Connecting Disparate Dots

As an only child, when I was sick or we were on a trip, my family always loaded me up with the latest and greatestdottodot CTDcaptainkangaroo in interactive toys of the time: puzzle books.

Yeah, that was my time – 1960’s, B.T. (Before technology.)

The books I favored the most featured a lot of word searches and brain teasers and word puzzles usually a couple of grade-levels above my chronology. I enjoyed them all, but even though they were the easiest pages in the book, I always had a thing for connect-the-dot pictures. Most of the time you could figure out what the picture was before you placed pencil-on-paper going from black-spot to black-spot to black-spot on easily torn newsprint, but oftentimes I was surprised at what the resulting picture really turned out to be, in detail. Especially while cruising some highway in the backseat of my parent’s Oldsmobile station wagon with my grandpa sitting next to me, this was not always the cut-and-dried, simple activity it may have appeared on the gas station magazine rack.

A new school year is beginning, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about connecting the dots of my life; how I ended up an English teacher in an inner-city, high school classroom. It is not a linear, algebraic equation.

I am a teacher in what has been, historically, one of the poorest performing cities (new Orleans) in one of the lowest-performing states (by most educational measures) in the country, Louisiana. My wife and I came here nine years ago as part of an influx of educational reform and general societal and infrastructure rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the area – though the problems in education here predated the storm by decades. I have seen some notable improvements in our years here; I have also encountered a huge number of folks who came here for many of the same reasons.

microphoneThough to date, I am the only classroom teacher who began their professional life as a radio announcer.

Start with that dot.

I joined a one-year program at Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis, immediately following my high school graduation from Denver (Colorado) South High School.  There are lots of dots I can connect leading to the front of a New Orleans classroom. To be sure, the picture turns out more Salvador Dali than Norman Rockwell – to the naked eye, sans connecting lines, the picture dots would not come into focus at all.

I may need to sharpen an extra pencil.

I am about to begin my tenth year as a teacher- time to take stock. Also, with one son having finished his senior year of high school, and my elder son entering his senior year of college, getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and beyond has become a conversational focal point around here; it has also sparked some discussion as to how we even got to this stage in life as a family.

Eyebrows frequently become cocked and locked.

Objectively, I get that.  Analytically, maybe I can provide some inspiration to others also choosing a less-than-traditional path. In my days as an employment counselor, I was adept at helping people identify their ‘transferable skills’ – things they knew how to do, and could perform in other environments,

This a Readers Digest shot, working backward from now to then. Starting at the end was much the same approach I used so many years ago with those puzzle books in the backseat of the family Oldsmobile, so why not?

I first came to Louisiana in 2006 as a corporate trainer, helping the company I worked for in Minnesota get their Louisiana operations back on track following Katrina’s onslaught in August of 2005. I enjoyed training folks and helping them succeed, traveling all over the state – a unique experience.  My wife and I had long discussed getting out of the corporate rat race and doing something more meaningful with our lives, so when sitting in an IHOP Restaurant in Alexandria, Louisiana one night, reading a newspaper article about the TeachNOLA program recruiting folks to come to New Orleans to help rebuild the city’s long-distressed school system, it was a sign that my wife and I both took seriously.

We both applied, and were accepted for the 2008 TeachNOLA cohort.

I was dramatically changing everything:  locales, to be sure, and going from training adults to teaching inner-city teenagers. Logical, to a point, but I had become a corporate trainer only after I was laid off from my position as a job search trainer and employment counselor for the state of Minnesota – who had hired me away from my position as a county financial-aid (AFDC, food stamps, medical assistance) case worker and job coach in Minneapolis – all of which gave me great insight in dealing with my new students and, just as importantly, their parents.  (Dot, dot, dot.)

thanksamillionI had come to the county job after having spent a very rewarding year working for a millionaire philanthropist/newspaper columnist named Percy Ross – who gave away money to folks in need via the column.  A logical stretch from that job to case management, when you think about it: I was still helping people in need. (More dots linked.)

Mr. Ross had hired me after the children’s radio network I had been working for as an assistant business manager went out of business.  That had come at the end of a ten-year run in the hotel business, which I had grown weary of only due to the twenty-four/seven nature of the beast…which was why I had originally phased out of the radio biz. But that’s another story.

My last hotel gig was at a four-star hotel in St. Paul where I assisted the night manager. One night, a situation required me to remove an intoxicated gentleman from our crowded lobby. As a rather exclusive property, our management wanted such things handled unobtrusively. Jeff, our restaurant manager, was so impressed with my subtlety and tact in getting the drunk guy out without notice, he wrote it in his nightly report. That prompted the hotel general CTD5manager to instruct my boss the night manager to have me train new security personnel in how to handle delicate situations without confrontation. (Direct-line-dot-dot-dot to the corporate trainer gig.)

My skills at low-key, tactful, drunk-removal-with-dignity, I had picked up from Dennis, our night manager at a Holiday Inn I worked at previously. Dennis liked the way I handled people, and had also witnessed me training newcomers to the hotel. I remain grateful for his tutelage.

These big dots are directly connected to eventually training new security folks in St. Paul, but what I learned from Dennis also helped me greatly in working with the county and then the state.

I had begun my hotel career after ending (so I thought) my professional radio work, moving back to Minneapolis and deciding to go to college for the first time at the age of thirty. Three years at the University of Minnesota didn’t result in a degree, but by the end of my freshman year, I had been hired as a teaching assistant, thanks to one of my professors, Dr. Yahnke. Via that gig, I also did some work as a tutor in the computer lab of the U of M’s General College. You can draw a direct line (with heavy lead) from those dots directly to today. Bob deserves as much credit for where I am as Dennis.

My first stint as a college student came on the heels of a dozen years of bouncing around small-market radio – not often a financially lucrative endeavor. That was why I became quite adept at supplementing my income corelationdotswith side jobs. Through the years, I moved pianos, and did construction. I had stints as a convenience store clerk, racetrack security guard, and census taker, to name a few.

Before getting into the hotel biz, I was a data courier – daily picking up and dropping off huge reels of computer tape for transcription and storage – for a company that, when I applied, asked if I had ever had a security clearance. As I had been working in radio in Iowa during the presidential primary season of 1980, I had gotten Secret Service clearance, which turned out to be an important dot to the data folks, as they had contracts with big name defense contractors and other security-minded firms. I not only got the

I not only got the job, but the higher paying, preferred, high-security routes. Dot, dot, dot…

This came in handy during my hotel days in St. Paul, where we hosted a number of V.I.Ps – which sometimes required staff to get security clearance.  Mine aways came through first, as I was already on file, which again got me preferred shifts and duty assignments at the hotel.

Again, not a linear progression, but a solid gathering of a wide range of transferrable skills, all leading me here.

Each of those dots that I have touched on represent a number of different things; professional and personal experience, new skills, different CTDCTDperspectives, increased understanding of and empathy with folks covering a wide spectrum of socioeconomic America.

