Archive for November, 2007

The short answer is that I didn’t know why, exactly. It did not begin as some sort of ideological stand, and it didn’t have to do with the ‘God’ thing, at least not directly.

It began with a conference with a family before the start of the school year. Their daughter had been homeschooled, but she was expressing interest in attending public school for third grade. They came to see my classroom, to get a feel for me and what my teaching style might be, and to find out how accepting and accommodating I would be of their religion. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mother explained, and did I plan on on reciting the Pledge, and singing the National Anthem each day? I have quite a bit of firsthand knowledge regarding that particular faith (maybe someday I’ll explain), so I already understood that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not recite the Pledge, sing patriotic songs, or celebrate holidays or birthdays. If I had truly planned on reciting the Pledge each day, I would have said so. But I had been thinking about it, and I wasn’t sure. I explained this to the mother, and, thinking on my feet, said that I didn’t have any plans to, but I would reassess that if I had students or parents who requested otherwise. The mom seemed satisfied and enrolled her daughter in my class.

So the year began and we established our classroom routines. We had our quiet work period first thing in the morning and then began our lessons. Surprisingly, after four or five years in the public school system, none of my students asked me why we didn’t recite the Pledge, the National Anthem, or the school song. It was a total non-issue. Then toward the end of the year, with the sounds of the Pledge wafting in from the next door classroom, one of my “why” students asked me. I told him that we just get busy doing other things, but did he want us to start? He just shrugged indifferently and went back to his work.

Despite the fact that my class did not do it on a daily basis, I don’t mind reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (although I do think it’s a little weird to pledge allegiance to an inanimate object and then to the actual country it represents), and I actually enjoy singing the National Anthem. I like hearing it at the ballpark and at school assemblies. But I don’t like doing either every single day. It just sounds so, well, institutionalized when it is recited each day without fail. It sounds robotic, unemotional and uninspiring. I think that when it is reserved for special events such as assemblies, it takes on more meaning – it becomes special to recite the Pledge, and special to sing our National Anthem. Besides schools, I can’t think of any institution that recites either or both on a daily basis.

I’ve never been comfortable with conformity, and as a teacher I tried to celebrate (or, on bad days, at least tolerate) my students’ quirks and oddities and different ways of learning. I tried to limit the amount of time that we all spent doing the same thing. Even though as Americans we pride ourselves on our relative freedom, a classroom full of children, hands on hearts and reciting a patriotic oath, looks to me too much like indoctrination. How easy would it be to get them to raise a hand (as one did while reciting the Pledge until WWII) and pledge allegiance to a different sort of flag?

Maybe it’s a silly thing. Maybe I look too deeply into one of the standard ingredients of an American childhood. But I’d like to think that my former students, now that they are a year older and undoubtedly reciting the Pledge every day, might actually wonder, or even ask aloud, why. That, after all, is an exercise in freedom.

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(if you do too, you might want to skip this post)

I don’t really like peas very much. Mostly my mom gets the sweet little ones, which are ok, but sometimes she buys the mushy ones on accident. I hate those. I also don’t like the crunchy skin part of a baked potato. One time at dinner, I tried something sneaky. I said to my mom and dad, I have to go to the bathroom. I’m just going to take my plate with me so I can finish my dinner in the bathroom. I thought maybe they would tell me to leave my plate at the table, but my mom and dad looked at each other and smiled, and my mom said ok. There is this little bathroom next to the kitchen. It is so little that only a toilet will fit in there, so you have to wash your hands in the kitchen. So I went into the bathroom and I scraped off my plate into the toilet and flushed it down. I waited a couple of minutes and then I came out and said, yum, those peas and potato skins were just delicious. My parents laughed. I got away with it.

* * *

One time my mom was having some people over for “brunch.” That’s when you wait until later to eat breakfast, so you get really hungry. My mom made this thing called “quiche.” I usually like most of the stuff my mom makes, but I took one bite of the quiche and I gagged. Since I don’t usually do that, my mom said I didn’t have to eat any more. I got some toast and cereal instead.

