Self Reflection or Self Loathing?

Photo by Albert Dera on Unsplash

When I was a teacher, a great deal of my time was taken up with helping children to manage their social lives. A lot of time was spent helping the kids deal with their anger and frustration as they interacted with other kids.

I have a very clear memory of one intervention. A little boy had been somewhat unkind to his classmate. He didn’t think he’d been mean, of course. He thought that he had just stated the obvious. But his “obvious” was painful and cruel, and his classmate was in tears.

I let each of the kids express themselves, without interruption or response. Then I addressed the child who had been rude.

“Do you think you should apologize to your classmate, and tell them that you didn’t intend to be hurtful?”

His response was unsurprising, but it was also frustrating.

“Why do I need to say that I was bad?”, he asked.

I took a breath.

“Nobody is calling you bad,” I began. “In fact, I know you well enough to know that you are not a bad kid. You are not mean. But your words hurt your classmate.”

It took some time, and a good deal of patience. But eventually, this little ten year old child was able to apologize for the actions that had caused pain. He was able to talk to me about the fact that he hoped he could learn not to say hurtful things.


Self-reflection was a gift to this little boy. Self-reflection helped him, as it helps all of us, to move forward towards a better future. This tender hearted little person chose to look closely at his actions so that he could slowly and carefully become a better human being.


The chance to look at our actions, our words, our beliefs. A chance to improve ourselves as human being, in an effort to make the world a somewhat better place for other human beings.

Seems like a worthy activity for a ten year old, right? Stop being mean on the playground. Stop saying mean things. Don’t laugh at your friends when they struggle. Be kind. Be good. Be helpful.

Every adult I have ever met in my 65 years of life would applaud the efforts of this little child, and would congratulate him on trying to be a better person.


Why is it so upsetting and unpatriotic when we ask our country to do the same self-reflection? Why do so many Americans see this kind of introspection as an attack?

I don’t know.

But I don’t like it.

As an old white lady, I am certainly full of self reflection when I look back on the beliefs of my childhood. I was raised in an upper-middle-class white suburb of Boston. My parents were first generation Americans who thought of themselves as open minded and accepting. And they were, within the context of the 1960s in Massachusetts.

I certainly believed myself to be a nice, non-racist, good person.

But you know what?

When I went to college and met people from a hundred different backgrounds, I realized that even though I meant well, I had whole lot to learn about the world around me. I learned that the United States was NOT always seen as a benevolent and kind benefactor. I learned that in spite of what I’d been taught, slavery was not a short term, temporary financial system that helped to create the “greatest nation in the history of the world.”

I learned a lot.

And I am still learning.

I am learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre. And the history of the KKK. I am learning about the horrific crimes committed by the CIA in the 50s and 60s.

I am reflecting on the history of the country in which I live. The country where I was born. I am looking at this nation with the eyes of one who wants to be better. One who wants to understand what lead to our triumphs and to our losses.

I am self-reflecting.

Shouldn’t we all be doing that? Shouldn’t every citizen of every nation be looking at their history and assessing what has been good and what has been a mistake? Shouldn’t we all be emulating my young student as we try to become something a bit better than what we were before?

For most of my adult life, every time I’ve questioned the actions of my government, I’ve been met with something akin to the phrase, “America; love it or leave it!”

The implication has always been that if I question any aspect of my government’s actions, I must hate America and I should immediately leave.

I’ve been called a “Russky” and a “Commie” when I’ve questioned the wisdom and morality of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been told that I should pack up and move to China when I’ve complained about the inflated power of corporate lobbyists in the creation of our national laws.

Worst of all, though?

The worst part of this, to me, is the fact that I have been accused of “hating” my country when I question her commitment to equality.

Because I believe that Black Lives Matter, I’ve been told that I hate the American dream. Because I have stated my support for gender equality and full acceptance of my gay fellow citizens, I’ve been told that I despise the very ideals on which this country was founded.

And so I find myself troubled, angry and bewildered. I find myself with only one response at hand.


That’s all I have to say to those to want to claim that any self-reflection on the part of this American society is an exercise in self-loathing.

I question the founding principles of this nation, which were based upon the rights of land-owning white men.

I question the legitimacy of our story line, in which we crow about our love of “equality” and “freedom”.

I question the wisdom of pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, and of demanding that our children blindly do the same.

