Indigenous Peoples Day

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Most of us know that Native Americans were driven off of their tribal lands by white colonialism and later U.S. territorial expansion from the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, thinking he had found the East Indies. Far from celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of America, many Americans feel it would be more appropriate either to eliminate the holiday called Columbus Day or change its focus and rename it Indigenous Peoples Day.

I would support the idea of reclaiming the dignity, traditions, and history of our native people by honoring them with a U.S. holiday. For far too long, Native Americans have been depicted as primitive and warlike people of whom white settlers were justifiably afraid. I will never forget how, as a child, I was terrified of the sinister figure Injun Joe from Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer. Movie westerns portrayed Indians as savage figures eager to scalp poor defenseless pioneers. In this way, white America was able to gloss over or justify the extermination and essentially, the internment, of Native American people on small tracts of land called reservations.

More and more, American history teachers are bringing to light the larger story of American colonialism and westward expansion, a story that includes the unfortunate plight of the Native American. Understanding this history is an important step and should be acknowledged on this day set aside to honor a man whose actions towards the native people were often horrific and violent.

But we must go beyond a mere recognition of the atrocities of the past. Native Americans today suffer from high rates of poverty, alcoholism, and diabetes. Their right to operate casinos is a mixed blessing that brings with it certain unsavory elements. And the destruction of their tribal way of life has marginalized the customs and sacred traditions of disparate native peoples. Instead, Native Americans are lumped together in the public mind as the monolithic “other.”

Our government needs to do more to address the endemic social and health problems of our Native American citizens. Modern Native Americans need to be recognized for their contributions in many areas of society. And Americans need to give up their beloved Indian mascots in order to erase generations of stereotyping of Indians.

So there is much to do in our society to further the cause of Native Americans in our country. And a national holiday in their honor is a great way to start.

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First Day of School Fun

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Caroline-EvosNYToday marked the first day of class for our neighborhood elementary school. It made me smile to drive by the school and see mothers and fathers walking their backpack-ladened progeny to the red brick building around the corner from my home.

I’ve always loved the first day of school. The new school supplies, new lunchbox, new shoes. The chance to see friends I’d missed over the long summer months. The colorfully decorated classrooms and hallways. Teachers at their freshest, brimming with energy and good will for their new crop of students.

The first day of school is so full of promise. If you’d had a rough time or a tough teacher the year before, here was a chance to start anew. After a long summer that was starting to get boring, there were both old friends and new classmates to play with on the school playground.

For moms, the first day of school marks the first day of freedom. There’s time to get things done, even the chance to grab a cup of coffee with a friend or take a long walk in the still-warm weather. While sending a child off to kindergarten can be traumatic, most moms relish the first day of school as it restores a little quiet to their rough and tumble lives at home.

A short while ago, I once again drove past our neighborhood school. It was alive with kids at recess, running across the grass, bouncing balls on the blacktop, climbing the jungle gym, swinging on the swing set with happy abandon. I recalled all the times in the not too distant past when my own children played with their friends on those same school grounds. That red brick building housed their early years of education and formed the foundation for their future successes.

I don’t really miss having a young child in grammar school, one who walks home for lunch in the middle of the day and brings home glittery art projects. But it’s nice to see and hear a new crop of kids enlivening the place that has been quiet and closed up for a few months.

The first day of school is fun for everyone, even those of us miles away from our own salad days. It’s a reminder that our youth are growing and learning and stretching themselves. And, if their efforts on the swing set are any indication, the sky’s the limit!

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

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The European continent is in the midst of an unprecedented outbreak of measles – unprecedented, at least, since a vaccine was developed to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella in the 1960s. Thirty-seven people have lost their lives due to complications of this very serious disease. Why? Because people refuse to believe accepted scientific fact on the safety of the MMR vaccine.

Ignorance is killing us.

Possibly the biggest threat to future civilizations is the warming of the Earth due to greenhouse gas emissions. The ice melt at the North and South poles, rising sea levels, catastrophic weather events such as deadly hurricanes, and record-breaking heat waves in places like Canada and Scandinavia are all harbingers of doom. But they’re harbingers many people are willfully ignoring.

