Monday, October 29, 2018

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good historical fiction.

When I relocated here to Chicago, of course I looked at the people involved here--the historical figures of Chicago's past. Having grown up in the Midwest (Michigan) and having parents who were both Illinoisans by birth, I naturally had had some of that infused into me as a child! Mayor Daley, Old Lady Leary, Frank Lloyd Wright (one of my mother's favorites, plus there were several FLW homes in my Michigan hometown), the many figures of organized crime, Jane Addams, and Jane Byrne were names I knew well.

But as I re-acquainted myself with Chicago's famous names, one in particular caught my interest--Clarence Darrow. Now, I had known of him since high school, when we read "Inherit the Wind" in biology class (yes, biology class, I am fairly certain--if any of my high school classmates read this and want to correct me, please do, but I'm pretty sure it was Mr. B. who had us read it).  I'm sure Darrow's speeches had an influence on my intention to attend law school--life took me down a different path--but I retained an interest in him. My companion interest in historical crime brought me back together with Mr. Darrow in the Leopold and Loeb case. My college history professor gave us more about the history of the labor movement in the 1890s-1910s than I ever learned, before or since--the Haymarket riots, the miners in Colorado and West Virginia, the LA Times bombing--and there was Mr Darrow in the middle of things again.

Well, when someone keeps showing up, it's time to learn more about them.

My friends, Clarence Darrow should be far more celebrated by the progressive movement than he is. He is one of our forgotten heroes.

He was born in Ohio (1857),  the son of a progressive thinker father and a suffragette mother. He moved to Chicago with his wife Jessie and son Paul, when he began to feel a lack of professional progress in Ashtabula. Chicago quickly realized his legal brilliance, and he did some work for the city, went to work for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, and was generally active in what we would today call "networking." He joined various clubs, met influential people, including John Altgeld (Chicago mayor, soon-to-be business partner and future Illinois governor), and generally being social. But when the head counsel for the railroad died, Darrow had a wake-up call. All seemed clear for him to succeed as head counsel--and he realized he could not do that work the rest of his life. He quit the railroad, defended Eugene V. Debs, and began a career in labor law. In essence, he gave up a life of guaranteed income (if probable graft and possible outright bribery) and went to work for the working folk, with income from the unions. Darrow switched sides with a vengeance. Remember that the unions were much less powerful than today--their very existence was in doubt on many occasions. Then, after Darrow plea-bargained two labor defendants' charges--they were alleged to have bombed the Los Angeles Times newspaper--into prison sentences rather than the probable death penalty, the enraged unions refused to pay him the rest of his fees (they had wanted a trial and the possibility of complete acquittal, which was not possible, in Darrow's opinion). At the same time, California charged Darrow with jury tampering in the case. He was ultimately acquitted of the charges (one jury found him not guilty and the other jury was unable to come to a decision), but the labor unions refused to employ him any more. Darrow had frequently performed legal work for the settlement houses (precursors to social workers) in Chicago on a pro bono basis, and of course some of the labor work he had done was, in fact, criminal law. He had divorced and remarried several years earlier; so he had an ex wife, a son, and a wife to support. So he turned to a mix of criminal defense, corporate law for small businesses, and civil law as a career, with a bit of labor law thrown in from the Chicago locals.

Darrow's most famous cases, after his labor law period, date from the last twenty years of his life. Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes trial, the Dr. Ossian Sweet trial (a black Detroit man tried for shooting at a mob attacking his home), and the Massie trial--were from this time. With the probable exception of the Massie trial, he defended individuals facing overwhelming odds--the underdog.

Darrow was an early feminist, a prison abolitionist (he said several times he hated prisons, most famously in a speech to prisoners in Chicago's own Cook County Jail); anti-death penalty--his statement against capital punishment in the Leopold and Loeb case is still quoted--and believed that crime was caused by the environment a person was raised in, and was not innate in a person.  He blamed it on poverty and a lack of opportunity--a bit simplistically, from what we understand today, but then that was in the 1920s, in the midst of the Great Migration, when ghettos were forming and racism barely acknowledged. Nevertheless, he named racism as a factor fearlessly in the Sweet trial--and gained an acquittal.

