am thinking of all of this tonight, as I plan my first lessons, revise my syllabus, look over my textbooks, and consider what this year might hold. When I look back on this night in June, 2008, it will seem, like always, to be a dusky memory. We start the year with certain things in mind, things that we think will be important. Then life takes over and tells us what the year will be about.

I am thinking about my state of mind on September 10th, 2001.

I am thinking about the spring I had congestive heart failure.

I am thinking about the year my mom died, or the year we inherited a house, or the year we had an earthquake that closed the school.

What will this year reveal to us? I guess that is the anticipation I feel tonight. I know we will read Catcher In The Rye once again, and 1984, The Stranger, “The Most Dangerous Game,” Emily Dickinson’s thoughts about death, Romeo and Juliet, and Einstein’s dreams of time. We will write and write and write. We will publish a school newspaper, a magazine, a yearbook. We will have faculty and department meetings, parent conferences, talks with failing students, talks with successful students. We will see, in the next ten months, tears, smiles, injuries, illnesses, emptiness, satisfaction, joy, sorrow, peace, war, love, hate, disappointment, death, and finally, summer again.

In the end, teaching is about the life of the mind, and the things that come attached to the mind: the human being and all the ups and downs he or she encounters while growing.

I love vacation. But I also love coming home to the classroom, one of the few places I have ever felt I belonged. Former teachers of mine, I hope, if you are still alive, that admission does not kill you. I may not have been the best student, but I am a committed teacher. Give me twenty-five students and some good literature and I know that the world still has a chance. The classroom is where, if you look hard enough, you can see the new day coming.

And that is all the hope I need.

Monday, August 20, 2007

In My Father's Name

In My Father’s Name: A Family, A Town, A Murder
By Mark Arax

Pocket Books $14.95, paper
ISBN 0-671-01002-6

One of the hallmarks of the high school English classroom is that at some point during the school year, the teacher must assign a research paper. Even when such a paper is assigned by another department like history, the responsibility to teach the techniques and format of research always falls on the English teachers.

Students usually respond to this assignment by searching for sources to plagiarize. In fact, I do not think I have ever assigned a research paper where someone, either intentionally or accidentally, has not plagiarized material. The thing is, that is one task a researcher must do: gather existing information and summarize it, quoting the important bits for the reader to comprehend. Research writing is, in a way, legal plagiarism.

I like to teach research writing using the journalistic format of the five Ws and the H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Because journalism makes a good model for students to follow, I had them read Mark Arax’s book, In My Father’s Name for summer reading.

Arax, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of The King of California, writes in this book about going undercover to research the unsolved murder of his father, Fresno bar owner Ara Arax. Ara Arax was killed in January of 1972 when the younger Arax was fifteen years old. At the time, the boy swore he would find the men responsible for the crime and bring them to justice. Later in life, he forsakes becoming a lawyer to attend Columbia’s graduate program in journalism leading to a career with the Baltimore Evening Sun, the former paper of H.L. Mencken, and then The Los Angeles Times.

After years as an investigative reporter, Arax asked for a leave from the paper and moved back to Fresno under an assumed name. There, he began to research the unsolved story of his father’s execution by two white men on a Sunday night in front of a single witness, the bartender, Linda Lewis.

Arax reads the case files from the police and other investigative agencies on the federal level. He struggles with the necessary objectivity that a good reporter should have. He tries to view witnesses and crime scene details without prejudice, but often in this struggle, he fails, only to take a step back, resolve to think more clearly, and relaunch the investigation. It is a slippery slope on which he travels, with many false roads and blind leads.

He decides to operate from a base of assumptions: One, his father’s death was not a random event. Two, the murder was tied to the business of the bar. Three, someone close to his father betrayed him. Four, the murder was precipitated by a change in his father’s relationship with someone at the bar, such as an employee. And five, the best evidence could be found by following his father’s movements during the six months prior to the murders.

“One of the first rules of investigative reporting was that you never busted down a door without first trying to find the key to unlock it,” Arax writes. This is one of many aphorisms about journalism that Arax shares with his readers. He completely and totally immerses himself in the research, using notes he took back when the crime occurred all the way to the present. He spares no stone or shoe leather in his search. “Journalistic training had taught me to question chance and coincidence and heed the pattern of conforming events,” he writes. “But it also imparted a healthy mistrust of conspiracies.” Arax quickly discards the robbery theory, as no money was taken during the commission of the crime. He begins, more and more, to circle in on drugs.

