from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

May 23, 1946 -- Thoughts on a 60th birthday 

I suppose I should have something profound to offer on this day. After all, it is a significant milestone, the kind where one expects deep thoughts, perhaps pearls of insight. I doubt very much that I am capable of either. But I feel as if I should write something. What I will offer is not intended as anymore than an expression of what I feel now, as I begin yet another year.

I have spent much time in reflection during the past year. Oft I have shared parts of that in the blogosphere. This undoubtedly has been an example of self-indulgence, perhaps even of solipcism (except that I do accept the existence of a world independent of my own existence). And perhaps in the process of living a year more closely examined as it occurred than were most of its predecessors, I have found the rough edges somewhat smoothed, and my intense reactions assuaged by the recognition that I am aging, and while I may care passionately I can no longer pour endless amounts of energy into every perceived crisis.

The last sentence of the preceding paragraph might lead the reader to believe that I am letting go, in someway surrendering, as if my efforts no longer could make a difference. Were that the case I would not teach school. The act of showing up in my classroom and engaging with my students is my commitment to a future that I may not live to see, but to which I still bear a responsibility. My attention to the present presumes a future, one for which I will continue to hold the most outrageous of hopes. My task as a teacher is to expand the horizons and possibilities of the students who pass through my care. That is my commitment to the future.

I have now lived three score years. As I look back on my life I could regret much. The opportunities I have forsaken are sufficient to condemn me in my own eyes. The unkindnesses for which I bear responsibility can never be made right, at least not by me. I acknowledge that I am fully human, with all the selfishness, incompleteness, egoism, insecurity and arrogance that are a part of the human condition. And yet that is such an incomplete picture of any life.

There are also moments of generosity, of self-sacrifice, of great kindness, of altruism without concern for self. But that is also an incomplete picture of any life, or at least of the life of any human I have known, although I would acknowledge having encountered it in four-footed creatures.

I have neither the grandeur of my wildest dreams nor the depravity of my deepest depression. I contain within myself both good and not so good.

As I write this many thoughts crowd into mind, tales of wisdom and insight that have become a continual part of my life, lines of poetry that inspire me, sounds of music that sustain me. I can recreate the smell of an early summer rainfall, that incredible fresh scent that reminds me of the possibilities of life. My hand remembers the feel of a moist nose of a dog wanting attention, and my face feels her tongue licking away my tears when I was sorrowful.

There are different and at times conflicting motivations to my writing, as there are to all my actions. Sometimes I crave recognition and acknowledgment. At other moments I am bursting with what I perhaps foolishly think is the insight that will make a difference to others. Then there are the times that until I write, I do not fully know what I think or feel. When someone responds to something I write in any forum, in that response I am connected in a way I was not before. It gives me the possibility of experiencing life through the words and reactions of another, and I am not so isolated. And perhaps the words I write - or speak - can be beneficial, although I am also aware that I have my mother’s gift for the cutting or demeaning remark, a gift that I use far too often, especially as a means of hiding from others.

I have always wanted my life to make a difference. But I could never really define what that meant. When I was young I would construct imaginery scenarios in which I was important, but that was unsatisfying. Once I started down that path I found myself moving further and further from reality. Then in the depth of my depression I would be able to see only the hurt I caused others. I would wonder why anyone would want to have anything to do with me. Eventually I came to recognize that these were two equally distorted images, both full of arrogance and self-centeredness.

The hard part has been allowing myself to be human, imperfect in many ways. I am still learning how.

Most of you who encounter these words will do so on a blog that is political in purpose. And you may wonder why I post something like this there. Because, dear reader, I am making a very political statement. It is spiritual as well, that is, it touches the deepest part of my being. It is also intellectual, emotional, it is all aspects of my being.

Because as I have reached this my 60th birthday I have learned one thing: I cannot compartmentalize, I cannot fragment myself into the Ken who is a teacher and the Ken who is a spouse and the Ken who loves music and the Ken who is concerned about civility in our public discourse and the Ken who is passionate about the environment and all the other Kens that are part of me and all of me.

I also know now something that I could not grasp until recently. My life has been incredibly rich. I have been blessed with so much, because I have encountered so many different people who have expanded my vision, my experience. I have come to realize that every person I encounter can teach me something, if only I am open to the possibility. And that has enabled me finally to realize that I potentially serve the same purpose for them, not because I am wise or especially gifted, but because I am -- like each of them is -- absolutely unique.

I will probably never achieve my highest aspiration for myself, which is to be completely loving and open and vulnerable. But even as time and again I find myself wanting, I do not despair.

I have referred before to my favorite tale from the Desert Fathers, the early generation of Christian monks in Egypt and Nitrea. One young novice asked his master, “Abba, what do we do here in the desert?” and his master responded “We fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up.”

I do not have perfect knowledge and probably never will. I will say and do things that are destructive to me and those I love, that will hurt others. Sometimes I will unfortunately do so with intent, far more often I will do so out of thoughtlessness or lack of concern or ignorance. But I recognize that often I say or do things which are of no great import to me but which are received as great kindness and consideration by others. I will accept responsibility for the hurt -- that is actually fairly easy at this stage of my life. I am learning, slowly, to accept the gratitude offered even when I do not perceive that I did anything to warrant it. It is part of the human connection, it is something that comes with being open.

And most of all I am beginning to learn about letting go of my hurt, even if it was caused by the deliberate action of another. I try to reserve my outrage for when I encounter deliberate hurt aimed at another.

As I write this, the most recent of our five rescued cats is seeking my attention. He is the least integrated with the other four, and I probably have not been as generous with my attention to him. But, as is often the case with my four-footed acquaintances, he does not have a mean bone. He simply wants to delight in life. And that is something I can learn from him. Life is full of delights. Even in our worst moments there are precious jewels. Perhaps it is a smile from someone we have never met and may never see again. Or it is the sound of a mockingbird in the evening.

When I was born Truman was President, and Herbert Hoover was still alive. My mother’s paternal grandmother, who was born while Lincoln was President, was a part of my first few years, albeit mainly at Passover seders. I do not know who will be president when I die. I do not know how much longer I will live. I have no intimations of death. I never expected to see my 30th birthday. My mother died before she was 50, my father lived until his 80’s, his older brother just passed in his late 90’s. It doesn’t matter. I no longer worry about what I may have done or not done in the past, except when I encounter someone I realize I may have hurt and I apologize. I think about the future, both near term and even perhaps 2 decades out, but I do not obsess about it.

Nor do I obsess about the present, even as I try to enjoy it. Sometimes the best way is what I was just doing. I stopped and responded to the cat, forgetting momentarily what I was doing, or what I might write next.

I said that this was a political statement. How I live what is left of my life is a political statement. That I choose to write about things which concern me is a political statement, nay, it is a political action. It is also a moral act, a spiritual act, an emotional commitment, an intellectual exercise. When I write about music, or poetry, or my cats, it is political, moral, spiritual, emotional and intellectual. All is part of my humanity.