Experiences that continue to serve me well.

Which is why I feel pretty comfortable and confident in standing in front of a high school classroom of inner city New Orleans kids as their English teacher, trying to get them prepared on some level to take on the world, trying to relate to them all how what you do today has an impact on everything you do tomorrow in some way. In so many ways that are hard to convey, I tend to ‘get’ them (and their families and various situations) on levels that others may not.

Time to crank things up for one more year in the classroom.

Dot…dot…dot…

From Here to…There?

My wife, two sons, and I are headed to a couple of days at the beach, on the beautiful Gulf coast of Mississippi.  Bay St. Louis is a quaint little town with neat shops and cafes and soft, fine beach sand.

Some well-earned R-and-R in the midst of a hectic summer.

While we will be spending some quality family time, my wife and I plan on a little ‘us’ time – one of our two-nights there will be a date night, just the two of us; a kickoff to the celebration of our twenty-fifth anniversary in a few weeks.

We may have to reconcile some plans and expectations of our evening for two. The dinner part should be easy, but after that..?

I am pushing for a Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr, ‘From Here to Eternity’ finale to the fromhereto2evening, but my wife is dubious.  I have broached this idea on previous beach trips, but those were day-excursions, not overnight, and there were always others around.  But this time, things are different.  It still might be a bit of a hard sell.

My wife can be adventuresome at times, but for this, she is thinking more along the lines of a toned down, middle-aged Frankie and Annette, beach-blanket-bingo sort of thing – minus the singing to her parts. To me, that is more a chaste, ‘just friends, golly-gee-whiz’ vibe, but I could probably be persuaded as a last resort. Before getting to that innocuous, innocent fromhereto3point, though, I would be propose something more ‘Blue Hawaii’-ish – but she remains unimpressed with my Elvis impression, so that may be a non-starter from the get go.

One thing for certain: I don’t have the patience for grabbing a stick and going all Pat Boone in with the sand – too G-rated and namby-pamby for a date night, though that set-up might serve as a romantic prelude and an ‘aww, sweet’ moment for other beach goers earlier in the day.

Put that one in column ‘BB’ (Boring, but…)

I am going to hold out as long as I can for the Lancaster/Kerr scenario – even though I haven’t got the jawline, I know we can pull this off.  Among my selling points?  We can keep our swimwear on all day, and we’ll already have sand in weird spots, so I’ve got the primary, ‘too messy’ argument countered – along with most others I can anticipate.

fromhereto4The risk of jellyfish-as-third-wheel intrusion is negligible. I think.

The gulf water will be quite warm, even in the evening.

We are not too old for this.

‘You are not Burt Lancaster’.  Well, okay, I can’t counter that one. But I have his voice and hand mannerisms down pat.

Whatever we come up with will be very nice, but will probably end up more ‘Gilligan’s Island’ than ‘South Pacific’ but hey, a guy’s gotta give it a shot, right?

Wait a minute.

The ‘Gilligan’ thing might have legs – just like my wife, and like Mary Ann. Hmm.  In fromhereto1reality, they couldn’t have been on that island too long being all coconut-pie-platonic, could they?  And how did they always have meringue for those pies?  Under the circumstances, I’m thinking if Mary Ann went to the trouble of whipping up a batch of meringue in those conditions, she was going to be using it for more than slapping on top of a pie.  Besides, if it was just about the pies, Gilligan would have weighed close to two-fifty by the time they were rescued.  I can swing by the store and get some meringue to throw in the cooler.

I wonder if my wife has anything gingham in her closet?

I have just hit on the perfect alternative plan for beach-blanket BINNNG-GO!

To absent friends

 “I miss my friends tonight, their faces shine for me,
The clamor of their singing like some mad calliope.
Still ringing through the Lion’s Head until the morning light,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…

– Tom Paxton, ‘Comedians & Angels’

My fortieth high school class reunion weekend commences tonight – two evenings and a Sunday afternoon of remembering, reflecting, reconnecting; relationships reconstituted and South 2rejuvenated. For some of us, festivities have already begun; coming into town a few days early, staying with friends:

Coffee and donuts with a friend, followed by a solitary, reflective walk through an old neighborhood.

Longtime besties and their respective spouses getting together.

A spontaneous, uproarious, karaoke outing lasting til the wee hours.

Old flames on a long-pined-for dinner date.

But tonight is our initial group outing; a mixer at a tavern near our old school. Beer and pizza, lively conversation. Scorekeeping; who is here, who isn’t, will be duly noted – some solemnly, some with a measure of relief.  Some will not be remembered by many, as it is in a large school, with over four hundred-fifty graduates. The actual tally can be a daunting Screenshot (12)eye opener: just over four-hundred located, 39 deceased, 42 listed as ‘missing’.

Casualty numbers from the war of time.

Toasts will be offered to those not with us, a few tears will be shed, some rueful laughter; memories will be shared.

“A song for every season, a smile in every fight,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

My hope is tonight will not be one dedicated to mourning, but of celebration – of what those no longer with us meant to us, individually, collectively.  We were more than classmates, not just friends. We were, in many way family.  Make no mistake, those no longer here left their marks.

Great anecdotal stories, heartfelt toasts, tears shed: legacies not taken lightly at this stage of life. The indifference and sadness of youth has given way to appreciation for what – who – was lost, and what gifts and opportunities those of us who have preserved, survived, have been allowed to enjoy.

“I wonder where they are now – could be anywhere
in hell, or California, or back in Sheridan Square!
They left us where they left us, so we put o ut the light,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

Some of those we will raise a glass to were not even members of our class, but dear friends a year ahead of us, a year or even two behind. Part of us, members of our ’77 family.

“Each one drained a parting glass and sailed out to sea,
And what a crew of rogues they made, in gleeful anarchy!
They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight…”

Comedians and angels, indeed. Also rouges and connivers, charmers and brusque ne’er-do-wells. Not always the easiest to live with, not often recognized or saluted. The South 3innocuous, the brash; those humble, and the ego-driven that often drove us.

Like I said, family.

The list of those no longer with us is lengthy, and the names vary in memory and significance to each of us, but on behalf of all of us still here, still carrying the banner of the class of 1977.

Godspeed, my friends.

And thanks to you all.  We miss you, and hope we’ve done you proud.

“They sang to the horizon a song no pen could write,
Comedians & Angels, I miss my friends tonight.

Comdians and angels…I miss my friends tonight.”

Of Jefferson, Lincoln, and the Folks There Now; Lessons from a Week in D.C.

From the Marchives: I originally posted this six years ago, and while a lot has changed, so much hasn’t.  Eldest son Willi is now heading into his senior year in college as a political science major, youngest son Sam has just graduated from high school.  The current political shenanigans  in D.C….? 

Still a solid postscript to the Fourth of July.

