Friday, February 20, 2009

The Patron Saint of Shooting Stars

I had occasion to think of Christopher, my uncle, when I read Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments about Black History Month. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” he said, “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

In my Catholic school third grade class, we had one African-American student named Pam, and she had the bad luck to be assigned a group project with me. I do not remember what the perceived insult was, but I lashed out at her by calling her a nigger. I was immediately pulled out of class by the teacher and sent to the principal’s office.

Having grown up in a household where my mother used that term quite regularly, I felt certain that I would come out okay in this fight. The principal let me stew while she called my mother to the campus. I was sent home.

Later that week, I was at my grandmother’s house, standing in her kitchen telling the story. My uncle Christopher was visiting and quietly listened to my rant. When I recounted the moment of insult, and used the dreaded word, Christopher nearly leapt from his seat. In a moment, he had a handful of my shirt in his hand and had me backed against the counter. “Don’t you ever use that word in my presence,” he shouted at me. “If I catch you ever saying that again, I will wash your mouth out with soap.” He released his grip on me and I ran. I slammed out the back door, flew across the lawn through my grandfather’s gardens to the back of the property. There, I scaled an apricot tree and found a niche way up high and out of sight in the foliage.

Christopher was my father’s brother, born in the fifties, a product of the sixties, a hippy with an earring and a passion for Volkswagens. He had been thrown out of my grandparents’ house for smoking pot. He was a rebel who played in a rock and roll band.

My very conservative parents treated Christopher with suspicion. He was the black sheep of the family. I knew that I could tell my mother how he manhandled me in the kitchen and she would put him in his place. I was planning my revenge when I heard the back door slam. Christopher came across the lawn through the gardens to stand directly beneath me. He did not look up.

“You need to understand something,” he said. “People have died for that word. They have been beaten, hanged, abused, mistreated. It is an evil word. Someday you will understand.” He walked away.

It did not take long for me to discover the truth in what he said, but by then he was living in Seattle, and we did not see much of each other. When I did see him, we did not have much to say.

One summer when I was a teenager, we went on a camping trip up the west coast, and met up with Christopher in a small village in the southern part of Washington state. He was now a successful commercial fisherman with his own boat, and he found the time to dock for a few days so we could visit. He took us out on the open ocean. I rode the whole way at the front of the boat, clinging to the main mast cable while standing on the prow. It was like flying. The air was clear, seagulls hovered over us, and the water was so blue it was almost black. The hot July day on land became crisp and cold on the water, and Christopher gave me several of his shirts to layer over my pathetic tee to keep myself warm. He fried up fresh tuna and bacon for sandwiches, and it was quite possibly the best meal I have ever had in my life.

But what I remember most was that Christopher was happy. He had found the secret of joy in his life. I can still see his face. I can still inhale the breath of that summer.

One cold January, Christopher took to the seas to fish in what had been a stormy and unproductive season. While far from port, a massive system blew in, and Christopher waited on his boat, the Adventure, to make sure that all his fishing buddies on other boats got in before the storm hit. He waited too long and was caught in the turbulent weather. The Adventure went missing.

Storm after storm pummeled the coast of Washington, and by the time the Coast Guard mounted a search, pieces of the Adventure had already washed up on the beach. Searchers found a large oil slick and some debris. When they dove down, they discovered a boat buried to the top of its wheelhouse in sediment at the bottom of the sea. The divers confirmed that it was the Adventure. Christopher and his two crew members were never found.

There are many teachers we have in our lives, and often the most profound are discovered far from the classroom. Christopher taught me to consider the world from the point of view of others and most importantly, to judge others by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Like most of the great teachers in my life, I never got to tell him what he did for me.

His picture is on my desk, the mischievous grin on his face as he holds up a gigantic catch of the day. He is full of life on the deck of the Adventure. I like to remember him this way.

Sometimes, in the calm of night, I go out into my backyard and gaze up at the stars. All those spheres of fire arcing across the heavens. I stand there listening as Christopher told me he often did while out on the open ocean. “You listen,” he told me on that summer trip so long ago. “You try to count the shooting stars and listen to the sky.”

