Education, Uncategorized

For love of public schools: This is what we’re fighting for

kindergarten My public elementary school in Lakewood, Colorado was a red brick building. Here is something amazing: for a while, there was a glorious fort in the library with two levels (an upstairs?! Imagine the joy) and piles of pillows. There were poster board stars hanging from the ceiling of that library, covered in aluminum foil to make them look shiny and important. Each noted the names of students who had passed spelling tests because spelling was a Big Deal. The Dukane projectors provided private showings of The Solar System or Great Plains Indians one slide at a time with cassette tape soundtracks. Our principal, Dr Doll, was a firm and fierce tiny-boned woman who insisted “I want every eye on me” and holy lord, if that administrator wasn’t a great role model for being a badass woman in charge.

 

School was wonderful and it was life. My classroom’s incubating chicken eggs did not hatch at all one year. Total bust. But still, year in and year out I was the type of child who reveled in my workbooks and rejoiced in my Trapper Keepers and closely guarded my favorite Hello Kitty mechanical pencil.

 

Not everyone was the same. Every year my class was a motley crew. I was a Green Frog one year. Not everyone was a Green Frog. Some were Yellow Ducks and Brown Bears. But there we all were, the kids with peeled-crust sandwiches and the kids with free lunch tickets, the kids who guarded Hello Kitty pencils like I did, kids with every sort of last name. Bear Creek Elementary had a place for everyone.

 

I had the same teacher for my final two years at that school. Mr. Pyle was only five feet tall, about my height then, but he looked like he could bench press a few. He was balding with a gray mustache and was a stickler for discipline, following directions, and penmanship. My friend and I memorized “The Spider and the Fly” and performed it in class, and we built a robot using a shower head and other odds and ends we found in my dad’s basement workroom. Our class completed an entire weeks-long unit on baboons, of all things. Mr. Pyle was a fiend for complete sentences and his book reports went on for pages. He challenged a sixth grader to a pumpkin pie making contest and attributed his popular-vote victory to his precision in following the recipe. He admitted he had never traveled anywhere but Kansas and Colorado, but he had a reverence for books and information that was contagious.

 

When I graduated from high school six years later, Mr. Pyle showed up at my doorstep. Although I was nearly 18 years old, I found this embarrassing, the reality that teachers are humans who continue to exist off campus still seeming debatable. He congratulated me on my achievements and gave me a gift: a book of Bible verses. Thinking about Mr Pyle, this gift wasn’t a shock – that love of discipline and decorum probably did dovetail pretty well into adherence to religion. But I have to give the man credit – he never betrayed his Christian faith in his classroom. We were at a public school, and his job was teaching us to multiply negative numbers and keep a clean desk and give oral reports on the Siberian Tiger. It was not to teach us those Bible verses.

 

Again: not everyone was the same. There was a place for everyone at Bear Creek Elementary. There was a boy in my classrooms through the years who pulled out his own hair. There were kids with various special needs, some of whom were in separate classrooms and some, like the hair-puller, who weren’t. There were jokers and math whizzes and the Latina trio that performed Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That” at the school talent show with matching shirts that read “No Can Do” on the back. There were kids who moved away before they could settle in and the kids from the “Luxury Apartments” near the school.

 

Those were not luxury apartments. I’ve always been proud to be a product of public schools, beautiful and diverse and complex and successful public schools. The Green Frogs and the Yellow Ducks and the Brown Bears are now teachers and accountants and bankers and veterans. They are making decisions, building, repairing, doing research and leading. They are parents and taxpayers and neighbors.

 

There needs to be a place for everyone, regardless of circumstances and resources, regardless of belief systems or ability. And here’s another thing that’s as amazing as that library fort: we are better together. We learn from each other. I’m better for having been in class with the boy who pulled out his hair.

 

So to those who would undermine our proud public school system and its principles: no can do. Let’s lavish our public schools, and every Green Frog, Yellow Duck, and Brown Bear within them with our patriotic pride. I grew up in a country in which boys and girls, learners of every pace and style, six-minute milers and 18-minute milers, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and None of the Aboves were all deemed worthy of my nation’s time and effort. In this era, we cannot each flee to our own distant outposts and figure everybody else is not our problem. There is not a problem. Together, we are abundant in riches.

