Living through a Pandemic

Incredible how our lives teeming with jobs, errands and recreation can be instantaneously wiped clean, filtered down to only one concern:  “Do we have enough toilet paper to get us through the week?”

Going to work and school, eating out, attending movies and concerts, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, observing religious traditions—all halted.  Freeze frame life as we know it.

And the places that remain open such as grocery stores are scenes from a bad end-of-the-world Netflix show.

My son and I have traveled to market to market to cobble together meat, eggs, and peanut butter, standing in lines, standing apart.  We drove by two gun stores in Burbank, each with a line of people outside.  Just what kind of world are we living in?

One where terms like coronavirus, COVID-19 and social distancing have been added to our existence.

It is dizzying to think how much has transpired in the past week.  Gov. Newsom said on Tuesday that schools are unlikely to reopen this academic year.

Funny how the last school day was Friday the 13th.  At that time, it was clear that schools would not resume soon after spring break.  As my students left, I joked to them “Happy Fourth of July!” not knowing how prescient that was.

State testing has been cancelled, the College Board plans on administering Advanced Placement tests online, and graduation ceremonies—well, who knows?

Never before will so many people have to rely on technology to keep them connected to their work and their loved ones.

Glendale Unified teachers scheduled to return to work on March 23 most likely will remain at home, watching webinars on how to design online lessons to salvage the remaining weeks of the spring semester.

A life without doing whatever we want is unchartered territory for all but those old enough to have lived through World War II and the Great Depression.   They remember rationing of tires and sugar, meatless meals and gasless days.  It was not uncommon to ask Americans to sacrifice for the greater good.

The closest most people alive today can relate to any kind of sacrifice would have been the rationing of gas during the oil crisis of 1973 when drivers were only allowed to buy gas based on the odd/even last number on their license plate.

So the idea of giving something up even temporarily is a habit alien to most.  That partially explains why some people, mainly young ones, are not heeding the advice of government officials to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

While we want to believe that during a crisis people’s better parts rise to the occasion, toilet paper hoarding proves otherwise.  How many 24-packs of toilet paper do people need?  Thinking of other people is an ancient practice it seems.

There is a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the stock market crashes and people run into the Bailey Building and Loan to take their money out.  George pleads with his customers not to drain the limited bank’s money supply, but to only ask for small amounts to get them by in the short-term.  While some take all of their money, others think about George and other customers by limiting their withdrawals.

That’s the kind of neighborly attitude we need right now.

If we are to get through what possibly may be the worst pandemic since 1918 when over 675,000 Americans died out of 103 million, we all have to sacrifice for the greater good.

As I tell my students, the one comforting aspect when studying disasters in history is that we know when they ended.   Yes, the Civil War was horrible, but it was only 4 years long.  But those alive in the 1860s had no idea how long that tragedy would last.

Not knowing how long the current health crisis will last creates anxiety in us.  We don’t know what the coming months will bring.

The one constant that has helped my family cope with this health crisis has been our dog Noble.  He doesn’t care about COVID-19, only that his bowl has food, he has a walk, goes for a car ride, and plays with rope toys.   How delightful to be blissfully ignorant of the dramatic changes we are all enduring.

 

 

Foul-mouthed Teens Pollute Learning Environment

Where I work, teachers are encouraged to stand outside their classroom doors to greet students every day, every period.   While I usually do this, more recently I end up inside my classroom with the door shut, shielding myself from the barrage of vulgarities vomiting from high school students.

Just the other day as I stood outside my door, a couple of students were shouting the s-word repeatedly.

As the boys walked past me, I asked them to watch their language.  So what did they do when rounding the corner?   Shouted the expletive even louder.

Welcome to high school 2020, where incalcitrant students run amuck and the adults have lost control of the school campus.

With the erosion of school discipline comes the rise of student misbehavior; neither fear nor shame of consequences or punishments inhibits it.  There isn’t a hair of a hesitation in some students saying whatever they want whenever they want.

I have mentioned before, the environment on public school campuses will only get worse once Gov. Newsom’s new bill kicks in on July 1 when defying a teacher will barely register a disciplinary action.