Mark
07/05/17

*   *   *   *   *

My wife, two sons and I recently spent a week in our nation’s capital – a first time experience for all of us. When the opportunity presented itself for me to participate in a teachers conference in D.C., we decided to make a family vacation out of the trip.  As I had three-and-a-half days of conference to attend, we tacked on an extra day to the trip so I could see some of the sights.

Sons Will and Sam, ages 15 and 12, respectively, are both history and military buffs, avid viewers of the History Channel, CNN, the Daily Show and Colbert Report. They possess a fairly sophisticated understanding of American government, how it works and how it is supposed to work, and were enthusiastic participants from the get go.

It was our best family vacation ever.

While I was conferencing, Amy and the boys did D.C. They made it into the galleries of both the Senate and House of Representatives, even witnessing a vote on the House floor. High school sophomore-to-be Will aspires to a career in public service and was fascinated enough with the processes of the House to spend more than an hour watching routine procedural matters while Amy and Sam toured other parts of the building and had a Coke to kill time before a late afternoon roll-call vote.

It was, Will reported later that night back in our hotel room, an ‘interesting but drawn out’ exercise in hearing names called and people saying ‘Aye’ or ‘Nay.’ A day later, after having witnessed more lively debate in the Senate, he declared his intention to work there someday as “That’s where things actually seemed to get accomplished.”

His enthusiasm each night in relating his travels around Washington was palpable and infectious.

While my family was touring the town, I was getting an education myself – aside from the seminars and plenary sessions. The hotel complex our conference was held at was huge, and with a conference of some 2,000 attendees, things were very spread out. Every place you went in the hotel complex were large, flat screen televisions, most of them tuned to CNN. Bouncing from seminar to seminar, meeting room to ballroom, I was covering a lot of ground, but also taking the time to watch the shenanigans of the various players in the whole ‘raise the debt ceiling’ debate.

All in all, I was not impressed.

Oddly, those big-screen images were so much different than seeing the same stuff in my living room in New Orleans. Knowing that my family was hanging out on Capitol Hill, understanding all that was unfolding just a short subway ride away was an unusual experience in perspective. Even the potential of seeing some of the players in the drama/soap opera on the street was an option, and at least one lesser-known congressman made an appearance at our conference, speaking to a delegation of teachers from his home state.

Sidebar one: I snuck into the back of the room during his talk, and was more impressed with him than any of the ‘leaders’ popping up like a ‘Whack-a-Mole’ game at every flat-screen turn in the Marriot.

But I was not in Washington to fret about the nation’s congressional leadership or lack thereof; I was there to be part of a presentation, then pick up some teaching CLUs. My ‘teachable moments’ (as the best ones usually are) were coming from more than just the seminars.

Part of our family trip ‘deal’ was Amy and the boys holding off on some of the things I wanted to see, so we could experience them together as a family. My D.C. ‘wish list’ was headed by Arlington National Cemetery, and the presidential and war memorials: the Lincoln, Jefferson and F.D.R. monuments as well as those devoted to those who served in Vietnam, World War II and Korea, and the White House, if possible. While Amy, Willi, and Sam took in the Washington Monument and the back of the White House, they held off on the good stuff and I got my wish list.

Sidebar number two: I had gotten the idea that I wanted my first experience with the Lincoln Memorial to be at night, and was not disappointed in the encounter. I highly recommend the approach; it was amazing all lit up, especially for a first-timer. Still pretty impressive in daylight, but at night…

As with most things of this nature, pictures do not do any of it justice. Seeing it in person was incredibly moving. Looking at Lincoln sitting there in his chair, pensively looking out over Washington, towards the Washington Monument and the Capitol was impressive, but I was moved as much by the interior of the chamber, which features Lincoln’s words engraved in the marble.

Reading the words of the man in a book or on a computer screen is nothing at all like seeing them written high on a wall of smooth, Colorado marble.

Nothing at all.

Chiseled on the wall to Lincoln’s right is his Gettysburg Address, while the wall to his left features his second inaugural address, each given to the nation in the midst of civil war. Both messages are profound in their eloquence and simplicity, and I left there with a renewed sense of pride and hope.

A feeling that was relatively short lived.

On the evening we returned to our hotel from visiting the Lincoln Memorial, I walked into the lobby while Senators Mc Connell and Reid were blathering about some aspect of the debt ceiling discussion, with each in his own way trying in vain to sound senatorial.

‘Trying’ is the operative word.

After having just reread the Gettysburg Address, etched in marble soaring nearly fifty feet high, I was now confronted with the petulant children, grade-school playground-level discourse of our two key Senate ‘leaders’ whining about how nobody on the ‘other side’ wants to compromise or even acknowledge an opposing view.

The juxtaposition was jarring.

After having experienced a 272-word masterpiece of a message concerning sacrifices made for the sake of the greater good I was now stuck hearing our current Senate ‘leaders’ spouting the political equivalent of “There once was a girl from Nantucket…”

We can do so much better. I had just seen it.

No matter what you might hear from your nightly sound bites on CNN or FOX and your Sunday morning news shows, keep in mind that Washington (or our country) is not a place built on a single ideology. Ideology seeks to conform everyone to a specific and very narrow set of ideas; aside from the broad concepts of liberty and freedom, this country has built itself from the ground up with a mixture of individuality and shared purpose – not a rigidly adhered to set of ideas from one individual or group.

We have most always been able to find common ground.

Washington, D.C. is a city constructed upon high ideals, grand ideas and sweeping visions. It was founded by men who shared much in their ways of thinking about how to build a nation and nurture democracy, but they also had vast differences and knew the art and value in compromise for the greater good.

It is really the only reason we are here as a nation.

Keep in mind it is not just the monuments themselves, or the men they celebrate but what they all mean to others; Marion Anderson sang and Martin Luther King, Jr. made his ‘I have a Dream’ speech from steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The reflecting pool between the Washington and Lincoln memorials has been the site of many dramatic protests and powerful moments.

Such was my time with Mr. Lincoln.

The woman who had graciously offered me the opportunity to attend the conference and trip spends a lot of time in D.C.; she told me before we left New Orleans, that of all of the monuments to see, the Jefferson Memorial was her favorite, and that she sometimes just goes there to sit and reflect.

I immediately grasped why.

Jefferson holds a special fascination for a lot of people, and it his memorial was as high on Will’s list as it was on mine. As with Lincoln, the visuals of the monument are stunning and pictures do not do any of them justice; as with my visit to Lincoln, the words of Jefferson inscribed on the walls come powerfully to life. I came to Washington as an educator, and encountered one of the greatest educators in American history.

Now if only our current leaders had absorbed some of Jefferson’s lessons – or even read them.

The interior of the Jefferson Memorial features five of his most memorable quotations out of literally hundreds of choices they had. One is on the dome of the rotunda above his statue, four others are carved on huge, marble panels again soaring skyward between the giant pillars supporting the dome. In all five cases, Jefferson states his point, concisely and eloquently, without hyperbole or rant.