Darrow was never a rich man. It's interesting how often people automatically think a lawyer is wealthy. He did well for one period in his life--as a corporate railroad lawyer and city hired gun. Once he went out on his own to work for labor and the progressive causes, his income dropped like the proverbial stone. Many cases he took pro bono ("for the [public] good"; bar associations still require their members to work a certain number of hours pro bono). Some were sent his way by Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House and early social worker. Others came from the union halls or those who had heard of him by word of mouth as someone who assisted the underdog.

I won't review his cases-there are several biographies of him, including "Clarence Darrow for the Defense," by Irving Stone, who had access to many of Darrow's papers (sold to him by Darrow's wife), and the recent "Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned," by John Farrell, which is very balanced and, given the distance in time, more reasoned. Darrow also wrote an autobiography with the highly (un)original title "The Story of My Life," which was less than complete, shall we say.

I am not neutral about Darrow. I am, unashamedly and unabashedly, a Darrow supporter. He was compassionate, kind, open-hearted and generous to people and causes that, in his time, were too often considered unworthy of a decent defense in a court of law, let alone protection of law. He was aware of his privilege as a white educated male of the middle class; thus the pose as a "hick country lawyer," in sloppy, sometimes stained, clothes and a haircut that often left him peering through a stray lock of hair that persisted in flopping over his forehead. But this unprepossessing appearance was blown away the moment he began his opening argument or cross-examination. Darrow was famous for not only his flights of rhetoric but his legal strategy--he continually thought "outside the box," as we would say today. No one would mistake him for a fuzzy thinker after two minutes of one of his speeches. They rang all the changes of human emotion--usually in the same speech--from clear logic to heart-wringing emotion. He was a big man--over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest--and his deep voice would roll and surge from filling the courtroom and then sink to a whisper and back up the register again. When it came time for closing arguments in a Darrow-for-the-defense case, crowds filled the courtroom, the halls outside, and crammed the windows to hear him (one of the ways he paid the bills between cases was on speaking tours). He famously brought judges--who were supposed to be impartial--to tears on behalf of his clients. He gave them reasons to acquit, or to reduce sentences, to save face for political reasons, in order that his clients would live, or go free. Darrow would use whatever strategy it took, within the law (usually...), to ensure justice was done.

No, Darrow wasn't perfect--he was human. He was not good with finances, as I mentioned above. He was a soft touch with women; his second marriage was an open marriage, and while he took full advantage of that, Ruby (his wife) seemed to forget the arrangement they had made and resented it, becoming somewhat of a shrew (according to contemporary accounts). Sometimes partial truth was told, when it was more comfortable or simpler or more convenient or could be labeled "confidentiality." But many of his cases were complex, and business affairs among partners (especially law partners) can quickly take on a Rashomon-like feel.

I find the end of his life particularly sad. He died in 1938, of what I think we would today call congestive heart failure. He had grown weaker and weaker, and in the last months of his life was not seeing friends any more--he was finding it difficult to speak and even his son Paul had difficulty understanding him. This is heartbreaking--the man who had filled courtrooms to hear him, whose voice had been the means of saving lives, whose speeches had brought people to tears--was now unintelligible. Darrow had lost weight to the point that when he died, that huge frame had shrunk to all of ninety pounds. A memorial service was held, and he was cremated. His son and his business manager took his ashes to the bridge in Jackson Park where he had loved to practice his speeches and statements, and scattered them into the lagoon. The bridge is now named in his memory.

Photo taken by Roger Deschner in March 2018
License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike (CC BY-SA)

Ruby had hoped to sell some of their effects to clear debts--without Darrow's speaking tours and lectures, she had only her own writing and sales of his books and pamphlets for income. It was still the Depression, however, and while friends and others were interested, their possessions sold for far less than they should have. Darrow's pocket knife for $1.50; his books, with all his annotations, to a used book seller for less than $500, a Persian carpet she had hoped to sell for $300 went for much less. She was able to sell some papers and such to Irving Stone for his use in his biography, which apparently helped, however. It makes me want to cry, though--I'd almost sell my soul for one of his annotated law books, or his pocket knife, even!

