Tag Archives: education

Knowing Jolyn

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 (back left) in 1943 beside her sister, Charlotte Howard, with brother William and their mother, Margaret.

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.

Jolyn and Joseph Robichaux (center) in 1964.

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.

Jolyn with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) in 1974.

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



Filed under Essays

Dumb Luck


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.

*Name changed.


Image courtesy of Marc Phares / Epic Studios.


Filed under Essays

National Banned Books Week 2015

Old Covered Books on Table HD Wallpaper

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 Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.


Filed under News

Writing Lives


Think about what it takes to create a writing system from scratch. Imagine the intellectual aptitude of someone who draws an image on a rock, in the sand, or anywhere and declares that it represents something – a word, an action, a single sound. What is required of somebody to actually sit down and do that?

Not long after I began walking and talking around the age of 9 months, my parents started teaching me to read. The books were those simply-worded “See Spot Run” types, but I took to them with an uncannily inborn sense of ease. Whenever my folks became engaged with some task around the tiny two-bedroom apartment where we lived, they made sure I was either asleep or sitting on the couch with one of those books. Many of those colorful little pre-school tomes were “Golden Books,” the classics of childhood literature that helped to educate the young masses. I still have scores of them stored away neatly in boxes; surely they’d be collector’s items by now.

By the age of 5 – even before entering kindergarten – I was writing stories. Although I could speak in complete sentences and use seemingly grown-up words (my parents never “baby-talked” to me), putting those thoughts into written form became my primary means of communication. I’ve been reading and writing ever since.

My precociousness wasn’t always viewed with admiration. As a first-grader at a Catholic parochial school in Dallas, me and my fellow students were required to look at our name plates before carefully copying our names onto sheets of paper. I looked at mine once and, upon the second time I had to write it, I simply did so from memory. Proud of my accomplishment, I displayed the sheet of notebook paper to the nun teaching the class.

Her reaction was harsh. “Don’t ever do that again!” she chided.

It didn’t seem to matter that – all of 6 or 7 years of age – I successfully reprinted my name after having looked at the plate once. So I sauntered back to my desk, feeling humiliated and dejected.


I recounted the incident to my parents that evening at dinner, and they beamed with pride. My father reassured me I did nothing wrong and told me, from that point onward, just “pretend” to look at my name plate. I followed his advice, confident in my new-found ability. I never again looked at that stupid name plate; neither did I try to impress that decrepit nun. I surmised some time later that a vow of poverty, coupled with a life of celibacy and a cardboard headdress, must have a nasty impact on a woman’s cerebral capacity.

Another incident at that same school a few years later, however, made me question everyone in the education field. A lay teacher arrived at the school in the fall of 1976 to teach English. She and I got along nicely at first. But my impulsive audacity to question certain things apparently made her head hurt, and she’d stare at me from behind those gigantic 1970s-era glasses (the kind that now would qualify as motorcycle windshields) and seethe with frustration.

Other students in the class loved when her and I got into those “fights,” as one boy described them. That teacher certainly didn’t enjoy it and used every opportunity she could scrounge up to humiliate me in front of my classmates. Then, one morning, things came to a head between us over a single word: llama.

Because it’s a Spanish-language adaptation of an Indian term for the only draft animal to evolve in the Western Hemisphere, I knew it was pronounced “yama.” In Spanish, a double “L” bears a “Y” sound. The teacher shook her head no and insisted it was pronounced “lah-mah,” with the “L” clearly enunciated. I didn’t budge. I knew I was right.

Yet our constant linguistic tennis match finally made a few of her precious brain synapses explode, and she literally yelled at me to shut up and pronounce the word the way she saw fit – with that Anglicized “L” sound.

A near-deadly pall enveloped the room like a tsunami accosting a beachfront. Everyone fell silent, and the teacher ordered me to remain after class. My heart sank, and my stomach felt hollow.

After my fellow students departed, the teacher stuck a well-manicured fingernail into my quivering face and told me never to question her authority again. “Do you understand me?” she growled.

