Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sí se puede

A few years ago, I went to an immigration rally in New York City.  As a teacher in Brooklyn, I'd seen firsthand what it meant to be an illegal immigrant in this country, and what it meant to the children who were trying to pull together a future, and I was angered so by all the meaningless roadblocks that I went down to Union Square with an American flag in my hand and shouted, "Sí se puede!" until I went hoarse without even knowing what it meant.  To me, it meant that we were angry, that we needed to change whatever laws were causing discrimination, and we needed to make people who had lived in this country for ten years and whose children had been born here feel safe.

Turns out that "Sí se puede!" was the cry of Cesar Chavez and friends almost forty years ago, and it translated to something very simple: Yes, we can.

People ask me what it's like to live in Chicago during this, the most historic of election cycles, and all I can say is that if you do not live here, you cannot know.  What you are experiencing is only a sliver of the groundswell of feeling that surrounds us all.

I think I began to get an idea of what this would be when Barack Obama's New Hampshire speech was turned into a song by and people like Scarlett Johanssen showed up to make their voices heard in concert with him:

But that was Hollywood's reaction to this candidate, and as I watched this, I withheld opinion.  You see, I was a Hillary girl from way back.  I was in the strange position of having had both Democratic nominees as my senator, and frankly, I was more impressed with what Hillary accomplished.  A woman as president?  I couldn't ignore what that could mean to every little girl in this nation.  We've come a long way, baby, but we still make about seventy cents to every dollar that a man makes.

However, I also couldn't ignore what Obama's candidacy meant to the people around me.  In the city of Chicago, racism and poverty are so rampant that to ignore them means that you are being willfully blind.  I am not willfully blind, and neither is Barack Obama.  Here is a man who the national media dismissed as a "community activist."  Community activist?  What more can you want than someone who had enough money to lead a privileged life but instead chose to wade into the morass that is Chicago politics and actually get something done for the African-American community?

To say that I was torn was an understatement.  As time progressed and the Democratic choice became clear, I, like Eurydice, looked back a time or two, but in the end, knew there was only one choice.

Because: change.  After the last eight years, it was the only choice. 

All last week, I was nervous about Tuesday.  I couldn't stop thinking about the night I went to bed thinking that Al Gore was president and woke up finding that he wasn't.  Until they called the election, no matter how many polls and pundits put him ahead, an ocean of fear swelled up inside of me, and no matter what I did, I couldn't tamp it down.

I waited an hour to vote on Tuesday morning -- just one in a long line of bleary-eyed people who shuffled silently to the front of the line and held their collective breath as we said our say.  Then I went to school.

David popped into my classroom almost immediately.  "Did you vote?  Who'd you vote for?"

I told him.  I've had conversations with teachers about whether we should tell students our political leanings, and I've come to the conclusion that, although it's pretty easy to guess which way I lean based on my point of view, I won't volunteer the information but I also won't keep it from them if they ask me directly. 

 The second I told him, however, he let out a whoop.  "Barack, Barack, Barack O-BAM-a!" he chanted, and started dancing and jumping in the middle of the room.  "He's gonna win, you'll see," he said, and I told him I hoped so.

At lunchtime, the conversation about political leanings came up again.  Some of our seniors were finally old enough to vote, and one of our girls told a teacher that she'd voted for McCain.  Why? asked her teacher.  Because he was young and had a family, she explained, and she didn't want him to die.

David popped into my classroom a few more times during the day and did his song-and-dance routine a few more times.  By sixth period, he'd become so infectious that some of his buddies were singing with him.

But Tuesday wasn't over, and I had class on Tuesday night on the west side, near Gage Park.  To tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about this, because I knew from my brother the police officer that the police force was gearing up for trouble no matter who won.  Class would be over by nine, I knew, but I didn't want to be on the streets after that.  

To get home from Gage Park, I had to drive down Garfield Boulevard through Englewood and Washington Park.  These are not the best neighborhoods, and just about a block past Western I hit an area where the street lights were out.  Now, naive me always assumed in the past that when the street lights were out, it was the electric company's fault, but my kids explained to me not too long ago that the criminal element in an area likes to take them out right before they start shooting.  Makes it harder to track them later, don't you know.

Anyway, I drove through about a mile of almost total darkness before I got to the expressway and the lights were on again.  I breathed a sigh of relief almost despite myself.  I go into bad neighborhoods every day of my life, but this night?  I knew what this night could mean.  If he didn't win this night, rioting in my city was not impossible.

That's why I wasn't surprised when I got home and found a huge police presence.  Hyde Park Boulevard was completely blocked off, and the cop wouldn't let me through, even though I could see my building from where we were.  I had to drive down and up and over (all the one-way streets in the city can be a drag when things are blocked off) until I finally found a cop willing to let me in the back way.  I had to show him ID and proof of address before he'd let me through, and the closest I could get was a block and a half away.

After I parked, I walked up to an old man cop who was guarding one of the corners.  How long is this going to last? I asked.

"I don't know," he said.  "They haven't told us a thing."

They haven't even told you?

"Of course not," he said.  "The Secret Service is in charge.  That means the police are the last to know.  I feel sorry for you all, though.  It's hard enough to park around here."

Don't I know it.

He laughed.  "You know what I call Hyde Park?  Hard Park, because you can never find a spot."

He's right, too.  This is what every street leading up to my block looks like right now.  And parking?  You're lucky to get a little close.

After I got inside,  I snapped this picture of the alley.  Yes, they even have the alleys blocked off.  

I didn't leave the house for the rest of the night.  I was thinking about trying to go downtown at that point, but with the parking situation, I decided to watch the election results with just me and my television.

And even with the police presence, when the election was finally called for Obama, people in my neighborhood went out into the street whooping and hollering and shooting off guns.  Soon enough, though, there were helicopters in the air, sirens everywhere, and things quieted down.

I'm pretty sure I live in the safest neighborhood in America right now.  Two blocks from the President elect.  It's kind of fun to say, but less fun in reality.  The parking and security make me feel like I'm living in a police state.  It took five days before they figured things out enough where I could park on my own block.  I had to raise holy hell with my alderman.
When I woke up the next morning, all of Chicago seemed a little bleary-eyed.  The cop guarding my corner, a new one this time, said she didn't know when there would be a change.

My brother, a police officer in Englewood, sent me a cell-phone photo of a man who didn't make it back inside his house on Wednesday morning.  To tell you the truth, a lot of people were feeling that way on Wednesday.  

But Wednesday was parent-teacher conferences, and so we all got up and headed to work.  The first mother who sat across the table from me was beaming, just beaming.  "Barack Obama is president," she said, tearing up a little bit.

I know.  Just looking at her face made me want to cry too.

"You know what?" she said, "When I got my girls ready for school this morning, do you know what I told my five-year-old?  I said honey, you only need to know one thing today, and that is that Barack Obama is President."

I grinned back at her.  He sure is.

"And she said, 'Is he, Mommy?'  and I said 'Yes, baby. He is.  And if Barack Obama can be President of the United States of America, that means that you can be anything, anything at all.'  And she said, 'Can I Mommy?  Can I really?'  And I said, 'Yes.  Yes you can.'"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Women

I'm always a little chagrined when I like Woody Allen's new film.

I don't even know why I see them.  It's always at the back of my mind, and I can never fully enjoy them.   Here he is, one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, and every film he makes is colored by what he did. 

It's because, of course, I can't forget about his personal choices. The man married his adoptive stepdaughter, for chrissakes.  Yes, I know, they're not blood relations, but he was her father.   

This latest film, "Vicky Christina Barcelona," is a prime example.  How to describe it?  It's a film about the multifaceted complexities of love.  And it's good.  The characters were finely drawn, the acting strong (especially Penelope Cruz), and the story compelling.  

There's this love quintrangle, you see.  A pair of girls goes to Spain for the summer and two of them become attached to the same man.  One of them is engaged, so she can't pursue her attraction, and the other can.  After she moves in, the man's ex-wife returns to the scene and they embark on a threesome, all of them making love to each other.  Then, it falls apart and he returns to the original girl, the engaged one, and it, too, explodes in their faces.

It sounds like a soap opera, but it's really quite good.

You could argue that the man in the middle of all of this is preying on two American tourists, or you can argue that he was simply so personally compelling that these two beautiful women couldn't help but fall for him, not to mention the wife that couldn't let him go.  It doesn't hurt that he's played by Javier Bardem and he's about the hottest thing on two legs, either.  You could argue that he set all of them up for heartbreak and he somehow got off on it.  You could argue that the first one, the attached one, got what she deserved because she cheated on her relationship.  You could argue a lot of things.  That's what makes this movie good.  There's a lot of white space for you to fill in your thoughts.

A few things bothered me about the film, and so I did what I always do when I'm thinking about something: I brought it up with Matt, my trainer.  I gave him a basic overview of the plot, and when I told him about how Vicky, the engaged girl, was treated at the end, his opinion was that she got what she deserved.  "She was a whore," he said.

And the other one?  "Not a whore, because she was a free spirit who made her own choices.  She wasn't with anybody so she didn't hurt anybody."

Okay, yes.  But I take umbrage with calling anybody a whore.  People go through things inside their heads all the time.  They do stupid things.  Those are called mistakes.  Making a mistake does not make a person a whore.

"I disagree," he said.  "Taking off your shirt?  That's a mistake.  Taking off your pants?  Another mistake.  That's easy to correct, too.  You just put them back on and go home.  But taking off your shirt and your pants and your shoes and your ..."

I got it.  But that doesn't make a person a whore.  And making a mistake in love, especially when you're unhappy with the person you're with, doesn't make you a bad person.  I don't think that somebody who cheats is necessarily a bad person.  An unhappy one, maybe, but not a whore.  Vicky didn't get what she deserved because she was led into it by one hell of a player.