I am reflecting deeply on the creation of our country. I am acutely aware of all of the good that has been accomplished within our borders. I am grateful for the fact that my grandparents were welcomed here as immigrants, even as I acknowledge the fact that it was their desperation and their willingness to work for pennies that opened that door to them.

I am an American.

I am a teacher.

I am aware that without self-reflection and an honest look at ourselves, there can be no progress, no growth, no better future.

Because I am an American patriot, I believe that it is my duty to reflect honestly on all that has made this country successful. But I believe just as firmly that is my duty to reflect honestly on all of the mistakes, failures, crimes and injustices that have paved our way to this moment.

America: Love it by asking every single day that it become something even better and stronger than it was yesterday.

Time Travel

Wormhole_travel_as_envisioned_by_Les_Bossinas_for_NASAFor as long as I can remember, I have wished that I could travel through time.   I fell in love with “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was in the fifth grade, and the whole time travel idea has consumed me ever since.

Of course, I don’t have any real desire to travel into the future.  I mean, I’ll be dead by then. Why would I go there?

But I love history.  I would so love to go back in time! I’d love to see what my little town looked like 100 years ago.  I would love to visit my little New England town in the days of horse drawn carriages and small farms.

Sometimes, on lovely spring days, I drive to Concord and walk along the Battle Road, wishing that I could see it on the morning of April 19th, 1775.   Wouldn’t that be something?

So I guess I should be happy that so many of our political leaders are trying to do their best to bring us back into those days of yore.

If we go back in time, to where these politicians want to take us, we can once again enjoy the days where religion trumped science.

We can once again enjoy those happy, simple times, where children are born whether or not there is someone there to take care of them and whether or not they are wanted. We can enjoy the lovely days when children came down with measles and mothers were able to nurse them back to health, if they didn’t die.  If we are lucky, and the current trend continues, we may be able to once again delight in the pleasures of diphtheria.  Maybe we’ll even meet “dropsy” once again.

And I guess I’m going to be able to enjoy the days of the Old West, too, since it looks like pretty soon every American will own a gun. And will be able to carry that gun under his jacket and walk with it into the local school and library and office and state house.

What a thrill.

I don’t know how my children and grandchildren will feel about all this, but at least this history buff is going to get her time travel thrill!

Dear Theo

My pal, Theo.

My pal, Theo.

Dear Mr. Epstein,

Is it OK if I call you Theo?  I kind of feel like we’re friends.  You and I go way back, even though you don’t know it.

See, I became a Red Sox fan way, way back in 1967, when my fifth grade teacher took our class to Fenway to see a baseball game. (This was a LONG time before the Common Core; field trips were just for fun back then. My teacher was a huge Sox fan.  She was very….stoic.)   I went with my classmates to Fenway on that warm June night back in 1967, and I saw Tony Conigliaro hit a home run in the tenth to win the game.  My heart literally turned over in my chest, and I fell hopelessly and permanently in love with Boston Baseball.

And so I suffered.

For a very, very long time. I welcomed every spring with the words “This is our year!” and I ushered out every October with the murmured sigh, “Wait till next year.”

It was a long, sad stretch of years, Theo, without a Championship Team.

And then………

You came along.  You were young, and handsome and confident and brash.  Everyone in New England fell in love with you. We bought those fabulous “In Theo we trust” Tshirts.  We put on hats that said, “Why not us?”  We started to believe in each other, in our Team, in our boys. We started to believe in you.

And you brought us the incredible life-changing miracle of 2004.


I’ll never forget that blood red moon, or the feeling of disbelief and euphoria that came over us that night.

Theo, in you we trusted, and you delivered the goods.

Now I have a favor to ask you.

Now you are a Cub.  You’re in charge of breaking another curse.  You are being trusted by a whole new crew of stoic, die-hard fans.  They are praying for you to pull off another miracle.

You’re pretty young, Theo. You probably think you have all the time in the world. But the thing is, there is one guy, one awesome, feisty, proud old Cubbie who needs you to pull off the miracle THIS YEAR.

That guy is my Uncle, Lennie Merullo. The last remaining Cub to have played in a World Series.  He was the starting shortstop for the Cubs in 1945.  He’s been dining out on those stories ever since.


Uncle Lennie was my hero, especially after 1967.  He taught me how to throw a curve ball.  He talked to me about Spring Training, and PeeWee Reese and signing with Mr. Wrigley.  He is a living, breathing artifact of American History. I grew up on my Dad’s stories of the exploits of his famous older brother.

