March 12, 2018

School shootings—a shocking and drastic change for safety consideration in education

At Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two teens went on a shooting spree on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and wounding more than 20 others before turning their guns on themselves and committing suicide. At the time, the massacre was the worst high school shooting in U.S. history and prompted a national debate on gun control and school safety, as well as a major investigation to determine what motivated the gunmen, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17. —

Nearly 20 years later, the “national debate on gun control and school safety” is still ongoing, and there are always “major investigations to determine what motivated the gunmen.” Changes have been made by some retailers regarding who can buy what kind of gun after the shooting on Valentine’s Day that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
      But our perspectives changed with the Columbine shooting.
      At the time of the Columbine High School shooting in an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colo., I was teaching English and journalism at Urbana High School. Not long after the story broke, the administration sent a notice to all teachers to read to their classes about what to do if someone was suspected of planning that type of incident or that someone was exhibiting a suspicious form of behavior.
      While I was reading the notice to my class, I saw one student about half way down the middle row in front of me writing and not seeming to pay attention. After I finished reading, I intended to have a discussion about the school shooting and what it meant for the school environment.
      But the student got up and brought his note to me.
      I don’t remember exactly what it said, except that it was something about a possible event of the Columbine type happening at the high school and identifying a student dressed in black as a possibility. Knowing the student in my class and his father, I didn’t think the student was serious in what he had written or that there was any danger from the kid dressed in black.
      Nonetheless, I walked over to the side of the room, punched the call button and asked for a dean to come to my classroom. When the dean arrived, I handed her the note and told the student to go with her. From that point, the student’s parent was immediately contacted, explained the situation and asked to come to the school and get the student. At the time, the father was involved with an extremely important situation at his job that I won’t try to explain.
      Suffice it to say, he was very upset at being interrupted and by what his son had done. And while I don’t know what happened at home, I do know that the father brought his son to school a couple of days later, had his son apologize and assured me that that behavior would never happen again.
      And it didn’t.  
      But the Columbine shooting marked a new time. Prior to that there had been school shootings going all the way back to the Enoch Brown school massacre on July 26, 1764, when a group of Delaware Indians entered a log schoolhouse in the Province of Pennsylvania and killed Brown, the schoolmaster, and nine students. Others followed through the years, but it wasn’t until Columbine that school shootings seemed to increase in their frequency and really got the country’s attention.
      Since Columbine, there have been 25 school shootings, 10 of which resulted in the deaths of four or more students or staff for a total of 122 fatalities, including the death or suicide of the shooter(s) who gunned down the innocent.
      Before Columbine, there were training sessions for tornado drills, and how to respond if hostages were taken—back in the early days of the atomic age, there was even something called a “duck-and-cover” air-raid drill where students were instructed to crawl under their desks and cover their heads to somehow protect against nuclear fallout.
      Holding training drills and sending a kid to the dean’s office who did a stupid thing because he thought it was cool (sounds like something I might have done as a kid, and my father would have done the same thing my student’s father did—maybe even taking off his belt and wrapping it around my rear end in the process) are what the school environment has come to, even more so today after all the school shootings and other threats to our security where the benefits of freedom are curtailed.
      There have been cable news talk show discussions 24/7 since the shooting in Florida, town hall meetings, politicians and the National Rifle Association members spinning their positions and everybody who has an opinion or a solution bickering, talking over each other, tweeting and jacking their jaws, still without any idea of how to really stop the senseless killings.
      But with the available security to get on an airplane, enter a courthouse and other public arenas, it would seem that it is equally important for security to be afforded to the staff, teachers and students going to school day in and day out.

February 21, 2018

Impasse and arrogance in Springfield

The recently published, slightly edited column in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette was originally sent as a letter to Illinois Gov. Bruce V. Rauner and House of Representatives Speaker Michael J. Madigan on April 5, 2017. I received a perfunctory reply from a member of the governor’s staff merely thanking me for writing and nothing from Speaker Madigan.