A weak “Yes, ma’am” tumbled from my lips. That evening at dinner I recounted the entire episode to my parents. This time they didn’t offer any coy suggestions for me to remain quiet. Arriving at school the next morning, both of them promptly entered the building with me and demanded to speak with that teacher.

The principal, a feisty and intimidating nun named Jean, told them they either had to make an appointment or wait until an upcoming parent-teacher conference.

My father, who was growing increasingly disillusioned with Roman Catholicism altogether, leaned forward onto the paper-cluttered desk and said, “Jean, get her in here now, or I’ll go find her and drag her ass in here myself.”

Sister Jean’s eyes widened, and her self-righteous demeanor crumbled faster than a Ku Klux Klansman accidentally entering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a suitcase full of Christian bibles. The lay teacher arrived, and, as I waited outside by the secretary’s desk, she tried to explain her side of the story. My parents had always been renegades, but they were also fair. I don’t know what all was said amongst them, but my father made it clear that she was never to yell at or humiliate me in front of the class. He and my mother also made that teacher realize my pronunciation of the word “llama” was correct. Technically, everything was settled, but she still gave me a “B” for that spring semester. It didn’t matter. I graduated from the school shortly thereafter and was more than glad to get the hell out of there.

Neither of those situations diminished my love and passion for the written word. I’ve remained an avid reader and writer. And, just like I resisted the demands of those two teachers to think and behave differently, I’ve resisted any attempts to downgrade my intellect or circumvent my literary aspirations. As we stand on the threshold of this pioneering electronic medium called blogging, I think of the countless writers and poets who simply wouldn’t give up on their dreams to describe the world as they see it, or to tell the truth as they know it. I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech. But the power of the written word transcends that.

Writers have always been at the forefront of social and political changes. Powerful elites have tried to silence us; lest the truth gets out to the otherwise loyal masses who then should dare to forget their places in a carefully-structured society – places designated by those same powerful elites. Education and literacy are the best tools against tyranny and oppression. Once someone learns how to read and write, they start to think for themselves. And, while that’s good for society as a whole; for some, it forebodes danger. It’s why, for centuries, the Catholic Church tried to keep books out of the hands of commoners, especially women. It’s why, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, some Whites tried to do the same with the freed Negro slaves.

In more recent years, a number of journalists have been murdered in México, as they covered that nation’s ongoing war against the drug cartels and linked some of that violence to government and law enforcement officials.

Of course, composing short stories for my blog or recounting skirmishes with haughty nuns and teachers doesn’t constitute a battle against repression. But, from the moment some six millennia ago, when an unknown individual in the Sumerian desert carved the emblem of a human head in conjunction with a fish to indicate eating, writing has been an essential and inescapable attribute of our existence. I observe, from the comfort of my suburban home, the battles between police and drug lords in México and wonder if any of them are aware that a form of writing arose in the central part of that country around 600 B.C. Do they even realize how significant that is, not just in México’s history, but the history of the world?

I swing my attention to the mountains of landlocked Afghanistan and question if any of the men training to attack Europe and the U.S. in the name of Islam realize their ancestors corresponded frequently about such matters as the possibility of an afterlife and how birds stay aloft. How did that area reach the 16th century and become stuck there?

I remain passionate about literature and education, even in this increasingly digital world where cell phone text messages have become the norm. I have no less than 400 books crammed into my home, placed neatly on shelves or stacked atop one another. They cover everything from art to political science. Moreover, I have scores of magazines: “National Geographic,” “International Artist,” “The Sun,” “Indian” and the “Smithsonian.” And I keep adding to my repertoire. My only hope is that I get to read them all before I die, and even then, maybe carry them with me into the afterlife.

Regardless of what happens anywhere in the world, I know we writers will win the ongoing battles against ignorance and arrogance. Whether we have to stay after class for daring to question a teacher over the pronunciation of a single word, or stand before a hostile government that only wants so much of the truth to get out into the world, writers will always win. Even if we have to die for it.

Image: Mr. Dowling.