 

 

 

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immigration, Love, parenthood, Politics, Racism, Uncategorized

A story of other Donalds: You cannot have this nation

tafoya-potWhen I was younger, my eyes were directed toward the future. With age, I look to the past with more curiosity than I once did.  Now that my parents have died, I want to ask questions I didn’t value in prior years. That is one of the barbs of grief; there are no more questions. What has passed is past.

I grew up without grandparents. My father’s father, who died a dozen years before I was born, was Hugh Donald Stewart. Hugh’s parents were immigrants from Scotland and England. His mother died at 31, leaving five sons, the youngest just eight days old. He was drafted into the US Army during the First World War. His gravestone notes his service: PVT, Company B, 116th Supply Train. He lived and died in Missouri, married a German Catholic, and was the father of six children, the eldest named Donald.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of service and perseverance through tragedy.

My father was named Raymond Gerard. He was 19 years old when his brother Donald died. At his mother’s behest, he followed Don’s footsteps into the Catholic priesthood. In his late 30s he left his vocation to marry and lead a nonprofit treatment center for alcoholic adults. He supported past clients with his ongoing friendship and patronage. Our Volkswagen Beetle was always serviced by Jesus and Tibor, two such men.

His story is an American story. His nation is one of humble faith and friendship.

My son is named Anthony Raymond. He is my father’s only grandson. When he was two weeks old, my father had a heart attack. My father was not well for any year of my son’s life, but Papa recovered and continued on, recovered and continued on. Anthony possesses my father’s gentle heart and ease with affection. Those two were pals. My father declared it so. “We’re good friends,” Papa assured him. “Really really good friends.”

Anthony’s story is an American story. His nation is one of gentleness and nurturing.

These are white men, one still a boy, the descendants of Christian European immigrants. Their nation may not be what you predict. Their nation never stays the same. Their nation grows wiser and wiser. Their nation learns; it is kind.

My parents bought a modest tract home just a few months before I was born. The back yard seemed vast to me as a child, the trees on the lawn forming three bases for baseball: weeping willow to apple to ash. My father was a tinkerer and fond of books, and he kept his religious faith his entire life. He had his own soft-cover copy of the Bible in which he wrote notes. From Psalm 145, he underlined: “May our sons be like plants well-nurtured in their youth, our daughters like wrought columns such as stand at the corner of the temple.”

My parents began to collect handmade art from native peoples when I was a child. First they bought a Navajo rug. This rug, they explained, was in the Two Grey Hills style. Their collection then expanded into pottery, first Hopi and Santa Clara Pueblo. Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo, they told me, was one of the greatest potters in all the world. Her creations were a marvel. We took a road trip to native land to purchase pottery from artists. My father asked one such artist, named Madeline Tafoya, if he could take her picture posing with her work. She agreed.

Their intersecting story is an American story. Their nation is one of reverent study and mutual respect.

My father coached youth soccer for many years. My mother was into it too; she rooted unapologetically from the sidelines (“Kick it kick it kick it!!!”) and helped my dad plan player substitutions on soccer fields drawn on yellow legal pads. Years later, when I told my parents that my friend, a star defender on our team, was in a same-sex relationship, neither said a single disparaging word. My father didn’t grow up in a world of rainbow flags; he was a young adult in the 1950s, after all. And yet he continued to welcome and support the woman he had known as a determined little girl.

He and my friend together have an American story. Their nation is one of love.

In my father’s penultimate year of life, he and my mother were tended to by a professional caregiver named Fay, a woman from Iran who often read materials in Farsi during her stays in their home. My father thanked her often. One day while she and I sat in an emergency room corridor, Fay told me a tender tale: she had helped my father with his shoes, and as she knelt before him, he kissed her head in thanks. At the estate sale for my parents’ condo not long after that day, I gave a desk, lamp, several pots and pans, office supplies —  even a Peruvian tapestry — to an Iranian father who came by. He was a new immigrant to the US. “I have nothing,” he said. He paid me a small sum in exchange for the many items. My father would have done the same.

That immigrant’s story is an American story. His nation is one of hope and opportunity.

My father circled this in his Bible, from Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses.” His father before him, and he, and my son, and the potter, the soccer player, and the immigrant now cooking with my parents’ pots — all have American stories. They are the Donalds and the Raymonds, the Madeline Tafoyas and the Fays. This is their country. No one can take away their nation.

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