I returned not long ago from a tour of Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Iwo Jima where I went with Military Historical Tours and the Iwo Jima Association of America to attend the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima and the annual Reunion of Honor where the United States and Japan, once bitter enemies in combat, come together as comrades in peace to commemorate the battle that took the lives of 6,821 Americans, another 19,000 casualties and the lives of 21,000 Japanese. That war preserved our freedom.
         Unfortunately, however, we citizens in Illinois don’t enjoy the freedom we should because of the puerile manifestations of partisan politics in Springfield reminiscent of schoolyard bullies for which Gov. Bruce Rauner and Speaker of the House Michael Madigan are the principal players in the resulting lack of budget, people and businesses leaving the state in droves, college students going to universities out of state, school systems throughout the state cutting programs and faculty, ad infinitum.
         There was a saying in the Marine Corps for people like them: “Lead, follow or get the hell (there was a stronger word when it was as critical a situation as it is now) out of the way.”
         The Iwo Jima veterans on Guam, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima, now in their late 80s and early 90s, were able to follow that directive at the ages of 17, 18, 19 and 20 and on up without acting as these two politicians both do in their esteemed positions of responsibility. Where would this country be had all those men and women fighting in World War II behaved in the deplorable manner both the governor and the speaker are now?      
         Another adopted Marine Corps mantra and directive that has been quite successful is to “improvise, adapt and overcome.” The Marine Corps and the other military services and the civilian working men and women who keep the country moving smoothly follow that concept. The part of society that rarely practices that concept and leaves people behind, as Marines and others in the military and all good citizens never do, is many politicians like Rauner and Madigan.
         Their arrogance amazes me. I first met Madigan briefly in 1986 on an elevator in the state Capitol when I was raising money and doing publicity for the Illinois Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That was just after a couple of us had gone to Rep. Zeke Giorgi, a World War II veteran, and got a $500,000 rider attached to the Veteran’s Bill so we could order the marble and get the memorial dedicated before year’s end.
         On the elevator, Madigan was surrounded by his minions and had the arrogant and pitiful look of superiority and desire for power that the state has come to know so well from him. He looked prime for a blanket party, even then—in Marine boot camp when one of the recruits failed to measure up to his responsibilities, the other recruits threw a blanket over his head after lights out and delivered a few punches for inspiration. Of course that is not PC now, but once was all it took to get the recruit squared away.
         Madigan’s personality and behavior remind me of the comment usually attributed to Sir John Dalberg-Action, the 8th Baronet, who was an English Catholic historian, politician and writer: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
         That is not to say that the governor is any different. He’s got the power corruption thing, too. He just smiles more and tries to dress more like the common man. And he’s filthy rich, much like our current president, and just as arrogant as either Madigan or Trump. I’ve met Rauner a couple of times. Once at the dedication of the Chez Family Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education at the University of Illinois and once at the celebration of designating Champaign County as the “Birthplace of the Tuskegee Airmen March 1941” and the signs to be posted on local highways. Rauner was jovial and were wearing his campaign and political face in both instances. Neither of the men is impressive in their actions and the condition in which they have the State of Illinois.
         ’Nough sed. While this is mainly cathartic, I hope they both can do the right thing and sit down with members of both parties and settle this impasse. They owe it to those who fought and died for our freedom and to those living here in Illinois and depending upon their leadership, not their power struggle.

December 7, 2017

Remembering the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the U.S. entry into World War II