There are a few consistent themes in my life. I have always wanted to be loved, but was afraid of it, of opening myself up to accepting love. Leaves on the Current has slowly convinced me that I do not have to justify myself or prove myself in order to have others love me. That is enabling me to understand what it means to love others. I will not be an effective teacher unless I am willing to love all of my students. That is an ongoing process. I have wanted my life to have meaning, and I am beginning to learn that every life has meaning, regardless of the external attention and recognition that it garners. I have sought to find meaning in part by wandering through different religious traditions. I find much of value in many sources, and it has brought me to the point where the idea of walking joyfully across the earth answering fhat of God in each person I encounter seems about right. I am still learning how to give full attention to others, but in their generosity most have been patient with my impatience, and thus have helped me immensely.

I will continue to offer what words and insights I think I may have, not because I necessarily believe that I have anything near a complete understanding, but because in our joint incompleteness we may together approach wholeness of vision and understanding.

I was born May 23, 1946, in New York City. It is now May 23, 2006 in Arlington, Virginia. Sixty years ago my life was full of possibilities. What I realize now is that it still is. When I was younger I saw the possibilities only in terms of my own earthly life. Now I know that my life is part of something much broader. The possibilities open to me were there because of those who went before me, related by blood or not. It was with those whose lives overlapped mine before they departed from life, and those whose lives overlapped theirs but not mine. My life contributes in some way to the possibilities in the lives of others. Clearly that is true with those I encounter in my role as teacher. But as my life has been enriched by those whose names I never knew, what I do offers opportunity to those I will never meet.

I am sixty. The life in front of me is full of possibilities, farther than my mind can imagine.

I am lucky. I am human. So are we all.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Very Merry Unbirthday ..... 

I have always been very fond of the song from the Mad Hatter’s Party from the film on Alice in Wonderland. After all, we have 264 ( or 365) of these to celebrate each year. Today is the last unbirthday of this my 60th year. I have just a few thoughts I wish to offer today. Since most who will encounter this will not commemorating a natal anniversary, perhaps we can share our celebration of our joint unbirthday. If however you are one of the less than a third of a percent for whom this day is significant, you have my sympathies, for you share the day with Richard Wagner, whose music may be glorious but who as a person was not particularly nice. Still, that lets you give the day more honor on your own account.

For the rest of us, please join me in my brief reflection. Tomorrow I will offer a different kind of reflection, but for now let me like Scarlett O’Hara and not worry about tomorrow.

Each morning when we awaken we are offered an opportunity. It can be a day of blessing or a day of cursing. Unlike most of my unbirthdays, I will have far more time to reflect today than usual, even though as a Monday it is a school day. In Maryland today commences our week of mandatory High School Assessments. We will offer tests the next four days. Today will be English, with our 10th graders being assessed, plus any upperclassmen who have not previously sat for the test. Since the other seniors are now finished except for graduation exercises, the only students I will see in 5 of my classes are about 3 juniors total, I will not be teaching. Students will be tested periods 1-5, and eat lunch period 6. My last class is period 7 (out of 8), but I cannot really impose instruction on the 16 who will be present. I will listen to music, read, and reflect.

On the one hand today will be a blessing. There will be no stress whatsoever. And yet I delight in interacting with my students, so there will be some sadness that I will not have that opportunity. It will be a strange day, which will not pass quickly. And yet, I shall enjoy the relaxed nature. I prefer to focus on the opportunity for reflection, so that will be a blessing.

Tomorrow I will see those students not sitting for Algebra. Most of my AP students will show, which will keep my morning busy. Wednesday is our course, Government, and all but two of the students in my first 5 classes will be taking the test, one class in a room with me supervising. For Thursday’s biology test I will see a pattern like today - about half of my students will be out of class. For those two days I cannot really instruct, although tomorrow will be one last time to answer any questions or concerns they may have about the Government test and Thursday can be used to debrief.

This is the last year that this test will not have high stakes. For now the graduation requirement is that students pass the course and sit for the test. Their scaled score will appear on their transcripts, but that meaningless piece of information has no real consequences for them. How they do does affect our school, and to a degree defines how much flexibility I and the other teachers are allowed. We traditionally have scores significantly higher than any other school in our district. I will be shocked if any of my AP students does not reach the cut score, and probably 70-75% of the regular students will pass as well, with those not achieving success correlating heavily with those who do not do the assigned work. I know that they have hd the opportunity to be well prepared, so I won’t obsess over how they do. Not this year. I could be looking ahead 12 months and worrying about next year’s students, but that would take away the pleasure of this year, so I will not. And that test is two days away, on my first unbirthday of my 61st year, so concern now is inappropriate, and would be a futile expenditure of emotional resources, since there is little I can do about it now.

How does one celebrate an unbirthday? Or put another way, borrowing form the Pesach liturgy of Judaism, why is this day different from all other days? I don’t yet know, although I am sure it will be different, just as each of my students is different. Think about that for a moment - I teach 153 students, and were they all to show up each of the 180 school days, I would have something over 27,000 student-day encounters each academic year. If in a class of 30 one student is out the dynamics of that class are changed, however subtly. Given field trips, illnesses, college visits, athletic events, the possible mix within one classroom is amazing. And even if every day all the students show up, they are different, each with one additional day’s experience brought with them to our joint encounter. And I am different, because my life has been enrich with another day’s experience: whatever I have read, what I have been able to reflect upon and process form the previous day, whatever i encounter in the few hours between when I awaken and students walk into my classroom.

Those of you reading this have most likely encountered it on a blog largely devoted to politics. In our political concerns we too often are consumed by our focus on a specific forthcoming event, or obsessing about what could have been different about some event in the past, even if in the latter case we avoid the quicksand of elaborate conspiracy theories. Those professionally involved in the political process, as many of us at least in part are, often find our days consumed with minutiae of campaigning, fund raising, legislating, communicating, and so on. Some candidates may find they have little time for any reflection. Perhaps this is a day for phoning -- make 50 calls to potential contributors. Or perhaps there are 6 events in 5 different towns during the space of 12 hours. How is this day different from all other days, you might well ask with a certain sardonic quality. It is as different as you allow it to be. One can have a “stump speech” or a set of “talking points” for any subject that might arise. One can then be smooth in one’s response to questions and challenges. And I think one will fail to connect with the questioner and the other listeners. It is possible to offer precisely the same information but to do so in a fashion that invites those being addressed in, which acknowledges their presence,which honors the uniqueness of the interchange.

I teach the same courses 3 times each (my AP and non-AP classes are quite different in content). In previous years I have on occasion had 6 classes covering roughly the same content, then only real difference being the skill level of the students. I could easily approach teaching the way I see some politicians approach their public encounters -- how can I minimize the preparation so that I can “get through” what on the surface appears a numbing series of near-identical encounters. And we can approach our unbirthdays in a similar fashion -- yet another in a series of never-ending workdays. Our minds will not be completely in the present, but instead will be thinking back on what we could have done differently, or looking ahead to something we value more. And thus we will miss something of great value, even a pearl of great price. Every encounter, every moment, can potentially enliven our existence, enlighten our mind, inspire our hearts. But only if we are present to the possibility, only if we are willing to be vulnerable to the persons we encounter in each absolutely unique situation.

