Friday, February 16, 2018

Troubled Child 

                   + Lethal Weapons 

                                                = Tragedy

Miss Ethel Laventhal, 4th grade, P.S. 101, Brooklyn, NY was my first teacher crush. I was in Class 4.3, next to the intellectual behavioral bottom of the four homogeneously arranged classes of that grade. It was done that way then with no concern for such obvious “labeling”. Expert in the matter of sizing up kids, Miss Laventhal recognized my misplacement, told my mother what needed to be worked on, praised my improvements and achievements. Next year saw me in Class 5.2 and the next in 6.1. I was oblivious of her professional intentions but the benefits were significant for my future. However, I did take in how her skills were applied to other children.

There have always been troubled children. There have always been those children in schools with baggage that rendered them noticeable to administrators, teachers and peers. Miss Laventhal spotted the one in her class. I knew he was trouble; nasty, pugnacious, uncooperative; the one to whom you gave wide berth if you were smart. But I saw how Miss Laventhal won him over. Even at the age of ten I marveled at the miracle. She made me want to have that kind of influence as a teacher. 

Later when I was teaching in public and parochial elementary schools and when I served as teacher librarian in a middle school Miss Laventhal’s radar became mine. I was not alone among my peers. We could all speak the names of the most needy children, those burdened with excessive emotional baggage, those with short fuses, those social misfits, those most insecure and therefore most likely to act out, and those whose futures we worried about. Statistically, there are just bound to be some emotionally disturbed or just plain needy children in every school. One such child was in my care in second grade. When she entered puberty her mother stabbed her to death in their home.

Troubled children have always meant possible tragedy but now an element has been added to the equation. The equation reads, “TROUBLED CHILDREN + LETHAL WEAPONS = TRAGEDY.” I believe that the weight of lethal weapons is what tips the scale in favor of tragedy. Certainly we can always improve our ability to notice troubled youngsters (not to to mention disturbed adults). We have to notice, to compensate for their losses, to help them achieve, to assist them in development of social skills, to remove them from harmful environments and more. Today, in spite of the rhetoric, we do not seem to have the political will to support such efforts adequately. But I believe, that even more importantly, we do not not have the political will to face the import and truth of the equation and act to remove military weapons from the open market, to stringently regulate all lethal firearms, to require by law (inspection necessary) locked domestic storage for all guns. It is only these measures which can remove lethal weapons from the equation which includes innocent toddlers, those with non-existent impulse control, youngsters and adults in momentary extremis of anger, frustration, depression or pain, and those clinically diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Simply put, I believe that even though it is definitely necessary to attend to the emotional needs of the troubled, some of that discussion merely distracts from the elephant in the room. Our current gun laws leave the equivalent of sticks of dynamite  readily at hand to be used by any one so inclined. Those so inclined include curious children, troubled youth, those angry or resentful adults eager for revenge, the abusive spouse, or those in a manic state.

Stringent background checks are not the answer. It is impossible to sift out all possible troubled souls and identify dynamics predictive of violence. It is no longer a matter of tiny steps to restrict gun purchases. We have arrived at the point of no return which which will shatter those clinging to Second Amendment rights established when it took almost a minute to load a rifle with just one shot. 

Gun possession must be severely limited in this country. We must acknowledge in an honest way that there simply is no other choice. 

And we must remember the miracles wrought by teachers in every age.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Epiphany Reflection 2018

"By Another Way"

Brother Max Schmalzl, CSsR
Reflection offered at Epiphany Concert of St. Joseph's Church, Kingston, NY - January 7, 2018

Today we mark the end of the Christmas season by remembering the Three Kings, Wise men from afar. Guided by the light of a star and following the suggestion of a brutal scheming King, they arrived at Bethlehem of Judea and offered homage to the one they immediately recognized as a Holy Child of God. “And having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod, they departed to their country by another way.” While knowing the story by heart I was struck this time around by the repeated mention of light in what are called the Infancy Narratives of the Gospels. I was also struck by the very last words of the account; they ‘returned home by another way’. The act of going another way took on new meaning.

Ephipany is one of those fancy church words that comes from the language of ancient Greece. Today we commonly use the word to describe a Eureka moment when suddenly it is as if a light bulb goes on in the brain and we can finally say, “I got it.” Suddenly you fully ‘get’ a new concept or know how to use that new app on your I-phone just plain get a great idea. This common use is not off the mark. In Greek the word indicates a manifestation - a great reveal – an occasion when it seems a great light has been focused on a new truth.

