Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Our nation's laws and policies should be rooted squarely in justice

President Trump today signed an executive order ending Obama-era protections for transgender youth in our nation's public schools.

The move elicited the usual reactions from the usual suspects. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty and Law Center both criticized the move. Conservative groups hailed it as an important victory for the right of states to set such policies, while religious groups have hailed it as a moral victory to protect our youth.

What follows are my own unevolved thoughts on the matter. Take them for whatever they are worth.

While I understand that many people, including people I genuinely have a lot of respect and admiration for, feel uncomfortable around the transgender, our comfort should never be the basis for our laws or our policies. Nor should the basis for our laws and education policy be what the most people want, nor what outcome will satisfy the most people.

Our standard should be the standard of justice, of right and wrong, and the demands of safety. The U.S. Constitution, which our elected and appointed officials have sworn an oath to uphold, demands nothing less than the protection of the marginalized and the powerless.This is the entire point of executive power, after all: to benefit those who have no power of their own.

Public schools can be rough because kids can be cruel. In repealing the requirement of the Obama administration, that transgender youth be allowed to use the bathroom of the sex they identify with, the Trump administration has failed to keep that oath and to respect its duty to the Constitution.

Because of this policy change, transgirls -- that is, children who were born physically as boys but identify as girls -- now lack a federal protection that allowed them to go to the bathroom where they would have been safe from physical and even sexual assault. Transboys -- children who were born physically as girls but who identify as boys -- are going to be in similarly unpleasant situations.

Bullying comes easy to our president, but it is not something we should want our children exposed to, involved with, nor witness to. This decision of his is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I stand with my trans friends. Come stand with us.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Compassion is the highest law of all

As news reaches my ears of immigration officials arresting undocumented immigrants, I keep hearing one phrase repeated: "We are a nation of laws."

It is true, we are; and the rule of law is what historically has kept us from the tyranny of other nations. In our country, everyone is subject to the same laws as everyone else. No one can claim exemption by dint of birth, wealth, status or position.

We are a nation of laws, but we are a nation where punishment is always to be proportionate to the law broken. Separating parents from children, deporting dreamers who know no country but this one, and sending away people who have contributed to our communities for years -- this is not proportionate to the crime of living here without proper immigration papers.

We are a nation of laws, but we are a nation of people. We understand that there are extenuating circumstances -- economic distress, political unrest, threats to life and safety -- that may prompt people to do things that they know are illegal but that harm no one. We know that a one-size-fits-all solution is not a solution at all, but a convenience.

We are a nation of laws, but the highest law of all is to have compassion.

We are a nation of laws, but when we subjugate compassion, human decency, discretion and common sense to the law, we have made an idol of the law, made fear our master, and set ourselves on the road toward ruin.

Push back. Remember who we are as a nation, and don't let fear win the day.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

William Faulkner and the very bad terrible no good book

I have always hated William Faulkner. Nothing in the past 48 hours has changed my opinion of his writing. I hated "The Sound and the Fury" when I was in college, and to this day I still get a headache when I think about it.

The world is left poorer and darker when writers like Shakespeare, Zora Neale Hurston or Emily Dickinson leave it. I am convinced that when William Faulkner died and could no longer write books, the English language threw a party that the sun, moon and stars all attended and danced at.

***

Seriously, William Faulkner. College and high school literature classes would be merrier for thousands of students every year if he had limited his writing to the weekly grocery list and the occasional check to cover the utility bill.

Faulkner's are books that Ernest Heminway should have edited. Think of how "The Sound and the Fury" would have been simpler:

Part one: "My sister Caddy got pregnant. I have a mental disability of some sort, and have been castrated."
Part two: "I am insane and incestuous, and I make no sense. Now I am dead."
Part three: "I am anti-Semtiic, racist and offensive in every way."
Part four: "William Faulkner was too. Plus this book is painful to read."

