Category Archives: Diversity

We are Breaking or Broke! Why?


UnknownIn my recent reading of My Beloved World, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, I halted at this statement:

Was it so hard to see himself in the other man’s shoes? I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down:  people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view.


61BP89uLAbL._SX380_BO1,204,203,200_As an elementary school counselor, I read How Do I Stand in Your Shoes to my third-grade students. I introduced the story by presenting the children with an assortment of shoes and allowing them to speculate on who might wear each shoe and what their life might be like. The room always filled with “Oooh’s” and “Wow’s” when I pulled out my uncle’s size 16 house shoes. The lesson was not about shoes, but about empathy and how we can learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes and try to understand and feel how they are feeling in any given circumstance. Sotomayor had her revelation in 1969. I was teaching my third graders in 2001-2010.Unknown-2

      It is 2020, and Sotomayor was correct in her understanding of 51 years ago. Our society seems to be breaking down, if not already broke. Why? We don’t seem to be able to, or refuse to, empathize – to imagine someone else’s point of view and understand their feelings as if they were our own. If we can’t empathize with someone, then we can’t feel or even identify with how they might be feeling.  The “Golden Rule” – we are to treat others the way we would want to be treated – is often asserted as the guide for our actions toward others. But if we can’t put ourselves in the other person’s situation and feel what he/she might be feeling then how can we be expected to discern how we would want to be treated in that situation and act accordingly.

    getty_614212068_370098 Without empathy, we have lost our guide in making just and compassionate choices in our behavior. Without empathy, we become susceptible to indifference, apathy, and lack of concern for others’ well-being. Without empathy, the spark that informs our humanity is snuffed out.  Without empathy the bridges needed to traverse the chasms of race, culture, religion, and nationality for the enhancement of our greater good are absent – simply not there. Our sense of community is based on empathy, and without empathy our communities crumble. Our communities are the foundation of our nation.

      Even a cursory glance at today’s news headlines – our racial and cultural divisions, our divisive political atmosphere, our petty bickering over issues that should not be argued – illustrate how we, as a society and nation, are breaking or broke. Granted, there is the occasional oasis – oasis whose foundation is empathy – imagining the other person’s point of view and understanding how they are feeling. We have seen teenagers organizing food deliveries for seniors, a 12-year old play his trumpet for weary medical workers, nurses volunteering to serve in Covid hotspots, and moms and grandmothers joining peaceful Black Lives Matters protest. 

      This gives me hope! Hope that these and others of us showing empathy, modeling empathy for others, and nurturing empathy in others will be the incubators for more empathy among us all and the glue that holds our beloved world — breaking or broke — back together.

  

“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.”

 

 

 

 

“. . . 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!!

Turn This World Around

I tugged several of my old college literature anthologies from the bottom bookshelf yesterday. No, not to do any serious study, but to use as weight for a gluing project! A paper filled with my handwriting fell from one of the books. The writing was in verse form, so I thought perhaps an old poem I had written and tucked away.  I have a tendency to do that – start a writing project and put it away not to be found until years later, if at all. But this was not my “writing.” It was the lyrics to an old Amy Grant song, “Turn This World Around.” Apparently the song had some special meaning for me in 1997 since I had taken the time and effort to record the lyrics. The song was included in her Behind The Eyes album released in September 1997 and written by Amy Grant, Beverly Darnall, and Keith Thomas.

Reflecting back on my 1997, in and of itself, it was not a good year, and September was particularly difficult. It was a year of losses and reversals in every area of life – professional, relationship, financial, and health. I could certainly relate to the melancholic melody and many passages in the lyrics of “Turn This World Around.” I was living in the midst of “broken promises and dreams” even as I struggled to carry on “in good disguise.” I needed “somewhere safe and warm” and was thankful for the shelter of friends during this stormy time in my life. I had to “turn and face (my) fears”– the fear of more losses and rejection from family, friends, and the church as I began to acknowledge my same-sex orientation after decades of living in hiding and pretense. I learned to “reach out through (my) tears” and discovered “it’s really not that far to where Hope can be found.”

After finding the paper I dug through my old CD’s. I found it! I had bought it which was something I rarely did. As I listened I recalled the solace and encouragement I had found in other songs in the album such as “I Will Be Your Friend,” “It Takes a Little Time,” Missing You,” and “Somewhere Down the Road.” Today I look at this decades old piece of paper, read these words, and am thankful for how my world was turned around in 1997, albeit after it was turned upside down. Today I hear a more universal and much needed message for our world. The message that behind our eyes “we are all the same it seems.” We all want to be safe and warm and find shelter with others through the storms of our lives. We all need to face our fears and reach out to the other in the midst of suffering—ours and theirs. It is the reaching out and acknowledging the “hunger and longing” that we all know inside that “could be the bridge between us if we tried.”

We all know our world needs to turn around. We are headed in the wrong direction. Look no further than the death and destruction resulting from the numerous and lengthy armed conflicts throughout the world. Grasp the magnitude  of gun violence, the global refugee crisis, increased human trafficking, and world hunger levels rising. We are the world! Only we, working individually and corporately with one another throughout our communities, cities, states, provinces, districts and countries, can turn this world around. Maybe one day we will turn and see behind the eyes of all our brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity and see our sameness, reach out to one another, and experience the will and kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, maybe one day – maybe in this New Year!

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!

 

 

 

 

An Open Letter: Tyler ISD School Board (and Citizens)

Dear School Board Members:

I was glad to see the news that a vote on the school name change is on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday, August 6. I realize this has been a very difficult and divisive issue for our community and to some extent the school board.  I agree, it is time for the board to vote on the issue and for our community to commit to respectfully abide by the board’s decision.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations fraught with highly charged emotions and opinions with folks unlikely to come to any general consensus even in the process of an extended civil discourse and dialogue. It truly saddens me that our community’s discourse on this issue was not always civil or respectful. Thus, you seven, as members of the school board, are tasked with making a decision which will have a significant and lasting impact on our students, both current and future, and on our community as a whole. I respect your leadership and your courage as you do this, knowing that whatever decision you make, there will be those who will not be pleased.

As you consider your individual decisions, I sincerely hope that you come to the conclusion that a name change, particularly the Robert E. Lee name, is in the overall best interest of our students and community. I believe a name change would:

  • assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and  ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement. This is our ultimate goal—student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to the well being of all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.

In all honesty with you, I think it is unfortunate that General Lee’s name has become such a lightning rod for issues of race in our country, but it has and that is the reality in which we must live and make our decisions. In light of this reality I think it would be unwise to carry the Lee name forward into our new school. Let’s take advantage of our new school situation and move forward with “a brand new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19) 

I ask each of you to vote in favor of the name change. As leaders in our community, your making a unanimous vote would be a model of unity for our community and influential in promoting community healing and reconciliation. After a vote to change the name, it would be my hope that a diverse group of stakeholders—community members, school representatives, students, parents—would be tasked to come together and begin the process of new name selection and determining an appropriate means to remember and recognize the school’s history. . Perhaps this process can be the mechanism for community reconciliation—a coming together and discussing shared hopes and visions for our students, schools, and community. We have spent a year focusing on our disagreement, which never brings forth a solution. With your leadership, our community can turn its focus to the future and all the possibilities of this brand new thing. 

Thank you for your service and dedication to excellence in education for all our Tyler students. I want you to know that I will respectfully abide by whatever decision the board makes on this issue and encourage others to do so. During my 38 years in education and counseling I always told my students that it was okay, and sometimes even understandable, if they did not like the rules or decisions made by their parents or teachers, and they were expected to respect the authority represented by their parents and teachers by abiding by the rules and decisions. I see this situation as somewhat similar. You, as the board, are the current elected leaders of our district and vested with the authority to make rules and decisions for the district. I hope and pray that once your decision is made Monday evening that all the good folks of Tyler ISD will respectfully accept your decision, come together, and continue to work toward providing our students with the excellent educational opportunities they deserve.

Respectfully

Brenda McWillaims

bmc1105@gmail.com
www.psheretic.wordpress.com

“We will honor creation and human life together, across religions, nations, and cultures, or we will perish together.  Treat life as Sacred!  This is God’s command—to all humanity.  The response is up to all of us.”

From: The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee

 

A Brand New Thing!

Again, it is 3:04 am, and I have been awake for an hour with these thoughts banging around in my head. So I might as well get up and write it down. I am not one to bandy around scripture, and in this instance I feel a bit compelled. In doing so I claim Matthew 10:27

What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roof!

Day before yesterday seemingly out of the blue a portion of scripture popped into my head, “I am going to do a brand new thing.” I immediately associated that with our current local issue regarding changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I let a day rock on and the scripture kept coming up so I looked it up. Literally, I googled it as I have a hard time holding on to chapter and verse. Isaiah 43:18-19 

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland. (New International Version)

 I found it interesting that when I went to my Bible(s) these verses were marked with dates and notes. Apparently, I had been here before—learning to let go of the old and letting God do a new thing.

At any rate, I see some application for the verses in our current REL issue as most of the arguments in favor of keeping the name center around our personal memories and traditions of the school. “It is our heritage!” claimed one proponent of saving the name. I agree! It is our heritage, and we will fondly remember some of our high school experiences and traditions. Also, it is time to turn from focusing on our history and heritage and begin looking forward to this “new thing.” The new school under construction “springs up” even now. It is time to turn from our heritage and focus on our future legacy. It is time to ask, “What will be our legacy, our bequest to future generations and our community?” In answering that question, let’s begin to truly “perceive” all the possibilities of this “new thing” this “brand new thing?” (The Living Bible)

We know the deeper context of Isaiah 43—man’s rebellion and God’s redemptive grace—has universal application. I find verses 5-7 somewhat, maybe particularly, relevant to our current circumstances. Apparently, the people have become divided and scattered, but God says he will bring them from the east and the west. He will command the north and the south to “Give them up! Do not hold them back.” Sons will come from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth. To me that sounds a bit like unification and reconciliation.

Have we become a divided and scattered people? Do we need unity and reconciliation? Could this turning from the old and moving forward with this “brand new thing” possibly be a step on our way through the desert, the wilderness? I don’t know! I only ask the questions. My personal answer is “Yes!” because I certainly don’t want to thwart or hinder the possibilities of this “brand new thing”—new school with a brand new name.

Perhaps, if we harden not our hearts and let the better angels of our nature be our guide we will come to experience all the possibilities of this “brand new thing.” Through and in it all let us remember Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection,”

 

 

 

 

Tyler ISD: Remembering Recent History and Moving Forward

I was awake before 4 am this morning with these thoughts banging around in my head. I could not go back to sleep so I got up and wrote them down. 

Tyler ISD: Remembering Recent History and Moving Forward

I want to review a bit of history, not the history of decades ago that has been the focus of much of this name change discussion, but more recent history.  Beginning in 2004 Tyler ISD began a phased trajectory of building improvements. Bonds were passed in 2004, 2008, 2013, and the most recent in 2017. To date, through the leadership of our forward thinking school boards and our citizens’ commitment to quality education for all our students, we have built, replaced, or renovated 13 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one career and technology center. We are in the process of remodeling and making additions to our two high schools, which in the case of REL High School is tantamount to a new school. With the completion of the high school projects, our community will have invested $579 million in schools for our current and future students – Tyler’s future! 

Austin_NewBuild2

T. J. Austin Elementary School

Tyler ISD student achievement is also on the rise. Twenty-three of 25 campuses met the state standard for accountability in 2017. The number of TISD campuses rated “improvement needed” has declined rapidly from a high of 14 in 2014 to only 2 campuses in 2017. The leadership of our board, the efforts of our administrators, faculties, and staffs, the hard work of our students, and the support of our community are moving Tyler ISD forward into a better future. Good things are happening in TISD!

It has not always been a smooth course. A bond attempt failed in 2010. The school board took considerable flack about the design and appearance of the new school buildings. I think some of us will remember the “Taj Mahal” conversations and the criticisms for spending tax dollars on such grand building facades. If I remember correctly, in defending and promoting the building designs the board argued that they were to:  

  • project a positive, appealing image for the school and community.
  • assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and  ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area. 

All were valid arguments then and are still valid arguments today.

moore

Moore Middle School

Now as we ponder the name change for Robert E. Lee High School, let’s keep our recent history in mind, continue to be forward thinking, and focus on our goal — meeting the needs of our Tyler community by providing a quality education for our students, those of today and in the decades to come. I believe changing the name of REL would be a grand step in striving toward that goal. This is an opportune time to make the change. We have a new school so let’s find a new name that is a better reflection of the student body and the image we want for Tyler moving forward.

I know that an item to change the name to Lee High School has been placed on the board’s agenda for this Monday’s meeting. This is touted as a “compromise.” My questions at this point are “Do we really want to compromise where our students’ education and best interest are concerned? Do we want to compromise with regard to our best hopes for our community’s future? Did we compromise and scale down the grand designs as our building projects continued? I think a quick look at our new Career and Technology Center answers a resounding  “No!” to these questions.

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TISD Career and Technology Center

Will the change to Lee High School bring any recognition for Dorothy Lee, a Tyler community leader and a staunch advocate for education and equality?  If not, my next question, “Then why compromise now?” Why have we moved from making courageous, difficult decisions for the best interest of our schools, students, and community–as we did with our building designs–to compromising in the hopes of what–appeasing the masses, quieting difficult public discourse, political expediency, avoiding a public stance (vote) on a controversial issue?  

I have heard those opposing a name change speak of REL as their heritage. REL is part of my heritage as well. I began my 38-year career in education student teaching at REL under Kay Andrews. My sons graduated from REL. I remember great times at football games, band and chorale activities, booster meetings, and even working the concessions. I fondly and firmly hold on to my REL memories and traditions. Now, I hope we all can move on to our legacy – what we want to bequeath for the future to our students and community.

I hope that you, members of today’s TISD school board, remember the board’s courage and leadership in the recent past, and leave a legacy of a new school with a new name for a better Tyler. Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School will:

  • project a positive, appealing image for the school and community.
  • assure a school that the students can be proud of and will want to attend, and will ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement.
  • promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to all our students and excellence in their education.
  • be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area. 

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    Architectural drawing of the new high school

          We are at a pivotal time and place in our school and community history. Robert E. Lee is a different school. Tyler is a different, growing, and diverse community. Let’s focus on what is best for our future–for the school and our community? It is my sincere hope in moving forward with a new name that we remain grounded in our respect for one another, guided by our “better angels,” and that our sense of loss will be softened by the promise of a new beginning, a new chapter with new possibilities for our beloved school and our community. Thank you, each of you, for your continued service and leadership.Tyler

Good Answer, Mama!

I went into our Tyler Public Library this morning to take some photos of our East Texas PFLAG June PRIDE Month display. In between shots I stepped away to make some camera adjustments. As I did this I noticed a young girl—the library was swarming with children for story time—maybe three to four years old, enter the library and make a beeline to the display case. Apparently she was not new to the library or the display case that is always filled with information or projects related to local organizations. Good for you, Mama! I assumed the young woman right behind her was her mother.

DSC_0022The little girl placed her hands on the edge of the case and stood on her tiptoes as she looked at its contents. Mama was standing quietly behind her and looking as well. Inside the case, displayed over a red cloth and rainbow flag, was an assortment of booklets and pamphlets published by our National PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) organization. Some of the titles included: Faith in Our Families, Safe Schools, Our Trans Loved Ones, Be Yourself, Our Daughters and Sons. There were also various buttons and decals with words and symbols promoting diversity and equality. Also included were a couple of family/children’s books, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, And Tango Makes Three.DSC_0025

After a few moments on tiptoes, the little girl reached up and mama picked her up. “Oh, you can’t see.” They continued to look at the display. I remained at a distance and overhead this bit of conversation:
“What is that?” asked the little girl.
“It’s equality,”
“What does that mean?”
“It means being fair to everyone,” answered Mama. My thought, Good answer, Mama! There was some indecipherable conversation, and Mama said, “But we can’t take the bunny book (Marlon Bundo) out of the case.” They walked away from the case, and I moved up and finished the photos. I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to share what I had just witnessed.

A bit of the backstory might shed some light on why I was so elated with this small interaction between child and parent. This is the fourth year that the public library has had some type of LGBT display during June PRIDE Month. Three of these years—2015, 2016, and 2018—PFLAG has been responsible for the set up with the contents pretty much the same. The only additions this year were the two family/children’s books. In 2017 the library staff set up a display of library books on LGBT issues.DSC_0029

Tyler is a city of approximately 100,000 residents in conservative Smith County in east Texas. 2016 was the only year that the display was not the target of opposition from a small yet vocal number of library patrons. Other years when complaints were lodged, the city administrative personnel directed the library staff  to move the display to a less trafficked area of the building. Actually, the first year, the display was summarily dismantled; however, after an outcry and a barrage of phone calls and emails to city hall, it was restored; yet still moved. Last year, there was only one complaint lodged claiming that many of the library’s displays are not informational but reflect social agendas that are not necessarily inline with community standards. After this complaint the book display had to be moved upstairs. A consistent complaint each year is the location of the display—purported to be “too close” to the children’s section.

My initial response in 2015 to the “too close” to the children’s section complaint was:

I would think that if a child were old enough to be inquisitive and ask a question, then this would be a wonderful opportunity for parenting. The parent(s) could answer the child’s questions and offer information and guidance as they, the parent(s), deemed appropriate.

That is still my opinion today, and I was thrilled to the point of joy as I watched this morning’s interaction play out before me and heard the mama’s truthful, age-appropriate response to her child’s question, “What is equality?”

“It means being fair to everyone.” Good answer, Mama! Great parenting!

 Many thanks to our library staff for continuing to be a center for learning and informational resources as well as a beacon of inclusiveness and equality in our community. I wonder how many complaints will be lodged this year??

 

 

 

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