Sunday, September 25, 2011

Shall we be callous or shall we be people? There is hope.

Charles Blow, who appears every Sunday in the New York Times, is one of my favorite columnists. He is terse and articulate. His column always features a fascinating graphic with data that presents additional insight into his topic. Sometimes his topic is overtly political, as when he recently wrote about the disappointment many, including African-Americans, feel in President Obama. Frequently it is about people, especially poor people, especially children, and the incredible challenges that they face in this land of “everything for the rich and squeeze the most needy”. His colleague, Nicholas Kristof, often writes about the plight of children in the rest of the world; between them, we learn a great deal of about the desperate situation of so many, as in On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence, September 25, 2011.

So, on September 24, 2011, it was uplifting to have a column presenting something good happening for these children, It Takes a Village. Blow describes his visit to the Dorothy Day Apartments on Riverside Drive in West Harlem, a “former drug den” converted in 2003 to housing for destitute and homeless families. Most of the adults were drug addicts or are HIV victims or mentally ill or all. He writes about the cheerfulness of the design of the entire building (including the art gallery on the top floor with views of the Hudson River), of the yoga done by “wee little legs that barely have kneecaps” on mats placed in a courtyard that was previously 6 feet deep in garbage.  It has been successful by any measure – no teenage pregnancies, successful graduations from high school and entry into college, as well as done at a cost less that “housing” people in prison, shelters, or mental hospitals.

Blow quotes Lady Bird Johnson saying “Where flowers bloom, so does hope”. I am reminded of the song (taken from a poem by James Oppenheim written in 1911) “Bread and Roses”,Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too!” The poem is associated with the women who struck the textile mills in Lawrence, MA in 1912, and since the name of many projects and organizations, including an “integrated arts” high school in Harlem.  If I am disappointed in anything in Blow’s column, it is that he fails to mention who Dorothy Day was. Day, who died in 1980, co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, “a nonviolent, pacifist movement that continues to combine direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf”. If anyone wonders if Catholicism is focused only on anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and child abuse, or that there are those practicing the precepts contained in the New Testament rather than greed, prejudice, and selfishness, the Catholic Worker Movement is a good place to start. We are very fortunate to have such a center, Shalom House, in my town of Kansas City, KS.

On the same page as Blow’s op-ed is one by Theodore R. Marmor and Jerry L. Mashaw, who are academics rather than columnists. “How do you say ‘Economic Security”?” discusses the situation in the Depression in 1934, and how the government was seen as the vehicle for helping those in need to achieve a dignified life. They talk about how the discussion has changed in the last 50 years. In 1934, the focus was on people, family security and the risks to family economic well-being that we all share. Today, the people have disappeared. The conversation is now about the federal budget, not about the real economy in which real people live.“  They go on to say that “In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.”

There were selfish bad guys with lots of money in 1934. But they were unable to control the debate, hard as they tried, with their control of the media (Hearst newspapers, anyone?). Somehow today they do. Occasionally, there is a burst of hope, the mass rallying of regular people to contribute to and work for Barack Obama in 2008, and the dashing of hope as this figure too seems to serve those with the most power. Marmor and Mashaw conclude  Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately. Can we talk about this? Maybe not.”

I’d like to say “maybe yes”. Maybe we can look at the Dorothy Day Apartments and the Catholic Worker movement and Shalom House and the dozens of groups called “Bread and Roses” and the thousands of organizations and millions of people who really want to make this country and this world a better place for actual people, and have hope. And, if we want to look back for inspiration, let me offer a few passages from FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech of January 6, 1941:

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment -- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living….

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:
We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.
We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.
We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it….

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.”

Are we now such a different people that such aspirations are no longer possible? I hope not.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mr. Becker

Most people have at least one teacher that they remember who had a major influence on their lives. Or we hope so. Experts may differ on what criteria define “good teacher”, but for me and many others Bob Becker, my 6th grade teacher, was most assuredly one. In those days (1960) there were not that many male elementary school teachers in Brooklyn, but they were not so rare; I had had one in the 5th grade also. But Mr.Becker was quite special. One of the “male teacher” things he did was coach – and pitch for – our class and intramural softball games (you got “two swings”). But most of the things he did were far from gender-defined.
The most unique part of the curriculum was a daily lecture, called the “Basic Lecture Series”. Throughout the year, he lectured (for, I guess, an hour, or 45 min) on core topics for our education. At least to my memory, they tended to focus on the what I would now call the social sciences: history, economic, politics. I remember a series on different forms of government and another on different economic systems. A whole series of lectures that covered WWII. And so on. And all the students in the class were required to take notes on the lectures and turn them to be graded. Early in the year, he reviewed various styles of note-taking (e.g, numbered, outline, free-style), so that each of us could try out different ways of doing it. The best notes were graded “MN” (master note-taker) or MHR (“most highly recommended); these were the ones we were to borrow to review if we missed a lecture. I cannot imagine how long it took him to grade all these every night. Or,maybe, it was only 3 times a week.

