Sunday, December 29, 2013

Pluto Rule

A few years ago, if you asked someone to play a little word association game and mentioned the word Pluto, I'm sure the smallest planet or the Walt Disney cartoon dog would come up.  Now, I wouldn't be so sure.
Pluto lost its status as a full-fledged planet a while back (though I doubt people will honor that) and Mickey Mouse's dog is seen far less than he used to be.  Not sure why this is the case, but the word Pluto is gaining a new respect with increased use of the term Plutocrat and the concept of Plutocracy.
Defined as rule by the wealthy class, it's slowly becoming the reality here in North America.  Increasingly, we are in daily dispute about the loss of democracy in basic institutions like our schools. If we follow the money (operative word here is money) we find plutocrats behind the ill-informed school reform movement in large numbers.  The Koch brothers and Bill and Melinda Gates let their money inform their ideas about what ought to happen inside a classroom.  Neither has taught a day in their lives.

When we look at a Congress that has the worst legislative record in 40 years and puts new life into the label "do nothing" we find plutocracy lurking in the hallways.
Yet, Plutocracy isn't really defined as a political term.  Nobody elects the wealthy.  They don't advocate a carefully written platform with positions on important issues.  They spend money.  Lots of it.  They buy and sell who and what they desire.  And when that won't work, they keep trying.
And now we have to deal with the latest conundrum: whistle blower or traitor.  Our National Security Agency has taken great leaps forward while wiping it's feet on the 4th Amendment.  We lose twice here.  First our own people ad then our international allies worry about the trust that seems to be evaporating daily.
And what is the oil that lubricates this efficient machine that enables the wealthy to position themselves and ultimately call the plays:  something they own as well, the media.
Here's a fantasy.  What if the dazed masses suddenly had an epiphany and realized that what they cared about the most, what they devoted most of their time and treasure to was vapid.  Oh, it's not going to happen, but just say it did.  Then what?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Back Story

Yesterday's final race at Hollywood Park brought up so many things in a surprising way.  OK, so an old racetrack closes.  What impact could that possibly have on millions of people?  It'll probably be forgotten in a few weeks.  That the 75 year old institution will be replaced by more apartments for the urban sprawl of Los Angeles is in itself a tragedy.  But Hollywood Park's demise clearly illustrates a dominant theme that's being repeated, without sufficient questioning, repeatedly in the early decades of this century.
Is an expanding technology always a good thing?  When we lose tradition, the sense of a past history, do we always lose something irreplaceable?  I suggest that we do.  Horse racing will survive in some way or shape.  That's not the issue here.  I'm far too biased to discuss that question here, but what I worry about is what comprises the trade off when those with decision-making power vote to demolish icons of the past.

People fight about keeping everything from inner city architecture to antique farms and ranch bunkhouses.  Old houses are the site of many a demonstration.  In some cases, and I've seen this in my neighborhood, someone feels so passionately that they buy and move, at great expense, the home to a safer place where it gets, sometimes literally, a new lease on life.
With the advancement in technology, and it's subsequent use in the horse racing industry, came the loss of the crowds that used to come by the thousands.  This is what made the original Hollywood Park so appealing.  Horse racing is only about gambling for some.  For others it's about the spectacle, the color, the back stories, and, most importantly, the HORSES.
Gone now are the swelling crowds that came to see Seabiscuit, Citation, or Native Diver.  Occasionally when a super athlete like Zenyatta comes along, so do the crowds.  But most watch on TV or computer screen.  Some now on smart phones.  The farther from the track, the actual surface, dirt or turf, the more removed we get from the entire experience.  This could apply to many other things as well.  Texting come to mind first.  I get the advantages, but it's rapidly becoming another way to communicate without facing someone.  I'm troubled.
Along with this reservation comes the knowledge and more importantly, the acknowledgement that these shifting winds, these changes, these transitions, are all inevitable.  We're not stopping any of them.  So, in the end, once, more, all we really have is our memories.
My grandfather would leave the confines of his inner city New York home and visit us in Southern California in the 50s and early 60s.   He'd often take the bus to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park.  In his 70s at the time, it was an all day affair that no doubt left him exhausted at the end of a long day.  The walk from the bus stop to our house was enough to do that anyway.  I know he loved going to the track and often enjoyed some success.  I inherited that from him to be sure.  The last time I saw him I was 14 and he left my sister and I a modest bank account with some of his winnings.  When I think of these iconic racetracks, I think of my grandfather.  Another link to the past gone.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Pay It Forward