Theo, Uncle Lennie is 97 years old now.  The Cubs flew him out to Wrigley last spring to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the ball park where you are now the man in charge.

You should watch this video from that day. You’ll see just how much your Cubs mean to Uncle Lennie. 

0606_cubs-merullo-e1402066276932-624x499Dear Theo, old friend, old pal.

Can you please work your magic this year? It would be so incredibly wonderful if Uncle Lennie could celebrate the end of the Cubs Curse.  It would mean the world to him, and to all of his kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews and cousins and friends and neighbors.

Theo, in you we trust.   We BELIEVE.   You can do it. I mean, you have Jon Lester on your side, for goodness sake. We sort of gave him to you.

Dear Theo,  You can do it.  I will personally promise you all the homemade ravioli you can eat if you just manage this one additional miracle.

Please let the Cubbies win it all in 2015.

Just think of how cool it would be to have Uncle Lennie there to hold up the trophy.

Oh, Canada


We are on vacation in Canada.  We’re up on Prince Edward Island, to be precise, where we are surrounded by people from all parts of Canada: Nova Scotia, Quebec, Montreal, Ontario, Alberta.  It’s been a wonderful trip, let me tell you!  I have learned so much!

First of all, I have learned that the ridiculously broad and sweeping generalizations about Canadians are all true.

These people are frighteningly nice.  This whole country is nice!  I feel as if I’ve spent the last five days in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

It’s so uniformly pleasant here that it almost seems fake, at least to a couple of jaded Americans like us.

First of all, there is absolutely no litter anywhere, even though there doesn’t seem to be anybody out there cleaning it up. Every street is spotless.  Every field is clean. Every beach is immaculate.

I think Canadians are just too nice to make a mess!  Even the two cities, Summerside and Charlottetown, are so pristine that they make me feel bad about the state of my kitchen.   They’re like Disneyworld, only with awesome pubs and great seafood.

We’ve met tons of people here, because every single Canadian seems to have been born with a gene that programs them to smile at you and ask you how you’re doing.  We’ve been greeted warmly and kindly by the guy who runs our motel, the teenaged kids in the little souvenir shops, the young waiters and waitresses in the restaurants and an old lady sitting on a bench outside of a knitting shop.  They all ask where we’re from, how we like the island, and if we need any advice on good places to eat. And they all say lovely things about the US, too!  I’m not sure if they mean those nice things, but they are too kind to say anything disparaging.

And Canadians don’t seem to ever swear (at least away from the hockey rink, they don’t). Truly, I haven’t heard a “freakin” or an “effin” since I crossed the border.  So refreshing!

Of course, it’s not all perfect. We almost got killed on the roads a few times, because we weren’t prepared for drivers to stop and let other cars cut into traffic. We were totally shocked to find that merging in traffic up here is smooth and effortless, and when you let a guy pull in ahead of you, he smiles and waves.  And he expects you to smile and wave back!

The city of Charlottetown had us a little thrown off for the first few hours. We couldn’t figure out why it sounded so strange, until we realized that we weren’t hearing honking horns, sirens, jackhammers or people screaming.  We were in a city.  A capital city, and we could hear the clopping of hooves from the horse-drawn carriages.


Even the dogs here are nice.  They’re everywhere, walking along with happy doggy faces beside their polite owners. Some are on leashes, some are off.  All of them walk along joyfully, tails wagging, greeting people and dogs alike with gentle “woofs” and lolling tongues. We haven’t heard a bark yet.  Stranger still, we haven’t run into a single pile of poop.   I am NOT kidding.

Naturally, I began to wonder how it could possible be that every aspect of Canada and Canadians seems to be so civilized and pleasant, when so much of life in America is not. It really got me to ruminating, you know?

Luckily, I know a fair amount of American history, and I got a chance to learn a little bit about Canadian history while we were here.  By comparing the two, I think I’ve solved the mystery of Canadian gentility.

For starters,  both countries began as Colonies of England and/or France.  Both were part of the major tug-o-war between those two huge powers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Both had original settlements in the early 1600’s on their East Coasts.  Both of them were big on fishing, cutting down huge trees, trapping fur bearing animals.  So far, not much difference.

Eventually, all of North American came under the control of England, and France had to slink away and try to control places like North Africa.  No difference between the northern part of the continent and the southern.

