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.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

George Allen - a question of character 

Look folks, I normally don't give a darn about what someone said or did 27 years ago.  Heck, in 1979 I was 2 religions back, still living in Pennsylvania and working in data processing.  That should be too far back in anyone's life for it to matter now.

I don't care about 27 years ago or 30 years ago or even 20 years ago.  I don't care, unless the words and actions are part of a pattern that illuminates what someone does and says today.

But in George Allen's case I do care what he may have said or done in the past, because he continues to say and do similar things today.   In George Allen's case, it is a matter character, and that matter of character should disqualify him from any position of public  office or trust.

I will not revisit in detail the numerous stories about Allen's use of racial epithets while at UVa, which may place his use of "macaca" in a context of racism.  What is not in doubt is that a sitting United States Senator acted like a bully.  This seems to be a consistent pattern of the man's life.  We have numerous citations in his sister's book, andin his Sept. 3 column A Punch Line: Monkey Business Troubled Others Before Allen Jeff Schapiro included the following comment (bolding added for emphasis):

By using the "m" word, Allen also bared for an audience in Virginia and beyond a mean streak a lot of us have seen it before -- that lurks just beneath his make-believe Bubba facade.

Perhaps Allen's penchant for spitting at - or near - people, particularly women, is related to this tendency of bullying.  In that regard Bob Fertik's recent diary on the subject should be instructive, citing 4 cases previously publicized while seek information about possible additional incidents.  With respect to spitting, it is worth noting that some speculation about the now-sealed divorce from Allen's first marriage is that Allen spit on his former wife - Taegan Goddard discusses this, including a reference to this Ryan Lizza story (behind a subscription wall).  

All of this speaks to a pattern of character deficiencies in George Allen.  And if anyone wants to argue that I am discussing personal behavior, the same pattern can be seen in his public behavior.  May I remind readers of Allen's recent outrageous behavior on the floor of the United States Senate when he stole an amendment about to be offered by Senator Dick Durbin (see Here for a google search that will provide ample documentation of this gross misbehavior).

If there were any doubt about Allen's lack of character, his behavior and that of his campaign in the current cycle should provide the final evidence.  

In the debate in Fairfax, Allen basically attacked reporter Peggy Fox for asking about his mother and his Jewish background, even though the question was relevant because Allen had just referenced his grandfather having been arrested by the Nazis, and because The Forward had run a story on Allen's Jewish roots.  When forced to acknowledge his Jewish roots shortly thereafter Allen then tried to be "clever" with a reference to ham sandwiches and his mother's porkchops.

Perhaps more relevant is that in his first two-minute advertisement Allen said that

negative personal attacks and baseless allegations have also pulled us away from what you expect and deserve.
.  He also claimed that
I'm confident that if this Senate race is decided on issues, ideas and my proven record of performance, you'll allow me to continue serving you.

This would imply if not state several key things.  First, Allen was prepared to run on issues and ideas, and that personal attacks and baseless allegations should not be part of the campaign.  But what has been the record of his campaign since?  With the exception of the second two-minute ad, the one with Sen. John Warner, almost everything released by the Allen campaign has been negative.  Further, his attacks have not merely been baseless allegations, they have been demonstrably false charges, and/or distortions of the facts.  

In fact, immediately after the seeming call to a higher level of campaigning, the Allen campaign released an ad featuring a woman who claimed to have been misquoted by Jim Webb in the famous article of 27 years ago, even though the woman's name is not in the article, nor could she point to any specific item in the article ostensibly offered by her.  

Sen. Allen is fond of claiming that the average Virginian would be hit with $2,000 of additional taxes were Webb to replace him.  Well, not really.   If one took all the additional taxes and distributed them across the population it might come out to $2,000 per, but the average Virginian would not be hit with $2,000 of taxes.  That's not how averages work, and such a claim is intellectually dishonest.  It would be as if three working class readers of this blog and Bill Gates were to average his fortune, which for sake of argument we would value at 60 billion dollars.   We would say the average of our little group of four was a wealth of 15 billion.  Unlike the claim in the paragraph above, there is at least a mathematical truthiness to this statement, even if it is intellectually dishonest.  But then, it is of a piece with the kinds of representations made by the current national administration as to the effects of its economic and tax policies, an administration with which Senator Allen concurs on almost every issue of importance, economic, military, security, and of gutting the Constitution.

We now have the Allen campaign resorting to selective quotations out of context from the writings of Jim Webb.  It is clear from the coordinated talking points of Republican talking heads that this is a deliberate and well-planned attack upon Jim Webb intended to smear him.   The Allen campaign, despite the statement of the Senator in that first two-minute message, has offered no positive agenda for the future. It has continued to engage in smears and unfounded allegations.  

