“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”
Tag Archives: education
Once again, it’s time for “Banned Books Week” – the annual event where we free speech advocates and other enlightened souls are forced to counter the anger of the holier-than-thou crowd who somehow feel imbued with the power to tell everyone else what they can read and see. Help support literacy and education. It’s they’re the best tools against ignorance and arrogance. This is a battle we’ll never win. But it’s always worth fighting!
Here’s a list of the most frequently challenged books, categorized by year and by decade.
This is something I scribbled down on night in the spring of 1985, shortly before college spring break. That year would turn out to be the single worst in my entire life to date. Just about everything went wrong. It was already starting to go wrong when I wrote this. I was failing academically; trouble with a stupid fraternity; problems with my parents; and a dog in faltering health. For me, the only good thing about 1985 was that it ended.
Almost midnight as the clock digitals glimmer,
And my arm has ceased to quiver.
Stopped for this moment to scribe this passage.
I want to relay a beleaguered message.
This day has run the gamut of my emotions.
They’ve slipped from private moments of joy,
To contained anger like silk lotion.
I feel a perverse love of this mixed décor.
It’s a delighted passion of my own soulful heart.
A concert of charms and spirits.
I grope in the dark amidst wrongs and rights.
Wondering if I serve purpose on this Earth.
Thinking my impact may be a single laugh.
Eyes pleading for justice.
This is the kill holding my fate.
Image: Christine Deschamps
She looked a little out of place; this older woman attired in crimson red with a matching hat. She seemed dressed for church, not a Toastmaster’s meeting. Ironic, though, that the group met in a church every Friday evening around 6 p.m. Most Toastmasters groups meet Monday through Thursday after work. Some even meet before the work day starts, especially if it’s a company oriented-club. But Friday evenings was the only time our group could schedule, when it was formed in 2000. I joined it the following year and came up with a slogan: ‘A Different Kind of Happy Hour.’ People liked that, and it drew a wide variety of visitors.
It was just such a nondescript Friday evening in the spring of 2003, when Jolyn Robichaux arrived. None of us realized it at that moment – and I’m certain not even she knew – but Jolyn would make an indelible impact on our lives. Her personality was as bright as the outfit she wore that evening; her verbiage as graceful as the way she carried herself into the room. Her worldly experiences proved she was one of those rare individuals who take life by the throat and wring every ounce of ecstasy from it. With a vibrant smile and an infectious laugh, Jolyn had an incredible on anyone she ever met. And I am honored to have been one of them.
Jolyn passed away a year ago this month. She would have been 90 this coming May. I’d last heard from her, via email, in early 2015. I had always made it a point to mail her a birthday card; a simple gesture she knew was genuine, but – in this electronic age – she still found amazing.
“That you actually took the time to hand-write my address on it and mail it,” she once told me, “shows how compassionate you are!”
Jolyn appreciated such ordinary and inconspicuous acts; those “little things” people often overlooked or dismissed. Her own life, however, was anything but ordinary or inconspicuous. Born in Cairo, Illinois in 1928 to Margaret Love, a beautician, and Dr. Edward Chuny Howard, a dentist, Jolyn seemed to have two strikes against her from the start: she was female and Black; attributes that rendered her almost sub-human at the time. Anyone growing up during the Great Depression learned how difficult life could be. For people like Jolyn, it was almost unbearable. Still, everyone did the best they could. Jolyn’s father often bartered his dental services with neighboring farmers in exchange for food. Many of those farmers were White and surely wondered how a Black man could have possibly become a dentist. But he earned their trust and respect with his strong work ethic and concern for their dental health, at a time when dentistry often straddled the border between medieval cruelty and an unnecessary luxury. There were joyous moments as well, she always emphasized, when discussing her younger years. “You just have to look for them.” And hard work is, most often, worth the effort; paying off “one way or another.”
Jolyn graduated valedictorian from Sumner High School at the age of 16. But the happiness the Howard family felt over her academic achievements was tempered when her father fell ill with a rare blood disease. What should have been a joyous occasion was shattered when Dr. Howard died shortly thereafter at the age of 48.
