Category Archives: Culture

What We Reveal When Wearing a Face Covering, or Not!

      As our nation struggles to manage, mitigate, and survive the initial outbreak and the current devasting spike in COVID-19 cases, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place. We are at the “bottom of the heap” globally due to our leading the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths. In the midst of this public health crisis we seem to have lost our focus on who we are, or proclaim to be, as a people and a nation. We are floundering, failing, and flailing at one another! We have allowed our ideological idiosyncrasies – be they political, economic, religious, cultural, or racial – to overshadow our moral judgement and truths which our founding forebearers espoused to be “self-evident.” This is no more evident than in the current bickering, backbiting, and bad behavior associated with the face covering issue.5e7cded7ba85ee690669c204

       It would appear that the science and medical advice purports the benefits of wearing a face covering in lessening the spread of the virus, and thus, “flattening the curve” – a vital step in re-opening our economy and returning our social/community life to some semblance of a “new normal.” So why has wearing a face covering, or not, become such a flashpoint for debate, argument, and even violence. The face covering issue has become politicized. Perhaps this is subsequent to our President and his supporters refusing, against all medical advice, to wear one. Regrettably, and shamefully, the face covering has become one more wedge in our abhorrent practice of divisive politics.

     

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 Also, those opposed to wearing face mask often justify their position claiming rights of liberty and freedom. I get that! We Americans are a gritty lot, forever exalting our independence and railing against any intrusion or interruption thereof. But lest we forget, there are limits to our liberty. In his 1859 essay “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill defined liberty as “the limits that must be set on society’s power over individuals.” That’s good! Likewise, Mill also reminds us that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

     So, given the science and the medical advice, is it reasonable to infer that our government entities issuing orders to wear face coverings are well within the bounds of their responsibility to “prevent harm to others.” With this being the case, the refusal of some of our law enforcement agencies to enforce the face covering and penalty order would seem to be in direct opposition to their duty to uphold the rule of law and protect the citizenry from harm. What does it reveal about our society when individuals refuse to obey a lawful order, and when our law enforcement refuses to enforce that order? A governor’s executive order, though not a duly legislated statute, does carry the weight of law. Does a blatant disregard for the law border on anarchy?

     Putting political, liberty, and law questions aside, what is the bottom line to be considered when we are making the decision to wear, or not wear, a face covering in this time of global pandemic and monumental surges in the number of COVID-19 cases. Let’s remember the words and concepts found in our Declaration of Independence. Counted among our Creator endowed “unalienable Rights” are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Let’s not get hung up on liberty and happiness because, frankly, neither are viable options without life. Imagine rounding second and third base, heading for home plate, anticipating a homerun, but failing to tag first base! Again, science and the best medical knowledge available to us indicates that in our current situation wearing a face covering is fundamental to lessening the risk of spreading the virus.

     In wearing a face covering, we are choosing life – ours and our neighbors. In doing so we are practicing our belief in the self-evident truth that life is an unalienable right for all man(kind). In choosing to wear a face covering, or not, we are revealing a basic personal truth, not about politics, liberty, or the law but about the value, respect, and regard we have for life – all lives.  Our truth is written all over our face — covered or not!

 

“Oh, no!” Will We Move Forward?

 

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Main Entrance REL High School -Tyler, TX

My first thought upon seeing the actual buildings of our new high school while still under construction in the spring of 2019 was, Oh, no! This was not the emphatic Oh, no! in anticipation of stopping an action. This was the mystified Oh, no! accompanied by incredulity and a sense of sorrow and grief. I had seen aerial architectural renditions of the building months ago during the community debate over changing the name of the school and thought only, Wow! What an impressive building! Admittedly, I was disappointed on August 16, 2018, when the local school board failed to act on the name change proposal. Why was I not impressed with the actual structure now?DSC_0045