Given the campaign staff surrounding Senator Allen, this is not surprising.  That he continues to use Chris La Civita, who has a history of these kinds of attack, is perhaps the only testimony we need as to the public character of George Allen.   But it is worse.  We have Dick Wadhams, who engaged in unethical behavior in his use of undisclosed paid bloggers to attack Tom Daschle.  We have the use of Scott Howell who has also crafted the racist attack ad against Harold Ford in Tennessee.  These are the people upon whom Senator Allen has chosen to rest his campaign.

And the Senator will no longer speak for himself, not in any open forum where he might receive a question he does not control.  A person unwilling to accept questions from constituents, and from the press which serves as surrogates when we cannot be present, is unwilling to be answerable for his actions and those of his campaign.  We saw this when Allen refused to take press questions and Jim Webb remained behind, as he does at every event, as he did in Alexandria on Thursday (an event  which George Allen did not attend, sending a surrogate instead).

Public character matters.  How one runs a campaign is, at least to me, a sign of character, of the kind of public servant one will be.  Again, given Senator Allen's lack of a meaningful record in six years in the US Senate (other than the aforementioned theft of the amendment drafted by Senator Durbin), perhaps his campaign is a tacit admission that he cannot run on his record as senator.  Perhaps that is why he repeats his "accomplishments" as governor, as his surrogate also did in Alexandria.  

And perhaps it is his lack of character that will on the one hand allow him to attack Jim Webb's considered plans for beginning to solve the problems of Iraq, then turn and stand with Sen. John Warner who has just said that all options - including presumably those offered by people like John Murtha and Jim Webb -have to be on the table.

Some men grow as they age.  They can readily acknowledge their mistakes and make amends.  Others seem never to grow up.  Perhaps as children of privilege they have never had to take responsibility for their actions.  Their positions of privilege have sheltered them from true accountability for their misdeeds, their misjudgments, their bad acts.  George Allen had hoped to succeed George W. Bush as president.  They two Georges have much in common.  Both are fake cowboys, although at least Senator Allen is not afraid of horses.   As a young man Mr. Allen may have had mild punishment, as examination of the incident of painting his high school seems to indicate.  But the testimony of contemporaries at UVa and the writings of his sister seem to indicate a person who has never truly been held to account.  Thus he has continued patterns of behavior that can at this point only be described as clear indicators of a character insufficiently developed to be entrusted with high office.

I would not care what Mr. Allen had said or done as an adolescent or even as a young adult several decades ago, except that the actions of those days seem reflected in the words and deeds of the current election cycle.  They seem indicative of a basic character, one that is not pleasant to contemplate.  And were I to include in this posting all that has been discussed in the public arena the pattern one would inevitably discern would be far worse than merely not pleasant.  In the overall context, taking advantage of position for financial benefit, thinking one exempt from reporting requirements on conflict of interest, having a noose and confederate flag in one's office, become relevant only as minor parts of an overall picture.

Ken Shelton, Allen's football teammate at UVa who is the source of the story about the deer's head and one of the sources for Allen's use of "nigger"  sees a continuity of Allen's behavior.  He has been quoted in a number of stories, including this one from CBS, about why he came forward:

"When I saw the look in his eye in that camera and using the word `macaca,' it just brought back the bullying way I knew from George back then," he said.

George Allen is and has been since his youth a bully.  Jeff Schapiro makes clear that his bullying behavior was well known to observers in Richmond  during his public service there.  His actions in the "macaca" incident can thus be seen as a continuation of a pattern of behavior that is deplorable.  His lack of honesty with the voters is despicable.  I did not grow up in the South, and as an adolescent I used the word "nigger."  I was wrong to do so, but I do not pretend that I never used the word.  I also as an adolescent might try to explain away using a pejorative term like "macaca" or "nigger" but as an adult I should not have to because I should not be using such words.  It is a lack of the Senator's maturity as well as of his character that he will not take responsibility for his misstatements.

Near the end of the first two-minute ad, Mr. Allen told us

In the weeks ahead, it's my hope to have an invigorating debate worthy of our rich history.
 The debate he has offered has not been invigorating, and demeans the proud history of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  

We can only hope that the voters of the Old Dominion will realize that George Allen lacks the character for public service.  We can also hope that someone in the press will put together all of the pieces and paint the true portrait of George Felix Allen so that the voters of the Commonwealth can know the truth about the man who seeks reelection as our junior senator.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why I am a teacher - a partial explanation 

I am a teacher. My blogname clearly indicates that. Many people I encounter electronically presume that I choose to teach because of a burning desire to inculcate knowledge into the mind of others. Had I confidence in what I know such a desire might play a far larger role than it does. The reality is far more complicated. It is also relevant to my participation in a political blog.