"I disagree," he said.  "The guy just took her at her word.  One night, then it's over.  She said so herself.  Why should he drag it out?  It would have ended badly anyway."

And here we have a difference in perspective -- I look at these characters and whereas he sees a whore and a logical fellow, I see a confused girl and a seducer.  Women get led down the garden path all the time.  For brief moments, we believe.  In what, I don't know.

I liked the film.  I liked it more, in fact, than any other movie he's made since "Melinda and Melinda."   

I hate that this fine film was made by Woody Allen. 

His work should be able to stand on his own.  But I can't.  I can't separate the art from the artist.  And maybe I shouldn't, because like his film, his life reads like a soap opera.  Although Soon-Yi Previn, Woody Allen's current wife, claims that she was not his adoptive daughter (in fact, Mia Farrow adopted her during an earlier relationship with Andre Previn), the fact is that she was 22 when this came out.  Allen and Farrow were together for ten years; that would have made Soon-Yi twelve when Allen first came into her life.  Allen may have waited for her to grow up before he took the naked pictures that blew this whole thing wide open, but the fact is that he embarked upon a relationship with a young girl in his care.

By the way, she's not the first adolescent girl he's had a relationship with.  There's been at least two others.

Whenever I think of that relationship, my mind automatically jumps to the next famous scandal of the nineties: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

It always amazes me when this subject comes up, because the first thing people do is lampoon Monica.  They call her fat and they call her a whore and a million other things in between.  What they don't call her is what she is: a victim.

Monica Lewinsky was twenty-two when her relationship with Bill Clinton began.  Twenty-two.  I know this because I was the exact same age at the time.  When news of the scandal broke and I did the math, all I could think was: how could he?  Not how could she, because that of course was obvious.  I remember what I was like at twenty-two, all of the stupid romantic choices that I made that luckily didn't involve the president of the United States.  Everybody remembers what twenty-two is like.  That's why you don't touch twenty-two.  After you reach a certain age, you realize that twenty-two is not grown up.  It's not.

Maybe I have a different perspective on this than others because I'm a teacher, but I know how desperate young adults are for approval from an older generation.  They seek it in stupid ways.  It is up to us, the adults, to recognize that adolescent stupidity and to guide them around it.  If we don't, then we are at fault.

It galls me every time someone blames her for what happened.  Two people were involved, one the most powerful man in the world.  He did something terrible that colors all the good that he did in his presidency.

People have no trouble labeling this kind of thing when it happens to someone much younger.  Look at Mary Kay Letourneau and her child bridegroom.  I don't care if that boy has hit twenty-one; he is a victim of abuse, and clearly they should have kept her in jail for it longer.

I have kids come in my classroom all the time looking for attention, much like Monica did with Bill or Soon-Yi did with Woody.  As adults, we have a choice: do I take the worship this child clearly feels for me and help him or her reach out for something positive, or do I prey upon this young person?

Because that's what it is.  Preying. 

I was standing outside my classroom door between bells the other day, watching one of our senior boys eyeing one of our freshman girls.  No, I said to him.

"Why not?" he said.  "She's fine."

But that wasn't the point, I told him.  And there were a lot of beautiful girls his age walking around these halls.  That one was too young for him.  She'd probably follow him, sure, but was she ready to go where he led?

"She looks grown enough," he said to me.

But no, I said.  She may look grown, but think of yourself at fourteen.  Think of yourself now.  Is she ready for you?

He looked at me a long time, nodded, and said, "I get you, Miss Baader.  I get you."

If an eighteen-year-old boy could get that point, why couldn't Bill Clinton?

Perhaps I see this more clearly than people who aren't around young people all the time, but we as adults have a duty to our youth to lead them to good things.  

Bill Clinton did a lot of good in his tenure.   He won't be remembered for any of that.

Woody Allen made one hell of a movie.  He won't be remembered for that, either.

And neither should he.  They.  Either of them.

Monday, October 6, 2008

six ways of looking at a cubs fan

It's like battered wives' syndrome, my friend Melissa says.  Why else would we keep coming back?  Year after year, they disappoint us.  We pray that next time, this time will be better.  And when they fail us?  We swear to ourselves that never again will we believe in them, but of course we do.  Because there's always next year.

I bought a shirt one year.  It said Chicago Cubs 2000: Our century has arrived.  And on some level, I believed it.  We won our last World Series in 1908.  Statistically speaking, it was only a matter of time before someone took us to our first World Series victory of the new millennium, right?

If you believe in poetry, and I do, this year was the perfect year for us.  This year was exactly one hundred years after our last championship.  And what a season we had.  It seemed like the planets had aligned properly, finally, at last.  We went into the post-season and I was feeling confident in a way that I'd never felt going into October.  We were so good this year that we were going to sail right into our destiny, right?

I don't need blind Tiresias to tell me my Cubs are a tragedy.  I don't.  But this year?  I believed.  I really did.  And so I did the only thing I could do in the wake of such disappointment: I wrote you haiku.

Enjoy.  Or: don't.

six ways of looking at a cubs fan

nineteen eighty-four
game one slaughter: thirteen - zip!
larry bowa's legs.

nineteen eighty-nine
sandberg! hail, mark: full of grace
boys of zimmer, why?

nineteen ninety-eight
sammy sosa's home run king!
wild card to nowhere.

two thousand and three
five outs to the world series!
foul ball to bartman?

two thousand seven
soriano, ramirez, lee:
did you lose your bats?

two thousand and eight
wow! best record in our league
dempster? no, dumpster.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Night with Elie Weisel

Not many people actually get to meet their hero.

Last night, I got to meet mine.  You see, there's this man named Elie Weisel.  He's a Holocaust survivor and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.  His memoir Night tells of the year he and his father spent in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the names of two places I wish I didn't know.

I've been teaching his book to sophomores for the last six years.  I know it so well that I sometimes think I can tell you on which page you can find Moishe the Beadle or the gold tooth or the injured foot or the incredible death march at the end.  Weisel made it out alive; his father did not. 

So my good friend Debbie called me earlier this week and said that she had two tickets to see Elie Weisel speak; did I want one?  

Yes.  Yes I did.

So Debbie picked me up and on our way to Saint Xavier University where he was speaking, we talked about how neither one of us could let ourselves believe this week that we were actually going to see him.  I had to keep pretending that it might not happen just so I could contain myself.  I'm not kidding.  I'm that neurotic.

Debbie got us seats in the VIP section (she's got connections) and we waited.  Of course we were there an hour early so we had quite a long time to wait, but we needed to be there that early.  It was Elie Weisel.  He survived the holocaust. 

My sister-in-law Vivian sent me a text.  She said she'd been talking to Elie and he thought we should come over afterwards to drink sangria.

Debbie said, "Well, he survived the holocaust.  We should listen to him."

It's the kind of hilarity that arises when you're nervous and giddy and can't wait for something to happen.  The man in front of us turned around.  He was a teacher, too, he said.  What did we teach?  Debbie said she taught eighth grade and they bonded over their mutual love for middle school.

The three of us managed to get over our nervousness with shop talk until someone finally came to the stage.  Of course, they spent about ten minutes on introductions and honorary doctoral degrees (the man's got to have at least two hundred thousand of those) and then Elie Weisel began to speak.

He's a little guy, and spry, with an excellent Einstein look to his full head of hair.  He wore a tailored velvet jacket and spoke with an accent that wasn't German but sounded a little like it, not French either but sounded a little like that too.  I was instantly enamored of him, and could see me making a fool of myself over him.  Seriously.  He's got sex appeal.  Are you allowed to say that about Elie Weisel?  Are you even allowed to think it?  I mean, the man's got the kind of stature that few can equal.  The Dalai Lama, maybe.  Yes.

I took out my cell phone and zoomed in as close as I could and snapped a picture.  Of course it turned out blurry, but I'm posting it anyway, because it's my picture of the day I saw Elie Weisel.

He began to speak, and as he spoke, I began to repeat sentences to myself so that I could remember them later.  The longer he spoke, however, the more sentences I repeated until I knew I could never possibly remember them all.  That's when I began digging in my purse for my pen.

Of course, genius me hadn't thought to bring any paper.  I mulled over this for a while while Elie spoke about Cain and Abel.  Why did the Bible start with such a dark story? he asked us.  Two men in all the world, brothers, and one kills the other.  Why would this be the first story we hear after creation?  Perhaps, he said, perhaps it is because anytime we kill, we kill our brother.

I held my breath as I heard this.  This I would remember.

Finally I came to a realization: the back of my ticket was blank.  I furiously scribbled the things I could remember.  I've forgotten so much.  I wish I could tell you everything he said, but I'll content myself with what I did manage to walk away with.

He began to speak of the Bible.  God's only mistake in writing the Bible, he said, was in not getting copyright.  He could have been a millionaire many times over.

Yes.  Elie Weisel is funny.  I didn't expect that one, either.

He then recounted a conversation he'd had with a friend.  Who is the most tragic figure in the Bible?  the friend asked him.

Abraham, because God asked him to kill his only son?  But no.  Not Abraham.

Isaac, because his own father stood over him with a knife, ready to kill him?  But no.  Not Isaac.

What about Moses, who was alternately loved and hated by both God and his people his whole life?  But no.  Not Moses either.

The most tragic figure in the Bible is God.

No human being is alone; only God is alone.

Since he was speaking at a Catholic university, he spoke at length about the relations between Catholics and Jews.  Then he told a story about Pope John the XXIIIrd.  He had a friend, you see, a Jewish friend, who came to him one day and said do you have any idea what the Catholic liturgy actually says about the Jews?  And the Pope said no, and they examined it together, finding anti-Semitic statements everywhere.  And do you know what that Pope did?  He changed the liturgy.  Anyone who's Catholic knows what a big deal that is.