* * *

Sometimes I throw up when I get that too-full feeling in my stomach, or when I think about a food too much, like maybe something mushy, and it makes me throw up. One morning I couldn’t finish my cereal, so my mom said flush it down the toilet. I told her the mushy cereal was too much like throw-up and I would get sick if I flushed it in the toilet. She said then I should just finish my cereal. But my cereal was already gross and mushy and looked like throw-up and I knew I’d get sick if I ate it. So I was in a stuck kind of place. I argued with my mom some more and then I finally took my bowl and poured the cereal in the toilet. It made that throwing up sound when it went into the water. So then I threw up because that sound makes me throw up. Anything that reminds me of throwing up makes me feel that throw-up feeling in my stomach. Like the time Bonnie threw up all over the place and I went into my mom and dad’s bedroom and turned the radio up loud and plugged up my ears so I couldn’t hear her throwing up. My mom said that was a silly thing to do but I really hate throwing up. Every night I pray to God about two things: number one is to please not let me wet the bed and number two is to please not let me throw up. I never wet the bed, but sometimes I still throw up.

* * *

One time my mom made me a nice half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a pear for lunch. Pears have this funny kind of sandy feel in your mouth. I threw up.

* * *

One day for lunch my mom asked me what I wanted and I said a cheese sandwich. So she made me a cheese sandwich. Then I felt like I really couldn’t eat it, so I said could I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead. My mom wasn’t very happy about that but she said I had to promise to eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then she would make it for me. When I got the peanut butter and jelly sandwich my stomach had that throw-up feeling and I couldn’t eat that sandwich either. My mom got frustrated and said I already made you two sandwiches! She said I had to eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwich or else I’d get a spanking. Even though I don’t like to get spanked, I hate throwing up, so I said I’d get a spanking. But then I wasn’t sure. I was scared it would hurt. My mom must have been tired or something because when I came up to get a spanking she just lightly patted my bottom and sighed.

* * *

I was staying overnight at my grandma Joyce’s so that my parents could have a little break. My grandma made spinach salad, and I ate some of it but I didn’t like it. I like really crunchy lettuce salads, and spinach just has this mushy feel. After dinner I was watching TV upstairs and I started getting this really bad pain in my stomach, not like usually when I throw up right away. That pain just kept getting worse until I ran downstairs and threw up all that spinach salad in the toilet. My grandma brought me home and I sat on my aunt Faith’s lap in the car and she had a pan in case I had to throw up in the car. I did. I guess my parents didn’t get a break after all.

* * *

My dad’s favorite restaurant is this place called The Bier Stube, which has lots of German food. I didn’t know if I’d like it but once we were there, I just kept eating and eating and telling my dad and mom how delicious the food was. Then all of a sudden I got that sick feeling right there in the restaurant. So I started throwing up at the table and my dad put his beer mug under me to catch my throw up and that was really gross so I threw up some more. My parents were really embarrassed. We left that restaurant.

* * *

One time I found a little blue robin’s egg in my mom’s garden. It must have fallen out of the nest. I thought it would taste just like a regular egg, so I ate it. It was NOT like a regular egg. But I didn’t throw up.

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Did you know that there is a washing machine out there that can actually supply drinking water? I didn’t think so either until I saw this advertisement in the Chicago Tribune:

“A Bosch washer could supply a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people.”

This kind of advertising drives me nuts. It is more than a little insulting that the marketing people at Bosch think that American citizens consumers are too ignorant to know the difference between water supply and water consumption. A washing machine does not supply water. A washing machine uses water. What they could have said was, “A Bosch washer could save a lifetime of drinking water for 67 million people compared to less efficient models.”

Of course the ad was all in the context of touting the company’s environmental friendliness, and that is my larger point. Manufactured products are not generally “environmentally friendly.” Products that are efficient compared to other products are less environmentally damaging, but they still have an impact – they are still using nonrenewable resources, both in their manufacture and in their operation. Now that it is cool to be “green” I’ve noticed a lot of false and misleading advertising that basically wants the consumer to believe that their product is not just more efficient, but is in fact friendly to the environment. I like my washing machine as much as the next person, but I’m not going to fool myself into believing that dumping in a load of dirty laundry and a capful of detergent, and turning on a machine that uses hot water and electricity (and then dumps the used detergent and dirty water down the drain), is friendly to the environment. Even the energy star washers still work in the same way, even if they use a little less of everything.

