An open letter to my sons and students

I’ve always been a sentimental sort, in touch with my feelings, easily manipulated by a melancholy chord progression, willing to shed a tear for a cartoon robot or a superhero dissipating into CGI nothingness . But this is different.

I am grieving.

Editor’s Note: While this blog serves as my professional digital portfolio and archive, documenting and preserving my words and ideas in my role as a high school librarian and lifelong educator, it is also highly personal, and I have written essays in the past addressing issues such as nepotism, inequality, poverty, identity, among others. This is one of those “other’ posts. My sons are 15 and 20 years old, my students all in high school.

I have a few thoughts I need to share with you. It’s almost three in the morning and I can’t sleep, again. Just about every day nowadays, I break down and have a cry. Usually it’s brought on by another news story about someone I don’t know, dying overnight in the fight with this menace we are all forced to know now. Other times, my tears are flowing before I’m even sure what I am crying about. They just roll down my cheeks as I drink my coffee, scrolling through the news, reading tweets and memes connecting death and incompetence, ruin and irony, loss and lying.

You know me. I’ve always been a sentimental sort, in touch with my feelings, easily manipulated by a melancholy chord progression, willing to shed a tear for a cartoon robot or a superhero dissipating into CGI nothingness . But this is different.

I am grieving. Like so many people. I am not just sad, but in real deep grief.

And not just because of the deaths brought on by the pandemic, which would be cause enough. I am grieving because some days it does feel like we are all losing at everything. Gone is our way of life, our every days, our sense of normalcy. We are losing money, jobs, houses, futures. But most of all, I am grieving because I see you grieving. I see you mourning and helpless. I hear your questions and feel your frustrations. I see you sinking into depression, beginning to believe that nothing will ever be good again.  

This sense of panic that you feel from this pandemic came early, like a jump shock in a horror movie. Before we knew what was happening, we learned that the monster was already in our home. And while we couldn’t see it, it was moving among us, stealthily. This monster had a name and an identity, but it was also something new, and therefore, unknown. Worse than that, how we (the adults) handled it, especially in our country, made you feel lost and confused. We kept giving you conflicting information about the symptoms, how contagious it was, how deadly it was, whether or not we should wear masks or gloves.

And now we’ve been telling you for a month and a half that the world has shut down. I can see that you feel like this will never end, like we are losing control of the situation. But I am here to tell you that this is not the case.  I’m going to tell you something adults hardly ever admit to kids or themselves. The truth is, we lose control of the situation all of the time. In big ways and in small. We get sick, we get lost, we lose track of time. But we’re a curious and clever bunch. We find our way through things, we make sense of the chaos, and eventually, we find our way home … or else we make a new one wherever we land. We conquered the planet in this manner, and you will make it through this trial if you remember that.

I have five decades of conscious experience at my disposal to sift through to try and make sense of this crisis. In my lifetime, I have had personal medical setbacks, watched loved ones suffer through Alzheimer’s, AIDS, cancer and all those other ungodly maladies that come for us. I’ve lost family and friends to violence, drug addiction and mental illness. And of course, most recently, lost my beloved mother, to the genetic specter known as aneurysms, which has claimed several family members. Loss is inevitable. But you cannot let that emptiness fester. You must find a new seed to plant, work the barren ground left behind. 

One thing that has given me hope, is how we have responded to this crisis. Not our government, but the people. Us. You and me. Your friends and mine. Our family. In the face of this contagion, we have ceased to operate in the ways we used to, so that we can fight off this invisible monster which threatens our most valuable resource which, of course, is each other. The whole world is willing to sacrifice everything, it seems … for each other. If I have learned anything about life and living, it is that as long as we have each other, we shouldn’t give up hope.

Finally, I would like to remind you that it is okay to cry, to grieve, to mourn. Your pain is real, your loss is great. We are still unsure about how we go forward, still not sure how to beat the monster or how many more of us it will take with it. We don’t know. That’s the other thing that adults rarely admit to kids or themselves. We just don’t know.

But I promise you, something else will grow in this empty space we all feel. Let us plant wisely, and tend to our gardens.  

I love you.

P.S. In the age of social media, we often get requests on another platform (FB, in case you must know) to share information that could help others in need. Below is the text and link of one such viral campaign.

Could 2 friends or family members just copy and repost? I am trying to demonstrate that someone is always listening. Times like this are extremely hard for people with depression.

#SuicideAwareness
1-800-273-8255

Thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

 

 

 

Reflecting on Hispanic Heritage Month

Did you know that September 15th through October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month? Like other “monthly” celebrations, this one first began as a week-long acknowledgment of one group of “Americans” in an attempt to raise everyone’s awareness of their contributions1. Over time, these seven days grew to thirty days, but through the quirkiness of history and legislation, Hispanic Heritage Month began in the middle of one month and ended in the middle of the next.

The terms Hispanic, Latino, Spanish and now, Latinx, all describe a subset of people, and I have heard them used interchangeably, however, they describe different groups, depending on who you ask. There are many articles available2 that explain the difference between these terms, but a short version of the difference is that Latinos come from Latin America (and include Mexico, Central America, Brazil, and all the Caribbean Islands), but not Spain3. Hispanics, on the other hand, all hail from any predominantly Spanish speaking country. Technically speaking, only Spaniards are “Spanish”, though in the US the term is often assigned to those of us who speak the language. Latinx4 is a new term being used here and there in an effort to create a gender-neutral term for the group now called Latinos or Latinas, though not everyone is on board.

While all these terms may be useful for agencies tracking data, they do little to express the diversity of the individual people they are supposed to represent. Take the term “American”, for example, an expression favored by US citizens. Everyone in the Western Hemisphere who hails from one of the Americas (South, Central, North) is an “American”. That means all the people, everyone from the Bering Strait near the northern tip of Alaska to the hellish Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina; they are all “Americans”.

Of course, what I am talking about above is more a question of semantics than identity. But personal identity is created by the culture that surrounds it, and the tools are language, media, and representation. For me, what these kinds of monthly celebrations (Black History, Hispanic Heritage and Women’s History Months) remind me of, is that there has long been a dominant narrative of exclusion. We have been told a story about who we are, where we come from and how we got here, that doesn’t quite include all the actors.

True, some of this has been corrected since the Civil Rights, counterculture and Women’s movements have brought to light the undeniable contributions of previously unacknowledged individuals. But we are still a long way from truly rewriting our collective history as one that includes all our voices. Perhaps this will always remain impossible, since we seem fixated on what makes us different, rather than what binds us in common.