But when the Colonies decided that they wanted to have autonomy from their English rulers, they took two very different approaches.

The Americans had a “revolution”, replete with fiery rhetoric. Everyone knows the quote “Give me liberty, or give me death!” There were famous battles, like the ones at Lexington and Concord, that are still commemorated to this day.  There was international military intervention (from the same Frenchmen who had been booted out earlier).  The whole thing dragged on for eight terrible years, costing countless lives and millions of dollars, and leaving the new United States in a shambles as it tried to claw its way to its feet and take its place among the sovereign nations of the world.

And then there was Canada.  The colonies of what is now Canada were perfectly happy to be run by the British right up until 1864.  They just went along fishing, growing food, trapping furs and rolling their eyes at those violent thugs from New England, content to let the British provide protection.  It wasn’t until the middle of the Civil War, it turns out, that a bunch of leaders in the maritime colonies decided that maybe they should band together and form a Confederation so they could fight off those crazy Americans if they decided to attack. (Nope. Not making that up.)  The folks in the other Canadian Colonies (West Canada and East Canada) sort of crashed the meeting, and showed up on Prince Edward Island to join in the discussion of whether to form a Confederation.

As an American, I sort of expected that there would be a huge fight between the maritime colonies and the others, but there wasn’t!  Instead, the maritime leaders invited the Canadian leaders to a whole bunch of parties. They ate, drank good champagne, danced with the ladies, got to know each other.  When they all finally got together to hash things out, they did it behind closed doors in the Charlottetown Province House.  Nobody knows exactly what was said, because they made sure that nobody took any notes.

Why, you ask?

Well, so nobody would get all riled up, that’s why!!  They didn’t want to cause a fuss. They just sort of made a nice gentleman’s agreement and formed a Confederation.  Simple.

And they didn’t break off from Britain, either.  That might have been rude.  Instead, they just gradually and peacefully took over more and more of their own governance, and the British just let them drift gracefully away.

No fuss, no muss, no death or blood or famous quotes.

And there you have it, my friends!  Canadians are so nice and polite and pleasant and kind because, gosh darn it, they’ve been that way from the very beginning!

I’ve realized that Canada and the US are like brothers.  The US is the older brother, the one who always had tantrums as a toddler, and who was a sulky rebellious teen.  He was always making trouble, pushing the limits, taking risks.  He kept his parents up at night with his out of control behavior. They wondered if he’d ever mature and settle down.

Canada is the quiet younger brother.  The one who does everything he’s told, and apologizes when he accidentally breaks the rules.  He kind of admires his big brother, kind of worries about him, and is a little bit scared of him, all at the same time.  Canada is the younger brother who learned from his older sibling’s mistakes, and is determined to do things the right way.  His parents adore him, and so do I.

If you have a chance, come to Prince Edward Island.  Just be careful of all the polite drivers!

The Memory Keeper

Every family has its stories, its legends, its folklore.    Mine is no exception.

I was raised in a big Italian family.  On my mother’s side, the stories focused on the earliest days after my grandfather immigrated from Sicily.  They were stories of how he met and fell in love with my grandmother, a first generation Sicilian American. We heard about the years when my grandfather sold vegetables in Boston’s North End market. How he worked in a local candy factory.

But on my father’s side, the family folklore has only two real themes.  The sheer size of the family (12 children!) is the dominant story.  Six brothers in one bed, sleeping head to foot.  Babies born in the tiny living room. The matriarch, my “Mammanonni” stirring gigantic pots of tomato sauce on the small gas stove.  The crowd, the numbers, the list of aunts and uncles; those are the stories of my childhood.

But there was another theme that was inextricably wound throughout the first.

That theme was baseball.

I grew up hearing about the exploits of all of my uncles, but the most famous stories belonged to my Uncle Lennie, the baseball Uncle.

Of the twelve children of Carmine and Angelina, Lennie was the only one who was born in a hospital. He was frail, somewhat sickly as a baby. But he grew up, he grew tall. He was a gifted athlete who excelled in baseball. He was handsome and charming and filled with a natural confidence.

Uncle Lennie played baseball in prep school, and went on to Villanova University where he was a standout on the field.

And from 1941-1947, he played shortstop for the Chicago Cubs.  I grew up on the stories of those years.

Uncle Lennie was famous to us; we loved hearing him talk, feeling the thrill as he casually mentioned Phil Cavaretta, Jackie Robinson, Mr. Wrigley.  And then there were the World Series Stories. So much fun to hear those tales of fame and fun and excitement.

