Monday, September 22, 2014

Brown-Eyed Girl

I remember going for a walk that day.  It must have been before the VISTA training was over because I didn't have a car.  I must have been eager to get outside and off my myself because most July days in Houston, Texas are hot.  Hot as in 100 degrees or more, then muggy then cloudy then gully-washer rainstorms, then steamy, then hot again.
I remember it was Westheimer Road where I ended up walking.  Not sure how far out of town or where exactly but I entered a small antique store and began to look around. The usual array of items in a small glass case. Some jewelry, old political buttons, Depression  On the walls various paintings, on the tables, more glassware and dinner sets of fine china.  And then I saw her.  I looked right in her face and was fixated.  The oval frame was cheap but the watercolor painting was deep and clear, and haunting.  The artist had talent.  The brown eyes were lifelike, the yellow bonnet enchanting.

I couldn't have paid much more than $20.00.  Thinking back, I doubt I had more than twenty bucks with me any time that year.  Wish I could see the face of the man that sold me that painting.  Wish I could recall the name of that store.  All that remains is Westheimer...the name Westheimer is recognizable in Houston.  One of the early pioneers, Michael Westheimer gave his name to the street and left a legacy.  His wife, Bettie, supposedly made the painting I took home with me that day.  That's what the man who worked in the store told me.  I never forgot that.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I recently contacted David Lackey of the Antiques Roadshow.  I've watched his appraisals for fine art for years.  He's from Houston and has his business very near where I found the little watercolor.  I knew he'd respond, and surely, in a matter of two days, he assured me that the beautiful little painting was not really worth more than $50.00 and may or may not have been painted by Mrs. W.  Nobody seems to know whether, in fact, she painted at all.
So...happily, the mystery continues.  Just fine by me, because I'd never sell this watercolor.  It continues to please me everyday.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sound Behavior

Most teachers I know have heard the sound.  They know when it is likely to happen, and, truth be told, which student is likely to make it.  Probably Social Science and Language Arts teachers have more experience with it.  Subjects that deal with the human condition are more likely to produce the sound, but it’s definitely not exclusive to the humanities.  All too often the sound is predictable.  In fact because a teacher is often able to predict this occurrence it could actually be avoidable.  But censorship presents other problems.
So what’s the mystery noise?  It’s the enthusiastic, often adoring, sound of unbridled excitement when one human being hits another.

 You might be showing a documentary on labor strife or the film version of a classic piece of literature.  When raw violence occurs, usually in the form of a slap across the face, or as we’ve recently seen in surveillance videos a knockout punch, there are always a few in any classroom who literally jump out of their seats with joy.  While others might wince, or look away, or display empathy with the victim, these few who seem over the top with glee get most of the attention.  It usually takes them a few minutes to calm down.  Any information or film dialogue that follows the violent outburst is always lost.
It’s unsettling.  It’s curiously disturbing.  It’s usually left alone.
We like to think that no person or culture values violence for it’s own sake, but they do.  In my classroom experience it is most often the students whose childhood involves corporeal punishment that react the most enthusiastically to violence.  Their lives are most likely to be filled with violence either from family, friends, or the amount they see in the media.  Physical fighting is often encouraged. Discipline gets confused with punishment. Might usually makes right in their world.
I taught a full year in a middle school once when the historic education cutbacks hit California in the early 1980s.  My students were mostly Latino and African American.  The school principal was African American as was one of the three counselors.  The year proved most enlightening for many reasons.  While my students were engaged, intellectually curious, and developed a love of reading, there were a few who acted out on occasion.  On one rare occasion that I sent a student to see his counselor because it was not a good day for him to be in class, I was asked by the counselor if I could please join a meeting between her and the student in question.  She phoned to tell me that the boy’s grandmother, with whom he lived, was not able to attend.  After school that day I gladly went to her office.  I knew the back-story.  The grandmother adopted Paul when his parents abandoned him.  In her late seventies, she could barely get around so attending this discipline meeting was out of the question.  Mrs. Washington, the counselor, played a vital role in Paul’s life.  She was the role model he needed.  She set the limits and she enforced the rules.  Paul was not a difficult student.  He was not meaning, vindictive or even unmotivated in the classroom.  He simply found himself out of control on occasion and had the habit of displacing his anger on his classmates or even his teachers.  Mrs. Washington gave him a choice.  He could either be suspended for two days or face her consequences.  We all knew suspension would not be the choice.  It was merely a formality because Mrs. Washington knew that if he stayed home with grandma nothing productive would result.  Paul chose the alternative.  Mrs. Washington told him to get ready.  He then thrust forward his arms and she produced a ruler from her desk drawer.  I watched her strike his wrists with the ruler about 5 times on each arm.  Paul apologized for his behavior in class and then left the office promising to be on time to class the next day. 
I never spoke much with Mrs. Washington about her method of discipline.  I knew that culturally it was the norm.  The rod was not spared in many God-fearing families.

