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Considering the Source – Again

So again, I find myself up against human nature – true, racism at this level of engagement is one that appeals to baser instincts but, it’s part of our human collective none-the-less. What to make of the words, “…if Obama doesn’t make it to the White House due to a bullet to his head, it won’t bother me…” I heard these words not even an hour after parsing the enormous implications of the accusation of racism with my journalism class. And for all my verbal acuity, all I could think to call her was, a racist. I am silenced by how quickly that term came to my tongue. Had I not just implored my students to seriously consider such an accusation? But, in the time-honored tradition of likeable racists everywhere, this woman opened her mouth and removed all my doubt, saying,  “I’m not racist because I have good friends who are colored.”

“Just what color are they?” I asked. The woman was serious – in 2012 in a western New York town that boasts a Fortune 500 company. Sitting in an office of the local community college, this encounter forced me to look at the general work pool on campus – which holds not one African-American aide or secretary. Would this woman have said the same thing to, say, a more obvious person of color rather than to me – a very light-skinned (“be careful what you say around her”), African-American adjunct? This woman obviously feels very comfortable in her position here at the college and not one of her peers seems able to compel her to keep her offensiveness to herself.

I awoke from a fitful sleep dreading what was waiting for me at my office. My foreboding increased as I got closer to the campus. The panic and fear returned from a 1997 event when high school students surrounded my classroom door all wrapped in the confederate flag. As the only African-American teacher in that school, I got but a glimpse of the fear and trepidation that the marchers of the ’60s must have felt going up against the institutionalized racism of the times. That day, I wanted so badly to turn and run after seeing two of my students as part of the intimidating group and, shockingly, the son of a teaching colleague. I stood my ground because I was not going to be intimidated by ignorance and because my knees were too weak to support me to my car. For months afterwards I became the target of these sons of ‘good-old-boys’ and the victim of weak-willed administrators too afraid to call ignorance into the light and destroy it for all to see. Needless to say, a teachable moment was lost here. What was not lost, I came to understand this morning, was the low-level panic and fear for my personal safety.

The issue here is someone’s right to be brazenly insensitive – bordering racist in the workplace. The remarks this person made created, for me, a hostile environment if but for the minute it took me to grab my keys and briefcase and leave. As I write this I am not sure if I want to file a formal harassment complaint. If I did file, I feel I would be bound to some abstract justice that requires secrecy in which statements and verifications can be made, after which all would go into a separate file and life would go on.

What do I want to happen? I’ve lived long enough to know I cannot change what is in someone’s heart. As an educator of color, I see the need to meet my students with honesty and respect in modeling just how to behave in the wider world. Most of my students will leave the comfort and confines of this small community to live and work with many other groups (if they are lucky). Campus issues around racist remarks can serve as the proverbial teachable moments. I believe when these issues are identified, handled, and attempts at resolution are made in transparency, students can learn the extremely important lesson – made even more meaningful for those with whom they will work. That lesson? Respectful consideration.

 

A Congressional If / Then­­

IF

Teachers take the NTE

And police Civil Service Exam

And fire fighters fit to be

Fighting fires for woman & man

If nurses have their test decree

And doctors have their boards

A dissertation for a PhD

Permits all to help the hordes

THEN

Why, in position to vote at all,

Do we allow our fate to rest

With those of no mental wherewithal

To pass a simple test

The lower house which originates

Our laws by which we live

Would struggle it seems to regurgitate

Simple history in a test we’d give

There is a simple message here

That would lay most enmity to rest

If politicians want votes dear

We require them to pass a test!

The Myth of Fingerprints: You Are What You Read

I have just completed the short story, The Bus Ride by Sahar Sabati. It is a fairly straightforward narrative about a nurse who gets off work early and finds herself  (the assumption here is that the nurse is female) on a city bus sitting across from a disheveled and smelly man. The nurse eventually imagines an entire Law & Order-type scenario from which the ragged, dirty man is running. The narrator begins her speculation by way of good character description.

He was carrying two bags. One was a red postman’s bag slung over his shoulder, the other was a black heavy-duty garbage bag he was half carrying, half dragging behind him. He put them both on the ground, propped his feet on them and leaned back in his seat.

The reader is intrigued by what the man might be carrying in these bags. The narrator describes the look of this middle-aged man before entertaining a host of possibilities as to why he is looking and behaving as he does.

The man, unaware of my musings, took a long sip out of the bottle. It looked like plain, clean water—why did it stink so much?

Once again, my imagination started to wander. Maybe the man had gone down on luck, and had spent the night hunting for meat to feed his family. Maybe he worked as a sewage-cleaner during the night. Maybe his washing machine didn’t work, and when his clothes reached a state of utmost dinginess, he finally gave up and is now going to his mother’s house to use hers, which would explain his state and the smell emanating from the bag.