Today, most of Darrow's extant letters and papers reside at the University of Minnesota and are available online. Others are at the Library of Congress, the Historical Society of Chicago, and various labor union archives, as well as the archives of the courts before which he appeared.

In summary--
Darrow was a brilliant thinker, speaker, and writer. He was ahead of his time in many ways, but he prepared the ground for those of us who come after him. I recognize his faults, but I don't quite understand the people who are so quick to point them out. His faults, with the possible exception of the jury bribery, do not disqualify him from the brilliant human rights work he did. And given the corrupt state of Los Angeles at that time, and the power that was arrayed against the defendants, I am not sure I could blame him if he did try to bribe the jury (which he never admitted and which he was never found guilty of). Darrow's compassion and dedication, his frequent habit of foregoing a fee to help someone or, as in the Leopold and Loeb case, to reduce the appearance of taking it just for the fee--Darrow worked for a legal code that was just for everyone, not only those with money, not only those who were owners, not only those who were white, not only those who were male, not only those were adults or educated or had never been arrested before--but for everyone. I don't know that he would be a public defender today--the bureaucracy of a government position might be too much for him--but he would certainly approve of Gideon v. Wainwright and the public defender's office.

Next time you're in Chicago, or in Jackson Park, stop by Darrow's bridge. It's being repaired, so you can't actually go out on it right now, but take a look. He spent a lot of time there; I'm willing to bet something of his spirit lingers; of righteous indignation, of compassion, of generosity. Perhaps he'll lend me something of his gift for rhetoric and writing!

Above all, remember what Darrow knew and fought for --every human being deserves the same rights, and to be seen as a human being, no matter their skin color or gender or age or their past deeds or the accusations against them. And go thou and do likewise.

A Heart Thing

Emmanuel Huybrechts via Flickr CC2.0
I haven't said much about the loss of life at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill (PA) or Jeffersontown (KY). They both hit close to my heart, for different reasons. I have family in Jeffersontown. I made a special study of Judaism and antisemitism in seminary, specifically Christian antisemitism. These events aren't only politics or current events or pastoral or theological for me. They are heart events. 

When I say "studied Judaism," it sounds cool and detached. That's not how it worked. Yes, there was a classroom involved. But there was so much more than that. 

My seminary required a study trip, an immersion in a culture different from that of the student's birth, for example, to a Native American reserve, to South Africa, to Israel, to a congregation of primarily Deaf persons, and so on. The purpose was for us to experience a culture different from ours, to learn how our dominant culture had impacted another--because all of us at the seminary were dominant in some way (we might not be white or male or straight or temporarily able, but we were Christian). My immersion trip was to Poland, to study the Shoah (Holocaust). I returned to study the Psalms in the face of 9/11 and then to do an independent study of antisemitism in the New Testament during Lent (the Lenten and Holy Week readings contain some of the most vicious antisemitic language in the New Testament) while also studying Judaism in Jesus' time under a Reconstructionist rabbi. You could say I've engaged with Judaism and antisemitism a bit. 

I'm not an expert, I''m not Jewish. But my heart is entangled with my Jewish sisters and brothers. I have just enough understanding of Jewish thought to hurt at the murder of elders celebrating a new life among them. One of those elders survived the Shoah I went to Poland to study. One of the others present was actively involved in saving the lives of HIV/AIDS patients. They were all carrying forward life--the light of G-d in the world, doing good. 

As do so many of us, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, Unitarian, pagan, Hindu, atheist, whatever spiritual identity.

When you've studied with a rabbi, they take on a lifelong obligation to you. Even today, when I have contacted the two I have studied with, they have unfailingly responded with grace and wisdom and knowledge--almost twenty years later! It's a heart thing. 

Several Friday-night Shabbat services--welcomed as a guest, the "Shabbat shalom" so gracious. It's a heart thing.

I've been to a Seder dinner twice--laughter and arguments about what comes next and good food (well, except for the gefilte fish...) and being treated like family. It's a heart thing. A family thing.

And that's what it comes down to. 

Those who can do such things--shooting black grandparents in a grocery store (when he couldn't get into the church), shooting Jewish grandparents in a synagogue--do not see them as members of their family--their human family. The shooters see black people and Jewish people (and, possibly, probably, LGBTQ+ people, and immigrants and Muslims and Latinx people and others) as not quite human, as not deserving of the same quality of life as the shooters do--or of any life.