But this is part of the behavior that needs to change.  Today that form of traditional discipline is gone.  Even the wooden paddle “swats” my P.E. teachers administered to their all male classes are a thing of the past.  But residual behaviors and attitudes survive.  They have come to light as the technology continues to encroach on our time and privacy.  Reluctantly or benevolently, we move forward.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tackle This

The media is all abuzz with the story of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.  New video released today shows just how brutal his violent assault on his then girlfriend, now wife actually was.  That the NFL failed to act in a serious and timely fashion is part of the story.  Today he was summarily cut by the team because there is definite proof that he knocked his beloved unconscious with one punch to the jaw.  All this took place behind the closed doors... of an elevator.
Sure he should be severely disciplined...even lose his job, undergo counseling, and serve as an example to other young NFL players who think they are untouchable.

But something is missing from all the outrage.  The NFL is and has been getting increasingly violent.  Small wonder that it's players often react violently in every phase of their lives.
Until this story surfaced, and then resurfaced with the new video most of the current NFL concern centered around the impact of violence on brain injuries.  Al Jazeera submits the following data:

  •  American High School football players were struck in the head 30 to 50 times in every game and regularly endured blows similar to those experienced in car crashes, according to a Virginia Tech study
  • 47 per cent of high school football players say they sustain at least one concussion each season
  • 35 per cent of them say they had more than one in the same season - according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
  • 85 per cent of sports-related concussions are not diagnosed - according to the American College of Sports Medicine
  • Three million sports concussions occur every year in the US
  • 57 per cent of fans believe something should be done about head injuries
  • But nine in ten football fans say reports of head injuries will not affect their viewing plans
  • A record number - 111.3 million - watched American football's big game, the Superbowl, this year
  • The National Football League made some $9 bn in revenue in 2010 from merchandising, advertising and stadium revenues
Al Jazeera
I'm curious just how long it will take mainstream media to make the connection.  Just last weekend, while watching some of the opening week highlights, I noticed something I've never seen before.  While returning a kickoff, a running back attempted to hurdle his pursuer.  Oh, I've seen them do that before, but when it seemed that he hadn't quite cleared the would-be tackler, he extended his foot and kicked the defender in the face.  Penalty flag. Yes.  Fine and league action...probably.  What's next?
Remember the days when they called it tackle football because it was about tackling the other guy not "hitting" him.  Football, and NFL football is evolving right before our eyes, in my view.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Quick Take

One of the most succinct and accurate observations I've heard all week about the rise of ISIS in Iraq and the terrorist threat they represent all over the globe involved the use of a famous quote from John F. Kennedy.  Fascinating how decades later, it applies perfectly to so many uprisings violent reactions, and tyrannical leaders currently on the scene.  I'd love to use this quote as the basis for an essay or better yet, group discussion in classrooms this year.
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Change Is Gonna Come, Sam Cooke, 1963