Arax finds that his father had invested in a second bar just prior to his death. The owner of the second bar was involved in a drug deal with two other men. All three were good friends with Arax’s uncle. As his research progresses, he finds evidence that his father wanted to stop the drug deal, and was further enraged because the money he gave the second bar owner for his piece of the pie was funneled directly to the drug mules to move the product. This spurred Arax to go to the police and try to stop the drug deal. What he did not know, and his son discovered, was that the police were corrupt and probably in on the deal, or at least being paid funds to protect the drug shipment from discovery.

Arax never finds one hundred percent proof of the three drug dealers’ complicity in his father’s murder, but he comes very close. Of course, he learns important things about himself and his life in the process. This is foreshadowed when he takes a leave of absence from the Times. Fellow journalist Pete King tells him, “Remember, Mark. This is not about solving a crime. It is about solving a life.”

“I’m not sure I can accept anything less on this story,” Arax responds. “I’m not sure I can ever let go without knowing all the answers.”

In the end, his tenacity is rewarded. He comes to some solid conclusions about who murdered his father and why, as well as determining why he became a journalist all those years ago instead of a lawyer. He discovers that his Uncle Navo may have had something to do with the murder, a family secret. “You’re a lot like him sometimes, you know,” the uncle tells him. “Except you’re smarter than he was.”

Mark Arax offers us a thorough, well-researched story about a murder. Along the way, he tells the story of Fresno, his family’s history (as well as Armenian history), and his own travels to become a journalist. We get the five Ws and the H, and so much more. He shows us what it takes to be a good reporter, an astute researcher. He demonstrates how to tell a truthful story. He provides evidence and details to support his assertions. He does, in short, all the things a good journalist should do.

And it is a gripping, intense journey.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Writers Need Readers

A few years ago, I made an obvious discovery: a writer needs a reader. I know it sounds so obvious, but if that statement does seem pedantic, why is it that so many writing teachers make assignments, collect the drafts, possibly share them with the class, make some lame comments, and return them back to the writers and move on to the next assignment? No writer writes for fifteen or twenty people. A writer writes for as many people as he can get to read and pay attention to his work. So if you want to learn to be a better writer, there is only one avenue: write for publication.

The question is, how do we give students the opportunity to write for a large audience? Internships are the key for college students. Every college student who aspires to be a better writer should be assigned an internship at a newspaper or magazine. She should then be allowed to write her own stories, researching and interviewing alongside established reporters, and also spend time at the editor’s desk reviewing and editing copy. I guarantee that in six weeks she will be a better writer. Dealing with copy every day breeds familiarity with editing practices. Writing articles and listening to feedback from other writers and the subscribers/readers will improve a writer’s nose for story and writing ability.

In the high school classroom, the avenues to internships and public exposure are limited due to the students’ age. There is a very good method, however of increasing the chances that a student’s work will be read by a broader audience. A few years ago, I started a magazine at my school. I turned all of my writing classes into writing and editorial workshops to produce a magazine every month. It was a hellish amount of work, but it was successful beyond my wildest dreams.

I modeled our magazine after The New Yorker, one of the oldest magazines in America. Of course, the finished product was radically different from the model, but I decided, at least initially, to aim high. The New Yorker, first published in 1925, contains some of the best writing in America. My students read many of The New Yorker writers in the literature portion of the class, including James Thurber, E.B. White, and J.D. Salinger. The magazine uses several kinds of writing, including journalism, profiles, personal history, fiction, poetry, cartoons, and criticism.

I copied several stories from multiple editions of the magazine and distributed them to my students. We read through them and studied the techniques, the stories, the research involved, and the writer’s particular style. Then, I divided up the class into areas of responsibility. I knew I wanted a group of reporters to write about what was happening locally on campus and in the immediate community surrounding the school. I wanted another group to focus on book and movie reviews. I wanted a third group to interview prominent people in the community and in the school. I knew that some students wrote poetry and short fiction for fun. I gave them the freedom to bring in what they had been working on for possible inclusion. The last section of students I put together as the editorial group. All of these jobs would be rotated through the classroom so that every student found himself in each job category at some point in the school year. As things became clearer, and students demonstrated their talents and abilities, I allowed them to settle into specific jobs, or work on specific kinds of writing. We became a well-oiled machine.