Family gatherings for us always involved a cluster of our Uncles, laughing their big booming laughs, trading stories of life in East Boston in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Tricks they played on their Mother, exploits with friends and girlfriends, memories of those crowded years in that tiny apartment. The Uncles would be in the center of the room, and all the rest of us would be scattered around them, eating, drinking wine, listening in on the familiar tales.

Now the years are passing.  The Uncles and Aunts are gone. Now only Uncle Lennie remains from that huge gang of twelve.  He is the last repository of all that lore, all those shared memories.  The last one who lived in that little house in East Boston.

Now the years are passing, and baseball is changing.  Now only Uncle Lennie remains from the last Chicago Cubs team to play in a World Series.  He is the last man who remembers taking the field to try to bring a Championship to the Windy City.

He is the last.

Life moves forward. Every day is a new adventure and there are new family stories being lived out everywhere.  Somewhere a young girl is listening wide eyed as her larger-than-life Uncle teaches her how to field a grounder in the backyard.  Somewhere a handsome, charming Uncle is regaling his relatives with stories of his famous friends, adding little details that may or may not have happened, making everyone laugh and sigh and feel just a little bit closer to an exciting world that they will never know.

So here’s to Uncle Lennie.  Here’s to family history and baseball history and honoring the past.


Sempre La Famiglia

This was taken around the time I was born.

This was taken around the time I was born.

In about 1905, two young Italian immigrants moved with their new baby son into a house in East Boston.  They had come to America, like millions of others, in search of opportunity. They left a hard life behind them on the farm in Italy.  They came to find work, to raise their family in a better place.

The young man worked very hard, with his hands and his strong back. He was quiet and thoughtful, by most accounts a simple man.  His wife was a sturdy, strong willed, strong voiced woman with a huge laugh.  They tell me that although he was the head of the family, she was one who would sometimes slam her fist on the table in anger, making the dishes jump.

The new young family grew quickly and exponentially; eventually there were 12 children and one Grandfather sharing the apartment with them.  The kids were educated, fed, raised as Americans. One became an educator, one went to the seminary. One played Major League Baseball.

The baby of the family was my father.  I grew up visiting that house on Byron Street in East Boston. I grew up on stories about my Mammanonni, who died when I was only an infant.  I grew up knowing my Pappanonni, who remained a quiet, serene, rock steady presence in the lives of his children and grandchildren.

It was on Byron Street that I first learned how to pinch off the lower branches of tomato plants to help them blossom and bear fruit. I remember the neat rows of plants in the carefully tilled soil of the tiny yard behind the house.  I remember the pungent smell of the leaves, a smell that I still love to this day.

It was in East Boston that I first watched the Red Sox on a little black and white TV, sitting beside Pappanonni as he smoked his pipe. It was there that I had my first struffoli at Easter.  I played in the street with my cousins, danced to Petula Clark with my Auntie Jennie in the tiny living room, listened to the booming laughs of my father and his brothers as they told the stories of their youth.

I miss those visits, those streets, those wonderful memories.

I went back to East Boston today, as part of a history class.  I went to learn about the changing ethnicity of the neighborhood, to see how the area has been renovated and improved.  I went to learn about patterns of immigration in the city.

I am a teacher.   I know that good teachers present information in a way that is factual, informative and unbiased.  Sometimes I have to work hard not to impart my personal opinions when I am teaching.

But I also know that “history” is made up perspective and point of view. The natives who lived in Plimoth in 1620 would recount the history of the Mayflower through a very different narrative than the one we learned in school.   I get that.

So I guess it is understandable that a “historic tour” lead by a member of the neighborhood’s newest immigrant group would tell a different story than the one I know.  I guess it’s not a surprise that the Professor who lead the tour sees the history of the area through the lens of her own experience.

Still, it hurts to hear your people, your clan, your very own beloved family described in derogatory terms. It hurts to hear derisive references to their food, their church attendance, their cultural sensitivity.  I won’t repeat all of the negative references about Italians that I heard today; what would be the point?

What I will do is to remind myself that my memories are valid; my experiences are true and they are real.  I won’t let someone else’s low opinion color what I know of those generous, kind, funny people who I loved so much.

I will also remind myself that being inclusive and open minded doesn’t only mean welcoming newcomers and accepting their differences. It also means valuing those who came before, and accepting their outdated ways.