This is the innocent rationale offered before the narrator takes off in her own self-described flight of fancy after seeing the blood on the man’s hands – blood that contrasts greatly with the shiny gold ring on his finger.

Horrific visions of my mutilated body danced before my eyes.

The nurse gets off the bus one stop later chiding herself for letting her imagination take things too far.

I rang the bell and was getting up to leave when the man looked at me and winked. It startled me. I tentatively smiled back. When he smiled, I felt utterly ridiculous. A man with such a nice smile couldn’t be a murderer. I got off and told myself that the extra walk would serve me as a lesson.

This short story ends in  the fashion of  O’Henry albeit lacking in cleverness.  Having convinced herself of her foolishness, the narrator is shocked when she gets home and opens up the daily news paper.

Looking up at me was the man from the bus. Over his head was the title: “Man caught on tape killing wife and kids.” It seemed that I had been right, after all. I fearfully looked around. I had been right about the man’s past actions; had I guessed right about his future actions, including my possible demise? I hurried inside the house and closed the door firmly, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep anytime soon.

Why does this story disturb me so? This story and follow-up questions was a homework assignment for my ten-year-old niece. Is our world not crazy enough that we need to continue to stoke the fear machine for simple reading pleasure? And is this what would make a young girl want to continue to investigate the beauty that can be created with words?  I think not. When I was twelve-years-old it was A.M. Rosenthal’s New York Time’s story of Kitty Genovese, the Kew Gardens nurse who was stabbed and left to die as 39 people watched and listened to her early morning hour screams, that scared me beyond reason. This story has since been updated with corrections as to the number of actual onlookers and the coming and goings of the perpetrator who did return to the scene to eventually silence (kill) Genovese. But, in 1964, my take-a-way was that a woman could be beaten and killed by any man and the first assumption is that, in spite of  the obvious physical assault,  the commotion is simply a domestic dispute. This was the beginning of a female-victimizing world for me.  A man had a right to beat his wife and no one has a right to “get involved.” That Kitty Genovese may have fared better had she simply screamed “FIRE!” rather than ‘I’ve been stabbed’ was not lost on my young mind. But again, I was 12 almost 13 years old. At 10, I had not been imprinted with the blood and guts of dismemberment.  At 10, I was fearing wicked stepmothers and loving the little girl going to live with her grandfather in the Alps.

Could there have been other stories for my nieces 5th grade educators to choose from that would not make her fear disheveled men who happen to carry bags? Also, are there stories available that would not make her fear the male gender in general? The subtext here is my niece should fear for her life in the presence of men who don’t look a certain way.  Yes, the world can be a vile and dangerous place for anyone. But I believe these are the lessons best taught by concerned parents who understand their child’s capacity to assimilate the contradictions inherent in human nature.

I suppose the story, The Bus Ride, has its place in the pantheon of homework assignments. But, for a ten-year-old girl whose father has completed numerous military tours in service to this country, this story should have no quarter. It is a cheap knock off of so-called television crime dramas that I can’t believe took more than two hours to write.

 

Searching for Howard Beale: The Fall of Our Discontent

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

*Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Ya, what’s going on

Wall Street: a neighborhood that handles the finances of those elusive job creators who have perpetrated the ultimate coup: enacting a suspect political dogma that the masses think they understand. Simple wording and snappy sound bites are all part of the gelatinous political-stew of lies and half-truths. But wait a minute, not all the masses have eaten this last supper of deception. Zuccotti Park has become a festival of signs and faces of protest which brings to mind a certain declaration – the emotional genesis for many a proletariat movement – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  Today, life imitates art imitates life… (I could go on). The art here is the 1976 movie Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky, Directed by Sidney Lumet) where the mad rantings of prophetically sensitive newsman Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) send the network establishment into the hair-pulling tizzy of damage control. They fire the unhappy newsman deeming this much easier than attending to the root of his suicidal outbursts. Beale’s position is saved by a friend’s intervention and his promise to apologize to his viewers. But the emotional waters have already boiled and all it takes is heat from the lights, camera and the countdown to spill over. Once more, rather than the promised apology, Beale rages at the camera calling life meaningless and “bullshit!” The “angry man” scenario is an overnight (today it would be instantaneous) ratings hit moving the network to give Beale his own show. Network is ripe with subtext and the firing of Beale highlights the old Hollywood maxim – “…you’ll never work in this town again — until we need you.” The personal urgency behind Beale’s rage remains unexplored by those he works for and the audience he entertains with his emotional antics as the “Mad    Prophet” who refuses to be ignored any longer. Timing is everything in love, politics and business and Beale hits the perfect note when he persuades his audience to throw open their windows and shout the “mad as hell…” mantra of the masses. The people have found their leader  and, at his behest, will send letters and telegrams (yesterday’s e-mail and twitter) to the White House in protest of the UBS network company being bought out by a Saudi conglomerate (any of this sound familiar?). Beale’s pending emotional breakdown is ignored even as his message is being co-opted and twisted by his employers who fear his power.  The big boss does manage to get a naïve Beale to put his evangelical zeal to work on another, less populist cause. As a result, ratings tumble but Beale is kept on and, like a public hanging in which the corpse is left (as a lesson) to twist in the wind, his messages, along with Howard Beale the Mad Prophet, are barely remembered.

