H is for Holocaust

Two-thirds of millennials (born between 1981-1996) can’t identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp.  Worse, nearly one-quarter aren’t sure if they ever heard the word Holocaust.

What does this say about the knowledge of those younger than 22?

These are the results from a study commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Not only do they not know about the largest concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews were exterminated, 20 percent of all Americans do not think that “it is important to keep teaching about the Holocaust.”  This does not bode well for it not happening again.

Amazing that people walk around with a personal computer in their back pocket, with vast knowledge literally at their fingertips, yet so much of its use is wasted on texting, social media and checking the time (younger people can’t read an analog clock).

They may know how to manipulate the devices, but are ignorant on how to sift through the detritus and distractions to find meaningful information.

Owning a smart phone does not make one smart.

In addition to the Holocaust, when six million Jews were killed, not two million according to nearly half of millennials, two other historic tragedies are commemorated this month:  the Armenian genocide and the Columbine high school shooting.  While one could explain away the foggy awareness of World War Two, what accounts for the misconceptions about Columbine which transpired a mere 19 years ago?

Most people think of Columbine as the first mass school shooting in U.S. history when actually it was a failed bombing.  The leader of the two culprits was enamored with outdoing the Oklahoma City bombing death total of 168.  Fortunately, the fuses were faulty—only one of the 40 bombs went off.

The impression of the event is that it lasted hours.  In reality, the whole occurrence lasted 47 minutes before they both killed themselves.  Yet officer training at the time was to create a perimeter around the area, waiting until it was safe for them to move in.  Today, the protocol is for law enforcement to go where the shooting is happening in order to bring down the shooter.

This slower approach accelerated the death of the sole teacher victim, Dave Sanders, who bled out over three hours.  Even though Eagle Scouts were with the fallen coach and did what they could, it is heartbreaking to learn that despite 911 operators’ reassurances that help was on the way, that help was too late in coming.

People think the two perpetrators were outcasts, bullied by their peers.  Not true.  In fact, these two bullied others, and they both had friends.  Yet, because of this inaccuracy, the topic of bullying became imbedded in school curriculums across America as a way to prevent another Columbine from happening.

And both teens lived in middle-class neighborhoods with both parents, not presumed broken homes.

The real story of Columbine conflicts with the perception of it which is why education is so vital.

In today’s times, facts and the truth have been battered beyond recognition by our political leaders.

Parents and teachers must teach their children about the past.   If nothing else, young people need to be taught how to access factual information.

Not even a century has passed since the end of World War Two, yet already younger people have lost track of significant world events of the 20th century.   What does this portend 50 years from now?  What important knowledge will be lost or distorted?

When Hitler prepared to invade Poland in 1939, he said with impunity in justifying the impending deaths of men, women, and children that “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

 

And Now it’s Time for Teachers to Rise

As of this publishing, the Oklahoma teachers are in their fifth day of a statewide strike.  The starting salary for a teacher there is $31,600, third lowest in the country.

The teachers began their walkout after rejecting a 6 percent pay raise over three years, and $50 million in education funding. Why?  Because the last time teachers in the state received any raise was in 2008.  Several school districts in the state are only open four days a week because they don’t have the money to literally keep the lights on.  Their demands:  a $10,000 raise over three years and $200 million in funding.

It’s not just about more money in teachers’ pockets, but more textbooks in students’ hands.

Last month teachers from West Virginia went on strike for nine days to earn a 5 percent pay raise.  Last week there was a sickout in Kentucky to protest cuts in their pensions.  Now Arizona teachers are pondering action as well.

Whether inspired by the #MeToo movement or the student-led March for Our Lives, teachers now feel emboldened to speak out on the national stage about their working conditions, charging en masse to state capitals.

While I have reservations about teachers going out on strike, such action is rattling the status quo.

Upon hearing what the teachers want, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin told a reporter that teachers wanting more money was “kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”   Such a condescending comment underscores how teachers are perceived by some.

Taxpayers who have no sympathy for higher salaries base it primarily on the amount of time teachers are at a school.

While hours from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. may not seem overwhelming, the teacher is working nearly every minute of that timeframe, hosting club meetings at lunch, tutoring students after school.

Yes, teachers have many holidays and summers off.  It is the off the job hours, however, that justifies a higher teacher’s salary.

When do teachers develop lesson plans, create assignments, and grade work?  They do it at home, at their children’s practices, in doctors’ waiting rooms, stealing away minutes whenever they can.

Then there is the mental toll on teachers, always thinking about the next lesson, even while celebrating Thanksgiving, or lugging a bag of student papers while vacationing over Spring Break.  Rarely is a teacher’s mind not thinking about how to spark students’ curiosity.

Some teachers are paid decently, no question.  California teachers do enjoy the second highest average salary in the nation at $78,711, but the state has the second highest cost of living as well. The majority of teachers who work in Glendale can’t afford to live in Glendale.

