Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Steep Learning Curve in Life and Death

I taught in Minneapolis from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s. There were many things going on in the world then, but my life mostly revolved around my two young children and starting my teaching career. Emerson School was an incredible place where a young staff of dedicated but fun-loving educators worked to optimize the lives of severely handicapped students.
Our crew was mostly women, except for the obligatory older male wood shop teacher, the outdoors-type rock-climber guy, and a first year teacher who was a very handsome single man. The girls hung out together on the weekends, went to the lake together in the summer, and held wedding and baby showers for each other.
Bride And Groom Stock PhotoCathy was one of our home economics teachers. She was about twenty three when she became engaged to and then married a nice young man. I went to her shower and her wedding, and one time, about a year into her marriage, I attended a St. Patrick's Day party at her new home. It turned out to be a combination house warming party as well.
Strangely, her husband was not at home. Even though he had recently been diagnosed with what she described as some sort of skin cancer, he had gone out partying with some of his friends. She told us he would join us later...his long-time friends had an annual St.Patrick's Day celebration that he really wanted to attend. We proceeded without him, and had our usual fabulous time together, but by the time we were all ready to go home, her husband had still not arrived. As we filed out the door, she assured us she would properly chastise him for standing us up.
Cathy lost her young husband to the cancer about six months later. She was devastated, and although she knew she had all our love and support the whole time he was dying, Cathy declined all offers for visits or assistance. She became more and more isolated from even her closest friends. We were really at a loss as to how to comfort her, and then she suddenly asked for an extended unpaid leave for herself.
We worried about depression and even her sometimes suicidal references. She would only let one person inside her shell. It was the other home economics teacher, and she maintained strict confidentiality, as a best friend should, but it was so difficult for the rest of us who really wanted to try to help.
Six months later, Cathy was dead. It was the same cancer that killed her husband. Kaposi's sarcoma. This was the cancer that had just recently, in the early 1980s, become known to be associated with HIV/AIDS. We were stunned to learn all this. AIDS was so very new back then. Little reliable information was available and scary rumors abounded. We felt so helpless.
A dear friend was gone so young and it would have been so easy to "blame" her dead husband. He was, after all, the sneaky undeclared bisexual who had lied and cheated on his young bride, and who had spread this horrible disease to our innocent, unsuspecting Cathy.
This is how we COULD have felt, but it wasn't. There were reasons we were not seething with anger at all of this. First of all, we all had recently made a new friend...a new gay friend. Tim, our new handsome teacher I mentioned earlier, came out of the closet. This was such a brave move for him, but he trusted us and he had proven himself a loving and caring friend and teacher. He was completely accepted, as we all experienced a very steep learning cure in alternative lifestyles. Also, this gay stuff was so previously unknown to us. It appeared to have stolen one very special person from us, but it opened a new door at the same time. Lots of people began opening doors.
It was not long after this that a cousin of mine, very close to me in age, who had married and had children, divorced and came out of the closet. I already knew that one of my husband's brothers was gay. All the while, our society was becoming more and more educated about AIDS, and brave souls were putting real faces on the crisis. This had not been possible before, as our society had always struggled mightily to keep everyone silent, and in their closets. 
 When something awful happens, it is human nature to look for someone to blame. I have a problem with that. It is such a negative assignation. I think there is a better way to deal with "bad stuff". I believe God has a purpose in everything; God participates actively in all parts of our lives. Having said that, let me hasten to add that I don't believe He makes bad things happen, or allows them to happen, or can stop them from happening. He is with us. How? That's the mystery and the faith part. So, for Cathy's situation, let's start with the fact that it happened. 
"Shoulda, coulda, woulda" does not matter. It was sad, it was unfair, and at that point in the history of American gay culture, it was most likely unpreventable.  Her husband was who he was, but he was not aware of the deadly disease which was barely on the horizon of medicine at that time. He didn't know what hit him. The doctors most likely had no treatment for it and no way of knowing he had passed it along to Cathy. I believe Cathy figured out what had happened after she became ill, and kept us all at a distance to keep us safe from what was at that time an unknown killer. Back then, there were multiple myths about how HIV was spread.