The truth is that each one of us is a complex and dynamic mixture of multiple identities. We spend our lives forming and reforming ourselves, attempting to find some whole costume, some complete self that feels unified and true. We all have racial, regional, religious, national, linguistic, sexual, political selves that help to describe us, but can never fully define us.

Hispanic Heritage Month is a thirty-day period meant to recognize the contributions of the Spanish speaking populations to the history of the United States. It is a long, often contentious history, marked by division and focused on our differences. Especially in the age of Trump, being a Hispanic or Latino in the United States has meant being reminded of our “outsider” status. But we are not outsiders and we are not minorities.  The Spanish speaking people of the Americas have been here just as long as their English, French, Portuguese and Dutch-speaking European counterparts. In fact, the western half of the United States testifies to this with places named Los Angeles (the angels), Nevada (snowy), Colorado (reddish), Montana (mountain), Rio Grande (big river), Palo Alto (high pole) and on and on.

The monthly celebrations started in the 60s and 70s were meant to serve as national reminders that our country had been built by a patchwork of people from all over the world. It was meant to disrupt the narrative that “true Americans” arrived on the Mayflower, had ties to the thirteen colonies and spoke English. There are still more stories that need to be told, more voices that need to be heard, and most of all a message that needs to be spread: The “American Dream” belongs to all of us.

References:

  1. https://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/15032398402
  2. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/difference-between-hispanic-latino-and-spanish_n_55a7ec20e4b0c5f0322c9e44
  3. https://www.britannica.com/story/whats-the-difference-between-hispanic-and-latino
  4. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/latinx-elitist-some-push-back-word-s-growing-use-n957036

Resources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics

https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2012/hispanic_heritage/

Hispanic Heritage Month Website

https://www.hispanicheritagemonth.gov/

Events at the Library of Congress

https://www.loc.gov/events/?q=hispanic+heritage+month

Smithsonian Institute

https://www.si.edu/events/heritagemonth

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you found something useful.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2019. All rights reserved

Reflecting on Columbus Day, Again (2013)

Image
Salvador Dali’s The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. I have had this print hanging in my home office for the last 20 years.

What is it about Columbus Day that always makes me stop to consider my own identity? Maybe it’s because it’s an easy way to illustrate what I mean about having multiple personalities on being an “American” (be prepared, there are going to be lots of “air-quotes” used in this short piece).  This duality about who Columbus was and what Columbus Day means to me, probably became most clear in 1992, during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing somewhere in the Caribbean, when I was visiting for the first and, thus far, only time, my father’s homeland of Ecuador.

 

Here in the United States, there were plenty of demonstrations and other gatherings meant to highlight how some of the indigenous groups felt. While one side celebrated the “discovery” of the “new world”, the other side lamented the “incursion” on their world. It was a time to reflect on what had happened half a millennia ago, and how the world we live in today was shaped by those events.

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One of my favorite reflections on the topic remains Barry Lopez’s The Rediscovery of North America, and I think it should be required reading as we head forward in history still being shaped by powerful corporate interests with only economic considerations as their bottom lines; where the world and everything in it, including other human beings, are seen as “natural resources” meant for the rich and affluent to exploit to further fill the coffers they will pass along to their progeny. Don’t forget that Columbus’ voyage, while partially backed by the king and queen of Spain, was for all intents and purposes a financial investment meant to make a profit. His desire to find a trade route to the East while travelling west was also precipitated by the fact that many ports and harbors in the Mediterranean, Black and Caspian Seas as well as those in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, were controlled at the time by Muslims who did not have good relations with many European city states.

That summer in 1992, I spent traveling with two of my best friends, through a land that was foreign, yet somehow familiar. Ecuador, being further south than where Columbus and his men landed, and facing the Pacific, became colonized by the Spaniards rather than the British, and it is why I spoke Spanish at home before learning English from Sesame Street and public school. In Ecuador too, that summer, the people there were reflecting on what had started with Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1492. Everywhere we travelled there were murals depicting what most were calling “the incursion”, “the invasion”, “the attack”. Some of the murals depicted natives bowing down before the Europeans or carrying gifts as tribute to the strangers. One mural showed Columbus holding a severed head in one hand while standing atop a pile of bodies. It was uncomfortable to see such images in full color splayed against the building walls.

Image

Aside from providing teachers and students, including myself, with a day off from school, Columbus Day really is my least favorite “holiday”. By now, many people have been relieved of most of the myths associated with the famous sailor. People in his time didn’t believe the Earth was flat, and he certainly wasn’t the “first” person or even European to “discover” the new lands that would come to bear not his name, but that of his fellow “countryman” and cartographer, Amerigo Vespucci.

Despite his fame and infamy, there is still much that people don’t know about Christopher Columbus. Thus, here then are some facts and observations I find fascinating about the man whose name and legend are celebrated on the second Monday of October.

  • Technically speaking, Christopher Columbus was not “Italian”. He was born in Genoa, which at the time was a small, independent city center; one of many left over after the fall of the Roman Empire. Modern Italy wouldn’t come into existence until 1861, so calling Christopher Columbus an Italian, is like calling Sitting Bull a South Dakotan.
  • Christopher Columbus never made it to the one “America” that celebrates him. His first and second voyages explored Hispaniola, (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean, while his third voyage got him to the north coast of South America and his last one made it to Central America.
  • Despite never finding cinnamon, turmeric, ginger or cardamom, and never seeing tigers or elephants or a single city that resembled anything described by Marco Polo or any previous European adventurer, Christopher Columbus reportedly died absolutely convinced that what he had stumbled upon was most definitely, absolutely, just had to be … the Far East. Others would soon prove him very, very wrong.
  • The reason we’re Americans and not Colombians (except for those of you from Colombia, of course) is because a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemuller published a map in 1507 crediting a Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci, with the “idea” that the lands which Columbus happened upon represented a new, heretofore unknown continent.
  • For someone who didn’t think he had “discovered” new lands, but had simply found a westward passage to the Far East, Columbus sure was quick to re-name every place he landed and everyone he encountered.
  • Even though Christopher Columbus gained fame during his lifetime, there are no confirmed contemporaneous portraits of what he actually looked like. Thus, all of the images that we have of him are “as imagined” by artists.
  • Although various accounts have sailors on the Pinta signaling they first spotted land on October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus would later state that he first spotted the land from his boat, the Santa Maria and therefore claimed the reward for whoever first saw land.
  • Columbus wrote two books, including one called the Book of Prophecies in which he uses a handful of Biblical verses to interpret the meaning of his voyages.
  • Despite claims that Columbus died broke and destitute, this is really a matter of perspective. According to the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Nonetheless, it would be wrong to suppose that Columbus spent his final two years wholly in illness, poverty, and oblivion. His son Diego was well established at court, and the admiral himself lived in Sevilla in some style. His “tenth” of the gold diggings in Hispaniola, guaranteed in 1493, provided a substantial revenue (against which his Genoese bankers allowed him to draw), and one of the few ships to escape a hurricane off Hispaniola in 1502 (in which Bobadilla himself went down) was that carrying Columbus’s gold. He felt himself ill-used and shortchanged nonetheless, and these years were marred, for both him and King Ferdinand, by his constant pressing for redress.”