Seems like things have been particularly difficult the last few weeks.  Hamas/Israeli conflict, execution of an American journalist by ISIS, Ferguson, Mo.  Afghanistan, veterans care at home, natural disasters- mudslides, forest fires, bizarre climate change whether, drought, floods, loss of Robin Williams, Ebola virus, Nigerian girls kidnapped, biased media coverage, ignorance/intolerance, pervasive violence in everything from sports to gaming to "entertainment," Immigration/humanitarian crises...
I was telling some young friends the other day to remember what I learned a while back, that no matter how bad things seem, how down/depressed we get, that some things will always be here.  This Sam Cooke tune is timeless and ever available.

Monday, August 18, 2014

When I Die

With the nation's eyes on Ferguson, Missouri this week, the dialogue, defense, and disintegration of race and racism in America continues.  Every hour of every day brings new and questionable revelations about the incident that caused the death of Michael Brown.  Trying to figure out how and why an unarmed individual took six shots is tricky business.
So many of the lessons learned from the 1960s have served me well in trying to make sense of this latest episode of the tragedy that is American race relations.  Granted, so much has changed in the last 50 years, but astonishingly, some things remain the same.
Best to distinguish between a riot and a rebellion first.  Both elements are at play here.  Also important to recognize who and where some of the protesters are, and are from, and what views they represent.  There will always be those elements who desire confrontation, and those who will depart with the slightest sign of conflict.
In the end, the personality of the real Michael Brown, whoever he is/was and the personality of the officer who fired the shots will probably get buried beneath all the tear gas canisters, all the ashes, and all the confused, disillusioned notions of righteousness.  Still, some things remain abundantly clear:  There is such a thing as police brutality, and we all have miles to go before we can even begin to sleep.
Some ironies abound as well.  This area, near East St. Louis, was the focal point of one of the most important and disastrous "Race Riots" just about 100 years ago.  Roots go deep.
And while we're in the last century, I was thinking the other day of a song lyric that kept rambling through my head.  From the classic St. James Infirmary Blues, come the lines:

     Oh, when I die, please bury me
     In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
     Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
     So the boys'll know I died standin' pat.

That last line...about standing pat in death is most intriguing.  The expression traces it's origin from poker players who took a stance with the cards they were dealt.  It's a kind of honesty or integrity to stand pat.  So it is with human beings.  To die with dignity is, in another way, like the gambler in St. James Infirmary with his hat in place and the gold piece in his pocket.
No dignity, no peace.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


The small university where I supervise and mentor beginning teachers is hiring a new teacher.  A professor, if you will.  It's a process that invites all members of the Ed. Dept. to participate by attending a formal presentation of the candidate's research, followed by an informal interview type discussion.  I'm not sure who makes the final decision, but I know I can provide feedback from my perceptions and that it will be considered by the dept. head and the other faculty.
There were three candidates, and I only attended one of the presentations because of schedule demands.  No matter.  I don't really work all that closely with the profs and I may not do this very much longer.  Of course, I say that every year and then go back for another round.
So, I decided to attend the presentation/interview for a candidate who attended two branches of the University of California, like me, and then lived and worked in and near the Bay Area.
I was not disappointed.  I say this because this woman had a backstory I found most unusual.
Before the reveal, let me just say that we endured the Power Point about her research, asked pertinent questions, calmed her nerves a bit, and then proceeded to have a concluding discussion that included feedback from everyone from current grad students to other profs and even the much qualified Dept. Secretary.  (She's the one who holds everything together.)

OK, here comes the real story.  This woman, whose research concerns the non-traditional support systems in a Latino community elementary school, was herself a member of a similar community.  In short, she was a white woman, adopted by a family of Latino migrants after receiving foster care in their home.
Ever heard of that?
She is also a first generation college student, as far as she knows.
People assume all sorts of things about migrant workers and their sub-culture.  This woman's life, in my view, has the potential to inspire and inform on a whole other level.  If it hasn't been done already, it should be.