Dec. 7 marks the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,400 American servicemen and civilians, wounded more than 1,200 and propelled the United States into World War II that eventually took the lives of 405,000 Americans and some 60 million worldwide before it finally ended in 1945 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
            Much has been made about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. But in reality it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Japanese had been on the move throughout the Pacific and the Orient since 1904 when they defeated the Russians in Port Arthur, Manchuria. Then they took control of Korea and most of the German colonies in the Pacific, including the Carolines, Gilberts and Marianas, plus the German colony on the Chinese coast at Tsingtao.
            American writers Homer Lea and Jack London had written about the Japanese efforts to expand its empire prior to World War I. Gen. Billy Mitchell wrote about it in the mid-1920s. And in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and followed in July 1937 with the “infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which instigated the Second Sino-Japanese War,” and then followed with attacks on Shanghai and Nanking. Finally, there was the Japanese air attack on the American gunboat, USS Panay, in December of ’37 that happened to be filmed by cameramen on the Panay and on the riverbank. Both films clearly showed Japanese aircraft attacking the Panay with the American flag flying.
            This was all public information.
            And when George Patton was the intelligence officer of the Hawaiian Division, he issued a detailed report dated June 3, 1937, in which he concluded, “Japan was willing and possibly able to attack Hawaii.” In the last sentence of the report, he wrote, “It is the duty of military forces to prepare against the worst possible eventualities.”
            Gen. Patton always said, “To be a successful soldier, you must know history.”
            Either the leaders of this country didn’t know history or didn’t pay attention to it.
            As late as November 1941, admirals in Washington wrote a vague message warning the commanders in Hawaii of the possible danger of an attack, but never checked to see if any precautions were being taken. Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Twomey writes about this in his book, “Countdown to Pearl Harbor,” which I read last year prior to attending the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
            The commander of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence unit had lost track of Japan’s biggest aircraft carriers. Twomey writes of false assumptions and racists ones, misunderstandings, infighting and ego clashes between intelligence officers and the Navy and Army commanders—all of which led to our being totally unprepared for the attack.
            So much warning was evident long before the “Day of Infamy.”
            At 7:02 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 7, two young Army privates, George Elliott Jr. and Joseph Lockard, at a mobile radar unit at Opana on the opposite side of Oahu, picked up “a blob of unknown, inbound airplanes that erupted on their oscilloscope,” and they reported it to authorities. Only the switchboard operator and one other man were at Fort Shafter’s information center as Elliott informed the operator that a “large” flight of planes, which turned out to be 360 Japanese war planes, were inbound.
            A few minutes later Lt. Kermit Tyler, a fighter pilot who had been given the morning shift for the second time in his life to be a “pursuit officer,” called the mobile radar unit at Opana. With no fighter planes standing by, he knew nothing about how things worked or what to do. When Lockard told him about the incoming aircraft, he said he thought about it for a moment and said, “Well, don’t worry about it.” 
            “I had a friend who was a bomber pilot,” he said later, “and he told me any time that they play this Hawaiian music all night long, it is a very good indication that our B-17s were coming over from the mainland because they use it for homing.”
            He had heard such music on his radio as he drove to the center in the early morning hours. And a flight of B-17s had, in fact, been flying all the way from California and arrived in the midst of World War II.
            At 7:55 a.m., Dick Lewis, a Marine sergeant from my hometown, was relieving the guard on Ford Island.  He was standing at the end of the runway with three other Marines, all of whom had just returned from a few months in the Central Pacific building airstrips with the forward echelon of the Marine Air Wing.
            “I looked over my shoulder and saw these planes flying right at us,” Lewis told me in an interview that was later published in Leatherneck magazine. “I thought they were Army planes at first and wondered why they were flying maneuvers on Sunday morning. Then I noticed them meatballs on the wings and wondered why they covered up the stars on the bottom of the wings. That’s how dumb I was at first.    
            “Then I saw something coming out of the planes and didn’t know what it was that was hitting the airstrip and making fire jump off the runway. They were still quite a ways away from us, and pretty soon something went ‘Yiinnnggg,’ and I went end over end. I got a ricocheted bullet in my right shoulder. And I knew it was for real then.”
            For a short time, Lewis thought he’d lost his whole shoulder. Bleeding badly, he yanked off his dungaree jacket to get down to his undershirt and tore it off, then took his fingers and pushed the shirt into the hole to stop the bleeding. But his arm was hanging straight down and wouldn’t move. 
            “We’re under attack, boys!” Lewis shouted as the planes flew over. “This is the real thing.”
            He said they were on the other side of Ford Island about three miles from Battleship Row; smoke was billowing up over the hangers, and planes were burning right in from of them. Smoke was also beginning to billow up over the harbor.
            “Dadgoneit,” Lewis told me in the interview, “we knew the war was coming just as well as you and I are sitting here and know that it did happen. They sent us on out to Guam to build an airstrip, and then we went on to another island—I may be getting these islands mixed up—but we went on to Midway and helped build an airstrip on Eastern Island and got on ship and came back to Barber’s Point on the fourth or fifth of December. We came into Pearl Harbor and unloaded all our planes and things.”
            And so, the war did come. It raged on for 43 more months in the Pacific and in Europe. The world endured tremendous loss and destruction amid that horror—and witnessed a lot of courage and sacrifice, as well. What Pearl Harbor signals today is that the security of our world can be a precarious thing, and sometimes we must fight to preserve our freedom. But it also has a great cost.

November 26, 2017

The rules for teachers in 1872

During the summer and at the start of every school year when I was still teaching high school English and journalism, I reviewed lesson plans, saved magazine articles and newspaper stories, and filed away anything remotely connected to the classes I was teaching. Sometimes I used the material, but much of the time everything stayed in its original file folder, never to be used again, but I lugged the stuff with me every time I moved to a new town or school. 
            During the last few weeks, I’ve been going through my many files and cleaning them up. I still have difficulty throwing things away. But it’s been quite interesting revisiting those old files, yellowed newspaper clippings and magazine articles, and letters from former students and a host of others. And it has rekindled many memories.
            One clipping that I found most intriguing was, “Rules For Teachers 1872,” from an unknown source. The rules brought back one memory in particular: I had switched from a clinical psychology master’s program and working in a maximum-security prison to pursuing a master’s degree in English education and preparing to teach. I’d been compelled to be clean-shaven as an employee at the prison, so I grew long hair and a beard when I changed my grad school plans and was on campus at Southern Illinois University where no one said anything about my beard or the length of my hair.
            To student teach, though, I’d had my hair cut relatively short but kept the beard. Walking into class one evening just before leaving campus at the end of the quarter to student teach, the professor looked at me, smiled and asked, “Did you get the job, Ray?”
            Then the day I reported to the high school to student teach, the principal called me into his office and told me beards were not allowed in the school.
            “To student teach here, you must conform to community standards, “ he said after we exchanged small talk. “You can have the afternoon off to shave.”
            I knew to argue would be a battle I’d lose, so I reluctantly agreed.    “Is a mustache acceptable for the community standards?” I asked.
            “Oh, yes,” the principal said. “We have several prominent men in town with mustaches. No problem for you to have one.”
            So I went to a barbershop uptown and had my beard shaved but kept a long, extended mustache known as a “Fu Manchu.” The principal never commented on it, but my cooperating teacher wondered whether it was acceptable. The students approved.
            Times have changed from those days in many schools when male teachers weren’t allowed to have long hair or beard. The clip in my files went far beyond the no-beard rule, though, although beards apparently weren’t prohibited in 1872. Teachers in some schools back then were even required to “sign contracts which included the following ‘Rules for Teachers,’” according to the clip:
            1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
            2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
            3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
            4. Men teachers may take one evening a week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
            5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
            6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
            7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.      
            8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.
            9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be give an increase of 25 cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.
            After my student teaching days (when I did go to the barbershop for a shave), I don’t recall ever being told I couldn’t have a beard or long hair, or told what to wear—although it was still customary for male teachers to wear coats and ties.
            Some rules are obviously worth having if they help create a positive learning environment. I just don’t recall a list. And I’m not sure I would have taken too well to the lamp-filling, chimney-cleaning, pen-whittling life of a teacher in 1872.