Whether you think Columbus was a hero or not, his voyages changed everything about the world. Suddenly there was another half of the world that NO ONE knew existed.

Thank you for stopping by and I hope you have a great Columbus Day.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2013. All rights reserved.

Nepotism, cronyism and institutional discrimination

This post is in response to a Lowell Sun article by Kim Scott titled, “Lowell School Committee member drafting anti-nepotism measure”. It recounts one minority educator’s experience in Lowell trying to get a promotion for over a decade. The original article can be found at:http://www.lowellsun.com/vervebreakingnewsfeed/ci_23552503/lowell-school-committee-member-drafting-anti-nepotism-measure

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There’s a scene near the end of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator has fallen down a dark sewer and he can’t see anything. The only thing he has with him is his briefcase containing all the diplomas, certificates and letters that he’s gathered throughout his life to validate his worth and his place in society. Left with no other options, the narrator decides to burn these papers, beginning with his high school diploma. It is a powerful symbolic moment in the book, and it leads to the narrator’s epiphany that he has just been a pawn in a large game of race, politics and economics.

Shortly thereafter, the narrator has a dream, where he is surrounded by all the people who have played him for a fool, and have used him for their own ends. After one of his antagonists castrates him, he asks the narrator, “How does it feel to be free of one’s illusions”?

To this, the narrator responds, “Painful and empty”, before starting to laugh a few moments later, to the astonishment of his torturers. Curious, they question why he is rejoicing, to which he says, “I’m not afraid now”.

This is how I felt shortly after the July 4th celebration was over and my wife found out that once again, she had not been chosen for promotion in her school district. It was her 7th or 8th attempt (we’ve stopped counting) in 13 years to move from being a classroom teacher to a leadership position. What good, after all, are her two bachelor’s degrees, three Masters Degrees, eight certifications, and nearly two decades of experience in public schools if she is “invisible” to the people who are doing the hiring and promoting?

Hers is a long story stretching all the way back to 2000, when we first moved near her hometown of Lowell to begin raising our family. At that time, she already had multiple leadership certifications and applied for the Head of the English Department opening at her old high school alma mater. When she lost to a teacher who had been there since she was a student in the high school, she figured it was just a case of “insider’s” first, and was encouraged by the positive feedback everyone gave her. Little did she know then, that this was just the beginning of a torturous, eye-opening and spirit wrenching experience that would coax her into waging a fight which was bigger than us, but which we would have to fight alone.

Our suspicions that something was not right did not really begin until around 2006. After having lost to an “insider” in 2000, my wife reapplied for the Head English Department position when it reopened in 2004. Once again, she was a finalist and found herself encouraged and enthusiastic that she would be able to move upward in her career. This time, however, the “outsider”, she was told, had “more experience as a supervisor”; a factor that had not kept the previous winner of the job from claiming the title. But my wife licked her wounds and continued working hard, earning a license to teach high school social studies so that she could pilot a program at the school where English and History teachers co-taught. She also tutored students in their homes after school, driving all over Lowell in order to make up the money she didn’t get, from the promotion she would never receive.

When the new head of the English department decided she was resigning after less than two years, my wife (who had already been chosen twice as a finalist for the position) asked the leadership at the school if she could be appointed interim, while they searched for a new leader. Instead, her requests were ignored and they hand-picked another staff member who had never expressed any desire to be the English Head and who had never applied for any leadership positions at the school. This was when she started to feel “invisible” and when we started to pay closer attention to who was being hired and promoted.

The new interim had one problem, however, she was not yet certified to be a department head.  So, while they waited for her to complete the paperwork and get all of the necessary documentation in order, the school posted the opening and closed it almost immediately, knowing that “their” candidate wasn’t yet ready. My wife did apply for the position when it was posted, but she did not get a call. Instead they waited for their candidate to be ready and then reopened the posting, at which time my wife was chosen to be one of the finalists.

It was only after they selected the other person that someone from the administration finally told my wife that she did not have the proper licensure; that her principal and assistant principal licenses from New York State were not exactly the same as the department head license required in Massachusetts. It was the ace they had hidden in their pockets for over five years as they pretended to interview her in earnest. Not once had it been mentioned, but my wife accepted defeat and blamed herself for not investigating the issue more rigorously. In reality, this was just a bureaucratic technicality that could have easily been resolved by making a phone call to the Massachusetts DESE.

But it was something more sinister, too. For us, this was the first solid evidence that there was a moving target for my wife to shoot at. When she was the “outsider”, they were looking for “insiders”. When she was the “insider”, they were looking for “outsiders”. Unlike the hand-chosen candidate who was given time on the job, which counted as valuable leadership experience and who was guided by the hand through the licensing and certification process (even posting and closing the job as they waited for her) my wife would receive no such assistance, no such opportunity.

At this point, we turned to the MCAD (Massachusetts Council Against Discrimination) which we quickly learned was a toothless and clawless paper tiger; a bureaucratic stop gap meant to quell people’s complaints rather than address them. Their “investigation” amounted to a questionnaire they sent to the administration about my wife’s complaint, and a twenty-minute “hearing” where the school rolled out their ace in the hole. My wife, according to them, didn’t have one of the posted requirements. What about equal employment opportunities, we asked? What about protections afforded by Affirmative Action or the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

No. We were told. They hadn’t done anything wrong. Unless we had heard someone come right out and call my wife some derogatory name or unless they had somehow overtly hinted that their problem with her was her ethnicity or her disability, then we had no ground to stand on for a discrimination case. There was no Paula Deen moment for us when someone had slipped that way, to reveal his true feelings or personal prejudices. All we had was our own experience of pursuing the “American Dream” and the evidence before our eyes.

My wife decided again, that it was time to move on. She was not going to be promoted in her department and so she attempted to make a lateral move into guidance. She spent a year going to night and weekend classes, giving up her prep and free periods at school to complete the necessary practicum. She received rave reviews from her peers and stellar recommendations from her professors.

When a guidance position opened up at her school, she again felt encouraged and enthusiastic believing that a lateral move was at least more possible than a promotion. In reality, it would be a kind of a promotion, since guidance counselors are paid under the administrator’s contract in her school district. Among the requirements in the posted advertisement was, “5 years minimum teaching experience”. This time, my wife knew she had the correct license, though it was still being processed.