I certainly had no idea.  

Then he spoke about my cousin, Pope John Paul II.  (He's a third or fourth cousin; I'm not kidding.)  He spoke about how John Paul invited a rabbi over every week to study the Bible together and promote dialogue between the faiths.  Relations between Catholics and Jews have never been better than they are today, Weisel told us.  He only made one mistake: he should have invited a Muslim, too.

This sent him into a discussion on hatred.  Hatred is always born of fanaticism, he said.  And fanaticism, whether political or religious, has always been the author of the worst things we've ever done to each other.  It's when religious fanaticism is married to political fanaticism that things get really dangerous.  

You see, a fanatic by his very nature negates the idea of dialogue.  He says to himself that only he has God's ear.  And if he truly believes that, what can I do, what can anyone do to convince him?  

He makes God his accomplice.

That one nearly knocked the breath out of me.  I wish I could retell it with the same eloquence.

He didn't spend a lot of time talking about the Holocaust.  He said only a few things.  Why, in all that he went through, did he never lose his faith?  

A heart that is broken is the most whole.  
A faith that is wounded is the most pure. 

The question is not how remarkable it was that he survived.  It is how remarkable it was that he retained his sanity.  And he did that by turning to study.  He's a professor of Judaic studies, you know.

Another, that if he carries any anger over what happened, it is that people knew, and they didn't warn them.  They had a maid who brought them food at night in the ghetto.  She snuck in and risked her life and said that if they wanted to hide in the mountains, they could stay in her little hut.  The Nazis were not penetrating that high ground.  They would have been safe.

But his father did not know.  They listened to the radio at night and never once in all over their speeches did Roosevelt and Churchill say to the Jews of Eastern Europe what was happening at Auschwitz.  Nobody told them to stay away from the trains.  And get this: the Russians were only thirty kilometers away.  That's eighteen miles.  Eighteen miles to safety. 

But people were indifferent.  They were insensitive to what the ramifications of not speaking would be.  Insensitivity, he said, is the biggest sin of all.  

He spoke of Joseph at the bottom of the pit, surrounded by snakes and scorpions and crying for his life.  His brothers threw him into that pit and then went to have dinner.  A feast.  They were insensitive to his cries for help.  It is the darkest moment in all the Bible, he said.  It is because they were insensitive to what they were doing to him.

Insensitivity is never an option.

This, by the way, is the part of his speech where he made me want to be better.  He said that people are always feeling shame that they are hungry.  That is wrong.  We should be ashamed that they are hungry.

Insensitivity is never an option.

When someone is suffering, we may not be able to do something to end their suffering -- the AIDS patient who is going to die regardless, for instance -- but we can be with them.  We can be sensitive to what they are going through.  We can say to them, I cannot save you, but I think of you.

Insensitivity is never an option.

Did I mention that I got to meet him?  I shook his hand and my mind went blank.  All the things I wanted to tell him about how important his book was to me left me and all I could do was say how very pleased I was to meet him.  He smiled and gently clasped my hand.  We posed for a picture with the photographer and someday I'll show it to my grandchildren.  That's the day I met Elie Weisel, I'll say.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Letters from the Front

So they told our kids when they were freshmen that they would be in the same homeroom class all four years of high school, and that their homeroom teacher would remain with them throughout. This didn't work out exactly as planned -- with the dropout rate as high as it is and teacher attrition as high as it is, most of the time the homerooms ended up getting combined or their teachers replaced.

Last year, I inherited a sophomore homeroom of all boys. I'm not kidding. All boys. They were so mad at me from the first day simply by virtue of me not being their old teacher. I'd met their old teacher, too, and he was fun, but in the end, he left them. Moved back to Ohio. And so they were angry with me for not being him and for making them do things because he never did.

Here's the thing about homeroom: you can't give a grade for it. So, the school will tell you that you need to get a, b, and c done, and if you have a freshman homeroom they do it simply because they're freshmen. Sophomores? Not so much. No grade, no work. Or only a little work.

So I felt like beating my head up against the wall half the time last year because they fought me over Every. Little. Thing. Fill out this form? "This stuff is whack." Have a conversation? "We don't have anything to say." Use this time as a study hall? "We don't have any homework." I'm going to have one-on-one conversations with each of you for your grades today. "Do we have to?" It's a nice day. Who wants to go outside to play football? "I hate football."

This was my third period all year. Actually, only half of third period: the other half was lunch. My toughest class was the one that was supposed to be my easiest. No papers to grade, right? Only twenty minutes long? Ha. Twenty years, more like.

Anyway, as the year went by and every teacher complained of the same issues, someone finally came up with an idea for the coming year: homeroom would be renamed something else and would become a credit-bearing class with real work and grades. They would hire a few teachers just to take care of that class and the kids would be reassigned to different homerooms and existing homeroom teachers would simply be subject area teachers again with office hours in place of our homeroom class.

So. When my homeroom found out that I wasn't going to be their teacher anymore, they were livid. You'd think with the way they fought me all year, they'd be happy, right? Nope.

And just like last year, when they met their new advisory teacher, they gave her hell, too. Because get this: she wasn't me.

So she did what any other right-thinking teacher would do: she had them write letters to their old teachers, saying goodbye to the old class.  The results are more than a little hilarious.

A sampling (some parts have been redacted because they're private):

"I appreciated the times that you tried your best to get me to care more about school. Even though I didn't care I appreciated it. There is nothing else that I really enjoyed except for playing football and chess. Other than that I was bored out of my life. Though I hated when you tried to make us conversate or had us fill out papers, I won't complain."

"I miss coming to sit in the corner being left alone. [Ed's note: I never let that happen.  He tried to sit in the corner, but nope.  Sorry, kiddo.  You're going to talk.]  In seminar we have to do work now and talk to each other. I can tell I'm not going to like this year very much but I have a nice fun teacher. So I think I just might enjoy it. Who knows."

"Wuts up home skillet biscut pimpin! Haha lol. Well I'm pretty sad that we are not in your advisory this year. I'm gonna miss our crazy talks that we would have about random things. Haha. I'm even gonna miss how for a white girl you knew all of our dances..."

"I appreciate the way you took your time out of the day to talk to me about my problems ... I also miss the way you organized our class, like you made our advisory different than others ...[Ed's note: this one shocked the hell out of me, because this one complained about EVERYTHING I made them do. EVERYTHING.]"

"We had a good time ... we also had a good time putting questions in the box and listening to you answer them. We really don't miss all the surveys and the practice tests. That's all."

"...Don't worry I will stop by to say hi all the time and let you know how I'm doing."

"Man it's boring in the new homeroom. I miss being in there we always had something to do. [Ed's note: Seriously?]"

"I also liked when we went to McDonalds but we ruined it [Ed's note: they got in huge trouble with me for insulting a crackhead on the street and I told them I'd never take them to McDonald's again. I didn't, either. They thought this was grossly unfair because McDonald's is only a block away and other homerooms got to go all the time.] ... You also made us learn about current events even though we didn't want to."

"I had a very good year with you. Although you use to yell at us all the time. [Ed's note: I did, too. Yelling is perhaps overstating it, but oh, the number of stern 'Get your grade up, boys' conversations far outweighed the sweetness & light.]"

And the one that made me cry:

"I know its been awhile but I'm still a good boy. Part of that was because of you ..."

Oh, P.S. : [sic] for all of this.

Anyway, just thought I'd share because I found them in my mailbox one morning, read them over my coffee, and proceeded to laugh and cry like a madman. It's a good thing nobody walked into my classroom, because they would have thought I needed a straightjacket.

My boys.

They're still mine.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My life story on a postcard

There's a writer named Michael Kimball, who for an arthouse project decided to start interviewing people across America and writing their life stories small enough so that they would fit on a postcard.

Of course as soon as I heard about this, I knew that he should do mine.  Because I not-so-secretly want to be famous.

That was some time ago -- he posted the story today.  Enjoy:

By the way, he's always looking for people who want their lives on a postcard.  On that same page, there's contact information ... your life is probably a lot more exciting than mine.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Street cred

"Yo, Miss Baader," said Maurice.  He was stowing his gym shoes in my cabinet on Friday, as he did every morning because he didn't trust people not to steal them from his locker.  "Did you almost get jumped yesterday?"

I looked up from my laptop.  Um.  No?

"You sure?  Nothing happened to you yesterday?"

Well, I considered.  I guess when I went grocery shopping some homeless guy asked me for some money and when I didn't have any, he cursed me out.

"That's it?  Nothing else?"

What are you getting at, Maurice?

"I was just wondering, you know, because Marvin and Dante said you almost got jumped in the parking lot."

Where?  Here at school?

"Yeah.  And they said that you didn't get jumped because you told them that you knew me and they let you alone."

Who left me alone?  

"I don't know.  Some gangbangers."

Some gangbangers.  So let me get this straight: Marvin and Dante told you that I told some gangbangers that I knew you and therefore they didn't jump me because of your street cred?

His face fell.  "Yeah.  I guess."

I could tell he was really disappointed, so I did my best not to laugh.  No.  I'm sorry, Maurice.  It didn't happen.

"Oh," he said, and lit out of my classroom, pretending to slam-dunk an invisible ball on his way out the door.

He didn't drop by my classroom this morning because he doesn't have gym on Mondays.  In fact, I didn't see him all day but at lunchtime I ran into Marvin and Dante in the lunch line.  

Hey, I said.  Did you tell Maurice that I almost got jumped?