Yes, it was chaotic at times, and involved an enormous amount of work and organization, but when the issues started coming out, and students began reading, the publication day became one of the most exciting days of the month. Literally, classes would come to a standstill to read the latest issue. Parents were calling in to give feedback on a particular article or piece. Students who were not in my classes demanded to know how they could write for the magazine.

The bottom line was that the magazine represented real writing for a real audience. Sure the feedback often bred controversy and occasionally, some anger within the school community. However, I gave voice to opposing views and tried to take a balanced editorial approach. I also had a tremendously supportive administration who never interfered with the content of the magazine. They backed me and the student writers all the way.

Along the way, I was able to teach the writing process in real terms. I could send an article back for more research and investigation. I could demand additional drafts. We could spend time discussing photographs to accompany a story. We developed theme issues. I avoided the stereotypical high school newspaper stories—no cafeteria food analysis articles or other petty complaints. My students wrote about violence in their community, mixed marriages, racial harmony, the growing American interest in soccer, relationships and their transitory nature in high school, music and movie reviews. And the reviews were most interesting. From the start, I did not want the “two thumbs up or down” variety of review. I wanted the movies and music reviews to relate the work to culture. I was pleasantly surprised to see articles come in about the culture of violence surrounding rap music, or how so many movies targeted for a teen audience catered to the lowest common denominator in terms of comedy. Many, one student pointed out, contained lots of bathroom humor, but literally no plot. As they were learning about the ancient Greeks’ study of drama, students began writing about how many movies lacked a catharsis, or played to the audience’s emotions rather than offering a satisfying and involving plot and conflict.

This year, we are expanding our program in a big way. The magazine has struggled to be a journalistic endeavor as well as a literary and cultural entity. Often, we were not set up or prepared to cover breaking news on campus. This year, we decided to remedy this by restarting the campus newspaper. Students will now have the choice of working on the school newspaper each day, or they can work on the magazine. The newspaper will focus on breaking news and short journalistic articles. The magazine will focus on long form journalism, culture, fiction and poetry. In addition, we will be adding the yearbook assembly to the students’ responsibility. This will allow students to work on short, immediate pieces, longer, more researched and developed work, and year long summary articles and pictures. We will cover the entire gamut of published writing. The best part is that students have a built in audience for all of this within the school community. It is a win-win proposition.

So is there a downside? The downside is the amount of work that will be placed on basically three teachers. But there are no shortcuts. To me, the value of students working on actual published writing that has a large audience far outweighs the extra hours and responsibilities. I know that my students will learn to write.

In other schools, there are time and funding constraints that would limit such a program. But the case needs to be made that watching students learn to write, revise and shape a piece for publication is to watch kids strive to reach others with their work. If a teacher cannot start an actual publication, there are websites, blogs and other forms that could be utilized.

In the end, there is nothing that encourages writing like feedback from readers. What I found with most of my assignments was that the final grade I put on the paper had little or no meaning. After all the drafts and work, it was most often an A grade. But the students were far more enthralled with the feedback from their readers. My grade was a distant second in importance. For a writer, that is the validity that comes from readers, and there is no substitute.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Dirtiest Five Letter Word

We were hoodwinked once, and it won’t happen again.

In a piece reported today by the Associated Press’ Richard Lardner, President Bush’s new war adviser stated in an interview that it is worth considering a draft to bolster depleted troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, speaking to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” made the assertion when asked about the stress on our nation’s military. “I think it makes sense to certainly consider it. And I can tell you, this has always been an option on the table.”

Is this just one more option secretly debated by the Bush administration only to be thrust upon us after yet another alleged terrorist threat? It seems like these unthinkable ideas pop up immediately after we have been told that we should be very afraid. We made need to invade Iran. There will be more attacks on American soil. And now, we will need to start up the draft. No way, Mr. Bush, it is not going to happen.