The DESE has an educator portal that allows teachers and administrators to log in and check on their certificates and licenses. My wife’s license had a status of “Ready for Review” which essentially means that all the paperwork is in order and all someone needs to do is verify it. Administrators such as principals and superintendents can, with just a phone call, expedite this procedure if they wish to make sure that a candidate’s certifications and licenses are valid.

More than fifty people showed up to interview for that one coveted position, and when it was all said and done, the person they chose was NOT my wife. Nor was it anyone who was more qualified or had more experience in education. Instead, they chose a person whose previous employment record showed that she had worked as a hotel guest representative during her short tenure as an adult. Worst of all, she did NOT have the posted “5 years minimum teaching experience”.

For us, this was a blatant illustration of how feckless and irresponsible the administration was being in hiring and promotions. When my wife approached her union representative to question how or why someone who did not meet the posted “minimum requirements” could be hired for such a job, she was simply told that it was left to the discretion of the people doing the hiring, mostly the principal. But how could this person’s resume even make it to the principal’s desk as part of the pool of finalists when she did not even have the basic minimums?

This is what hiring committees are for … so that people can hide behind a nebulous cloud of disinformation and give the appearance of propriety, while they carry out their nepotism and cronyism under the appearance of a fair procedure. If there’s a committee, goes the reasoning, no one person can be blamed for any decision and so no one can be held accountable. It works perfectly, acting as a prophylactic against accusations of favoritism or nepotism.

None of the other fifty plus applicants looking for a guidance counselor job, but who all lost to the former hotel employee, had any reason to believe that something nefarious was going on. They showed up with their resumes, transcripts and recommendations in hand, believing that they had a fair shot at a high paying job. And when they were told they didn’t get the job, they probably assumed they had just lost out to someone with more experience or a better education. They might have even reasoned that they had lost out to someone who had already “paid their dues” in the system.

It was a crushing defeat for my wife to realize that she was “invisible”. That despite her Ivy League degree and her long affiliation with the school, that her services and expertise were not ever going to be rewarded there. A week after she was told that she didn’t get the guidance counselor job at the high school, my wife was hired at a community college as the Evening Enrollment Coordinator/ Academic Counselor, where she is essentially doing the same thing that guidance counselors do. She worked that job, sacrificing her nights and weekends so that she could gain valuable experience and be ready for the next guidance counselor opening which just occurred a few weeks ago.

She didn’t get it, which is where this whole narrative began … With us looking at a pile of diplomas and certifications which are useless to us. With us holding each other and reassuring one another that we have to fight against this injustice, because it is NOT just about us.

As first generation Americans, my wife and I are both the children of immigrants who arrived here looking for greater opportunities. None of our parents, not mine nor hers, ever graduated from high school, and yet education was always very important to them. We believed in the myth of hard work and meritocracy, where you were rewarded for what you know, not who you know. Perhaps we were naïve to be so optimistic, but we wanted to believe, we HAD to believe, for we had no other choice. We didn’t have an uncle or a brother or a cousin or an aunt who owned anything or worked someplace they could “get us a job”. Neither did the fifty people who lost to a former hotel employee. Neither do most of the students that we have to try to inspire every day to reach for their dreams.

The problem where my wife works is not just a matter of nepotism and cronyism, however. One of the bullet points in their mission statement says that they are a community: “That strives to meet the needs of a variety of ethnic and language backgrounds, career interests, and learning capabilities and styles by providing a broad range of programmatic offerings”. A quick review of the DESE statistics reveals that Lowell has a student population which is 68% minority, but has a staff which is 91% white. Apparently, meeting these language and career interests does not include hiring people who can be seen as role models for the children of those minority communities.

Nothing to see here folks … that’s what they want you to believe.

Postscript

Interestingly enough, the former Head of the English Department who resigned less than two years after getting the job, has returned to the district where she was rehired at a higher salary for an even better job. In Lowell, it sure does pay to know someone and have the right last name.

What I learned by spying*

*Note about the Title: The full title for this post is, “What I learned by spying: In which I explain why I spent a day monitoring computer activity in random labs of our school, while thinking about reading and literacy”.

quotes

  • You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury
  • Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.”― John Steinbeck

actual post

…………….I am the school’s librarian or library media specialist or library teacher, depending on who you ask. Whatever my title, I am responsible for the library collection which includes books, video tapes, a few dozen DVDs, a handful of cassette tapes (audio books) and a bunch of archived materials. Information in all its forms is what I deal in.

……………Unlike libraries of the past, today’s libraries are connected to the rest of the world via computers and thus, our “library media center” is also home to two computer labs comprised of some sixty computers. These computers are now the primary delivery system for information in my library, which means they are central to my job. These computers are extremely valuable academic resources, even when they are not working as ideally as we would all like.

……………A couple of weeks ago, we received an e-mail from our tech department, which had reviewed the computer usage in the school. I don’t think I can legally share everything they said, but it mentioned the fact that some of our bandwidth at school is being used for “non-academic” activities. Most of it is innocent, insignificant stuff … kids watching a music video or listening to a song streaming from Pandora or GrooveShark (Sites I’ve written about and that I love and use). There are also kids playing online games, most of which are remarkably similar to the low graphics arcade games of a generation ago. The email also mentioned that teachers have a program called LANSCHOOL which allows them to monitor student activity.

……………As the school librarian, I have that software program and I have that teacher responsibility. The program doesn’t always work perfectly; I can’t always see all the computers in my labs and it is glitchy in other ways, but it serves a purpose. Most days, I am not sitting in my office playing the role of Big Brother. I am usually unjamming copiers, cataloging books, helping students with various tech issues and doing a dozen other things to keep things running in my corner of the school.

……………Because we have two labs, each with about thirty computers, we treat them as separate spaces and they each have their own LANSCHOOL “channels”. What we call Lab One are the computers which wrap around the wall that surrounds the pit. Lab Two consists of all the computers furthest from the entrance and circulation desk, by the yellow file cabinets.

……………Lab Two has a “teacher computer” station; a leftover, from a bygone technological era before everyone had their own portable mac air. That lab also has its own channel and visiting teachers are expected to monitor and supervise their own students. Lab One in the LMC, and its thirty or so computers, is the lab that I am most familiar with, since I monitor that lab daily. And there are other computer labs throughout the school, each with their own particular LANSCHOOL channel.

spying

……………Any teacher in the school can change the LANSCHOOL channel they are “viewing” so as to monitor their class as they move around to different computer labs in the school. One day recently, I decided to view multiple channels, which allows a teacher to see many labs at once. As expected, I found many students working on what looked like academic tasks such as word documents and presentation slides. I also found many students logged into social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and the ever growing Pinterest. There were also students playing games on sites with names such as miniclip, addicting games and total jerk face. I am familiar with all of these sites (and many others), since I have included them in the “blocked sites” list I use in the LMC.