Companies will naturally take any marketing angle and run with it, including jumping on the “green” bandwagon. But wild claims of machines actually being suppliers of natural resources? That’s low.

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3. Snapshots

Patty was in a car accident. She had a light blue car called a Bug and a big truck came and hit her in that little car. She has a scar underneath her eye and sometimes a little piece of glass will come up out of that scar. I guess the doctors couldn’t get all the glass out. We were sitting at the kitchen table. My mom was there. They were drinking coffee.

* * *

Bonnie is getting potty trained. Mommy has her baby toilet in the little porch room at the back of our house. Bonnie has just a shirt on and no diaper and she’s playing out there. Every time she goes pee in her little toilet mommy gives her one of those little chocolate bars. Bonnie really likes chocolate so she’s doing a good job of getting potty trained.

* * *

Sometimes my mommy and I go to St. Louis to visit great grandma and great grandpa. They live in this little white house with this funny little room by the kitchen that grandma calls The Omnibus Room. I don’t really know what that means except there’s lots of junk and stuff in there that most people would put in the garbage. Their bathtub is filled with stuff too, like lots of newspapers and a couple of boxes and other old stuff. I ask my mommy how do they take a bath? Mommy says they take sponge baths. I don’t think that is a very good way of taking a bath. I like to be in the water. They have two big dogs that are part German Shepherd but they are kind of a white color. They must not vacuum very much because there is always a lot of dog hair everywhere. Grandma says buttermilk is good for you so she always gives me a glass but it tastes too funny. Grandpa has a little office room, too. He has some pretty cool stuff in there. He has a tiny little globe that sits on his desk. I really want it but it would be rude to ask to have it. I used to ask people if I could have things a lot, but mommy said it’s not polite to do that.

* * *

There is a picture of me with my friend Sarah. Sarah lived in the apartments next door. There are always new people moving in, and other people moving out. Nobody stays very long in those apartments. I don’t know why that is. Sarah moved away too. Her mom was pretty and had two different colored eyes, one brown and one green. When she moved away her mom gave me a big hug and said she was going to miss me. In the picture we are both smiling and you can tell there is something in my mouth. It is a piece of banana. What you can’t see in the picture is that I have a banana in my hand. Sarah already finished her banana and she kept saying hurry up, finish your banana! But I couldn’t hurry up. I’m a slow eater.

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Several months ago the National Geographic featured a picture from photographer Edward Burtynsky’s project titled, succinctly enough, “China.” It was of the inside of a poultry processing plant – hundreds of workers, all in pink scrubs, blue aprons, shower caps, plastic gloves and masks, each working over a plastic tub of chicken parts. At the time I felt a little guilty about all the times I ever felt sorry for myself – even though I didn’t like my job, or my car was on the fritz, at least I didn’t have to do that for a living. For some reason the image has stayed with me, and I’ve often consoled myself with the thought, “at least you’re not a Chinese poultry worker.”

Then the other day I was reading a little blurb in the November/December Orion magazine about the typical journey of a Chinook salmon, from the cold north Atlantic waters to your dinner plate. When the salmon is caught, it is frozen and loaded onto a ship waiting in a Norwegian harbor. The ship then sails, er, motors, to either Rotterdam or Hamburg where the fish is loaded onto a huge international container ship, which then sets off for China. About a month later, the frozen salmon arrives in China, most likely the northeast coast, home to most of China’s fish processing plants. The fish is trucked to one of these plants, is defrosted and on a large industrial floor, is skinned, boned, filleted and refrozen. Then it is loaded back onto a ship, destined for a U.S. or European supermarket. “Fresh” salmon, anyone?

The reason for this very long, very circuitous route is this: salmon have tiny little bones, called “pin bones” that the big filleting machines miss. They have to be plucked by hand using pliers or tweezers. Apparently labor costs make this too expensive/not profitable enough in the U.S. and Europe, so we ship the fish to China, where labor is cheap and productivity is high.

While I was reading this story, the first image that popped into my mind was the photograph of the Chinese poultry workers (you can see it here). The Orion article described the fish workers in basically the same way:

“In a large, neon-lit industrial space are ranks of tables, each with dozens of brightly colored plastic trays on top of them. Standing at the tables, dressed in white coats and caps and wearing latex gloves and cotton masks, are hundreds of factory workers – most of them young women from rural villages.”