Of today’s congressional leaders, I defy you to find any five compelling comments any of them has made or any ideas put forth that are worth commemorating.

Jefferson would probably not fare well in today’s sound-bite climate. There is no vitriol, no sneering put-downs of his opponents. He spoke in clear thought, not rehearsed rhetoric. Ideas and ideals, not ideology. His words and ideas were and are righteous, but never self-righteous.

That is a concept and skill our current leaders in Washington sorely need to learn, as their whiny finger pointing and pandering to their respective ‘political bases’ is a never ending video loop of self-indulgence and self-righteousness.

There is very little being said by our leaders in Washington the week I was there that I could ever imagine being carved in stone. Most of it was barely worthy of highway overpass graffiti.

Our congressional ‘leadership’ seems absent any sense of their responsibilities, and are sorely lacking gravitas beyond the sycophants that stand around them when the face they media.  Boehner, Mc Connell, Pelosi and Reid, et al are the anti-Jefferson, the anti-Lincoln, at a time in history when we need anything but, which is sadly ironic.

All around them, a five-minute limo ride away on any given day in Washington, are etched in marble and on bold, public display, not just words, but the wisdom and spirit that helped found this country, helped maintain it. The teacher in me thinks they all need to go on some field trips.

We can do so much better than what we have. I have seen the proof; it’s chiseled in stone.

Shades of Black and White

It was late summer, 1979, and my friend Johnny was dying.

Our star fullback in high school, heavyweight wrestling champ, all around BMOC, sat there before me, slumped, in a wheelchair in his parent’s Denver living room. His once chiseled, athletic frame was basically down to half of the 215 pounds he burst through opposing defenses with just three Johnny 6autumns before. His purple South High jersey with the white number thirty-three hung loosely over him.

He looked like a man holding a purple tarp.

A virus he had contracted had attacked his heart, and he was awaiting a transplant. He looked old –  sounded very old. To my twenty-year-old self, Johnny’s  raspy, croaked-out whisper was more jarring than the visual. That Johnny Wilkins voice – Barry White-like booming bass, full-throated and billowing in laughter – was unrecognizable; a voice that, added to his physical maturity always made him seem much older than the rest of us, was now the gravely crackle of an old man.

But the perpetual Leprechaun-mischievous glint remained in still-vibrant eyes.

Johnny2It was only when I sat down in front of him and he smiled, his eyes joining his mouth in playfulness as usual, that the Johnny I knew like a brother was again visible. His smile was even more pronounced, as it split the sagging skin of his jowls that had lost their elasticity, into something approaching Johnny normalcy.

We talked.

Though I remember the day vividly, I oddly cannot tell you what we talked about in any great detail; he wanted to know my travels since we had graduated in the spring of 1977, and get an update on the whereabouts of some mutual friends is all I remember. He told me of his illness, what he had been through, how excited he was to be n the transplant list.  His mind was sharp; whatever medications he was on had not dimmed his intellect or humor. He was still Johnny.

He was still Johnny.

I was one of two classmates who had come to see him since his illness; the other was Terry Tuffield, a kind and beautiful girl who Johnny and I shared a bit of history with. Knowing I had a crush on her, he had begged me to let him set us up on a date, but I had adamantly ordered him not to intervene, preferring to ask her myself and never having to think of her doing him a favor by going out with me. This became a running joke through our senior year and is still one of the more amusing episodes and fond remembrances’ of high school; especially his insistence in asking me to let him talk to her and my repeated, publicly-made threats to kick his butt if he acted on my behalf.

The absurdity of the 145-pound white dude threatening his black, locker-partner Adonis drew more than a few raised eyebrows on multiple occasions – usually the school lunchroom. These exchanges were always punctuated with a stern look from me and a sonic-boom laugh in response from Johnny.

We were, in almost every aspect of late 1970’s high school life, an odd couple.

The irony of sitting in the Wilkins’ living room, knowing that Terry was the only other visitor from our high school days was not lost on me then 0001or now. That Johnny died less than a month later has always left me thinking that the Rebel visitor list ended with just the two of us – though I cannot be sure.

Life is funny like that.

I had been to Johnny’s house once before, in March of our senior year. I picked him up at his house and we went to Denver’s City Park to hang out for the day. We were preparing to graduate and we discussed plans for the future; college football at the University of northern Colorado, and eventual marriage to his long-time girlfriend Gloria for him; my impending summer departure for a year of broadcasting school in Minnesota. Our senior prom, various escapades to that point were bantered about while cruising City Park Lake on a rented paddleboat.

One small piece of our conversation that afternoon stands out to me to this day: Johnny’s casual mention that I was the first white friend that had ever come into his home. It was an observation, nothing more. My response, I believe, was no more than ‘Oh’ and it was left at that. At least until a year later, when Johnny, who had erroneously learned that I was back in town and dropped my house.

As he later related the story later in a phone call, he walked up, rang the doorbell. The door opened, and there stood my father, middle-aged white guy with glasses, all of five-five, who looked up at the hulking black dude with the bushy beard in front of him and said simply, “Oh, you must be Johnny.” Acknowledging that he was, my father then said, “Well, come on in!”

Johnny roared with laughter recounting the story later, finding my father’s initial statement – and its casual nature – both jarring and hysterical. His being asked in and hosted by my parents with conversation and lemonade for the next hour or so was stunning to him. It seems that mine was the first house of a white friend that he had ever been asked into, and I wasn’t even there for the party. Johnny typically roared with laughter when I explained the obviousness of my father’s initial assumption/greeting: “You are the only big, bearded black guy I know.”

Life is funny.

Our personal string of racial firsts ended with Johnny’s death in August of 1979. He was twenty-one.

I am now thirty-five years removed from that Denver living room and this story has come rushing back to me today. A mid-life career change, and I am a high school English teacher at an inner-city high school in New Orleans. It is my seventh year of teaching here and I have pretty much encountered every issue that traditionally plague poverty-stricken communities and their schools.

As I write this, I am sitting in the front seat of a school bus rumbling down a highway in rural Louisiana, helping chaperone a group of schoolbusseniors on an overnight retreat. There is another teacher on the bus with me, two others follow in a car. Of the forty-two souls on this bus, I am the only white person. I sit with my back against the window, looking over my shoulder at row upon row of young black faces, and I wonder.

What would Johnny think?

I am new to this school. As a first-year-here guy, I get tested by my students on a regular basis. Most of them have not figured me out yet, especially those I deal with only tangentially. Another teaching newcomer to the school is Mr.K, a history teacher across the hall from me – it is also his first year as a teacher here, and we share most of the same seniors, so we are able to collaborate and share notes on students, and I mentor him a bit. We have come to be seen by many students as best of friends, and this idea has been cemented, I believe, by the fact that students constantly, to the shared bemusement of Mr. K and I, confuse the two of us.

