Friday, January 30, 2015

Passing Pace

In horse racing, they say pace makes the race.  It usually does.  I've been in the Bay Area this week and pace is what's been nagging at me for the past few days.  When I spend time back in California I'm reminded of the value differences between my former home and my new one in Portland.  Everything moves faster here in the East Bay.  From the drivers on freeways, to the speed on local streets just going from one place to another, to the dreams people have and the material possessions that represent, or at least reflect what they find most worthwhile.  Things cost more here too.
I feel a bit like an alien in the place I called home for so many years.  That's because the configuration of streets change.  Businesses come and go. But then exceptions exist.

 In Berkeley, for example, there is one unremarkable sign that's been the same for as long as I've been around.  The Oscar's Hamburgers sign is the same one as I first saw in 1971.  It's black lettering on red is faded, of course, and it may have been replaced a time or two (or not) but it looks identical to the sign on the little burger joint I frequented when I worked for $50. a month and room/board at one of the first residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed kids in Berkeley.
When I drive around the Bay Area, memories overflow from site to site, neighborhood to neighborhood, from the UC campus to the hills to the flat lands by Golden Gate Fields.  I monitor my own growth and evolution by some of the places I ride by.  We carry these snapshots with us longer than we'd care to admit, I suppose.
I recall classes and presentations made on the Cal campus, parties attended, late night runs from a lover's bed to my own, and countless trips to and from my classroom.  We leave a bit of our soul on territory like this even if we are the only ones noticing.
A couple of times this week I've thought of friends now gone.  The turning of the urban landscape is not unlike the soil of farmland.  New crops, the challenges and unpredictability of the climate, the passing and addition of people...constantly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Duly Noted

I was reading one of those pieces yesterday that highlights how kids today have never lived in a world without computers.  The average 10 year old (whatever that is) cannot imagine life without a hand-held device of some kind.
That got me thinking about college and college students.  Although I get into high school classrooms frequently in my work as a mentor, I realized that it's been a good while since I've been inside a college classroom.  College instructors I know complain bitterly about students with their electronics.  I have trouble imagining note-taking on a computer, but that assumes that's what college students are doing with their computers during a lecture or discussion.  I can't conceive of the distraction that social media must become.

I've heard of dramatic examples where college teachers have thrown major fits about perceived inattentiveness.  Some may even have asked that no electronics of any kind be in use at all.  But we all know the benefits of having a search engine handy when a term or an event or some puzzling vocabulary pops up now and then.  I suppose it's a trade-off.  A trade-off we really can't do much about anyway.
Had I and my contemporaries had a computer while in college, I wonder what the impact might have been.  All those papers on my little portable Remington typewriter.  All that fancy typing paper, those correction tabs and bottle of whiteout.  All those tangled typewriter ribbons, and yes all those trips to the library.
I have clear memories of the UCLA research library circa 1969 where no computers lit the shadowy room and people sat in cubicles with books and notebooks for hours.  No Instant anything to concern ourselves with.  I ought to go back and have a look one of these days just to see what gives now.
I wonder, too how the presentation of a beautifully printed, illustrated in full color paper impacts achievement these days too.  So who writes by hand any more?  Cursive handwriting isn't taught much any more in elementary schools.  What do notes in a lecture hall look like today?  I suppose the are bought and sold on line as well.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Moral High Ground

More thoughts on being on the wrong side of history...
As a 7th grader I had the good fortune to have a Social Studies teacher who valued talk in his classroom.  The most memorable things we did those many years ago were the in-class debates.  While there were and probably always will be students who are involved in only "winning" or crushing their opponent, occasionally there was a rich exchange of ideas.
This was in the big middle of the Civil Rights movement and there happened to be a recent California transplant from Mississippi in my class.  She singlehandedly took on the class in the "debate," which went rom an exchange of opposing ideas to a shouting match within the 45 minute class period.  I can still see her red and getting redder face to this day.  She had the gaul to argue in favor of segregation.  The majority of us just knew were occupied the moral high ground.  What we didn't know was how a childhood as a white Mississippian had shaped our classmate's views.  How could we?  The segregation that existed in our communities was much more institutionalized and certainly more visible.
So it went; that poor girl must have lost all her friends for her entire Middle School life. Just as we couldn't fathom how somebody could hold the views she was taught, she was mystified by how much she just knew we didn't or couldn't know.  Of course, she was on the wrong side of history as in a few short years the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Bills both cleared the Congress in the wake of the Kennedy assassination.