If you were to tell this story to someone who was unfamiliar with the concept of global economies, he’d probably shake his head in disbelief. I mean, it just sounds so incredibly inefficient. How on earth can it be cheaper to send a fish around the world to have its bones plucked, when for a few dollars more an hour, you can have somebody do it right here? Or, conversely, how much can the Chinese factory workers possibly be making if it is cheaper to send it around the world than to do it ourselves? A dollar an hour? A dollar a day?

Give me a salmon fillet with pin bones, please. I will happily fetch my little pair of pliers (to hell with the apron and gloves) and pluck them out myself. For free.

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After posting about the school prayer issue in Illinois, my sister mentioned to me that her attorney friend was a little skeptical about my argument. He noted that the establishment clause simply prohibits the official establishment of any particular religion over another (B, let me know if I’ve got this wrong). I appreciate all reasoned comments and questions, because they cause me to continually rethink and evaluate my opinions (as they should).

At any rate, I think this is a common point with respect to school prayer, and to religious expression in general in the United States. And it is precisely one of the reasons why I don’t support mandating school prayer in public schools. Mandating “moments of silence” or other thinly veiled, similarly worded directives is, in my mind, basically saying, “we won’t tell you which religion you should be, but you ought to be some religion. A religion that involves praying to a god or higher power.”

No, no, no, the proponents say. You can meditate. You can reflect on your life. You can send good wishes to your aunt in Tulsa. You can work on that chunk of dry skin on your lower lip while scheming up ways to get back at your little brother.

Feh. What is the point, then? Why are some state legislators so adamant about enacting these laws if the time can be spent in sheer idleness? It is certainly not to protect a child’s right to let his mind wander aimlessly – that clearly isn’t the goal of institutionalized education – and in institutionalized education today, kids usually have more than enough opportunity during the day to take a mental vacation or two. It isn’t about giving kids a break – they get that at lunch, recess and study hall. That narrows it down to…could it be? An agenda to inject religion into public schools?

Oh, it is all so silly (and more than a little scary) and unnecessary anyway – unnecessary because all public schoolchildren already have the right to pray, and the government doesn’t have the right to tell them to, or not to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It doesn’t say “an establishment of a religion” (a particular religion over another). There is no article. It may certainly be implied (i.e. we don’t want a Church of America), but still – mandating prayer in public schools is an establishment of religion – not of one denomination over another, but just religion, period. It is mandating that administrators and teachers set aside time for religious practice in a public school.

A few quotes to chew on:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (from the Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous vote in 1797)

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (James Madison)

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“[I am] denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” (Ethan Allen)

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion…has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…” (Benjamin Franklin)

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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2. The Big Woods

Bonnie and I were smooshed up in the backseat of daddy’s car and we were driving at night. We were going to Wisconsin! It was nighttime and it was the darkest it could be. Then there was a problem with the car. The lights went out and then it was so dark you couldn’t see anything. It was a big problem. Daddy stopped the car and got out. He opened the hood and he just had to feel the wires and he said we were lucky because he just wiggled one thing and the lights worked again so then we could go on our way again. We kept going forever in the dark and Bonnie was sleeping when we finally got there, but not me. I don’t really sleep in the car because I like to stay awake to see the dark out the windows and listen to the radio and mommy and daddy talking quietly in the front. Sometimes I close my eyes, and mommy says I think she’s asleep and I don’t say anything because I like how they talk about different things when they think I’m asleep. Then we were there, and there was snow even though there wasn’t snow back home. All I could see was snow on the ground in the headlights and the front of a little house and the woods all around. And then my daddy’s friend whose name is also Mike came out of the house. We got out of the car and went inside. It was a kitchen and then a living room and a bedroom and a bathroom except you couldn’t use the toilet or the bathtub or the sink. I thought it was funny to have a bathroom that you couldn’t really use like a bathroom, but Mike said it was because the pipes would freeze since it was winter, even though it was only fall in Illinois. But then in the summer you could turn the water back on. So we had to use the outhouse to go to the bathroom, and milk cartons filled with water for in the kitchen. This was bad at night because I always had to pee a lot. And when I try not to have to pee that’s when I always have to pee even more. I tried to hold it as long as I could, but then I had to wake up my mommy and she sighed because she had to get up and put on my coat and boots and her coat and boots and get the flashlight and walk outside in the snow and then I had to sit in the outhouse over that dark black hole and it made me scared because I could not see what was down there. Then we had to walk back inside and take off our boots and coats and lie back down in the living room, which is where we were sleeping since Mike and Patty were in the bedroom.