     What I saw now was an impressive building, but one somehow tainted. The architectural focal points of the structure are reminiscent of antebellum plantation homes constructed in the American South prior to the Civil War.  The neoclassical, antebellum “look” is clearly apparent in the grand pillared front entrance as well as the columned porticos adorning the four wings of the main building. Why was my Oh, no! accompanied by such a wave of incredulity and sorrow? This grand, new building conjuring up images of southern plantation life will continue to carry the name Robert E. Lee High School. The Robert E. Lee name is questionable enough in our current times. The name coupled with the architectural style of the building simply compounds the question. Have the taxpayers of Tyler ISD spent $94,584,548, yes, approximately $95 million dollars, on what could arguably be a memorial to the antebellum South and General Robert E. Lee?DSC_0044

     The greatest sorrow is not that our new Robert E. Lee High School invokes the most tragic portions of our national history – institutional slavery of African Americans and its many abuses. Not that we should forget that time in our history, indeed we need to remember, repent – “turn from (our racist) ways” – and seek reconciliation. The greatest sorrow regards our students. The current student demographic for Robert E. Lee High School is approximately 28% African American, 27% Hispanic, and 38% White. These students will be expected to attend, learn, and thrive as they walk through the doors and roam the corridors of an institution that seemingly memorializes the horrors, hostility, and hate of their ancestral histories.

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Antebellum Portico and Balcony

     Tyler, even as a small city in conservative East Texas, does not exist in isolation, and the national upheaval over systemic racism predicated by George Floyd’s senseless murder is felt here as well.  With this has come revitalized calls to change the name of our Robert E. Lee High School, the largest high school in the nation to still carry that name. At this time in our nation’s history there is so much racial hurt and strife, so much need to listen, to support, and seek to understand (as much as possible for us white folks) our African American friends, neighbors, and family members, so much need for racial reconciliation.

     Tyler is known for its “quiet racism.” However, Robert E. Lee High School has been the flash point of some not so quiet and contentious community and legal racial wrangling from its opening in 1958 as an all-white school, to its court ordered integration in 1970, to the  fallout surrounding its “Rebel” mascot and Confederate symbols that was finally mitigated through court and Texas Education Agency intervention in 1972. The mascot and symbols were changed; however, in opposition to urgings from black parents and students the local board refused to change the name just as they did recently in 2018. DSC_0044

     And, here we are again!  I can think of no better action to exemplify our desire for racial reconciliation than to remove the Robert E. Lee name from our school. Hopefully, this time our community with open minds, eyes, ears, and hearts will be able to move forward along “the arc of the moral universe (as) it bends toward justice” and human compassion.

“Black Boy” . . . in America

   

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2001 Edition

 I was finishing Richard Wright’s 1945 groundbreaking memoir, Black Boy, when the news broke of George Floyd’s death. I was horrified, incredulous even as I watched the appalling video. How could and why would anyone keep an unarmed, handcuffed (behind his back) man pinned to the ground with a knee on his throat even as he pleaded that he could not breathe and was in pain? I don’t know that there is any acceptable answer. The events of the day and Richard Wright’s story of growing up black in the Jim Crow South set me to wondering Have we made any meaningful progress in the past 100 years?

1993 ed

1998 Edition

     In Wright’s story he states that “. . .a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died.” As post World War I racial conflict flared in the South, he recognizes that “A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination.” As a ten-year old Wright listened to stories of violence against blacks and reports “Nothing challenged the totality of my personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites.” Wright’s story offers some sense of what it was, perhaps still is, like growing up a “black boy” in America. Admittedly as a white woman, I could never fully understand or appreciate his feelings or life experiences.

     On the surface we have made some positive strides toward racial equality and equity. We no longer see the signs at water fountains, restrooms, or business establishments designating which is accessible for “White” or “Colored.” Our schools are integrated and open to all races, if not in reality at least in theory and public policy. Yet there remains an undercurrent of racial segregation and inequality in the most vital of our societal structures – such as our neighborhoods, our places of worship, our educational and job opportunities. We see disproportionate amounts of poverty and violence among African Americans. Many hearts and minds have been opened and awakened to the racial disparities in our society and are compelled to speak out and work for change in these vital areas that impact the future and well-being of all our people, our society, and our nation.