Despite the tragedy, Jolyn knew she had to move forward. One curious attribute of successful, independent people is their ability to handle death – even the deaths of loved ones. As painful as it was to lose her father at such a young age, Jolyn knew the world wouldn’t stop because she was sad and began attending classes at Fisk University in Nashville. Two years later, however, Jolyn decided her mother needed help, both financially and in caring for the two youngest Howard children. Jolyn left Fisk and moved to Chicago to work full-time, while planning to take evening classes at Roosevelt University.
Classes at Roosevelt lasted only a year, as Jolyn told me, because Chicago’s “fast life” got hold of her. That included the bevy of handsome, well-dressed and well-spoken men she encountered. Both of her parents would have howled in anger, Jolyn said with a laugh, at the mere thought of her “getting frisky” with any man. Remember, this was late 1940s / early 1950s America; a post-war nation where opportunities looked endless on the personal and professional fronts – even for women and non-Whites.
Now ensconced in a more liberal and open-minded environment, Jolyn found work with the Chicago Veterans Administration and the National Labor Relations Board; as an executive secretary with two other large corporations; and even as an assistant to a renowned diagnostician. It’s difficult to imagine now, but for a Black woman to take such jobs at the time was incredibly radical; almost rebellious. Yet, like much of what she’d do throughout both her personal and professional lives, Jolyn wouldn’t let herself be assigned a certain role or position, as then-contemporary norms prescribed. She was already dictating her own place in this world – not by someone else and not even by society as a whole. Radical, indeed! But to her, it was as natural a reaction as breathing. There was just no alternative.
Amidst the many people she encountered in Chicago, Jolyn cited one particular individual as having, perhaps, the most significant impact: Mary McLeod Bethune. As Jolyn would do in the coming years, Bethune didn’t let her race or gender define her or keep her from attaining success on her own terms. Born to former slaves in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune would go on to become an acclaimed educator in the African-American community and was an especially charismatic role model for women. Although not naïve to the traumas of racism and sexism, Bethune still felt that education was a vital tool in the pursuit of equality.
Jolyn realized how important this was to her, too, and went on to earn a degree in education from Chicago Teachers College, graduating magna cum laude in 1960. When I made the decision several years ago to return to college and earn a degree in English, Jolyn expressed as much excitement as my parents. I lamented the fact that I’d waited so long to complete that one life-long ambition.
“The important thing is that you get it done,” Jolyn told me via email. “If it’s important to you, then it’s important!”
In 1950, Jolyn met Joseph Julius Robichaux at a private party in Chicago. While dancing that same evening, he startled her by asking her to get married. Perhaps even more surprising to him is that she didn’t say yes immediately. Again, it’s hard to understand now, but in mid-20th century America, women normally didn’t say no to marriage. With so few opportunities for even well-educated women – especially Black women – the roles of wife and mother were pretty much the apex of their lives. Telling him no put her, as she eloquently described it, “the naughty girl list.” But Joseph persisted, certainly knowing what an extraordinary woman had entered his world. Jolyn eventually said yes to Joseph, and the couple wed in 1952. Four years later they welcomed their first child, Sheila. In 1964, their first son, Joseph Howard, was born. By then, Jolyn had fallen – somewhat – into that traditional wife-mother role. But she still managed to do so on her own terms. Aside from completing her education, she participated in various civic activities and assisted her husband in his burgeoning political career.
In 1967, the Robichauxs entered into a new venture, when they purchased Baldwin Ice Cream Company. Baldwin had been founded as the Seven Links Ice Cream Co. in 1921 by Kit Baldwin and six of his Black coworkers at the Chicago Post Office. As a Black-owned and Black-operated enterprise, Baldwin stood out in the maze of corporate America. In 1948, Baldwin bought out his partners and renamed the company after himself.
By 1971, it seemed life couldn’t be more fulfilling or more perfect for the Robichaux family. But tragedy once again punched a hole into Jolyn’s life, when Joseph, Sr., died of leukemia. While dealing with such a heart-wrenching event, Jolyn realized she had three choices (albeit difficult ones): continue the family’s interest in Baldwin, find work teaching, or become a full-time mother. She chose to stay with Baldwin. The company was in receivership by 1971, due in part, to a staid routine that no longer yielded a profit in a rapidly-changing economy and culture.
