samedi, novembre 14, 2009

The South Philly No Complaining Rule

No nets on the basketball hoops for the ball to slide sweetly through.

How can you shoot and score when there is nothing at which to aim?

How 'bout castles with 21st-century-compounds providing a floor so that children wouldn't hurt themselves if they fell off the watch-towers?

You gotta be kidding.

This "playground" didn't have swings, slides, or a painted area for hopscotch.

But boy-oh-boy, did the dark floors on the school's first floor, probably dating to the 19th-century, glow.

Children's artwork clustered on walls built around the time my grandmother was born. I thought again and again, how comfortable she would have felt in this environment, the lissome blond librarian with the long skirts, throwing herself into her work with the same energy and joy she did pretty much anything.

If she thought the library could have used a wee bit of updating, she would have organized workers into a union to make sure the job was well done, and the workmen got good wages.

But this school shimmers with energy, and much of it emanates from the principal's office. Only to understand what he's been able to do requires some of us to tweak our middle-class lenses.

Out here in the western 'burbs, we question the "No Child Left Behind Act" and talk about unfunded mandates -- but generally our schools continue to produce large numbers of students who exceed the requirements.

The principal here has some honors students -- 42, I believe. But a major achievement has been raising the percentage of students with acceptable basic PSSA scores from the 30's to the 70s. That has all happened since he became school leader.

Poverty. Long-term unemployment. Streets that aren't as safe as they could be. Kids who have to cope with unstable family environments. It gives me mental vertigo to contrast the daily challenges some of these students confront with those of my daughter, say, for whom a crisis is not having a ride to youth group. Or my son, who responds to having left something at his father's house by asking casually if dad could come drop it off.

And there are other challenges. In the past few years, Philadelphia has deep sixed its middle schools -- so that students stay in one place from kindergarten (or Head Start) to eighth grade. Although there are positives and negatives, that means big changes for staff and students.

How does Mr. E. tackle the stumbling blocks his students face? By running a very tight ship, in which succeeding is the only option.

As we sat in his office, he gave us umbrellas with the school's logo -- and a copy of a book which seems compatible with his philosophy. "The No Complaining Rule" by Jon Gordon is about a mythical company that refused to take negativity for an answer.

And maybe, in some way, I am part of the chain of positive results. He heard about my offer to provide some library money as he sat in a meeting in which they were coming up with some ideas for rehabilitating the large, but shabby room. When he first heard about it, he thought the person who told him was joking, said Mr. E. But once he realized that the woman wasn't joking, he began to realize that they really could recarpet, and put the catalogue on the computer, and put in some colorful nooks so that students could read there.

It doesn't seem like a lot of money, I said, feeling embarassed. "It is to us" he said simply.

And you know what? I can't wait to see what he and his teachers and administration are going to do to with it.

Anyone want to kick in for some basketball hoops?

jeudi, novembre 12, 2009

Tears of a clown

While we have our wack jobs in the United States, geography and a commitment to remain an open culture have been, on the whole, blessings for us.

But, like most blessings, there are shadow sides.

One? Our American cult of victimhood.

How can it be that, in this large country, which offers so many opportunities, we pit ourselves against one another in a grotesque dance of victimization?

I've read that bankers complain because the public apparently has negative opinions of (some) of them.

Honestly, its hard to feel too sorry for folks making upwards of $500,000 a year.

Celebrities complain because, well, they are celebrities -- and they lose their "zone of privacy."

Affluent evangelical Christians claim they are part of the persecuted counterculture.

Businessmen and women are persecuted by bureaucrats and taxes.

Farmers are persecuted by government trying to take away their subsidies.

Liberals blame conservatives as a class for pretty much everything (and let's not talk about what the conservatives say about liberals).

Catholics in places of great influence rail at the media (always the easiest target), Episcopalians assert that they standing up courageously against a prejudiced world (from the safety of their shrinking churches).

The past few weeks have afforded a few more chances to think about this strange thread in our national character. CNN anchor (now former) Lou Dobbs helped fan the embers of this national pity party. His resignation is a positive for the cable news network -- but he will find another place to voice his anti-immigrant rants.

After all, there are plenty who still want to hear, and to believe.

I'm only a generation or three removed from the immigrants who had to deal with generalized prejudice against Jews -- as there was prejudice against the Irish and Italians. But as far as I can tell, my ancestors, like perhaps your ancestors, saw overcoming bias as a challenge, rather than as a reason to compare themselves with others less afflicted.

I have friends who have truly been the victims of hate. There are few things more painful than hearing that someone you care about has been wounded by institutional prejudice, or by someone's hateful mutterings.

I recently had to work through some of my own feelings as a member of a minority denomination when Pope Benedict reached out to some of my more conservative brothers and sisters and invited them to swim the Tiber.

My wounded feelings weren't for me in particular, because I have a strongly ambivalent relationship with the Episcopal Church. Instead, I felt that seductive sense of oppression by a majority faith.

"They" don't understand our ways or traditions. "They" don't care about how we feel.

Yanno what? That could all be true, and it still wouldn't matter. If I'm a member of a minority, I am a darned privileged one.

To blame bias for everything doesn't do justice to the complexity of the truth. And truth is usually complicated.

Yet those most deserving of our empathy, those who most need our help, are those often without a voice -- abused kids, men and women serving our country out of sight and often out of mind, the urban and rural poor. They don't have our soapboxes.

If we started looking out for their welfare, instead of complaining about how we have been slighted, maybe we could use our passion for justice to truly make a difference.

However, if you like feeling like a victim, this truly is the land of opportunities.

mercredi, novembre 11, 2009

About that school

When I visit Philly, I prefer to walk.

Through the jewelry district on my way to my doctor at Pennsylvania Hospital. With reverence on the flagstones covering the graves of soldiers at Washington Square Park, wondering who once lived in those 19th-century red-brick buildings, watching for the ghosts of Jefferson and Madison in the cobblestoned alleys.

Swiftly up the wide thoroughfares leading to the University of Pennsylvania for dinner with a visiting friend, students, faculty and visitors lingering on the campus green spaces, talking, eating, studying.

Craning nearsighted at plaques that recall famous men who once walked these streets and lifted their hats to bow to the ladies, who lifted their skirts to avoid the horse poop -- or the famous ladies.

It's natural that those of us who didn't go into the "family business" would still swim through history as though it was our own private funhouse fair. And this great city surrenders its treasures to anyone with the slightest yearning to know more about where we came from as a nation, and possibly where we might be going.

Ah, but I digress. The streets on which I walked yesterday have their own, more recent history. Once beyond South Street, there are fewer people out walking dogs or shopping. A few buildings are being renovated. Some are abandoned. No big grocery stores -- lots of bodegas. Being a little clumsy, I look down, where trash and weeds lurk among the broken sidewalks. Still, I maintain a good pace, only stopping to ask a few friendly folk for directions.

As far as I can tell, I'm the only white person out for a walk in the neighborhood. It is helpful, now and then, to experience what it feels like to be a minority. Of course, in America, we are all persecuted minorities of one sort or another -- or so it sometimes seems. Even upper middle class white guys. Bankers. Lawyers. Doctors. There is something in our national narrative that doesn't want to be associated with dominance, even if we have to go back a long way on the family tree to re-experience oppression.

When I arrive, the principal tells us that thirty-six nationalities and ethnic groups attend this South Philadelphia school.

He, and the school, are very impressive. But I see that I have just arrived, and it is time to begin the day's work.

More later.

mardi, novembre 10, 2009

The left hand talks about the right

I'm wasn't sure I should write about this particular topic. But I'm going to, in spite of my feelings, because it seems to me to serve a larger point. And shouldn't those big points always be served (grin?)

When I tell you why, I think you'll see why the ambivalence.

I got to be a minor philathropist this morning. It was a huge kick. Let me race down a rabbit trail for a minute, and I'll tell you why. Maybe you've had the same experience.

As Jesus and the Judeo-Christian tradition put it, you aren't supposed to let the right hand know what the other one is doing.

But you know what? I'm left-handed in a righthanded world. The road less traveled is the one I take pretty much every day, somedays just to piss someone off....

But even more important --I don't even feel like this money is really mine. It was my dads, the fruit of his frugality and a lucky house buy 40 years ago -- and so what I'm doing is simply giving a little away.

And the reason I'm telling you isn't about the money. It's about what I saw, the extent of the need, and what a little money can do to change a few kids lives. I hope. Oh, how I hope.

I'll get to that in my next post.

lundi, novembre 09, 2009

Worth a second look

I've taken a vacation, or should I say I'm in detox, from online dating.

I'm not completely cured -- now and again I'll return to the dead version of the website. Did the guy who wanted to see me a third time, but lived almost 2 hours away ever come back? His reservations seemed to focus on the alleged lack of intelligent women online. Turn that one over, and it also seemed that women wanted a guy with lots of money, and probably no children in his life right now. Either way, he wasn't having a lot of luck online.

Nice guy. One of the very few men I met who I would have enjoyed seeing again -- an evocative, quirky blend of egghead and athlete.

And what of the West Chester businessman who appeared as ambivalent as me? Or the Route 422 techie with the alleged spouse from hell?

Now that I've signed off, and have time to take another look at my complicity, what I find most depressing is the rampant consumerism of virtual dating. Trying to sum up your strengths (when did loving golf or even dogs become a virtue?) in a few paragraphs becomes a marketing challenge -- and almost invariably leads to exaggeration, if not lying.

Eventually, you gotta start wondering what the woman or the guy is hiding. I'd be interesting in seeing a profile that came close to telling the reader what someone looked like in three-dimensions:

Something that read like this:

Do you like adventure? I've traveled far, and I've learned some interesting things along the way.

I've found that as much as I want something to work, I can't always made it just by trying. I confess that I evade and avoid sometimes, compartmentalize, make excuses. Sometimes I've tripped on that banana peel and fallen on my tush.

But I've discovered interesting things about myself that I'd like to share. I am quicker to say "I'm sorry", swifter to listen, less interested in what's down the road and more grateful for what is right now.

I am truly fascinated by, and appreciate, difference. I find pleasure in quirkiness.

Yes, various bits and bobs of my body ache sometimes when I get up in the morning. My body is slightly less taut, that six-pack a three-pack on my good days. But I've got a lot of energy, and hope and empathy -- and I'd like to find someone to share them with. I'm committed to investing some of my time and energy in helping to make this world a little better -- but I don't take myself that seriously.

Care to join me?

I've never seen a profile as direct and open as that -- nor do I think that such a guy would get a lot of responses from women.

As for me, I hope to heck that I'd answer it (having written it). I guess there's a part of us that would rather peddle dreams. But I want to use what I've learned and move forward--otherwise, what a waste of a high-end education.