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2007 Edition: 100th Anniversary of Wright’s Birth

     Even so racial prejudice, both explicit and implicit, and violence targeting African Americans has always and tragically continues to be alive and well in our society. From the “terror lynchings” of the Civil War, post-Civil War, and Jim Crow eras to the murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd, and most recently Aubrey Ahmad private citizens have committed acts of violence against African Americans for no apparent reason other than racial hatred. Most recently, we have seen seemingly senseless deaths of African American men at the hands of our police – those who have pledged to “never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.” We all remember Michael Brown and Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, and now George Floyd in Minneapolis.

     It would seem that regardless of our positive strivings, racism – racial strife, hatred, and violence – continues among us. I am reminded of Wright’s words:

“… both of us, the white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though we were being guided by instinct. All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions.”

   

75th Ann

2020 75th Anniversary Ed

     Let’s listen more and better. Let’s hear the words of Richard Wright and our African American neighbors. Let’s strive to understand, appreciate, and affirm one another. Let’s take action and make more meaningful progress in breaking the bonds of our “traditional racial roles” and crumble the “sharp concrete” between races.

     Perhaps this can best be done by expanding on and living out a couple of Wright’s insights. In spite of the “place” the white South had assigned him, he states emphatically that “It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being,” and that no word he had ever heard “made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity.” God help us to claim and boldly live out our belief that all men are created equal and by the mere fact of their humanity all men are worthy.
   

 And, let’s  follow Wright’s lead and keep hope alive in us “by imagining a place where everything was(is) possible.”

 

 

 

 

Walking. . . and Walking!

DSC_0083In these uncertain, sometimes surreal, times as we continue to navigate this uncharted coronavirus, so much in our lives is different. I strive to maintain some constancy and familiarity with my daily walks. Walking is one thing I can continue to do without violating any stay-at-home orders or wearing a face mask (I can’t seem to keep my glasses from fogging up!) all while accommodating the social distancing rule. So, I walk, and I walk some more!

I tune into Pandora on my phone and take off. Occasionally I dial in my Disco Station particularly if I feel the need for a brisker, aka workout, walk. Most of the time I opt for the quieter, soothing sounds of Relaxation Radio or Enya. Of late, my walking is more about seeing, reflecting, pondering, processing, and meditating. The exercise, albeit a good thing, is not the primary focus.

DSC_0025As I walk, I look up, around, and down practicing wakefulness in the moment, resting in the rhythms of connection to myself and my surroundings. I see the squirrel perched precariously at the tip-end of a tiny limb. How does it not break! I see and hear the dogs barking and jumping at the fence as I pass. I don’t think, I hope, they can’t jump over it! I see the steadfast sky, serene and majestic in its brilliant blue or ominous and quarrelsome dripping gray. The stalwart lilies and irises turn their DSC_0069vivid, multicolored faces to the sun. I see the sap rising in the trees oozing out in variegated green leaves of all shapes and sizes – a gorgeous contract against the blue sky. I feel the warm, spring sun tempered by a slight, cool breeze. I delight in seeing the youngsters on their bicycles and scooters.DSC_0050

I reflect. It is all so good, so joyous! I ponder the contrast between the vibrance and beauty around me and the devasting reality currently engulfing our world – sickness, death, hunger, uncertainty. Added to this is the personal grief and loss with the recent death of my twelve-year old great-niece. The angst is palpable! I walk. I process. I embrace the both/and of my realities. I walk meditating. Borrowing from our Buddist friends, I lean into the sharp point, feeling the pain and losses for myself, my family, and the world. Yes, at times the tears  do come. I breathe exhaling the pain. I breathe in the serenity, comfort, and peace that surrounds me. I keep walking.

DSC_0062This morning as I walked, I thought about Jesus and how much he and his disciples walked. I imagined their sandeled feet steadily walking the dusty roads, cobbled streets, and  lush gardens. I wonder what their walks were like. I kept walking!

 

Dan Patrick may be “All In,” But This Granny is NOT!

        DSC_0019I am a grandmother, and despite our Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s claims, I am NOT willing to sacrifice my life for the economy so that my grandchildren, whom I love dearly, can keep “the America that all America loves.”  My unwillingness is not due to a fear of death; however, as my longtime friend, Father Tom Jackson, says, “I am not afraid to die; it’s the dying that scares the hell out of me!”  If the situation were a matter of true life or death, of course I would stand in for my grandchildren. But for the economy – no way! Patrick’s comments are abhorrent from the mere perspective of placing greater priority and value on the economy over the value of life and family. I get what the coronavirus is doing to our economy. The impact on the marketplace, our means of livelihood, and our workers is and will continue to be calamitous creating hardships for millions of folks, in some cases dire hardships.