As a writer, I'm aware of tension in the pieces I write.  As a fairly sane, amiable person, I'm aware of how much I hate confrontation.  Thus, my task is to always provide enough tension.  That means I have to tweak characters from time to time.  It means I must do the same for how I remember experiences I want to write about and stories I need to tell.
So it was with my most recent piece of memoir about how I balanced student groups, going against some of the strongest personalities in one particular class.  I've never been the kind of teacher who proudly and defiantly announces, "This is not a democracy."  I opt to agonize instead.  A fairly good piece resulted about a time I decided that the lessons of The Grapes of Wrath needed to apply to the inequitable groups my students made for a particular project.

But that got me thinking.  First about the novel and then about teaching it this time of year.  It's a good December novel given the mass proclivity for giving back.  But there's more: Katie and I were recently presented with an opportunity to give back that seems to be taking on a bit more life than we ever intended.  I can't even recall how it began, but we decided to play a little game of Pay it Forward.  It seems as if we couldn't do what we originally wanted because the opportunity came and went.  A little boy was flirting with a Peppermint Patty at the checkout stand at my local grocery store.  His mom was preoccupied with two smaller children and locating her Oregon Trail card.  That's the name of the Food Stamp program here.  So I decided it would be cool to buy the kid the candy bar.  Then it got complicated.  There were two other kids and a mom who might somehow feel funny about a stranger buying candy for her kids.  I let it go.  But not the desire.  Fast forward two weeks and I purchase a grocery gift card and ask a clerk to give it to a similar family, if not the one I saw.
She's really moved by that and has a family in mind.  A couple of weeks later she tell me that she did the deed and now the recipient wants to meet us.  That's cool, but I doubt it'll ever happen unless we orchestrate that.  What's more gratifying is that the grocery clerk was motivated to so something similar.  That' just how it's supposed to work.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

First in the Hearts

A real first yesterday.  With the latest school shooting came the distinction of a school shooting occurring on the anniversary of another school shooting.  So now we get the benefit of watching the latest grieving parents and then last year's, who, I might add, are still grieving.
As commentator Bill Maher likes to say, "We're the gun country, that's all, that's how we're perceived by the rest of the world."
True Dat!

Where else can we begin to comprehend statistics like there were more people killed by guns in our country than in our military deployments throughout the past year.
With some politicos fronting solutions like  arming teachers, it's only going to get worse.
Another observation:  When the hand wringing stops and people begin authentic discussions of this phenomena we casually refer to as a school shooting, we easily seem to slide from gun laws to mental health issues.  A vicious circle of commentary.
Why so many shootings in Colorado?  Probably no real meaning here.  Yet it deserves deeper attention.  Why has the 2nd amendment been reduced to illogic with no real retribution from legal scholars?
I read the statistics about how many teachers quit before their 5th year.  It's as consistent as the school shootings.  I read about how many 20 year veterans are leaving the profession because of the pressure of misguided reform, the emphasis on standardized testing, the fear and general malaise that's palpable on school campuses.  And now this, active shooters.  At what point, I often ask myself, will I too stop encouraging young people to enter the profession?
Oddly enough, when I play my role as a field supervisor and enter a school during the middle of the day, I am seldom stopped or asked for ID.  I usually wear a photo badge on a lanyard, but nobody looks at it.  I get that I look like I belong.  But unless they openly carry weapons, so do most school shooters.
It figures that this country is split and polarized on what to do about the fact that depressed, disgruntled, and desperate people walk into our schools and take innocent lives with great ease.
To change that it takes political will.  That takes ethics which needs to be accompanied by courage.
I wonder how that Colorado legislator who was recently recalled because he stood up to the gun lobby and remained true to his moral compass feels today?  What about his constituents?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sensory Impact

As the world reacts to the death of Nelson Mandela, I keep harkening back to the days when it seemed there were very few teachers who made the struggle for human rights in South Africa part of their curriculum.  One of my former students reminded me the other day that I also had a poster in my classroom that raised the question Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