It's a heart thing.

Can their hearts be changed? At this stage in their life, I suspect not. Wiser heads than mine, friends and relatives who are psychologists and therapists and theologians can weigh in on that. 

Young hearts are malleable, though. Give children the opportunity to know all kinds of people--ages, colors, spiritualities, genders, occupations, education levels, etc.--from the beginning. Give them books and toys and take them to movies and show them TV shows with all kinds of people in them. Send them to diverse schools. You don't have to be lecturing about it. They'll figure it out. 

It's a heart thing. 


Some things to know (in no particular order):
--This is not ahistorical. Everywhere Jews have gone, the government or some faction of society has eventually decided they are unwelcome (see: Spain, England, Germany, Italy (which invented the term ghetto for Jews), Russia, Poland, etc.)
I do not know why hate-mongers through the centuries have so often fixated on the Jewish people, but it seems to have been so.

 --There really isn't a Jewish belief in an afterlife. Those of you who are planning vigils, etc., please don't talk about the deceased looking down on us from heaven, or being angels. I'll leave further discussion to my rabbinic brothers & sisters.

--Men, if you're offered a yarmulke (cap, or kippah, plural kippot), please wear it. It's a sign of respect--covering one's head in the presence of G-d. 

--Kaddish is a mourner's prayer, said for the dead (and it is simply "Kaddish," not "the Kaddish").  Yes, it is chanted and may sound more like singing to some of us. If you don't speak/read Hebrew, don't try to "sing" along; please simply listen respectfully. Prayers are at the heart of Judaism. 

--Candles are always appropriate. They are symbols of the light of G-d (the name of the Holy One is never spoken or written out), so spreading that light is a mitzvah, a good deed. Light candles. 

--Finally, Jewish people are, sadly, experts in mourning and tragedy. This sort of thing has happened to them many times over the centuries in many places. Follow their lead as to what they need or want from their Gentile (non-Jewish) friends and neighbors.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Peace Vigil for Immigrant Children and Families--Brookfield, IL; August 26, 2018

Text of Reflection and Prayer

 Good evening, Brookfield! We’re gathered tonight from many different faith traditions and from no faith tradition, and I want to respect that. I speak from a tradition, progressive Christianity, that respects other traditions, and tries to appreciate their teachings without appropriation. Please forgive me if I step over that line tonight—it is unintended, and I welcome education.

This is a vigil for the children separated from their parents as they crossed the border, as they entered this country. Children—infants to teenagers—taken from their parents, from the only caretakers they knew, without explanation, many of the children unable to speak in any language, handed over to for-profit child care providers who were not properly screened. The result has been children who are traumatized—no longer bonded to their parents when they are reunited, who do not recognize or trust their parents, who have been abused, medicated to keep them docile or quiet, shipped to other parts of the country, inadequate records kept, in effect lost in the system—by an administration that thought no-one would notice, no-one would care. We noticed, we care.

In both Christian and Jewish tradition, the Divine is often seen as a loving parent—“You are my child, today, today I have begotten you.” Israel is the Holy One’s child—“Like a child on leading strings, I led you.”

In the Christian writings, in the Gospels, children appear frequently as symbols of innocence—“if someone should lead these children astray, it would be better for them that they have a millstone tied around their neck and they be drowned in the sea.” “Let the children come to me,” Jesus said. “Who would give their child a serpent when he asks for fish?”

And there is no greater mourning than that of a mother for her children. The prophet Jeremiah says:: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

This is the voice of our immigrant sisters, weeping for their children—they do not know where to find them; they have been taken from them. We, who are the privileged ones who live here, this is our cause—to insist that our elected leaders in Congress and the administration find those children, return them to their rightful parents, help them heal—they will never be the same, but help them—and change this hateful, evil policy—remove it from our land. This is what justice demands.

All spiritual paths that I have studied, all moral systems I have read of, have one tenet in common. “Do to others what you would want done to you.” Whether you follow a spiritual path or not, we can all agree on this. And we would want our children kept with us.