          We, as a people and a nation, have endured periods of difficulty and hardship throughout our history and have come out on the other side stronger, i.e. the Great Depression, 1918 flu pandemic, two world wars, 9/11. There is no reason to think differently in this instance, unless years of relative ease have weakened our resolve and warped our individual and national character. Moreover, were us grannies willing to be sacrificed to save the economy, “the America that all America loves,” what would our grandchildren miss out on. For some reason Mark 8:36 comes to mind: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

          Now I don’t know that our grandchildren would lose their souls, but I do believe they would stand to lose a lot. One loss, definitely the presence of loving grandparents. Granny and Pawpaw (or whatever you call them) offer wisdom, stability, safety, and fun. Some research indicates that children who have an emotional closeness to grandparents are happier and less prone to depression as adults. There is a reason that humans are the only species (a few whales excepted) that have grandparents.IMG_0098 2

          What else might our grandchildren lose if they were to live undaunted in the economy, consumerism, and comfort of “the America that all America loves.”  Opportunity, perhaps? Opportunity that often comes in the disguise of adversity. Though hardship is difficult, I hope with the encouragement, guidance, and love of parents, grandparents, and a supportive community that my grandchildren would be able to endure the hardship and rise above it through perseverance, sacrifice, and a strong work ethic. I like what Washington Irving has said:

          “There is in every true woman’s (man’s) heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”

           My hopes and prayers are that our grandchildren’s hearts would “beam and blaze” courage, tenacity, ingenuity, compassion, honesty, and integrity in the midst of any future adversity.  Billy Graham reminds us that “Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.” To shield our grandchildren from hardships robs them of opportunities – for loving, for learning, for character growth – opportunities to enrich their lives and the world.  I don’t want my grandchildren to miss any opportunities!  

            Lt. Governor Dan Patrick may be “All in.” with risking Granny and Pawpaw’s lives to keep the economy from falling, but this granny is most definitely NOT — especially for the sake of the grandkids. 

“. . . reverence humming in me.”

photo-1520637388405-3a2a895efd2a I recently started participating in a book study.  It is a diverse group of good folks –christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever — each on a journey of personal spiritual growth. Like me, they seem to be pilgrims, seekers, and heretics – awash in questions and doubts, deconstructing former concepts and beliefs, constructing personal truths and unique spiritual paths, — staying the course with authenticity and integrity in our often chaotic intersections with the world we live in, the life inhabiting that world, and the Spirit/God embodied in both the world and its inhabitants.

We are studying Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Much of our first discussion centered around Jane Fonda’s remarks made during a 2007 interview with Rolling Stonemagazine, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” Do you have a sense of “reverence humming” and “What is it?” My response to that question was to share a bit of my winter hike expereince. Hiking along an ice and snow laden trail I was bent, literally and figuratively, on keeping my eyes on the trail, following exactly in my hiking buddy’s footprints, and cautiously testing every step for firmness. I finally had to stop and straighten my aching, bent back.

As I looked up, my breath caught. The towering, red-rock canyon walls glistened in the bright, cold afternoon sun. They jutted straight up into a flawless, cobalt blue sky. “Wow, look at that!” was all I could utter. As I stood there taking it all in, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverence. My heart was full and overflowed as tears filled my eyes. That, for me, was “reverence humming in me.” It was an experience I will never forget, and one which I frequently recall on hiking trails and elsewhere as I remind myself to “look up.”

Since that experience 28 years ago, I have (I think, I hope, but maybe not?) become more open, receptive, and settled to and into the various sounds, rhythms and vibrations of “the hum.” Never used the word “humming” to describe it, but I like Ms. Fonda’s analogy. “Hum” seems to give some substance to an otherwise intangible, indescribable feeling.

Where does the “humming” come from? For me, at this point in my journey, it comes from a sense of awareness, connection, and gratitude. A keen awareness of the mystery, the miracle, the love, the grace, the wisdom and truth of the of Spirit of God present in our world. A profound sense that I am connected to it all — a part of it, a product of it, a participant in it. And grateful for it all!