The rent for a one bedroom apartment goes for $2,284 based on Rent Jungle averages; the median home is priced at $816,500 according to Zillow.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia told the New York Times that recent teacher uprisings is an “education spring.”

Time will tell if these events are the beginnings of a sustained movement or just a passing phase.   Still, it is refreshing to see educators get out of their soft shells and show how much they care about their work with America’s youth, and how much Americans should care about it as well.

 

 

 

The Post Surgery Blues

Since you are reading a column and not an obituary you know that I survived the surgery of the century (at least for me).

As much as medical personnel tell you what to expect for a surgery, accompanied with glossy brochures of smiling patients and cartoonish drawings of incisions, nothing can prepare one for the ultimate loss of control over your life once you enter the prep area.

Shedding one’s clothes is akin to shedding one’s protection of what is to come as you lay there helpless in a large room of other pre-op patients, a drawn circular curtain the only semblance of privacy.

I lost track of how many people popped in, each with a greeting of “hi, my name is and I will be doing this to you,” introductions I only half-heartedly paid attention to; after all, these folks were opening acts to the real star of the show, the surgeon.

There’s the woman who will insert the IV, there are the residents who look more nervous than me, and there’s the man who will shave parts of my body which have never been shaved before.

I met so many employees proving how healthy (pun intended) the health care field remains for those looking for a stable career.

No matter how many movies and TV shows one has seen where the camera is the point of view of a patient lying prostrate on a gurney looking up as florescent lights fly by, when you become the camera, it acts as a lightning bolt dose of reality that this is really happening.   Luckily, by the time I was positioned in the operating room, I fell asleep, feeling terribly cold.

Waking up in recovery, there was a new nurse assisting and my wife by my side.  I didn’t know until later that my brother and sister had visited me and that I appeared awake but groggy.  I had no recollection of that.  I apologize for any foreign tongues that may have uttered from my mouth.

My post-op fear was that I was going to throw up in the car on the way home which is why I brought an old bath towel just in case.   Fortunately, I never needed that towel.

The day after the surgery was the most uncomfortable as the main drugs had worn off.  More than anything, I felt discomfort not sharp pain.  For the first couple of nights I could not sleep in bed even with added pillows; the living room chair with an ottoman was my bed.

In 29 years of teaching, and in 42 years of working, I have never taken off so much time due to my health.   Sure, I was able to read three books in five days and binge on Netflix’s “Seven Seconds.”   And my dog and I have bonded even more than before (if that’s even possible).  I’m worried about any post-surgical depression setting in for him without me by his side once I return to work.

Unlike the summer when I’m not working, however, this time felt different.  Convalescing with its restrictions on exercise, limited to small errands and short walks—the elliptical machine and racquetball off limits—bred restlessness.

In this September of my years (to borrow from the Sinatra song), the notion of retirement ebbs and flows, anticipating unrestricted time to enjoy life.  However, that fantasy only works if one is healthy.

As one ages and the future shrinks, the truth to the axiom of making the most of each living day crystallizes.

If you can wake up and feel well, that is a present that comes with responsibility to not fritter it away.   Life comes with a limited supply of those days.

“You Don’t Have the Gall” Will Now Be a Reality for Me

By the time you read this column, I will not be the man I was when I wrote it; I will no longer have a gall bladder.

It is hard to accept that an organ which has been with me since birth will be removed.

When my brother had his taken out more than a quarter of a century ago, it was a major operation where surgeons made a huge incision and the patients had to be hospitalized for several days.

Now, it is a laparoscopic procedure (doesn’t “procedure” sound less intrusive than “operation”?) with four small incisions to insert cameras and tools.

The technical name for it is a cholecystectomy.  One thing that scares me is that as an English teacher I can’t pronounce it (koh-luh-sis-TEK-tuh-me, if you are curious).

Such an operation is the number one outpatient procedure done in the country so I am not alone (though that does not make me feel any better).

My surgeon told me that he does hundreds of these a year.  I hope that doesn’t mean he has the chutzpah to perform mine blindfolded.

My son found an online video of the procedure.  I declined to see it.

Once I began telling people about my upcoming surgery, everyone had a story to share:  “Oh, my mother had it, my brother-in-law had it,” etc.

No big whoop.

Well, when it’s happening to you, it is a big whoop.

Plus, tragedy struck my mother back in 1982 when during a routine hernia repair operation, the anesthesiologist who was intubating her mistakenly ruptured her esophagus.  She nearly died, but even though she recovered, she was never able to eat properly again for the remaining 24 years of her life.

That plays a vital part in how my mind works.

About seven years ago is when I first had the symptoms:  my stomach hardened tight as a drum, my back hurt, my breathing became rapid, and I was drenched.  I thought it was a heart attack.   Each episode lasts about 90 minutes, averaging one every 10 months.

