Trip to Italy Provides Amazing Chance Meeting

When my wife and I first traveled to Europe in 1997 visiting London and Paris for our belated honeymoon, it was before dogs, children and hair loss.

Not a lover of traveling long distances (I prefer car trips), I promised my wife that one day we would go to Italy.  And so we did, just a couple of weeks ago, 10 days sightseeing in Rome, Florence and Venice, this time with our children.

Seeing manmade structures centuries old dating back to the B.C. era is incredible.  Here in L.A. “since 1959” is considered an achievement.

We walked around the awe-inspiring Colosseum and other ancient sites, climbed the final claustrophobic 320 steps inside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica to a spectacular view of Rome, and marveled at Michelangelo’s genius in the “La Pieta,” the Sistine Chapel and the 14-foot high statue of David.

The food in Italy is as delicious as advertised.   Pizza, pasta, pastries and gelato unlike you have ever eaten.  If you ever go to Florence, the fourth-generation owned Vivoli is the gelato to get.  In Venice, run not walk to the Pasticceria Rosa Salva for the pistachio cream puff.

In addition to the major landmarks, there were two other places on my list of must-sees.

Since I teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I had to see where he was assassinated and where his body was cremated.   I also wanted to visit the old Jewish ghetto since I just finished a Holocaust unit last month.

While the cremation site was clearly marked, locating the exact spot where Caesar was killed was another matter.

Most sources reference an archaeological area called Largo di Torre Argentina.  It is a place where every March 15 (ides of March) there is a reenactment of the murder.  However, one tour guide took us to the real site, an apartment building several yards away without any signage.

When we visited the former Jewish ghetto, we learned that once Mussolini welcomed Hitler’s troops into Italy in the fall of 1943, the Nazis demanded 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours not to deport Jews, yet after Romans assisted the Jews upon meeting that demand, the Nazis reneged on their promise, deporting over 1,000, several sent to Auschwitz; only 16 survived.

Berlin-born artist Gunter Demnig is known for commemorating victims of the Holocaust by placing gold plaques in the ground at the last known residences of those taken from their homes and killed.   Several can be seen here.

However, the most serendipitous moment on the entire trip was meeting Eleonora Baldwin, our guide in a private food tour of Rome.  Born in the U.S. but raised in Italy, she has a popular website about the Italian lifestyle.

One of the tastings was in the ghetto area where we sampled Jewish pizza (like fruitcake) and the Jewish-style artichoke (like potato chips).   When I told her that I had just finished teaching about the Holocaust, she told me that her grandfather made a film about an aristocratic Jewish family who ignores what’s happening in Italy during World War II.  Called “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” she asked if I knew who Vittorio De Sica was.

It was one of the few times in my life when I was speechless.  Of course, I knew who De Sica was, arguably the most influential Italian filmmaker in history, the director of classics such as “Shoeshine,” “The Bicycle Thief” and “Umberto D.”

Eleonora said that her grandfather also helped hide Jewish people during the War.

Even more amazing was that she wasn’t even supposed to be our tour guide that day; the assigned guide became ill.  It was if it was fated for her and I to meet at the moment.  What are the chances?

So far I have focused on only positive aspects of my trip.  Next time, I will describe my version of  “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

 

Don’t be fooled by high school graduation rate

One of the things that bothers me as a teacher at this time of year is senioritis, a disease which goes untreated by schools.

Over the course of several weeks, even months, 12th graders recklessly start not coming to school with the high-achievers tending to be the worst offenders.

In the fall, these kids are model pupils, but come spring, all bets are off.

Some teachers enable this behavior by not counting their absences as part of their grade.  Often a student may have 20 or 30 absences yet still get an ‘A’ on their report card.

These are the students who months earlier asked me to write college recommendations, extolling their virtues.   Now, with their mounting absences both physical and intellectual, I am embarrassed that I wrote those glowing remarks.

These are the same students who work in tandem with school officials agreeing on a date for their unofficial Senior Ditch Day, who get pulled out of class to rehearse their own awards ceremony, who will be lauded and applauded come graduation night, who earned admittance into top colleges and thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Say “hello” to tomorrow’s leaders.

Absenteeism is not limited to seniors.  Currently, 15% of my 10th grade honors students have double-digit absences for a 98-day semester, three have more than 20.  Since each class lasts one hour, that’s equivalent to missing 2 full days of work in a 2 ½ week period, a level of absenteeism unacceptable at a real job.