This was not the only area in which our sixth-grade instruction presaged not just high school but college. We had to do 3 term papers (“research papers”) during the year. The topics were up to us to choose, but the style was rigorous. They had to be at least 10 typed pages, contain at least 6 references (listed in a formatted bibliography) and some number of footnotes. We learned footnote style: format, the use of Op. cit.  and Ibid. (Op cit’s, meaning you had previously cited that reference, were ok, but too many Ibid’s – meaning the same as the previous reference – in a row were not.)  We had other projects, where we collaborated with others in the class in small groups. I remember one set of reports was on “countries of the world”, and my group had Eastern Europe. I was Bulgaria (attar of roses!); my friend Mark was Rumania. We were told to read the newspapers, and he oriented us to the style (full sheet or tabloid), politics (Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative), and the reliability of each of the 7 major NYC dailies of the time (the Times, Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Daily Mirror, Journal-American, World-Telegram, and Post) as well as the general perspectives of each of their major political columnists (Lippmann, Alsop, Krock, Kempton) and their political cartoonists (e.g., Herblock).

Mr. Becker’s interests were catholic (small “c”); he obviously believed in a strong liberal arts education, even for 11 year-olds. (Actually, also for a fair number of 10 year-olds, who had “skipped” 3rd grade and were in our 5th and 6th grade classes. While “skipping” was an old tradition in NYC schools, I learned from my parents, it hadn’t been offered for quite some time, including not to those my age; none of our age cohort had “skipped” 3rd grade. We made up for it in junior high school, though, where many of us were in the “2-Year SP”, another NYC institution, where we did the 3 years of junior high in 2. This option was not available to those who had already skipped a grade.) We regularly had to listen to classical music that he played, after, of course, lecturing to us on the various musical periods (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern) and what characterized the music of those periods, the style of the composer, and the individual piece. Of course, we were required to write down our reactions to and impressions of the music. Ironically, although obviously his class was one of the “smart” classes, it didn’t include the students who were in the school orchestra, who were in their own class. I believe a few years later he did teach the “orchestra class”; perhaps he lobbied for it.

He also directed our Dramatics Club. During that year, we performed two plays or musicals, or maybe three; I think in the fall I believe we all did Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore” (he took us later to see a performance at Brooklyn College, which, we were very clear, did not come up to our standards!). In the Spring I think half of us were in Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can't Take it With You”, while the other half did “The Diary of Anne Frank”. That one brought some feedback from some of the parents, who believed it was, perhaps, too serious and sad for children our age. Remember that it had been scarcely over 15 years since the end of WWII. Most of our father were veterans and were still under 40. And it was a Jewish neighborhood with an overwhelmingly Jewish class, most of whom had had family, nearer or closer, who were victims of the Holocaust. He won enough of them over for it to be performed, and, of course we (the global “we”; I was in the other play) did great. He took us on class trips, both more “traditional” ones to the great museums of NYC (such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art) but also long-distance ones, such as the anticipated annual trip to the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut (change trains in Bridgeport), which, unfortunately, no longer exists.

And, obviously, we read books. We read novels, either assigned or chosen by us (and approved by him), known as “independent reading”. Not the “Dick and Jane” series of graded “readers” which we had mostly had (with the exception of 4th grade, where I also had a teacher committed to independent reading). And, just as obviously by now, he required us to write book reports on them that were held to a much higher standard that a plot summary and “I liked it”. I am certain that he taught science as well, because it was part of the curriculum, but whether the fact  that I have little memory of that part was because he was less enthusiastic and/or innovative in that area than in others, or because of something about me, I don’t know. (I do remember having to do a report on Francesco Redi, who disproved the theory of spontaneous generation, and who I could only find an article about in the Compton’s Pictured Encylopedia in the Kings Highway Library, not the Brittanica or Colliers; but maybe that was in 7th grade. I am not sure if the person who didn’t make that Compton’s discovery, and said he turned in a report that went “Francesco Redi was born was he was very young. He died when he was old, and has been dead ever since”, was serious or not, but it still makes a good story!)