Cathy and her husband were two of the very first AIDS casualties in Minneapolis. Since then, the rich, the poor, the famous, the unknown, the young, the old, the addicts, the tea-totalers, the straight, and the homosexual...they have all felt its effects. Our society has changed, embraced diversity, and moved forward (or backward in the minds of some).  Everyone has their opinion and I have mine. It changes slightly now and then, as God tugs me in one direction or another, but I do know wins. Hate loses. We are all children of God, and God has a purpose in everything.

Monday, March 17, 2014

My First Muslim


"I led a very sheltered life", is what I tell people all the time. I say it because I grew up on a farm, my parents were extremely protective, and I attended a small high school (with about 300 total students...the only minority student was one-half Native American). My total environment was pretty much controlled. I was not allowed to date until I was sixteen. Boys were carefully screened, and strict guidelines were enforced. I had the same circle of friends since kindergarten, and the wildest parties I ever attended were my own slumber parties. Sure, I went to downtown Des Moines, such as it was in the middle of the twentieth century, but only on Saturday mornings and under the close supervision of my mother and older sisters. Let's just say, it was a VERY sheltered existence.
      When I went to college, at seventeen, I was allowed to live in the dormitory, but my parents had arranged for it to be the smallest dormitory on a campus that was only fifteen minutes away from my home. I was picked up for church every Sunday morning.
      At college, however, they really had nothing to say about the people I met. I had been taught by my mother to love all people. My father had a generous portion of ethnic biases. The bottom line is, I was simply not aware of the variety of people who were "out there". A girl from Hawaii lived across the hall from me. I met my first Bostonian. He was Catholic, which had been taboo for me to date in high school, so it was kind of exciting to have him ask me out on a date. It turned out he was a terrible kisser and I could barely understand what he was saying, so we only had two dates. The same was true with the young man from Africa. He was pretty easy to understand, but when he asked me to marry him after three dates (and we had NOT kissed), I knew I had overextended my emerging reach for diversity.
      So, I dated a few more guys and by the middle of my junior year in college, I finally settled on one to marry. We married and a few years later, after finishing college and living in several different states, we settled in Minnesota. It was a Lutheran haven, which pleased my parents, and I started my teaching career. My first year of teaching, I made my first openly gay friend, Tim.  I had a classroom associate who was Lakota Sioux.
        My principal, Dr. Sajaad Haider, was my first Muslim. I adored him, even after I personally observed him cheating on his golf score. It was really the only character flaw I found in him in the nine years I taught at his school.
      Dr. Haider, or "Saj", as he wanted us to call him, was totally devoted to helping intellectually challenged kids. He was in charge of Emerson School, which educated about 200 severely handicapped students. He originally had a doctorate in entomology and came to the United States to study agriculture, but when his youngest son was born with Down Syndrome, Saj obtained his doctorate in special education and administration. He was determined to improve the quality of education for all students with special needs. Saj was from Pakistan and had his quirky pronunciations of English words. My favorite was discipline, which he pronounced as "dah sip ah lin". He knew it was wrong, but eventually just gave up ever trying to get it right.
        Saj faithfully observed Ramadan, which is the Muslim holy month when there is no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for 29-30 days. He made no big fuss over it. He was a humble man, and extremely patient with his young staff of teachers and associates. When I saw him at the shopping mall, his traditionally-dressed wife was dutifully walking the prescribed ten feet behind him the whole time. However, on the golf course, Saj and I walked side by side down the fairway.
         One time, Saj was in an awful car crash and had to have some surgery around his mouth. He walked around school holding either a newspaper or a folded white handkerchief in front of his mouth for more than a month, so none of us had to look at the mess on his face. He didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or uneasy.
        Saj always worked extremely hard to get us all the resources we needed for our students. He personally helped get Boy Scout uniforms for nearly fifty handicapped Scouts. He made sure "Santa" had nice gifts for all the students and all the staff at Christmas. He regularly brought us delicious treats from his home, always proud to tell us what a wonderful cook and loving mother his wife was. All of his five children, except the youngest, were either a doctor or a professor.
       I know Muslims are extremely suspect for many people these days. I understand. I just know that the first Muslim I knew personally was a wonderful, gentle, humorous man. When he walked through the halls at school or into my classroom, I felt his fatherly presence watching over us. I worked with him every day for nine years. I know there are extremists, who are dangerous. Saj would never have hurt a fly.
