The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

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Suffer the Children

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Dear Jeff Sessions,

Here are a couple of Biblical quotations you might have missed:

Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 10:15: “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

Don’t go quoting the Bible to justify the inhumane act of separating parents from their children. During the Holocaust, at concentration camps, the first thing the Nazis did was separate adults from children. As one victim of America’s shameful policy of Japanese internment pointed out, even he was never separated from his parents.

The spin being put on this horrifying immigration policy by the Trump Administration and the pundits on Fox News is making me want to vomit. Their excuses are simply lame.

The first one is that this is a long-standing policy that Bush and Obama followed. That’s just wrong. Except in extremely rare cases where the legitimacy of the parent/child relationship was in question, Hispanics crossing the border illegally were not separated from their children.

The Trump Administration’s second lame excuse is that the policy will deter illegal immigrants from trying to cross the border. Clearly that’s not the case when were are seeing literally thousands of children being warehoused in cages like animals.

The third excuse is that it’s all the Democrats’ fault! I’m surprised Trump hasn’t blamed Hillary and her emails for the policy. Seriously, Republicans. You are not going to weasel out of responsibility for this heinous violation of human rights that easily. (Of course, the U.S. has just left the UN Human Rights Council since it would be hypocritical to be a part of something it doesn’t actually practice itself.)

I’m not sure why, but when I picture Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Sessions cooking up this heartless policy in the Oval Office, I see them all in Nazi uniforms. I wonder if they stood at attention the way Trump would prefer all his underlings to do in front of him. After all, that wonderful guy Kim Jong Un gets that kind of treatment.

My favorite statement from these monsters was Sessions’ inane argument that if these immigrants don’t want to be separated from their children, they should leave the children at home. Say what?

I’d like Americans to picture the desperation a person must feel to undertake the perilous and difficult journey to come to America in search of safety and a better life. Now imagine how much more dangerous and difficult that trip would be with one’s own precious children. What the U.S. does about so many immigrants trying to obtain asylum in this country is open to debate. But whether or not to put their children in cages is not.

 

 

Personal Touch Foils Prejudice

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Like many people, I am prone to snap judgments. Upon meeting or even seeing someone for the first time, I immediately make an assessment about their likability and character. That would be all well and good if my judgments proved to be unerringly right; but so often my first impressions have been dead wrong.

I can recall a girl in my high school English class whom I immediately characterized as a spoiled rich girl. She was impeccably coiffed, made up, and dressed, and she was not afraid to speak up in class. All this made me dislike her out of hand. As the school year progressed, though, and we were thrown together on class projects, I discovered the girl’s real self: an eccentric, witty, self-deprecating girl whose passion for literature matched my own. For her part, she had me pegged as a prissy goody two shoes based on the sole fact that I never crossed my legs. Of course, we became fast friends.

We all have our prejudices, and it’s probably a vestige of our survival instinct. Prehistoric humans needed to be able to assess danger within seconds in order to protect themselves. So they developed an ability to categorize an animal or other human instantly as either dangerous or safe. With the development of more sophisticated societies, these snap judgments remained while the need for protecting ourselves from outsiders dwindled.

Over the past 50 years, America has made great strides in civil rights. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would probably find it hard to imagine the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, much of the remaining racism in our country has bubbled to the surface. Now more than ever, our citizens need to find a way to come together and surmount the deep-seated fears and hatreds with which we have grown up.

Here is where the personal touch can help. It’s harder to demonize whole groups of people when we have personal relationships with some of them. A case in point is the story of Chris Buckley, former Klansman and Army sergeant with an unyielding hatred of Muslims. Buckley’s wife reached out to an organization that helps white supremacists leave behind their hate-infused worlds. A member of that organization introduced Buckley to Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who had made a life for himself in America and is now determined to give back to the country that took him in. (Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2018)

Chris Buckley’s encounters with poor African Americans and with men like Kelli have helped dispel the fear and hate he had built up in his heart. Himself a drug addict and the survivor of an abusive household as a child, Buckley has chosen the path of compassion and help for others who are struggling as he has struggled for most of his life.

In my previous post, I wrote about how the personal touch can help us feel more connected and less lonely. But I believe it can do even more. Personal encounters with people of different races, religions, and social classes can bridge the gaps in our understanding and break down the walls of prejudice we have falsely convinced ourselves we need for protection.

Stories like Buckley’s make me hopeful that there is deep goodness inside each of us, and with some effort we can all bring out that goodness for the betterment of society and even for ourselves.

 

 

 

Dropping Out of the Digital Age

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I’ve decided to drop out of this century. I realized I am hopelessly out of date today when I completed a survey for my local library. When asked about digital materials and library resources, not only did I have no use for them, I’d never even heard of most of them. No, dear library, I don’t want ebooks or audiobooks or apps on my phone. Just give me an old-fashioned paperbound book and a cup of tea, please.