Then it was daytime and we visited some friends of Mike and Patty who also live in a house in those same woods, only their house had a basement. They had a little girl and we were playing in one room in the basement and she said we should go in this other room to see something, so we did. It was a deer hanging upside down by its back leg and its skin was all off. It was kind of a weird thing to see.

One night we went for a walk. Only it was sort of light outside because the moon was big and round and the stars were big and shiny and the leaves were off the trees, so we could see to walk. I could hear the crunch crunch of my boots and I could smell that cold winter smell. Then Mike said stop, listen. So we stopped and listened. We heard a HOO HOO sound and Mike scrunched down by me and pointed up in a tree. So I looked up and heard the HOO HOO sound again and there was a great big owl in the top of the tree. I saw the owl, and it saw me. It stopped saying HOO HOO and just looked at us, down there in the snow. I said hi to it in my mind, and I felt a shiver like it heard me and was saying something back only in its mind too. Owls are like magic.

When I woke up in the morning there was a big emergency going on. I went in the kitchen and there was this little black thing on the table and it was an ant trap. Everybody was looking at it and Bonnie was crying because everybody was upset. I asked what happened what happened until mommy said that Bonnie was crawling on the floor and she had the ant trap in one hand and her other hand was in her mouth. Bonnie likes to eat weird stuff she finds on the floor like fuzz from the carpet and little pieces of dirt from the big plant in the living room. So the adults were looking inside the trap to see if any stuff could come out of it and then looking in Bonnie’s mouth to see if there was any poison stuff in there. They couldn’t tell. So then there was a big decision to take Bonnie to the hospital just in case she ate some poison. So then everybody was in a big hurry to go to the hospital. Mike and daddy were taking her and I was getting really upset because Bonnie is my sister and she gets into stuff a lot and sometimes she hurts herself. Like the time she climbed up on the kitchen chair and was standing and jumping on it while mommy was in the pantry and then she fell off it and bit her tongue. Her mouth was bleeding and I started crying louder than Bonnie because she’s so little and I bet it hurt her a lot to bite her tongue like that. So I wanted to come with to the hospital but I had to stay and I was too close to the door when they were leaving and Mike on accident closed the door when my head was still a little bit in the way and the door bumped my head. It didn’t hurt that much on the outside but I felt like everybody forgot about me in the big emergency.

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Early memories. Possibly part of an ongoing project.

I get piano lessons once a week. Mommy takes me and we drive there. Mrs. McNally gives me my lessons. Her piano is downstairs in her basement and we go down there for the lessons. I sit on the bench and Mrs. McNally sits next to me. She sits by the high keys and I sit in the middle, so that I can put my thumbs on Middle C. The piano is funny-looking. It is red. It is not like grandma’s piano, which is big and brown and takes up a lot of room in her living room. It is red and flat and tall. Most peoples’ basements are cold but not Mrs. McNally’s. Her basement is hot and smells like her, which is cigarettes and perfume and old lady smell. When she talks, that smell comes out of her mouth and I don’t like to breathe that smell in my nose. There isn’t a lot of air down there and my hands get sweaty and I don’t like that when I play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I bring my lesson books with me. They have songs in them that are pretty easy to play so I don’t have to learn the notes, I just play from my head how the song goes. Some songs I don’t know how they go so I have to look at the notes and it takes me longer to play and Mrs. McNally sometimes has to take my fingers and show me what notes to play. Her hands are big and she has long fingernails. Grandma says I have to cut my fingernails and keep them short and hold up my wrists and bend my fingers under. But Mrs. McNally doesn’t tell me to do those things. Grandma says that you can’t play piano right if you have long fingernails. But Mrs. McNally’s nails are always long and always some different color like purple or pink or red. When I learn to play a new song she puts a shiny star sticker on the page where the song is. Mommy sits on the couch behind me. She takes care of my little sister Bonnie. Sometimes Bonnie starts crying so Mommy picks her up and says shhhhh there there and bounces her up and down.