One time I had a student with 33 absences and the parent complained that her child was not receiving credit.

The Washington Post just published a story about severe absenteeism in Maryland schools.  One student missed English class 47 times in one semester, yet still graduated.   Retired teacher Russell Rushton stated that “the accountability piece for student attendance is gone.”

What fuels such lack of accountability is a shared motivation among all parties to pass kids along even when they are not passing the class:  kids want to graduate, schools want to move them along and teachers don’t want to be the bad guys or deal with hostile parents.

Graduation rates are viewed as evidence of a school’s quality, but not all high school diplomas are equal.

You have to wonder how the honest students feel knowing that they did all the right things during their academic career, yet the person to either side of them didn’t spend as much time in school, yet will receive the same piece of paper.  That is one kind of diversity that is not right.

What happens when they go to college where attendance doesn’t matter as much?  How watered down will their college degrees be?

All of us need to be concerned about this because once kids understand how to manipulate the education system to their advantage, that lack of ethics will plague the workplace.

College-educated people will not be as knowledgeable as those in the past.  If they can get a paycheck by not showing up for work regularly, all of us will suffer.

Will future engineers, attorneys and doctors use YouTube videos to fill in the gaps of their education?

So, hold off the celebrations when reading headlines that high school graduation rates are at an all-time high.

The moral:  don’t judge a school by its graduation rate.

 

Remembering Never Again

It is hard to believe that three-fourths of a century ago the June 6, 1944 D-Day Normandy invasion occurred, a major turning point leading to the end of World War II.

Reading stories about veterans making the journey back to France for the 75th commemoration is a reminder about how few World War II servicemen are still alive—under half a million.

Time is running out for young people to hear first-hand what World War II was like, and to hear from Holocaust survivors for they, too, are dying off—only 400,000 remain.

Soon, students will only learn about these major historic events from textbooks and videos.

With the world increasingly rife with fake news and debunkers of facts, the rallying cries of “Remember Pearl Harbor” and “Never Again” will evaporate.   In fact, just last year after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, a hashtag “Never Again” was used to label school shootings effectively wiping away its original meaning about the six million Jewish people who were exterminated.

Two-thirds of millennials don’t know anything about Auschwitz, according to the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany 2018 study.  Meanwhile, in an Anti-Defamation League study, there was a doubling of anti-Semitic assaults in the U.S. last year, which included the deadliest mass shooting of Jews in America at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The Holocaust is part of the California History-Social Science Framework, one of 11 states that require such instruction.  That means 39 other states do not mandate the teaching of the most heinous grand-scale mechanization of killing the world has ever known.

Is there a connection between the lack of teaching and the rise of hatred?

The Poway synagogue attack was just a few weeks ago.  And this week, two students from Palos Verdes High School made the news for an online post of a “promposal” sign which spelled out the N-word.  The photo of them holding up the sign and laughing hysterically reminds us about how much young people need to learn.  They also need to learn that colleges and employers have access to the internet.

Remember, these are kids from high economic backgrounds who will enter the workforce and while they may make money, they will not make the world a better place with such a lack of sensitivity of people unlike themselves.

Currently, my students are studying the Holocaust and reading Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his year in Auschwitz as a 15-year-old.  We could be right in the middle of a tender moment between Elie and his father struggling to find food, but as soon as the passing bell rings, students quickly slam the books shut and head for the exits as if they sit on joy buzzers, quickly plugging in their earbuds and texting friends.

Earlier this year, Holocaust survivors visited Hoover High.  I had a student TV crew videotape the event.   As these frail, elderly people shared the most traumatic experiences of their lives, there in the front row, center seat, was a girl whose head was down.  Not only should that student be ashamed, so should the teacher who did not properly monitor or prepare the students for this outing.

One would think that with a large Armenian population, these students would have more motivation to learn about genocide from people who escaped it.

As a teacher, it is sometimes disappointing to recognize that no matter how talented some of my students may be, their maturity lags behind due to their brains not fully developed until a decade later.  That is why auto insurance rates are so high for young drivers and don’t drop until age 25.

Every year, I teach William Stafford’s “Fifteen,” a poem about a teen who upon discovering a riderless motorcycle gets on the bike.   After revving the engine, the 15-year-old decides he is not ready to take the motorcycle on his life’s journey.  “He stood there, fifteen” ends the poem.