The Selective Service System provided troops for wars dating back to the Civil War, and arguably, citizens needed to report for military service to insure their country’s security and protect its interests. After the Second World War, however, Americans were drafted under false pretenses leading to tremendous loss of life in Korea and Vietnam. Why? To stem the tide of communism. Communism is long gone, and the Cold War is over. We lost Vietnam. If Bush and his minions think that a draft is necessary for the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, they must make a better case than they have up until now. We know they lied about the weapons in Iraq, so how much credibility do they really have?

Also, according to the report, Lute has not been the first person to suggest a return to the draft. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. has called for a draft as well as a way to end the war in Iraq. How ridiculous! We can end the war in Iraq by simply bringing our troops home. The people of Iraq do not want us there. The place is mired in civil war. Arguably, every day we stay, we are generating more anti-American sentiment. That will translate into future terrorist attacks for years to come. No draft will help that situation. Mr. Rangel should be thrown out of office for even suggesting such an idea.

Here is why the draft will not happen. Americans remember, all too clearly, the Vietnam debacle. Bush does not have the backing of the American people anymore. Iraq has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9-11. No American interests are threatened by the war in Iraq. The only thing that comes close to an American interest is the amount of oil in the region, which Bush and his cronies hope to secure for their own profits.

Here is why we must bring our troops home now. Lives are being lost without any discernible benefit: we are not safer, we are not preventing attacks by meddling in a civil war, and we are actually encouraging more attacks with our presence in the country.

The Bush argument is that we will seriously destabilize the region if we leave now. The region is already in chaos. We need to try some diplomacy. By using our Arab allies in the region, may be we can stop the violence and bloodshed. It is clear our military presence has been a failure there.

It is interesting to note that Lute took the job as a war adviser after several retired generals turned down the offer. They were smart. This is a quagmire of monumental proportions. People expect things to change in 2008, but I am wondering if we can even wait that long. With the behavior of the Bush administration, we can no longer say with any certainty that he will be a lame-duck president. His actions seem to suggest that he is intent on pursuing a course of action that will lead this country into greater losses of life and further ill-will from the rest of the world.

But the bottom line is, if President Bush and Lt. Gen. Lute decide that a draft is the next step, his daughters, the Bush twins, better be the first to put on the Army uniform. This man has sacrificed enough of other Americans’ sons and daughters with his ineptitude.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Know Your Bible

I know that my students have read a number of works of Greek mythology. I know my students have read, or will read Beowulf, and books detailing Arthurian legend. What I was surprised to find in a Christian private school was that students did not know, and had never been assigned to read the Bible.

This fact led me to assign seniors the reading of the book of Genesis and the book of Revelation for summer reading. Why those two books specifically? Well, I thought those two books would be a fit place to begin. I also plan to work in some psalms and other sections as necessary to our study over the course of the year. Why not? The Bible is a work of literature and therefore it can be subjected to literary criticism like any other good book.

According to an article in The Los Angeles Times datelined Sunday, August 5, 2007, I was dead right in my assignment. It seems to be a commonality among high school and college level students that they do not know the Bible. In America, we live in a culture profoundly influenced by Judeo-Christian philosophy. That philosophy is spelled out in stories, poetry, letters, and testaments in the Bible. Not having a familiarity with the Bible will limit a student’s understanding of literature and culture, seeing that the books we study are filled with biblical allusions and references.

Seema Mehta, the author of the Times article, writes “There is a broad agreement across the social, political, and religious spectrum, and most important the Supreme Court, that the Bible can be taught in public schools and that knowledge of the Bible is vital to students’ understanding of literature and art, including Moby-Dick, Michelangelo, and The Matrix.”

Justice Tom C. Clark, writing in a Supreme Court decision in 1963, declared reading of the Bible and prayer in schools as unconstitutional. But he emphasized in the ruling, according to Mehta, “that the court did not intend to discourage academic study of religion.”

“It certainly may be said,” Justice Clark wrote, “that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education may not be effected consistently with the 1st Amendment.”

Mehta makes the point that “high school English teachers and university professors say this lack of exposure to Bible tales has led to an education gap.” This, I can verify in my own classes, among students who are professed Christians, or at the very least, baptized Christians who have fallen off the path so to speak.

