It Isn’t Paranoia


“we’ll become” by Genista is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The year was 1980. I was sitting in a dimly lit hospital room. The pale yellow walls were streaked with cigarette smoke. A woman sat on the edge of the bed, her arms pressed against her middle, her eyes fixed on the floor.

She rocked back and forth, a rhythmic self-soothing motion that was somehow both sad and frustrating. A lit cigarette dangled from her dry lips.

I was in the room with a young and eager psychiatrist, newly minted and ready to help. His questions were asked in a gentle voice, in perfect American English. I was there to translate them into the Russian spoken by our elderly patient.

She was a recent immigrant to Boston from what was then the Soviet Union. She was one of a wave of Russian Jews who were coming to the US with the help of the aid organization HIAS. I was one of a handful of young interpreters who helped with their resettlement. Today I was interpreting an intake assessment for a severely depressed older woman and her psychiatrist. She had been admitted to the hospital the night before when her son found her unable to settle, to stop pacing or to be calmed.

The assessment didn’t take long, because the patient failed to answer most of the questions. Instead, she repeatedly mumbled about strangers in black jackets who she feared would break down the door. She stood up a few times to peer out the small window, scanning the street for the “black cars” that would come to take her away to an unknown prison.

After the interview, I sat with the psychiatrist, another doctor and a psychiatric nurse to review and clarify what had been recorded. As we finished, the young psychiatrist turned to his supervisor and said, “It certainly seems like paranoid delusions. She actually believes that strangers are going to come and take her away in the night.” The team was planning to treat her for psychosis.

“Wait,” I said. I didn’t usually say much in meetings like this, because I was only a 22 year old Soviet Studies major with no medical training. But this time it was different.

“She isn’t making this up,” I told the team. “In the 1930s, under Stalin, the secret police broke open her door in the middle of the night. She and her husband were taken away and put in prison. He was sent to Siberia and he never came back.”

I looked at the frowning faces in front of me. They didn’t know the history of the Soviet Union under the dictator Josef Stalin. In the middle of an American summer day, the idea of unmarked secret police taking people away without any evidence of a crime seemed improbable enough to make them doubt my story. This was the United States. There were laws protecting citizens from this kind of illicit action.

They couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. But I knew it was. I had studied the history, but I had also spoken to the survivors. This frail woman, rocking and smoking and living in constant fear, was not the first survivor of Stalin’s regime that I’d met. I head heard her story from her son, and from her current husband. I had heard similar stories of men going out to work and never coming home. I knew one man who had been snatched off the street and sent to a labor camp where he was held for five years, never knowing whether his family was still alive.

I finally convinced the team that what I was telling them was true, and they verified it through the patient’s family. Her treatment was adjusted and within a few weeks the worst of her severe depression and anxiety was eased.

I think about her sometimes.

Lately, though, I think more about that medical team. If they are still alive now, what do they think of what is happening in the US today?

Do they realize now how easy it is for people to slowly lose their rights? Do they understand how an autocratic leader can convince people that in order to be safe they need to give up some freedoms?

I hope that as they watch the news unfolding in Portland, they recognize the incredible danger facing the US at this moment. I hope they speak out, loudly. I hope they share the story of that one old survivor and what happened to her family.

So WHO gets a background check?,


Today staff members at my school had a special teacher training.  It wasn’t about learning how to teach, oh no. It wasn’t about reaching out and finding ways to connect with kids, or how to improve our communication with the families who love those kids.

We didn’t meet so that we could learn how to help kids to fall in love with literature, or how to help them to become better consumers of new technologies. We weren’t talking about bullying, or nutrition or science or social skills or vocabulary.

We were being trained in how to maintain security during the state tests.

No kidding.

A half hour of time dedicated to these little gems: “If one child has not yet finished the test and it is lunchtime, secure all of the test booklets, then walk all of the students to the cafeteria. Do NOT leave the test booklets in the classroom unless an approved adult is able to watch over them.” (Um?? Scuse me?  There is only one of me. How do I watch the booklets and walk the kids to lunch?)

And this one: “If there is a fire or other emergency alarm collect and secure all of the test booklets before evacuating the students.”

I am not making this up.

After all of this pure and unadulterated bullshit, we all had to sign on the dotted line, to prove to the state that we had attended the training.  As we signed our names, some of us grumbled about the waste of time and effort. One of my colleagues said, “Just wait until next year, when all of us will have to be fingerprinted.”

You got that right: FINGERPRINTED.

The great state of Massachusetts, under the leadership of our nice liberal governor, has passed a law requiring that all teachers will now need to be fingerprinted, and that those prints will need to be sent to the FBI where they will be matched against a registry of convicted criminals.

Now, as a professional who has dedicated all of my intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy to raising and teaching children for the past 30 years, I am all about trying to keep kids safe.