Dad, I could practically see you strolling through the neighborhood with your brothers.    

History as life

As I sit here this evening, writing this post, I feel the breath of history on my neck.

Tonight I realize, maybe for the very first time, how easy it is, and how arbitrary, to become a part of “history”.

My day began in the cold clear air along the Concord River, overlooking the famous North Bridge. We had decided not to try to brave the throngs at the annual reenactment of the Battle of Lexington Green, deciding that perhaps it wasn’t the best decision to get up at 3Am and drive for an hour while half asleep.

Instead, we met some friends and went to the North Bridge, site of the first true battle of the American Revolution. And we watched the actors and listened to the description of what happened on that historic day. As we watched, we talked with our friends about how these huge historic events, events that changed the world, hinged on a second, a moment, the decision of one scared young man. We talked about how strange and surreal it must have been for the families who lived on the hillside above the bridge as they watched the British soldiers marching toward them. As they watched the shots that started the war.

Just as no one knows for sure who fired the first shot on Lexington Green, no one knows for sure who fired first on North Bridge.  Was it one terrified young farm boy, clutching his musket in shaking hands?  Or was it started by a hungry, tired, frustrated soldier, so far away from his home and family? We will never know.

The entire world was changed by those events, but they were carried out by average people, just living their average lives.

This morning I thought about the farmers and their wives and their children, taking part in history, but not thinking about that in the moment. They were thinking, I’m sure, “This can’t be happening to me!”

They woke up on April 19th, 1775, made breakfast and milked their cows.  They must have gone through their usual routines before they found themselves confronted by those British troops. They must have looked at each other, and they must have thought, “This just cannot be real.”

We watched the commemoration of those events. We remembered the people who lived through them. Then we went out to breakfast, we smiled at the beautiful children, and we watched the parade.

And we came home to find the news of the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon.  The Marathon that we have watched so many times over all these years. The one that was run by some of our friends, and attended by a lot more of them.

We jumped onto Facebook, and Twitter and onto our phones. Through texting and social media, we learned that one of our friends crossed the finish line 20 minutes before the blast.  Another friend was watching right at the finish line.   If he hadn’t gone to Fenway Park yesterday, he would have been seated in the grandstand at the finish line, right in the line of the explosions.

“Way too close for me,” he texted.  As we heard from our friends, and their families, the thought that kept coming up was, “This can’t be happening to me.”

I don’t understand human adults.  I just don’t. I can’t understand the impulse to hurt total strangers, to blow apart the lives of mothers and children and old people.  I don’t understand it.

I know that I don’t ever want to be a part of history.  I don’t want to be in just that spot when the soldiers march up and fire in fear and anger and fatigue. I don’t want to be exactly where the bomb goes off.

Life is short, and precious and very, very fragile.  We can never waste a minute of it, or take any of it for granted.

"By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled. There the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world."

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
their flag to April’s breeze unfurled.
There the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.”

So I’m just wondering…..

I am wondering about something here.  And I have come to the blogging world for some answers.

Of course, this would be much more meaningful if I had hundreds of readers, but I’ll take what I can get.  Thank you, reader!!

If you are reading this, for some reason, can you please answer and tell me what you think? Please!

See, I’ve been learning about American History for the past few weeks, as part of my professional development as a fifth grade teacher.   I am loving the class, loving the books, loving the discussion.

I am learning SO much about the real story of what has made us the country that we are today.

For example, I have been reading a book called “Triangle” by David Von Drehle.  It’s about the horrific fire in the Triangle shirtwaist factory in 1911, during the height of the textile mill era.  I learned from this book, and some of my other reading for the course, that when the workers banded together to demand a 10 hour work day, or a 52 hour work week, the mill owners went nuts, claiming that the reduced hours would bankrupt them, and would ultimately cost the workers their jobs.  They wanted, they said, to be able to “create jobs”, and these regulations would prevent that.

It sort of sounded familiar.

I learned that back in the time of the industrial revolution, New York politics were run by the infamous “Tammany Hall”. I learned that at the time, regulations were needed to try to reduce the number of children (under the age of 12) who worked in these factories for up to 60 hours a week.  Regulations were sought to improve the safety of workers who labored in huge open rooms which were filled with flammable fabrics, in an age where mill owners routinely locked exit door to prevent the theft of lace and cloth.  Some progressive politicians even tried to pass laws requiring fire escapes and safety drills.