Each new law limiting schools doling out suspensions is emboldening hooligans to wreak havoc in and out of the classroom.

Smart teachers know not to engage with students who are not their own.  If a teacher chooses to interact with students misbehaving, the situation quickly devolves into a high blood pressure scenario where confrontation and defiance is the rule, and thuggery thrives.  The bad kids go unpunished while the attentive teachers who try to hold students accountable go unsupported.

Students who don’t even know me, see a man as old as their uncle or grandfather, dressed formally in a sports jacket and a tie, who clearly is either a teacher or an administrator, yet my appearance does not matter.  Respecting one’s elders or authority figures is not a behavior practiced in the home or elsewhere.

These foul-mouthed teens don’t care about the feelings of their peers who may not want to hear f-this and f-that all day long at their school.  Oddly, there is a small patch of greenery on campus called the Peace Garden.  And it is there where one will find some of the raunchiest language on a daily basis.  So much for the peace.

It doesn’t help that we have a president who is foul-mouthed, saying “bull—” on live television without concern that children will hear his words.

Schools have cracked down on bullying and sexual harassment, but need to ensure that all disrespectful language is intolerable.

During my conference period recently, I noticed two male students walking ahead of me, brazenly walking past the open gate to the staff parking lot and exiting the campus.

Not one but two security guards were there.  One of the students said “have a nice day” as they exited the campus.

I asked one of the guards if those students just cut class.

He said, “Oh, yes.  They do it all the time.  But our hands are tied.  We are told not to approach them.”

If schools don’t hold the high standard that their campuses are safe havens for non-threatening words and actions, similar to places of worship, then schools fail.  Often it is the one place where they will learn how to be decent and empathetic and kind.  Foul language pollutes the atmosphere of learning which all schools should aspire to.

Once they graduate high school, the opportunity to teach young people how to behave civilly will have vanished, and they will march into society at large, less humane than earlier generations.

 

 

Say Goodbye to Election Day

The March 3 Presidential Primary Election will be the first to comply with the 2016 California Voter’s Choice Act giving voters more flexibility but less connection to their community.

No longer does one have to wait until Election Day.  Now, voting centers (replacing polling places) open for business Feb. 22.  That’s 10 days to cast your votes.  It almost makes campaigning up until Election Day irrelevant.

Plus, you don’t have to vote in your neighborhood; anywhere in the county is okay.

Now, there is less chance you will see the people who live on your street casting ballots.  Just what we need in today’s community-starved times, eliminating one of the rare opportunities to observe with one’s own eyes democracy in action and sharing it with fellow Americans. The patriotic pleasure of going in person during the designated hours on that one day and bumping into neighbors will become a story to share with your grandchildren.

If convenience supersedes community, why not allow everyone to vote via their cell phones, any time, any day during an election year?  That way no one has to ever vote in person again.  Democracy lite.  Already people are spoiled buying everything they need online, not having to mingle with humans in a mall.  Soon, people won’t ever have to interact with others.

Cell phones and the internet have trained people to turn themselves inward, not looking up literally, cocooning themselves away from others.

How bizarre it is to be out walking my dog and instead of saying “hi” to people, watching blank stares past me, earbuds transporting them to someplace other than the here and now. The person right in front of them does not exist.

However, in trying to make voting as painless as possible, they are inviting more uninformed people to join the democratic process.

It doesn’t bother me if only 60% of the electorate chooses to participate.  What is troublesome is how little so many know about the country they live in.

I was shocked to learn that my journalism students, who one would think would be the most aware teenagers on campus regarding issues in the world, did not know the name of the Vice President.

Further, they did not know who their representative was.  Imagine not knowing that the most famous congressman today, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who spearheaded the impeachment inquiry on President Trump, represents the area in which they live.

In just one week, I learned that students know very little about Abraham Lincoln even though they benefit from staying home on a day dedicated to his service to America.

Not one of my students have ever seen Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland.   Shouldn’t their parents have taken their children to such an entertaining yet educational attraction?