Filed under Essays

Dreams Bigger Than Ourselves

Watching the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney the other night invoked a number of emotions in me; mainly nausea.  Obama looked half-asleep, while Romney displayed yet another side of his plastic persona.  Romney contradicted himself more times than someone with schizophrenia, and Obama simply didn’t show any backbone.  Considering that Romney announced he would take down “Sesame Street” and Obama expressed joy last week that the National Football League’s referee strike had ended peacefully, I haven’t been this disillusioned about politics since January 20, 2001, when George W. Bush first took office.

It’s come to this?  PBS and football referees are that utterly important in the overall scheme of America’s ongoing economic crisis?  Well, at least PBS serves a purpose.  But, even before the Obama – Romney debate, I pondered why America has let itself stoop to such lowly aspirations.  This is a country that built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system in the mid-1800’s and, less than a century later, constructed the world’s largest highway system.  Following World War II, this same nation created the strongest middle class the world has ever seen.  We were the first to take flight into the air and the first to place men on the moon.  We helped to develop automobiles, telephones, radio, televisions and computers.  Now, we’re talking about creationism in schools and gay marriage.  Are we serious?  How did the national dialogue become so pathetic?

A half century ago, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; he wanted us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  And, we did just that!  Less than seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

I’m somewhat of a dreamer.  In fact, I’m a big dreamer.  My quiet, sometimes introverted personality conjures up the most fantastic of stories.  But, it also envisions the seemingly impossible of events.  Thus, while some people worry what Vice President Joe Biden might say in his debate with Congressman Paul Ryan next week and others sit on the edge of their seats, wondering who will take first place on “Dancing with the Stars,” I propose the following challenges to my fellow Americans.

Energy Independent – Every American president since Richard Nixon has called for the U.S. to be completely and totally energy independent.  The oil embargoes of the 1970’s first made us realize how badly our nation is beholden to the Saudi royal family who – just a few decades earlier – were still living a nomadic lifestyle.  Our technology helped them move into the 20th century almost overnight.  Currently, though, the U.S. obtains most of its oil from Latin America, mainly Venezuela.  We actually buy more oil from Canada than from OPEC nations.  But, we’re still reliant upon foreign nations for a good chunk of our fuel.  And, we’re still too dependent upon coal and natural gas.  The fact is that those resources are finite.  They’re also dirty and dangerous to extract from the Earth.  I’d like to see the U.S. develop cleaner and safer means of energy by 2030.  Yes, that’s less than 20 years from now, but I know we can do it.  And, we need to do it.  We can’t continue to pollute our environment and put our citizens at risk just to keep the lights on in the house.

Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into Florida as a borderline category 5 storm, before marching across the Gulf of México and slamming into Louisiana.  It was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history at the time; costing an estimated $26 billion.  For weeks afterward, residents in the impact zones lived without power.  Andrew had knocked down and / or destroyed thousands of yards of power and telecommunication lines.  In the richest, most powerful country on Earth, people found themselves struggling from day to day in a third world-style environment in the heat of summer.  Twenty years later Hurricane Isaac gently rolled over southeastern Louisiana and did virtually the same thing to all those power and telecommunication lines.  Tropical storm systems aren’t the only harbinger of disaster.  Almost every winter, people in the northeastern U.S. brace for mighty arctic hurricanes that send them back into those third world type living conditions.  The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.  We can never control what the planet’s natural elements will do.  Every time humans have tried to fight nature, they almost always get smacked back into reality.  But, we can mitigate the impact of these calamities by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible.  This is not a new idea.  Many people – from energy analysts to, yes, politicians – have pushed for this to be done on a massive scale.  But, there have been plenty of detractors.  While we already have a large number of subterranean power and telecommunication lines, opponents claim they’re not necessarily more reliable than overhead lines.  While overhead lines experience more outages and are more vulnerable to every piece of aerial debris from disoriented birds to tree branches, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise.  Another obstacle, of course, is money.  There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines, and – as you might have guessed – those costs must be passed onto consumers, either in the form of higher utility rates or increased taxes.  But, I think it’s well worth the financial burden.  Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power; food is spoiled and lives can be endangered in extreme heat or cold.  The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.