Today we are thinking about those three wisdom figures who traveled from afar and following a star, came to a stable where God revealed the divine nature of an otherwise totally unremarkable child. But this event is only the first in a trio of Eureka moments in which the Messiah was revealed.  The next is the baptism of Jesus when Luke tells us the voice of God was heard saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The third is the wedding feast in the town of Cana told in the Gospel of John where Jesus turned water into wine to save a family from embarrassment. Scripture says, “Jesus did the first of his signs in Cana of Galilee and revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”

Christians have tied together these three revelations of Jesus’ identity from the earliest days. Our Episcopalian sisters and brothers call the whole length of time from today to Ash Wednesday Epiphany-tide. That designation prolongs the period in which we are invited to meditate on our personal response to the Christmas revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah of our ancient longing.

It is interesting that we use the image of a light bulb coming to life to describe our Eureka moments. Light imagery so often appears in Scripture to explain what the revelation of the Messiah will mean for us. The three Kings were led by the light of a star. The last lines of the great prayer of the father of John the Baptist tell us that when the Messiah reveals himself, “The dawn from on high will break upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Much earlier in Hebrew scripture the prophet Isaiah declared:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone…
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
The rod of their taskmaster,
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For a child is born to us, a son is given to us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.                                  Isaiah 9:1,3,5

Even today we harken back to the light metaphor in our Christmas candles, our brilliantly lit homes, and sparkling decorations on evergreen trees. The real significance of these lights is that they draw attention to and underscore the central spot light focused on the child lying in the food trough of barnyard animals behind an inn with a no vacancy sign.
If that is the Epiphany moment; if seeing the new born child reveals his identity as our Messiah what, if anything is that supposed to do to us? I propose that these Epiphany revelations of Jesus as Lord and Savior have to become conversion moments; bringing us to a new path in our daily pilgrimage journey to God, giving us the choice to go home by another way.

We are told by Isaiah the Prophet that the Messiah will bring this message:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
release to the prisoners;
To announce a year of favor
and a day of vindication by our God;
To comfort all who mourn;
To give them oil of gladness instead of mourning,
a glorious mantle instead of a faint spirit.               Isaiah 61

Like the Kings we came to the manager at Christmas. We are told that after their Epiphany moment the visitors offered their gifts to the babe before them and then “return home by another way.” I know they are trying to avoid the evil Herod. But “going home by another way” suggested to me that they went home changed by the light, changed by their Eureka moment.

Our Epiphany moment must bring us to conversion, a commitment that invites us to follow another way; the way of bringing good news, binding broken hearts, releasing those imprisoned by any circumstance, comforting those in sorrow, and spreading the oil of gladness far and near. The other way may lead us into our various communities or most especially to those with whom we share the dinner table at home. This other way is marked by an increase of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; all under the mantle of love which we are told is the bond of perfection.

Robert Frost poetically described the moment of choice and consequences unimagined.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

History Repeats, But We do Not Learn

Peekskill, NY - 1949
Charlottesville - 2017

Some must get tired of my history lessons but the record of history and current events compel me.   

I was Born in 1945, so I am old enough to remember the comments of my parents in response to national and world events. I remember coming home from school and finding my my mother doing her ironing while watching the Congressional sessions of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities, other wise known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings.  My parents were outraged by this travesty of justice. Later on in a casual conversation about visiting territory north of New York City the city of Peekskill was mentioned. I was surprised by my mothers immediate recoil. I did not 'get it' and asked for explanation. "Oh, that is where bigots rioted after a performance by Paul Robeson, a Negro with a great voice who had spoken out against some US policies and in favor of Russia." Whenever I drive through Peekskill today I remember the story, now further informed by an interview with Pete Steeger in which he described being in a car leaving the grounds and being stoned by the crowd with police doing little to hold down the violence.  

So now, 68 years after Peekskill, and more than 50 years since the passage of Civil Rights legislation, we are faced  with hideous images of rampant violence and organized hate groups unafraid to brandish symbols of Confederate slave states, the renewed Ku Klux Klan, and the Neo-Nazi Party.

Believing as I do that the campaign rhetoric and current language and behavior of Donald Trump have given permission for such pent up prejudice, anger, and lethal violence to erupt  I continue to worry about what will happen when he is unable to produce what he promised. How will the Right spew its lava of resentment, hopelessness and pure hatred? The volcano has erupted in Charlottesville. It will not stop there.

So now we face the prospect of war, nuclear or otherwise. One issue seems not to be enough. Both North Korea AND the likes of Venezuela present issues. Could Venezuelan oil have something to do with it?  And at the same time we face domestic warfare unleashed by power that does not know history at all.