……………While I surfed around looking into the different labs, I applied the restrictions I use in the LMC and was, predictably, met with disapproval by many students. Using LANSCHOOL, anyone who is monitoring can communicate with the users via a “chat”-like interface. I sent the students messages such as, “Please do not use Social Networks during school hours” or “Please do not play games on these computers during school hours”. Some students familiar with how LANSCHOOL works noticed my name “htoromoreno” in the dialog box and several began communicating with me. I repeated that during school hours, computers were to be used for academic work and that they should find something to work on; something to bring their grades up or improve their knowledge base.

……………The excuses I got in response were also familiar to me, having heard them in the LMC whenever I tell kids I don’t allow games or social networks. The arguments I got can be summed up as some version of the following:

  • I don’t have any work to do/ I finished all my work.
  • We worked all week/ Friday is a fun day.
  • It’s almost the weekend.
  • It’s the last period of the day.
  • It’s the first period of the day.
  • It’s my lunch period.
  • It’s my study period.
  • I’m bored.
  • It’s my free time.

sidebar … connected to my point

……………A few weekends ago I was on Facebook (at home) playing my turn at Words With Friends, when I got an Instant Message from a former HHS student saying something like, “How are you? I’m at work and I”m so bored.”

……………I responded by warning him that he shouldn’t be using a work computer to log onto Facebook, unless he didn’t mind having all of his personal information under his employer’s electronic scrutiny. He informed me that he was using his own smartphone to get online, and that his info wasn’t in any danger. I half-jokingly teased him that he should be spending his down time on the job reading a book, like good bored employees do. We chatted very briefly, a mere tweetful of words exchanged, but it left me thinking about my own boredom on some of those early jobs.

……………Most of my employment before becoming a teacher were jobs, like bicycle messenger and dishwasher, didn’t really allow me time to sit and be “bored”. But there were a few summers that I worked as an elevator operator that gave me many, many hours of literally sitting around. I worked in NYC, and as the low person on the hiring pole, I got all the overnight and overtime shifts that no one else wanted. This usually meant working construction jobs, bringing loads of debris and materials up and down all night long, all weekend long.

……………Because I grew up in the era before cellphones (BC, to the kids) I found myself with plenty of time during those summers and what I was able to do is something that I am afraid is being lost to the current generation. I sat around getting textual; engaging and expanding my own literacy in ways that no amount of class time could ever accomplish.

……………It wasn’t that I was reading the classics either. During those summers I read Mario Puzo’s books and Robert Parker’s Spencer series. I read Iam Fleming’s James Bond series and books like The Exorcist, the Amityville Horror, and Erich van Daniken’s Chariot of the Gods. I started reading periodicals like OMNI, Scientific American, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog magazine. I read the newspaper daily, of course, several in fact, collecting the different papers available as I went through my day. I would do the crossword puzzle during my lunch break or on the ride home, always disappointed when I couldn’t finish one of the many I worked on that day. I also carried with me at all times at least one puzzle book filled with word searches, anagrams, cryptic quotes, and other word games.

……………Reading was how I spent my down time and it was through reading for myself that I became a truly educated person. It would have been impossible for any school, no matter how good, to have put in my hands the education that I forged for myself through the thousands and thousands of hours I have spent reading. And three things strike me as important here.

……………The first is that it wasn’t an organized or purpose driven or test driven plan that got me educated. It was a course set by my own interests and curiosity. I was playing games and entertaining myself, but the nature of this activity, because it involved text and reading on multiple levels, was different than what I see happening in the media labs and via smartphones.

……………The second is that it was all a textual, literary journey; one that started on a printed page and ended in my imagination. I did at least half of the work, taking in what the writer had set before me, as best as I could each time I encountered it. The first time that I read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, I must have been around eight or nine, my mother having purchased for me a Illustrated Classics version of it. It was an adventure story for me of a bygone time and nothing more. By the time it was assigned to me as an English undergrad, I had read Twain’s classic novel about a dozen times and had learned to “read” it as political satire, as historical document, as social commentary. I was literate, and my experience was deeper and more significant. Nowadays, I know seniors with decent grades who do well in most of their classes, and are not embarrassed to declare that they have never read a complete novel. They relish in their “aliteracy” and long to prove their point by resisting reading whenever they can.

……………My third observation is that I was able to sit around reading and working on word puzzles without the interruption of a buzzing, beeping, attention-getting device in my pocket. I am no stranger to the siren call of electronic devices and mindless media. I know their power all too well and it is another reason that I worry about how the current generation of students view their “free time” at school. When I see a student sitting in the library, hands conspicuously hidden inside their book bags across their laps, their eyes following me around, waiting for a moment to either read a text or send a text, I feel sad that they cannot pull themselves away long enough to make a new friend in a book. I see them losing thirty or forty more minutes of their educational time, as they update their social page or kill aliens in a first person shooter, and I can’t help but connect what I see to why, “out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math” in the most recent international test of 15 year olds. These things are connected.

in closing

……………We are living in exciting and revolutionary times. Technology in general and computer advances specifically have transformed the world around us faster than we have been able to keep up with. As a librarian, library teacher and media specialist these changes are the proverbial double edged sword; at once freeing up all the information of the world for use and also unleashing all that entertaining, alluring, non-academic stuff into the laps of our students.

……………When I was a graduate student, considering a career as a teacher, there was an innovative guy named Christopher Whittle who was interested in creating a partnership between education and private enterprises. He went on to create the Edison Schools, which folded in the early 2000s, but when I was student teaching, Whittle had a program called Channel One. In a nutshell, Whittle’s company provided schools with free televisions for the classrooms and a satellite dish for the school. The stipulation was that the school would have to show short “news-like” programs (which weren’t bad, actually) and (here’s the battleground part) two minutes of advertising. The major arguments against the advertisements was that participating schools were delivering a captive audience to the advertisers and that the schools were also giving de facto approval for whatever was being advertised to the students.

……………That was only twenty years ago, but that was a time before YouTube and good streaming video; before Google and Hulu and Oovoo, before Skyping and “friending” were verbs. That was a time before GPS, USB, PDF, JAVA, JPEG, PCI, and a bunch of other letters strung themselves together to confuse the hell out of all of us. We are still trying to make sense of what it all means, but I know that if you spend more time doing one thing, you spend less time doing something else. In the case of too many students in school, the thing they are doing less of is reading and working with text.