Hemingway also could have improved "As I Lay Dying" by writing it: "The soldier had not been able to have sex ever since he was injured in the war. His wife died, so he took his daughter's money to get his teeth fixed and married someone else. Also, I hate women."

See? It is much easier to read Faulkner this way.

***

The average reader may enjoy reading a story J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote about Faulkner. It goes like this:

"Long ago, in a hole in the ground, there lived a William Faulkner. His books were aggravating, so we rented a cement mixer and filled in the hole while he was writing one of his them. I am very fond of you, Mr. Baggins, but surely you don't suppose this all happened solely for your benefit? It is a very big world, and you are only one reader, after all."

***

To be honest, I do not mind if William Faulkner failed to pay his utility bills. It would have meant he wrote even less. Perhaps his electricity would have been cut off, and his straits would have been so dire that his wife would have been forced to sell his internal organs to pay the rent.

As long as he was denied access to writing materials, that could be a win-win for everyone.

***

In conclusion, William Faulkner received the Nobel prize for literature, and now he is dead. I am sorry that he is dead, but I also am sorry that he wrote books that people have to read. The world would have been a much happier place if he had joined the glee club instead and learned to sing songs like "Jesus is a Friend of Mine."

Actually I've heard that song. It's bad enough that I can believe he was involved in its composition.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Tuesday, February 07, 2017

I'm a charter school parent. I oppose Betsy DeVos for Education

My daughter attends a charter school, the same charter school her older sisters attended, and the same charter school where I was on the board for 10 years. Obviously I support charter schools.

But let me provide a little context here. I live in a city where our school district is in a state of disarray. When we bought our house nearly 19 years ago, we heard disheartening statistics like "50 percent dropout rate." We heard things like "gang activity in the hallways" and "armed guards and metal detectors at the doors." This varies from school to school even within our district, obviously; but nothing in the past 19 years has altered significantly my impression of the overall look of public education in my city.

Our options for our children's education were to send them to a private school, let them attend the city schools, homeschool, or send them to an alternative publicly funded school. As fate and fortune had it, we had that option. Greater Brunswick Charter School had been approved in 1998, in the first wave of charter schools permitted under the state act authorizing charter schools. Charter schools were controversial even then. Highland Park sued successfully to delay the school's opening by a year over the funding issue.

Charter schools are publicly funded entities, created by a special charter granted its board of trustees by the state Department of Education. They are governed by the same regulations as other public schools, are not allowed to discriminate in their admissions process, and if they fail to meet state standards of education, they can be subject to closure.

The entire push behind charter schools is that they are committed to the education of their students without the constraints of the local board of education and its accustomed way of doing things. With that freedom, and with state oversight, they are free to re-invent the wheel, potentially to discover a better design, a more durable model, something that spins more easily and turns more readily. This new wheel, the thinking goes, can lead to be a better bicycle and make learning a better and easier experience for every student.

Think about your own experiences in public schooling. While we're all justly proud of the way our schools prepared us for our careers, and while we also remember particular teachers with great fondness, if we're honest we also can remember the frustration we felt with struggling to understand material that was too difficult for us. We remember the passions that we weren't allowed to indulge because they were too advanced for our classmates, and we remember the sheer agony of having to sit at a desk when we needed to move, to be quiet when we needed to talk and to be in one grade when our best friends were in another.

GBCS was founded by a group of parents in New Brunswick, Highland Park and Edison who dreamed of a school that was built around the interests, needs and learning styles of each student. When it opened its doors, the school had classrooms with students from multiple grade levels.

Instruction was designed to allow students to pursue each subject at their individual learning level so that a student who came to kindergarten already reading could partner with a first-grader who was struggling; and a math-savvy second-grader could tackle fractions if she already had mastered multiplication.

Learning not only was personalized, it was project-based, so that a girl who was passionate about pirates could make a pirate ship from a shoebox if she wanted, and present it alongside the boy who wanted to talk about dinosaurs. And in those lower grades especially, the floor plan was open. Children could do their math at a desk, or lying on the floor.