Still, it really does not matter what religion, or lack of religion, one professes to have. The Bible influenced this country from its beginnings; it has also played a major role in the development of western culture and therefore, students must know their Bible as well as they know Greek mythology, or the stories of Gilgamesh.

This study does not have anything to do with Christianity, per se. I did not ask my students to read the Bible this summer to reacquaint them with their lapsed Christianity, nor is it a conversion tactic on my part. A person’s religious belief is his own business. I am not interested in the Bible as truth, or even as a literal document. The Bible to me is literature—stories, essays, poems, letters. And these stories, essays, poems, and letters just so happen to have influenced all of western thought.

The Bible is not history either; at best, it offers an interpretation of history.

Genesis makes a good beginning because it plays a role in so many works of literature. Just what knowledge did Adam and Eve partake of when they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? What kind of sin is Original Sin? John Steinbeck wrote a novel that updated the story of Cain and Abel. Mehta’s article makes mention of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is loaded with biblical allusions. When I last taught that novel, I had to push my students to realize that Jim Casy, the former preacher, gives his life to save others. His initials are J.C. like Jesus Christ. Most of my Christian students missed this on first reading.

Revelation is the classic end of the world narrative. Given the times we live in, the idea of the end of the world is something kids speculate about all the time. They talk about the new millennium, the prophecies, and Nostradamus, but they do not realize that Revelation and Nostradamus are written in code, in a language of symbolism known to the people of the time. To read these prophecies now is to attempt an understanding without the cultural underpinnings. There are events listed in Revelation that make so much more sense when the time period in which the book was written is examined. And yes, some of the things listed there could happen, may have happened already. It will make for good discussion.

This is also not about literal interpretation versus figurative. I tell my students that we will read the Bible the same way we read all literature—looking for meaning, symbolism, theme, and of course, the use of language to convey meaning.

Sometimes when we are reading a fictional short story, a student will ask me, “Is this a true story?” It makes for a good discussion. I ask them in what ways is the story “true” and in what ways could the events never happen. What they come to quite readily is that a good story has truth to it, meaning that the characters, the situation, the plot, the events, have the richness of truth. They ring true, even if they are fictitious. We look at the Bible the same way.

In the story of Cain and Abel, what rings true? Well, almost everyone who has siblings has at some point felt competition with them, especially for attention from parents. I ask the class, how many of you feel you do not get as much notice as your older brother or sister? Now we have a basis for discussion. Not many students have ever felt jealousy to the point of committing murder, but they have all heard stories from the news where this has occurred. Cain and Abel would be tabloid fodder for sure in today’s world.

When I was in high school, we spent an entire semester of freshman year studying the Old Testament, mainly the Torah, or first five books of the Bible. This was at a Catholic high school. I cannot say we studied the rest of the Bible as intensely, but reference was made quite often to the New Testament and other books. This study was a definite plus when we went to literature class. The allusions made sense. The connections could be made.

The Bible can also be discussed philosophically. Like the best works of philosophy, the Bible attempts to explain why we are here. Students can feel free to reject biblical ideas as one might reject existentialism as long as one understands what it is he is rejecting and its importance to western culture.

So somewhere out there, I expect that some of my students are slugging away at Genesis and Revelation, as they are also reading Crime and Punishment and 1984. Like the novels and stories we will read this year, the Bible offers some exciting episodes. In my life as a reader, good literature is good literature. The Bible, like most ancient works of literature, began as stories around a camp fire, performed by the first actors to an enthralled audience who may have described themselves as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or atheists, but in that moment, they were simply human beings listening for the truth in a good story.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


Recently, The Los Angeles Times edition datelined May 28, 2007 detailed the growing competition among homeless people and scavengers who fan out across the city on trash day to raid resident recycle bins for plastic bottles and cans.

In my neighborhood, the scavengers work block by block in a grid pattern. I put out my trash bins, and within minutes, someone is going through them searching for recyclables to take to the local supermarket parking lot to redeem for cash. This does not bother me, although I have heard that some residents take offense. Hey, as long as the stuff gets recycled, I do not care who turns it in, and if someone needs the money bad enough to search through neighborhood trash cans, I say have at it.