Parents and teachers need to ensure that their children are not “riderless” and guide them towards becoming better informed people.

 

 

 

 

 

Taxpayers foot the bill for death penalty

Do you ever read or see something about the past, then find yourself going down the rabbit hole researching more about it?

This happened to me recently when I watched the 1958 film “I Want to Live!” starring Susan Hayward who won an Oscar for portraying Barbara Graham, the third of only four women ever executed in California.

Graham was found guilty of murdering Burbank widow Mabel Monahan on March 9, 1953, a 66-year-old crime still prominently highlighted on the Burbank Police website.

The plot began when Graham and her three male accomplices targeted Monahan who they believed had $100,000 in cash from her former son-in-law with ties to Las Vegas gambling.

Pretending she needed to use the phone, Graham gained entrance to Monahan’s house, with the men right behind her.  The group ransacked Monahan’s house, beating her to death with a revolver, finishing her off with a pillow case only to discover no money anywhere.  Graham was accused of pistol-whipping her.

Two days later her body was discovered by her gardener, with her dog still outside in the backyard.

Graham pled not guilty, but she did not have an alibi.

While incarcerated awaiting her trial, a fellow inmate convinced Graham to pay money to a friend from the outside who would lie under oath that he was with her the night of the crime.

When meeting with the paid liar, he asked her if she was really at the scene of the crime and she said yes.

During the trial, Graham was surprised to see that man arrive in court, not to testify on her behalf, but as a witness for the prosecution.  You see, he was an undercover Burbank cop who wore a wire.

Once the recording was played in court, her fate was sealed:  guilty, to be put to death in the gas chamber.

The 1958 film was based on articles written by Pulitzer Prize-winning San Francisco Examiner reporter Ed Montgomery who established a correspondence with Graham.   While the articles served as anti-death penalty arguments, actress Hayward concluded that Graham did commit the crime based on her research.   It appears that the convict had a history of using her fists as weapons against others.

One interesting side note:  Montgomery was close friends with fellow Examiner writer Eddie Muller whose son, also named Eddie, has made a career of preserving and showcasing film noir movies such as “I Want to Live!” on TCM and in noir film festivals.

Since Graham’s death in 1955, only one other woman has been executed in 1962.

Just last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on California’s death penalty.

Some people have cried foul that the governor would oppose the will of the people who voted against repealing the death penalty as recently as 2016.

I’m not sure what all the fuss about since the last person executed in California was 13 years ago in 2006.  San Quentin’s Death Row houses 737 inmates waiting to die.  These people are more likely to expire via natural causes.

Since 1992, only 13 death row inmates in the state have been executed while 62,315 people have been murdered.  Clearly, the rationale that the death penalty acts as a deterrent is not working out.

In discussing the negatives of paying for housing Death Row inmates, Times columnist George Skelton wrote that it costs “at least $5 billion more over the years than what life sentences would have cost;” plus, the prisoners receive “free legal service, generous yard time and don’t have to work.”

Who says crime doesn’t pay—with the taxpayers footing the bill.

 

Meeting one of the Little Rock Nine

Too often students can’t relate to literary or historical figures they read about in books.  If only such a figure could come to a school and speak directly to the students.

Well, Terrence Roberts did just that at Hoover High School’s Human Rights Assembly this week.  Who is Terrence Roberts?

He is one of the famous Little Rock Nine, the group of teenagers in Little Rock, Arkansas who attended the all-white Central High School in September of 1957 as a test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that abolished segregation in public schools.

When Governor Orval Faubus had the Arkansas National Guard prevent the students from entering the school, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine students from classroom to classroom.  That action continued into October.

Hundreds of adults shouted racial epithets and insults at the students who stoically ignored the abuse though Roberts said that it was “one year of sheer hell.”

One year because in 1958, Gov. Faubus supported a voter-approved referendum that closed all Little Rock high schools.  If he was going to be forced to integrate, he would rather not have even whites attend school.  Imagine an elected official depriving all young people of an education.  Yet, that is what Arkansas voters wanted as they re-elected him to an unprecedented six terms.

Since then, Dr. Roberts has earned three college degrees including a Ph.D. in psychology.

At 77, he exudes more vigor than some students.

President Bill Clinton awarded all members of the Little Rock Nine with the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

Along with Roberts, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Gloria Ray, and Carlotta Walls are still living; Jefferson Thomas died in 2010.