Over the decade that I was on the school's board of trustees, we've had to make some changes to how we do things because we found that they weren't working as well as we had hoped they would. Most classes are now mostly single-grade, with the chief exception being middle school and "specials" like art, music and gym classes.

But we also made some pretty bold innovations along the way. Because our school is located in New Brunswick, we've come demographically to resemble the city as well. We have a sizeale number of students who come to the charter school who speak Spanish at home and who know little if any English.

Five years ago, we instituted a dual language immersion program that now immerses everyone entering our school in kindergarten in a Spanish-speaking environment one week and in an English-speaking environment the next year. The result is that each student who attends GBCS is becoming more fluent and more literate not just in English but in Spanish as well.

That sort of innovation is the reason behind the first wave of charter schools in our state, and the things we have learned are things we have shared with other public schools -- another purpose of charter school education.

As a public charter school, GBCS has always made it a priority to educate each of our children in a financially responsible way. As a trustee of the board, I personally worked with our teachers union over three consecutive cycles of contract negotiations to reach a collective bargaining agreement that honored the commitment and service of our teachers without jeopardizing the fiscal health of our school.

With those staff members and with our administrators, we have kept our obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, No Child Left Behind and other state and federal regulations and have never turned away a student who was eligible to receive a free public education in New Jersey

Somewhere along the line, as too often is the case with reform movements, enterprising individuals saw the opportunity to link charter schools with privatized education. Arguing that anything in the public sector would perform better if it were a private sector enterprise with a profit motive, they began pushing for-profit charter schools, and those schools in turn have found ways to cut costs in order to maximize profits for their shareholders.

That in turn has inflamed popular passions against charter schools as students have paid the price of these cost-saving measures, like fewer teachers, and the elimination of the arts in favor of the sciences.

The appointment of Betty DeVos, who favors privatized charter schools over public education, is something that truly worries me. During her testimony to the U.S. Senate, she betrayed a frightening lack of understanding of pedagogy and basic education law, including a school's obligations under IDEA.

Her ideas, which essentially amount to dismantling the public school system that 90 percent of Americans enjoy and have benefited from, would undo centuries of public policy in educating children and turn it over not to concerned parents working to provide healthier alternatives to schools that genuinely are struggling, but to corporate privateers with an eye on making money at the expense of those children.

As the record shows, I am a supporter of public charter schools. They're a proud and important part of America's public education legacy to the world.

But in confirming Ms. DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education, the Senate and Vice President Michael Pence have failed us all.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission. Views expressed herein belong to the writer alone and should not be considered the views of any institution he is associated with.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Super Bowl Sunday away from Pittsburgh

About eight years ago, I was talking to a fellow after church, and he suddenly said, "Hey, you're from Pittsburgh! You must be excited."

"Um, yes, I'm excited," I said blankly. Pittsburgh's a great place to be from, with its role in American history and the presence of great schools like Carnegie Mellon University, but it's not like I wake up every morning and run around the house, caught in the ecstasies of heaven and screaming "I'm from Pittsburgh! I'm from Pittsburgh!"

"What am I excited about?" I asked.

"The Steelers!" Tony said.

"Well sure, they're from Pittsburgh too," I said. When I was 8, our elementary school music teacher taught us the Pittsburgh Polka, which was the closest thing the Steelers had to a fight song. "What about them?"

"They're going to be in the Super Bowl!"

"Oh yes, yes," I said with all the relish someone might muster for washing the dishes. "When is that?"
"Today," he said. He groaned as he realized that my disinterest wasn't an act, and he turned away. "Never mind."


Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

President Trump is inspiring my daughter to read

Youngest Daughter is not yet a fan of reading. She'll get there in time, but for right now it's more fun for her to watch a short show, play a game, or draw than it is to read a storybook.

On Wednesday evening. she asked if she could watch something on Netflix. I want her to practice her reading at least, so I use shows as a carrot.

"You have to read a book first," I told her.

"Do I have to?" she asked in that way that is common to 7-year-olds.