My only gripe is that often they scatter trash in the streets, or they do not close the lid of the bin when finished leading to further scavenging by animals such as rats, opossums, cats, and dogs. If the trash is not scattered all over the street when the human scavengers are finished, it will be once the animals get involved.

So the other afternoon when I heard noises out on my driveway, I looked out my front window to see an extremely dirty and disheveled man rummaging through my trash bins. I watched him extract multiple plastic water bottles. He closed the lid when finished, and I figured all was well. My wife walked into the room and asked me what I was looking at, and after I explained, she took my spot at the window and continued watching. I had lost interest.

The man moved to a car parked at the curb. Being that the street is only a few feet from my front door, my wife was wary. The man combed his greasy hair in the car’s tinted windows and made an attempt to straighten his wrinkled, dirty clothes. He then moved from the street to the sidewalk directly in front of my door and began to unzip his pants to urinate. I heard my wife gasp, and when I asked what was wrong, she told me. I sprang to the door and walked out on the stoop to confront the man.

“Move it,” I warned him, “or I’ll call the police.”

The man had not even completely unzipped yet. “Go ahead,” he replied. “Call ‘em.” But he was turning away as he said it, grabbing his shopping cart loaded with the bottles and cans and moving off down the street.

I can handle someone stealing my trash. I mean arguably, taking what someone has discarded is not stealing. But urinating on my doorstep was just not going to happen.

In fact, I have had several encounters with homeless people in the neighborhood where they have acted belligerently toward me, or even to each other. Usually, the encounters involve alcohol consumption or drug use and inevitably, the police are slow to respond, or they do not respond altogether. I hate the faint smell of urine after they leave, as well as the liquor bottles and beer cans they leave behind.

Once, I was standing in my driveway when a man approached me to ask what I was looking at, and if I was looking at him, he told me, I should stop at once before he cleaned my clock. The man was so intoxicated that he wavered back and forth on his feet like a news reporter in the face of a hurricane.

I am never at a loss for words when in a confrontation, but this time, I surprised myself. “I’m not looking at anything,” I mumbled. “I’m just waiting for a plumber to arrive.”

The short, drunk bum said he would let me off with a warning this time.

When I told my neighbor about the encounter, he laughed. “I’m surprised you did not let him have it.”

Something about these people makes me cautious. Is it that I feel sorry for their plight—to live on the streets and comb trash for recyclables to turn in for a few dollars? Am I afraid of their instability due to drugs or alcohol? Bottom line is, I just do not like confronting them, and I only want them to pick up after themselves and not damage my property by spraying my door with urine.

I clearly remember the first time I ever encountered someone who was homeless. The town I lived in had one man everyone knew was homeless. He traveled the streets with a walker and a suitcase, and I had often seen him pouring over a book in the library, or asleep with his head hanging over the table. He was white, with a ruddy complexion and swollen, ulcerated legs. I saw him bandage his legs often at the local park.

I had driven to the library on a warm summer night to drop off some overdue books in the book drop. I was feeling the easy freedom of a high school student who had just gotten his driver’s license. I parked my father’s pickup truck facing the open field behind the library and quickly went up to the main doors to slide the books into the slot. The library itself was dark, the parking lot empty. When I got back into the truck, I started the engine and turned on the headlights. Directly in front of me, the homeless man stood up in his white nightshirt and long underwear. He was disheveled and sleepy, and I had undoubtedly disturbed his sleeping area in the vacant lot.

I got out of the car and we stared at each other across the hood of the truck. Not a word was exchanged. I jumped back into the cab, backed out of the space, and drove off. I had seen the man so many times wandering about the mall and shops along the main boulevard. It had never occurred to me that he had to sleep somewhere.

There is a certain unpredictability about people in such dire straits. We want to help them, may be even reach out to them, but we are also jaded. Are these people really homeless? Are they using the money I give them to buy drugs and booze? Are they dangerous?

There are no clear cut answers, but what we do know is that these people live on the fringe of society, often victims of abuse or assault, and are desperate enough to go through the trash to find something to eat. In the end, what is most evident is that they are human beings who must live like animals.