This understanding of the need to be present is a major part of many spiritual traditions. In Christianity we can read of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, or perhaps we can reflect upon the Rule of St. Benedict, where we are urged to treat the ordinary implements of the garden or kitchen with the same respect we tender towards the sacred vessel of the altar. Those of a Buddhist persuasion have the concept of mindfulness, especially emphasized in teaching of exemplars like the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Ngat Hanh. Or we might reflect upon the words offered by Jacob after his dream of the ladder full of ascending and descending angels that “God was in this place and I did not know it.”

I am talking about something that may seem simplistic -- that each day, each encounter, each moment, is absolutely unique. But true simplicity is something difficult for most of us. Instead of opening ourselves to the possibilities that present themselves to us, we complicate by attempting to analyze, to weigh benefits, to understand as things are happening what it means. In the process we often miss the true experience available to us.

Please note, I am not arguing against reflection. This essay exemplifies my strong belief in the importance of each of us taking the time for reflection. But to that process I would apply the same advice -- when doing reflection, do so with attention, with focus, and open oneself to that experience.

As a teacher I am often operating on multiple levels. I rarely have the luxury of complete attention to one aspect of what is occurring in my classroom. I must be aware of the passage of the period and make choices constantly on whether to move on or to remain on an issue just raised. I am able to do this only because I remain open to what is happening around me, and not solely focused on getting through the material. While this may seem contradictory to the idea of the practice of the present moment, it is in fact its very essence. Nothing occurs in isolation, and were I shut down my senses to ‘avoid distraction” I might well miss the truly teachable moment that leads to real understanding.

Most who read this will consider themselves neither as teachers nor as students, although each of us is constantly cycling between the two roles, and sometimes in the same interaction is both simultaneously. But I grant that the formal description of the role we fulfill may lead us to believe that we have a responsibility to shut certain stimuli, that it might be irresponsible or rude were we to do otherwise. Perhaps, and I acknowledge that I am subject to such demands upon my attention and energy. After all, in this writing about today’s unbirthday I am also reflecting on tomorrow’s celebration of 60 years of life and the test on the following day. Recognizing and honoring the uniqueness of each moment does not mean that we ignore interconnectedness -- how would we know something is unique unless we could also see it in the context of other moments, on the surface perhaps greatly similar? We bring to each encounter the knowledge and experience of the past, and the awareness of the probable future (for we do not know what that will entail). I am suggesting that even as we recognize the interconnectedness, the ongoing flow of time and experience. we leave ourselves open to the absolute uniqueness -- of each moment to be sure, but of each person in that moment, including ourselves.

My favorite Talmudic tale is of Rabbi Eliezer, who was asked when a man should repent. His response was that a man should repent on the day that he dies. But, he was then asked, what man knows the day of his death. His response was that the questioner had grasped the essential point of his remark, and it was precisely why one should repent each day, because I might be the day of his death.

I have spent much of this year reflecting upon my life, past, present and possible future, because tomorrow will mark a significant birthday, my 60th. And yet, as Rabbi Eliezer would remind me, and as an Epicurean would surely state to justify his focus on wringing the last possible enjoyment of the present, tomorrow may never come. I have little control of the possibility of tomorrow. I am aware of its potential, as I should be. But I have 17 hours left of today, of this, my final unbirthday of my 60th year. Were I totally focused on the celebration of the morrow, I would deprive myself of the possible celebratory moments of today. I might miss the unique experience open to me because in my first period I will have very few students.

I do not claim wisdom. The experience of 60 years can be enriching and offer the opportunity of openness and wisdom. But it can also serve as an excuse for closing oneself off, it can be depriving because of the parsimonious attitude of one who sees life as hostile, and threatening, and wants to hold everything close.

Imagine that you like Alice have now gone through the looking glass. You are at a tea party. This is not the Twilight Zone. It is an opportunity. You can enjoy and celebrate, or you can decide that the festivities over which the Mad Hatter is presiding do not include you. You can reject the opportunity to celebrate with the vast majority of your fellows this common occasion. I choose celebration. Today includes us all. For a few of you, I offer you my wishes for a very happy birthday, and many happy returns.

For the rest, at this moment I cease to be teacherken and temporarily assume my alter ego of being more than a little nuts, as my students are fond of noting. I temporarily assume my persona as the Mad Hatter and invite you to join in:

“A very Merry Unbirthday, to us, to us.
A very Merry Unbirthday, to us.”

Whether birthday or unbirthday, may your day day be rich and joyous.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Some Thoughts on Education 

Although I have not diairied much recently about education, I have been thinking quite about about the subject. There are several stimuli that have been responsible. I will be leading a panel on education at Yearlykos in a few weeks. I have been working on education policy for Jim Webb. And of course our school year is coming to an end, with our seniors now done with classes, graduation on May 30, and the students finishing while I am at Yearlykos.

This diary will examine several issues about which I have been thinking. Please do not assume that anything here necessarily matches the advice I have offered Jim Webb or any other candidate - here I claim on their behalf the equivalent of executive privilege, that they are entitled to my unvarnished advice, but that will be advice of what ina appropriate way for them to frame an issue. What is below are my thoughts, and should be attributed to no one else.

I want to address several issues that are part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that greatly trouble me. These are the providing of supplemental educational services (SES) and the access of military recruiters to the schools.

Schools that are found deficient are, in the earlier stages of that insufficiency, have some of their Federal funds removed and applied to the provision of SES, largely tutoring. The determination that there is a need for such services is almost completely a function of test scores. And the teachers responsible for preparing students for the tests in question are supposed to meet high standards of qualification. And yet there are almost no standards for those who provide SES, largely tutoring, except that they CANNOT be the school systems or their personnel, not even from successful districts or from schools that might be successful within a district. So far service providers are being approved at a Federal level, and most are for-profit entities. While a teacher to be highly qualified is to have at least an equivalent of a major in the subject s/he teaches, there is nothing equivalent for a tutor. And as far as I can tell vendors of SES are not restricted from using the internet to deliver the services, which also means that the tutors could legally be overseas. Think about that for a moment. Our current national educational policy is prepared to take funds from struggling schools and apply them to paying people across the ocean to tutor our struggling students. Somehow it seems to me that there need to be some restrictions on this, that no taxpayer funds should be allowed to pay for personnel not in the United States.

I am willing to grant that no teacher should be paid extra for tutoring his or her own students -- I think there is an inherent conflict of interest, one that I am willing to extend to cover all students and teachers in the same school. But what if one school is struggling but another school in the district is doing quite well. Why cannot the teachers from the successful school be allowed to provide paid tutoring to the students in the struggling school? Would not this be cheaper than bringing in for-profit entities? If the argument is that the school system has a conflict of interest, take them out of it by not allowing any administrative costs to be paid, apply all the funds to teachers qualified by the performance of their students, and apply the savings on the administrative costs to successful teachers to help train the teachers from the struggling school. If you wish to argue that the difference in scores between the two schools might be related to something other than the quality of the instruction, then you would be undercutting (as in fact I think you should) the entire rationale of using the tests to declare the struggling schools as less than successful in the first place.