Here’s and idea!  Let’s all “hum” in concert!!

Garbage, Gardening, and Violence

Note: In light of the violent events of this past week, my thoughts have returned to the subject of violence in our society and this post that I wrote months ago but never published.

It is odd indeed that though I sit here in the peace of my private sanctuary, the quiet disturbed only by the hum of the ancient furnace and the tick of the clock, my thoughts keep going to “Violence.”  Now why is that? I know, yet I have not succumbed and given “power and time” to my experience and restive thoughts on the subject. I suppose I must do that now if I am to know the peace of this place.

Several weeks ago I went to the movies. I rarely go to the movies, but I wanted to see “On the Basis of Sex,” the dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s journey into law and the beginning of her herculean efforts toward securing gender equality in our society. The movie was good; I highly recommend it. However, before I could watch the movie I was subject to a barrage of awful, loud previews full of angry, hateful, vindictive, and violent characters in multiple scenes of gun battles, fiery bomb explosions, sinister death plots, and human hurt and tragedy. “Cold Pursuit” is cold indeed, and “Serenity” is anything but serene. I was particularly aghast with the final words of the female lead in “Miss Bala.” She said as she cocked her gun, “in the end the bullet settles everything.” REALLY!! 

It would appear that evil, crime, and subsequent violence are ever more the focus of our entertainment avenues regardless of modality—film, the printed word, video games. I could site a few James Patterson or David Baldacci works, but I won’t right now. I ponder the oft-posed conundrum, “Do our movies and literature (I use that term loosely and hesitantly.) reflect our society’s ways and mores, or do they influence and direct them? Yep, it’s the chicken and the egg question –which comes first? 

Maybe it’s like garbage? For example: There is some garbage on the street, and we fail to pick it up and post “No Littering” signs to let everyone know that littering is not congruent with our values. Consequently, the littering continues and the garbage piles up.  We become accustomed to the garbage – it’s unsightly mess, it’s putrid stench. It’s now the norm. Everyone expects it.  What is there to do? Well, thankfully we saw the inherent harm in open garbage piles/pits and collectively sought to finds ways to safely dispose of it. Kinda, sorta! It is still an issue we must continue to address. 

Just like our garbage, our societal violence is a moral issue complicated even more so by issues of mental health, socio-economic status, race, and stunted emotional growth and expression just to name a few. We seek to stem the tide with police action, punishment, and some limitations on guns and gun ownership, yet the incidence of violence continues to be alarming in our country. According to the Gun Violence Archives, in 2018 in the US alone there were 57,084 incidents of gun violence resulting in 14,712 deaths and 28,170 injuries. Of this total 3,501 were children and teens under 17 years old. Not included in these numbers are the 22,000 suicides by gun in 2018.

Back to the movies! I don’t think debate or a philosophical ponderance over what came first societal violence or movie violence is particularly helpful at this point. More important questions are Where do we want to go from here? and How do we get there?  I think we all know what we want, at least I hope we all want it, and that is a peaceful society where differences are settled through understanding by way of conversation and compromise.  Sorry, “Miss Bala.” We want words and moral action, not bullets, to have the last word. That’s the end game. Maybe a first play would be taking a moral stand against violent entertainment. Yes, violence is present in our society, but does that mean we want it reflected and glorified in our movies and literature.  And what does it say about our society when we turn to violence for entertainment? With our violent “entertainment” are we flirting with the old acumen, “garbage in-garbage out,” and contributing to the perpetuation of that which we do not want?

I know our movies are not the root of our violence problems, but couldn’t we do something to start shoveling up the “garbage” and posting “No Littering” signs? Maybe some violence pruning? In gardening we know that if too much is pruned off the top of a plant, the system is disturbed and it will die if not tended to properly. Let’s prune some things — our violent entertainment — off the top. Maybe the pruning will weaken our system of societal violence while we continue working to remedy the root causes of our violence problem.  Let’s use our words to speak up about and against specific media—movies, books, video games – that portray and glorify violence. Cast your protest against violence at the cash register and ticket booth. Refuse to partake of the “garbage” and encourage others not to. Let your local cinemas know of your opposition to violent movies. Use your social media – Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, etc. – to broadcast information on unacceptable violent content and urge “friends” to join you in protest. Organize a flash mob during the local screening of a violent movie. Call your governmental representatives and urge them to pass sensible gun legislation. 