On the day I ran off the man who raided my trash and attempted to water my front door step, I went to the supermarket with my wife to pick up a few things. Since I was not feeling well, I decided to stay in the car and wait for her. I saw a black man with a shopping cart filled with personal possessions approach the store and take up a position right next to me. He was clean and well-groomed, but there was something about him that gave off the vibe of someone who did not have much in this life. He did not make eye contact with me. In the gathering darkness, he raised his beautiful baritone voice and began to sing. “Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high…”

The other shoppers in the parking lot stopped to listen. He sang the entire song. It was a typical summer night with a slight breeze and a purple and blue sky. His voice flowed over me and echoed off the walls. No one moved until he was finished with the song. Then people approached him and silently dropped dollar bills and change in a cup at his feet.

“God bless you,” he said softly to each person.

After he collected from everyone, he pushed his cart on toward the edge of the parking lot, humming softly to himself.

Fear is a difficult thing to overcome. Innocent encounters can turn dangerous in seconds. In this life, it is very hard not to be suspicious and wary when encountering people. It is amazing, however, how such fears and suspicions can be overcome by a sweet song on a summer night.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Until Now, The Hidden Costs of War

One of the factors hastening the decline of the former Soviet Union was the seemingly unending war in Afghanistan. America’s war on terror is like the former Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.

If the bridge falling into the Mississippi in Minnesota is any indication, the United States is rotting from the inside as we spend every dime and resource on a quagmire and civil war of our own creation. The war on terror threatens the very fabric of our country and has already profoundly damaged the way the rest of the world views Americans. If we are not careful, we may face a fate similar to our Soviet counterparts of yester-year.

Until that bridge fell this week, the most commonly known costs of the war on terror were: 3662 dead soldiers in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; 25,000 wounded; costs expected to reach at least one trillion dollars at a rate of two billion dollars per week; currently, the total cost is close to 500 billion dollars; untold numbers of Iraqi dead.

Then there are the costs of rebuilding the infrastructure of Iraq and Afghanistan. We also know that our reputation in the world has been irreversibly damaged, and that many more people hate us now than when the towers fell on September 11th. Back then, many countries stood with us and deplored the terrorists’ actions. Even our enemies, like Cuba and Venezuela expressed sympathy and a desire to send aid. We have squandered whatever goodwill and support the world offered us after 9-11. America is now viewed as an imperialistic bully after one thing in the Middle East: oil.

We can now add some additional costs revealed in our crumbling infrastructure:

· As reports now indicate, the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis is only one of 70,000 bridges across America that were deemed deficient. CBS News reported that one such bridge is the Brooklyn Bridge which failed its recent inspection report.

· In July, a steam pipe exploded under the street of Manhattan causing panic in the streets and a massive response from city agencies.

· In addition, we have problems with flight delays in the airline industry, often tied to airport facility construction and lack of an adequate number of gates and ground facilities to accommodate arriving aircraft.

· America has struggled to recover from natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in the gulf region. Much of the city of New Orleans was flooded due to failure of the dike and drainage system. Government agencies were slow to respond, and the rebuilding of housing and infrastructure has taken longer than expected, severely impacting the city’s economic future.

· Across the country, the rail system is in desperate need of maintenance and upgrading in order to continue the transportation of goods around the nation.

The amount of money it will take to repair all the bridges is not clear. The Associated Press reports it will take $55 billion, but gives no time table. The American Society of Civil Engineers puts the cost at $9.4 billion a year for twenty years to remedy the problem.

The tragedy that occurred Wednesday might be a symptom of what is coming in this country as our infrastructure begins to fail. Like the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the war on terror is bankrupting the country, depleting military resources, and destroying our credibility as a nation; now we are seeing the war’s effect on infrastructure.

We must put more money and effort into securing our lives here at home. This means health care, Social Security, and basic necessities of food and clean water for all Americans. This means investing in our infrastructure, to restore roadways and highways, to reinforce bridges and waterways, and to fund projects that keep our cities and people safe.

To extricate ourselves from this war and restore our reputation in the world will take a leader with more intelligence and vision than George W. Bush.

To restore and upgrade our sagging infrastructure will take time and money.

As we saw on the evening news Wednesday, the imperative to do all of this has reached a crisis of necessity.