At times I have offered pieces of my understanding of why I spend my time with adolescents and my passion for what I do. I have never offered a comprehensive picture. I may not be able to do so even now, because my understanding remains incomplete. But this diary will offer a more complete glimpse, with perhaps a few flashes of true insight. If you are interested, come along on the journey.

I have always been fascinated by learning. That is the real key. As a small child I taught myself to read both words and music. Really. When I first demonstrated at about age 3 that I could decipher the markings on pages into comprehensible sounds my parents were somewhat surprised, but given that my mother had graduated from high school at fourteen and Cornell at 18 not totally overwhelmed. But when I stood at the piano and begin picking out the notes from the piece of music opened thereupon they did not at first accept that I was reading the music. After all, I could have watched as my mother played. When they put up another piece of music that she had not played and I still was able to pick out the top line they were convinced - and shocked.

I offer this anecdote not to impress, but to explain. I have always sought to make meaning of things around me, to see how they worked. Shortly thereafter, so the family tale goes, I took apart a vacuum cleaner, then put it together minus a part or two. My parents were afraid to plug it in, so they took it to the store, where the owner determined that it still worked, but suggested they give it back to me and have me take it apart and put it together using all the parts. Apparently I did, and at that point everyone was sure I was going to be an engineer.

I read, incessantly. We got multiple newspapers and I would read lots of things that I did not understand. I would make up my own meanings for new words, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. My parents finally showed me what a dictionary did and I became fascinated. I began to read the dictionary. My mother showed me about the pronunciation guides, but that took the fun away. It was more fun to try to determine the sounds on my own. I would later repeat the pattern of reading through reference books with encyclopedias and almanacs, and given a memory that retained almost anything that grabbed its attention I started to build a frightening accumulation of miscellaneous information.

The key was the fascination with learning. Without recounting all of my early years, at times the fascination was not a positive thing - perhaps because I was somewhat insecure at least from around my 8th or 9th birthdays I would use knowledge as a means of controlling situations and people. Fortunately I understood that the best learning was not purely individual but also retained social aspects: it was in the sharing and explaining of information that it began to become meaningful knowledge. Curiosity could lead to human connection.

My desire to understand how things worked included games and sports. When at one point we did not have enough children our own age to play some of our games, I decided at around age 11 to teach the younger children some of the rules and some of the mechanics: of football, of running bases, etc. I found that I had to step back and understand how to do something before explaining or demonstrating it to others. I also began to learn something far more important: how I understood was not necessarily how others understood. In order to enable them to understand I had to listen and to watch what they did. It was my first lesson that teaching is as much learning from others as it is communicating to them. I had to let the “student” - in this case the younger child - help me learn how he learned in order to facilitate his learning. I could not simply impose my understanding. I had thus at a very early age learned one of the most important lessons about successful teaching.

If you have read this far I want to set your mind at ease. Yes, I am now sixty years old. But no, I do not intend to recount every incident of my life related to teaching. Relax, and continue sharing this journey with me.

In high school and went I went off to college I did not expect to become a teacher, even though I toyed with teaching, taking over several classes on senior day. I thought I would be a college professor perhaps, or possibly a lawyer. I was sure I was going to major in history, but partway through my sophomore year decided to switch to music. At the end of that year I dropped out and went into the Marines. While stationed at Quantico, as the piano player in the Post Band, i was asked to teach piano to the daughter of a brigadier general. In high school I had had one cello student. I had also tutored several students in physics, one formally through our school’s program during the year, and then my next door neighboring the summer. He had failed to graduate from prep school on time. He was a more willing student because when we were younger I used to regularly beat him at one-one-one basketball in his backyard even though he was 6-3 and I was 5-10. Then I taught him how to shoot a hook shot and how to protect the ball. I never beat him again. Teaching the general’s daughter reminded me of the great joy in helping someone else learn how to do something they could not previously do.

There are far too many incidents to recount that are somewhat similar in nature. At various times I paid a lot of attention to those I had as teachers and professors, watching how they did things, what worked and what didn’t. This included those who conducted the choirs and orchestras in which I participated, including during my summers at Interlochen. I already occasionally directed choirs while I was in high school, so this also became relevant.

My first “real” teaching came later in life. I went back to college at age 25 as a junior at Haverford, and by my senior year was already taking doctoral courses in musicology at Penn, where I formally enrolled upon graduation, fully expecting to wind up as a college music professor. But somehow it didn’t fit. When I dropped out late in my first term, I was also experiencing the end of a former marriage. For want of something else to do I spend the Spring term at Moorestown Friends School in New Jersey. This was my first real experience of organized teaching over an extended period. I had several small groups whom I assisted in reading skills and in math, and I co-taught several social studies classes. While I greatly enjoyed the experience, I could not imagine being able to live on what a Quaker school paid. After spending the summer in an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery (which I seriously considered joining - the appeal of monasticism is something that goes back to preadolescence and has remained a constant throughout my life) I returned to the Philadelphia area where I began working in data processing, a field in which I had worked in New York in between stints at Haverford. This is related to teaching in a number of ways. First, i constantly was learning new software, or about particular business procedures as I had to design new programs and systems. Second, I often wound up in supervisory roles, which required me to train other programmers and analysts. This would continue throughout all of my data processing career. Finally, when a new program or system was developed, I had to be able to document it in a way the users could understand. I would often have to train them in using the software. Knowing that often made a difference in how I designed things - here the lessons of teaching smaller children games and sports clearly came into play.