And when Vermont appeared in a lesson, I couldn’t find one student who knew what part of the country that state can be found.  “The southwest” and “the northwest” were the answers I received.  From honors students.

How can a 16-year-old go through 11 years of education and not know basic information?

One of the primary reasons for free public education to all is to ensure that students share a common base of knowledge, including what is means to be an American.

We should put more time in educating our youth about the country they live in in order to ensure the future electorate be informed, productive citizens.

And we should expect people to make a minimum effort to walk to their neighborhood polling place.  It is one’s civic duty.

Early Death Freezes Kobe in Time

“Hey, Dad, you won’t believe who just died?” my oldest son shouted from a neighboring room.

I immediately thought of someone famous who I admired who was elderly.

“Vin Scully?”

“Kobe Bryant.”

Given 100 guesses, Kobe’s name would not have been on that list.

Barely two weeks have passed since the tragic helicopter crash on Jan. 26 that killed nine people including Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and a mother, father and daughter from one family.

Of all the ways to die, dying via an accident must be the worst way for a life to end.   The people who die in accidents had plans later that day.  The victims’ families had plans later that day.  The last text, phone call, spoken words were not supposed to be the last ones.

This wasn’t like Alex Trebek’s year-long battle against pancreatic cancer, allowing fans to savor each of his “Jeopardy” appearances, nor was it like 103-year-old Kirk Douglas drawing his last breath.

Those who know they are about to die from an illness or old age have the opportunity to say their final goodbyes, for closure of some kind, before leaving the living behind.

What makes people react so deeply to the death of Kobe Bryant is that he was larger than life, a worldwide icon.  And if someone is larger than life, we fool ourselves to think that they can’t die, and if they do, most definitely not when they are young.

Unlike Elvis Presley (42) or Michael Jackson (50) who died from self-inflicted means, to die in an instant via an accident that comes out of nowhere shakes our foundation of life.

He didn’t make it to his imminent Hall of Fame induction this August.

He didn’t make it for the unveiling of his Staples Center statue.

He didn’t make it for any of his children’s high school graduation ceremonies.

Some other celebrities who have lost their lives in aircraft crashes include:

January 16, 1942 – 33-year-old actress Carole Lombard whose plane leaving Las Vegas crashed into the mountains killing all 22 onboard.  Because of the fear of a Japanese attack, safety beacons lighting the mountains were turned off.

December 15, 1944 – 40-year-old bandleader Glenn Miller with two others disappeared in foggy weather flying over the English Channel from England to France to entertain the troops in newly liberated Paris; a faulty carburetor may have been the culprit.

February 3, 1959 – Rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly (22), J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (28) and Ritchie Valens (17) died in a Beechcraft Bonanza shortly after taking off in Clear Lake, Iowa.

March 5, 1963 – 30-year-old singer Patsy Cline and three others died in a small Piper Comanche aircraft 90 miles outside of Nashville due to inclement weather.

December 10, 1967 – 26-year-old singer Otis Redding died in a Beechcraft H-18 with six others flying in rainy and foggy weather just four miles from their destination in Madison, Wisconsin, crashing into a lake; one person survived.

December 31, 1985 – 45-year-old actor/singer Ricky Nelson along with six others died in a DC-3 near De Kalb, Texas; both pilots survived the crash.

About the only positive that comes from such horrible events is that it reminds us of how precious our limited time is on earth.

One of the poems I teach to my 10th graders is A. E. Housman’s 1896 ode “To an Athlete Dying Young.”   The poem centers on an athlete who dies while still in the prime of life.  Because of an early death, he will always be remembered in people’s minds as that sparkling youth forever, never withering.

That is true of Bryant who now will forever remain 41 years old.

 

What’s paragraphing? Don’t ask a 15-year-old.

The other day I asked my students what they knew about Herbert Hoover, the name emblazoned on their school.   Besides a few rudimentary things such as he was a president, few knew anything else.

Then I asked about Mark Keppel and Eleanor J. Toll, names of their elementary and middle schools, respectively.

Nothing.

Isn’t it odd that students can attend a school for several years yet not be taught anything about the person whose name graces the building they enter and exit day after day?

