Saturday, September 29, 2012

Big brother is waiting...

This Saturday evening was much more loaded with anticipation for an only child who attended kindergarten down the block and lived alone with two loving parents. His father was out to sea and his grandmother flew down from Ohio. Having moved from his birth state of California, Florida was a stable new home for him and there were no major upheavals in his early life save the passing of his maternal grandmother. As his own mother grew in size and great with child, he was puzzled by this impending arrival. He was astonished that there was somebody growing inside this magical oven. He rubbed his mother's tummy in hope of feeling a kick or a nudge from the newest Meeks. The day came on a Monday when his mother was spirited away to hospital and he pondered the scene of the delivery. He was going to be a big brother. He was going to be an elder in his own home with lessons and joys to share with this bright, new sibling. The brand new girl came into the house much smaller than I had anticipated, as I announced to my mother and grandmother that she was too small to play with yet! New life entered my home and, suddenly my home became our home. My parents became our parents. My world became our world. Ashlee Ja'Near Meeks meant an expansion in my world and growth in my spirit. Thirty-three years later, I think back to that weekend of waiting. Thirty-three years later, I remember the door opening. Thirty-three years later, I am still a boy who is proud to be a big brother. I love you! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

Starving for knowledge

I cannot teach on an empty stomach. I already know the consequences of allowing low blood sugar to dictate how the rest of my day is going to go because I have often sacrificed breakfast in the triage of having a quick morning routine. We know of that devil's bargain that we make when we wake up after the snooze was activated for the ninth time - I will jump in the shower, shave my stubble and get dressed on the way to the car (not literally!). Breakfast is the first of the things that I chose to omit because a smelly teacher was ostensibly much more noticeable than a hungry teacher. Well, thanks to decreased functioning and a crankier outlook on the day, I realize that breakfast can have as much an impact on my work as five o'clock shadow. Both problems make me appear run down even before the clock strikes twelve. Conversely, we are very aware when we notice that a student has skipped showers. The smell can especially pungent in a middle or high school setting. All of the Axe deodorant in the free world cannot mask a deficiency in bathing. When students arrive in the classroom after missing breakfast, however, the results are a lot more subtle. Stomachs may not growl and teachers may not know the warning signs of a student who has a challenge with nutrition at home. I was made aware of this, as I posted on my school blog, when a student came to class with what seemed to be a giant monkey on her back. She could not focus on her work and I was worried about what was troubling her. She forthrightly told me that she did not have anything to eat that morning as her cupboard was bare. I made a deal with her that I would bring breakfast foods so she could ask for help when she needed it. Upon further research (, I discovered that over a quarter of Florida's students live with 'Childhood Food Security' and one out of ten Floridians experienced the same issue of having little to nothing to sustain them. If we truly believe in education reform, we must reform the way our children are fed. Private partnerships are necessary to help all public school students to not just feed their minds, but their bodies.

Use your mentality, wake up to reality - get tested

It's all about status. We know our marital status if it is not already apparent by what we wear on our ring finger. We know about our Facebook status because our cousin in Michigan can comment in the time it takes to check her cell phone. We also know the status of our departing flights because we waited two hours in lines for a one hour delay. The status that we often do not know is our HIV/AIDS status. Of the various statuses that we have in society, we can help to combat this deadly disease by being tested regularly. We not only do this for our own health, but because the choices that we make affect so many people around us. I remember the days in the 1980s when it seemed like the death toll from HIV/AIDS would never stop climbing. Friends, family and associates became casualties in this war against an epidemic that took away far too many of them before their time. Three decades since we have rallied around red ribbons and giant quilts, we now see a new generation of young people needlessly falling prey to HIV/AIDS. Education is essential to combating the ignorance and silence that go hand in hand with the spread of this preventable disease. This is why it we need to continue taking preventative measures (e.g. using condoms with sexual partners) and continue to quickly obtain treatment for those who do test positive so we can take a proactive role in stopping HIV/AIDS in its tracks. I was inspired because a colleague of mine lost her uncle to HIV/AIDS and I joined her in a community walk to raise awareness. I have always been fully aware, having organized a candlelight vigil for World AIDS Day while in college and having been a medic in the Air Force who was trained to educate people about staying healthy. Today, however, I helped in the fight by not just talking the talk, but literally walking the walk and by getting myself tested. This fight is not over by a long shot. To those who battle daily to finally win, I say that I am with you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Family ties

