Thursday, June 25, 2015

Birth of a Flag

The national conversation has suddenly shifted to the removal of the Confederate flag in the wake of the tragic shooting deaths of nine Bible study participants in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The "stars and bars" of the confederacy still fly above some state capitals in the south and and as part of state flags like Mississippi.
The comparison of that flag to the flag of Nazi Germany is a point well taken.  Why do we still allow one to fly when we'd never dream of letting the other one near a flagpole? Yet the Confederate flag lives on in more than banners.  From Tee-shirts to bumper stickers it rears it's image from coast to coast.  I've seen it used as horse racing silks from an owner/trainer combination whose politics are as dubious as their desire to be identified by that emotional image.
With these calls for removing the flag I hope will come even more calls to re-teach the way we understand the Civil War and the complexities of Reconstruction.  To do this, we'd have to confront America's racist past and how it defines both our history and ourselves.

I had to enter my Junior year of college before I learned all that happened in this country from 1800-1900.  The oversimplified accounts of slavery, secession, and reconstruction,  from high school, gave way to one of the most complicated and fascinating eras since the nation began.
It wasn't until I researched and first saw D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," that I learned and felt the full impact of overt racism in the U.S. of A.
Some years later, I recall taking a group of 10th graders to see the film on a field trip to U C Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive after a special arrangement with the archive to show such a provocative film.  There were other teachers and classes who piggybacked on the opportunity, but they were from other schools and appeared to have much less preparation before seeing this once-banned classic in all it's racist glory.  My class was an African-American history class and just about all the students were Black.  They knew what they were in for.  Still, the film shocks.  Based on a famous 1915 novel by Thomas Dixon  called the Clansman (sic) it's role in determining subsequent racial attitudes cannot be underestimated.  Replete with white actors in blackface, the film is a living document that should never be banned despite the hatred, falsehoods, and pain that accompany it. How can we understand how bad the racism was unless we see for ourselves? Maybe it's time for the nation to go on a field trip...fully prepared.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Saying No

Note: This piece was originally written for Sun Magazine's Reader's Write feature.  The title is the theme prompt.  I don't think they are going to use this, therefore it can appear here.  I think the ironic message about standing up to misguided authority is relevant as teachers like soldiers clarify their moral conscientiousness and how to effectively act upon those beliefs.

I remember the moment the thought crystallized. I was looking for a parking place near the Berkeley campus, thinking about the draft closing in on me.  I’d done a year as a VISTA Volunteer in hopes of serving my country in a way that would preserve my pride in being an American.  “If you do nothing else with your life,” I told myself, “this refusal will be the most important thing I ever do.”  That day I decided to say no.  I would not allow myself to participate in an illegal and immoral war. 
Deciding to refuse induction into the U.S. army was difficult for a compliant person like me.  I was the one that avoided confrontation, the “good boy,” the kid with perfect attendance at school.  I was the Eagle Scout, on the honor roll, the Senior Class President.  But now, fresh out of college, moral compass in hand, the direction of my life finally seemed certain. 
I was 22 but tired.  Tired of thinking about the government lies, tired of the nightly newscasts with their scoreboard of American and Vietnamese deaths. Tired of finding the death notices of 19-year-olds I knew in local papers, and tired of living with this agonizing decision.
Saying no was much more than a convenient decision.  In the minds of many neighbors and family friends it meant rejecting the values instilled since birth.  I saw it differently.  To me, I was rejecting mindless obedience to authority and making a strong statement about conscientiousness.  In good conscience, I did not want to, could not, kill another human being in a war that had yet to be justified. 

I have never regretted that decision.  Along with it has come the misunderstanding that those like me might see the situation differently 40 years later.  Hardly.  When I go to that big warehouse wrapped in an enormous Swedish flag and see three dollar rugs made in Vietnam, I realize that the U.S. and Vietnam now have lucrative trade agreements.  Who won what?  Did my high school friend, who drove us all to the beach on Friday afternoons in his ’59 Ford convertible die at 20 for my right to buy cheap electronics and expensive running shoes?  No.

My moral dilemma concluded with alternative service with emotionally disturbed children and the label conscientious objector.  What followed that was a 35-year career in public education.   Today when I see the teaching profession under attack by corporate interests who, with the ballistics of standardized testing, and a one size fits all approach to human creativity and curiosity, the words   I see people in authority doing harmful things with no accountability. I worry about collateral damage. Again, I must say no and urge other colleagues of conscience to do the same. 
conscientious objector take on new meaning.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Tremendous Machine

On the afternoon of June 9, 1973, I climbed the stairs of the 3 story old Berkeley house and entered my bedroom.  It was my only room in the house I shared with 4 others.  Great way to split rent for a graduate student finishing up his state teaching certificate.  I was two weeks away from working in a Del Monte cannery while waiting for word of a teaching position.  Like millions of others at the time, I was also waiting for the first Triple Crown winner of my lifetime.

The 60s were beginning to yield to the 70s during this time and my thoughts, when not focused on lesson plans or job interviews, found their way, momentarily, to Big Red: Secretariat.
Horse racing seemed to be in my blood.  From the time I'd wait for the afternoon sport's pages of the L.A. Herald Examiner, to sneaking a peak at the Hollywood Park race of the week in black and white TV, I was enthralled.  Riding a bike became galloping a thoroughbred more often than not.
While I vaguely recall following the Triple Crown trail in 1973, I do vividly remember all the naysayers about Secretariat's chances to take his place alongside the immortals of the sport.  Even the big colt's connections were worried.  So much can go wrong in a contest that lasts less than one round of boxing but on Belmont Park's huge oval the mile and a half distance was believed to be the equalizer.  To get that distance requires the perfect balance of speed and stamina.

So up I trudged to see if I could coax my old black and white TV to deliver a foggy image one more time.  The TV had issues.  Loose tubes, inconsistent static in the sound, and a propensity for the screen to turn light green after it over-heated.  But it was my ticket, it was what I had.
By the time Chic Anderson's famous line poured forth "...And Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine..." there was no doubt.  I was just about holding the picture tube together but Secretariat was a Triple Crown winner and I had avoided electrocution.
This week the naysayers abound again.  The "right-fighters" love to predict it won't happen.  This time I believe they are wrong.  American Pharoah has the look.  True Silver Charm and War Emblem and Smarty Jones did too, but not exactly the same look.  This isn't a race to bet or merely watch.  This is a race to marvel at the ability and magic of a true champion.  AP should bring this drought to an end.
As I write, I've just completed a move and am watching my cable guy have difficulties in getting me up and running.  But I have faith.  Come Saturday, while I'm watching the festivities in color from a much bigger screen, I'll think of that old TV and another tremendous machine.