He had great loyalty to alumni, and often brought back former students or regaled us with their current achievements. And, when we became alumni, we learned that he did not intend to give up on us. We left elementary school for junior high in the 7th grade, but he created an “after-school dramatics club” for alumni which met weekly in someone’s basement. That year we performed Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple”. And, unsurprisingly, there were alumni trips to Stratford, which I am sure I went on for several years.

I am not sure how old Mr. Becker was in 1960. Late 20s? Early 30s? I do know that a few years later he took a teaching position at a state college in New Jersey, and got married, and had a baby – at least one, because a number of us, with our parents who had stayed friends with him, journeyed down to see the baby. I also heard quite some time ago that he died, and I know that at the time it seemed as if he must be very young.

I hope all of you had at least one great teacher in school. I am not sure how many had one like Bob Becker.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Remembering Matt. Meyers though his poetry

Recently, my good friend Matt. Meyers died in New Mexico. Matt. was a very close friend from high school, and President of our Class (James Madison HS Class of 1966). He was a poet, and smart (graduate of Princeton), personable, charming, and a great friend. He will be very much missed by many people.

I recently wrote of Brooklyn Nostalgia, and as a way of remembering Matt. I am posting a poem that he wrote for our class' 20th anniversary in 1986. It captures, I think very well, the memories of 45 years ago as they were experienced 25 years ago.

Thank, you, Matt. We are thinking of you, and remembering you with love.

Twentieth Reunion

Of James Madison High School, Class of 1966
August 1986

We have come a long way
From that fragrant warm day in June
When we graduated from James Madison High School.
A long way from our freckled faced innocence and naivety,
A long way from our making out in any available
Movie theater balcony.
A long way from our exploring coffee houses in The City.
(Listening to early Bob Dylan, and Peter. Paul. and Mary),
A long way from shooting hoops and all night poker games.
(Smoking a pack of cigarettes at a single sitting),
A long way from our puppy-love crushes and embarrassed giggling.
A long way from bowling and ice-cream sodas on The Highway,
A long way from our Senior Singing.

But. we have come so far
That tonight we are back to where we started:
Young again, in Reunion.
How many crushes are being felt tonight?
How many giddy embraces are being renewed?
How many petty grudges are being finally laid to rest?
How many silent "what ifs" are being said?
Tonight we return to Brooklyn
To explore who we were and what we've become;
To marvel at our survival

Of two decades that took us from
Cozy tree lined streets to the carnage of Vietnam,
From the quiet of Bedford A venue
To the rioting in Newark and Detroit,
Our private adolescent distress turned into political protest,
The jubilation of winning Sing, transformed into
The celebration of the Woodstock Nation.

Classmates: We have made it!
Tonight is our assertion that we are learning longevity,
That we have become what our Yearbook inscriptions predicted we'd be;
We have mastered nervous breakdowns, bad breaks, and broken hearts,
Divorces, motorcycle accidents, demotions and false starts,
To take our place as safely ensconced adults;
Contending with mortgages and ulcers,
And a growing inventory of memories.

Some of our children are even college aged!
Their rooms already empty, except for the posters
And trophies and car keys.
"Now I know what our parents suffered through",
We mumble to ourselves in ever increasing frequency,
As we marvel at the unbroken circle
Of our children teaching us about our parents' worries.

We are a vast and powerful network, our Class of '66,
We sing for a living in Los Angles,
Own a business in Rio de Janeiro;
We have Doctorates in psychology, geology, meteorology,
We travel to Hawaii to take Nature photographs,
And England to manufacture woolen pants,
We sell insurance and real-estate and hosiery,
We are home-makers, house-husbands, caterers,
And of course, doctors and lawyers.

Let us also not forget our Classmates
With whom we shall not in body be reunited tonight?
Who of us has died of AIDS?
Or is home alone crying for lack of money or sanity?
Our who died in Vietnam,
Or in a car crash a long time ago on a lonely road in Iowa?
For them, our dear departed ones, let us also be a bit silent tonight.

Tonight we are poised on the poignant fulcrum of Reunion.
The uncertain future faces us with a wistful, beckoning smile,
The past, our common youth, with tearful eyes
Waves and wishes us a gentle "Good-bye".