My friends and neighbors, do not tire of this work, this struggle, this fight. We remember, we work, for these children, to return them to the place they belong—with their families, where they belong. I’d like to offer a moment of prayer to strengthen and encourage us in this work, in this struggle.

Holy One, Creator of the Universe, Allah, You Who Are, Grandfather; Higher Power; we have gathered today to remember these children and families and to gather courage and strength from those memories. Give us wisdom and teach us your ways; may we speak truth to power, demanding answers and justice for these children. Do not let us weaken or give up out of frustration or weariness; remind us of your love for us, like a parent for a child, and that as we are never abandoned by you, we cannot allow this administration, or any human power to abandon these children either. Grant us an open heart to love and strong shoulders to bear any burdens, until the day comes when all the children are home with their families and justice is served upon those who separated them, and the policies are changed, so that no more children will suffer as these have suffered. May it be so, may it be so, may it be so. Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Boundaries and Lines

I've been thinking recently about boundaries--walls, barriers, hedges, and so on--of all kinds. Some are good, in that they keep us safe--from wandering or falling into places we ought not to be, whether it is a canal or quicksand or a tiger's cage (take that literally or metaphorically, as you wish). We clergy are taught in seminary to keep those barriers up and strong--between us and our congregation, between us and our mentors, between us and the people we may walk with as counselors, even between us and our colleagues of different denominations.

For the most part, these barriers, these boundaries are a Good Thing. They do keep us--and the others--safe.  With these hedges of protection, we don't get personally invested in our parishioners' home lives, our mentors don't direct our careers, and we aren't controlled by our colleague's theology, no matter how much we may admire them.

But sometimes...sometimes the walls can be so high we cannot see the person on the other side, only their head floating along above the foliage, assuring us that all is well.

Or is it?

Sometimes, I think, the boundaries--hedges, barriers--prevent us from really seeing each other. We see the head, the hat floating along, and think, "See, all is well. Music ministry is lovely, the choir sang so well at Christmas, all is well;" or "That couple always looks so happy, I envy them;" or "He is so contented being single, and keeps so busy." And, reassured, we keep on about our own lives. But we never really know. Perhaps the music director is doing well--but do we know?

It's a fine line here--ha, another boundary--between intrusion and care, and it varies between 
individuals. But I have noticed this over-boundarization, so to speak, as if we are afraid to risk--something. Do we fear the rejection--"No, I'm fine, you worry too much," or the anger--"Who told you anything was wrong?" Are we worried about causing others to examine things they otherwise wouldn't? Or is it the not wanting to be seen as the Pollyanna do-gooder? Maybe it's knowing that all too frequently, there's not much we can do even when we are asked to help.

I'm just musing here, really. I'm not issuing a call for action (or inaction, either). Just wondering why we do and don't do some of the things in our lives, especially as pastors.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


A zibaldone much older than mine.

Not even sure how to label this one.

I've tried all sorts of organizational tools in my lifetime--planners and notetaking systems and project trackers of a variety of styles and designs--paper, web-based, apps, you name it. I've never found one that really and truly and completely works with all the parts together in one place--monthly, weekly and daily schedules, to-do lists, worship planning helps, journaling,prayer lists and contact information all in one--oh, and commonplace booklinks between them. It probably can't exist.

I've managed to create a system, though, that works for me, and actually, it is better this way. My journaling and prayer lists remain private because they are separate--so no one but me sees those prayer needs (mine or anyone else's) or my less-than-elegant attempts at poetry. I can actually carry it (my last stab at combining as much of this as I could ended up weighing more than my laptop--and was not available as an app for said laptop, or for its replacement tablet).

The catalyst for my epiphany was an article on a renaissance book called a "zibaldone," or commonplace book. These were carried about by renaissance writers and artists who used them to record, well, pretty much everything. Journals, yes, but also their expenses, the names of new people they met, the details of a deal they'd struck, a drawing of a architectural detail they liked, a flower that struck them, poetry, notes from a meeting, a sermon--anything they wanted to record. They were the smartphones of their day, without the separate Pinterest, cameras, Evernote, recorders, and spreadsheet apps. Always available, never need charging, can't get lost in the cloud... I started using one (I like Moleskine, but I just like their size and price and feel). I put everything in there--my journaling, notes from team and Board meetings, from community group meetings, from phone calls, anything I am likely to want to remember. Bonus--I can index them! I can write a word or phrase in the blank space at the top of the page to remind myself what I'm talking about on that page: "Food closet;" "Pentecost planning,"Worship team meeting," "Bonnie," and so on.