Let me switch to military recruiting. One can argue that the military has a legitimate right to enter public schools to attempt to fill the needs to staff an all-volunteer force. And politically attempting to ban the military from schools is a non-starter. But parents also have the right to keep the military from contacting their children at home if those children are under 18, and this is recognized in NCLB. Yet the mechanism for parents to exercise those rights are awkward and ineffective, the law does not guarantee parents the same right to bar the military from attempting to recruit the minor children within the schools, many schools do not abide by legal provisions that allow counter recruiting (about which more later), and recruiters have no restrictions on contacts made as a result of obtaining names and phone numbers through the purchase of commercial data bases, often of students not yet in high school. Many families are legitimately upset at the continuing contact from recruiters, which once it begins is hard to turn off. Many do not understand what rights they have. There are far too many tales of military recruiters being less than honest with potential recruits, and the money spent on then purchase of commercial information has proven to be an inefficient way to effectively recruit qualified personnel.

I would like to see the law changed. The military access is NOT mandatory to private or religious schools, nor is the information required to be passed on for those students formally listed as being in home school situations. That places an unfair burden on public schools and their parents. If we truly wanted full access to students we could require parents and guardians of all students to provide a central registry of the name, address and phone number of each child reaching his or her 14th birthday, while simultaneously giving or denying permission for the military to contact their children. The military would be barred from contacting any student for which there was no permission on file. Schools would have the responsibility for ensuring that they have received the information for their students -- currently they are merely required to notify parents of their right to opt out their children, and that goes home in a blizzard of paperwork, and as a result far too many parents never actually make a decision, which therefore is assumed to be that they have granted permission. One superintendent near Rochester NY was able for several years to turn this around, as his school board backed his decision to tell parents that if they did not notify the school system it would assume they did not want him to release the information to the military. Eventually the military applied pressure and he was forced to back down.

I realize that some will say that such registration is wrong, and would be opposed by many people. Without addressing either issue, let me note that all I am doing is leveling the playing field. Right now the military does not have equal access to students in all schooling situations. Yet if we say that military service is potentially a requirement of being a citizen (or perhaps a legal resident) such registration is no more of a burden than is the current requirement to register for selective service required today for all males on their 18th birthday. And because parents could object on behalf of their minor children to contact by the military it could serve as the basis of establishing an objection to military service should a mandatory induction procedure ever been reinstituted. And given how many military specialties are now open to women and the reasoned opinion that as a result any future draft wold have to include women, it would represent equal treatment for the two sexes.

Related to this is counter-recruiting. As a matter of law, organizations which wish to present information to students about why they should not enter the military are to be given equal access to be in school as are the military. Practically speaking, there will never be as many visits by counter-recruiters as there are by military recruiters,because those opposing recruitment do not have either the personnel nor the financial resources to be in schools as frequently. Even so, there are schools and systems that make it difficult or sometimes impossible for counter recruiters to have equal access to students IN SCHOOLS (they currently have no rights to access student information that is provided to the military for at home contact). While some who do counter-recruiting are opposed to any kind of military service, that is an insufficient reason to bar them from schools, because there is a First Amendment issue if they are barred. Of basic importance, much of the information provided by military recruiters is shall we say selective. Students are not told that a commitment to a particular type of training - one reason relied upon by many students when they sign up -- is not an iron-clad contract, that their training and service can be altered based on determination by authorities of military necessity. They may still think that in signing up for the Guard or reserves, that their active duty service is limited. They may think that a 4-year enlistment for the Marines means only four years of active duty and know nothing about how stop-loss is being used to extend that service. And they may not realize that even though they have signed up before graduation that they have rights which allow them to abrogate that commitment up to the time they are actually sworn in.

For those who do not now plan to enlist but know they must register for the selective service at 18, the military helpfully suggests that they enroll online, while counter-recruiters are able to explain that if they think they might have a conscientious objection to service they need to begin to establish that at the time they first register, but taking certain actions impossible to do in online registration. Military recruiters are certainly not going to inform students about how to qualify as a conscientious objector, or even that it is possible to so qualify even after entering active service.

Please note, although I am a Quaker I am not opposed to military service for my students. If we are to have an all-volunteer military, which is what the commanders want, that it should truly be on a voluntary basis, with the recruits and their families fully informed as to the scope of their rights and the nature of the commitment they are making without an equivalent contractual guarantee of the commitments made by the recruiters.

There is one other issue of importance related to this, and that is future educational opportunities. Among the great attractions of military service are the benefits obtained under the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunities for training for a future career while one is on active duty. We need to recognize that for many of high school age it is the only window they see for economic advancement. Remember, Jessica Lynch enlisted because she saw no other real opportunities growing up in Palestine WV, and this is far more common than many realize. Under the current administration, while the amount a student can receive under Pell grants has increased, the number of such grants has been severely diminished, and the cost of borrowing to pay educational expenses had been increased by steering far more of the federal guarantee program to for-profit lenders ad away from direct lenders. One could be cynical and wonder if parts of our approach to national educational policy are not deliberately designed to create a guaranteed pool of potential recruits who other post-secondary opportunities are limited. And while the military is currently requiring a high school diploma, there is no reason they could not take advantage of a pool capable of doing high school work and offering completion of a GED while in service as a means of filling their quotas. And wouldn’t it be interesting if our supposed increasing of educational rigor, including mandatory tests for graduation, just so happened to create a large number of people for whom the opportunity of a free GED would be appealing? And remember, so long as the military force is at least on paper all-volunteer, the ability of our national leadership to use such troops in reckless adventures such as Iraq remains fairly unrestricted, as does the ability of the military leadership to play around with the lives of their enlisted personnel - things such as changing the expected military specialization. After all, they volunteered.

I have strayed a bit. Perhaps. I think not. My increasing fear is that the purposes of our national educational policy have little to do with educating as many of our children to their highest aspirations, to help them become informed, productive and active citizens of what has been a liberal democracy. Rather education policy is being used as a means of social engineering to ensure an ongoing pool of willing recruits for the military, a compliant workforce for industry, and a means of shifting funds intended to benefit the education of our students into the the coffers of corporate entities -- testing companies, SES providers -- that often have personal, financial and political connections with those making or administering the educational policies that are supposed to benefit our children.

I think our entire approach to education is broken. And I think what is left is deliberately being manipulated in a attempt to make it impossible to have a meaningful and productive public education system as a public good. It is the American equivalent of the British Enclosure Acts which restricted access to the Commons. We have seen how in so many areas the policies of this administration and its corporate and congressional buddies has been to maximize their power and their profitability. For these we need look no further than the contracts that were awarded in Iraq. And remember, Michael Moore makes this clear with his filming of the conference in Fahrenheit 9-11. What is happening in education can perhaps be fully comprehended only as a part of this larger picture.

I don’t want people to think that I despair, that I have given up hope about changing the direction of our policy on education. I have not. There are radical changes that I would offer, but cannot because so much of our effort has to go to preserving what we have from final destruction. In a sense it is not dissimilar from the issue of global warming, the fear that we may rapidly be approaching what Gladwell calls a tipping point, a point beyond which the destruction is irreversible. I think that how we address the issues involved in education may well indicate our willingness to take the steps necessary to preserve our democracy and our planet. In the meantime, what I can do is try to educate people -- I am after all a teacher. And I hope that the verbosity and rambling nature of this post will serve some positive purpose.