My cousin is visiting from the Pacific Northwest. She has a nagging cough from the smoke that is hovering over Washington State due to wildfires raging in British Columbia. My cousin told me that as her small plane “puddle-jumped” from her hometown to Seattle, she was unable to see any of the landscape below because the smoke was so thick.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is rolling back emissions standards for automobiles, deregulating the EPA, and encouraging a resurgence of dirty coal production. This is the 21st Century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Once again, there is consensus that man-made global warming is a reality and that it may already be too late to save parts of the world from devastating floods, droughts, and famine. But for economic and political reasons, our government leaders are refusing to act. And they have persuaded many otherwise intelligent people that climate change is “fake news.”

And don’t look for future generations to be smarter about scientific facts. It’s well-known that the state board of education in Texas has an outsized influence on what school textbooks are selected across the country for use in our schools. In recent years, board members have objected to the theory of evolution being taught as fact, with one board member even declaring, “Evolution is hooey.” (Gail Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012)

Science used to be the one pure subject that we could count on not being tampered with by political or ideological concerns. But in our politically charged atmosphere and with so much information (and misinformation) at our fingertips, even our scientific knowledge is being called into question constantly.

I guess the number one skill we should be concentrating on in educating future generations is critical thinking.  Only dispassionate and thoughtful inquiry will lead us to truth and away from ignorance.

 

Privilege

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IMG_E1701I’m on the campus of an Ivy League college so that my daughter can attend a soccer camp for high school girls.

The above statement reeks of privilege. How many teenagers with some promise in the field of soccer are able to travel to and attend such a camp? How many parents can afford to take the time to bring them? Furthermore, our daughter’s skill has been developed over years of participation in expensive club soccer, an opportunity unavailable to many youngsters in America.

I’m not trying to apologize for my ability to give my child opportunities or advantages. But neither can I ignore that many of the things my family takes for granted in our lives are the result of white middle class privilege. Conservatives may roll their eyes at the idea of “white privilege,” but recognizing the pervasive influence of race and social class on upward mobility is well overdue in our society.

Americans like to think our democracy assures that the American Dream is equally available to anyone willing to work hard. But the limitations put on some Americans, particularly African Americans, date back to the days of slavery. With a legacy of enslavement, brutal treatment, being denied an education, and Jim Crow laws keeping the races separate, black Americans have never been able to catch up to whites in terms of equality of opportunity.

The separate and unequal world of African Americans comes to light in the excellent Showtime series The Chi, a show set on the south side of Chicago. In the series, characters struggle to make ends meet and often find that the only way to make real money is to “hustle” – that is, to find illegal ways of making money. They live in a blighted neighborhood where gangs control various streets and a gangster mentality even infiltrates the lives of impressionable middle schoolers. And even those who tow the line with gainful employment and an attempt to raise morally upstanding children find their loved ones victimized by the random violence on the streets.

It’s hard to square the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story of American opportunity with today’s world in which black youngsters working a paper route have the police called on them for no reason other than the color of their skin. Young black men, in particular, live under a cloud of suspicion that would make any white person positively murderous with rage if they were to experience it. For instance, filmmaker Daveed Diggs recalls that when he was in his 20s, he was pulled over by the police about 36 times in 3 years.

I’m not trying to suggest that whites apologize for being white. However, we need to support efforts to even the playing field, such as affirmative action and police reform. We need to make a serious investment in minority neighborhoods to bring true economic opportunity. Most importantly, we can’t sit smugly in our white privilege and insist that we’ve gotten where we are purely by dint of hard work.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to afford my daughter opportunities in life that will, I hope, lead to success and happiness for her. All I’m asking is that as a society, we work to make opportunities available to all, regardless of the accident of their birth.

Teacher Appreciation

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I’ve been noticing lots of Facebook posts about Teacher Appreciation Week. Although it’s been decades since I dusted the chalk off my hands and left teaching, I still consider it one of the great highlights of my life.

My inspiration came from a tiny, curmudgeonly old English teacher named Mr. Stringfellow. Mr. Stringfellow was a legend in my high school for being grumpy and exacting. So I was a little scared on the first day of senior year when I walked into his British Lit class.

At the front of the classroom stood a small man slightly hunched over, with black hair, glasses, and a deep scowl. We started right in with Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, and I was smitten. Although it proved true that Mr. Stringfellow had stringent standards and did not suffer fools gladly, he also lit up from within when reading or discussing great literature.