Most of the regulations failed to pass, though.  And I learned why: the politicians whose job it was to write and pass those laws were given huge sums of money to help with their campaigns.  Guess who gave the money?  Yup! You win a Kupie doll: it was the mill and factory owners who paid for all those campaigns.


Sounds just so damn familiar.  You know?

So, here is what I want to ask all of you:

1) Do you think that the political system of today is less corrupt than that of Tammany Hall in 1910?

2) Do you believe that government regulations are necessary to protect the lives and well being of the average worker/citizen in the US today?

3) Do you think that free market companies will put the safety and well being of the workers before their corporate profits in the absence of such regulation? (I know, I know: the theory is that happy workers will be more productive and company profits will increase. But do you believe this?)

4) Is there anyone out there (ANYONE?) who is excited to vote for either of the major party candidates?  I know people who plan to vote for Obama because they despise Mitt, and I know people who plan to vote for Mitt because they loathe Obama. Disclaimer: I am not voting for either one. Absolutely, unequivocally NOT.   But please tell me if you are really happy and excited to be casting your precious vote for either one of these guys and the party that they represent.

Here is the thought that is keeping me awake at night: “Those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it.”

What do you think, seriously?

Lincoln spoke here

I taught my class about the Gettysburg Address today.  We read the text, and I gave them a copy to decode.

The question that I asked them was this: “What was Abe Lincoln asking the American people to do when he wrote this speech?”

The kids spent about a half hour trying to decode the nineteenth century language, and to put it into some type of historical context.  They worked hard, even on a sunny June day.  They used dictionaries, history books and lots of conversation.  They did their best to decode the hidden message in that powerful and memorable address.

They came pretty close, but they failed to really understand the message at its core.

So I rose to my feet and tried to explain.  I used my knowledge of American History, of course, but I also drew on my personal experiences and beliefs.  I stood before those young, tender, impressionable children, and I reached into my own most precious soul, and I did my very best to grab their hearts and leave one indelible mark.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  “Lincoln said that 87 years ago, the Americans who were here before us created a brand new county, and they based that country on the belief that all men are created equal, and that all humans deserve the same respect.”

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. “Abe Lincoln said that the Civil War was being fought to answer the question of whether or not a country based on freedom and equality could really last.  He said that a lot of men had died to prove that a nation like that COULD succeed.  He said that they were planning to honor the people who died for that proof, and that it was right for them to give that honor.”

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. “In this section, Lincoln tells the listeners that if they really want to honor the dead, it won’t be by giving speeches or creating a gravesite. He tells his people that they can only honor the dead by promising to uphold the idea of a nation based on equality for all of its citizens.  He tells the Americans of 1863 that they are duty bound to stand up and to protect a government whose power is drawn from the people, whose members are made up of the people, and whose laws will serve the will of the people.”

The children listened to me, and in spite of the warmth of the day, they responded to the intensity with which I spoke.  “Why”, I asked them, “am I pushing this lesson on you? What is it that I hope to give you as my final lesson in the fifth grade?”  There was a lot of shuffling, some giggling, and more than one rolled eye. It was hot, they wanted to go out to play, and they were feeling slightly uncomfortable with the passion in my voice.

Finally, one little hand was raised. “Well, um…you want US to be those people.”, she said shyly.

I nodded, smiled, looked around for another comment.

“You want us to work to save a country like that.”

“Like what?”, I demanded.

“Um, like, a country, with, like, freedom and stuff.  For everyone.  We have to do that.”

I kept the pressure on them, just for a bit.  “Do you think that maybe in our country right now, some people don’t have equal rights?”

A hand was raised, the hand of my most popular, rarely serious, often sarcastic “I don’t care” boy.  With some trepidation, I called on him, and waited for his response.

“Like, you know, like the whole same sex marriage thing. They don’t really have equality.”

I could have kissed his sarcastic little cheek, because he wasn’t kidding when he said that.  He understood what I was saying.

I was telling my students, at the tender and wide eyed age of eleven that they are responsible for demanding a government whose sole purpose is to serve the needs of the governed.  I was showing them that Abe Lincoln, in his everyman wisdom, was asking all of us to dedicate ourselves to the preservation of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”.

It will be many years before these children can take action on a political front, but I am so very hopeful that my words have planted some seed, and that those seeds will one day sprout.