Dante had turned the corner inside the lunchline and Marvin pulled him back.  "Say that again so Dante can hear you," he said.

I sighed.  Did you tell Maurice I got jumped?

The two of them exploded into laughter.  "He asked her.  I can't believe he asked her," Dante said, nearly crying he was laughing so hard.  "Hey Carl," he said, and pulled Carl over.  "Maurice asked Miss Baader if she got jumped.

The three of them fell all over themselves, they were laughing so hard.  Juniors, these three.  They've had three years to hone the sophistication of their practical jokes.

I've got half a mind to find the most popular girl in the junior class and tell her that exact story, make Maurice into a local hero.  All the girls will fall all over him.  

Payback.  Watch me, I'll do it, too.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Fashionista

Every woman goes through it, this self-loathing.  Sometimes I think I go through it more than most, but of course that's not true.  It's just that lately, it's crept up on me again.

For a long time, I'd been on a huge exercise kick, getting healthy and losing weight.  I've even run a race or three, but lately I've plateaued.  (This photo is from my first race, an 8K called the Shamrock Shuffle that I did back in March.)  Maybe it's school starting again and I'm so tired I don't want to do anything, but I've been a giant slug, and it's got me down.

So.  The other day, one of my girls stayed after school with me.  She hadn't typed her assignment, and I was letting her use the extra computer in my room while I attempted to get some work done.  It's the part of my job that sucks, grading.  When I first started teaching, I put so much effort into every paper that I wanted to cry when I saw kids toss them out on the way out the door.  Now I put more effort in the conversations, in the one-on-one contact I have with my kids every day.

This was one of those days.  Ashley sat at the computer, typing away for some time and when it looked like she was getting to the end of her paper, I told her I was going to start closing up the room.  

There's a whole procedure to this when you work in our neighborhood.  We're in Washington Park, an odd little neighborhood sandwiched between Englewood, Bronzeville, and Hyde Park. Not too long ago, our building was surrounded by the projects.  They've been knocked down, but we still have to be careful to lock everything down every night.  The windows have to be locked and shades pulled down so they don't steal anything important.  (I try not to laugh too much at this statement, as the computer in my classroom barely starts.  What are they going to steal, my markers?  But again, I do my job and batten everything down every night before I leave.  The last thing I want is for somebody to accuse me of being careless.)

So I'm closing and locking things and Ashley is shutting down her computer and she stands up and says to me, "Miss Baader, do you know I talk about you at home all the time?"

I didn't.  And frankly, I was surprised.  Ashley is the kind of girl who keeps things to herself, and there have been times in our relationship when I wondered if she liked me at all.  This is the second year I've had her in my class -- she started out so painfully shy that I counted it a victory if I got her to say one word in a class period.  

But I worked on her.  You can't survive in the real world if you're afraid to speak.  I used to make her so angry because I wouldn't back down over this.  "I do my work," she'd tell me.  "Why do I have to talk?  It doesn't make any sense."  And I'd tell her why her entire future would hinge on her ability to present herself.  We talked about ways to get over fear, ways to make people think you're not afraid when you actually are, and I told her that I, too, was insanely shy but most people don't know it because I keep my fears to myself.  But this was all last year.  This year, she walked into my classroom and raised her hand more times in the first three weeks than she did all fourth quarter last year.  I'm proud of her, and I tell her all the time, but I can almost never tell what she's thinking.  Unless, of course, she's mad.

Anyway, Ashley had clearly been working up to this conversation, because she looked down, looked up, and said, "I talk about you to my parents every day, sometimes even on days when I don't have you.  My parents know all about you."

And this is the time when I'm almost overwhelmed with chagrin, because hey.  I'm fallible.  I'm always telling kids to do things, giving them advice about this and that, and I sometimes wonder what I they tell their parents about me.  I hope it's good, but oh, I know in a case or two thousand, it hasn't always been.  That's when I get the phone calls.

But I've only met Ashley's parents once or twice, and frankly, I'm surprised as hell.  Like I said, I could have sworn that I was just another teacher to her.  I've got kids that I know are attached to me -- I often have to kick them out of my classroom -- but my interaction with Ashley is usually a word here, a word there, a letter to me in her notebook.

I said I hoped it was all good, and she assured me it was.

"You remind me of my mom," she said, and clearly she meant it as a compliment.  But see, she's a sophomore, and she thinks I'm old enough to be her mother.

Come to think of it, I probably am.  Just barely, though.  

"You remind me of my mom, and then you're the opposite of my mom," she said.

Why is that?

She hesitated.  "Please don't take this the wrong way."

(When somebody starts out a sentence with that little phrase, I know whatever follows is going to hurt.)

"See, my mom is a little ... bigger too, and I'm always telling her how you carry around some extra weight, but you never dress badly.  You always look real good."

I didn't know how to respond.  

"My mom, she doesn't try real hard, but you?  You're always so pretty, with your skirts and your heels and your dresses.  I tell her she should meet you."

Oh, god, I thought to myself.  Her mother probably hates me.  

"Just because you're a little bigger, doesn't mean you can't still look good, right?  You're not mad, are you?"

No, I said.  I'm not mad.  I know I've got some work to do to get smaller, but I've been working on it.

"I know," said Ashley.  "I told my mother that, too.  I told her how you used to be so much bigger, and you run and you exercise and you dress so well."

I wasn't sure whether to be hurt or pleased.  Clearly she meant well.  I'd like to see your mother again, I said finally.  Is she coming to open house?

"I don't know," said Ashley.  "My dad met you once last year, and he always says he thought you were a real nice lady."

A real nice lady.  How sweet.  And how appalling.  When did I become her?

But here's the thing: I've never heard so many words from Ashley in one sitting in my life, so I wasn't going to show even a hint of dismay.  I told her instead that she was so kind, and it made me feel good to know she liked my clothes.

And in truth, it does.  I wasn't always put together like this.  I can remember ten years ago when I ran around for most of the year in fuzzy sweaters and turtlenecks and corduroys and jeans.  I didn't own a single pair of heels and I certainly didn't take care of things like my eyebrows.  These were things I discovered for myself gradually, mostly over the years I lived in New York.  I threw out half my wardrobe after moving there, and turned into the woman who wears nice clothes almost all the time.

Kids notice these things, too.  I guess I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was when I learned that my clothes had been the topic of such conversation.

Life, however, never throws just one of these things at you.  Ashley and I had our little talk yesterday.  Today, I made my usual lunchtime trek to the sandwich shop to pick up some lunch, and the lady behind the counter said, "Oh, it's you."

Hello, I said, not terribly surprised that she recognized me.  I don't like to pack my lunch, and so I get sandwiches from there a lot.  And also, Chicago's pretty segregated.  I'm probably the only white woman they have walking in there most days.  The surrounding neighborhood is sketchy to say the least.

"What do you have on today?" she said.  "My sister said you came in on Monday and you had on a real nice dress."

She did?

"Yep.  We decided we want to go shopping in your closet," she added.

I grinned.  Thanks, that makes me feel good.  You know the only reason I wear skirts all the time is my butt's so big.  It's the only way I can look halfway decent.

"We don't care why.  You look so good all the time.  You make us want to wear dresses," she said.  "We talk about it.  We call you the dress lady."

The dress lady.  I could live with that.

All this is just to say that this week, I really needed to hear good things about myself, and I did, from the most unlikely people.  And because of that, I've gone and registered for another 5K.  Next weekend.  And, I'm going to do two races next month and one in November.  Time to break through this wall.  Time to stop feeling bad.  Time to run.

Nobody ever sees you as poorly as you see yourself.  This much I know is true.  But today, I believe it.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Mailman

The beginning of the school year always brings a lot of talk.  We put the kids in a giant room that, because we have no air conditioning at our school, has to be cooled by giant fans.  Then, various members of the faculty get up on stage and try to talk the kids into not doing anything stupid this year.

This method, of course, doesn't work at all.  Instead, the kids drift off, followed soon by the teachers.  We're supposed to stand and supervise and make sure that nobody does anything wrong.  I know this.  And I try, I really do.  But here's the thing, that even though I'm staff, I can't deny: it's boring.  And I do what anyone else does in a boring situation: I sit back and daydream.  

We do this all the time.  One good thing about being a teacher, however, is that you get to choose where you can stand.  And me?  I often choose the doorway.  There's more wall to lean on there.  It's set far enough back, too, that if I start to drift off, nobody notices.

So I'm standing in the doorway on the first day of school and they're talking to the freshmen -- we make them come a day earlier than everyone else -- and Michael walked in, followed by his mother.  He had to buy a new uniform shirt, and they've got the table where they were selling them set up at the back of the gym.  

So he has to wait.  They're still talking, you see.

I wasn't sure what they were talking about at the moment -- staying away from gangs, probably, or drugs.  Maybe it was about keeping your shirt tucked in and not letting your pants hang halfway down your arse.  The messages never change.

Michael leaned against the wall and sighed.  "How long are they gonna talk?" he asked me.

I didn't know.  We have a new dean this year and I had no way of judging.  Depended on how much he liked to talk, I said.

"We could be here all day," said Michael.  "All I want is my uniform."

Be careful what size you buy, I told him.  They're cracking down this year on boys who should be wearing mediums buying extra-larges.  They'll make you buy a new shirt if you buy the wrong size.

"I told you," said Michael's mother.  "And I'm gonna buy you the shirt they tell me to.  Look at you.  I think you're a small."

"A small?"  A look of panic spread across his face.  "No, no, no.  I am not a small.  You buy me a small and they're gonna jump me on the bus.  I'm an extra-large, Momma.  I am."

She winked at me.  "Okay.  Maybe a medium.  And you're going to tuck it in like you're going to work."  