One of the quirkiest things about me and my work is that I have a collection of neckties. It is unusual to me, in my opinion, that I am viewed as an anomaly at work and at church because I prefer to suit up when I am doing my work either for my workplace or for my church community. It just comes naturally to me to dress for the part because it is such an important aspect of my work to show up with my "A game." The Florida Times-Union, my local newspaper, even ran a feature piece about my work as a male teacher in an overwhelmingly female environment. In the article, I recall a student commenting that I wore a 'tuxedo' to work! It is quite amusing because I believe that we as education professionals are essential to presenting a model for young people to adapt to the workplace in an appropriate manner. As a matter of fact, it is very strange for my students to see me show up in shorts when I attend yoga classes at our school or when I dress down for field trips. I have great respect for my community to keep up the hard work (or simple work when compared to the dressing up or down that my female peers face every day). At any rate, I would like to send sincere kudos and props to my spiritual mentors in Unity who have passed down the tradition of 'family ties.' As a former Baptist, I recall showing up at a very casual Sunday school class in a shirt and tie every week even though the dress code was not as strict, formally or informally. I also remember that my minister shared stories about how he received neckties as presents from Lowell Fillmore - the son of Charles Fillmore. As I look at my collection of over 100 neckties, I remember fondly how my minister used to tease me for my affection for my skinny, vintage neckties - especially the ones that I purchased for five dollars at the antique fans and stoves store in Five Points. Today, I try to do my part to be a proper role model for my students who one day will be the leaders in our world and, when I go home, that is when I can truly dress down knowing that I did my part to inspire our students to aim high.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What is education reform?

After I attended the recent TEACH conference with educators from around my school district, I did some soul searching of my own with consideration toward how our community can reform and improve our schools. We all know that our schools can do better. We also know that our community can do better. What we are not sure about is how we go about reaching out to build up our youth to create a productive citizenry who will lead our nation into the future. Reform is a nice word, but I believe that it has been perverted by political forces who choose to ignore the plethora of factors that hold so many people back and fail them in their quest to realize their potential. When I enter the classroom, I want to teach and my students want to learn. The so-called reformers do not understand that we are all in this together. What the so-called reformers demand is a more draconian approach that ignores the factors that impede true educational progress. For example, I know that I am surrounded by colleagues who toil daily to ensure that our students are able to meet and even exceed the standards that we must teach. The tests and assessments are excellent gauges of this work if they are applied properly. The problem arises when we have students who come to school in need of the basics, and I do not mean reading, writing and arithmetic. What I refer to is the fact that we have children in our city/county who come to school lacking food, clothing or shelter. We have children who live in circumstances that would make even the most hardhearted person take pause. Last year, I noticed that one of my students was not working up to her ability. I asked her in private what her problem was. She told me that, when she woke up that morning, she had nothing to eat for breakfast. How can I feed a mind when a child is starving? In response to this situation, I made a deal with this student that she would come to me whenever she needed a bite to eat in the morning and I would help to the best of my ability. This kind of intervention inspired me to begin a school-wide drive to collect simple breakfast foods for students in need to visit the guidance office and request when they begin the day with an empty stomach. We take for granted that the most important meal of the day is readily available for everyone. This is not true. Our nation believes in equality of opportunity and yet we still have children who are being written off by society because they have circumstances that cannot be simply erased with a government policy or initiative. This is why it is much easier for us to point fingers and accuse teachers of not doing their job. When we go above and beyond to assist our students, it will never be recognized because the work that we do beyond teaching children to fill in a ScanTron sheet is not something that is quantifiable. It is much easier to gauge teacher effectiveness by walking into a classroom and playing bean counter. Is this totally necessary? Not if reform is something that we do to educators and students. True reform is something that we do together to achieve a common goal. We tend to believe that systemic reform requires punishing people, kicking their butts and taking names. In my opinion, all we need are advocates and friends who can take the time to bring a box of Pop Tarts or breakfast bars to their community schools and truly fuel a child's appetite for learning.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day!

We the people... These three little words kick of the preamble to a great document that serves as the foundation for our nation. These three BIG words affirm the I AM of a nation that, for all of its faults, continues to serve as a civilization that aims to lead the world in freedom and liberty. Two centuries after the Founding Fathers created the Constitution, we have our doubts about how our nation is progressing or regressing and yet we must observe this day every year to educate Americans and the world about how our user's manual for a nation should be maintained and executed. Cynicism has taken hold of our national dialogue in the years since Vietnam and Watergate but we can think of no other way to move forward together. For all of the talk about how the system is broken, we forget that WE THE PEOPLE are the heart of our republic. When fear takes hold, we ignore the Truth that our nation is guided by ideals that are greater than our petty squabbles and that it is up to us to fix our supposedly broken system. When we engage in the necessary troubleshooting to right our course, we must remember that our user's manual is the way to ensure that we get things right for posterity. We need not fear our future if we are faithful to what the Founding Fathers fought and died for to break away from an old order and to create a new system. Party politics aside, we can come together and we can achieve a common goal to continue to lead the world in freedom and liberty. Our world is filled with uncertainty and questions. We are plagued with problems and issues that seem to impede our growth. What is the solution? WE THE PEOPLE! HAPPY CONSTITUTION DAY!