Humans on Mars – For eons, our ancestors wondered what it was like on the surface of the moon.  When the U.S. finally made it there in July of 1969, our fanciful images of otherworldly beings gave way to the bland reality of rocks and dust.  But, we made it!  We’d successfully landed humans on the surface of another celestial body and brought them back to Earth.  Almost immediately, people began contemplating a trip to Mars.  The U.S. has come close; first with the Viking I and II voyages, and most recently, with the Curiosity mission.  These have been unstaffed journeys, but they’re important.  The U.S. space program of the 1960’s helped to advance technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, such as facsimile machines and cordless phones, but also with engineering and robotics.  As with any grand adventure, however, there are detractors who look primarily (or only) at the money factor.  The Viking missions alone cost $1 billion – in 1970’s-era figures – and, as of now, the Curiosity budget has exceeded $2.5 billion.  But so far, the U.S. has spent nearly $807 trillion in Iraq and almost $572 trillion in Afghanistan.  If we can afford that kind of cash to kill people and destroy entire towns and villages, we definitely can expend a fraction of that money on a staffed trip to Mars.  I don’t believe we’re alone in this universe.  And, it’s in our nature as humans to explore and discover.  I feel we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by 2030.

100% Literacy Rate – This is the most ambitious of my goals.  Literacy and education are paramount to the success of any society.  But, they’re also the most personal and the most difficult.  As of 2012, the U.S. literacy rate stands at roughly 80%.  While this means that more than three-quarters of the U.S. population can read and write to some degree, we’re still far behind such countries as Denmark, Japan and Norway where literacy rates hover close to 100%.  Why is the U.S. at a dismal 80%?  I think much of it has to do with our elected officials and their reluctance to consider education as equally important as military prowess and individual financial wealth.  Moreover, the United States boasts the largest rate of incarceration than any other nation; some 1.8 million people are imprisoned here, or about 1 of every 100 adults.  Of those individuals, roughly 70% are illiterate.  While rates vary among states, it costs roughly $23,000 per year to house one person in a prison.  However, it costs about $1,000 to educate a child each year at the elementary level and about $3,000 per year at the high school level.  College educations also vary widely among states and differ between private and public universities.  But, the average cost per year is about $15,000.  Once someone graduates from college, or even a vocational training program, however, they can enter the work force and start paying back those costs in earnings and taxes, as well as consumer spending.  Somehow, though, our political elite thinks it’s more feasible to imprison someone than to educate them.  Every year across this nation, states balance their school budgets on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens: elderly, disabled and children.  Just like with the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, it’s beyond me to understand why this nation always has enough money for war, but never enough for education.  I feel it’s the conservative mindset working against us.  Earlier this year former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denounced President Obama as a “snob” for wanting everyone in the U.S. to have a college education.  Ignoring such stupidity, though, I think it’s plausible for the U.S. to have a 100% literacy rate by 2050, if not sooner.  It’s well worth the expense, as we’ll see our prison rates decrease, while consumer spending rates increase.  Educated people generally make better decisions and think first before they act.  It’s easier to give a child and book and deal with their barrage of questions once they finish reading it than to let a kid drop out of school and deal with their bad attitude once they’re in jail.

I know naysayers will read this and scoff at my lofty ambitions; perhaps accusing me of arrogance in imposing such goals upon others.  I’m not forcing anyone to believe as I do.  But, the wealthiest nation on Earth should have much greater objectives than ensuring tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of its citizens or constructing a wall along the southern border.  Our grand ethnic and cultural diversity will allow for it.  Our future depends on it.  It’s in our nature as humans to wonder and explore – and to dream big.


Filed under Essays

Cartoon of the Day

I can see it now: thousands of years into the future our descendants will unearth our electronic devices and try to decipher the hard drives.  Then, they’ll realize our own ancestors were actually more ingenious than us.

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Pictures of the Day

It’s not news that the U.S. lags behind other nations in math and science test scores.  But, we also suffer from poor reading and writing skills.  While our politicians debate creationism and abstinence-only sex education, our students are busy downloading music to their I–pods and eagerly await the results of Dancing with the Stars.  Then again, you just have to look at these marquee signs and realize where the problems lie.  Source.


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