Mr. K is tall, thin, bearded, and wears glasses; he is half-my age. I am five-five with beard and glasses, old enough to be his father. Yet on nearly a daily basis, I get called Mr.K. and he gets called Mr. Lucker. Usually students correct themselves, and will often apologize – sometimes profusely and with a sense of embarrassment. Mostly not, but sometimes.

The confusion has become a running joke between Mr. K, myself, and a few other staff members – black and white – who don’t find the constant confusion at all odd. Mr. K and myself? Color us ‘bemused’.

Looking now at the young faces behind me, swaying and bouncing up and down as we traverse a curvy two lane highway, I wonder about a lot of things. They are engrossed in every sort of electronic engagement, a few sleep with their heads tilted awkwardly on pillows against bus windows. I wonder if any of them had ever been a racial first for someone, as Johnny and I had been. There are a select few who I believe have contemplated such scenarios as they prepare to head off to college, although most of that is naiveté born of circumstance; outside of school, there are few white people with whom most of my students interact with any sort of regularity. Many of them will go off to college and be stunned with the diversity they encounter. I wonder what their reactions will be.  I have had other students, from other area schools, who have returned to regale us with stories of suddenly finding themselves thrust into a world not-so-homogeneous as their high school or their ‘hood.

There are many firsts on their horizons.

Over the past six-plus years, when students have brought up the racial aspects of our teacher-student relationship it is usually brought up with a tone of curiosity rather than accusation. They are trying to figure me, or other white teachers out. At the (much larger) school I taught at the three years prior to this one, black students would occasionally ask me to explain white student behavior in some way, which I would usually try to deflect, and use classroom techniques to get them to do their own analysis of the situation on the premise (and observed belief) that teenagers are generally teenagers.  Their basic curiosity was skewed by their knowledge base of those different; television shows about tweens and teens.

Usually the biggest looks of surprise (and the rare verbal exclamation of surprise) comes when I very purposely counter any talk of stereotyping Johnny 5(‘white people don’t…’ or ‘black people are…’) with a rejoinder that labeling groups of people is, in my classroom, automatically racist in nature, then adding something along the lines of “Well, I think most of my black friends would probably disagree with your generalization.”

Even amongst the most stoic, nonchalant of my students, there is almost always a sense of astonishment that I have (and had, as a teenager) black friends. I would go so far as to say that the most common reaction to this revelation is incredulity, mixed with skepticism, and some of my students adamantly stick to their initial belief that I am lying about having friends of a different skin tone.  Those are sometimes jarring moments, when a student digs in their heels on such an issue, but such situations almost always lead to some positive discussion and food-for-thought. For them and for me, I hope.

I don’t know precisely why this all comes to mind today, during a kidney-busting bus ride through the countryside…then again, maybe I do. At least on some level.

Johnny, I hardly knew ye. But I’m still learning from our much-too-short time on earth together.

Color me contemplative.

Climate change your mind, skeptic

People who doubt that mankind has had an effect on the climate of the earth puzzle me. I am a person of faith, and not a scientist, but I am fascinated by science, and the creativity involved, and I do believe strongly in the scientific method.

Wscientific-methodhen well over ninety percent of the world’s scientists agree on something, I think it is foolish to doubt their logic, their methods, or their conclusions are incorrect or politicaly motivated.

The scientific method (question, pose hypothesis, experiment, analyze results, form a conclusion) has a lot going for it in areas aside from science.  But aside from simply accepting the claims of others, there is something I have in my own home that using in simple, accidental, experimentation convinced me that the theories behind greenhouse gasses and climate change are legit.

It’s bacon.

The earth has been hanging around for millions of years, and aside from the natural life cycles of natural pollutants like forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and flatulating cows, it is not unreasonable to believe that a couple of centuries of an industrial revolution pumping all the junk we do into the atmosphere of the planet has had an undesirable effect.

Bacon is a perfect example.

Grab a pound of bacon, throw it in a basic, twelve-inch frying pan, put it on the stove and turn the burner on beneath the pan.  Cook the bacon and then don’t stop cooking the bacon. Let the bacon fry to a crispy brown and then let it simmer to a crispy, charcoal-black shade. Cook the bacon until the bacon no longer is visually identifiable as bacon and scientific-method-editthen keep cooking the bacon until every smoke alarm in the house has triggered in tandem.  Then, turn off the stove, shut off the smoke detectors, let the pan cool down, throw out the bacon char (and probably the pan, too).

Then look up at the ceiling of your kitchen.

That sooty, greasy, glop you see? It’s not going away anytime soon. It will be there, timeless in its heaviness. Just like your favorite roadside diner that still has the same grill and deep fat fryer they have had in place like stucco since 1967.  You have just replicated the classic American diner ceiling in your own kitchen. Ambiance.

Ample proof, and documentable, that global warming is indeed caused, at least in part, by mankind.

Obviously, one pan of bacon is not absolute proof of anything, but if you replicate this experiment, which, according to National Safety Council statistics is done at a steadily increasing rate on a daily basis in America (with statistically alarming spikes on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day) and extrapolate the results outward mathematically, manmade global warming is easily believable.

Because….bacon.

Oh, and, if you have a textured ceiling in your kitchen, you will also have more faith in the theory that dinosaurs became extinct by being choked,  en masse, not by gasses produced by a huge asteroid strike or volcanic eruption, but by the smoke and grease from billions of wild boars who were barbequed by the conflagration triggered by the aforementioned asteroid.

Try this experimentation yourself, kids, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. As a wise old man once bacon1told me, “Don’t ask a question if you aren’t ready for the answer.” Global warming is real.

The proof is in the bacon. And on the ceiling.

Duty

The old man stood peering down orderly rows of white marble. Matching in color with the rectangular monuments, wisps of his thin, white hair fluttered in the breeze. Two birds chirped from the branches of a distant tree, and in the distance, he could hear a crow. Couching gingerly on sturdily worn knees, he read the names etched in the headstones on either side of him; one he knew, the other, based on sparse, chiseled information, he felt he could have. He stepped back, looked up and down the crisp row of stones, turned on his heel, and stepped between the two, coming to swift attention.

Passersby would have found it a strange sight; an old man, standing at attention between two graves, facing the cleanly polished, unadorned side of other headstones. He would have appeared to be facing the wrong way to read 2_Fort_Snelling_Looking_Southeastanything on them. He was not.

The idea had just come to him to stand, one more time, in formation, with comrades. He had never done, or even thought of doing it, before today, before right now.

He thought back to the fateful end of his basic training as a paratrooper, his last jump from a plane, one final practice jump before his unit was shipped out; the jump where he landed awkwardly, shattered his left leg, ending his dreams of combat, nearly ending his career in the army. Only the intervention of an influential friend of his family kept him from getting the deserved, but loathed,  honorable, medical discharge. One week to the day before his release from the hospital, his unit had jumped behind enemy lines for the first – for some, the last – time.