……………As far as I’m concerned, our work is never done when it comes to holding on to and promoting literacy. It is a very recent human innovation, going back only five or six millennia, and its history among “common folk” is even shorter. Considering that we live in the so-called “information age”, we are freed from the worry of scarcity. Our overflow of data instead, calls for individuals who have their own deep, informed knowledge base to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, program from propaganda. The best thing our students could do with any free school time is read a book.

closing quote, for good measure

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” … Franklin D. Roosevelt

*CYA Note

While this blog bears the Haverhill High School name and is linked to the HHS homepage, the contents and views expressed in all posts belong solely to the author and should not be taken as being endorsed by Haverhill High School or any of its other employees.

Race, class, work … or how to sell a story

__________My colleague and Words with Friends nemesis, Michael Lavieri, first mentioned reading Gene Marks’ Forbes article, “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” about a week ago. Since then, I have seen, read and heard a number of references and critiques of the article. Everything from indignation about the white author’s simplistic analysis of the current economic situation to overly sarcastic letters in response to Marks’ suggestions. He is not the first (nor I suspect, last) person to be chastised for giving poor black anyone advice. A tradition that I suspect began shortly after Booker T. Washington’s 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition, urging blacks to “cast down your buckets where you are”.

__________After reading the article myself, I don’t understand what all the hysteria or controversy is about. Or maybe I understand, a little.  In Time magazine, the writer Toure, responded to Marks’ article by basically condemning the author for having the audacity to give poor black kids any advice since you know, he’s not black, poor or a kid. How dare he? This kind of hulabaloo is about race and its entangled relationship with social class, when the article, with all its obvious limitation is really about work, and the personal responsibility each of us has to hone our talents in spite of our limitations. Amy Chua caused a similar uproar when she published her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, where she praised the rough discipline of her “Chinese” upbringing over the soft laissez faire parenting of “American” mothers.

__________Take away the element of race/ ethnicity, and it’s really a conversation about class differences …. that is, connections and expectations. But Mark’s article, as trite and superficial as it is, is also most importantly about the work that makes the difference between “getting by” and “being great” at something. The work, the commitment and the vision to bring them together is something that no one can give to any of us. Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, that there were plenty of kids who grew up in the same suburbs at the same time as Bill Gates, but it only produced one Bill Gates.  The same can be said nowadays of people from all walks of life, from plenty of places (think Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Carter, Justin Bieber … yes even Bieber).

__________Many minority writers, including myself, who have taken the time and energy to respond to Mr. Marks’ suggestions are obviously seething at the paternalism they sense in his work. The idea that all it takes is hard work to make it in this country, however, is one of our nation’s most treasured myths, along with the notion of the DIY individual and the countless tales of bootstrap pulling. Today we remember Horatio Alger not because he was a great writer, but because he cemented in our collective imaginations the archetype for the American hero … a nobody from nowhere, an outsider who through dint of hard work and personal perseverance casts off that most distasteful of all un-American blemishes: poverty.

__________Mr. Marks could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just removed one word from his title and thesis. Of course, this would have meant that no one (including myself) would be talking about the article today, and that’s no way to sell a story. What controversy would anyone find with such cream puff advice such as, “And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.  Getting good grades is the key to having more options.  With good grades you can choose different, better paths.” Blah. It’s such a shame that bringing in race is still like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the discussion. But it is and it will remain so as long as class and race are so closely tied together, and as long as we continue to discuss racial groups as monoliths with some sort of essentialist quality that percolates in the blood of each individual.

__________What I found most interesting about Marks’ article was his perfunctory and mostly unintentional revelation that there is a class system at work that most people (black, white, and other) pretend doesn’t exist. He mentions that his own kids have an advantage over the kids in the poor neighboring community just because of where they live and who they’re surrounded by. Then, in the middle of his tips he says this:

  • Most private schools I know are filled to the brim with the 1%.  That’s because these schools are exclusive and expensive, costing anywhere between $20 and $50k per year.  But there’s a secret about them.  Most have scholarship programs.  Most have boards of trustees that want to give opportunities to kids that can’t afford the tuition.  Many would provide funding for not only tuition but also for transportation or even boarding.  Trust me, they want to show diversity.”

__________Three things struck me about this passage. First his admission that most private schools are not filled with the best and brightest students who are there necessarily because they tested in or showed great promise in some field. They are there because they belong to a certain class. Period. Second, the idea that scholarship programs are some sort of secret, even in this day and age of ultra connectedness; some back door entry into the hallowed halls of their privileged institutions. Thirdly, the line “they want to show diversity”. Not they want to be diverse. Not they believe in diversity. They want to “show” diversity. ‘Nuff said.

__________I provide links for all my references, so you can read and decide for yourself how you feel about this all. Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great Sunday.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2011. All rights reserved.

Thoughts and thanks

          Hello, again … I’ve missed two three Sunday posts here, and I’ve started writing this entry four different times about four different things, but I feel it’s time to put something up and get back on track. So here is a couple weeks’ worth of thoughts, observations and a link…

          So Halloween was canceled? Or postponed in many communities because of a freak storm that left as many as three quarters of a million people in Massachusetts without electricity. Sure, it’s been great weather ever since, but I was one of those people left without power for a few days, and I have neighbors who didn’t get their power back until more than a week after the storm had passed. My home got its connection back to the civilized world around one in the afternoon on Tuesday, November 1, 2011. As is usual for me, this “event” gave me much to think about and reflect upon. Here are a handful of personal observations:

  • I am woefully under prepared for emergencies: The truth is that I have lived through many events that would qualify as emergencies, such as the the blackout of ’77, the blizzard of ’78, Hurricane Gloria, Y2K, the noreaster of 2004, the financial meltdown of 2008, and so on. While each of these events impacted my life in some small way, each was a relative blip in my emotional landscape. I’ve been really fortunate to have lived four and a half decades of a relatively crisis free life. I’ve never been in the bull’s eye of something like Hurricane Katrina, Chernobyl, Bhopal Gas Leak, the World Trade Center or any other such catastrophes we learn about daily. Perhaps it has been this experience that has led me to be so lax in preparing for real catastrophes. So far, I’ve gotten by okay with just what I have available to me to get by, until things get back to “normal”. If my wife hadn’t sold candles at some point in the past, we wouldn’t have had any in the house. The only flash lights we had were all attached to my oldest son’s “spy gear” toys … night vision goggles, nerf guns with lighted scopes, thumb sized LEDs.
  • Electricity & indoor plumbing are the roots of modern comfort: Sure glass windows are great, and electronic gadgets that we plug into the walls make for awesome forms of entertainment, but the truth is that we really only need lights, heat and water indoors to make for pretty fabulous modern living. I use my computer, television and radio like the media addict that I am, but I didn’t miss them hardly as much as I missed having lights to read a book by, and water to rinse my hands and take a shower. I can, however, learn to live comfortably without most of my appliances. During my years in college and grad school, I didn’t own a TV for seven years. Even today, I’ve never owned a microwave, ipod or a DVR unit. I don’t eat much toast or make much coffee at home. What I do need at home are lights, a refrigerator for food, a stove for cooking, heat in the home, and a working sink, tub and toilet. Everything else is a bonus.
  • I am no longer a city boy at heart: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and while I did have to shovel out my stoop and the sidewalk, I never had to worry about trees or leaves or any sort of yard work. It has been more than ten years now since I bought my first home and I have learned how much work it takes to maintain a house and the property it sits on. Even though I have a lot of land to cover, I really enjoy the time I have just being outside, raking a bunch of leaves, clearing some brush, cutting back a tree. It is hard work and time consuming, and I don’t really do any gardening or beautifying of my place. I don’t wear headphones or listen to music while I work outside. I just listen to the sounds coming from the woods around me, monitor my breathing and lose myself in thought or thoughtlessness.
  • I love my solitude, but recognize my need for others: While I was out there clearing my yard of the debris left by the one day storm, I couldn’t help but feel really lonely at times. Individualism is held in the highest regard in the United States and it is the reason we all want our own homes, our own cars, our own rooms, our own everything. We are not used to sharing, especially when it comes to sharing burdens or responsibilities. I grew up in a house with two younger brothers, two adopted cousins, my maternal grandfather, my paternal grandmother, two uncles and an aunt. Whenever there was something that needed to be done, there was much help to be had. Nowadays, I have to bribe, threaten or trick my eleven year old son to come help me; but once he’s out there, it changes everything.

Quick Hits (In the spirit of thankfulness)

  • Thank you to Ms. Jones, for giving me the idea of being thankful, and for always having a smile and kind word … no matter what.
  • Thank you to Ms. McClain, Ms. Nunez-Donnelly and all their dancers for their wonderful presentation in the LMC for Hispanic Heritage Month. The enthusiasm and eager participation of the audience demonstrated the finest qualities of our student body and left us all feeling really good heading into that weekend.
  • Thank you to Ms. Patturelli and all the guidance counselors for their wonderful effort in organizing and supervising the college fairs held in the LMC during October. It was great to see so many schools visiting HHS and realizing how many opportunities you open for our students through your work.
  • Thank you to all the teachers (too many to name) who continue to use the LMC computer labs and resources, despite several technological set backs. Your patience and understanding in dealing with our technical difficulties proves you always have a plan “B” to fall back on. We’ll continue to work hard to keep our labs in the best condition possible because we believe your students’ time and work matters.
  • Thank you to the building maintenance crew who always comes around to help in a pinch. Your attention to detail makes a huge difference in our work environment. I like the color coded hallways if for nothing else than to break the beige monotony. (Now help me finish painting the mural out side the TV studio).
  • And of course, my biggest “thank you” to Ms. Sicard, for refusing to stop showing up. Thank you for being there day in and day out, bright eyed and fluffy tailed, ready to take on the hordes that come at you before I even step into the building. You are like the NOAA tsunami warning system in the ocean of my job. (Too much Big Bang Theory in the background).

The LINK: As always, I look through TED Talks to find a fascinating speaker. I hope you feel the same way after listening for twenty minutes. Charlie Todd: The shared experience of absurdity (Like we’d know anything about that).

Now this post is done … and I can move on. Thank you for reading, and I hope there are many things you’re thankful for today.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2011. All rights reserved.

Reflecting on OBL

               I confess. I was watching Celebrity Apprentice with my wife when they interrupted the broadcast to bring us what would eventually become the news of the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I’m not saying that to be cute or to try and tell a good story. (Though I do wish to do both). I never watch reality shows, and I certainly try to limit my intake of people as self-absorbed as Donald Trump for fear of being sucked in by their powerful personal magnetism.

               But there I was on the evening of Sunday May 1st, cuddling with my wife, exercising valuable neurons to learn who Nene was, and why she hated skinny Star Jones. I made a comment about how it was too bad that Meatloaf’s real name was Michael and not John, so that the men’s team would be John Rich, Lil Jon and John Lee Aday. My wife laughed and told me to shush it, that they were getting ready to fire someone on the show.

               Then the show was interrupted because the President was about to make an announcement. I joked that Obama was really getting back at Donald Trump as we waited listening to the broadcasters hint uncomfortably at the news that was coming. Then came the news that Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed. And we waited again, this time for the President’s official announcement and we watched an empty podium at the end of a long regal white hallway carpeted in red. When the President appeared, here’s what he said:

               Since that announcement, the twenty four hour news machine that is the new media reality has spun together countless hours going over the specifics of the event, the decisions that led to the operation, the aftermath of the killing, the burial at sea, what to do with the pictures, and on and on. Most adults, by now have probably started to tune out the spin doctors on the left and right arguing on cable television about the minutia and extreme conspiracy theories that have begun to creep into the conversation. I don’t blame them.

               In schools, however, it’s our job not just to teach our students about our subject matters, but about the world they inhabit; about the world they’ll inherit. It’s one of the reasons why assignments like the research paper are so important, especially going forward. Our students need to be able to find information, cross reference it with other sources, consider the sources, distinguish fact from opinion, then synthesize that information with everything else they already know about the world.

               Most seniors at the high school were just eight years old when the attacks on September 11th occurred. Most freshman were in preschool or still at home, but hopefully not in front of a television. I was unloading children from a school bus in Lowell, part of my daily duty as the elementary school librarian. My oldest son was about to turn two years old in a couple of months, and I remember thinking about him as I looked up at the crystal blue sky on that Tuesday morning.

               I can’t recall exactly what I was thinking, but I know that I was feeling pretty good about my life in general. I was a new father, had recently bought my first house, and was in the process of getting my certification to become a school librarian. That deep, beautiful blue sky that morning seemed emblematic of my future. Then a parent who knew I was originally from NYC mentioned in passing that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I looked up again at the open skies, imagining a really bad pilot poorly maneuvering a small single engined plane. By the time I turned on a television in the faculty room, it was evident that it was a much larger plane that had struck the South Tower in New York.

               I was watching as the second plane hit. Watching as the first tower fell. Watching as the second tower fell. Watching as the Pentagon burned. Watching as the story unfolded and I started learning for the first time of a man named Osama Bin Laden. And now, ten years later, he was dead. Left for consideration, however, are all the ways in which the world has changed in those ten years because of September 11th and Osama Bin Laden.