And then I found Moleskine's 18-month weekly datebooks. I've used daily planners for years and years--one side for appointments and to-dos, the other for notes and planning. It worked for a long time, until life started getting more complicated. As a full-time pastor, I am juggling way more projects and needs and things than ever before. I was continually transferring things from day to day to day. Even when I tried assigning tasks to days within the week (task A to Tuesday, task B to Wednesday, etc.) invariably task A did not get done, or not completely, and had to be moved to Wednesday, and then something came up and then of course I had tasks C, D, and E...all of which had to fit in Wednesday and Thursday...). But the weekly worked great--the days of the week on the left-hand page with their appointments and meetings, the right-hand page blank ruled for that to-do list. I rarely have more than two or three appointments in  a day, and there's plenty of room for that.

So. My zibaldone for journaling and notes, the datebook for planning (I do keep the dates in my phone, too--it's an extra step, but I do always have my phone with me, even when I am not "at work"), a prayer app for keeping track of prayers (so I can record prayer requests on the run and not only pray then but include it in my daily prayers and also
in the prayers of the people on Sundays), and contacts in my phone (which does link with the calendar in my phone).

Worship planning... well, I have several calendars in my phone which let me know Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Sikh, Jain and Hindu holidays. But that's not really something, I have discovered, that I can do in a planner or journal anyway. It's more of a "need to be aware of when setting dates" than anything else. Worship planning takes place over weeks, not days or hours; it's not something you really need in a planner, except to note the holidays/observances and make time for thinking about/working with the planning team.

Anyway, this system has been working for me for about four-five months, and I think it is going to stick. It has worked well with a seminar, with travel, with planning I am currently doing for a big capitol fundraiser for the church.

A journal/zabaldone, a datebook, a smartphone. Oh, and they all fit in my bag without hurting my shoulder too. Bonus!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Random Friday Five on a Saturday....

1. Health Care
So I am in that doughnut hole. Too old and with too many pre-existing conditions to get low premiums but not old enough for Medicare; make too much for Medicaid, but not really enough to easily cover my premiums, co-pays, and deductibles on my own. As a pastor, yes, I pay my own insurance. The current health care bills in Congress are pretty disastrous, not only for the severely disabled, for the folks we saw on the news protesting on the Hill and being dragged away by the Capitol Police, but for millions of people. I have several pre-existing conditions: cancer, migraines, a bleeding disorder (in my childhood, never had a problem in several operations since), a pregnancy complicated by a cesarean section (I'm of an age to never have children again), a couple of sprained ankles, a sprained wrist, arthritis, a brain cyst (completely benign, I was born with it). Only the arthritis and the migraines are a current, ongoing concern, and my neurologist and I have the migraines under control; my primary and I are doing all we can about the arthritis. Yes, the cancer could return, I grant that. The rest are unlikely or no more likely for me than for anyone else. And yet my premiums are pretty high--about 12%  of my yearly income, not including deductibles and co-pays--and that's for a bronze plan. I could skip it, living on pain meds when the migraines or arthritis flare up, praying the cancer doesn't return...but what if it does?  Here's my point--I am not the only one doing this calculus, trying to decide whether to roll the dice. Not get the insurance (possibly paying a penalty, if that's part of the final bill) and pray I stay healthy; or get the bare minimum plan I can afford that will cover cancer care, just in case, and scrimp by somewhere else (but what else can I cut back)? Catch 22. And I am not alone.

2. Family!
OK, this one's much happier! My son (AKA Tall One to readers of an earlier incarnation of this blog) was married last month, and I could not be happier. He married a wonderful woman, who is smart and kind and independent and gives him a run for his money and loves him--as he loves her. It was a beautiful wedding n Washington DC, officiated by a former mentor and friend. The whole weekend was wonderful (well, aside from the flight there and back--but that was only three or four hours out of the weekend). I got to see my mom, and my sisters and some of their significant others, and friends I had not actually seen in years, catch up with people I used to count as family--and who still are, really. What a warm and loving time to share with people who mean so much to me!