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Community-based education reform TEACH: Together for better schools

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

Instead of pointing fingers, this conference was about joining hands to improve public education at the first TEACH conference hosted by WJCT and Community First Credit Union at downtown’s Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Over 1,000 educators and education advocates attended this conference which carried the theme, “Better Together.”

Mayor Alvin Brown helped to kick off the event with a pep talk for the attendees with whom he shared his personal story of how family, friends and supporters helped him to better himself through college and in his career.

Although his grandmother and mother did not attend college, he said that they had a “PhD in common sense.”

The father of two boys who attend public schools in Duval County also shared how he was a supporter of education in both words and deeds as it is “an investment in our future, our workforce and our economy.” In the past 14 months, he said, his administration has worked hard in “meaningful ways that have brought results” – including an aggressive campaign to remind families to send their children to school during the first days of school, visiting classrooms and seeing the work that is done every day and appointing the city’s first education commissioner.

“I believe in education. With education, come many opportunities,” the mayor said. This is why Mayor Brown said that he worked to either implement or promote programs like Mayor’s Mentors, Communities in Schools, and Teach for America.

As a former professor at Jacksonville University, Brown especially took pride in his Learn to Earn program that gives students a firsthand look at college and the workplace as many young people are familiar with post-secondary education or the means of advancing themselves.

“It’s not where you start off, but where you finish,” the mayor said in his remarks, addressing the chance for all students to achieve the American Dream through setting goals and playing by the rules. And, to teachers, Mayor Brown expressed his gratitude.

“I am proud of the work you do,” he said, adding that educators are the “salt of the Earth.” The morning general session keynote speaker was Dr. Lucy Calkins, who seeks to transform the new Common Core standards from a mandate into a mission for all educators.

The ambitious new national standards have been written and ratified, Calkins said, but they have yet to be implemented.

She said that the key to putting Common Core into action is the buy-in from the educators and education leaders who are responsible for executing them.

“It is up to us,” she said.

As an object lesson, Calkins gave an anecdote in which she talked about the word ‘curmudgeon’ with her students. She explained that she asked students to treat a book like they would a soiled diaper – in the way a curmudgeon would approach something new. She said that this illustrated how some educators approached new programs and initiatives and how their attitude carried into their delivery.

“We could take the same approach with Common Core standards. We can either use a curmudgeon attitude toward the new standards or we can treat the new standards like gold,” she said.

With the challenge of implementing new standards at hand, Calkins addressed the biggest problem facing American schools – poverty.

Twenty-five percent of American students live in poverty, she said, and as many as thirty percent of students in a city like New York live in such conditions.

While the United States was a pioneer and leader in creating public education as we know it, Calkins said, other nations around the world were taking the lead because they do not face poverty on such a level that American educators face.

“If the United States had less than ten percent of its students in poverty, we would be the number one nation in education.”

Instead, we are putting the blame on the teachers, she said.

“One of the best things that we can do for children is to give their parents access to jobs and health care.” Calkins cautioned that, as a solution to failing schools, Common Core is not a curriculum that micromanages schools and recommended that educators study the new standards for themselves. “If we are to make a difference, we are to read the Common Core.”

The necessity for new national standards rose from a wake-up call she said in which forty percent of college students graduate and in which the average college student reads only one book a year. “We are not doing well in education,” she said, “Business as usual is not okay.”

This was particularly true in a world in which eighty-five percent of our jobs require high levels of literacy, she said, on top of the fact that the careers in unskilled labor were a thing of the past.

On the bright side, Calkins said that Common Core was much better than the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of the second Bush administration.

Even under the previous president’s education policy, Calkins said, the federal government listed Florida’s core reading programs as bad for comprehension. One reason is because they focused on main ideas and not central ideas. And this was after putting over $87 billion dollars into such core reading programs after four decades of research that dispel the notion that such work is not effective.

“We are looking not just for high-level comprehension, but critical reading,” Calkins warned, saying that students need to move up the ladder in text difficulty and to learn the new standards on all grade levels.

Calkins is aware of the way to apply Common Core in the classroom because she has written “Pathways to the Common Core,” a bestselling book that explains the standards’ three main clusters – key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas.

“Those are the standards. The question is what you do with them.”

After the morning keynote address ended, attendees moved on to various breakout sessions addressing topics like technology, involvement and advocacy. Because advocacy is an issue that is close to my heart, I chose “Telling Your Story: Becoming an Ambassador for Students and Public Education.” Facilitated by Deborah Gianoulis and Colleen Wood of Save Duval Schools, this session was designed to help education stakeholders find a voice in the corridors of power in Tallahassee.