For three of his old unit, including his best buddy, it was their only jump that counted. Now, here they were, back in formation. It all came back to him.

Three weeks in traction, followed by grueling physical therapy, and he was bound not for discharge, but for a desk job, somewhere. A hard-to-swallow, better-than-the-alternative option. He had hoped to go back to some sort of active duty role with a combat unit, but his leg was too badly damaged for any of that.  He could walk just fine, not totally without pain, but the puzzle pieces that were his left leg would balk at much more extensive rigor. The thought of sitting behind a desk held little appeal, and there were no other logical options.  Then, nearing the end of his hospital stay, he overheard someone in the mess hall mentioning mortuary duty. Unsure of what that meant, but pretty sure it did not involve a desk,  he decided to investigate his prospects there.

The colonel in charge of the unit he was assigned to was skeptical at first; very few men eagerly volunteered for the duty, and of those that did, many couldn’t hack it. The washout rate – even more than in paratroop school, he learned – was high.  He quickly came to understand why, though he never once thought of asking to transfer out. The work was, in almost every regard, as fear-laden, emotionally controlled, as jumping out of a plane had been. Just as difficult, too.

But, more than he felt would ever be the case behind a desk, it was humbly rewarding.

On his first assignment, on a train, escorting a fallen soldier to a small town he had never heard of, he encountered a Navy Chaplain, a slightly older man than he, who was on the same mission as he, for one of his own; a seaman, killed in battle. The two men spent precious hours talking about their respective jobs – their ‘calling’ the chaplain termed. He also said it was their ‘missionary field’ – to serve, spiritually as well as militarily which took the young soldier by surprise. As a boy, he had heard stories in church and had helped collect pennies for, church members doing missionary work – carrying out their ‘mission’ – but he could not bring himself to see his new job in the same light.

Until now, meeting the chaplain, he had considered himself just a soldier, carrying out his orders.  As he was soon to learn first hand, this duty was, to be sure, not just an assignment. Where once he had dreamed of being assigned to dangerous missions, and the potential to be a hero, the young soldier eventually came to refer to his work in the same vein as did the chaplain – this was his mission, in every sense of the word.  As the train rumbled through the night, the two men found they shared many a common bond; big city boys, amused at the naivete of many of their more countrified, fellow raw recruits they had encountered, and whom they now counted as friends unlike those they would ever find in their respective cities.  They shared many of the same experiences growing up; major league baseball games, gritty neighborhoods, subway trains, and cosmopolitan outlooks. They were kindred spirits, and the young soldier laughed at the similarities the two men shared, the stories they told each other.  With the exception of one story the chaplain told him that the soldier could never push out of his mind,  even if he had wanted to.

The chaplain told the younger man of his despair in not knowing what to say to a grieving family disappointed that their son died in a simple training mission, and not in the perceived glory of actual battle. The young man had served honorably and had earned promotions earlier than most of his peers, yet the family, for some reason the chaplain couldn’t grasp, felt cheated. Though it had been a year since he had brought the sailor IMG_7637_1200home to his final rest, the chaplain was still troubled by the family’s reaction, their outright disappointment, and his lack of answers for the man’s family. He wondered, he whispered repeatedly, if time had lessened their disappointment in the fate of their son.

As he listened intently to the chaplain’s story, the young soldier thought he knew something of what he family meant about disappointment, though he could never articulate that at the time. Nor could he tell the chaplain how he came to be there, on that train, escorting home a soldier who had died in battle. Nor could he say anything of the envy he felt – had felt until that moment – until the chaplain’s story of the disappointed family. Suddenly, he felt a little guilty for his misplaced jealousy for a dead man. In the years since, he had thought often of the chaplain, and of that story.

He thought about the chaplain again, standing here, amidst the fallen, grateful for having met him when he did, the first time he had escorted a young man home. He stood there, in the breeze, and let the memories come; the chaplain, the train ride, the young corporal he brought home to his grieving, but appreciative family. The first, nowhere near the last.

Time, and the soldier’s  experiences in the graves registration unit had softened, then eventually erased, his frustrations with never having jumped in combat.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times he had escorted a fallen serviceman home to a family. He had been one only two men in his thirty-man platoon to request to stay in graves registration when his tour was up. The rest had enough after one go around – those that didn’t transfer out early; it was difficult duty, impossible to describe until you had done it – something not for anyone or everyone.  There was no animosity or derision directed towards the men who left, silent admiration for those who stayed.

Bringing the dead home was not something every man was equipped for.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times. Big cities, small towns; the Northeast, the Midwest, the south and the mountain west. He had seen it all, through train windows, and mortuary sedans.  He had stood at attention at gravesides in small family plots alongside country churches, and in obscure corners of gritty, urban cemeteries that seemed to be cities themselves. He had become well-versed in services simple and profound; high masses and elaborate, afternoon-long prayer services.  He knew of being an outsider – the only person in attendance of his skin color, the only one in the room not of the denomination, not versed in the way they sang their hymns, how they said their prayers.  He had seen somber eulogies and been an invited, at times even honored, guest,  at a variety of wakes, reviewals, and repasts.  The routine for any and all of them came naturally to him, and he was determined that every wooden casket he escorted was treated with proper respect. At every destination stop, he was the first one off the train. The short hop from top step to station platform was just like the step out of a plane as a paratrooper.

Only for this duty, he never had a parachute.

After ensuring the dignified removal of each casket from the train, he would meet with the local mortician and escort the soldier to the mortuary. Sometimes the family had gotten word of their arrival and would be at the train station; at other times he carried out his duties in anonymity, contacting the family only after arriving at the funeral home. Over time he became conversant in the routine of the local mortuary staff; identifying the remains, preparation of the body for initial viewing by the family. The decisions laid out for each situation: open casket or closed, dress uniform or favorite suit for interment. Every situation different, every situation the same. No matter where, no matter who.

Death, especially in combat, knew nothing of the victim: black, white, rich, poor, city, country. Death was death, grief was grief. There was a finality as universal and as individual as each soldier he escorted home. The longer his mission, the deeper he felt his duty a calling.  Just as the chaplain had said that first night on the train.

He came to know intimately the unchanging, never-the-same-twice, liturgy of saying goodbye to a soldier: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Hebrew, atheist – every variation of each.  He had heard the 23rd Psalm spoken in more than a dozen native, immigrant languages, and knew who would favor lengthy oratory, who would quickly move through a few prayers and simple readings. Ironically, having no musical talent whatsoever,  for years, he could impress friends and family with his uncanny ability to recognize most any wwii imageChristian hymn by its first four or five notes.

There were standing-room-only crowds, audiences in name only and times of hastily recruited, unknown, volunteer pallbearers.

High church, tent revival, ten-minute graveside homily – he had seen them all. Men of various cloths; elaborate robes, simple, white collars, plain brown suits, and bib overalls. He knew which model rifle an honor guard was using from the clattering of shell casings hitting cemetery grass in the unison of the salute of a graveside volley, and knew instinctively when the trumpet player had never before played ‘Taps’ in public.