Michael groaned so loudly then that people in the main gym actually looked toward the doorway.  I shook my head at him in warning.  He collapsed against the wall and sank to the floor.

"Where's my cell phone?" said Michael's mother.  She went digging in her purse and pulled it out after a while triumphantly.  "I want to show Miss Baader those shoes."

"Aw, no.  Mom.  Please, no."

She looked at me.  "Now, Michael and I were out shopping for school shoes yesterday and he assured me that these shoes fit the school's dress code.  Can you check these out for me?  I don't want to spend a hundred dollars on a pair of shoes and then have to return them the next day."

Sure, I said.  Long ago, before I had anything even mildly resembling a career, I worked in the men's department at JCPenney's.  If there was one thing I knew how to do, it was tell the difference between a dress shoe and a gym shoe.  

Michael's shoe?  Not a dress shoe.  I told his mother she was about to waste some money if she bought him that shoe because it didn't fit the dress code.

"Miss Baader," Michael broke in, jumping to his feet.  "But look."  He pointed to the shoe.  "It's black leather.  That's a dress shoe."

I shook my head.  His black leather shoe had a gym shoe sole.  They were making shoes like that these days, and though they were fashionable, they weren't dress shoes.  Much as he wanted that shoe, agreeing with him now would only cause problems for him later.  They'd start assigning him so many detentions for that shoe that he'd never forgive me.

"I knew it!" said his mother.  "I knew that was not a dress shoe.  I knew he was lying to me."  Michael's mother and I had a conspiracy of sorts.  She checked up on him with me and I always told her the truth.  Her theory was that the only way to keep him in line was to know what he was doing all the time.  Me?  I fully supported her efforts.  He was the kind of kid who was basically good, but needed to be watched or he'd slip.  His father died last year in a shootout with the police.  We both watched him carefully.

"I wasn't lying," he protested.  Again, his voice got just a little too loud.  Voices were still droning on from the stage, but one or two people looked over.  

His mother elbowed him, then winked at me.  "You know what I'm going to get you?  I'm going to get you a bus driver shoe.  All shiny and patent leather.  That's the shoe I'm going to get."


I took pity on Michael.  Perhaps not a bus driver shoe?  He'll need something he can walk in.  He's got to get to the bus stop, you know.

"You are absolutely right, Miss Baader.  I have it now: a mailman shoe.  That's what I'm going to get.  A mailman shoe and a size medium shirt."

At this point, neither one of us could contain our hilarity and we had to step out the door so we both could laugh.

Michael just plain looked miserable.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Viva la Vida

Every so often, I become obsessed with a song.  Usually it's because it's something that sticks in my head and the lyrics start to permeate my consciousness to the point where I actually pay attention to them.  And if I pay attention to them, it doesn't take long before I figure out what the artist is trying to say.

The last time this happened, it was (don't laugh) "Dragostea Din Tei" by O-Zone.   Hey.  Don't judge me.

Anyway, the newest object of my obsession is "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay.

It all started when my friend Rich had an extra ticket to the Coldplay concert.  Now, I can't say that I especially love Coldplay, but I don't hate them either.  In fact, when their songs come on the radio, I'll sing along.  However, I don't know that I would ever have sought out tickets to their show on my own.  

But I went to the show anyway, because hey: concerts are fun, especially if you're with good friends.  The venue was too large, of course, but the concert?  I left knowing why Gwyneth Paltrow is such a happy woman these days.  If I were married to Chris Martin, I'd name my baby Apple, too.

So after the concert, I began to play closer attention whenever Coldplay came on the radio.  That's when I became attached to my song.  Here it is, for your viewing and listening enjoyment:

Yes, I know, some of the effects are a little wonky, but again.  Apple.  I understand.

You should see him perform this song in concert.  That man owns the stage.  I always like it when I go to see a show expecting nothing but finding something special.

You'd think this would be the end of the story, but it is not.  You see, one night I went out for tapas with my friend Debbie and the song came on the radio when I was driving her back home.  I was singing along when Debbie stopped me.  "It's not Roman Catholic choirs," she said.  "It's Roman Cavalry choirs.  I'm sure of it."

I couldn't believe it.  Roman Catholic made perfect sense in the context of the song, and Roman cavalry did not.  I mean, come on.  The cavalry is the men on horses swinging swords, chopping down the poor footsoldiers.  Why would they be singing?  It didn't make sense.  So I pulled out my cell phone and looked it up.  (Yes, I have the internet on my cell phone.  Again, no judging me.  I need my pillow.)

Here they are:

Viva la Vida

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemies eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing:
"Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!"

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt, and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
Once you know there was never, never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in.
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People could not believe what I'd become
Revolutionaries Wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king? 

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world
(Ohhhhh Ohhh Ohhh)

Hear Jerusalem bells are ringings
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter will call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world
Oooooh Oooooh Oooooh


Debbie was right, and now I had to reevaluate.  Clearly, there was more to the song than I'd thought.  I mean, my original interpretation was that this was a lost love song, operating with an extended metaphor.  When he said "I used to rule the world," I assumed that meant that he'd once been so in love with someone that he felt like a king, an emperor, the kind of person that nobody could bring down, but then someone did bring him down, and all he can do is sweep the streets of his memory and mourn what he'd lost through his own stupidity.

And you know, there's evidence that he is getting at this in his song.  I think you can read it on several levels simultaneously.  However, it's the Roman cavalry choirs that threw this reading into chaos with me.  For me.

Because why would the Roman cavalry choirs be singing?  I looked at the lines around it:

I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

Debbie and I began discussing the ramifications of the Roman cavalry choirs, and talking about the spread of Christianity and the God of the people who used swords to spread their religion, and we thought we were getting somewhere when a cop pulled up.

You see, we were still in my car, parked in front of her building in Logan Square.  Logan Square is a gentrifying neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, but it still has its sketchy elements, so on the one hand, it was good that the cop pulled up to check us out.  He made a signal for me to roll down my window.  "Ladies.  What are you doing here?"

Not too many hours before, Debbie had told me a story about being pulled over not too far from here because the cop didn't believe that a white person could be in this neighborhood for any reason other than the express purpose of buying drugs.  So, I was on my game.  Hello, sir, I said.  How are you this evening?

"You know this isn't the best neighborhood," he said.

It's okay, I replied.  We're teachers.  And besides, she lives right here.

Now, I hate to admit this to people, but I play the teacher card all the time.  I know that being a teacher has nothing to do with sitting in a car late at night in Logan Square, but it seemed like a good thing to mention.  People who are treating me with suspicion usually drop it immediately.  Especially cops.  Cops like teachers, because if we're doing our job, their job becomes a lot easier.  The first thing I say when someone pulls me over is, I'm sorry, officer.  I must have been spacing out.  I'm a teacher, you see, and I was thinking about ...

Now, I'm not saying that it'll get me out of every situation, but it doesn't hurt me, either.  Anyway, our friend in the unmarked car relaxed a little.  "What are you doing out here?"

Oh, I said.  We're talking about God.

He laughed.  "You know something?  I believe you.  You girls be careful now."

He drove away and Debbie turned to me.  "We're teachers," she mimicked.

I ignored her because I was sure she used it, too.  My only regret was not working it more.  That cop was pretty good-looking.

We worked up a new interpretation, somewhat flawed, but working more towards an understanding.  He used to rule the world because he in fact tried to.  It was sounding more and more like an indictment of Christianity.  Missionaries didn't always use the best methods, and it's called Roman Catholicism because the Romans made everyone in their empire convert.  And, looking back at the methods used and the harm caused, he was regretting it all, because the result was much worse than he could have imagined.  Okay.  We were getting somewhere.

But it was late, and Debbie needed to go inside before the cops questioned us again.

It was the Jerusalem bells that were bothering me.  It seemed like such a joyous image, but when I typed it into google, I got so many returns that it was impossible to find what he was referencing.  So I did what anyone else would do when stuck with an issue involving Jerusalem: I asked my nearest Jewish friend.

That just happens to be Matt, my trainer.  He'd never heard of Jerusalem bells.  "The only bells in Jerusalem are in Christian churches," he said.  "Jews don't use bells at all."

Never?  I was surprised by this.  It seemed to me that I'd heard of Jewish bells somewhere, but if I must be truthful, my Old Testament knowledge is a little sketchy compared to what I know about the New Testament.  What can I say?  I'm a good Catholic girl from way back.

What do Jews use? I asked.

"Horns," he said.  "You know, like a ram's horn?"

And I did know.  I'd heard of that before.  I just didn't make the connection.  

So the only bells in Jerusalem are Christian bells.  I went home and thought on this further.  Why are there Christian churches in Jerusalem at all?  Why, because of the Crusades, of course.  Jerusalem bells ring because Christian soldiers from Europe made them ring.  Again, it is the spread of religion with a sword.

So we have the Crusaders, the Roman cavalry, and the missionaries.  When I think of missionaries, I think of the Spanish priests who came to the New World with the conquistadors to convert the masses.  Again, conversion came with the help of the sword.

So back to the chorus:

For some reason I can not explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world

And here is the indictment of the verse: conversion through the sword, but not because they particularly wanted to change peoples' minds about god.  Rather, they wanted to rule the world.  Israel was attractive to Western Europeans for a lot of monetary reasons, and the Spanish walked away from Mexico with their coffers filled with gold.  I think he's pointing that out here by saying that no matter what he said, it wasn't true: "never an honest word," and that God knows this better than anybody: "I know Saint Peter won't call my name."

However, the point of the song is regret over what he's wrought.  He's speaking, I think, for the Christian consciousness, for it did indeed rule the world for a long time.  We didn't do such a good job, either, and lots of people want us out of the places we once controlled.