After that little class debate, we watched other more prominent people take their position firmly on the wrong side of history.  Most notable were former Alabama governor George Wallace and a slew of other Southern politicos who literally stood in the path of social justice.
And then there were those vitriolic, hateful venom spewing folks who stood in the way of Elizabeth Eckford walking into a public school under a hailstorm of expletives and epithets.  No child should ever have to experience that...anywhere.
In our moral high chairs, we had no idea how complex these issues could be or that we'd soon be separating ourselves again and again when it came to invading Southeast Asia or questioning the dominant values of teh land of the free and home of the brave.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Which Side Are You On?

I've been mulling over the phrase "the right side of history."  What does it mean to be on the right side of things?  Historically, I'm coming to believe that it's a statement of morality.
or most of my 3o+ years in the classroom, the history and reality of Apartheid in South Africa was part of my curriculum.  In fact, I recall back in the 1970s I read an article that considered a probable date for the end of that peculiar institution.  If progress continued at the same rte, the author postulated, Apartheid might end around the year 2000.  My student's, at that time, figured that Apartheid would end the day that Nelson Mandella voted.  They were spot on in that regard, but it came in the mid-90s slightly ahead of any projected schedule.

Like slavery in America, Apartheid was certainly an example of supporters being on the wrong side of history.  We see these cling-ons now when we see who is still opposed to same-sex marriage or interracial relationships, or even what school reform rally should look like.
When films like the newly minted "Selma" come out and are in the public discussion, I'm reminded what history looks like for those who did not live through or experience such realities first hand.  Despite the soundtrack and the special effects, those that are experiencing a civil rights march from the comfort of a movie theater are only getting a small part of a larger whole.  Better that than nothing, right?
We have a wonderful opportunity in 2015 to examine this concept of what it means to be on the right side of history.  For those in the first half of their lives, the challenge is to identify those issues they think are most likely to impact change in this culture the most.  For the rest of us, a brief review of the change in thinking we have experienced in our lifetimes is in order before any focus on what and where social change matters now and in the decades to come.
If we consider all this thinking from a moral perspective, I think we'll get additional insights into what Steinbeck called "the perfectibility of the human mind.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Image Becomes Identity

I've been wondering about some of the people I see daily.  From my local coffee shop to the grocery store and the gas station, there are familiar faces with whom I exchange greetings.  We all have these folks on the border of our lives.  Out of context, they can be maddening.  That moment when you recognize a person but can't quite get the reason or the place.  I've found that grocery clerks fill this role well when seen out in public without an apron on or away from a cash register.  My meanderings have settled lately on the concept of back story.  I may know something about who these cashiers and baristas and fuel pumpers are now, but what their past holds is equally as fascinating to me.  There seems no way, short of taking the initiative to sit down with someone and simply say, "Tell me about your life, thus far."  I've long fantasized doing that, and on occasion have had the opportunity.  Unless we know back story we judge...big time.  At least many people do.  We look at the image and make assumptions about the identity behind them.  That translates to powerful ideas that may or may not be truthful.

So who is that guy that washes windows with his NRA ball cap on?  Does he come from the city where the college logo on his other cap is?  Did he always wash windows or was he a Wall Street banker in another life?  Is he retired?  Does he know something about how to clean a window that most others don't?
Who is the woman that writes religiously in her journal?  Who will read these finely sketched lines?  Is she a minster?  To whom does she minister?  Why?
Have we become deceived as a culture about making assumptions based on our own projections?  Does this, in part, explain the dichotomy of how we live and experience life in this country now?  Since it's impossible to read minds, all we have as an introduction to another is the image before us.  When that image is perceived as alien to our own values, the wheels begin to turn...silently and quickly.  I marvel how the older version of myself walking down the street brings different reactions from all manner of people.  Especially now that my image is perceived as older male.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Mountain