Finally, I had an ultrasound which detected gallstones.  Ever since I found that out in November and met with a surgeon who recommended the gallbladder removal, I have been on Surgery Watch 2018, obsessed with the impending surgery.

The only previous surgery I have ever had was back in high school when I had all four wisdom teeth extracted.   Not even when I had a colonoscopy was I completely under, choosing twilight sleep instead.

People tell me that having a positive outlook is essential.   With that in mind, in preparation for my recovery, I’m stockpiling chocolate pudding, true crime books and Netflix shows.

However, anytime I do not have control over my fate a sense of uneasiness strangles me.  Remember the old cartoons when a character had a little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other, both persuading the character how to act?

For weeks now I have had two voices inside me, call them “Smart Brian” and “Scared Brian.”

Smart Brian knows that this surgery is the best thing for me.

Scared Brian doesn’t know that to be 100 percent certain.

Smart Brian knows that a week or so after surgery, I will be fine.

Scared Brian pictures a life-altering diet of soft eggs and bland toast, which is why I used the last weekend as a farewell to my favorite foods, planning my final meal.

There is always that nightmare scenario reminiscent of the climactic scene in “Kings Row” when the Ronald Reagan character wakes up and screams, “Where’s the rest of me?” upon realizing his legs have been amputated.

I told my surgeon, “On March 7, you are the most important person in the world to me.”

And he replied, “And on that day, you are the most important person to me.”

I will let you know how it all turns out.

 

Arming Politicians with Action

I imagine a moment when an announcement over the P.A. system declares:  “This is a lockdown, not a drill.”   Immediately I close the classroom door, lock it, turn off the lights, hunker down under the tables with my students, and stifle their cries.

Should this scenario be part of teacher training courses?

Apparently so because already teachers in America go through these lockdown or active shooter drills each year.

I have experienced two real lockdowns at Hoover High School though no actual threat materialized.

As if the demands of the job aren’t already stretched to incredible lengths, now teachers have to absorb the remote yet real possibility that one day a nightmare may appear in their classroom.   And those educators need to run through in their minds how they will actually handle a situation they don’t ever want to face.

If the perpetrator shoots into the room, do I barricade the door and, if so, can my students help me move heavy items to do it, do we pray under the tables that he won’t see us, do I physically try to take the shooter down, knowing my life and the lives of my students are at risk, or do I actively ignore the current lockdown procedures and make a run for it?

Wednesday night CNN held a televised town hall meeting at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, a 20-minute drive from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland where the Valentine’s Day massacre of 17 students and teachers occurred.

The arena holds more than 20,000 people; the high school has over 3,000 students.  No one was harmed in the arena due to security measures in place.   Those measures should be replicated at every single school in America.

It would be easier to secure schools than pass stronger gun laws.

President Trump should hold an emergency meeting with his advisers and develop a plan that can implement immediately.  Unfortunately, we have a President who needs to have a cheat sheet—“I hear you”—on how to show empathy for grieving parents, and who believes arming teachers is the way to go.

We are all tired of the cell phone footage of students crouched under desks in terror, the anguish in the parents’ faces upon awaiting the news of their children’s safety, the candlelight vigils, the funerals, the signs, the pleas, the demands to do something, do something, please, please, do something.

Students who study the dangers of driving under the influence are aware that every 15 minutes in the United States a person dies from a car crash.   However, during that same time, a person dies in a gun-related incident.

While cars are regulated for safety—seatbelts and airbags are credited with lowering the auto fatality rate—guns are not.

The number of deaths, 26, and the young age of the children, 6-7 years old, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut along with President Obama’s tearful statement led many to believe that that would be the watershed moment, the turning point when politicians would finally act to stop the rampant gun disease; 200 shootings and 400 deaths later, nothing has happened.

What number of deaths will it take to get everyone’s attention:  50? 100? 500?  Maybe the death of a prominent politician’s child or grandchild?

Yet Congress has no problem passing legislation to expand the rights of gun owners.   Last December the House passed HR 38, Concealed Carry Reciprocity, allowing those with guns to travel from state to state and legally carry their weapons.

I pray that I never hear again “this is a lockdown” and that anyone I love ever hears that.   Children should not attend school even with the remotest possibility that they may not return home.  Yet in today’s climate, the first sound of an administrator speaking on the P.A. makes everyone jittery.

It is not about blue states vs. red states, Democrats vs. Republicans, pro-gun vs. anti-gun.

It is about having a country where the safety of its children is paramount, a priority superseding a citizen’s right to own a gun.

 

Motown Remembered

Since the holidays, I have been on Motown Memory Lane.   My wife and I were in the San Diego area after Christmas and saw “Motown the Musical” which premiered on Broadway in 2013.