It's religious regret, coupled with political regret.  When I was growing up, in my history classes they taught me about the United States as a superpower balanced only by the USSR.  When the Soviet Union fell, the United States rose even higher and kept trying to spread its religion of democracy.  We talked about things like invading Iraq with the justification of "spreading democracy."

And we didn't do such a good job.  The United Kingdom was walking right along with us for most of this, holding our hand.  It's no secret that Chris Martin isn't a big fan of George Bush or Tony Blair.

So what's this song about?  We're sweeping the streets we used to own.  But look at the last verse.  There's a slight change: he's come to the place where he can sing this song, yes?  He's repenting, and understanding what he's done.  And now, "I know Saint Peter will call my name."  He's been redeemed.

Have we?  I wonder.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sometimes I write things simply to amuse myself

Myself, and other English teachers.  This is one of those things.

Upon Marking One Hundred and Fifty Freshman Essays

When you start a new
thought, start a new

paragraph. Comma. Comma.
Comma, comma, comma.
It's means "it is."  Where
is your thesis?  This is a good
start.  However,
and Comma. Dangling.
 ^ Comma splice:
use semi-colon (;)
New thoughts mean new

paragraphs. Unclear:
reword. (Unnecessary.)  I’d
like you to look at this again.
Comma, comma, comma.
New thought, new

paragraph. Indent.  
Wandering.  What
is your point?

paragraph. Double space,
please. Title?  Is this a rough
draft or a final one?
Comma, comma, period.
New para.
New p


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mother to Son

So a couple of weeks ago, my summer school class and I read the Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son".  For those of you who don't know it,  here it is:

Mother to Son

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

--Langston Hughes

We had a long conversation about this poem, and they pretty much universally loved it.  They got what the mother was saying and had all kinds of things to say about her staircase.  By the time they were done talking about her staircase, we could have drawn a picture of it with labels and explanations.  So then I gave them an assignment: they had to pretend to be their own mothers and then use their mothers' voices to give advice to themselves.

The results were alternately funny and depressing and touching.

Usually after I finish looking at a bunch of papers, I give them back to my kids, but I couldn't find it in myself to give these up.  So late one night a couple of nights ago, I went through my stack and chose one line from each kid.  Then I kluged them together to make a multiplicity of voices merge into one: one mother speaking to one kid.

They call this found poetry, I think.  Anyway, here it is:

Don't be like me.

You can't be begging for stuff, trying to spend my money every five minutes.  You are not the only child.  You don't know how easy you have it.  You walk around with new shoes and money in your pocket. You don't have nothing to do but go to school and do what you supposed to do.

Do you want to eat all the food in the house?

You need to take your brother outside and watch him because he's not about to get on my nerves all day and you walking around not doing nothing but playing football.  Don’t think you’re going to be a professional.  Just make sure you finish with your studies.  Then I want to see you on tv.

Show people that they are wrong about you. 

Stop getting smart.  My mom was very strict.  She didn't take no joke.  Stay cool and don't join in with the ignorance. You don't need no friends. Go to school and do what you have to do to get out.  Some kids your age can't even complain because they don't have your opportunities. You don't want to have to work hard like me just so I can support my kid.

I will never trade you for nothing.

All you have to do is do your chores and listen.  If you think you're done, you still check with me and then I will tell you if you can go out.

Look out for your sister.  Don't hit no girl ... unless she has a knife and is trying to stab you.  

Never be like me.  Be better than me.

I spoiled you so much.

Friday, July 18, 2008

It's gotta be the shoes

I should have known it would be coming.  I mean, for a few weeks now, my car had been doing odd things, like doors locking when they shouldn't and alarms not going off when they should.  So, when I went out to my car and the key bipper didn't work, I just chalked it up to more of the same.  And then, when I tried to start it and nothing happened, well.  I have to admit I wasn't surprised at all.

Here's the thing:  I live in the city.  I know my neighbors only a very little.  The guy across the hall from me is never home unless he's having a gigantic party. Upstairs is Cathy, who is just lovely but works all the time.  And then there's Frank, the rock star.  Frank fronts for a band that you've heard on the radio.  When I moved in and saw the name of his band on his mailbox, I thought, good god.  I'm never going to be able to talk to this guy.

But Frank's nice.  And in the end, he's the only one who was home.  I told him what was going on and asked him for a jumpstart.  But here's the other thing about the city: not everybody owns a car.

"But I have an idea," Frank said.  "What if we put your car in neutral, push it, and then see if we can start it that way?"

Really?  I said.  That works?

"Sure," said Frank.  He seemed really excited by the possibility of pushing my car.  I couldn't understand it.  I guess all men, even rock stars, get excited over fixing cars.  "Just let me put on some shoes."

We went downstairs and chatted for a while about his recent show at Ravinia and his new album and the weather and when we got to my car, we realized that we couldn't push it forward because the car in front was too close.  I have to park on the street, you see.  If you ever need an expert parallel parker, I'm your girl.

But Frank wasn't deterred.  "Here's what we'll do," he said.  "Put it in neutral, we'll push it backward, and then we'll push it forward and you try to start it."

Are you serious?  I said.  I was laughing like a madman at this point.  Yes, my car was dead, but come on.  How many people have rockstars offering to push their car?

So I got in the car and put the key in the ignition.  However, when I tried to put the car in gear, I couldn't move the gear shift at all.  My car is relatively new, see, and all this fancy antitheft stuff kicks in just when you want it least.

I got out of the car and Frank and I just kind of stood there, looking at it.  "Maybe you have jumper cables?" he said.  "If you had cables, maybe we could flag somebody down."

I popped the trunk and we both went to study the contents.  My winter coat, which isn't really all that handy in July.  My tap shoes.  The oscillating fan for my classroom.  My schoolbag and laptop.  A cute pair of strappy sandals.  Frank seemed kind of bemused by the contents.  "Maybe in the wheel well?"  I lifted the wheel well.  In there was, well, a wheel.  And the missing piece from my clarinet.  God knows how it got there.

I shut the trunk.  You know, I said to him.  I have to say that you're the best.  You don't even really know me and still you were willing to push my car. 

He laughed and said he was out of ideas.  It was time for a tow.

Yeah, I said.  But you're still the best.

Frank went back upstairs and I looked at my car for a minute before calling Marcus.  Marcus, you see, was the person I was supposed to be meeting.  Um, I said.  I've got a little problem.

Marcus, however, always was on top of things.  He had jumper cables in his trunk, he was on Lake Shore Drive, and he could be there in fifteen minutes.

Great, I said.  I'll wait.

So I just kind of leaned against my car and waited.  A woman came down the street and yelled that she loved my shoes.  I love my shoes, too.  I can't afford the fancy ones, but they're always cute.  Thanks, I yelled back.  A minute or two later, a man drove by and yelled hello hot mama.  I ignored him.  In the time that I was waiting for Marcus, four or five more men drove by and yelled or honked.  Seriously?  I thought.  I was only standing out there for about fifteen minutes.  And here's the thing: I like to dress like a girl.  You don't usually find me knocking around town in jeans and a t-shirt.  You'll find me in a skirt and some cute shoes.  Nothing overtly sexy, but.  I look like a girl.  I consoled myself that at least nobody drove up and asked how much.

Perhaps it was the shoes.

Marcus finally appeared and he did, indeed, have jumper cables.  We popped our hoods and studied the contents.  It had been a long time since I'd done this, and I only half-remembered how.  And also, I'd never done it with my car.  Marcus suggested the owner's manual and we studied the pictures.  Seemed easy enough.  We tried to connect it.  The jumper cables weren't long enough.

Now, you have two choices in this kind of situation. You can either get angry and upset or you can succomb to hilarity.  I chose hilarity.  Marcus was a little less amused.  He closed his trunk, pulled his car closer to mine, and tried again.

We hooked everything up, he started his car, and my car alarm immediately started going off.  Of course, I thought.  I'd used my key to get in because the power was out.  The key worked now, however, and I was able to shut the alarm off. However, when I tried to get into the car, I couldn't.  Marcus's car was too close.  And the passenger door?  Locked.  The keys?  In the ignition.

I can't make this stuff up.  Again, hilarity ensued.  At least you can tell people this story, I told Marcus.  

"Right," he said.  He seemed less convinced.

Marcus had to get back in his car again, move it enough so I could get in, climb across and unlock the passenger door, and move it again so the cables would reach.  Finally, everything was ready. He started his car.  I climbed into the passenger seat of my car and maneuvered into the driver's seat.  You never realize how long your legs are until you have to tuck them in and around a small space.  But I did it.  I've got skills.  I had to kick off my shoes in order to pretzel myself up enough, though.

The dashboard lit up.  Excellent sign, I thought.  However, when I tried to turn the key, nothing happened.  I looked at the console and an alarm indicator showed that the anti-theft system had kicked in.

The good news is that now I know it's incredibly difficult to steal my car.  The bad news is there was no way I was going to get my car started without help.

We got out of our cars and studied them again together.  "I think you have to call for a tow," said Marcus.  It was the second time that evening that a man had told me that, and I wasn't having any of it.

No, I said.  We're going to lock it, get in your car, and go to dinner as planned. I'll take care of the problem in the morning.

I mean, seriously.  No rush.  The car was definitely not going anywhere.  

I got home after midnight and looked through my papers.  My warranty it seemed covered everything because I only had 28,000 miles on it.  I made a phone call.  Honda said that I would need the dealer to fix the problem, so I would have to wait until morning anyway.

I woke up early, made the necessary phone calls, called in sick to work, and went outside to wait for the tow truck.