“We are watching our public schools lose resources every day,” said Gianoulis, a former WJXT anchor who ran for the Florida Senate in 2010. She said that state leaders are shifting these resources to private, charter and parochial schools because of the aggressive lobby that private interests have in the state government.

Instead of a level playing field, Gianoulis said, politicians unfairly compare public school ‘apples’ to the ‘oranges’ that exist among the private education interests.

“We need choice between apples,” said Gianoulis, referring to the uneven accountability and standards to which public schools are held.

“Can you imagine if the Jaguars played by different rules than the [Houston] Texans?” she asked rhetorically, saying that public education is the most over-regulated industry in the state.

Floridians have the power of the vote to advocate for their public schools, Gianoulis said, but they are not using it.

It does not have to be this way, she said, pointing to a recent town hall meeting at Jacksonville City Hall with then-education commissioner Gerard Robinson. A mother of a special-needs student shared her frustration with how she had a difficult time reaching the education commissioner’s office. After publicly calling out Robinson, Gianoulis said that the mother finally got a telephone call from Robinson.

Most of the time, however, it is up to Floridians to make the trek to the state capital to truly make a difference in public policy; Wood acknowledged that it can be like crossing a very wide gulf for people to take time from their already busy lives to visit Tallahassee.

In spite of the logistical difficulties, Wood said that it is up to families to rise to the challenge because we “have to be fighting for the very existence of what public education can be.”

There are ways, however, for everyday citizens to communicate with leaders.

Wood said that it is essential for education advocates to admit that they do not know an answer if asked by a politician about their issues. Otherwise, these well-meaning people will be perceived as ignorant, unprepared or unprofessional and would not be taken seriously. This is especially true at a time when private, parochial and charter school interests have an open door to legislative offices and chambers and public school advocates are often locked out.

“Tallahassee does not take the field of public education very seriously,” Wood said, “It is petty. It is stupid. They will judge you and walk out the door.”

Wood said that the goal of education advocates is “champion building,” however, as they develop working relationships with allies on both sides of the political aisle.

“Every interaction is a chance to create a champion,” she said.

This work, Wood said, involves looking beyond today into the future.

The Florida House of Representatives and the Senate elect their respective leaders (House Speaker and Senate President) up to a dozen years in advance in a leap of faith that trusts potential leadership based on their personal connections and pledges.

“You don’t know if they can speak well,” said Wood.

Wood pointed to the example of a new state legislator whose college roommate is married to a member of the Duval County School Board and how the school board member has been advocating for causes that are important to local schools.

As the legislator rises through the ranks, it will be harder for him to say no to the personal connections that he has developed over the years with local leaders, said Wood.

Because of this, Gianoulis said optimistically, “Things can change and leadership can change.”

To best influence the changing leadership, Wood and Gianoulis recommended that public education advocates communicate with the legislative staffs that serve as the gatekeepers to lawmakers, to get to know the lawmakers on a personal level (Wood used a colorful ping pong story to get the attention of one elected official) and to know the lawmaking process.

The unseen power structure, they said, included receptionists, aides and assistants who have a great deal of say in the operation of legislators’ offices – including the drafting of legislation and who gets access to the legislators.

One important tip for increased access to such staffers is to make an appointment to the home offices in their respective districts. Constituents, said Wood, are more likely to get access to someone than with arranging for a meeting in the state capital.

With regard to the cumbersome process of lawmaking, Wood advises that advocates not wait until the bill is on the floor to take action.

“It is important to speak out during the committee process,” she said, using the recent failed ‘parent trigger’ legislation as an example. If passed, the parent trigger will give parents the opportunity to vote on the fate of their children’s schools if the schools do not make the grade. It even goes as far as to allow middle and high school students to have a say in whether a public school is turned over to private interests.

This legislation will be back, said Wood, and the time to speak out is by asking to attend committee meetings and to show up in full force.

“We will be texting and tweeting and Facebooking,” she said about getting the word out about this fight. Gianoulis said, “None of you will ever have to do this alone.”

“This is your life,” said Wood, “You know more about this than anyone else in the room.”

After this session and a lunch break, I attended the breakout session that was hosted by Co’Relous Bryant, the manager of community mobilization for the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

Titled ONE by ONE: A Conversation with Teachers, it was a chance for educators to learn more about the JPEF, a private partnership that is engaging the community in solutions to challenges in the education community.

JPEF has actively solicited solutions from the public for solving the problems that face students today. Mr. Bryant, a product of Duval County Public Schools, moved to the area from Perry, Florida when his mother left the rural town for economic opportunity.

At eight years old, he went to Oak Hill Elementary School. He took a moment to acknowledge Vicki Wall, his former teacher.

Mr. Bryant explained how he became a “son of the school” because adults believed in him and entered him into the school’s gifted program in spite of his circumstances and his environment. He later went to Darnell-Cookman Middle School, where he gave the morning announcements.

“Make it a great day or not – the choice is yours” was Mr. Bryant’s daily sign-off. This sign-off is still used to this day at the now Middle-Senior High School.

Mr. Bryant entered the International Baccalaureate program at Stanton College Preparatory School, he said because he had educators who told him that he was capable of rising to the challenge.

Mr. Bryant, as a youth, found his gift as a speaker. He won American Legion-sponsored oratory competitions, rising through the ranks as the best speaker in the county, state and then represented Florida in national competition.

One of three finalists in the competition, speaking about the United States Constitution and then speaking on a topic drawn out of a hat. Of the three, Mr. Bryant became the 2007 national oratorical champion. “I trusted my teacher. They handed me the road map and I took it,” he said. Branded a modern-day Cicero, he was offered a free ride to attend New York University and graduated with a political science degree.

“I came back home to join the fight,” he said.

In March 2012, Mr. Bryant drove back to Jacksonville to take part in what he called the “number one fight in Jacksonville.”

“Sign me up,” he said.

It is a high capacity, independent non-profit,” he said.

When he asked how many attendees knew about JPEF, about half raised their hands. He set about telling the audience what his organization is about.

“We have got to put the public back into public education,” he said, explaining what JPEF is about. “How to you make community involvement essential to systemic change?”

It is the responsibility of the public, said Mr. Bryant, to become actively engaged in the public education system.

This can help combat is situation in which one out of three Duval County public school students graduate from school on time.

“The community has heard you,” he said, “How do we make it happen?”

To create the One by One initiative, JPEF looked to Mobile, Alabama because it had similar historical circumstances to Jacksonville and faced similar challenges. He said that they had low achievement rates. The community created the “Yes we can” campaign and gathered input from the community.

After five years, the percentage of schools that were proficient by state standards increased from 23% to 90%.

Innovation after innovation after innovation leads to incoherence, however, said Mr. Bryant, referring to the morning keynote speaker – Dr. Calkins. He said that the first step toward progress in Jacksonville involved listening to the people.

One by One participation, he said, represented all sectors of the community. This was no small feat, as JPEF had a staff of half a dozen people. A team of volunteers had 165 conversations with over 1,600 participants.

JPEF illustrated this mission with a special exhibit that was featured at the Cummer Gallery of Art and is now at Jacksonville City Hall. Over 75,000 people have viewed this art exhibit that was designed to portray the students who have the potential to become leaders in the community – if only with the right support from all stakeholders.

Mr. Bryant said JPEF took on the mission of documenting the district’s educational needs because it was important, in his opinion, to present the next superintendent of schools with input from the people whom the school system serves.

“There is a variety of… input,” said Mr. Bryant. All of this conversation is available on the JPEF website. He said that the data and evidence includes a cross section of ideas from all over the county – from San Marco to the Beaches, from neighborhood to magnet schools.

One problem is communications, he said, because 72 percent of survey respondents were unable to understand what the school district was telling them. They believed, according to the same JPEF study, did not feel fully integrated into the school system.

Climate and culture is one of the top three priorities that the community is talking about, said Mr. Bryant. He said that educator morale cuts to the question of whether educators can actually teach or if they are beholden to mandates.

Resources, Mr. Bryant, said are another community concern. For years, funding is part of the divide that separates the more affluent neighborhoods and their schools from the schools in areas that have to do the same work with less.

Third of all, community support was a factor that respondents said they include as a priority in public education. The community understands, he said, “how important it is to partner with you.”

Closing out the day, Dr. Brad Cohen, the afternoon keynote speaker, told the conference about how he grew up with Tourette’s syndrome to become an educator.

Before he made his remarks, the audience watched a clip from a made-for-television motion picture that showed the inspiring story of how one principal helped Cohen to transcend shame to enter what he called “a brand new world.”

Tourette’s or no Tourette’s he said that he knew that he was going to be a teacher. “I know what it’s like to make a difference,” Cohen said.

“I have a story that I believe each and every one of you need to hear,” said Cohen.

Growing up, he said that he wanted to be treated like everyone else – with respect.

He related how his mother sent him to an overnight summer camp for one month.

On the last day of camp, there was a camp fire. Each of the counselors announced awards for each of the counselors gave out prizes.

Cohen, then in grade school, received the ‘Froggy Award.” He was the most popular child at camp for making sounds mimicking that of a frog. He said that he was on top of the world and ran to his mother upon returning home from camp. He excitedly shared his noise with his mother.

Over time, the young Cohen could not control his involuntary sounds, even though the consternation of others around him was growing. His family refused to take him out into public because of the shame that he caused them.

The young boy’s mother researched his condition and soon learned that he had Tourette’s. His fifth grade teacher, however, was merciless and made the young boy apologize for making what she called annoying sounds. After she made him promise not to make these noises, his tics continued.

When he entered middle school, “No one wanted to be friends with a noise maker,” he said.

In math class, “that math teacher didn’t get it,” Cohen said.

The young boy’s mother tried to educate his teachers, but this did not stop the math teacher from sending him to time out.

“I tried to learn anyway that I could,” he said, “I knew that I had more in me than the teachers and students saw.”

The bullies paraded around him and mocked his noises.

“They tried to shut me up because they knew the teachers couldn’t.”

“I hated every single one of those bullies.”

He needed someone to understand what he was going through.

“It is the people who don’t know and the people who won’t want to know,” he said.

The principal stepped forward and asked the boy if he would like to educate the student body about his medical condition.

In Cohen’s family, he was the first generation to be born with this hereditary condition and he explained that it was not contagious

“On that day, I knew that we were making a difference.”

He made himself available to his schoolmates to ask him questions about Tourette ’s syndrome. At the end of this lesson, the school gave him a standing ovation.

He said that it was then that he realized that the students’ negative treatment of him was rooted in the need to know more about him.

“On that day, they learned.”

It was then and there that Cohen wanted to be the teacher that he never had who focused on their strengths and not their weaknesses.

He wanted to be the teacher who gave out scratch and sniff stickers, he said to the amusement of the audience, because he never received such positive reinforcement because he was too ‘noisy.’

In high school, he had a new confidence and could finally focus on his academic work. He no longer faced bullies who exploited his perceived weaknesses. He developed relationships with others around him to not only succeed in school, but life.

“I began to make genuine friends,” he said.

One day at high school in St. Louis, Cohen told the audience how he fell in love with Bradley University.

“You cannot fall in love with a university just because of its name,” his father implored him.

“Let’s go Bradley!” The cheerleaders shouted at games.

The crowd spelled out his name.

He added that he did not just choose the university because of its name, he appreciated the proximity to his home, the size of its student body and the school gave freshmen the chance to teach in the classroom. As a college student, Cohen asked his professors to allow him to share about his condition with his peers at the beginning of class.

His education professor said that he did not have time to allow the college student the two minutes to explain his Tourette’s because there was no time at the beginning of class.

During the first day of class, the education professor ended up giving the time to the nervous student who became more at ease because he knew that the students understood.

For four years at Bradley University, “I studied my tail off,” Cohen said.

“I never made excuses,” he said, “I tried to learn like everyone else.”

“My resume looked nearly flawless.”

“I was ready to take on the world.”

He headed to Atlanta to begin his teaching career. It was cool going to the Olympics at night. But during the day, he endured interview after interview. He could not convince any elementary school administrators to hire him. They were concerned that they would be unable to explain Dr. Cohen’s medical condition to the education communities.

He was even cautioned by one principal that their fifth grade students would react violently.

He walked out of one interview with a principal angry because he asked a principal how a school would treat its special education community if they treated an applicant like him with such disrespect. He decided that he did not want to work for such a person.

“I knew I could do it,” he said. Feeling dejected, he went to bed in tears.

His family asked him to return to Missouri, but we woke up with a new positive attitude. His father recommended that he work as a substitute teacher until full-time work was available.

He printed out a stack of new resumes and set forth to find a new job with a newfound assertiveness. One day, a principal called and asked if Cohen had been hired yet. The principal invited Cohen to an interview.

Instead of focusing on the Tourette’s, the interview was geared toward Cohen’s teaching skills.

Mountain View Elementary School in Cobb County, Georgia hired Cohen after his 25th interview, three weeks into the school year. The new second grade teacher, however, was not in the clear. Having joined late in the year, the other second grade teachers farmed out their children with the greatest challenges and the most high-maintenance parents to him.

After graduating cum laude, he did not know what lessons would help him reach the parade of children who literally moved their desks into his classroom.

But Cohen had the talent and the gifts to come full circle and rise from disability to ability and being able to be the kind of teacher that everybody, including a young scared child making funny sounds, deserves. I am looking forward to what TEACH has in store for us next year.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

9/11 - From grief to grace

I was teaching English at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida when the towers fell. My heart sank when I received word from our security officer that the World Trade Center was struck again. I recalled the time in 1993 when the World Trade Center was first attacked and it never occurred to me that these mighty towers would crumble like my heart would that horrible day. The outcry was swift and brutal against those whom we believed to be behind this act of terrorism that killed over 3,000 people. The anger was understandable, but it often manifested itself in violent words and actions that victimized innocent people who happened to share a faith that was perverted by an evil few. Having returned home from the United States Air Force, where I served as a medic at Dover Air Force Base, the memories were also fresh of being part of the ceremony in which the bodies of those who perished in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole were repatriated to America. I also knew that, as a new Uniteens sponsor that I could do something to make a difference in how we reacted to this crisis. Through fate or Divine Order, our Uniteens group had a lock-in scheduled for that weekend. While our original purpose was to have fun, we faced a more solemn task when we gathered for our weekend sleepover. That weekend, we prayed and meditated over the tragedy that befell our world and we prayed and meditated over the world that we were responsible for co-creating with God. Moving forward, I challenged myself and our Uniteens to reach out in Spirit to find the common good in all. After that lock-in ended, I decided that I would incorporate ecumenical lessons into our curriculum. I found a book that was based on the HBO documentary, "How Do You Spell God?" I also purchased a copy of the video to share with the Uniteens. I felt that it was especially urgent to learn more about world religions and faiths because, when I was in junior high school, I held onto the belief that we were either Christians or we were nothing. It was simply how I was raised as a young Baptist before I joined Unity. This was no simple task, but I chose to make it engaging and joyful for our children. We created mandalas, we performed service projects and we connected with other Uniteens' groups in the spirit of the world that we wanted to see become a reality. I also decided to leave my own complacent comfort zone and attended Saturday meditation at our local Buddhist temple. I also attended synagogue in the San Jose area of Jacksonville - and attended my first Bar Mitzvah. These were the lessons and gifts that I wanted to use to ensure that over 3,000 people did not die in vain. Healing is not easy, but it was something that I felt that it was a task that we were all up to taking up as a cause for life. We can still observe 9/11 through enlightening ourselves to vanquish the darkness of ignorance and hatred. This is our call and this is our cause to ensure that future generations will never have a day like was had on that fateful Tuesday. Epilogue: This morning I attended Sunday morning worship service as usual, but was treated to something unusual. One of the Uniteens who attended our lock-in during that week in 2001 started volunteering in our Sunday school today. I am very proud of her for not only enriching her life through Unity, but serving a new generation of Unity students in a spirit of love and light!

Young Hollywood

"I AM big. It's the PICTURES that got small." - Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

When I took film making class at the University of North Florida, I made it a mission of mine to see as many classic films that I could find. Hollywood's magical machine had a way of telling stories once upon a time. Although a little worn around the edges from competing with new media, the motion picture is still the art form that surpasses the rest in defining our popular culture. The past is prologue in our lives and Hollywood provides us with a parable in honoring those who came before us. Before there was a Steven Spielberg, there was a D.W. Griffith. Before there was a Natalie Portman, there was a Gloria Swanson. Before there was a Brad Pitt, there was a Montgomery Clift. Our heritage is the legacy of those who blazed a path for us. Yes, Hollywood is preoccupied with youth. Yes, the youthful demographics are what prompt filmmakers to be fickle and flighty in who they package to be the next star. What will never change is the work after which we pattern our new plots and stories. You might ask me what in the world does a fantasy world have to do with the one we live in today. I would answer that we and the entertainment industry have a great deal in common. We can ill afford to discard our past for the sake of embracing the future. The Bible cautions us to honor our fathers and our mothers for we can live a long life from such respect. This, metaphysically, does not mean that being nice to our parents will extend our life expectancy. It means that by recognizing our elders in the flow of life, we understand that longevity is not a vice but a virtue. The picture was big for me when I was a youth and listened to my church elders. I scarcely knew who they were and I always wanted to know what they knew because they were a fountainhead of wisdom that would help me on my journey. One woman comes to mind when I think about my times in Grenson Hall - our fellowship hall - after our Sunday worship services. One woman of advanced age was a faithful attendee of our church. She had a faded tattoo on her arm that she extended to me in friendship. We always exchanged pleasantries and conversation as I staffed the doughnut table that was our YOU fundraiser to support our local, regional and international functions. She, like Rev. Bonnie Grenson, always wanted to take home a small treat for dessert. In return for her doughnut or cookie, she always placed her love offering in the YOU basket and she always paid me back with a smile I left for college and, when I returned, she was no longer there. I learned that she had made her transition. That is not the only thing I discovered about my late friend. Ann was a survivor of the Holocaust. That explained her faded tattoo. She chose a spiritual path in Unity that I trust helped her with her transition. I miss her because I could have learned a lot more from her, but I appreciate the influence that Ann had in my life. The pictures in our world only get small because we allow them to. We must open our eyes to the big picture that we are all big and that our presence must never shrink in the infinite Light, Power and Glory of God. And, when I am in the twilight of my own years in this mortal world, I hope that I will be honored even a fraction of the way I honored Ann and many of my brothers and sisters like her.

"The stars are ageless, aren't they?" - Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Power to the people!

We are not powerless. When we say that we lack power or strength, we are affirming not just the negative, we are telling a serious untruth about ourselves. We are all born with an indwelling and innate power that propels us into this world of the living and wakes us to a new day for the entirety of our lives. Power is not some abstract dream of absolute control. That is the abuse of our natural powers that were meant for good. Power is a natural force that we harness each day to bring about the best in our world and is a natural force that he harness each day to build a world that works for all. Call this internal engine what you want - God, Light, Spirit, Life, Truth or whatever - this is the motivation that is readily available for us all of the time. What is my motivation? What is your motivation? It depends on what your purpose is in this world That is not for me to decide for you. You must take charge and decide why you do what you do or do not do. What I do not believe in is allowing our engines to idle when our work is yet to be complete. I learned this important lesson once upon a time when I was in high school and president of my Youth of Unity (YOU) chapter in Jacksonville, Florida. Please forgive me for revisiting this topic as I have touched upon it earlier in my blog, but this experience is what directs my actions today. In the early 1980s, our church experienced a terrible split over differing philosophies about what Unity means. There were no heroes or villains, just friends who disagreed and decided to part ways. This parting of ways was never meant to be the end, but the beginning of new Unity in our community. Instead, it marked the beginning of exile for brothers and sisters in Truth who shared the same path with my church community. When I was elected to be president of my YOU chapter, I was only sixteen years old but I knew that power meant nothing if I did not express it for the good of my community. With the lessons that I learned in Unity, I reached out to our friends across town. I paid the price because this was not a popular move - especially for a Young Turk who was not supposed to know any better. Yet, I did not walk away because the Truth is what ultimately set us free from the bondage of division. I did not walk away because my brothers and sisters in Truth did not allow me to. Instead of being discouraged, I wanted to do whatever I could in my power to bring more Unity into the commUNITY. It did not matter if I was elected, appointed or chosen to do so. We have the power of ourselves and not position to affect change. Did it help for me to be a member of my church board of directors to continue bringing our Unity churches together? Yes, it did. It also helped that I was surrounded by friends and family who supported me every step of the way. When I saw our former ministers return from a long exile to visit with us, it made me proud to be a 'Unitic.' Their return marked a homecoming for the true unity that brought us to the movement in the first place. Do not misunderstand, power does not necessarily mean that we have to move mountains every day. The power that we have speaks to its own strength. Our power may manifest itself in moments, minutes, months or even beyond our lifetimes, but we do indeed have the power to make things happen. Namaste

Monday, September 3, 2012

Happy Labor Day

In the new economy we shall serve for the joy of serving, and prosperity will flow to us and through us in rippling streams of plenty. -CHARLES FILLMORE (Atom Smashing Power of Man)

WORK is a four-letter word, but so are LIFE, LOVE and REST. No matter what your career, we need all four to achieve balance and harmony in our lives. From the moment we are born, we are working toward something. We strive to speak for the first time. We toddle into our first steps. We enter school with eager hearts and minds. Somewhere along the way, work becomes a dirty word because we associate the world's struggles and strifes with punching the clock for someone else. This is why high school students hang on to their freedom as long as they can before they enter the 'real world.' We all have past negative experiences with working because they were instilled in us by our families' struggles to earn the money for our collective prosperity. We enjoy the blessings of life, love and rest because the enrich our souls in our quest for personal betterment. When we remove the price tag from our work, we can also find blessings in the fruits of our labor. The right balance of work and play can actually bring us closer to the way we make a living. A strong work ethic does not mean that we have to yoke ourselves to a life of drudgery. This is why we take a moment each year to pay tribute to the many hands that make for light work in our world. No matter what we do, our work blesses our world. Labor Day is a celebration of what we do for a living and a time for us to slow down and acknowledge the sacrifices that we make to co-create with God a world that works for all. Picnic, party and enjoy this holiday safely and responsibly as we have great work ahead of us! Peace be with you.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Believe! - New lessons for YOU

Photo: (Pictured from right) May Rowland attends the cornerstone laying ceremony at Unity Church of Jacksonville at the corner of Lomax and May Streets with Rev. William N. Grenson and Rev. Dr. Bonnie S. Grenson in February, 1950 as featured in The Florida Times-Union.

This is a lesson that comes from a time of crisis - over half a century ago. When May Rowland wrote "Dare to Believe," it was a world that lived under the shadow of the Cold War. She wrote in her book of daring to believe in Truth through all crises big or small. Today, the Berlin Wall no longer menaces Western Europe and we freely exchange with China and Russia. We still face new situations and challenges that seem today as formidable our adversaries were once back then. I have created "Believe!" based on Rowland's desire to promote right thinking in a modern world by adapting her classic book into a series of lessons for today's youth. I have geared the lessons toward the basics of Unity that form the foundation for the principles that today's Youth of Unity are learning and promoting. I am self publishing this material and am shipping my book to those who wish to pay for a copy. Please see my PayPal link to order a copy today!