They were never curious enough to Google these names even though they have libraries of information at their fingertips on the phones they carry.

Just another reminder about the paradox that surrounds us living at a time when information is everywhere, yet people seem less knowledgeable despite the technological advancements.

Unfortunately, from my view in the classroom trenches, the downward trend of what kids know is not surprising.

Exhibit A:  student writing.

Picture a piece of notebook paper with printing (no more cursive handwriting) that starts on the first line all the way on the left-hand side and continues down the entire page without any indentations, paragraphs or blank lines.  Just a block of text.

I even have students who turn in multiple pages of their work without stapling them together.

If I were talking about a third grade class, you wouldn’t be surprised.

But I’m referring to 10th graders in an honors class, two years away from entering college.

Yikes!

How can a 15-year-old get this far in school and not know how to follow the most fundamental rules of writing?

Students’ lack of paragraphing carries over to more critical areas of writing such as formulating a thesis, organizing topics, supporting opinion with evidence, and so on.

With each passing year that I teach, I have seen a degradation in students’ writing skills.

It’s not that students don’t know how to write, it’s that teachers haven’t asked them enough times to practice it.

Kids aren’t getting the instruction and practice they need to become more effective communicators.   The amount of writing a student does depends on the individual teacher.

If a student writes one paper per quarter, four papers a year, in grades 9-12, that totals 16 papers in one’s high school career.  But more often than not, students receive even less writing practice than that.

For the most part, students write papers in their English classes.  Imagine how much stronger their skills would be if they were practicing them in history and science classes.

The writing doesn’t have to be multiple page opuses.  Even a one-pager regularly assigned can provide sufficient practice in exercising their writing muscles.

Years ago, I was asked to coach social science teachers on how to grade short pieces of writing using rubrics.   There was resistance.

If only English teachers are expected to give writing assignments, students will continue floundering.

After all, today’s English teachers must deliver differentiating instruction for three types of student populations—regular ability, special education, English language learners—in a classroom bulging near 40 pupils.

And it is expected those instructors will assign writing on a regular basis?   Where is the time outside of work hours to grade 175 papers?

As I have written in this space before, Glendale Unified used to support English teachers with lay readers and paper grading days to ease the heavy workload.  However, those programs have long been eliminated.

Why should the average person worry about these things?

Think about where these less than qualified students are headed:  the workforce.  The people who will be our caretakers in law, accounting and medicine.  It is not just about indenting paragraphs.

 

 

To Catch a Thief

Strange how one alteration in a long-running pattern can turn everything upside down.

After 30 years of regularly playing racquetball early Sunday mornings at the Hollywood YMCA with a longtime friend, we had to switch to Saturdays in 2020 due to a later opening time—change #1.

Because the on-street parking in front of and across from the Y was taken, I ended up parking one block further north, an area I had never parked before—change #2.

Because the metered parking begins at 8:00 a.m. on Saturdays instead of 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, for the first time I had to put money in the meter—change #3.

Because I needed to retrieve coins from my car, I neglected to relock the vehicle (which I did not know at the time)—change #4.

My friend set an alarm on his phone for 7:57, allowing me enough time to run downstairs, cross the street, and feed the kitty for both our cars.

As I walked across from the main entrance to where my friend’s car was parked, I noticed a beat-up white sedan pull up next to mine which was one block up from where I was.  It appeared to be in position to parallel park; however, there wasn’t a place to park behind me.

Without thinking much about it, I stepped on the sidewalk and took out coins to put into the meter.

Suddenly, my eye caught a peculiar sight—my trunk had just popped up!   In a flash, my eyes quickly zoomed in to see the front passenger door open with someone half inside my car.

Instinctively I rushed over shouting, “Hey!  What are you doing?!”

Like the head of a jack-in-the-box, the rest of the man jumped out of my car.  He was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, white, disheveled looking.

“Oh, is this your car?  Sorry.  I thought this was my buddy’s car.  He said he left something here for me.”

At that point a voice inside of me said, “Brian, do not say anything else.  Get in the car fast, turn it around, and get the hell out of the area.”