He remained, through his life, amazed at the gracious thankfulness expressed by grieving families.

There was often a family gratitude – a realization – that, as tragic as the situation was, at least their soldier, their loved one, was coming home. He lost count of the number of times that family members would tell of another family they knew, who received word of the death of a soldier who was now at rest on some foreign battlefield somewhere, or of a sailor lost at sea, or an airman who went down with his plane. Those families would never have the opportunity, to say goodbye, to have a place, right there in their hometown, to physically grieve.

It never ceased to amaze him that so many of these families that he met in their darkest hours, were aware that they, in a great many respects, were among the fortunate ones. That, he always felt, was the most humbling thing of all.  The wind picked up, the chirping birds had taken flight from shaking branch.  The day was growing cooler, and he smiled.

That was all a long time ago, he reminded himself. He smiled for a moment, remembering his sixtieth birthday, and the atonement gift from his wife and children; a free fall skydive, strapped to a young Marine.

He thought back to his last jump in uniform, and the excruciating pain of his rehab and shattered leg. He thought of the despair known only by a young man who had his dreams suddenly, irrevocably altered by events, and reflected with the wisdom of an old man on how those changes had worked out.

Though he had never fired his weapon at an adversary, he had fought many, sometimes brutal battles; the dignity of returning a fallen soldier was not always smooth, rarely without some sort of unexpected incident or reaction. Ill-fitting uniforms, incorrect insignia, stuck-in-traffic or lost-on-a-country-backroad honor guards were recurring obstacles. There was dealing with the pain, bitterness, or denial of families; the blank faces of young widows whose dreams and plans were now gone and the uncomprehending-the-magnitude small children, fascinated by the pomp of death, confused at the sadness displayed by the adults.

He often thought of a chaplain on a train, and myriad other travelers who, seeing his uniform, would engage him in fascinated conversation until their discomfort of his assignment came into play.

He had fought the battles as he had been ordered, emerged from them all with scars. Victorious and without regret. He had done his duty.

He came to old-man, near-parade rest for a moment, before turning to the headstone of his old friend, where he snapped off a lingering, still crisp salute. He had escorted his buddy only briefly; the walk from the front of the church to the hearse, then from hearse to gravesite.  he valued every moment as no one else could.

There was pride, and great honor in what he had done for all of those years.  No, there were no ribbons, or medals to share with children, grandchildren – none of the stories of heroism that his friends got to tell, that other children and grandchildren got to hear.  But the stories he did have to tell, that he did share with family, friends, were told with solemnity and grace. With dignity and honor. He told people, quietly, and without personal pride, how he did his duty, and why each and every soldier he escorted was deserving of all the respect he could give them in death.

He knew more about finality in all its forms than most anyone and was grateful, thankful of the opportunities he had been afforded, the chance to serve in a special, meaningful way, his fellow soldiers. His fellow man.  Hoping he had been the warrior he needed to be, at the time people needed him, he stood quietly, nodding his head. He was proud of the work he had done, he could admit that to himself. And so he did, for the first time ever.

Then, turning on his heel, he walked steadily between two rows of symmetrical marble stones, and went home.

Statues and Limitations

I am not from Connecticut, and this aint King Arthur’s court – but it is New Orleans, in the national spotlight of late because the mayor orchestrated the removal of four major Confederate War monuments. And I am from Minnesota.

A transplant, my family and I moved here nine years ago – my wife and I becoming inner-city teachers, helping to rebuild one of the worst school systems in America, post-hurricane Katrina. My perspective on the controversy and local angst over the removal of the statues is one of a citizen and a teacher; I see this as a teachable moment. Or rather, a series of them, a long-time in the making, as two of the four monuments I have driven by very regularly over the past nine years.

I’ll be blunt: I think the statues need to go – at least, be removed from their prominent, public locales, and placed in a museum or park, along with some historical context. Especially the first one to be removed – the Liberty Monument, which commemorates a group of white supremacists who tried to topple a biracial post-Civil War government in New Orleans. Why this one had remained in public view for so long is way beyond me.

The others, all of war heroes in various forms, I can at least, on some level, understand a historical attachment to.

Many who are pro-removal speak of the offensiveness of the statues, but I eschew the ‘O’ word, as I think it has been horribly overused as a concept the past few years. Still, not having grown up here, living my entire life with these legacies, I do understand those who are offended by the Confederate monuments and their legacies – real and implied.

As an American (not a Southerner, not a Midwesterner – an American) I find Confederate monuments in general to be more embarrassing than offensive. Embarrassment, coupled with puzzlement: where I am from, we generally don’t commemorate the losers.

In fact, where I am from, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, we commemorate a wide array of folks less imbued with automatic controversy. Those that came immediately to mind included a couple of famous American authors, along with the most famous characters created by one of them, a Norwegian violinist, and a bunch of famous cartoon characters.

I’m talking full-fledged statues here – not plaques or granite markers of some sort.
When mulling over my hometown statuary, a bunch of images lacking names came to mind, so I needed to hit Google for a virtual, refresher-course, tour to refresh my memory, and the wide array of actual statues was a pleasant eye-opener.

I had immediately thought of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, and of the bronze rendition of Minnehaha and Hiawatha together – his most famous literary creations.These were familiar from a childhood hanging around the parks where those edifices stand – in popular, high-traffic parks, where each has stood, independently, for over a century each. Only major point of controversy?  That the depictions of Hiawatha and Minnehaha were ‘not Indian enough’.

Then there was the more recent vintage, twenty years or so, bronze tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, which stands outside of a hotel I once worked at, and with whom I took a selfie a few years back.

Okay, I am a writer and English teacher; Fitzgerald and Longfellow were gimmes.

I also remembered the statue of Ole Bull, famous Norwegian violinist, erected in 1897, but I had forgotten about the one honoring Gunnar Wennerberg, a Swedish poet and stateman, which dates from 1915 (there is that ‘poet’ angle again). Then there was the biggie: The Father of Waters statue in Minneapolis City Hall.

This behemoth was carved from a block of marble that weighed 44 tons and now covers a large area in the main lobby, under a rotunda, and when I looked up some stats on the statue, I also learned something I did not realize. From the Minneapolis City Hall, self-guided tour, brochure:

‘The Father of Waters” statue features symbols of the countryside the river flows through on its journey from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The figure reclines on a Native American blanket and leans against the 1 paddle wheel of a riverboat. He holds a cornstalk, while surrounded by a fish net, alligator, and aquatic turtle, and his head is adorned with a pine cone and leaf wreath. When New Orleans was unable to afford the statue, twelve leading Minneapolis citizens and the Minneapolis Journal presented the “Father of Waters” to the City of Lakes in 1904.’

Added bonus, statue-wise: rubbing dad’s toe brings good luck.