"Which president do you want to be like, President Obama or President Trump?" I asked her.

"President Obama," she said.

"Which president do you think reads more?"

She didn't even argue. She just went, picked up a stack of books, and started reading.

I think I found a bright side to the Trump presidency.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.





Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

an open letter to president trump

Dear Mr. President:

I join you in your recently stated admiration for Frederick Douglass and welcome the growing appreciation for all that he has done. Mr. Douglass was an amazing man. As a boy he taught himself to read and to write, and then took it upon himself to see that other enslaved blacks also learned. After he won his freedom, he worked tirelessly as a writer and newspaper editor for the cause of abolition and also for women's rights. He served as an adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War and later served as an ambassador to Haiti.

I once heard a legend about Frederick Douglass' ghost and how he torments the dreams of racist men in power, particularly at the White House. According to this legend, such men have terrifying dreams where a black man accosts them and harshly reprimands them in a powerful oratory. Supposedly it was after one such visitation that President Lyndon B. Johnson abandoned the cause of segregation and ultimately became our nation's highest public official to push Congress to enact the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

If there is any truth at all to the legend, I must say I look forward to seeing what Frederick Douglass does next.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

You are no longer friends with this person

Today I discovered that I recently had been defriended recently on Facebook.

I can't help but think what a loss it is for us both. I've known this person for about six years, someone I've always considered worth knowing better if the opportunity should arise. Unfortunately, it hasn't. Following that initial rush in 2011 when our paths first crossed, our social interaction generally has been limited to exchanging pleasantries after church and an uneventful Facebook friendship that apparently ended a few months shy of the six-year mark.

I know people can take it personally when someone defriends them. Some see it as a personal rejection, while others blame themselves for driving the other person away. The element of rejection is undeniable -- defriending someone on social media is an active choice, after all -- but my main reaction to this act is simple curiosity. Why this person, why now?

Was it simple housecleaning? Some people have hundreds, if not thousands, of friends on Facebook, including family, actual friends, neighbors, co-workers, teammates on Mafia Wars, and even former receptionists from the doctor's office. It'd be hard to fault anyone for wanting to cull the herd a little under those circumstances.

On the other hand, my former Facebook friend and I see each other almost every week and there are more than 400 other people who survived the great purge. A housecleaning doesn't seem too likely an explanation, all things considered.

Maybe it's politics. I'm usually content to live and let live, but I have been absolutely forthright in my denunciation of Donald Trump, and that's upset a few people. Maybe that was it. The election was a divisive affair, and while I wouldn't defriend someone myself, I wouldn't hold it against someone else who did.

Could it be religion? I've shared a few things over social media that disappoint me about the church, and from time to time I tweet commentary on the worship service as it unfolds. It's all in good fun, and the pastor takes it in good stride, but I can see how it could bother someone.

It's impossible to say what set the ball rolling without knowing the story, and no one has told me. That's what lends the whole affair an air of the surreal. When an actual friendship ends, there's something you can point to. There was a fight, or an act of betrayal, or there was a completely natural drift over the years as life and geography come into play.

With social media, there's none of that. There's a passive-aggressive decision to click a button, a sense of satisfaction that it's over. Except that its not. If you move in the same social circles, you're going to feel an odd sense of dislocation the next time you run into the person you defriended. Once they realize they've been defriended, that dislocation is going to get downright awkward.

Here's the cut and jib of it for me. I'm cautious about making friends, but when I consider someone a friend, it's solid. Friendship is a sacred bond, something we neither pretend to nor lightly cast aside. I'm a little looser about whom I'll identify as a friend on social media, but I don't add people just for the sake of it. They have to be decent people too, or it won't happen. And when I add someone, I don't remove them.

Why's that? It's simple. For one thing, the snub in defriending someone is undeniable. We may pretend it's not there, but it takes a conscious decision and deliberate act to defriend someone, and there's no way to undo that decision without drawing attention to its being made in the first place. Defriending someone on social media almost certainly is going to create ripples offline as well.