Before I knew it, I made a U-turn and drove two blocks to a church parking lot, my heart pounding and my mind racing.

Lucky for me I never leave anything visible inside my car except for a pair of sunglasses and a water canteen.  And the only item in my trunk are reusable shopping bags.

But what about my registration and insurance card inside the glovebox?

I opened it up and discovered nothing had been disturbed, everything was there.

Did what just happened happened?  Was I a victim of a car burglary?

What hit me like a brick was the strong odor of cigarette smoke that must have been absorbed on the crook’s clothing.  It was so powerful that even after driving several miles with all the windows down I still could not get it completely eliminated.

I carefully walked back to the Y, looking to see if the man would still be there.

He was gone.

Within 60 seconds, he had pulled up next to my car, sized it up, pulled in front of my car, exited his, opened my unlocked passenger door, reached over to the driver’s side and pushed the release button to the trunk—clearly an activity he had mastered in record time.

I must have left the car unlocked because there was no sign of forced entry. That explains how he quickly got into my car without breaking a window.

However, if I had arrived a minute later, who knows what condition my car would have been in?

It wasn’t until I told this story to people that I realized how fortunate I was that the guy wasn’t confrontational or didn’t have a weapon.

There must have been a guardian angel watching over me that day.  How 2020 could have easily gone sideways in just four days old.

 

New Trump, New Year

This New Year’s we say goodbye not just to 2019 but to the second decade of the 21st century.

It seemed not that long ago when the biggest worry we had was the alleged Y2K crisis.  Who knew that 20 months after celebrating the new millennium, 9/11 would turn our world upside down.

And so, with 20% of the century now gone, what is the health of America?

Scanning negative headlines everywhere, the future seems bleak.

Like a vision from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, I can’t help but picture a headstone reading:  The United States,

1776-20–?

But just like Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation, America can turn it around.

Imagine President Donald J. Trump waking up on New Year’s Day a changed man, compassionate and decent, delivering a speech for the ages, words to unify all Americans.

“My fellow Americans,

For these past three years, I have not been the best person I could have been.

Ever since November of 2016 when I was shocked to learn that I had won the presidential election, I really had no idea what to do next.  My team and I were completely unprepared for those results; our pollsters had Hillary Clinton winning by three million votes.

Since I did not want to come across as someone incompetent, especially since so many believed in the brilliant billionaire businessman they saw on television who hosted “The Apprentice,” I did not want to let citizens down.

From my childhood, when my father sent me to military school, his only child of five for whom he did such a thing, I have felt insecure.  That is why I boast, berate and shout to cover up my inadequacies.

But once the House of Representatives passed those two articles of impeachment, it made me reflect on what type of legacy I want to leave behind.

Just as I am the first president ever to be impeached in his first term, I could become the first president who performed amazing deeds in less than a year.

As of today, I am disabling my Twitter account.  The juvenile name-calling stops now.  Restoring the honor of the office of the presidency is a prime priority.

Dishonesty and misinformation will no longer thrive; the Trump Administration will be known for truthfulness and transparency.

I will rebuild our relationships with our allies and strengthen our human rights concerns with our foes.

I will model bipartisan Congressional relationships by working alongside Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The Trump presidency will welcome those people from other countries who are seeking a better life in America.

I admit that climate change is real, so I will re-affirm the United States’ commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.

I will embrace not insult the free press, and as a sign of my pledge, will host regularly scheduled press conferences.

And, if after 10 months of Trump 2.0, you wish to reelect me, I would be honored to continue as president for another four years, remembering always that I serve at the pleasure of all Americans.

The enemy is not the person who disagrees with you or votes for someone else, not the person whose religious or ethnicity is different from yours.  No, the enemy is intolerance of those who are unlike you.  That is not America.  We are stronger because of our diversity.

I welcome each and every one of you to remember the words of President George H. W. Bush to be a ‘kinder, gentler nation,” as well as President Kennedy’s proclamation, ‘ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’  May God bless America.”

I know, I know, like Dickens’ story, it’s a work of fiction.  This is never going to happen.   However, if it did, what a wonderful world this would be.  Happy New Year.