Mommy used to put me in the baby seat on the back of her bike and she would take us for a ride. It was always a nice sunny day and I would put my face in my mommy’s shirt if the sun was too strong in my eyes. My mommy’s shirts always had a nice smell like wind. Sometimes she would stop at the park and she would push me on the swing. Or she would sit in the swing next to me and show me how to put my legs out then in then out then in and then I could swing by myself. When I was up as high as I could go I would lean back and look at the sky and clouds and that would feel very high and dizzy like flying. Then we would get back on the bike and we would visit my aunt Aimee. Aimee is spelled with two e’s which is the fancy way to spell Amy. She is a very nice aunt to have. She is tall and skinny with blonde hair and she drinks white wine and sometimes my mom has some too. I get grape juice or apple juice. Aimee has a nice house and she is always putting in new curtains or getting a new couch or carpeting. I am afraid to spill something on her nice floor. A long time ago she lived in an apartment with Uncle Tom and I spilled my milk on their floor in the living room. We were having pizza. I felt very sorry and my dad said sorry and my uncle laughed a lot and said Don’t worry about it. Then he said If it was Aim’s couch then you have to worry. Then everybody laughed and I felt better. They lived in a place called Cincinnati once when I was very little and we drove there to visit them. Their apartment was painted white and was big and didn’t really have any rooms. The ceiling was tall and had fans up there and they were white too. Everything in my memory of that place was white and cool and good. Uncle Tom took me to a park in Cincinnati and we were on the seesaw and when he sat down I went up and when he stood up I went down. I really laughed about that. Somebody’s radio was on at the park and it was playing a song called Just The Two Of Us and I liked that song because it was just me and my uncle who is very handsome like my dad but he gives me a lot more ice cream than my dad. When Uncle Tom is at our house I ask my mom if I can have some ice cream and she says Ok just a little and then I ask Uncle Tom to get it for me and he puts it in a cereal bowl not a dessert bowl and my mom says TOM!!! And then she says I am getting too smart and Uncle Tom is not allowed to get my ice cream any more. Uncle Tom laughs and winks his eye at me and I know next time he will still get me my ice cream.

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While the Illinois legislature could have been doing other things like, I don’t know, BALANCING THE BUDGET, two weeks ago it passed a law mandating a moment of silence in all public schools. As a person who has been in the trenches of the public school system, I can say unequivocally that silence can be a good thing. That’s why I, and most teachers I know, start off the day with just that – a brief period in the morning when students have some quiet time to do independent work (often called “Bell work”). For example, I gave my students a grammar exercise (written on the board) and a math review sheet. This gave me time to take attendance and to collect homework and lunch money. It was a time to focus, to center and to prepare for the day. This “moment of silence” lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, and at any time, any student who so wished could use a moment of this time to reflect, to mentally focus, or to pray.

Similarly, at lunch time, I dismissed students to get their lunches (we ate in the classroom) based on the noise level in the room. Hungry students are quiet students, if that is what the teacher requires. Same thing for dismissal at the end of the day. Students who want to go home are quiet students, if that is the expectation. My point is that students usually have several “moments of silence” built into their school day, not because is it legally mandated, but because teachers recognize the importance of establishing certain times that are calm, quiet and focused. For religious families who wish that their children take a moment to pray silently during the day, all they have to do is ask their children, or the teacher if they say they don’t know, if there are any such times during the day when this would be possible. Teachers, by the nature of their profession, need to be accommodating.

Over the course of the past two weeks, the op-ed pages have been chock-filled with opinions on the issue. The assumption, of course, is that this “moment of silence” is code-speak for “mandated prayer.” When I was in grammar school in the early eighties, my school instituted a moment of silence. After the principal made the announcements for the day, she presided via intercom over “sixty seconds of silence,” and a little beep let us know it was over. Ever the inquisitive one, I asked my fourth grade teacher what it was all about (she just loved me, by the way). She said, “So you can pray.” Then she caught herself and added, “or whatever.” Because, you know, she apparently remembered that our Constitution has this little detail about prohibiting the establishment of religion.