These are things about which I have been thinking. What are your thoughts about these things, or other issues related to education and schools? As a society we need to talk, lest we stand by while the seed corn of our future is devoured.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A memory of a mother long gone 

My mother died in 1963, less than week after the high school graduation she was too drunk to attend. It would be easy to remember only the last few years, or her spiraling down, her bad health, her anger and depression, her alcoholism. She was only 47 when she died, and the last few years should not occlude the brilliance of so much else of her life. She is a major part of who I am, why I am teacher, and why I am politically involved. So please bear with me as I offer yet one more mother’s day diary.

Sylvia Livingston was born in 1915, the oldest child of two jews of eastern European background - the last name was the result of the heavily accented Polish saying of “Levistky” being turned into a more recognizable name for New Yorkers when my 2 year old great-Grandfather Harry and his parents entered New York in 1862. Her father George was born during the blizzard of 1888. When he graduated from Brooklyn Law,as the child of immigrant Jews he could not get a job, so he went to the Police department and persuaded them if their recruits were going to enforce the law perhaps someone should teach them the law. George Livingston's first job was teaching practical legal procedures to the cadets of the New York City Police Academy. And this started a pattern, one mother and I both followed, of taking the initiative to accomplish something we thought important, even though we were relatively young and of no practical importance.

Her mother’s father had been a baker in Bialystok who had befriended the local cop with a morning cup of coffee and a bialy, so that when the Cossacks were going to come through, the cop warned great-grandfather Brodznicky and he had the metal shutters down. When the looting and killing died down, the policeman’s farmer brother took my great-grandfather and his eldest daughter, my grandmother Regina, out in a haywagon, on the start of their voyage to the U.S., with the rest of the family following later.

Sylvia was a precocious child. She was part of an experiment of a group of children who went through the New York City public schools as fast as they could. She got to participate because George’s sister Sadie quickly became a rising star in the school system, starting as a teacher and ending as an assistant superintendent with the power to pull strings (my sister, not a resident of the city, somehow got to play with an all-city orchestra). Even early in her career she had connections.

My mother was New York City debate champ at 12, but was then disqualified because she had taken an honorarium for appearing on a radio show and they decided she was therefore a professional. She graduated from Hunter College High School at 14, too young to be taken by Cornell, which insisted that students be at least 16. After one year at Hunter, they waived the rule and took her. She went to Ithaca with the incoming freshmen and was shocked that the most important part of orientation seemed to be the rushing for Greek life. With the modified and seemingly prominent New York name with which she arrived, she received invitations to every prominent sorority, which of course were quickly withdrawn once they realized she was Jewish. By the end of her first (sophomore) year, she had followed her father’s example of taking initiative by getting the University to postpone rushing for Greek life to the second semester so that students had the opportunity to adjust especially to academic life. And as a 17 year old freshman at Haverford in 1963-64 I unwittingly followed her example. I had a 5 day a week Noon Russian class. The first semester it was at Haverford, which had lunch from Noon until 1:10. The second semester it was at Bryn Mawr, and they stuck 5 of us in a cab to get us there by 12:10 when the class started. I was not getting lunch, but by the end of March as a freshman I had negotiated the first official meal exchange between Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges.

But by then my mother’s influence was far greater than most people realized. My mother had been a child prodigy in many ways, which is why I was not. Our school system did not believe in skipping children, but as I was preparing to enter kindergarten they wanted to accelerate me. MY mother had been badly scarred emotionally by her experience, so she said no, just as she said no to my first piano teacher at age 4 who wanted to put me on a concert stage. She continued to say no throughout elementary school, until finally, when I was obviously bored stiff at the beginning of 6th grade, she and my father talked to me, explained all the times the issue had been raised, then left the decision up to me. After 4 weeks in 6th grade, I transferred to Junior High School. My mother had not been given such choices, and she tried to let me decide when I was ready.

But she also insisted I be challenged. I had a small taste of what her life had been like. There were four elementary schools in the Mamaroneck school system, as well as a junior and a senior high school. The reading specialist did not have enough children with reading needs to occupy her weekly half day at Murray Avenue elementary, so a group of us became part of program to accelerate our reading. I am told I began that second grade reading on about a 5th grade level and finished the year reading around an 8th or 9th grade level. I do not remember the details, but I do know that by the time I was 11 I was using the adult library, and driving them nuts. I would walk in on a Saturday morning and take out five books and try to return them in the afternoon before the library closed so that I could take out more. But in the days before computers the cards had not even been filed yet, and they could not accommodate my needs by normal methods, so they gave me permission to take out 10 books at a time.

Both of my parents were musical. My sister took up violin after my father. And like my mother I was already doing piano. My mother had developed bursitis in her shoulder, and at the suggestion of an orthopedist had taken up cello when I was in 1st grade. By then she had already become active in the PTA for the sole purpose of getting a string program into the schools, because of my sister playing violin. As it happens her cello teacher came to Murray Avenue. So I decided to start learning cello. I had been taking lesson for a monthly when the teacher, Ruby Wentzel, asked me when my parents were going to pay her. You see, I had done this entirely on my own. I was only 6 years old. My mother did agree to pay.

My sister and I spent that summer in an informal camp at Ruby’s house, something that today would probably require all kinds of licenses. In the morning we did music, baked bread, and in the afternoon went swimming. As a result of Ruby’s influence, the following year the two of us wen to Interlochen, to National Music Camp, what for me would be the first of 8 summers that were incredibly important in shaping me -- music did not make me a freak, I learned to camp and cook over an outdoor fire, and first played soccer.

There is open other major influence my mother had on me. Both she and my father were involved in politics for most of their adult lives. MY Dad really was a moderate Northeastern Republican. My guess is that given her druthers my mother would have been a liberal Democrat, but in Westchester County in the 1950’s the name of the game was the Republican primary, so people like my mother changed their registrations when they moved from the city to the suburbs. I know that she never pulled a straight party lever in her life, even when every candidate for which she voted was a Republican, which was rare. She explained to me that party loyalty should never override commonsense in the privacy of the voting both. Externally she appeared as a loyal Republican, having risen to co-chair of the Town of Mamaroneck Republican Committee, party activity that, after the election of Nelson Rockefellar in 1958 got her an appointment as an Assistant Attorney General. In that position she used to share her legal work with me, and I learned to read briefs, make arguments, read decisions and the like, and although it was eventually my sister who became the lawyer, it did influence me in my passion about law and government and my own enjoyment in reading Supreme Court opinions.

I should note that my mother graduated from Columbia Law School 2nd in her class at age 21, and then - like her father before and Sandra Day O’Connor later -- could not get a job as a lawyer. She served as a clerk to the chair of the committee that did the restatement of definition of property, then joined the law firm founded by her father and uncle. My sister was also 2nd in her law school class, at Western Mass, so I am not the only one who reflected in my life our mother.

In 1960 neither of my parents voted for Nixon. They had encountered him in the Office of Price Administration, where they had reconnected after having known one another at Cornell (my dad graduated in 1932, my mom in 1934) and they decided to get married. In those days Dorothy Schiff published the New York Post, which was considered the Jewish paper. Schiff endorsed Kennedy and at home my mother was very blunt -- if a Catholic could not get elected in 1960, then there was no hope that a jew would ever be able to get elected. By my junior year of high school I was already active -- with her complete blessing -- in teen Dems. And even as she spiraled down with health, with depression, with alcoholism, she was always willing to take the time to discuss issues with me, to try to challenge my thinking. That kind of experience has led me to take the sometimes ill-formed and more crudely expressed ideas of my students seriously -- it has very much shaped me as a teacher.