Above all, let’s practice non-violence in our daily walk treating everyone with dignity and respect. 

Paying Attention in the Spirit of Mary Oliver!

Going Upstream with Mary Oliver

In her recent Baptist News Global piece, Hidden pencils, urgent warnings and instructions Mary Oliver left the Church, Carol Davis Younger offered a lovely tribute to poet, Mary Oliver, and an insightful exhortation to the church to approach “Scripture – and our world – with the holy curiosity and expectancy Oliver did when she went to the woods and to the shore.” As Younger shared her experience with Upstream, I caught my breath and embraced the mutuality of our stories, our experiences, and perhaps our feelings – Mary Oliver’s, Younger’s, and mine. 

I too became better acquainted with Mary Oliver through her collected essays in Upstream. I was drawn to the book, so much so that I paid full, independent bookstore price for it. Something I rarely ever do! I had admired Mary Oliver as a poet and was curious as to her prose. Being a woods wanderer and stream jumper, the title Upstream, and its connotation of going against the flow, which I often do, piqued my interest. The cover photo looked like a place I would enjoy.  I fully understand Younger’s response to the essay, “Power and Time.” As I read the essay, I felt that I was personally being both affirmed and admonished. I am keenly aware that my creative self needs solitude, a place apart, without interruptions. Oliver buoyed my spirit with her affirmation of this then promptly admonished me for being my own primary interrupter.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? –Upstream, page 23

For me it says that I need to attend this civic meeting, that I should give my wife more time and attention, that I must do my share of home maintenance. Returning to the creative work often finds that the spark of an idea has dimmed and the flow of words has dried up. In the creative work we can be, and probably are, our worst impediment. 

Oliver tells me that the “machinery of creativity” can’t be controlled or regulated. I believe it! More times than I want to recount I have awakened in the wee hours of the morning with an idea or a string of narrative going through my head. Over time, I have learned it is best that I go ahead, drag myself out of bed, and write it down for I will not be able to sleep if I don’t. 

For me, as perhaps for Anderson, Oliver’s most unsettling words are:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time. — Upstream, page 30

I most assuredly will join Anderson as a “candidate for future regret” as I see a bouquet of withered buds of exciting ideas and plans that failed to blossom because I did not nurture them with power and time. I suppose my task going forward is to recognize the tiny buds of creative thoughts and ideas and give them their needed power and time. I suspect it will be an erratic path even in all my efforts to “keep my eyes on eternity,” reject the responsibilities that have claimed me, and discard the “many heavy coats” that burden. 

My prayer, with a bit of assist from Mary Oliver, as I move forward is:

In my wild and precious life
May I stay forever in the stream.
May I pay attention and find my devotion.
May I be astonished at the profound simplicity of our natural
         world,
Even as I marvel at its intricate complexities.
May I be humbled by its majesty.
May I revere the fruit of the earth-the grass, the flower, the tree.
May I respect the creature — the minuscule and the mighty.
May I glorify the Creator of it all and be grateful.
May I hear the silence that calls to me.
May I feel the rippling waters.
May I stay forever in the stream.
Whether with voice or pen in hand, may I tell about it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Our Leaders Fail to Lead

I sat in the Tyler ISD School Board meeting last night anticipating a vote and a decision that I would support–whatever the outcome–out of respect for the leadership and authority of the school board. I came away incredulous! The motion to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School and begin the new name selection process was followed by stony silence. The board president reminded the members that seconding a motion did not infer or require an affirmative vote. More silence from the dais and the crowd of approximately 100 citizens. The motion was allowed to die for lack of a second. What was going on? In the July board meeting, just two weeks previous, board members had expressed frustration with continued focus on the name change issue and rejected the ideas of more community input meetings or a subcommittee for further study. Instead, they urged an up or down vote on whether to change the name as a means to bring closure one way or another to the entire issue. I was not the only one bewildered after the board’s refusal to allow a vote in this special meeting called for that purpose. Though not the movie setting, “dazed and confused” would be an apt descriptor for many faces in the crowd.