When I heard about the new law (vetoed by Governor Blagojevich and overruled), I just rolled my eyes and figured, well, there are bigger issues out there to get all worked up about. Like global warming, pollution, crime, poverty, immigration, terrorism and a few minor skirmishes in the Middle East. But yesterday I stared open-mouthed at an article in the Chicago Tribune that cited the official title of this bill: the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Come again? There is no assuming about it. This is about mandating prayer. It does not say “Silent Reflection OR Student Prayer.” It does in the body of the act, but not in the title. Notice also that the “reflection” part comes first in the title. Pretty sneaky, eh? It’s first about reflection and then about prayer. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

For someone who wavers between agnosticism and a sense that there must be some kind of universal intelligence, I have mixed feelings about the role that organized religion has played in our history. OK, some of those feelings aren’t so mixed. But I’m absolutely opposed to anybody telling me or my children, “you have to be silent right now to pray. Or whatever.” This is death by a thousand cuts to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the “or whatever” is just a politically correct add-on. That’s why I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, in response to a suit brought to him by an Arlington Heights parent, decided that the law is “too vague and ‘likely unconstitutional.'” I hope this isn’t the first such ruling. I’m going to go have myself a moment of silence to thank God for people who care about one of our most fundamental freedoms. Or whatever.

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James Howard Kunstler is my favorite curmudgeon. When I discovered him, I was elated to find a kindred spirit in terms of how I view the modern world. His writing, for better or worse, plays right into my deepest suspicions that the human species is headed for unprecedented peril in the coming years. He also shares my dismay about what has been going on in the building industry since the end of WWII. Things are ugly out there. Strip malls, car dealerships, gas stations, big box retail chains…welcome to the new American landscape.

When I was ten my family moved from a big, old rented house in an urban suburb (closer to the edge of the city) to a tiny little cape cod in a WWII neighborhood that, at the time, was in a more far-flung suburb that abutted wide swaths of open space and farmland. Once I had my driver’s license, one of my favorite things to do was to go for a solitary ride on a summer twilight, out past civilization and into what felt, to me anyway, like the middle of nowhere. Enter the Housing Boom about five years later. It happened so fast that coming home from a two week vacation was disorienting. New strip malls, new housing developments, even new streets, were sprouting up overnight. I hate overusing the word “literally,” but I mean literally overnight.

And the houses. Commonly referred to as McMansions (my grandmother calls them “Big Uglies”), they are like giant behemoths rising from the prairie, their faces blank and expressionless. They are located in subdivisions with names like “Fox Run Estates,” “Huntington Grove,” “Lake View Manor,” and “Deer Path Village.” Never mind the fact that a fox, a grove of trees (they were all cut down), a lake (it’s a flood retention pond) or a deer would never be seen by the residents of the so-named developments. In these developments, there are maybe four housing styles (“The Tudor,” “The Windsor,” “The Edwardian,” etc.), but they all essentially look the same. They smell like drywall, like the VOCs radiating from the nylon wall-to-wall carpeting, like contractor-grade latex paint. They have hollow core doors and fake brass fixtures. They start falling apart before the ink dries on the closing documents.

I’ve always wanted to live in a really old house. Really old. As old as possible. I am even sometimes disappointed that I didn’t grow up in New England, where I might possibly live in a house built in the 18th century. Here in Chicago, the oldest house was built around 1836, and it would be next to impossible to find anything anywhere near that vintage on the market. I like the spicy, hardwood smell of old houses; I like the way the floorboards creak and groan. I like the wavy leaded glass windowpanes, and the fireplaces that kept ladies with petticoats and hoop skirts warm on cold winter evenings. I like the impenetrable plaster walls, the graceful archways and the possibility of finding an ancient relic in a long-forgotten corner of the attic.

My great-great grandfather built such a house. Out of stone. With his bare hands. It still stands today (albeit with an unfortunate 3-car garage added on by the current owners). It is graceful, solid and strong. It is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The windowsills are 24 inches deep, a perfect spot for my great-grandfather, as a boy, to gaze outside or take a nap. It sits amid the flat farmland on the upper tip of “The Thumb” in Michigan, a somewhat overlooked part of the state, where my relatives were among the first European settlers. I can hardly imagine living in a world where people built their own houses, houses that were as unique as their owners, with their very own idiosyncrasies etched into the stone, timber, mortar and brick. These houses have history. These houses are alive.

Which one would you choose?


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