My mother was never very happy as a person. Nor was our family a particularly harmonious one. And to this day some of my social awkwardness is a product of being the child of two gifted but ill-suited - to each other and to the larger society in which they lived -- parents, who nevertheless were as loving and giving of themselves as they could be.

I graduated from high school on JUne 23, 1963.; My mother was not there, because she was drunk. Several days later my sister found her unconscious, and she was rushed to new Rochelle Hospital. On June 29th her sister, my aunt Harriet came into the study where I was watching tv in tears, telling me my mom was dead.

It is now almost 43 years since she passed. I have struggled in my own life - with depression, with alcohol, with what I was supposed to do with the gifts which at times seemed more curse than blessing. As I approach my 60th birthday in 9 days, and as I have during this past year periodically looked back on my life, I find that I am grateful for the 17+ years i was able to share of her troubled life. I’d like to think that she’d be proud of what I have chosen to do, in my service to others as a teacher, in my willingness to speak up for what I believe is right. She would not agree with all of my choices, but she would respect my right to make them, as she insisted in 6th grade that the decision about whether to skip had to be mine, because I would have to live with the consequences of that choice.

Mentally I embrace her today. More, I honor her every day with my passion for music, my desire to see every child I encounter have the greatest breadth of opportunity in her life. I cannot overlook the scars and pains that are part of her memory, but I also know how much pain in her own life she had to overcome.

Today I am honored to say that I am the child of Sylvia Livingston Bernstein, 1915-1963.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

An important musical birthday 

I am sick today. I have been outside only to pick up the morning paper. I did not get to Meeting for worship, expressing regrets because of the severity of my sinusitis. But since midnight, when awake I have been surrounded by birthday music.

I always enjoy May 7th, because it is the shared celebration of two of the major composer. Johannes Brahms was born this day in 1833, Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky exactly 7 years later. As a person for whom music has been the most consistent part of his life, I can think of no worthier topic about which to write on this day than the work of these two men. I played piano, cello and sang, and have dealt with both composers in all three fashions, as well as enjoying much of their music that I have not played.

I am married to a woman who trained as a ballet dancer. Even had I not listened to much of his music before knowing her, it would have inevitably become part of my life as we shared both listening to records and attending ballet performances. But I knew his work from an early age from the vast record collection my father had accumulated, including some fantastic recordings from Leningrad of the last three symphonies. As for Brahms, for years my favorites symphony was his C minor, the work that has often been called Beethoven’s 10th, for its grandeur, its soaring themes, its magnificent architecture.

When I think of Brahms, I realize how many pieces of his music have become firmly entrenched in my consciousness. I first heard his Requiem (in which my wife will shortly again sing) performed at National Music Camp in the 1950’s. I know all four symphonies, have often listened with score in hand, and learned the details of the third from a one piano transcription which made it accessible. His piano music and his chamber music have always represented a challenge, and I cannot say that I mastered them the way I learned so much of the corpus of Beethoven or of Bach. There are magnificent small pieces, to be sure. But the works that stick in my mind are the two concerti for piano. And I of course add, besides the symphonies, the piano quintet, the violin concerto, and of course the double concerto, about which as soon as I type out its name the sounds of the slow movement flow through my memory.

Perhaps one reason I so love Brahms is that in many ways he is more of a classicist than are the other late romantic composers. His works are so carefully crafted, the phrases often with the exquisiteness of a Mozart, but with as much emotional power as anything ever written by someone else. His craft with form clearly comes up in the final movement of the Fourth symphony, about which it does not matter if you call it a passacaglia or a chaconne - he uses the repetitive ground of eight notes for an incredible construction fusing technical wizardry with sweeping expressions that sometimes are confined within the repetition of the eight notes and sometimes cross into the next repetition.

Brahms -- the slow movement of the underappreciated first Piano Concerto, which was not successful because it lacked a flashy cadenza in any movement. I have an old recording by a British pianist who went by the sole name of Solomon which takes that slow movement and converts it into something that will turn your heart inside out. But it is not with heartbreak, it is with something that approaches transcendence. I hear that also in the slow movement of the 2nd piano concerto, only there it is the incredible duo between the piano and the solo cello, and I find myself torn that I could not play both parts at once.

There is more, of course. There are many songs, wonderful choral works like the Nanie, incredible chamber works like the Clarinet Quintet, surely one of the most sublime things ever written for that instrument.

I love Brahms, but I also adore Tchaikovsky. At one point I could play the Piano Concerto #1, which is too often dismissed as bombastic because of the massive chordal nature of the first movement, while ignoring some of the subtlety of its construction, the interplay of brilliant quick flashes, almost as if bird darted across a scene too quickly to be identified, merely recognize by its fleeting presence. Many people do not realize that this is but the first of three works for piano and orchestra, all of quality even if not of frequency of performance. The violin concerto is of course a standard, but the work for cello - the Variations on a Rococo Theme - is not performed as often, although I was fortunate years ago to hear American Nathan Rosen - then principal cellist with the Pittsburgh Symphony - perform it with his orchestra in Ambler Penna shortly after he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition (the winning of which spurred the career of American pianist Van Cliburn).

Tchaikovsky is also often very lyrical. That is apparent in the violin concerto, one of the great works of that genre, and it is clearly apparent in the ballet music, so expressive, so familiar. He also wrote several wonderful operas that unfortunately - because most opera singers do not do Russian - do not receive the frequency of performance to which their musical quality should entitle them. Nest known is “Pique Dame”, The Queen of Spades, but also of great quality of Eugene Onegin and Undine.

There are so many works that are part of the standard repertoire. There are others which should be. Of course, the architecture of the 6th symphony, the Pathetique, ending with the heartrending final slow movement, is probably the best known of the six numbered symphonies (he wrote an unnumbered Manfred symphony which comes between his 4th and 5th in opus numbering. But smaller works like the Serenade for Strings, or his fourth suite for Orchestra commonly known as the Mozartiana, are absolute gems. And I can remember than when I had my first serious crush in junior high school - which was not reciprocated - I would play over and over his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

There are many pieces for solo piano, and many chamber works as well. Least known of his output are probably the works he did for the Orthodox Church, including a complete setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. There are also secular songs, settings of folk songs, and incredible wealth of work.

I began by writing of my physical illness. But that has mattered little as I have spent the day with the birthday boys, switching between radio, cd, and phonograph. As I finish this I listen to a superb performance of the Brahms Requiem, which I will again revisit in several hours as I take my wife through the music in preparation for her singing a performance with the choir at the Library of Congress.

I teach social studies, and I am passionate about what I do. But I am by background, by training, by lifelong dedication a musician. To have the riches of these two great composers on a single day is a special blessing. Take some time and listen to the gifts they have given us.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Since I have nothing else to say today 

I thought I would brag a bit. I have a brief piece in the “Free For All” section of today’s Washington Post. Since it is my work, I provide this link but also give you the entire text. The title is theirs, not mine.