So I stand listening, not unlike the boy I once was, high up in that apricot tree painfully aware of my own ignorance. I listen for any sound, a voice, an echo, until I think I hear the whispering path of the earth hurtling through space. And I understand.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In Love With Our Own Ignorance

Mark Slouka, writing in the “Notebook” column in the February, 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine, believes Americans are rapidly losing themselves in their own ignorance.

“What we need to talk about...” Slouka writes in his thesis, “is our ever-deepening ignorance (of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) and not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it.” He believes we are no longer ashamed of what we do not know, and we no longer strive to understand ourselves or our place in the world. Sadly, this attitude is evident in Washington, in our churches, our universities, in our daily lives. “We don’t know…” Slouka insists. “Or care to know.”

Instead of intelligence and knowing, we have become obsessed with empty pursuits such as reality TV, celebrity gossip and behavior, and food. For example, Slouka argues that we care little about lies our government told us after 9-11. He cites a wealth of statistics to support his assertion of American stupidity. One in four of us believe in reincarnation; forty-four percent believe in ghosts; seventy-one percent think angels exist; forty percent hold to the idea that God created us in our present form within the last 10,000 years, even in the face of scientific evidence.

I can validate his position by what I see in the classroom. I have been asked repeatedly by students and their parents why someone would take a job like teaching with guaranteed lack of respect, low pay, and constant conflict? No one seems to understand a commitment to intellectual values, or the cultural imperative behind it. I have worked for principals whose decisions defy logic and violate the rules of sound pedagogy. I see people who have no interest in reading or the acquisition of knowledge. Among students, and even my fellow teachers, there is a healthy disrespect for, and lack of understanding of, reason and argument. Every week, I get questions from students like “How do you know this?” Or, “What if I interpret the poem another way?” Often their ideas lack evidence from the work of literature, or even from real life experiences. They do not know why they believe something. They just do.

On the other side, I take meetings with parents who are angry that their children were told they were wrong. I am supposed to say “good try,” or “that’s good thinking, Dylan.” God forbid I should tell the truth: “Dylan, you are not only wrong, your answer lacks all logic and coherence.”

“I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance,” Slouka writes. He goes on to say that he finds that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of logic and belief. “Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There’s a kind of Biblical grandeur to it, and as God’s chosen, we have an inherent right to it. Knowledge, on the other hand, is impersonal, easily manipulated, inherently suspect. Like the facts it’s based on, it’s slippery, insubstantial—not solid like the things you believe.” The situation is a subversion of the proper order.

I see this in the classroom quite frequently. My students are often upset when we argue and debate. They tell me that argument serves no purpose. We are never going to agree on an issue. All we do is allow people to trumpet their opinions. But what is so wrong with putting out our ideas and examining the validity of them. The point of debate is not to come to agreement; it is to discuss and validate what we believe based on knowledge and evidence. Slouka recognizes this as “our inherent discomfort with argument.”

So who is to blame for Americans’ love affair with their own ignorance? “We could blame the American education system,” Slouka says, “which has been retooled over the past two generations to churn out workers… not skeptical, informed citizens.” Or, we can blame the usual suspects: television, the computer, video games, a lack of role models.

Maybe our national crisis is not economic. Quite possibly it is the idea that we do not want to think anymore. We want what is left of real journalism to tell us safe bedtime stories about Brad and Angelina, what Mrs. Obama is wearing, and what clubs Paris Hilton frequents.

We do not want to think, discuss, argue. We do not want to know upsetting things about the collapse of American life and culture, gun violence on our streets, mothers and fathers who murder their children or vice versa, the failure of our education system, the appalling inhumanity we demonstrate every day. We do not want to validate our belief system by subjecting our ideas to standards of logic and reason.

In the end, we want to sit in the cozy darkness of our heavily mortgaged homes, watch our giant flat screen TVs, and sleep the pleasant slumber of infants.