Things were a little different this morning, however.  There were cars parked in all the empty spots from the night before and people milling around in front of the building across the street.  I looked closer and realized that many of those people had bullet-proof vests on.  Cops.  They had the door to the building open and stood around it, unworried.

A couple of teenage hooligans walked by and shouted, "What did he do?"

Murder, a cop replied, and laughed.  I couldn't tell if he was laughing because he was screwing with us, or if he just really liked pulling a murder case.  I seriously hoped it was not the latter option.

I went back in the house and called my brother Brian, the cop.  Brian works in a different district than I do, but if he's working, chances are he knows the basic details of a murder.  He wasn't working, though, and knew nothing about it.  He had the morning off.

I went back outside and waited for the truck again.  It took much longer than the estimated hour.  It always takes much longer.  This is Chicago.  It can take you an hour to go two miles if traffic hits you the wrong way.

The tow truck finally arrived and I went to meet him.  The driver was this grizzled old man who seemed totally unconcerned that he was blocking an entire lane of traffic.  I explained my issue.  He nodded.  "You don't need the dealership," he said.  "I can fix your problem."

You can?

He nodded.  "First I need to jump you again."  He pulled the truck around and connected the cables.  Of course he got it right the first time.  Then he asked me for my key.  He was going to code the car again, he said.  

Just then a cop walked by and I asked her what was going on.  "We're just checking some things out," she said cryptically.

Now, when I was a child, there was this show called the Bozo show that I watched almost every day.  I was even on the Bozo show once.  I'm sure one of my siblings still has the videotape.  Anyway, on the Bozo show, there was this character called Wizzo the Wizard.  He would cast spells on things with his Magical Stone of Zanzibar by raising the stone above said object and saying the magic words, to wit: "Doo dee doodeedoodeedoodoodoo!"

The tow truck driver was doing a remarkable impression of Wizzo.  He walked around my car, touching my key to certain points around the vehicle and waving it like ... like the Magical Stone of Zanzibar.  All of a sudden, the alarm started going sounding.  He got back in the driver's seat, turned the key, and the car started.  I'm telling you.  It was magic.  I've never seen anything like it.

How did you do that? I asked.

"I was just recoding the car by touching the key to the sensors," he said.  "You know you've done it right when the alarm goes off."

Good to know.

He said I should immediately drive my car to the dealership and make them fix everything that seemed even a little wrong as long as I was still under warranty.

I stopped at Brian & Viv's house first.  Here's the thing: I'm not an idiot.  However, certain men seem to think I'm an idiot, simply because they're wearing a mechanic's uniform and I'm not.  They will suggest things that I don't need and I don't know enough about cars to know that I don't need them.  Turns out I didn't need the support.  Bri stood next to me, but I knew when to say yes and no and when to insist that they look at something again.  

While they were looking at my car, we went shopping.  I bought new shoes.

I also asked Brian about the cops.  "Was there an ambulance?" he asked.


"Then he was lying.  If there's a body, no matter how long they're dead, we have to call an ambulance.  Cops aren't allowed to pronounce anybody dead."


"Really.  Even if we find someone in an advanced state of decomposition, we're not allowed to pronounce somebody dead.  I once responded to a call where a guy had his brains blown out and we still had to call the ambulance."

That was a relief.  So why were they there, do you think?

Bri thought about it for a minute.  "Well.  Maybe there was a body."

You just told me you thought there wasn't.

"There could be, though, especially if they've been dead for a while.  Sometimes the ambulances will drag their feet if they're really busy.  They don't like to deal with dead bodies."

You think?

"The key is crime scene tape.  Was there any?"


"Good.  Then it's not a body.  Maybe it's just a suspect who's already disappeared and they're executing a warrant."

That didn't exactly reassure me, either.

They weren't able to fix my car that day, but it was running enough for me to take it home that night.  When I got home, I looked across the street: no crime scene tape.  Okay.  No body.  A suspect, maybe.  In what?  This still bothers me more than a little.  You never can know who your neighbors are.  Not all of them are handsome, kind rock stars.

And even though it took two days, the boys in the service department got my car doing what it was supposed to do.  I guess there were things that never worked right in my car in the first place, even though it was brand new when I bought it.  A nice man Earl took care of me and didn't at all treat me like a girl.

Go figure.  It's gotta be the shoes.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Barack Obama, Baby

"Can't he just find some hostages to rescue and shut his damn mouth?"  This from Marcus, my old friend, who was discussing with me Jesse Jackson's recent dumb remarks about Barack Obama.  A lot of people are writing this off as, oh, that's just Jesse Jackson acting up again, but I'm not so sure.  It speaks to a much bigger problem, one that we need to address as a country.

Yes, kids, I'm going to get political here.  Forgive me.  I'm a little leery about posting this blog, in fact.  One cannot discuss politics and race without making someone angry, but this has been on my mind a lot lately, so here goes.

When I was growing up in the suburbs on the south side of Chicago,  I was pretty well convinced that Martin Luther King had done his job.  With the Montgomery bus boycott and the integration of America's schools, as far as I was concerned everything in America was now okay.  But here's the thing: everything in America is not okay, and Chicago lives and breathes every day everything that is wrong with America.

I'm not just talking about the economic and racial boundaries.  There are certain lines that I will never cross after dark.  The school where I teach is in a neighborhood where I won't go at night.  We've had incidents that have led some teachers  to ask security guards to walk them out to their cars at night.  One teacher came out at the end of the school day to find his car had been set on fire.  I took my homeroom outside after lunch one day and had to hustle them back inside one day when I realized that the car backfire I heard was actually gunshots.  

It's not safe.  It's not.  And we send our kids home to this environment every day and wonder why only six in ten of them will graduate.  Of those six, the majority are girls.  In this country, african-american and latino boys have a better chance of going to jail than going to college.  I'm not making this up.  

We are a culture that is still in the middle of a racial and ethnic crisis, and it amazes me every day how many people blindly go about their daily lives ignoring it.  In my city of Chicago, however, it's impossible to ignore it.  Gang violence has escalated here in recent years.  The murder rate in Chicago is higher this year than it was last year, and last year was higher than the year before.  People don't feel safe in their neighborhoods, and yet they have to use heroic measures to cross the invisible racial and class lines that separate the north from the south side in this city just as clearly as the Mason-Dixon line does for the rest of the country.  If you'd like to read a book that gets this problem across far better than I ever will, get your hands on Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago.  One of the authors of this book, Lloyd Newman, is related to one of my students.  Her mother strongly disapproves of what he says about their family, but she doesn't disagree with the problems he discusses.  If you have any connection at all to the South Side, you can't disagree.  You can't.

It's little wonder, then, that Chicago has long been the center of the continued Civil Rights movement in the United States.  Three of the most influential african-american men in the country live in my neighborhood.  I'm a bit bemused by that, if you want to know the truth.  Often, I will know that there's going to be something on the news tonight simply based upon what building has a news truck parked in front of it.  

The first one is Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the nation of Islam.  Now, if I'm being honest, I'm going to tell you that Farrakhan has always frightened me a little.  When I was a child, it seemed like his face was on the news every other day, and it seemed like he was always angry about something.  Like his mentor Malcolm X, Farrakhan has in recent years stepped back from some of his earlier rhetoric, but.  But.  This is the man who called Judaism either a "gutter religion" or a "dirty religion," depending upon your source.  This is also the man who called homosexuality a sin and said it was his duty to lift them "up to the standard that God wants them to ..."  I could go on, but I won't.  Suffice it to say that he frightens me.  The word on the street right now is that he's so ill that he might be dying and still he frightens me.

It's the hatred, you see.  It's the assumption that just because I'm white, I'm complicit with everything that's wrong with this country.  It's an assumption that I have to fight all the time in my classroom, students assuming that because they're black, I'm not going to care about them.  I want to ask them why.  I don't hate you; why do you hate me?

When I was a child, I walked down to our local park by myself because none of my friends were around and I figured I could find someone to play with.  And I did.  Two african-american girls about my age were playing on the playground equipment and I ran over to play with them.  One of them was relatively friendly and the other was not.  In fact, about five minutes into our play, she saw I was on the edge of a ledge and pushed me off.  I didn't fall far -- only about five feet -- but I fell hard.  As I lay there in the dirt, all I could ask was why.  The other girl said, "Sorry.  It's not you.  She just hates you because you're white."  I ran home crying.

At the time, I couldn't process what had happened to me.  In fact, I don't think I ever even told anybody, simply because I blamed myself for what happened.  I told myself I must have done something wrong to make her hate me.  But here's the thing: I didn't do anything wrong.  I was just a little girl trying to play with another little girl who'd been taught by someone to hate me.  And at that point in our country's history -- late seventies/early eighties -- there was a whole lot of hatred to go around.  What a lot of people who have no contact with poverty-ridden urban communities don't understand is that it hasn't gone away.  Martin Luther King and Malcolm X made great inroads, but then they were murdered, and the hatred hasn't gone away.  The blame.  I agree. Someone should be blamed.  But who?

It's funny.  Whenever I used to get down on myself, I always used to joke to my friends that no matter what happens in my life, no matter how badly this boyfriend or that has treated me, at least I don't live in a place where there are bodies in the streets.  This is not a war zone, I'd tell them, thinking of Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine.  But then I moved back to Chicago and realized I was wrong.  This is a war zone.  There are bodies on the streets.  Just a couple of weeks ago a kid from the local grammar school was gunned down by some kids from the local high school a couple of blocks from my house.  I heard the gunshots that night.  I live in a relatively good neighborhood, but my neighborhood backs up against one that's not so good.  On my way to work, I drive past burnt out buildings and crack houses and all I can do is wonder what is this America that I live in?