September 24, 2017

Some thoughts about prisons and our responsibilities

“…And as a single leaf turns not yellow
but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong
Without the hidden will of you all.”
Kahlil Gibran
The Prophet

This excerpt from  “The Intruder” is from a book of 26 prose poetry fables by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1923, it is Gibran’s best-known work, has been translated in more than 40 different languages and has never been out of print.
          While Gibran has more to say about crime and punishment, he gets to the crux of the problem in this poem, which has long been my favorite and where the title of my recently published novel, “With The Silent Knowledge,” was taken.
          Growing up in this country, I’d always believed that the courts and the prisons were set up in the interest of society and to function for everyone’s welfare—for the accused and the convicted, as well for the victimized and the afflicted. With that in mind, I majored in psychology (and English) as an undergraduate and planned to go to grad school to become a clinical psychologist.
          But after a year as a “correctional counselor” in a maximum-security penitentiary, I developed a different perspective. Prison Riots, murders, rapes and myriad other heinous prison conditions no longer surprise me. 
           Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was reported to have used justice with mercy, mercy with wisdom, and the three with a balance that fit the circumstances. He was the kind of person I thought all judges should be—and were. It still bothers me all these years later that I fooled myself with this naive belief.
          Something in me still can’t accept that any American judge would ever send any redeemable man or woman to prison, if the judge realized what he or she was sending them into. Once there, the possibility of anyone ever being redeemed is less likely. 
          The chance for a crime-free life of redemption is more likely by keeping the felon in the community where the problem originated. That is not to say that I think violent and dangerous people should not be sent to prison. But since the community is part of the problem, as Gibran writes, we need to address the root causes of non-violent criminal behavior—poverty, stress, drug or alcohol addiction and abuse, lack of education, the family structure and more—and keep those offenders out of prison where they are educated with the “Big House” inmates’ mindset. 
          I have known many convicts in prison and many ex-convicts in the general population. And I can’t truthfully say that I have any personal knowledge of the prison experience, per se, ever instilling a single positive value in a person, although there are programs that reach a few. I can also truthfully say that I have no knowledge of the prison experience not disintegrating, if not stripping away the positive values a person may have when he or she enters. 
          However, we continue to send people to prison at an alarming rate. The prison population in Illinois, for example, has risen from about 10,000 to nearly 50,000 from the time I worked in one. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and results in negative societal and economic effects. 
          Much has been written about prison conditions, so we cannot claim ignorance. Judges and the communities have to be aware of and know what’s happening. And if we know, being an educated and caring people, all of us should collapse the prisons for many minor offenders by merely destroying their rotten foundations and work to solve the issues that have prompted the offenses.
          But I also know that’s wishful thinking on my part. It’s much easier to send offenders to prison to punish them and get them out of our sight rather than deal with the problems by providing educational opportunities, job training, therapy and other endeavors to promote learning to live in a society free and honorably. 
          We express concern over the fact that prisons are overcrowded. We express anger when a prison erupts into full-scale riot and guards are killed or injured—or the released felon kills someone or returns to the same life he or she left. But our society never, not even for a second, thinks the statistic of the recidivists failure is also the statistic of our failure, any more than the beliefs that the full and overcrowded prisons and the riots are the results of our failure. Or if it does, it doesn’t change anything. 
          I don’t know how long since it’s been since I started doubting the essential justice of man, but it seems like a long time ago. The Russian writer Dostoevsky said, “Man is a pliable animal, a being who gets accustomed to everything.” 
          That’s too bad in this case. Dostoevsky also said something to the effect that you can tell the quality of a society by looking at its prisons. You might want to take a look around you—he spent some time in a Siberian prison.