3. Chores
Why am I so reluctant to do them, even though I like having done them? Scrubbing the bathroom, doing laundry, mopping the floor....ugh. But I love having clean clothes, clean floors, etc. Human nature. Go figure.

4. Reading books
"And of the reading of books there shall be no end."
I have several books that I am stuck in the middle of, not because I am finding them boring, but quite the opposite--they are pulling on my emotions so strongly that I dread reading further. Underground Railroad, All the Light We Cannot See, and Barkskins are calling me back but I am dreading the emotional rack they will put me on. So I am reading other books, good books, but books that do not threaten my emotions, coward that I am. I should have checked them out of the library, then I would have had to get them read.

5.  Pride!
June is Pride month; June 28th marks the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York in 1969 that is the traditional start of the LGBTIQ rights movement. There were sit-ins and riots before that, but the Pride parade the next year was the first. As other civil rights and human rights movements took shape in the 60s, members of the LGBTIQ community (which had not really coalesced as such yet) began to take note and began to deman our civil rights too. The rainbow flag was created in San Francisco to represent the values of the LGBTIQ community; in some communities, a black stripe and a brown stripe have added to include people of color, which has roused some controversy. Still, the rainbow has come to symbolize inclusion, diversity, and welcome around the world. When attending a Pride event, the proper greeting is "Happy Pride!"

Monday, February 06, 2017

Public Education

I took a couple of teaching classes, even a field experience. I was very involved with my son's grade school and middle school. Education's been an interest of mine. But I am not an educator. I'm not even an educator lite. I don't think I'm even qualified to run for the local school board.

One of the Cabinet nominees who has been receiving a lot of resistance has been Betsy DuVos, the nominee for Education Secretary. While she has a demonstrated interest in education, she doesn't seem to have the expertise or training needed to oversee the many programs run by the DoEd. They run from higher education grants and loans, to standardized testing of grade schoolers, to voucher programs for charter schools (one of her favorites) to university campus safety programs, to name a very few. The Secretary of Education obviously can't be an expert in all these areas, but should understand and be conversant with basic educational concepts, know the pros and cons of standardized testing (regardless of their own opinion), know what laws and regulations govern education nationwide and how they are applied, and so forth. They should understand that these regulations and laws apply to all students equally, not only the ones the Secretary (or the Department) feels comfortable with (that is, not only students attending certain schools, or of certain religions, or in certain states, etc.). 

There's a couple of reasons public schools were instituted in the US, and they are intertwined. One was because only some parents could afford to send their children to private schools, others could only afford cheap, low-quality schools, and some could not afford any schools. So we ended up with the same stratified society as Europe had, and that the US was, at least in part, formed to escape. Those with education were the ones who owned all the land, the banks, the stores; those without education were labor. I'm talking about the late 1800's, by the way--before then, there was no public education, or very little. But with the rise of industrialization, those very industrialists began to realize it worked--at least somewhat--in their favor to have an educated workforce. Workers who could read and calculate, who knew how to figure a right angle and write a coherent paragraph--these were what they needed. And so public schools were born. The added value was that everyone got the education--child of the bricklayer, child of the electrician, child of the grocer, child of the senator, child of the steelworker--every child in the public school got the same education. At least theoretically. 

An employer could require a high diploma as part of her hiring requirements and assume that the person could read, write, knew the four basic functions of arithmetic, had a passing acquaintance with algebra and maybe even calculus, had had some civics and maybe some rhetoric. Perhaps they had had some shop or home ec; they had some music and art classes. They certainly had had gym class. 

So those two reasons--equality of education and accessibility to education--were intertwined. Whether it was a bit of an unholy alliance is another question. The goals were laudable, certainly. 