That same year Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appointed Jolyn to replace her deceased husband on the Jury Commissioners Board of Cook County. The position – which she held until 1979 – provided a steady income. In 1975 she earned a certificate in ice cream technology from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). Jolyn then re-made Baldwin into her own. She developed business relationships with other ice cream executives in the Chicago area and increase sales in Baldwin’s 17 chain stores.
Baldwin’s phenomenal success prompted President Ronald Reagan to name Jolyn as USA Minority Business Woman of the Year for 1985. She received the award personally from Vice-President George W. Bush.
In 1992, Jolyn sold her ice cream business and made an unexpected move: 4,130 miles (6,646 km) to Paris, France. Still bristling with an entrepreneurial spirit, Jolyn created a one-woman business that brought American gospel singers to Paris for performances at the American Cathedral in Paris.
Shortly thereafter, Jolyn was back in the U.S., settling in Dallas to be closer to family. But retirement appeared to be an alien concept to her. In 1997 she participated in the Heart Disease Research Project at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. From 1999 to 2001 she served on the Dallas Opera’s Board of Directors. She was a docent at Southern Methodist University’s prestigious Meadows Museum of Art; served as a mentor at Dallas Life Foundation, an organization that helps homeless people get off and stay off the streets; and even worked as a substitute teacher in the Dallas Independent School District.
I knew she loved opera and not just because she had lived in Paris. We both shared that passion. But not until after her death did I learn she did so much for her community and many of the people who occupied it. It doesn’t surprise me. Jolyn wasn’t a braggart. Unlike some sports and entertainment celebrities and more than a few politicians, Jolyn did what she liked to do and helped whenever she could.
She was more than just a friend; she was a trustworthy mentor to me personally. I could relate the various trials tribulations of dealing with my parents’ declining health, not really thinking that Jolyn was actually a few years older than either of them. She was truly inspirational; choosing to celebrate other people’s accomplishments and aspirations. After presenting one of my most passionate speeches, “A Matter of Respect,” to Toastmasters one evening, she almost jumped out of her chair to give me a hug. “I saw the fire in your eyes and could hear it in your soul!” she proclaimed after the meeting.
She read several of my short stories and essays on this blog and predicted, “You will get published!”
If I counted my own personal achievements, they’d certainly fall short of even just half of what Jolyn did with her life. Like me, she kept a regular journal; understanding how truly therapeutic it could be. They were her essentially her autobiography – as are most journals – but told me via email, “They will not be published.” That may have been a wish she asked of her family, but I honestly hope they defy her on that one. If there’s anyone whose life story deserves (must be) told, it is that of Jolyn Robichaux.
About 5 years ago Jolyn invited me to join her at a dance class not far from where I live. I told her I would, but a family emergency arose at the last minute. She expressed greater concern for my welfare than for my absence at the class. And I thought later, ‘That’s just like her; already in her mid-80s and learning something new.’
That described Jolyn perfectly – dancing to the very end.
“When I Die”
“When I die, when I finish living this life, when all my stakes and claims in this world are rendered null and void, I want to leave like the final swirl of smoke from a smoldering ember, rising as a smile into nothing.”
– Jolyn Robichaux, 2005
Jolyn’s family has asked that donations be made in her name to the Vivian G. Harsh Society, which maintains the largest collection of African-American history and literature in the Midwest.
Vivian G. Harsh Society
c/o Harold Washington Library
400 S. State St., 5th Floor
Chicago, IL 60605
During the first semester of my senior year in high school, I took an Advanced Placement (AP) English course. I’d always been good in English; having learned to read and write even before I entered kindergarten. Reading and writing were two means to deal with the intense shyness that plagued my youth. I’d always earned A’s in English classes, even going back to grade school. Until that AP class. I ended up with a B+, which – to me – was depressing. Towards the end of the course, the teacher urged me to take a regular English class for my final semester; saying something about the next AP English course dealing with poetry, which “takes it to a whole new level.” Translation: you’re too big of a dumb ass to handle it. Her and I hadn’t really connected anyway, which had made me feel ostracized. In retrospect, she reminds me Hillary Clinton; you could tell she’d lead a really hard life, but still have off fake smiles to get through the day.