But just as importantly, defriending someone carries a cost for us as well. The differences in perspective and experience that different people bring to the table can cause a lot of friction and weary us, but they also enrich our lives.

Shutting people out of my life because I disagree with them will leave me – and possibly them – poorer for the experience. I'm a Christian, an identity that makes me treasure my Muslim, Jewish and atheist friends all the more.

In the same vein, I'm sorely disappointed in my friends who voted for Donald Trump, and I'm deeply critical of their decision; but that doesn't mean that I hate them or don't want to hear from them. We probably won't change each other's minds, but we can grow in understanding of and appreciation for each other.

There is a depth of perspective and a vitality of life that we get from interacting with people whose lives and viewpoints differ from our own. When we limit our time to people who only share our views, or when we silence voices that differ from our own, we rob ourselves of the chance to hear new ideas and to grow our roots deeper.

Did my former Facebook friend drop me from social media because I was too angry, too liberal or too disrespectful? I'll never know. All I do know is this: We'll see each other in church on Sundays, and we'll continue to be friendly to one another, but our ideas are less likely now to cross than in the past six years.

And we're both a little poorer for it.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.





Psst! I totally stole this from Brucker.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

'Silent Night'

Outside it is cold and windy, and darkness has blown over lawns, across walks and into deep drifts near buildings. The darkness is chilled by the heavy snows of an early winter, and is enough to make the weary soul ache for bed and a thick blanket. To anyone unfortunate enough to be outside by themselves, it's a lonely enough to burden the soul.

Inside the tiny church, it's a different story.

There the lights have been dimmed by choice, and the air is filled with the rustle of children like the wings of impatient angels. Above and below this susurrant murmur the organist plays an unending and nameless tune as the congregation and the minister grow silent and wait. In a moment, God will draw near and this unassuming neighborhood church will be transfigured.

It begins slowly. As the notes of the organ sort themselves into place a light the size of a single candle springs into life under the watchful eyes of the pulpit. In a moment it spreads to another candle, and then to another, and another. As the light spreads throughout the church and a hundred candles push back against the dark, the organ begins to play “Silent Night.” A holy Presence fills the room.

This is the first Christmas Eve service I can remember. It ran from 10:30 p.m. until just past midnight. I was 6 years old.

“Silent Night.” If there is a single Christmas carol that captures the wonder and the joy of Christmas, this is it. Composed in Austria in the 19th century with a simple guitar arrangement, it arrived in the world barely a month past the end of World War I. More than 17 million people had died in the war, including an estimated 7 million civilians, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

In the midst of that carnage – quite literally, since its lyricst, Father Joseph Mohr, had written the song at the height of the war two years earlier – “Silent Night” described a moment when peace as perfect and as restful as a lullaby had come to earth.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia! to the king.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

It's easy to crack wise about silence and the site of the Nativity. The manger Jesus was born in most likely was a cave and not the barn that serves as a staple of contemporary fancy and imagination, and silence seems unlikely for a family with a newborn in any setting, let alone one where livestock are likely to disturb them.

Nor was the peace of the era of a sort most would treasure. The Romans guaranteed order, not harmony; and kept that order by suppressing dissent. Herod the Great, king of Judea at the time Christ was born, was known for his own excess of brutality, to the point that the historian Josephus recounts an occasion where Herod had his own son strangled to death at dinner.

But the peace celebrated in “Silent Night” belongs to a higher order than the pax Romana or the stringent load set upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles. In the Christmas story reported in the gospels we have the beginning of the marriage of heaven and earth, where glory is made known to the outcast, and the mighty stand still with wonder.

The peace that Christ offers is real peace: peace with one's self and peace with God, so that one may act with abandon and seek peace on earth as well.

In Christmas, as in “Silent Night,” we have a moment of respite, where something as mundane as listening to an old song played on an organ can be transformed into a holy moment where the Transcendent intrudes into the commonplace and creates an anchor point for a new life.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.