In recalling the history of Mandela's journey from prisoner to President, some of the news media (but far too few)  are reminding those who weren't alive or who have conveniently forgotten how as President, Ronald Reagan was on the wrong side of history with his policy of engagement toward South Africa.  Briefly, this policy was far too little too late and never really took a moral stance on Apartheid.  It wasn't until strong economic sanctions (not supported by Reagan) were enacted taht the tide began to turn.  But that's another story, but definitely one we can learn a good deal from in dealing with future ethical issues on the international scene.
The aforementioned posters that hung in my classroom (previous blog entry) were removed the day that Mandela voted.  Just as my students wished.  But in hearing from some of them via Facebook all these years later, I'm not surprised that many recall vividly the impact of those visceral drawings.  Three more are included here as a way of illustrating that contention but also as a way of preserving them for anyone who wants to see them.  The magic of the internet makes it possible to track them down and re-live their impact.  I found the picture of the Passbook to be most useful in teaching about the Homelands policy.  The hand suppressing the head really assaults the senses; it is most often recalled the most vividly.  It's urgency is undeniable.  Finally the "No More" poster was left on the wall as a talisman of sorts so that subsequent classes would know and remember.  It hung at the front of the classroom until the end of the 2004-05 school year when the school I taught at was torn down to be re-built again.  I believe I have it to this day.

Friday, December 6, 2013


In the Fall of 1977 I went to a beautiful old church in South Berkeley, Ca. to see a film and presentation about Apartheid in South Africa.   The film concerned itself mainly with international investments in this openly racist country that just happened to be the world's largest producer of gold and diamonds.
I had been teaching about South Africa for a few years; the same amount of time I had been teaching, actually.  I knew a bit about the political system of cruel and complete segregation.  I knew about Nelson Mandela and the ANC, but was just beginning to learn about recent uprising like Soweto.  That evening I learned about a burgeoning movement to disinvest in South Africa.  The film shown was available to teachers as a filmstrip that night.  I paid the $25.00 gladly as the funds were used to support similar showings.  "Banking on South Africa" served me well over the next15 years.  But it was something else I chanced to find for sale on the folding tables in the church foyer that proved even more lasting.                                          
It was a calendar for the upcoming year 1978.  Each month featured a brilliant painting or photograph detailing the depth and anguish of Black South Africans.  One picture memorialized the victims of the Soweto uprising, another showed a close-up of a person's passbook assigning the owner to one of several "homelands" and denying basic human rights like the right to move freely in one's own home.
By 1980, most of the pictures in that calendar were hanging on the wall in the front of my classroom.  When I was involuntarily laid off one year and subsequently re-hired, they returned to the classroom I occupied for the next 22 years.
Many semesters of International Problems followed.  My students did many problem analyses of South Africa, displaying and representing their knowledge on various projects from pop-up art to dyoramas, to new flag designs and portraits of Madiba himself.  All under the banner of these "posters" as they came to be called.
     Students from English classes asked about them.  Parents at Back to School Night asked about them.  Students and Parents of my Psychology classes asked about them.  Exchange students fro all over the world, and even South Africa, asked about them.
     In the early 90s, when it became apparent that Nelson Mandela was going to be released from prison after 27 years, a student in International Problems asked, "Are you going to keep those up if Apartheid comes to an end and Mandela is freed?"  I hadn't thought about it, but the possibility of a free Mandela would certainly be cause for some celebration.
     "I don't know," I replied.  "Let's see what the class thinks."
After a good discussion about the likelihood of Mandela's release, I asked the class, "How will we know when Mandela is free?"  "When he votes," came the response.  That settled it.  When Mandela votes the posters come down.
     In 1994 with Mandela's election as President of the country that had once held him prisoner, the posters came down.  My students were excited.  The local media sent a TV crew and a few other print journalists did stories on the "ceremony" we conducted that day.  We just happened to have a South African Exchange student that semester too.  He would have been classified as "Coloured" by the Apartheid system.  He was the logical choice to help with removing the posters.  In the end, we left one poster on the wall.  It was a red pair of handcuffed wrists on a white background with two words in large red letters: NO MORE.