Approximately a year ago after the incident surrounding the controversy of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, a grassroots effort focused on changing the name of the south Tyler Robert E. Lee High School sprouted and grew. Equally as quickly a counter group took root, and Tyler, once again was a divided community. More accurately the racial tensions that have long remained lumps under Tyler’s beautiful public carpet of roses and azaleas were exposed. The carpet was ripped up and the dust flew!

In September 2017 board members initially signaled support for a name change with one member asking, “Is it fair to make African-American students attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” Another stated in reference to the name change, “This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” and urged the board to “do the right thing. . . It’s time for a change.” So what happened? What changed in eleven months?aid1378688-v4-728px-Form-a-Board-of-Directors-Step-1

Unfortunately as the year progressed, the public and, I can only assume, the private discourse was not always civil and respectful. Dueling Facebook groups logged on and petitions swirled. Honestly, when I saw some of the posts, my heart broke and I thought, Oh, no, no! Let’s not go there! Attendance at school board meetings skyrocketed. Items regarding the name change issue were on the official board agenda four times during the past year. Approximately 150 to 200 citizens made public comments at these and other board meetings with the numbers for and against the change fairly equal. Needless to say, it was at times ugly.

Yes, the nature and tenor of the discourse changed.  It became louder, more fractured, less civil, and at times plummeted to accusation and name-calling. Regrettably, some folks on both sides allowed their emotions and passions to cloud and disrupt their reason and respect. Interestingly, as the board members spoke moments prior to the “vote, but no vote,” their primary focus, with a couple of exceptions, was on the community. They expressed, sometimes loudly, their disapproval and disappointment in the process and chastised folks for the divisiveness, the disrespect, the lack of courtesy and civility. They argued that the name change issue was a political and social issue and not germane to the function of the board—to focus on successful student outcomes. They took offense to this issue “being forced upon the board” and “the predicament that we have been placed in.” They argued that a name change would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved a bond to construct and renovate John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School and changing the name was equated to a “bait and switch” scheme. (Note: The actual proposition on the May 6, 2017 Official Ballot-Bond Election did not include the names of the two high schools.)

What I found even more interesting and unsettling was that again, with only a few exceptions, the board members did not talk about what they believed would be the impact of a name change or no name change on current or future students. Although they espoused their focus as a board was to work toward positive, successful student outcomes, I did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a negative/positive impact on student achievement because. . .”  I also did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a positive/negative impact on our community because. . .” Logically, every issue before the board should be viewed through the lens of how will this impact student outcomes/achievement. How will it impact our community as a whole and thus our community of students? With few exceptions specific answers to these vital questions were not a large part of the board members’ discussion at this or any previous meeting to my knowledge.

Maybe, to the detriment of all, some in the community allowed their emotions to guide their discourse, and in the end, perhaps the majority of the board members did as well. As school board members and leaders of the community, they failed to lead. They failed to remain objectively focused on the issue—a school name change—and how that change would or would not impact student outcomes, now and in the future. Granted, it is a difficult, highly charged, emotional issue with prospects for a general consensus being very bleak even in the process of extended civil discourse. Surely, the board members knew this. Also, I would hope they knew when they ran for office that there would be times of difficult decisions, contentious personalities, unhappy people, and they could possibly, most probably, at some point be the target of someone’s ill-temper.

The community expected a vote. The board members had lead folks to believe that they wanted a vote, a decision. Why didn’t it happen? Why did our leaders fail to lead? I have my ideas, which are purely speculative and probably, for now, are best kept to myself. As I left the board meeting amidst the dazed and confused, I heard various descriptors–cowards, shameful, no moral courage, gutless. Well, I don’t know about all that. I do believe, in this instance they failed to rise above the fray, maintain their focus on the best possible student outcomes, measure the issue through that lens, and vote on a difficult issue. On this occasion, they failed to lead. One board member stated prior to the “vote, no vote” that no matter what the board had done up until this point this is how they’re going to be remembered. Unfortunately, I believe he is correct!

 

 

 

 

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