This Battle Wasn't Over Islam

Saturday, May 6, 2006; A15

In his April 9 article, "In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries," Karl Vick wrote, "The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul." This statement presents a very inaccurate picture.

There was a sack by Crusaders, but it had no direct connection with Islam.

The sack by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was of the Byzantine city of Constantinople. The sack may well have been at the instigation of the Venetians who transported the knights, because Constantinople was a major commercial rival of Venice.

Islam enters the picture with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II on May 29, 1453. Some argue that the city had been irrevocably weakened by the sacking and plundering of the Fourth Crusade, but whatever destruction then occurred was that of Christian upon Christian. And while the city suffered during the siege before its 15th-century fall and in the first few days after the conquest, there is no element of this being an issue that could inflame attitudes toward Christian missionaries.

-- Kenneth Bernstein


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Less is better? Schools and health 

I have little time to blog right now. I am sick, must still teach because students have an AP exam on Tuesday, and have commitments I must honor this weekend. Part of why I am sick is that I try to do too much, and live with too much stress. I thought about this while reading several things the past few days.

I read about the comparison on health between British and American people, where the wealthiest third of Americans are less healthy than the poorest third of Brits. Then this morning I read Paul Krugman’s musings on this subject. For the rest of this brief posting, I will describe briefly those musings, add one additional piece of news, and then offer a very few of my own thoughts.

Krugman notes that the difference in health is not completely determined by whether or not Americans have health insurance. In the case of diseases like diabetes American insurance companies seem loath to pay for the preventive measure that could reduce the effects of the disease and more than happy to pay for the radical treatment that may become necessary, such as amputations. Thus he posits that the big difference between the health of the people in the two nations is the level of stress, and focuses on the fact that the average American works about 46 weeks per year while the average Brit only 41.
I will return to this concept in a bit.

The additional piece of information is the recent decision by the major softdrink manufacturers that they will, under prodding by Bill Clinton and others, move to remove all sugar-added drinks from schools. There has a been a great concern about the level of obesity and other health problems we are seeing among our school children, and at ever younger ages. Thus most people will applaud this action, although I will offer a caution.

One reason our students drink such things as Coke and sugar added juices is that the need the sugar to get through the school day. We run 5 lunches in our 8 period days. If a student has the earliest lunch, which is 3rd period from 10:10-10:55, by the time the final period starts at 2:20 that student is often dragging, out of energy, unable to focus.

We have had many advocates of lengthening our school day. We are seeing recess and physical education limited to provide more time for instruction, which - like the lengthening of the day - is intended to improve test scores. We are hurtling down a path of ever increasing requirements in the name of greater rigor. We have people arguing for more challenging courses, and more homework, and even lengthening our school year. I think in the process we are killing our school children.

We are subjecting them to ever increasing amounts of stress at ever decreasing ages, even as we know for certainty that above a certain level stress is harmful. In the process we already see evidence that we killing their desire and enthusiasm for learning, and if we think even a bit critically we will also see that we are creating patterns of behavior and health that are quite likely to lead to serious health problems earlier in life, inevitably diminishing the quality of life they enjoy and shortening its length as well.

Marion Brady, who occasionally posts here, argues forcefully that the model of schooling we have is obsolete, derived from a false model (the work of Frederick Taylor), and ignores most of the insights we have develop about learning and about interactions, most especially things like general systems theory. I have become increasingly of the mind that our attempts at school reform resemble little more than doing the same stupidity only with greater energy. While I cannot explore this idea further in this post, I really wonder if we might not do our children and our society a great favor by ceasing all current efforts at school reform and taking a big step back. What if our schools didn’t exist? What if we were inventing from scratch how we were going to educate people in our society? What if we did not already have massive capital investment in buildings, large numbers of people on the payroll, and significant number of people whose livelihood at least indirectly depended upon the current structure of education. What would we design to meet the needs of our children and of our society?

What we have now is unhealthy. To fiddle with one part without looking at the overall impact because of interactions both within and without the school may turn out to be counterproductive, as we have found is true of most recent efforts at educational reform. If you doubt that last statement, there is increasingly clear evidence of a pattern of dropping SAT scores as all the various educational reforms - including the reform of the SAT itself - begin to kick in. And while I do not place great weight upon indicators such as SAT scores, because we tend to rely upon such indicators (albeit far too much) in our policy decisions, when they offer us a picture that is contrary to that which we predicted we have an obligation to step back and try to determine why.

I gave one example of an issue that may not be fully considered -- dropping the access to sugared drinks may lead to lack of energy in extended school days, even as we acknowledge that too easy access to such drinks begins to develop food patterns for life, patterns that are unhealthy. Well, stress and overwork are also unhealthy, and yet we do not seem to apply the same standard in examining all of the policies we impose upon our school children and the adults attempting to serve them.

So if it we think cutting back sugar is good, why not see if cutting back other things -- length of the day, amount of material, level of stress - might not also be good. Could it be that in schools less is better, especially when it comes to the health of our students? Keynes warned us in the long run we would all be dead. it will not matter how much information we cram into the minds of our students if in the process we kill their minds, their souls, even their lives.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Eulogy for Tom Fox 

this is widely cross-posted, with permission.

On April 22, there was an open memorial service for Tom Fox, the Quaker member of the Christian Peacemaker Team who had been kidnapped and was later killed in Baghdad.  I have posted several; times about Tom, who was a member of Langley Hill Monthly Meeting, as am I.  LHMM is our local congregation, equivalent of a Parish.  It is a constituent member of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, the regional association of almost  60 Friends Meetings.  that cover Maryland, DC, Virginia, and parts of Pennsylvania.

We do not have designated clergy.  Lauri Perman is the Clerk who presides over our business affairs, elected from among the membership.  In that capacity she gave a eulogy for Tom, whom she knew for years.  I offer it, without comment, below.

Tom Fox

Eulogy, April 22, 2006

            We Quakers speak out of silence.  Tom was comfortable with silence. It may seem ironic that Tom, a musician, should have found his spiritual home among Friends who treasure silence.  But Tom isn't the only musical Friend to have found he could listen to the "music of the spheres" in the silence of a Quaker meetinghouse.

            Tom entitled his blog, "Waiting in the Light."  For Tom, the Light was Christ.  When Quakers gather in silence, we wait for the Light to be revealed to us, for Christ to be present among us. Tom was careful to describe the Light  of Christ with universal and inclusive language.  Today, out of the silence, and in the Light, I want to share with you memories of Tom Fox.

            I met Tom 16 years ago at a small retreat for adults helping to care for the children at Baltimore Yearly Meeting.  The only memory I have of the retreat is a memory of Tom, introducing his co-teacher Sue, a farmer, to the group.  Tom introduced her by saying she had beautiful hands, the hands of someone who cared for the earth.  I am grateful that my son was able to have Tom as his teacher and as a Friendly Adult Presence when my son became a Young Friend.  

            I want to begin by sharing with you parts of a letter of application that Tom wrote in 1994.  These are Tom's words: "Though the seed of this letter was planted fourteen years ago when I attended my first meeting for worship, it  did not bear fruit until this First Day morning.

            I had the honor of working with some of the young people.in a First Day School class in which we were discussing Quaker organizational structure.  I heard myself saying that the most powerful structure is not the individual Friend, rather it is the corporate body of seekers, the Monthly Meeting.  