But I am 57 years old; I have been teaching since I was 27.  I have never, ever, ever had even one single question raised about my relationships with my students.  I am under NO suspicion. I have never had a bad evaluation, or a serious parental complaint or a reason to have my performance questioned. Not once. Not ever.

And yet, my state is demanding that I submit to being fingerprinted, as if I have been arrested for some crime. As if I have stolen, or killed or molested or hurt.  As if there is  any reason to suspect that I am a felon.

I have to submit to this humiliation, and I have to accept the fact that the federal government (you know the one I mean, the one that is so desperate to cut costs) is going to own and hold and keep my fingerprints on file so that it can spend time and money checking those prints against the ones taken from all those murderers, rapists and thieves.

What the HELL?

I hope that you can see the multitude of problems with this plan.   If you can’t, please let me lay them out for you, at least as I see them.

1) All those “education reform” people keep saying that we need to recruit and keep “the best” of our young people, that our teachers need to be the very best, most qualified people possible.  We need a great teacher in front of every classroom.   You really think that treating them like potential felons is a good way to do that?

2) We keep hearing how schools need to cut cots, how we need to live within our means, how we can’t keep spending money on things that don’t directly help kids. At roughly $60 a pop for each fingerprint check, are we really going to ask districts to fork over thousands of dollars to make sure of what they already know?

3) How is it going to make even one child safer to check the fingerprints of people like me, people who have been standing in front of classrooms for decades, with absolutely no suspicion of any wrongdoing, ever?

4) If you think that it is necessary to have the FBI check on every person who works with kids, are you ready to pay for fingerprinting of doctors, psychologists, priests, ministers, boy scout leaders, soccer coaches, dance teachers, camp counselors, cheerleading coaches, drama teachers, nurses, dentists, football refs and the people who work at Chuck E Cheese?

I have to be honest here.  I love my job.  I have been pretty good at it.  I have adjusted to the state tests, the stupidity of those test security rules, the new curriculum, the decrease of available resources and the constant public criticism of my profession.

But I will NOT stand in front of an ink pad and submit my fingerprints for review by the FBI.  I won’t do it.

I am not a criminal. I do not deserve this humiliation and I won’t do it.  I am willing to lose my job over this issue.  I. Won’t. Do. This.

Let me leave you with this one unsettling thought:

My elected officials demand that I submit to fingerprinting so that I can keep doing what I have been successfully doing for almost 30 years.

But they won’t even ask me to fill out a form if I become so enraged by the process that I decide to go to a gun show and buy an AR-15 and 3,000 rounds of ammunition.

Somebody out there damn well needs to be outraged, and it can’t be only me.

Peace in Chicago


One of the things that I love about children is their firm and secure belief in “good guys” and “bad guys”.  They see the world in sharp contrasts and clear borders.  Criminals are bad guys.  Police are good guys.

I wish for that sense of simplicity tonight.  I wish that I could hold onto a belief in the honesty and goodness of the police, the government, the men who wear the uniforms. I wish, so much, that I could trust that my children will be safe in the presence of the authorities.

My boys are on their way to Chicago, to join thousands of like minded citizens who want to speak out against the war machine that has kept us in conflict in so many places for so many years.  They don’t plan to break any laws or to violate any ordinances; they just want to protest peacefully against policies that they find to be both immoral and dangerous.

The US Constitution, of course, guarantees their right to do that.  The First Amendment says :

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So they plan to peaceably assemble, and they plan to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. They will march, chant, maybe bang drums. They will hold signs critical of the NATO war machine. They’ll take the advice of Thomas Jefferson, who said “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

Given the fact that they are American citizens, taxpayers, both gainfully employed, both students, both innocent of any crimes, I should be feeling pretty secure that they are in no danger from the police as long as they are respectful and peaceful.  Right?

Ah, if only.

The truth is, I am worried about the 16 hour road trip a little bit. I am worried about the crowd of strangers a little bit, too.

But I am worried about the riot gear, the pepper spray, the batons and the rubber bullets a whole hell of a lot.

I am afraid of the new laws of this theoretically free country that allow the government to arrest and indefinitely hold anyone who might possibly have a connection to some kind of terrorism somewhere.  Terrorism that the arresting authorities are allowed to define. I am afraid because the First Amendment is now being constrained in ever more outrageous ways; it is illegal now to protest in any location where the Secret Service is guarding a VIP. Or where they will be guarding one later. Or where they might have to guard a VIP someday.

I am afraid of my government. I am afraid that my sons, those young men who are trying to do what they know to be right, will be unlawfully arrested, detained, hurt, or worse by those who are “sworn to protect and defend.”

I am afraid, honestly, of my government.  And that makes me think of Thomas Jefferson again.

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

So what I want to say to the Chicago Police, the Secret Service, the FBI, the NATO security services is this: Peace!