       Cheat on his golf score...yes, he did...but I imagine it was only because he thought he might lose to a girl...which probably had more to do with him being a man than being a Muslim.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Sometimes It's Better Not to Know


 Where do I start? Should I tell you what a handsome, intelligent, and charming young man he was twenty years ago? Or, should I describe his photo I saw yesterday on the county jail website?
         The edgy and harsh face staring at me from my laptop screen almost escaped identification, but then I glanced at the name. A former student. I see a few of them every time I log onto the site, but yesterday was different.
         Having taught in "out-of-the-mainstream" classrooms for the past thirty-some years, I sometimes give in to the temptation of searching the county jail web site for former students. Invariably, I find the ones who were the most sure that all the adults in their lives were just trying to "spoil all the fun" of being a teenager. They were the kids who kept using drugs, kept drinking, kept fighting, kept stealing, and kept running away from home. Their fathers, if they were known, would threaten them. Their grandmothers would sit in my room during parent/teacher conferences and cry. Their Juvenile Court Officers would lock them up for a weekend, let them out after receiving promises of improved behavior, and then lock them up again a month later. For too many of my students, mostly boys, it simply turned out to be a rehearsal for adult prison. Truthfully, some of them really needed to be incarcerated.
         This was not true for the young man on the website yesterday. He had wonderful parents. His mother was a fellow teacher in the school district; she and his father were happily married. There was an older sister who was a successful student and a cheerleader at a nearby suburban high school. However, their picture perfect family was not complete. Their son had teenage-onset schizophrenia.
        When a teenager acts lazy and unmotivated, talks in a dull voice to his parents, and complains that everyone is picking on him..what's new? Those behaviors might seem normal, and they just might be one of those "difficult stages". On the other hand, those behaviors can also be early signals of one of the most serious metal disorders...schizophrenia. It's a downward spiral, headed towards hallucinations. delusions, and complete disorientation.
        I worked with this young man, who was helpless in the grips of this illness. He could be happy, friendly, and cooperative. Most of the time, sadly, he was forgetful, depressed, and unpredictably out of touch with reality. It was nearly impossible for him to learn anything. He was in high school, but really not educable. When he came to me, he had been in an adolescent mental health treatment center, and just recently released. His time in my classroom lasted nearly nine months, but at the end of that time, he had to be readmitted to a treatment facility. It was winter and they took away his shoes so he could not leave. He left anyway. They found him, wearing his paper slippers, before he was seriously injured.
      I have seen his mother several times over the twenty years since he was in my class. Each time I inquired about him, and discovered he was being shuffled from group home to group home. His story was one of a lost soul who was experiencing serial supervised living, as he went through his young adulthood. She invariably appeared frustrated and fatigued as she told me his latest update. I saw her about two years ago at a staff in-service day, and the story continued. This time, he was having an especially difficult time with finding the right mixture of medications, and things were not going well. It appeared to be fairly certain that he was going to have to transfer to yet another facility.
         After seeing his photo on the jail website, I did a quick internet search. He had been arrested several times. Once for 5th degree theft, probably shoplifting. He had been arrested for buying cigarettes for a minor. Some offenses resulted in jail time and some received fines. I saw nothing I would consider "dangerous", but I did see a "committal" hearing. All I could think was that it was probably all very frightening for him.
        So, when I saw his mug shot on the county jail website, it was jarring. I remember seeing him smile sometimes in my room, with a little twinkle in his big brown eyes. There was no twinkle in the mug shot. His eyes could best be described as "wild". I remember his wavy black hair as stylishly long back in high school, and always impeccably combed away from his impish face. The jail photo showed straight spiked hair, cut quite short and looking a mess. He had remarkably clear skin for a teenage boy, but  his jail face looked dull and blotchy. He's thirty-five years old now, and looks like he's at least ten years older.
       I just checked back on the website tonight, and he's no longer on the list. He's out of jail, but who knows where? 
       With many of my other posts in this blog, people have asked me if I know where any of those former students are today. Do I ever see them again? Do I wonder about them?  I tell them, "No, I haven't seen them again, but yes, I do wonder about them."
        My new reply?  "Sometimes it's better not to know." It hurts my teacher heart. It hurts my mother heart. I hurts my human heart. It just hurts.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Worst Mom Competition


       Tim's mother filled the doorway of my classroom. "Get in here, stupid! You're in this room every day. Are you getting dumber AND blinder?"