            Jesus was very clear when he said that it was where "several"are gathered "in my name" that the Spirit would be born.. I came to realize, that if I truly believed this, then I must bear witness to this Truth and come to you seeking membership in the Religious Society of Friends at Langley Hill."

            Tom's letter contains the three themes that I will focus on today, young people, faith, and community, especially spiritual community.  

            Before returning to these themes, I want to sketch a little about Tom's life as a musician, a father, a baker, and grocer.

            Tom was born in 1951 in a small town outside Chattanooga, the only son of older parents.  His mother ensured his exposure to the arts and faith; his father read and studied widely, a hallmark of Tom's life as an adult.

            Tom began playing the clarinet in 4th or 5th grade.  He met his former wife Jan when they were teenagers playing in a regional youth orchestra.  They married in Nashville in 1972 while both were studying in the music department at Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University.  Before graduation, Tom auditioned for the U.S. Marine Corps Band.  As a member of the "President's Own Band" for twenty years, Tom played at the White House and also chose, conducted, and arranged music for small chamber ensembles.  He earned a Master's degree in Music from Catholic University.

            While still in the Band, Tom completed chef training.  His passion for whole, fresh ingredients led him to work as a baker, bakery team leader, and assistant store team leader for Whole Foods Market.  His colleagues there remember Tom's exceptional listening skills and his careful planning to "put first things first."

            The most important book in Tom's life, and he opened a lot of them, was the book that opened with the birth of his children.  When Tom filled out an obituary form for Langley Hill Meeting, he answered the question, "What are your major accomplishments and awards?" by responding:  "parent of two exceptional human beings:  Katherine Fox and Andrew Fox."

            Tom was a very involved father, present at both births and was so excited when his daughter Kassie was born that he called his in-laws not once, but twice. He changed diapers from the beginning.  

            One of Jan's favorite memories of Tom as a father is coming into the living room when their son Andrew was about two, discovering Tom on his hands and knees backing across the floor, with Andrew standing on Tom's back legs and Tom going, "beep, beep."  What was Tom doing?  "I'm a dump truck," he said.

            After Tom and Jan divorced, Tom remained a constant presence in his children's lives, living only a mile away, seeing them every day, keeping them overnight on weekends, and taking them on trips.  Jan reports that "no one could have loved his children more" than Tom did.

            I want to return now to the three themes of Tom's letter:  faith, young people, and community.

            Within the spiritual community of Langley Hill, Tom was intentional about nurturing his spiritual development, reading widely and deeply from the Bible, the Christian mystics, and other inspirational literature.  In his blog, he quotes George Fox, Gandhi, a French theologian, and the Qu'ran.  He practiced a Buddhist compassion meditation daily.  Several Friends described him as the calmest person they knew.  Tom worked hard to apply spiritual writings to his own life.  

            In his copy of Emmet Fox's book, "The Sermon on the Mount," Tom scribbled the Lord's Prayer in his own words.  For "Thy kingdom come.   Thy Will be done," he wrote, "Your way is here in what I do and what I think."  A Friend called yesterday morning to say the most important thing  she could say about Tom was that he lived what he believed.

            Tom cared deeply about community in all settings.  His faith was rooted and grounded in Quaker community and he strengthened our communities with his gentle and careful leadership style.  He clerked Langley Hill Friends Meeting, he clerked the Yearly Meeting Youth Programs Committee, and he worked as Yearly Meeting Youth Secretary for a year.

             Tom especially cared about the Young Friends community.  He helped the Young Friends build community and he had confidence in them.  One college student wrote, "I shared my idea with Tom and he thought it was great, but then again Tom always encouraged everyone."

            Tom had a cheerful, playful spirit.  The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, urged Friends "to walk cheerfully over the world, answering That of God in everyone."  Tom used a version of that quote as the header on his Blog site. He certainly worked to live up to it.  Almost every teenager in the room today will have a funny story to share about Tom.  

            One college student's favorite memory comes from having Tom as his fourth grade teacher at Yearly Meeting:  

            "He told us that he would let us do whatever we wanted on the final day of class and we told him that we wanted to drop water balloons on him from the third story of the building.  When we got to class the next morning, he had the  water balloons ready.  He laid down and let us drop them on him.  Even when he was no longer our teacher, he let us come back and continue the ritual."

            Tom never imposed his faith or spiritual Truths on young people; instead he encouraged them to find their own Truths.  Tom's license plate and e-mail address read "Inner Light."  He reminded himself and others of the need to remain faithful to our inner guides.

            For Tom, the themes of faith, community, and young people were inseparable. He wove them together in an intentional way to make up the fabric of his life, a life that illustrates the verse from Galatians 5:  ".the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."

            Tom brought his inner guide, the Light of Christ, to shine in all settings. In his very first Blog entry in October 2004, he writes about the need to "stand up to evil."  Tom recognized and worked against the harm of dehumanization. For example, he brought his love and light to try to end the discrimination against gays and lesbians that exists within some Quaker communities.      

            One of the most moving passages of Tom's blog was posted on Christmas Day 2004, when Tom talked about having seen a landscape of shadow and darkness,  with candles burning in the darkness.  He wrote, "as the . candles whose light was snuffed out ceased to burn, more candles came into being, seemingly to build on their light."  

            Tom, a lifelong hiker who nourished his spirit and his Light by walking in forests and mountains, was a tall tree in our Yearly Meeting community.  His  roots were deep, his branches wide.  His absence means that we all need to grow  to fill the hole in the canopy over our young people.

            But Tom planted seeds in our community, and our young people are now growing up tall in the canopy themselves.  The seeds Tom planted will bear fruit in the young people of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting.  They will not grow up to be miniature Tom Foxes.  Rather, they will grow up to be wholly themselves, wholly  whom they discover God calls them to be, with a freedom born of having been encouraged to figure out  faith for themselves.  

            Tom will be there inside each of them, as he is inside each of us, calling us to be faithful to our paths.  The question for us is not:  "How can I be more like Tom Fox?" but "How can I be more myself?" "How can I be more faithful?" "And what does God call me to do?"

            There was so much about Tom that we didn't know.  Many of us knew Tom only in one setting and in one circle of people.   In thinking of him, I have been reminded of the description of love in I Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 4:  "Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud."

            Tom, acting out of love and humility, did not call attention to himself. By not telling his stories, by not telling us how many times he played at the White House, or that he once played for Leonard Bernstein, by not sharing deeply of his life experiences, Tom has left many people feeling that they didn't know him very well.  

            I believe this is a mistaken notion.  What was essential about Tom was that he was focused on the other person. His love and acceptance of others, his exceptional listening skills, his ability to be present in the moment - these were the essential Tom, and if you knew these, you did know Tom.

            Last June, before Tom left for Iraq, a Young Friend told him that she didn't want him to leave us.  He looked at her, smiled, gave her a hug, and said, "I'm leaving, but we have the memories, and we are here together now."

            I've shared with Friends that my most vivid memory of Tom is of him standing waist deep in the creek at Wilson College laughing and playing with the kids.  When I think back to this memory, I realize now that all the time I thought he was standing, he was really floating, floating in the sea of God's love, resting on the everlasting arms.. and he still is.

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