For that final half of my senior year, I took a “regular” English class (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) and ended up with an A+. I’d had that particular teacher (another Hillary Clinton predecessor) before and didn’t have any problems with her. But another student in that class did. As the spring semester wound down, and all of us seniors became more eager to leave, that one student was in peril. The teacher had openly informed him (and everyone else) that he might not pass, which meant he wouldn’t be able to graduate on time. One day she loudly proclaimed that she was going through all of his previous coursework to see if she’d made any mistakes in grading. I could see the mortified look on his normally gregarious face. It was a good thing he was seated at the very back of the room. The rest of us remained silent. When the class ended that day, the teacher told him to stay.
I encountered him in a boys’ restroom later and asked him “if everything was okay.” He said yes; that he’d just barely passed the course and would be able to graduate as scheduled. I told him it was “chicken shit” that the teacher had publicly humiliated him and virtually announced to everybody that he was a potential failure. A couple of other guys in that class happened to show up and overheard our conversation. They agreed with me. That one guy (I can’t remember his name) then mentioned something I thought was odd at the time. He said he’d always had trouble with reading and writing; that letters and words sometimes looked “mixed up” to him. Thinking about that now makes me realize he was probably dyslexic; a neurological condition that impacts people (usually males) at a young age.
I’ve known other boys and young men who had trouble reading and writing and remember the open ridicule they’d face at the hands of teachers and other students. Calling out someone in public like that and telling them they’re about to fail is cruel and unethical. But people do it anyway. It happens all the time in schools – and in the workforce. It’s a form of bullying.
In the summer of 2009, the supervisors at my job decided upon a new tactic to educate associates en masse should we encounter a work-related problem. They would email everyone at once and try to get a resolution as quickly as possible. The genesis was time constraints. They didn’t want to deal with telling people one by one how to handle a troublesome issue. The plan bombed as soon as it was implemented; thanks to yours truly.
I had a question about something, so the supervisor, Monica*, emailed everyone (copying our project manager, Dave*, and her own assistant, Diana*) about it. She initially didn’t mention that it was me who had started the inquiry. Monica gave us all an hour to figure it out. When I thought I’d gotten it, I asked Diana who merely responded with a shrug. “Oh, so you’re gonna play this chicken shit little game, too, huh?” I said.
“It’s not a game,” she muttered.
“It’s also not a game when you ridicule someone publicly. Go back to sleep.” I left her office, which she shared with Monica and another supervisor.
Moments later Monica sent out another group email telling everyone that I need help with this problem – to which I replied (only to Monica, Dave, Diana and the other supervisor): “I don’t know who came up with this idea, but it’s one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.”
Dave wasn’t on site that day, and Monica reacted with her usual dismissive demeanor when I finally confronted her. “Well, we didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” she said, still staring at her monitor. The comment had prompted a barely-audible chuckled from Diana.
“Oh, no!” I replied. “I don’t have feelings for you or anyone else in this dump. None of you are worth that much trouble, so don’t impress yourselves too goddamned much.”
She still wouldn’t look at me and started talking to Diana.
I reached behind and slammed the office door with enough force to cause the wall to vibrate. It startled the other supervisor. “Do I have your attention now?” I said to Monica.
Her and I had engaged in verbal battles before. That wasn’t the first time she’d called me out publicly. I’d confronted her afterwards, and she said she’d say whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. I informed my then-supervisor, Robert*, telling him Monica and I “had words.”
Monica had the habit of ridiculing people in public. I recall another nasty situation about two years earlier than the group email stunt where she’d loudly gone off on a woman about the standard operating procedures (SOP) manual. People on the other side of the office – with stacks of metal shelves and a slew of paper-laden boxes between us – could hear her. Robert called Dave who was in another location. I don’t know what exactly happened next, but a security official showed up several minutes later. By the end of that year, Robert left the company. Speaking with another colleague, James*, months later, I learned Robert had had it with Monica. He had apparently been unable to reason with her on any level and – unwilling to tolerate it – found another job.