The play takes place in 1983 when a TV extravaganza celebrating 25 years of the record label was being assembled.   As the story of Motown founder Barry Gordy unfolds, flashbacks of the singers and groups are played out with vintage arrangements, costumes, and choreography of over 40 hit songs.

If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s listening to this music, or are familiar with it from movies, TV shows, and commercials, it is remarkable to realize how magical was Hitsville, USA.

Seeing the musical inspired me to watch the Motown special for the first time since it aired in May of 1983.

Taped at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, “Motown 25:  Yesterday, Today, Forever” won a Peabody Award and an Emmy.  Hard to believe that it has been 35 years since the special was produced.

It is worth watching again mainly to see a unique event:   most of the headliner artists on stage singing together at the end of the show.

The number one moment most recall is Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk for the very first time.  However, there are other special moments such as when Marvin Gaye sits at the piano playing extemporaneously as he talks about the history of black music before doing an emotional rendition of “What’s Going On.”

There’s the reunion of the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes with Diana Ross.   And the battle of the boy choirs, the Four Tops vs. the Temptations.

Dennis Edwards, Temptations’ lead singer at the time, died last week at age 74.   While not an original member (over the years there have been dozens of personnel changes), he was viewed as the most vibrant of the lead singers.

Incredibly, the Four Tops remained together from 1953 to 1997, with the same four men.  Today, only Abdul Fakir is still alive while Otis Williams is the only original Temptation left.

When researching the history of Motown, it is tragic to learn how many artists died before their time:  Michael Jackson (50), Mary Wells (49), Marvin Gaye (44), Temptations’ Elbridge “Al” Bryant (36) and Paul Williams (34), Supremes’ Florence Ballard (32), Tammi Terrell (24).

If you have time on Valentine’s Day, consider paying tribute to Motown by listening to some of the songs:

The Temptations’ “Get Ready”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Shop Around”

Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”

Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life’

Mary Wells’ “My Guy”

Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go”

The Four Tops’ “Baby I Need Your Loving”

The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”

With the passage of time, it is worth noting that all these talented musicians did not use one obscenity in any of their songs.  And they dressed to the nines, women in dresses, men in suits.

B.B. King once said that it was important for him to wear three-piece suits while performing, and not wear street clothes on stage.

Today’s artists could learn from these masters on how to elevate their work through their language and appearance.

 

 

A S-Hole in One

Two weeks ago I rolled out my pre-reading lessons for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which includes sharing motivational stories about unknown heroes such as Edward Thomas, Houston’s pioneering African American police officer.

Thomas, who worked on the force for 63 years, died two weeks following the dedication ceremony renaming the department’s office building after him, a man who while in college was drafted into the Army during World War Two, fighting on D-Day and at the Battle of the Bulge.

His country asked him to sacrifice his life yet did not treat him equally; even in the military he was placed in a segregated unit.

Due to his color, he was not allowed to enter the front of the police department building (he had to use the back door), not allowed to be in the roll call room (he had to stay in the hallway), and was on his own during his patrol (white officers would not back him up).   Still, he persevered.

The final job he held was at the security desk where staff checked in which had now been moved to the rear of the building.    Quite ironic that all officers now enter the only door Thomas was allowed through.

We then analyze a poem, “Incident” by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, describing a heartbreaking moment of racism for a young boy when the only memory that stayed with him during eight months in Baltimore was when another boy called him the n-word.

That leads to a discussion about the n-word and its use in literature.  We went over which words for African Americans would be permissible and which were not.

Hours after having a sensitive talk about racial epithets, President Trump obliterates the point I was trying to make by using ugly language to discuss certain immigrants.

In a meeting on immigration with lawmakers, Trump said, “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from s—hole countries?”

The language was raw, the racism an open sore. Did our Commander-in-Chief actually say those ugly things?

And then the second part of the story unraveled.

The news media decided to spell the whole expletive out.  There it was in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Not only that, when I turned on CNN, in the lower-thirds of the screen, there was Trump’s quote with each letter of the fully spelled out word in all its glory—no asterisk or hyphen substituted.

For further shock value, moderator Anderson Cooper and nearly all of his guests actually said the word on the air repeatedly in their conversations.

What’s baffling is when former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci gave obscenity-laden responses to a reporter last July, the media refrained from spelling out the words or saying them on the air.   So why have the standards and practices of the media changed?  Has the bar lowered even further on what words can be in print and on TV? If so, what about the n-word and other racially charged language?

The next day, news broke about a porn star being paid $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair with Trump years ago when his wife was pregnant with their child.

Coincidentally, I also introduced a semester-long assignment called The Decency Project which asks students to come up with ways that they can help others.   Some will be collecting items for underprivileged people, while others will be working at hospitals, animal shelters, and homeless shelters.

Teenagers working at a higher moral plane than the President.  Who would have ever thought that day would come.

Thank you, President Trump, for continuing to provide teachable moments for educators.