      I was about to meet the woman Tim called his 'mean ma'. I could be trite and call her a proverbial 'piece of work", but that would be too kind. She was the absolute worst mother I ever met. In the past twenty-two years, since she first crossed the threshold of my classroom, she has not been topped. I have met drug-addicted mothers, stripper mothers, prostitute mothers, and even two mothers who actually moved out of the state while their child was at school, but Tim's mother gets the prize.
      She was just plain mean. I am not going to dignify her by naming her...truly, I have forgotten her name. Any of my readers who know me also know that I pride myself on being able to 'forget bad things'. I have dragged this abomination of a human being out from the depths of my bad memories and shall recreate her here, only to serve as an example of how much damage a bad parent can do to a child.
       During this parent/teacher conference when I first met her, we discussed what the plans were for Tim's transition to adulthood; he was going to be eighteen in a few months. Her contribution to that conversation was simply, "I can't wait until he turns eighteen and I can be rid of him."
       So, it was shortly after I met Tim's mother that I started giving my students a standard message when they brought their parents to a school conference with me. I'd say, "You really need to be thankful you have parents (or a mom or a dad) who care so much about you." Over twenty years later, I continue to deliver this message at every parent conference, to every student I have. Sometimes, I really mean it.
      Before I reveal just how horrible she was, let me tell you that my daughter has a son with autism. I have always said that God knew what he was doing when he gave Emmett to Jenipher and Scot. They are the world's most perfect parents....for him.
       Tim's mother was at the opposite end of the parenting scale...she wasn't even on the scale. I have no idea what God was thinking. They say that some people are on this planet for the sole purpose of being a bad example for the rest of us. Tim's mother.
       Tim had just moved back home, from a residential mental health/medical center for youth. He had serious mental health issues, being bi-polar and depressed. He was mildly mentally challenged, and he was going blind. He had about a year of limited vision left, then he would be completely blind. With the cards stacked against him like that, the last thing he needed was a demeaning and loveless mother.
        When I called her to ask about putting clean clothes on Tim, her answer was, "He can't tell. The dummy is pretty much blind, don't you know?"
       When I mentioned he seriously needed some new shoes, her answer was, "What for? All the retard does is sit on his fat ass all day." Yes, she actually used the "r" word.
       When I called and asked what he might like for Christmas, her answer was, "Don't waste money on him. He ain't worth it."
         She fed him, but he was starved for affection. She clothed him, but he was stripped to his bare soul by her biting words. She put roof over his head, but sent him out into the world knowing there was no shelter for him in his mother's love.
         Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, his mother sent him to school with his packed suitcases.
         Blessedly, for Tim, Iowa Department of Human Services stepped in, and he found his way to an adult living situation where he was prepared for his sightless future, given appropriate rehabilitation services and counseling, and supported by caring staff.
         Let's fast forward twenty today's crop of parents. Some of my students' parents are quite young. Other "parents" turn out to actually be the students' grandparents. A majority of both categories of parents are single. Almost ninety percent of them live in poverty.
        The kids all have more expensive phones than mine. They have designer jeans and shoes, pricey weaves in their hair, and a sense of entitlement that makes me wonder if they are incognito children of politicians. I have heard them scream at their parents on their phones, and tell their grandparents to "shut up!" at our conferences. They use the free breakfast and lunch program, but have money to spend on cigarettes and drugs.
        They pretty much all say they hate their parents.
         I feel just as badly for these kids as I did for Tim. Their parents are abdicating their responsibilities and neglecting their children. Stylish possessions are no substitute for heartfelt affection and watchful parental oversight. Allowing teenagers to have unlimited privileges while having no responsibility is harmful and stunting to their normal development.  With no accountability for their self-indulgent choices, I see students hurtling towards adulthood with no idea of the reality wall they are about to hit.
        They are as blind as Tim and they don't even know it. Most of their parents and guardians have not given them the necessary tools to thrive, or even survive in the post-graduation world. A lot of their parents expect the schools to teach their children everything, while the same parents are too busy to be bothered with helping us. According to popular belief, that is supposed to be "our job", as educators.
       No, it isn't. Tim needed his mother to step up and be a decent mother. As a teacher, I could not also be his mother. Today's students also have parents who need to step up and be real parents, not pals.
        Tim's mother still is the worst one I have ever met, but there are some serious contenders out there for second prize. And their children are headed into your world.