James (who remains a good friend to this day), a female colleague, Andrea*, and I then all fell under the group supervised by Monica. For Andrea, it was a veritable death sentence. Israelis and Palestinians get along better than those two did. I chalked it up initially to the usual drama that erupts between people in the workplace. But the two women literally despised one another. The following year Andrea took a leave of absence – and never came back.
A few months after the group email mess Monica got her comeuppance. Late one Friday afternoon she’d marched up to the office of our company’s liaison to the government agency with which we contracted (our client in other words) and unleashed a verbal tirade. The incident started the liaison, an older woman who was bound to a motorized scooter. That other company supervisor happened to accompany Monica; unaware, as she later told me, that Monica would “go off like that.”
A security official happened to overhear the exchange and promptly ordered Monica and the other supervisor to leave the office. Someone then called Dave who was at a client site a few miles away. He hurried to downtown Dallas in evening rush-hour traffic – which often moves slower than fat people walking through a cactus field – and ultimately walked Monica out of the building. She was gone. The rest of us didn’t find out until the following Monday morning, when Dave called us into a meeting. “If you have any questions, get with me privately,” he added.
The only question James and I had was whether or not they had to escort Monica out in handcuffs or a straight-jacket. It was somewhat of a relief. The big, evil, loud-ass witch had evaporated from our lives.
I hate to see anyone to lose their job. Most anyone. Some people just beg for it in a way, either through their own incompetence or because of brutish behavior.
If I try to count the times someone ridiculed me during my school years, I’d have to break out a calculator. If I try to do the same with work-related fiascos, the stories would include more than a few arguments. Not long after landing in the corporate world, I discovered that schoolyard bullies and cranky teachers reappear in corner offices with designated titles and self-righteous dispositions.
I’m a firm believer, though, in that what goes around comes around. The proverbial karma is a bitch theory.
In early 1990, I had a temporary job at a financial company’s lock box division. One of the assistant supervisors was an older woman who seemed to relish pointing out the mistakes of everyone in the unit. At weekly meetings she’d call out people’s names like a headmistress admonishing disobedient school children. The tactic was supposed to enlighten and help educate the group, thus guarding against future costly errors. It had the opposite effect. Aside from generating extreme animosity against the woman, it impacted morale. Then, salvation arrived in the most unlikely of circumstances. That woman made an error, a really egregious error that cost the company some money. It was a serious offense. The unit manager, an older man with a seesaw personality, gathered everyone around to announce publicly the nature of the mistake. In a perverse form of emotional rioting, the entire crowd – including me – reacted with unabashed joy. The old hag got a healthy dose of her own self-righteousness. Hurts, doesn’t it, I thought, to be shamed and humiliated in front of everybody. A few weeks later I found a job at a bank, just as the assignment was scheduled to end.
Humiliating someone publicly just doesn’t turn out well in either school or work. Cooperation and private consultations may sound like bleeding-heart liberal ideology, but it’s much more of a productive approach in both business and education. Think about it. How many times have you been part of a group where members constantly bickered, and everything still came out wonderfully? Wonderfully, that is, without any break in the hostilities. I never have. Competition and debates are inevitable – and good. Good most of the time. People will disagree and argue. But, unless they eventually come to some sort of understanding, nothing positive will come of it. We only have to look at the centuries-old battle between Israelis and Palestinians to see what a lack of solid communication and mutual agreement can do to a society.
It may have taken me decades before I finally completed my college education, but I’m no idiot and I’m no fool. If anything, I’ve been naïve in believing that people can work together all of the time.
Another thing I’ve learned – perhaps, the most critical lesson of all – is that hard work isn’t equal to luck or good fortune. It really is difficult and generally pays off – whether in an actual workplace or in your own personal endeavors. I haven’t achieved success yet with my fictional writing career. But I’ll never give up on it because that’s pretty much all I’ve ever wanted to do with myself and I know I’m good at it. And I’m good because I really enjoy the craft of reading.
Regardless, I don’t need the approval of haggard English teachers or cantankerous managers to succeed in anything.
Image courtesy of Marc Phares / Epic Studios.
Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.
This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?
One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.
Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.
The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.
For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.
Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.