Photo courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

In 2000, because it was considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” Network  was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. And rightfully so. Those protesting in Zuccotti Park are mad as hell and (in a figurative sense) refuse to continue the dance with their executioners. It is as if Network creators had their fingers on the pulse of the future.

I have a journalism student who spent several days photographing, talking and sleeping at

courtesy of Kelsey Johnson

Zuccotti park as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This highly  motivated and intelligent young woman believes that education is her key (as it has always been) to open the gates of success. I wondered if she would come in contact with other college students, those who perhaps have already acquired the key to said gate. Would they tell her how the key no longer fits?  How can there be a future with bright horizons when there is no present to occupy? Sadly, it is part of the grand deception; the horizons that once belonged to today’s youth have been bundled, parsed and sold as part of the derivative stew of lies and half-truths. Yes, education can be the key to success, but not in a society that allows the 1%  to leave the building and take all horizons with them.

In the quest for lost horizons, frustration becomes the muse of the masses from Egypt to     Oakland and major points in between. If Howard Beale represents the 99%; those  unemployed without hope and those workers with more empathy than hope, then the 1%,

A wall Street-off Scott Lynch/Flickr

the vile and heartless who today would mock the protesters as they sip champagne on a balcony overlooking Wall Street, is represented by Diana Christiansen (Faye Dunaway) the network programming head whose spiked heels have pierced many backsides in her race to the top of the ratings chart. Like the Wall Street dwellers, Christiansen has crapped where she lives but a little cinematic license allows her to close the door on the smell.

Not so in life – today.  Chickens truly do come home to roost- witness Zuccotti Park. But, until these demonstrations manifest in a change that will slay greed thereby returning futures to their rightful owners, these Wall Streeters get the same warning of self destruction that Network‘s Christiansen received from her lover (William Holden), “You are [greed] incarnate…indifferent to suffering, insensitive to [true] joy.” For Diana Christiansen, “All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.” And so it goes with a life owned by those who would mock  misery with their bitter toasts.

   *From, What’s Goin’ On/Marvin Gaye

A Diary of Change: September 12, 2001

I have a picture of the Twin Towers – they stand tall and strong in the background – behind a group of frolicking high schoolers headed for the Statue of Liberty on the ferry out of

The Twin Towers - February 1994. Before the hole that swallowed my memories.

New Jersey. I looked frantically for that picture last night to no avail. I can still see the faces of my students though, BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying like most, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head.

Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the newspaper or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkites’ voice coming over the all-com speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that our president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.

Even as I write this I shake my head. I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.

Now my days are changed. An unseen hand has written A tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.

I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. There was nothing at home but lure of television news so I stopped and watched my son’s soccer practice. I read the local newspaper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection – no hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.

I was asked about our annual New York City trip by a student who assumed we wouldn’t go. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right. The New York City trip did happen that spring. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.

Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged.

I looked. Foolish pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan,  we are all forever changed.

Classroom Confidential:

On the playgrounds of the future 

playgrounds of the future...

Children will laugh and sing

And we’ll cross the bridge to real peace

Where the bells of sanity’ll ring

Until then we shall play the game

Which will all add up to naught

“It’s your fault, no, it’s theirs…”

Why some fail at what is taught.

We are given books and bosses

Numerous regs to do the job

But greenbacks stay in hands of few

Uncaring of who they rob

Touching the future may seem easy

From a point too far away

One could assume it’s all just ditto –

Then lunch –  then shop – then play

If this is your belief

You could not be further from the fact

That success is singularly measured

Not muddled in some pack

So forward we will plod

Unwillingly teaching to the mean

We will test, and test and test

From which all congress shall glean

Information in the form

Of bars and charts sublime

Symbols of teachers and students

Who’ve been sentenced to hard time

And the monied districts shall rule

Golden in and out

And the bootstraps will appear

Accusing all who doubt

Good will be the words to spread

And many who will eat them

The failures will be shown the straps

But for pity’s sake, don’t beat them