In preparing for his visit, I tried to paint a picture to my kids about what it must have been like to be a 15-year-old barred from school, then to have federal troops serve as escorts just to get to class.

I think about the students who loiter around campus, in no rush to get to class, taking their education for granted, and comparing it to the experience of the Little Rock Nine.  Remarkable, the courage it took those unintentional civil right warriors just to go to school.  That’s how much they wanted to learn.

Roberts told the audience that when his first grade teacher said that kids have to take responsibility of they own learning, that’s when he “established the Terry Roberts Learning Academy in 1947,” dedicating his life to shrinking what he calls the “storehouse of ignorance” all people have.

“If you know what happened in the past, you can understand what’s going on today.”

He closed his speech by encouraging students to read “one book a week from now on.”

It can be frustrating when young people are, well, young and you struggle getting them to absorb the magnitude that Dr. Roberts visited their school, a real civil rights pioneer, not an entry from Wikipedia.

I know I will remember his visit.  I felt privileged to shake his hand, honored to meet him.

He was someone who I studied about in my U.S. history class, and he is someone who I teach about when we cover civil rights issues when studying Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Right behind my desk on a book shelf is Don’t Know Much About History with an entry on the Little Rock Nine.

Now, right in front of me, was Terrence Roberts himself.

I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I knew that I had met him.   Here’s hoping a few students did the same.

 

 

Life Begins After 60

“Put another candle on my birthday cake, I’m another year old today.”

For those of you old enough to remember Sheriff John, that was the song he sang on his children’s TV show that aired from 1952 to 1970.

It’s a song I think of every time I have a birthday as I did on April 1.

In my family, the biggest April Fools’ joke was me being born.  The story my mother always related was that her doctor told her I was to arrive on April 4th.   When I came early, he told her, “April Fools!”

Actually, I always liked that I was born on a special day of any kind since my father was born on Christmas.

I was lucky to have a few memorable birthday celebrations.

There was my sixth birthday held at a themed restaurant with a live “damsel in distress”-type of revue with food delivered via a model train.   After the show, all children celebrating a birthday were invited on stage to shake the hands of the actors.  The man playing the villain hid popcorn in his hand so when he shook mine I felt the crunched corn.

At age 11, my party took place at a miniature golf course on Magnolia Boulevard near Catalina Street in Burbank.  I didn’t enjoy myself though because I had the worst score of all my buddies.

The most unusual birthday was my 16th which wasn’t a party at all since I was hospitalized with a skin condition at UCLA Medical Center.

For my 50th, my family arranged an overnight trip in Palm Springs where we ate dinner at the Bing Crosby restaurant (no longer there).

Then last year, we went to the horse races at Santa Anita.  (Good thing we didn’t do it this year, right?)

I feel lucky that my health is good despite how old I may appear.  Just last weekend a man thought I was my 15-year-old’s grandfather.  Look, I know I’m no spring chicken, but I’m not Larry King either.

What’s weird is that I have now outlived my father.  It made me wonder about famous people who I have outlived as well.

Here is a partial list:  Joan of Arc (19), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (35), Marilyn Monroe (36), Vincent Van Gogh (37), George Gershwin (38), Martin Luther King, Jr. (39), Edgar Allan Poe (40), Elvis Presley (42), Nat King Cole (45), Judy Garland (47), William Shakespeare (52), Jackie Robinson (53), Abraham Lincoln (56), and Virginia Wolfe (59).

When thinking about their contributions, I feel quite inadequate.  However, there is still hope for those of us over 60.

Dame Judi Dench has received seven Oscar nominations since she was over 60.

Mahatma Gandhi was 61 when he did his famous Salt March protesting British rule in India.

Colonel Harland Sanders was 62 when he began franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was 64 years old when she published her first book which inspired the popular TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

Noah Webster took 26 years to finish his dictionary when he was 66 years old.

Benjamin Franklin was 70 when he signed the Declaration of Independence.

Nelson Mandela was 75 when he was elected president of South Africa.

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses began painting at age 76.

Astronaut and Senator John Glenn at age 77 was the oldest person to travel in space.

Also at 77, Frank Sinatra’s “Duets” was the second best-selling album in the country behind Pearl Jam’s latest release.

So, to those of you in my age range, to quote from one of his songs, the best is yet to come.  And that’s no joke.