Crossing the Mississippi river to St. Paul, you can seek out any of the dozen or more, life-size bronze statues of various ‘Peanuts’ characters scattered throughout town as a homage to creator Charles Schultz, a St. Paul native. St. Paul is also the hometown of Fitzgerald, and his tribute, and also features a statue of the renowned German philosopher, poet, and dramatist, Johann von Schiller.

Me either.

A most intriguing monument from my hometown is one of particular curiosity, and some confusion, to visitors not from the area (and many locals): a bronze statue, mounted on a wide, concrete base, with a lot of adornment and words of praise, for Thomas Lowry – the father of the Minneapolis streetcar system.

A bit overdone, in a lot of people’s eyes.

Then there is another monument, a bronze statue of Theodore Wirth, considered one of the finest in America. His legacy is secured not only by the parks, but by the four, life-sized, bronze children playing around him…and the one clutching his hand.

Very moving, and playful.

There, of course, the typical variety of memorials to wars fought, and people who worked to build America (Abe Lincoln, Nathan “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” Hale, to name two) along with statues commemorating pioneers, immigrants, and initial white inhabitants – some fodder for controversy amongst indigenous peoples, but largely accepted. There are also a number of paeans, in statue form, to local native populations.

I guess I come from a different statuary environment.

Not that there isn’t some hometown controversy involving some deeply-rooted cultural feelings about symbols, and what they represent; Minneapolis is currently in the process of trying to rename its largest, most prominent lake – Lake Calhoun. This is no small thing in a place that bills itself as, ‘The City of Lakes’ and has thirteen identifiable lakes within its borders.

The lake was named for John C. Calhoun, U.S. Vice President in the 1800’s and strong proponent of slavery; having the city’s largest, most famous, centrally located lake named for a famous secessionist has not sat well with a lot of the local populace for years, but now the park board and the city have moved to change the name of the lake back to its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska (be-DAY’ mah-kah skah).

The move is not without controversy, but is lacking the, at times, overwrought, hand-wringing, angst of doom over any impending loss of ‘cultural heritage.’ In fact, many of the businesses in the cosmopolitan neighborhoods around the lake, that have ‘Calhoun’ as an identifier, have already begun changing their business names.

Changing the name of a lake is a big deal; approval still needs to come from the state department of natural resources, as well as U.S. Board on Geographic Names, due to the implications of changing maps – no small deal. Still, opposition has been limited and fairly tame, compared to the removal of statues in New Orleans. And, as opposed to being a divisive issue, returning the original, Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska is seen as a point of reconciliation with the local indigenous populations, and is strongly supported by a wide array of business, community, and religious organizations.

A far cry from the lack of vocal civic support here in New Orleans.

There have been plenty of individual citizens speaking out here regarding statue removal – perusing either of the local papers, or any of the local broadcast media outlets will get you a plethora of material, but there has been very little said by any of the major civic organizations in town.

This surprises me somewhat, as I believe that much of what is driving the removal of the statues now is largely driven by economic and business realities. I get that groups don’t like to take sides in such things, and don’t want to alienate constituencies, but there is also a part of me that feels someone should be stepping up about why this benefits the community – especially the tourism industry, the largest segment of the local economy.

You see, New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday in 2018, and has a full slate of events to celebrate, and expects the world spotlight to be shining brightly on the city, generating more tourism, and substantial monetary value to the city. I believe there are many who will benefit greatly from these statues being gone, and by the positive press getting them removed has been generating around the world, but nobody wants to talk about that.

In the meantime, a lot of passion and anger is being stirred up about ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘erasing history’ and nobody seems to want to get involved in giving anything any reasonable, thought-out context.

My adopted city could possibly learn a few things from my hometown.

Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

Conversation

“How many students of yours have been killed?” Her tone was inquisitive, non-invasive.
“A dozen” I replied softly, taking a deep hit on my bottle of Coke.

She sighed, audibly. “At least nine” I clarified. “Nine that I have seen the obit on, story on the news, newspaper article about. Nine.” I was running through the Coke more quickly than usual; it burned going down.  I continued. “That’s one for each school year I have taught in New Orleans. On the plus side, it’s been three years since I added to the list.”

I finished off the Coke, raising the empty bottle. “Cheers.”

“Why’d you say ‘a dozen’?”
“Nine I am sure of, but I have heard of another two, three. Always running into former colleagues and students, always hear, ‘hey – remember x-and-so’? He got shot.”

She sighed again, more uncomfortably. Her voice took on a nervous edge. “How’s that make you feel?”
“I don’t know how that makes me feel.” Easy to answer frequently asked questions.
“Sad.”
“Sadness is part of it.”
Sighing can be far more communicative than one realizes. “It’s not what you signed up for, huh?”
My turn to sigh. “Even if it was, who would believe it would really be…this.”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled. “You saw some of them on the news?”
“Yep.”
“Wow.”
“Ten o’clock lead story, one kid. Morning paper is worse, though.”

This seemed to puzzle her, and I think she had run out of sighs. “Shocking to see a student of yours on the front page?”
“Ahh! My front page students have been perpetrators. Victims inside. Open up the metro section like the bomb squad handling a suspicious package. THAT”S what you want to do along with your morning coffee.”

“Your students ever kill each other?”
“Ohhhhh, no!  My front page alums are in a whole different class. Some are doing hard time, a bunch are doing -various times for various…infractions.”  Gallows humor isn’t always funny.
“How many of those?”
“That, I stopped counting.”

I was drumming my empty Coke bottle against my leg. We stood there, relative strangers, friends of a mutual friend making small talk because we really had nobody else to speak with, both being from somewhere else, originally, and finding our adopted environs to be quite different than anything we had experienced elsewhere. We had hit upon a mutual topic – careers in education. Now, we were each getting one.  Some party.

“Roughly how many kids in ‘I stopped counting’?” she asked, with trepidation.
“Really, I stopped counting. I meant that literally.”

There was nothing more she could ask, nothing more I could say. I could see in her eyes that she was looking for something in mine, but wasn’t finding it. Whatever it was she DID see, she seemed ill at ease with. Not seeing anything resembling an answer, she apparently thought it best to go looking for one.

“How does all that make you feel?” she prodded.
“Angry discouraged pissed off.” It wasn’t so much a varied list as it was a newly-coined, matter-of-fact adjective. “Disturbing thing is, ‘surprise’ isn’t part of it for me anymore.”

That was more than she seemed ready to digest. She found a fresh sigh, punctuated this time with a disbelieving shake of her head. We stood there, awkwardly filling the void of incredulity that permeated the whole concept of what it meant to be an inner city high school teacher. We watched others mingle, laughing at told jokes, work anecdotes. A few seconds passed, maybe an hour – who knows?

I started to speak and she looked at me intently. “I say the same thing every time I see a former student in the news – only thing I can think of to say: ‘What a fucking waste’.”
“Yeah. I bet.” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yeah.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Yeah. Nice meeting you.”

What a waste.