Then I noticed articles in my newspaper about the gig economy, and I don’t even know what that is. Also, states like Alaska and Vermont are offering to pay people just to move there and work remotely for a company in another state. What is that? Whatever happened to the kind of job where you get up, get dressed, and drive or take the train or bus to an office/school/restaurant/store and work there for 8 hours?

My daughter’s schools and camps now insist that all documents be scanned and uploaded to their websites. No more mailing or even faxing! No wonder my postal carrier looks glum these days. Online classes and bill payments, electronic grade reports, medical MyCharts. Sure, I feel totally secure having all my personal medical information on the web -NOT!

There is some evidence that I’m not alone in my discomfort with runaway technological progress. A recent report indicates that a large majority of people aren’t comfortable with the idea of owning or riding in a driverless vehicle. Ironically, all the titans of tech in Silicon Valley send their kids to schools where use of technology is verboten.

I admit that I like the convenience of ordering online, Googling, and even playing games on my phone in doctors’ waiting rooms. The digital age has even made it possible for me to share these curmudgeonly thoughts with a wide audience.

But I lament all that has been lost as we focus on our phones and other electronic devices. Face to face conversation, cursive handwriting, letter writing – they all seem to be facing obsolescence. Let’s face it. Anyone under 40 is incapable of balancing their checkbook by hand. (My kids don’t even know what balancing a checkbook is.) Call me crazy, but I would rather order my broccoli cheddar soup from the Panera cashier than punch a bunch of buttons on a machine and make my lonely way to a table, where soon, no doubt, a robot will deposit my food.

So I am dropping out of the digital age. You will find me at the library reading real books and writing in my paper journal with a pen. And if you see me, please stop by for a face to face chat. I’m still doing those.

 

Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

Things Blacks Can’t Do in America*

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tdy_sun_radford_starbucks_180415_1920x1080.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopThese are the ordinary activities blacks aren’t allowed to do if they wanted to avoid being questioned/arrested/shot by police:

  1. Go to Starbucks.
  2. Shop at Nordstrom Rack.
  3. Fall asleep in the library.
  4. Golf.
  5. Refuse to give up their table in a restaurant.
  6. Be outside in their relative’s backyard at night with a cell phone in hand.
  7. Rent space at an Airbnb.
  8. Walk around in a “white” neighborhood.
  9. Sit on their own front porch.
  10. Try to enter their own home in an upscale neighborhood.
  11. Drive.
  12. Walk.
  13. Breathe.
  14. Exist.

Every day I read about another case of egregious harassment based on race. Increasingly, the stories feature white citizens taking it upon themselves to call police upon black citizens purely based on the color of their skin.

Some of this increase is no doubt due to the tenor of the Trump presidency, a mindset that emphasizes minorities as alien and criminal. After Trump was elected in 2016, hate crimes against minorities went up substantially. White supremacist groups, largely marginalized throughout the past 50 years, became emboldened by Trump’s dog whistle politics. Some Republican politicians have started campaigning on racist and misogynistic platforms with little to no subtlety.

Yet in a larger sense, these stories point to the reality that we are far from the “post racial” society that many Americans imagine our country to be. I would like my white friends to imagine what it’s like to get in one’s car on a daily basis and pray that they don’t get stopped or, worse, killed by a police officer. I’d like them to walk into their favorite store, restaurant, movie theater, or golf club and feel watched and harassed just by virtue of being there. I wonder how whites would feel if they were on the premises of their own property or that of a friend or relative and had neighbors calling the police on them.

Blacks can take nothing for granted in our world. What they wear, how they speak to strangers, even whether or not it’s wise to put their hands in their pockets. They live under a cloud of suspicion for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Certainly police training on bias would be helpful lessen the number of tragic shootings of blacks. But our society needs a sea change in our attitudes. Part of the problem is the segregation under which many Americans still live. We scarcely interact with people of other races or ethnicities, and therefore we are less comfortable around each other.

Far from ushering in a new, more tolerant age, the election of our first black president, Barack Obama, created a backlash on the part of many whites who fear that their own opportunities will be diminished by a more racially tolerant society. Blacks are held to a much higher standard for behavior than are whites. So it is up to us whites to fight for more inclusion, more opportunity, and more acceptance of African Americans – and indeed for all minorities.

Conservatives are fond of the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Let’s apply that concept to race relations and not just trickle down economics for a change.

*Adding to the list:

15. Swim at a public pool without being questioned about whether you showered first.

16. Canvass as a lawmaker among one’s constituency.

17. Have a paper route.

 

 

 

 

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.