For further information about the Peekskill Riot of 1949 go to for great video and documentary accounts.                                              

Monday, May 15, 2017

History Teaches: 
     Effects  of Industrial Revolution

Dare a member of the academic elite opine? Takes a bit of courage these days. However, compelled 
as I am, here are some thoughts. They emerge from what I thought was a sudden flash of brilliant idea.
Further research brought me down a peg by revealing that the idea did not originate with me.

Recently I engaged in very stimulating conversations about the the current state of things with two young
men (freshman and sophomore in high school) and their father. The youngsters were totally engaged 
in the discussion, knowledgeable and very capable of expressing their thought out opinions. In the midst
of extolling the balance of powers in our government, presidential propriety, banning immigrants and 
restoring jobs in coal mines my new idea came as a flash. "We are going through a new industrial revolution
without learning the lessons of the unintended consequences caused by the last one", I blurted out.

Few would doubt that we have entered a period of technological revolution. It seems those in decision making 
positions effecting not only our citizens but also those of the world have failed to comprehend the enormous 
consequences of that revolution. Much less have they considered the unintended negative consequences for 
society which the industrial revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries caused. Highly recommended is an essay 
concerning the social effects of the industrial revolution . I makes abundantly clear the negative effects of 
unbridled free market capitalism.

In 2016 German economist Klaus Schwab published "The Fourth Industrial Revolution" . Reading it brought to 
an end my notion of having a unique idea. After giving historical context and ample evidence for his theory
(and that of others) of this new and equal consequential global revolution he offers a number of chapters on 
the consequences in terms of the economy, nature of work,business, national and global developments,
society at large and the individual. 

Sub-topics in these areas include but are not limited to:

nature of work
consumer expectations
collaborative innovation
inequality and the middle class
identity, morality and ethics
human connection
managing public and private information

You must be getting the idea. What is facing us cannot be fixed by persuading companies not to move facilities
in order to keep to 1,200 employees on the job; not by assuring coal miners that jobs will come back. 
Coping with what is to come requires major study and planning within an informed and communicating citizenry, 
governance by the constitutionally balanced executive, legislative and judicial branches of government less
interested in re-election or appointment than the best interests of all and influenced by 'the better angels of their
nature, and finally, business within a compassionate capitalist system.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Not So Unfamiliar Story

Current Presidential Immigration 
Actions Hit Home

Waking this morning to news of detentions at airports of visitors, refuges, immigrants and green card holder from middle eastern countries listed in President Trump's recent executive action immediately raised my anxiety/compassion level. These reports sadly melded with my own family story of an immigrant detention at port of entry.

In 1921 my Sicilian grandfather, long a citizen of the United States and veteran of service in the US Army durning World War I, returned to the US from a visit to his homeland. He brought with him a new wife and her 10 year old sister. Upon arrival at Ellis Island the authorities were required to admit my grandfather as a citizen and his wife by virtue of that citizenship. But his young sister-in-law did not fit into that formula. She was neither his wife, daughter or blood relative. Although he asserted his willingness to fully support this child he could not prove his ability to do so. He had been out of the country for almost a year and therefore could not provide evidence of gainful employment. He must have had savings because within four years he would by a three family house in Brooklyn. But it may also have been impossible at that moment to provide proof of any assets. The authorities determined that the 10 year old girl who could not speak anything but Sicilian had to be detained in Ellis Island facilities until my grandfather could return with proof that he could support her and prevent her becoming a burden to society and government coffers.

An Italian woman with young children apparently took little Carmelina under her wing for guidance and protection. It was November and during my aunt's two week detention Thanksgiving was celebrated and a special meal provided. Eventually my grandfather returned with proof of support in the form of bank passbooks or a pay stub and the small family was reunited. Our family heard this story recounted by my Aunt Millie every Thanksgiving. As a child myself I remember being horrified at the tale and wondering how this could possibly have been done to a little girl. 

This mornings' news went directly to the memory of this story. Today as a mother and grandmother I struggle to imagine how my grandmother may have cried and screamed at being separated from her little sister in a strange and forbidding place after a long ocean voyage. My heart still cries for the little girl who never knew her own mother and looked to her sister for everything in her life feeling such panic and wailing at their separation. It is within this emotional space that I considered the stories of those detained at airports this weekend; many already extensively vetted, some holding 'green cards' as vetted resident aliens in the US who work here, own homes, have families and pay taxes.

On Saturday, January 28, when Brooklyn Federal District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly upheld an action by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging detentions by executive order she wrote that such detentions could cause "irreparable harm". I can attest to the irreparable harm done to my dear aunt by her detention so many years ago. Each time I heard her anguished story I thought, "Thank God they don't do that anymore." How wrong I was.