It's gotten harder over time. When I went to high school, we weren't required to take gym--and in retrospect, we should have been. We didn't have rhetoric, and I think it would have useful. Shop I had in middle school. But we did have a richness of art classes, of music, including jazz and marching band; a full roster of home ec, of advanced placement science, language, English, history, and math classes. And the changes have only gotten more complex. When my son graduated from high school ten years ago, he didn't have rhetoric either. But he started using Powerpoint in middle school for class projects; he graduated from high school using Excel, Word, and the Internet as a matter of course. He had art classes, he had home ec, had music and gym. 

I recognize fully that we were both fortunate in that we went to well-funded schools--we had access to music and art and gym and advanced placement classes and computers. 

But my point is more about the changes in curriculum and the philosophy of education--why do we educate, why have a public education system? 

When I lived in Canada, I learned they actually had three school boards. There was the public school, the Catholic school, and the French school. The debates about the degree of autonomy each should have and what each should be required to do were sometimes quite heated (all received government money). The debates generally narrowed down to this: the schools saying "We are independent for a reason, parents want us to teach their children in a specific way, and that is our charter;" and the government saying, "You receive government funding, therefore you must follow government rules." Generally the French board followed the rules. The return salvo was usually the Catholic board saying, "But religion!" Whether the topic was hiring, teaching sex ed, gay-straight alliances, or how many vacation days to offer. 

To me, the solution seemed straightforward. If you want to make your own rules, don't use government funds. If you don't have enough financial support without government funds, then there isn't enough demand for your services. Now, in Canada, there is a bilingualism law, so the French school option may be required--I am not sure. 

Here's the point I'm trying to make: Public schools exist to educate the public--equitably and well. The Department of Education exists to ensure that not only public schools but all schools--public and private, the latter of whatever designation--are also educating students well. In order to do that, the Department of Education needs to be headed by someone who understands what education is, who has a thorough grounding in education, who is able to understand what works and what does not, who will recognize fads and false quick fixes for what they are, who has hands-on experience working in the classroom at some level with students, who has taught, who is an educator. Betsy DuVos is not such a person.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Random Frday Five...

It’s a midwinter Friday and I have many things I could/should be doing for the church and at home and my energy is nowhere to be found. So I am going to blog a bit and try to get a start on the sermon and call it a day. There’s tomorrow for the rest of it. 

A Random Friday Five!
1. What's the weather like where you are?

Meh. Grey and overcast. We had a little snow, enough to show on the grass, but not enough to even make people turn on windshield wipers. 

2. What is your dream vacation spot and/or activity?

At the moment, either of two scenarios. One would be a cabin in the woods with a deck overlooking a lake. I would alternate reading in a hammock/deck chair with walking in the woods and canoeing. In the evening, after something grilled, I would watch a good movie, then read again then fall asleep to the song of the loons on the lake. Alternatively, I would follow the same schedule at a secluded beach in Hawai’i substituting the Pacific, the beach, and beach-combing for the lake, woods and canoeing; there would be no loons. 

3. What book are you currently reading? (Just pick one. I know how you people are)

Just one? You’re no fun. OK, the one I just started is Annie Proulx’s latest, Barkskins, a multigenerational saga about Canada’s European timber/fur dynasties and the First Nations they displaced—at least, that’s what I understand from the jacket copy, the online discussions I’ve seen and what I have read so far. Having lived in Canada recently and learned about this first hand (both First Nation and European friends), it’s of great interest to me. Annie Proulx is a gifted writer; to have a topic that fascinates me written by one of my favorite authors makes for a bit of heaven. 

4. Name a household chore you don't mind doing.

I don’t mind washing dishes. There’s just me, so there aren’t a lot of them, for one thing. It warms up my hands, which warms the rest of me (I’m on a new medication that messes up my internal thermostat and I am always chilly now). And it’s an easy way to feel like I have gotten something done!

5. You have an unexpectedly free afternoon. What do you do? (This is only a hypothetical, sorry. I can't be going around handing out vacation time).

There’s a couple of thrift shops I’ve been meaning to visit, and since this is a hypothetical free afternoon, it’s hypothetically spring, too, so I will also go to one of the local parks for a walk. 

Thanks, Monica, that was fun!

Clarence Darrow--Beyond Scopes and Leopold & Loeb

Personalities fascinate me--people do. One way I try to understand history and places is through people--which is why I love good histor...