Not too long ago, in the midst of all the aftermath from Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West (who also  just happens to be from the South Side of Chicago) went on television and said George Bush hates black people.  My white friends couldn't get over this.  How could he possibly believe this? they asked me.  How could he possibly not?  I'd reply.

He's not the only one who feels the way he does.  I think of poets like Amiri Baraka and Lorna Dee Cevantes and remember how much my students relate to what they have to say and think: no.  He's not alone.  And Farrakhan is the most public figure who is saying what a whole lot of people are thinking.  Farrakhan, who lives in Chicago.  In my neighborhood.  He lives close enough, in fact, that he probably heard the gunshots the other day, too.

Farrakhan lives a couple of blocks from me in this cool brick house right on a corner in the middle of a street populated by beautiful house after beautiful house.  I drive past it on my way to the gym, and there's always some kind of security vehicle out front.  Just across the street is a row of gated, fenced townhomes that my students tell me is connected to the main house by an underground tunnel under the street.  The kids made it sound as if this were necessary because Farrakhan is afraid of death threats (Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabazz was famously arrested about twenty years ago for planning his murder) and protects himself and his followers by avoiding the street.

When I asked someone from the neighborhood if this is true, I was told "probably."  However.  There are all kinds of underground tunnels all over Hyde Park and Kenwood because it was a hotbed for the underground railroad before the Civil War.  

This explanation pleases me.  The other, for obvious reasons, does not.

Recently, Farrakhan made the news because he'd endorsed Barack Obama for president.  Obama's campaign, however, immediately distanced itself from Farrakhan.  "Senator Obama has been clear in his objections to Minister Farrakhan's past pronouncements and has not solicited the minister's support," said a spokesman.  This is a man who led 1995's Million Man March in Washington.  Nitpick if you want about numbers, but he got nearly a million african-american men to get on buses and go to Washington to convince our lawmakers that they needed to do something.  He has a huge influence on a great many men and women, but Obama had no choice but to distance himself from him.  His greatest asset, his mouth, is also his greatest liability.

The next person in my neighborhood doesn't actually live in my neighborhood.  However, his headquarters, Operation Rainbow Push Coalition, is just down the street from me.

It's a gorgeous building, and truly an asset to the community.  One of the biggest issues, I think, that people have had with Jesse Jackson in the past has been the fact that he's such a talk, talk, talker.  His talking has gotten him in trouble more than once, but let me tell you something: what they don't show you on the news is that his talking gets things done.  Rainbow Push always, and I mean always, has some kind of program going on in the community.  Last weekend there was a truck parked out in front where people could come for free medical care.  There was a line up and down the block of people taking advantage of it.   This is the norm not the exception for Rainbow Push.  .  They are hugely influential and do so much good that anyone who has spent any amount of time around them has to admire what they do.  People who live in the suburbs with manicured lawns do not understand the level of poverty in our cities.  We need organizations like Rainbow Push because our government is doing little to help people break that cycle of poverty.

Say what you will about Jesse Jackson and his rhetorical scare tactics, the man is the only one in the city of Chicago that I've seen have this level of positive influence on the surrounding community.

Now, don't get me wrong: Jesse Jackson's mouth has definitely undermined the good he has done in the community.  For instance, during his 1984 campaign for president, Jackson referred to New York City as "Hymietown." Jackson was rightfully criticized for this anti-Semitic speech at the time.   And here again, I have to wonder: why all the anti-Semitism in the black community?  It makes no sense to me.  

I just spent a little time doing some research on this because honestly, it all happened when I was a little kid and my memory of it is cloudy at best.  Strangely, it was Farrakhan who leapt to Jackson's defense, saying somewhat frighteningly,  "If you harm this brother, it'll be the last one you ever harm.  If you want to defeat him, defeat him at the polls.  We can stand to lose an election, but we cannot stand to lose our brother."

Farrakhan is right; we cannot stand to lose him.  He has done some great things, and promoted racial dialogue in a way that few other men can.  An incident from several years ago springs to mind.  At a high school basketball game, some students from Brother Rice high school began taunting a boy from another school, calling him "Buckwheat."  Soon after that, it made the news, and Jackson got involved.  He went to Rice and had a meeting with students and administrators and talked about why this incident occurred and what we can do to stop it from happening again.  Now, I'm not saying that he solved anything.  Indeed, the majority of people in the Rice community were supremely embarrassed by nastiness from a few vocal kids, but the fact remains that white folks in this country still find it reasonable to say such things, and Jesse Jackson is one of the few people powerful enough to get it across that it is not.  It. Is. Not.

A few years ago, when I was living in New York, I experienced Jackson's charisma firsthand.  It was on an airplane from Chicago to New York -- for some reason, I'd managed to score some tickets towards the front of the plane, near first class.  Just before the plane was about to shut its doors, there was some commotion in front and Jesse Jackson walked on the plane.  I was sitting on the aisle and I had a clear view of him, so clear in fact that our eyes met and he nodded to me.  I smiled back.  I admired him greatly at the time.

This, of course, is why it's so distressing to me that Jackson should say what he said about Obama.  Jackson is at a place in his life and his career where he should have risen to the role of elder statesman.  He wields a great deal of political power still, but his actions in recent years are taking away from what should be his time of greatest influence.  I used to respect Jackson a lot; now I just wish he'd use better judgement.

For those of you who managed to avoid the maelstrom of political coverage on this, Jackson was being interviewed by FOX news (which is the first surprise to me; why anybody would want to be interviewed by FOX is beyond me) and he leaned over to someone during a break and said that he'd like to castrate Obama because he was "talking down to black people."

Even Al Sharpton has criticized him for this behavior, and that's saying something. 

I was at a nail salon on 95th Street a couple of days ago discussing this latest incident with my sister-in-law Vivian.  An african-american woman sitting across from us at the nail-drying machine just started laughing.  "You know what I think?" she said.  "I think he's just like my father.  He's turned into a crotchety old man who thinks he can say any damn thing he wants just because he's old and age gives him certain rights.  He just needs to shut his damn mouth now.  He's already done his talking."

Then there's my other neighbor, the one that all of this talk is about.  The really famous one.  You know, the one who's running for president?  He lives two blocks from me.  I'm not kidding.  I've got all kinds of stories of almost-brushes with him.

Last October, I had a Halloween party and Natasha, one of my guests who'd parked up the block had to stop and wait for her friend to get something.  She just happened to wait on the corner in front of Obama's house.  A Secret Service agent confronted her before too long.  "Um, excuse me ma'am?"  He told her she'd have to move along.  They were being particularly diligent because Obama was getting a lot of death threats at the time.

I like to surprise people with how accessible he is to the average girl on the street.  My friend Debbie comes walking with me in the neighborhood sometimes.  When we walked on the sidewalk right in front of his house, she couldn't believe it.  There were all kinds of SUVs idling in the street in front, but we were able to walk right by.  Minutes later, the motorcade sped by us and Debbie swore she saw Obama in one of the windows.  I like that about him.  I like that he's a presidential candidate that I can see if I walk by his house.

Barack Obama is a different kind of activist.  I'd hoped that he'd be able to escape from the battlefield  rhetoric that have plagued both Jackson and Farrakhan, but he's had problems, most notably because of his associations with them and from people like them.

Most notably there is his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the minister of the Trinity United Church of Chicago.  Wright was roundly criticized by everyone near and far for his anti-American, racist diatribes in sermons.  What's funny about this is that I, too, heard this on the news and accepted what everyone was saying about this guy as truth.  Then I found a news outlet that actually ran his remarks in full.  And here's the thing: he's not entirely wrong.  He ruins his message by tarring it with the same anti-white, anti-Semitic brush that has painted Farrakhan's and Jackson's remarks over the years.

He speaks of the problems where young black men are more likely to go to prison than college, and the reality that racism is alive and well in this country.  He speaks of how impossible it was for Jackson to get elected, and how black women are sexually objectified.  He also speaks of America's penchant for invading foreign countries when it suits our own needs and our lack of action when we should morally take it, like when we left Nelson Mandela in jail for decades.  He speaks of the AIDS virus, and how racism may well account for America's lack of action in fighting it and establishing health care for all Americans.  He speaks of children who cannot read, and our refusal to spend more money on education.  He speaks of many things like this in his speech, and he's not wrong.

His problem is that he blames racism for things that have no connection.  He speaks of Zionism as something that has something to do with our lack of action on other fronts.  He speaks of AIDS as a deliberate attempt to kill the black man.  He speaks of white supremacy as if all white people believe in it.

When these remarks first came to light, Obama dismissed them as speech coming from "an old uncle that I sometimes don't agree with."  As the story gained power and attention in the media, Obama divorced himself more fully from Reverend Wright, because it began to be clear that he cannot let himself be associated, even a little, with anti-white or anti-Semitic speech.  It is a lesson that Jackson and Farrakhan learned for him.

Obama himself has never made remarks like these.  This is an important distinction to make, because he has been accused of racism simply by association with Reverend Wright.  Here's the problem with this accusation, one that people in their whitebread suburbs don't understand: it is speech that is widespread and inescapable in certain communities, especially on the South Side of Chicago.  Look at the rhetorical genealogy we have to follow here: Jackson and Farrakhan and now Wright. I would have been far more surprised if Obama hadn't had an association with someone who spoke like this.

It is a problem.  It is a gigantic problem.  The speech of hatred does nothing to advance the cause of civil rights in this country, and gives political leaders reason to ignore the african-american cause.   They are not wrong about the problems in this country.  They are wrong to promote racism while discussing them.  We will never move forward as a society until people realize this.  The civil rights cause has stagnated since 1968.  Finally we have a black leader who can do something meaningful to advance it.  Finally.  All he needs to do to get this done is divorce everyone who has come before him.

And that, my friends, is the real shame.