               As a teacher, I don’t want to tell you WHAT to think about all of this. But I do want to tell you TO THINK about all this. Osama Bin Laden is dead. Why does it matter? Why is it news? Why is it so important that they could interrupt not just Celebrity Apprentice, but every single channel? 

Sites Recalling The Events of September 11, 2001 

Thank you for reading, and may you have a great week.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2011. All rights reserved.

What I learned this summer

               There aren’t many regular readers to this blog, so you might not have noticed that I took the summer off from posting here. Not by choice, mind you. I love writing about things I discover online or sharing ideas or recommendations that I think will be of interest to my few dedicated readers (I know you’re out there, so I’m sorry that I didn’t write anything for two months!). But this summer, I did something that was so intense and took up so much of my time and energy, that I did not have any time to research AND post; I taught leather craft at summer camp. (My running joke all summer was that between my librarian skills and my leather craft knowledge, I was a 16th century renaissance man.)

               I spent eight weeks cutting and preparing leather for student projects, and learned a fascinating new trade in the meantime. Prior to this, I had never worked with leather, so I had to learn everything I could … and fast. My employers tried to get the prior teacher to train me, but she was unavailable. They also had a company called Chaps & Chains (I’m not making this up) that offered to train me, but I didn’t get their contact information in time, and I decided to take matters into my own hands.

               While unpacking the supplies for the leather craft class, I discovered a number of books like Leathercraft for Beginners and catalogs for the Tandy Leather Company. Naturally I read through these printed texts, and learned quite a bit about leather. When I was done reading, I turned to the internet to see what the books were talking about and discovered dozens of great videos that demonstrated how to prepare and work with leather. Here are two videos, so you can visualize how I spent my summer:

               So, what is the point of this post, anyway? Well, I did want to explain my absence (though I wish it were something more exciting than teaching leathercraft at summer camp). I also needed to get back to writing here, and summer camp is officially over now, so I can’t use that as an excuse. More than anything, though, I wanted to share something I learned (or re-learned) with you, and here it is.

               I found it odd, and even beautiful, that I could learn how to do something like working with leather, that has been around for thousands of years, by using the internet; our latest and greatest achievement. I learned everything I needed to know about working with leather (how to use mallets, stamping tools, rotary punches, slickers, bevelers, swivel knives, heavy stems; how to set snap, buckles, rivets, pyramid points and conchos, and much more) from the internet. What made me a good leather craft guy (as some of the campers still called me after 8 weeks) was that I cared about what I was doing, and I used the incredible power of our connected world to teach myself something new.

               This revelation made me wonder, why do we still need schools, if you can learn anything via the internet? Why all the fuss around September? I think it has to do with why I was really a good leather craft guy, and the reason is because I was a teacher at summer camp. I was a teacher first, and a leather guy second. I was excited about what I knew (it was all so new to me) and I wanted the kids to know I was excited for them (even though it was the 4th or 5th or 6th year of leather for some kids). I also cared about every project that every child was working on … believe me, you cut four hundred strips of leather and you will care about what becomes of every inch of that leather.

               I don’t mean to be obscure. What I re-learned this summer is that it’s really hard to be a good (or great, which is what I aim for) teacher. It takes a lot of work to know stuff, and to teach anything to anyone. It also takes patience, caring, compassion and love. As teachers, we need to love what we’re teaching, and the students we’re teaching.

               Thank you for stopping by, and I’ll see you in September.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.

Some thoughts on MLK Day

              For most of us, the third Monday in January has become just another day off. Another day to sit around on Facebook, catch up on Twitter, clean up the house or get a great sale price on something else we don’t really need (do we have MLK Day sales yet?) Other holidays or days of remembrance have been equally diluted of meaning. Does anyone ever remember to pull out the Declaration of Independence to read at the 4th of July family barbecue? Why isn’t Veteran’s Day ever moved to a Monday, like other holidays, but must always be celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month?

              In a diverse and multi-ethnic society like we have here in the United States, national holidays are crucial to creating a unifying story for the people. Certainly almost everyone who is here knows why we celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day, and why we gather around for a big meal with family in November to celebrate Thanksgiving. But other holidays, such as Columbus Day and even Christmas, have recently fallen into some controversy and disfavor, because our attitudes and demographics have changed.

              Columbus Day, in particular, has been scrutinized by social critics and political activists, and is countered in many Latin American countries and some Native and Mexican American communities with “Dia de la Raza”, the Day of the Race. This kind of social conflict is caused by the same thing that also constitutes our greatest strength; our diversity. But if it is left to fester and grow virulent, this kind of disharmony in our grand national consciousness can and will explode.

              Thus, holidays and national celebrations, especially for a secularized society like ours, take on greater importance. For there remains at the core of who we are, one unfortunate, irreconcilable truth. That we come from many backgrounds and start in differing circumstances and therefore, jump in at very dissimilar places in the story that is America. But just as we are many, we are expected to come together as one (E Pluribus Unum) and we can gain some understanding of what we revere as a country by looking at our national holidays.

              A quick survey of these days reveals that we value our freedom (4th of July), honor our soldiers (Veterans Day and Memorial Day) and prize our work (Labor Day). Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations tend to focus our attention on families and sharing of our good fortunes with others, so these holidays highlight our generosity and community. Presidents Day celebrates Washington’s birthday, though most people assume it also commemmorates Lincoln’s birth, and is a nod to a recognition of our own history, our admiration of great leaders, and an invitation to learn more about the United States.

              Then there is Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, which we celebrate on the third Monday of every January. Today. And what are we supposed to be celebrating? Certainly it is a day to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to acknowledge his place in the history of our country. I’ve heard some media figures and national leaders, including President Obama, suggest that today be used as a day of service, which is a good place to start.

              But to me, there seems to be something missing in the way we honor Dr. King’s memory if we only offer our service or volunteer our efforts one day of the year. We also miss the point of Dr. King’s mission if we only remember him as a civil rights leader, for he was much more than that. Though the focus of his work concerned equal rights for Black Americans, Martin Luther King also fought for workers’ rights, labor unions and was an outspoken critic of the War in Vietnam. More importantly, throughout all of these struggles, Dr. King organized grass roots forces whose racial, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds represented every band of the spectrum.

              Perhaps this, then, is what we are celebrating today, not just the man. We are celebrating the power of the people, the will of the masses, and our ability to change course as a nation when we work together. Today is a day to acknowledge the many faces at every rally, boycott and march that is obscured in the background of every picture where MLK stands front and center. For without them, without us, without the people gathering in numbers to stand up for what is right, there would be no legacy to celebrate.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day and thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2010. All rights reserved.