Teaching continued to a partial part of my life. I had joined the Orthodox Church, and quickly became the choir director of my small parish. I did not have many strong voices, but I was able by applying the various things I had learned at Interlochen, and in observing teachers, and in my own attempts at teaching, to work with the choir so that they actually sounded good. I had leadership roles in the parish, the diocese, the national church. I occasionally led retreats, or taught sessions on comparative religion. Slowly being a teacher became an increasing part of my life. Because I did not have children I agreed to serve as advisor to our teen group, so that no one would feel constrained by the presence of her own parent. This also reignited my interest in working with adolescents.

I had continued to work in data processing, but had moved from the private sector to working for my local government because I wanted to be of service, I wanted the work I did to make a difference, and I had concerns at how some of my efforts were enriching or empowering those with whose views I had strong disagreement. I quickly became a supervisor, and again much of my work effort connected with aspects of teaching and learning.

In 1992 I attended the 25th reunion of my original class at Haverford (1967), during which I had an extended conversation with a classmate who was an educator. I shared some stories from my time at Moorestown Friends. When we got back to our room that night Leaves on the Current pointed out that when i shared those stories my eyes lit up and I became almost a different person. She knew I was not completely happy in the work I was doing and asked why I didn’t consider becoming a teacher. When we got home I explored what I would have to do to become certified and what I could earn. I decided as I had after the term at Moorestown, that it didn’t pay as much, that I could not afford to do it, and set the idea aside.

But then it became clear my father had Alzheimer’s. For the many months dealing with his condition took up an increasing part of my life, including have to get him declared incompetent, get him a guardian (since he fought having his son in charge of him). He had been Phi Beta Kappa at Cornell, reached ABD in economics, had gone off to make some money hoping to return to his doctorate but instead raised a family. When in his later years he explored picking up his studies he had been away from the field for so long that he effectively would have had to start over. He surrendered his dream, and now his mind was going.

I realized that in my late 40’s I needed to seriously consider what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I decided Leaves was right, that I was different person when I reflected about the teaching I had done, that I was drawn to teaching as being of service, as how I could make a difference. Perhaps because we did not have children of our own it was a way of doing something of a parenting role. I argued my way into an MAT program at Johns Hopkins and quit my job. That was in 1994. When I completed my studies I did not at first get a teaching job - I had struggled in my high school placement during my student teaching. Fort a while I sold cars, which made me a better teacher: I learned yet again to listen to and observe people. I became a very effective car salesman.

My dad died during this time, the fall of 1995. In December I got a position as a long-term substitute in a middle school in Prince George’s County. I wa 49 years old. Within a week the principal moved to hire me permanently, and when the personnel office finally found my file in early January I went under contract. I was fortunate in that my principal was willing to let me take risks, and by the start of my second full year in the school I was the department chair. The following year I moved to the high school at which I have been, with one year away, ever since.

Why am I a teacher? Because I want my life to have meaning, and that meaning for me cannot be in isolation. Yes I had considered monasticism, both as an Episcopalian and as an Orthodox (For a number of years my spiritual father was the abbot of a monastery on Mount Athos in Greece) and I understand that being a monastic is not a life of isolation: one’s prayer life is not merely on one’s own behalf, but on behalf of all of mankind. And as a Merton aficionado I know that the monastic can be intimately concerned and involve with the larger world, that Merton taught us through his writing.

But I have found that I need that human interaction. It is best for me when it is face to face, which is one reason why I turned down an offer from Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth to teach AP Government over the net.

And yet - my blogging is in many ways an extension of my teaching. it is in the sharing of ideas that I grow. In my classroom I attempt to learn how my students learn and think, to provide them with skill development to better organize and write more clearly. Sometimes the questions they ask or the arguments they present really challenge me, and I grow more than do they. Similarly when I post a diary, it is in the ensuing discussion thread that the real learning occurs. That is also why I enjoy participating in discussions on diaries by others.

I am a teacher. It is not because I have superior knowledge, although when I deal with my high schoolers one would hope that I start the year with a deeper pool of knowledge. I do have some skill in pedagogy, which is far too often insufficiently valued in our discussions about education and schools. I am a teacher because I believe learning is a never-ending process. I am enthusiastic about learning, about attempting to understand the world around me.

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.

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