Mr. Stringfellow taught me how to analyze literature deeply. He would stand at the front of the room and intone the words of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Once he read my essay on Lady Macbeth out loud to the class and proclaimed, “This is the closest thing I’ve ever read to a scholarly paper in high school.” I wore the back-handed compliment like a badge of honor.

There have been other special teachers in my life. Mrs. Rollow inspired me to become enthralled with journalism. Her question to us on the first day of class, “Which is more important: a free society or a free press?”, ignited a lively intellectual debate. In the age of Watergate and the Washington Post reporting that eventually brought down a president, I aspired to become an investigative journalist. There wasn’t much scandal to be unearthed in my suburban high school, but I still reveled in my days as reporter and then editor on the school newspaper.

Away at college, I kept thinking back to these two inspirational educators from my high school years. Aside from their obvious passion for their subject matter, Mr. Stringfellow and Mrs. Rollow loved their students and tried to get the best out of them. Where Mr. Stringfellow was exacting and begrudging with a smile, Mrs. Rollow was delightfully wry and witty.  But I looked up to them both with something akin to hero worship. My decision to teach was a natural outgrowth of their inspiration.

The impact of great teachers cannot be overstated. Their long hours and indefatigable efforts to help students achieve deserve recognition, not only every year, but every day of the year.

Here’s to great teachers past, present, and future. They truly change lives.

Back to School Reading

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As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

What’s Really Going on At College Campuses?

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3CC1A18D00000578-4182824-image-a-52_1486039078314Much is being made in the media about violent protests against conservative firebrands such as Milo Yiannopoulis and Ann Coulter being invited to speak at Berkeley and other college campuses. It is being billed as a growing intolerance of free speech on the part of college students.

But I believe something else is going on here. A recent Los Angeles Times article detailed how radical fringe groups on both the left and right converged on the UC Berkeley campus to take advantage of the protests occurring there. These groups show up at scheduled peaceful protests and marches in order to incite violence and get media coverage. (“For many at Berkeley rally, it wasn’t really about Trump or free speech: They came to make trouble,” Paige St. John, The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2017)

Administrators are then forced to shut down events in order to protect the students, thus giving conservatives cause to cry foul on the grounds of free speech infringement. Similar skirmishes occurred shortly after the election of Donald Trump. These troublemakers notably cover their faces and wear black. And they give peaceful protesters, who also have free speech rights, a bad name.

I realize there have been cases of college students themselves shutting down speaking engagements, such as the appearance of Black Lives Matter critic Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna College. It should be noted that CMC President Hiram Chodosh stated in no uncertain terms that the college is a place for honest inquiry and exploration of ideas, and the blocking of campus buildings would not be tolerated. Furthermore, MacDonald’s speech did take place and was streamed so that those blocked from the venue could listen to her remarks.

I must confess that I’m disturbed by the types of speakers that conservative student groups have been inviting to their colleges and universities. With the exception of MacDonald, who does have some valid research to back up her opinions, the speakers that have been the focus of so much media attention are hate-spewing extremists such as the aforementioned Coulter and Yiannopoulis. Or alternatively, we have Charles Murray, whose dubious “scholarship” has posited that blacks have lower IQs than whites. If I were a college student, I would certainly protest the appearance of such figures on my campus.

Yet I do believe firmly in our First Amendment and the right of people to say what they wish, no matter how hateful, to their chosen audience. I am old enough to remember the famous 1977 case in which a small group of Neo-Nazis demanded the right to march through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois. The case ignited a national furor, and the Nazis’ rights were defended by the ACLU. Although the group was successful in gaining a permit to march through Skokie, they ultimately decided on a Chicago march instead. The positive thing to come out of the incident was the creation of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. (“Remembering the Nazis in Skokie,” Geoffrey R. Stone, Huffington Post, May 20, 2009, updated May 25, 2011)

But let’s not kid ourselves. College students are not becoming intolerant of “alternative viewpoints” so much as protesting the continued demeaning of people based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. They have a right, on their own campuses where they are paying tuition, to express their disapproval of speakers to whom they object – if they do so in a peaceful manner that does not infringe on the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker. It is a challenge for college administrations to assure that these disagreements are allowed to play out peacefully and without outside interference from fringe elements. But it’s a challenge they must rise to for the safety and freedom of all.