God help us.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Winter of Our Discontent

We have heard from so many of our leaders and politicians that we live in the greatest country on earth. Before we accept such nonsense at face value, and before we proclaim all our problems solved because Barack Obama is now president, let us examine a few news stories from the last two weeks.

A 93 year-old man living in Bay City, Michigan, froze to death in his home of fifty years.

“When neighbors went inside Marvin Schur’s house, the windows were frosted over,” Associated Press reporter David Eggert wrote, “icicles hung from a faucet, and the 93-year-old World War II veteran lay dead on the bedroom floor in a winter jacket over four layers of clothing.”

Mr. Schur had money and means, but probably not his full faculties. His nephew, himself 67 years of age and living in Florida, said his uncle had $600,000. Neighbors who entered the house to check on the man said bills were stacked on the kitchen table, each with cash clipped to it. He simply forgot to send his payment, something he had never done before, and this should have flagged the attention of the power company. Instead, a workman came out and placed a limiter on Schur’s meter. When the old man tried to use his electricity, the device shut him down. His furnace would not click on; his stove would not light. He was never contacted by the electric company directly, so he had no idea he had to go outside to the meter box and reset the limiter switch.

On the day he died, January 15, the temperature in that area of Michigan was between 12 degrees and minus 9.

The coroner claims that Schur suffered a “slow, painful death.” He found frostbite on the man’s foot during the autopsy.

Schur’s wife died a few years ago and the couple had no children. This man was a Purple Heart recipient in World War II, surviving a deadly war as a medic in the South Pacific. But he did not survive back home in 21st century America in winter.

Arguably, we have the means in this country to prevent an elderly war veteran from freezing to death in his home. Even if this is another Great Depression, we have the means, and someone should be held responsible for Mr. Schur’s death. I would start with Bay City Electric Light & Power.

Then there is the story of Aquan Lewis. This ten-year-old fifth grader was found hanging in his school bathroom by a janitor. Despite efforts to revive him, he died the next day. Coroners ruled the death a suicide, although his mother and family dispute this.

If this boy committed suicide, what could have transpired in his young life to deprive him of hope? If classmates killed him, what kind of country do we live in where children hang other children in the school bathroom? Or, as some of my students informed me, maybe Lewis was playing a game. Evidently, students choking themselves to the point of unconsciousness, produce a “high” like they get from taking certain drugs. So, if Lewis was choking himself and simply lost control, what does that say about our schools if a child is able to do this, indeed, wants to do this in order to catch a buzz? No matter the explanation, this story is a tragic commentary on our society.

These stories speak volumes about the state of our nation. Yes, we are a first world country. Yes, we are a rich country. Yes, we have a good standard of living.

But not for everyone. Not universally for every citizen.

And what about our attitudes toward such stories? I had my students do some journal writing about these cases. They were outraged and disturbed by both Aquan Lewis’ death and Marvin Schur’s. But when I threw in a case that happened this week, a woman named Roberta Abdue Dos Santos Busby, age 27, who dances at a bar called “Babes and Beer” that I pass every day on my way to and from work, I got a different reaction. Ms. Busby, mother of two small children, was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire by two patrons of the club. She suffered severe burns over forty percent of her body.

When I told my students about Ms. Busby and what she did for a living, a few male students laughed. “What do you expect? She works in a bar dancing naked!”

Several other students registered their disgust with the comments as did I. It does not matter what a person’s job entails. No one deserves to be burned to death.

We have an uphill climb in this nation to restore our sense of respect—for other countries, for people, for our planet and resources, for ourselves. The world watched us fail with Hurricane Katrina. They know our history of slavery, of injustice. They have watched our public debate over Guantanamo Bay, renditions, water boarding, out and out torture. The world knows what America has become. We need to restore our respect for others, and regain the world’s respect.

The greatest nation on earth?

To Mr. Schur, freezing to death on his bedroom floor alone, I don’t think so.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tell Me Where All Past Years Are

"Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.
And through it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun."
-John Donne from "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning"