Monday, December 31, 2012

Desiderata and the new year

The new year is less than an hour away and I take comfort in the wise words that have held up to the changing times. And these words will endure long after I depart this material world. Desiderata is from the Latin word for 'Desired things,' and I know that we all desire good for the coming year. This was a lesson that I enjoyed teaching to my Sunday school classes and I hope that you will find lessons from as well... Happy New Year!

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1872–1945)

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Backpage Editorial (FOLIO WEEKLY)

Time to re-evaluate

Teachers are victims of negative typecasting

Folio Weekly, December 25, 2012-January 1, 2013

Every day is judgment day in our public schools. This sounds like hyperbole on my part, but there is a kernel of truth to what I am saying on behalf of educators who are responsible for shaping our future.

At a time when administrators are being trained to nitpick teachers over the most minute of details, such as whether their students are in single-file line, paying perfect attention during lessons or are prepared for class, we overlook the items that fall outside of the rubric with which we judge and ultimately will decide how to pay the troops in the war against ignorance and poverty.

It will never be reflected in the evaluations, observations, or feedback that I receive, but I wish to advocate for one seemingly small experience that I had in the classroom. It has to do with a student who came close to leaving Duval County Public Schools because he feared for his own safety.

Once it came to my attention that this sixth-grade boy was being bullied on a regular basis by a classmate who appeared to be more interested in terrorizing than learning, I worked with administrators and counselors to help this victim overcome the challenge to his own education.

I took the time to listen to the boy's parents as they expressed frustration with what they felt was the glacial pace of a system that had to maintain low disciplinary statistics and pressured its schools into under-reporting incidents for the sake of not losing face in the community. The unintended consequence was an atmosphere where the victims were fleeing for greener pastures such as private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling. The inmates, however, continued to run the asylum. Incidentally, the student who was doing the bullying ended up being arrested for assaulting another schoolmate with a knife later in the year.

Because there was no metric or data to gauge efforts to cooperate with the boy's family and to listen to their concerns, it went overlooked. The state-mandated evaluation system focused more on the superficial aspects of what could be considered "poor" teaching on my part. For example, many teachers get low marks on their evaluations for petty points such as students talking about something other than their work during a lesson. Yes, off-task conversation may reflect negatively on a teacher's ability to keep the focus on the lesson, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there are indeed factors that even the most firm and focused pedagogy cannot deter.

Do not get me wrong here: I did not seek to save a child from chronic bullying and harassment because I wanted to earn a medal or praise for what I was doing. I merely wanted to serve my fellow human being in a way that I would have expected to be helped if I had been a student in the same situation.

On the last day of school before spring break last year, I stayed after work to grade the last of my papers and decided to have a brief meeting with the student's family on my way home from work. Even though I was off the clock, I knew that my vacation could wait until I handled what was a more important matter than packing my suitcases for a week down in Naples with my goddaughter and her family.

I explained to the parent that I was willing to be his child's advocate and that I didn't mind being contacted at any hour, by email or telephone, to remedy their child's situation. After all, he wasn't just a source of funding for our school system; he was a talented young man who had the potential perhaps one day to play major league baseball, report on sports for the media or coach a team when he realized his bright future.

The parents were grateful for the work that our school did on their behalf and they ultimately kept their son enrolled in Duval County Public Schools. They even left a message with my school, thanking us for the work we did for them. Somewhere along the line, the gratitude was ignored and lost in the maelstrom of criticism and stereotyping of rank-and-file teachers as being selfish, lazy bureaucrats who were only in the field of education to collect a paycheck and spend their summers off.

Contrary to popular belief and demonizing, we teachers truly do care. We do what we do because we are giving back to the community that inspired us to answer a higher calling. We have teachers, coaches, administrators and counselors who believed in us and we believe that we can pay it forward.

I should know, because I was a "late talker" in my younger years. My parents feared that I would be mute for the rest of my life. Thanks to speech therapy at W.E. Cherry Elementary School in Orange Park, I learned to become confident in verbally communicating what I had been thinking all along. I learned to express myself thanks to people who didn't give up on me. I, in return, cannot give up on the young people whom I serve every day.

In my own junior high school years, I faced problems that I was able to solve with support from an educational community that helped this introvert learn how to make friends, in spite of losing so many peers to military relocations, and an educational community that helped me to overcome insecurity over my short stature in the shadow of peers who seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds over a child like me who seemed destined never to reach 5 feet tall.

I understand that not all will appreciate with work that we do, because there will always be students who resist our attempts to help them grow academically. But, thanks to remediation, interventions and other methods, we are learning to serve every student who enters our schoolhouse doors.

Bean-counters and micromanagers aside, I continue to soldier on because it is more than a profession for me; it's a moral duty that I must fulfill to justify my continued existence on this earth. It is an obligation that allows us to bear the slings and arrows of "reformers" who wish to visit upon us so-called improvements that are aimed more at punishing us than enriching us. It is something of which we should all be proud, because we keep going in spite of it all.

This is why I continue to do what I do when it's not reflected in the judgment that we receive. The days when I have guest speakers, like the supervisor of elections, the state attorney and members of city council, are days that my former students remember. The times when we have international food days, mock elections and trips to New York are times on which my former students reflect fondly. The memories of students whose funerals I attended, and one where I served as pallbearer, are what I believe to be the true indicators of our dedication.

Perhaps our friends in Tallahassee will never recognize our true value in our work, but I continue to teach not for them, but for the future.

Meeks has been teaching social studies in Duval County since 2002. He is a 1998 graduate of the University of North Florida.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Solstice and solace

“In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

The Sun ran away early in the evening to join the surfers down in Australia and left me with a cold feeling. Really, I had a cold feeling because the mercury dropped into the fifties here in Jacksonville, Florida. Before the catcalls emerge from those winter-worn folks to the north, I count my blessings that I am indeed not shoveling snow, but making plans to mellow out to Jimmy Buffet’s rendition of ‘Christmas Island.’

The shortest day of the year came and went without the predicted pomp and circumstance of an untimely end of our world. In defiance of the Mayans, our gods had other plans that they have yet to reveal. Besides, the interminable Christmas shopping season must go on.

I emerge today from a week of being sequestered in my home to recuperate from a sinus infection and know that my hibernation was brief. The clouds lifted from my head and my lungs and gave way to a ray of sunshine that allows my holiday cheer to be as warm as even Ebenezer Scrooge would begrudge.

I scurry to mail my Christmas cards to those who sent me holiday greetings, but I missed on my own Christmas card list. I pick up my laundry from my beloved mother who still wants to be a mommy to me and I delivered my family’s presents to place under the tree. I dined on bean salad with old friends. The mundane, however, is punctuated with a festive spirit that even a trip to the credit union or car wash if pregnant with anticipation of our annual celebration of Christ’s arrival in our world.

As I take time to honor and observe the brilliance of the season, I ponder how far I have come from the darkest days of Christmas past. Depression made my days seem longer and my patience shorter. I was angry with myself for my station, or lack thereof, in my life. I battled internally over the struggle to choose between what I wanted and what was expected of me. I was losing the fight and wanted to end it all.

Hospitalization, medication and therapy did wonders for me to pull away the dark curtains that blocked my light. I lingered yet in the lack of answers to my questions until I finally drew upon an inner light that truly allowed me to see the Light that enlivens our holiday season.

I turn 38 on Tuesday and I know that my birth on this most sacred of days has a meaning that I must apply to my own renewal as I approach my forties. The burnout that nearly destroyed my spirit and the enemies both real and imagined, I decided, are no match for the hope that resides within me for a more peaceful world within and around me.

To ignore the good that enriches me would be to betray the birth, youth and growth of someone in whom many good people have invested their friendship, love and time. Yes, the leaves have fallen from the trees and the air turns chilly yet again. The darkest hour today is before the dawn of a new revolution of our mortal world around the mighty Sun. In this completion of yet another cycle, I am glad and rejoice in it.

Under my spiritual tree, there are two presents. One is marked fear and the other is marked faith. When I wake on the 25th of this month, I know which gift is mine and which one to exchange for something greater. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very happy new year.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

It's the end of the world as we know it [and I feel fine]

Michael Stipe and company must be billionaires many times over by the end of this apocalyptic weekend.

The Athens-based elders of alternative music jolted many ennui-filled and 'different' teenagers to dancing along with a song whose lyrics would not simply obey with the upbeat messages of most pop music. I think that this is why "It's the End of the World as We Know It" is arguably one of the most influential songs of its decade. Much like the music of R.E.M., that was designed to inspire a giddy frenzy of dancing and then thinking, the Mayan apocalypse story is the subject of pop culture smirks, but draws us into something deeper than what it appears. Humor and irony, after all can be our way of facing unknown disaster as predicted by an ancient calendar. We smugly tell our friends that we already know that those dead Mayas cannot pull one over on us so quickly, and then silently wonder if these Mesoamericans were not right.

Metaphysically speaking, the Mayan predictions have a lot in common with the R.E.M. song about the 'end.' They both are man made means of capturing their thoughts from imagination onto paper or stone. One rock group hoped to reach audiences with entertaining words that listeners could only dream of drafting. The Mayan priests more than likely wanted to entertain their brethren, by possessing a power that mere mortals could never possess. Sounds like our pop stars have a past life somewhere as more than just figurative "gods." Their words are simply ideas that each of us has to express, some with more meaning than others. Who gives these words meaning? We do.

What lesson can we draw from this as we enter another Armageddon-free year? If we can choose to ignore faulty predictions of long lost cultures, we can benefit from ignoring those who believe that they are prophets who can define our limits and predict our failings.

I learned from the popular television series "Mad Men," that this world can be broken down into an internal conflict we have. Do we do what we want or do we do what is expected of us? We free ourselves for brighter futures when we realize that, although we are 'expected' to succumb to Doomsday thinking, we have the individual freedom to want something better and know that it is coming. Equally, there are those whose 'constructive criticism' and unsolicited advice do us more harm as they create a world from the same human minds that we have. Our power comes from the Truth that we maintain in our hearts.

As I lay me down to sleep the evening of December 20, I know what I want in spite of what is expected. I want to wake up on December 22 with the morning newspaper and an egg and cheese sandwich. And I feel fine...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Crazy for guns

"I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job [...] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts [...] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type."

Infamous last writings haunt Texans years after Charles Whitman opened fired on the University of Texas. The ramblings of a sick man closed with a plea for the type of help that we have denied the mentally ill in the decades that have elapsed since 1966.

A quarter of a century later, we nearly lost yet another president to violence provoked by a broken mind. Even then, we were content to sweep John Hinckley, Jr. under a very messy rug that is now stained with the blood of 26 innocents in Connecticut. This makes me wonder if we are thinking in our right mind. If the answer is mental health services, I wonder why the NRA would not be the first to lobby for greater funding for mental health services. I do not wonder for very long because the NRA is not necessarily a hotbed of big government moderates, or liberals. Besides, it is more compelling for these one-issue voters to see the late Charlton Heston challenge the government to take his gun from his cold, lifeless hands.

If we are to take guns away from anybody, as many gun advocates fear, it should be from the hands of those whose thinking does not permit them to own tools of destruction, let alone make sound decisions for themselves.

Perhaps insanity is something we dare not address because we are all crazy to some extent. Why else would we close our eyes to the true cause of massacres while we wade into the same constitutional battles that end with the same gridlock – of course, until the next outrage whips up renewed frenzy and then unconsummated ideas.

It is a fool’s errand for us to believe that a superman will emerge to save us from our guns or from the unstable folks among us who brandish them. Presidents may speak grandiosely of what they want done, but we forget the failed efforts that attempted to put a traumatized nation on track for less bloody times. It was no less than the year of assassination that a seemingly-powerful president attempted to pass legislation that limited access to the kind of weapons that we both embrace and reject. The final product was a watered down law that pleased the gun lobby but betrayed the memory of men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy whose lives were ended with gunfire.

If the killings and the attempted killings of our leaders is not enough impetus to act, I am tempted to view promises to honor the dead of Newtown with a cynical eye because a bizarre tautology exists behind the opposition to stricter regulation of firearms.

Behind the veneer of a clubby group of hunters and sportsmen lies a contingent of Americans who believe that any discussion with the government is a deal with the devil. This comes from their innate fear of a government that is ready to supplant the Constitution to implement a New World Order that Nostradamus never would have dreamed of predicting. This is the same establishment to whom these same anti-government types gave sweeping powers under the PATRIOT Act. They are maintaining vigilance against a system they feed and support.

There, of course, is the public safety component of the gun control debate. Yes, we could consider arming folks to defend themselves the next time there is a mass killing. Well, this is defense when we need to be taking the offense. If can prevent the likes of Charles Whitman, John Hinckley, Jr., Adam Lanza from becoming a danger to our society, we could finally know that we have attacked the issue and not each other.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

We are Newtown

The proverbial rock under which we have been hiding has been kicked away by the latest spate of violence to visit our nation.

The wake up call does not have to be a political donnybrook over who needs firearms or over whose individual rights are being compromised for the sake of our collective safety. This wake up call, however, does not necessitate the creation of yet another feel-good commission that claims to listen to people but has about as much bite as a toddler gumming away at a chew toy.

The central issue of this tragedy, and those leading to it, is in our minds. I am not saying that this is an imaginary problem, but I am saying that our mental health is at stake in a crisis of confidence that our nation is experiencing at this time. We have no problem with going to a doctor when our nose runs, our stomach cramps or our muscles ache. We, however, continue to ignore the illnesses and maladies that plague our minds. We stigmatize those who indeed recognize and seek treatment for the unseen disease that kills more than just those it directly affects.

We may joke about being crazy, loony or psycho, but the joke simply isn't funny any more when the basket-weaving stereotypes are challenged by a more deadly side effect of our naive attitudes about mental health.

For those who say that our resources cannot sustain increased investment in real mental heath, I would reply that our criminal justice system is already paying the hefty price of delegating mental health services to a line item with no perspective of the toll that mental illness is taking on those who suffer from it and those who become its collateral damage.

I was listening to Dr. Jeff Gardere explaining it more eloquently when he said that mentally ill people are treated more like criminals than patients. He bemoaned the fact that he had to advise families to call the police to best serve their loved ones in times of crisis and serious need.

Could you imagine calling the police to help someone who is having a heart attack? Could you imagine jailing someone who is suffering from appendicitis? Could you imagine that? We are already doing this for many sick people who need medical help. If there is any change to be made to help us learn from Newtown, the change needs to be in our thinking about mental health.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Song for a new generation

Back in 1992, when I was a college freshman, I experienced a depression that came from the opening of a door into an unknown world. I remember when I spent the first night alone in my dorm room and saw only darkness.

I bade my family farewell as they dropped me off in the minivan and they headed back to the only world that I knew and the only comfort that I remembered - with my parents and my sister. I had indeed spent nights away, but this was the first time that I struck out on my own in a new place, a new town and a new world.

I remember the first few nights when I cried myself to sleep because I was merely a 17-year-old boy who was not quite ready for prime time. I was uneasy about what lay ahead of me because I knew that something was dying, and it was my youth.

What drew me out of my fog was a moment of inspiration. I chose to write down my thoughts and I chose to document my feelings. I compiled a series of poems that set me free to begin a new chapter of my life. And, I soon learned, it was only the beginning.

Twenty years later, I opened this journal and I decided that I wanted to honor that young man and his thoughts by publishing what can hopefully be a way for a new generation of young people to see that the road I trod alone is one that I can help others travel with less despair.

Don't get me wrong, there is a great deal of romance and optimism in my book. It was a time when I fell in love. It was a time when I marveled at a new president taking office. It was a time when I smiled and laughed through what now seem to be my salad days.

I encourage you to visit or to gain the insight that my past life can provide. Proceeds from my book will go toward helping young people get the mental health services that they need.