The headline of the article caught my eye.  "It's Best Not to Play Santa to a Teacher."  What is this about, I thought.  Turns out it was a small piece urging parents , their students, and even teachers not to give holiday gifts to their teachers.  I bristled.  Some new kind of teacher bashing?  Now teacher's shouldn't get any gifts from students because it sends the wrong message.  What next?  But a quick read through changed my mind a bit noting that there might be pressure on kids who would love to show their appreciation or fondness for a teacher, but just can't afford to do so.  Point taken.  The author also mentioned that the best "gifts" are a personal note, which everyone can do.  I agree.  But it seems a bit over the top that some school districts actually have policies banning any form of appreciation gift to any employee.  It's codified.  Wonder if it's ever enforced?  If only they could focus their egalitarian efforts on other things besides teacher's being appreciated.  I know, it's complicated.  But it got me thinking of all the things I've received from students, without violating any regulations.
     Holidays usually brought cookies, candy canes, and fudge.  Occasionally something that really stood out like home made biscotti from a big Italian family whose daughters I was fortunate enough to have in my English classes for two generations.  There were oddball gifts too.  A battery operated watch that looked far better than it was.  Lasted two years...all glitter and glue.  There were cards and notes, many of them.  I'd collect them all up and put them in the box with my winter-break paper load.  Now and then there would be a gift card to a bookstore or coffee shop.  My students knew me well. But one little gift that came right out of the blue stands out as most memorable.  Here's the back story.
That semester I'd been teaching a 12th grade elective course called International Problems.  That year  during a unit on World Hunger we were looking at the economies of poor countries that produced big cash crops...crops like coffee.  This was in the days before Free Trade coffee, so the students were seeing how countries with an undernourished majority of people could produce huge cash crops that made a small minority very wealthy.  During one particularly productive discussion, a student asked what the most expensive coffee was?  I took a guess and promised to return the next day with all the information.  My guess was right-Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  Going back then for about $17-$20 dollars a pound.  The next day, the class was eager to sample some, so we hatched a plan.  I promised on the last day of the class we'd have a small party and offer some JBM coffee.  The class took up a small collection, and I covered the rest.  Coffee for 35 requires a little logistics, but when the day arrived, 3 students brought in portable coffee makers with enough cups and Half/Half  and sugar for those who wanted them.  Only problem was no Jamaican Blue Mountain.  There had been a shortage that year and Japanese buyers had bought up the entire crop.  My good friends at Peet's Coffee suggested an alternative.  "What's the most expensive coffee currently in the store," I asked.  Turns out it was Arabian Mocha Java @ $12.50 a pound.  We enjoyed the coffee but it was with the recognition that there was something more valuable out there.

About five years later, on the Friday before the holiday break, a familiar face appeared in the doorway of my classroom shortly before the end of the day.  Sofia, a former student from that coffee tasting class entered.  Now a college graduate, she returned to campus to see some old friends and teachers.  She handed me a small basket of cookies, chatted for a few minutes, then took off.  She was doing well, and simply wanted to touch base with some of her high school teachers.  I but the little basket in my box and didn't return to it until that evening, when I noticed it felt a little heavy for just cookies.  I lifted the napkin covering the bottom of the basket t reveal a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  This was a gift I could accept.  So much more than a cup of the world's best coffee.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


This Bill Moyers quote is obviously a promo for Mother Jones magazine.  Yet, Moyers brings up a fascinating point about the role of journalists today.  The irony, of course is that with all our fancy technology, the democratic values the U.S. was founded on seem to be leaking slowly out of the airship of state.  Today, with the release of data outlining the CIA's role in employing torture techniques in the new post 9/11 security paranoia, our democratic values have taken a mighty hit.  I'd venture to say that we are at a critical juncture as a democracy; the road ahead doesn't look promising.
Writer/theorist Henry Geroux has eloquently discussed this trend, this slippage in his book The Violence of Organized Forgetting.  What's so troubling is how the mass of the American people can be transfixed by the distractions of a market economy with it's emphasis on constant consumption.  The stupor is thick...and getting thicker one would think.  They don't hear the air leaking out.
When we see the inequity in our social classes, it's alarming that the only one's filling our burgeoning prison system are on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  White collars stay whiter than white, aided by the indecision of Grand Juries, the lock that the wealthy have on our political process, and the intended continual demise of public education.
Back to Moyers, I don't think he's completely right because we have only to look at the efforts of whistle blowers in government and the massive pseudo-security structure forced in place to see how some journalists are trying to get the word out.  Maybe it will be left for the artists and musicians to take that torch and run with it.  Historically there is precedent, much of it to be sure.  Is it such a surprise that people in this country probably place more faith in their favorite musicians than their elected representatives?
If I were back in the classroom these days, I'd put together a teaching unit based on Moyers' idea here. Find the Muckrakers.   Some kind of most under-reported stories of the year weighed by their importance and the process by which they become under-reported. (Who decides what we hear about and what we don't?) Perhaps a good place to start would be with Mother Jones Magazine and see how what they report compares to everything else.  It's the latter, that all other sources, that might be most revealing.