STEP

A few weeks ago my wife and I were able to attend an early showing of the movie Step. What made it extra exciting is our friend was one of the executive producers in the making of the film. Step highlights the senior year of a high school step team at an all-girls charter school in inner-city Baltimore. It was an extremely well done and thought-provoking film and as it had to do with a group of young women’s experiences in school and life I had a few thoughts come to the surface that I thought I would process here.

My first thought (which I’ve written about before here) was to reinforce how absolutely crucial public schools are to the development of the average American young person. The charter school in the film facilitates countless activities to get all their students graduated and into an institution of higher education by the end of their senior year. They start the year with a convocation ceremony that reminds the student body of the importance of senior year (which will be this school’s first graduating class after starting 7 years ago). They have informational meetings for parents to keep them up to date on college application details. The school has an entire day dedicated to filling out all those college applications and financial aid forms. The school guidance counselor is striking in her relentless drive to push these young women to do what they need to do to get into college.

What I saw in Step was a public school serving its community in critical ways. It goes without saying that without their school community, a large percentage of these young women would have not made it to college, at least not immediately. A school like this is why whenever I hear the phrase “government schools” I cringe. This school was not out to indoctrinate children. It was there to serve them and to assist where their families were unable or unwilling. This is to not to fault their families, many who are portrayed in the film as hardworking and supportive people but to note that where society can often ignore the needs of communities, schools often fill those gaps. I believe parents have a right to choose the type of school that’s best for their child but denigrating public schools never helps.

The second thing this film made me process was my feelings toward charter schools in general. We had a heated, publicized, and grossly over-funded ballot question debate in Massachusetts this past fall about whether to expand charter schools. As a public school teacher and union member, I voted (without much enthusiasm) against the expansion, which ended up failing. I did not think the charter school proponents were clear enough about their ultimate aims and who was actually funding them and my bias for traditional public schools ultimately won the day. But this is hardly an issue I would write a polemic about and after watching Step, I have a newfound appreciation for the good many charter schools do. In many inner cities, charter schools are the best option for students. Where that is the case they should be supported and expanded all the while continuing to find ways to make the public districts improve as well.

My final thought is that in a time of utter polarization anything that can be seen as “bipartisan” is probably worth reaching for. Incredible, supportive, and innovative public schools of any type are surely one of those things. Go see Step. I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And afterwards maybe check out what the schools in your town and city are up to.

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Speaking Up

Two summers ago I went on vacation to Colonial Williamsburg with my wife’s family. As a history teacher I was excited. The sites of the Battle of Yorktown, Jamestown, and  (a fictional rebuilding) of Williamsburg itself are all in close proximity to each other. While this popular area has been built up considerably for the tourist sector I had a great week exploring history.

One morning I found myself checking out a gun display in one of the Colonial Williamsburg museums. After I did this I sat down on a bench nearby and struck up a conversation with a retired teacher from Tennessee. As we learned we were both teachers we both enjoyed talking about the importance of history for a couple of minutes. She then said something quickly, almost in passing. I do not remember the exact quote but she noted that “some people want to get rid of our history. Some people where I am from are trying to get rid of statutes of General Forrest.”

She was referencing the trend for states and communities to take down statues of confederate war heroes. Even still, if I hadn’t read an article about General Forrest a few weeks prior I probably wouldn’t have known who he was. But I had. Let me tell you a couple things about Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

During the Civil War a group of soldiers he led was responsible for the Fort Pillow Massacre where an overpowered group of mostly African-American soldiers were brutally shot down even after the battle was won. These Confederate soldiers were not particularly happy for African-Americans to haven taken up arms against them, you see. After the War, Forrest was named as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

This perfectly pleasant woman I was talking to was mistaken. Mr. Forrest deserves to be studied and remembered as an actor of hatred and a reminder of what the Civil War was fought over. But statutes and memorials to him all over the South? That is nonsense and deserves to be corrected.

Now I am a reasonably well spoken adult. Surely I could sort out how to tactfully and respectfully to explain to this women why her view was mistaken. I have a strong sense of justice and what’s right. So that’s what I did.

Except it’s not.

After a glimmer of recognition of who Forrest was in my mind I mumbled uncomfortably and said nothing. A few minutes later the conversation was over. Now there’s a lot of reasons I could use to excuse to explain my lack of action. I’m a shy introvert who does not love confrontation with people I know well, let alone people I just met. But those excuses would be just a smokescreen. I did not speak up that morning because of of my privilege.

In a great number of ways, my life is a textbook example of white privilege. I won’t go into all of the ways here but my point is this. I have NEVER spoken up much about current issues of race or racism in the past few years, either in conversation or on social media. It has felt too contentious and I have felt like taking sides would be too difficult. But mostly I haven’t spoken about these things because I haven’t had to.

My privilege insulates me from feeling strongly about these issues. It’s incredibly difficult for me to admit this but it’s true. I have opinions or thoughts about events of the past years but it does not feel near to me. Our society insures that it rarely will. Those who have lost family members or feel the reality of racism daily enjoy no such luxury.

I sincerely regret not speaking up that morning to the woman. I suspect that she was a perfectly nice and professional teacher during her career. But she harbors attitudes that allow protests like this past weekend to occur in Charlottesville. This does not mean we demonize each other. It does mean we recognize racist attitudes when we hear them and see them and call them out. I am a nerdy, WASPy, teacher with glasses. I won’t always get everything right. But I will commit to writing more and when I see racism I will do my best to speak up.

Moving

Many young people are now taking a gap year between high school and college.  A year to travel, work, do something worthwhile, or just take a breath before they decide what they want to pursue next. I took a gap year as well except mine came after college and stretched into 3 years being overseas and at home. After college I flirted with being a missionary because that was the only career I saw myself trying at that time. I was an intern for a year with a missions organization in South Africa and then followed that up with a year teaching English in the Czech Republic. Yes I know those are wildly different and yes I’ll be happy to explain why I went there if you ask dear reader.

Ultimately I decided to return home and get my teaching degree and license but I bring up those experiences to say I was basically constrained in having stuff those two years to what I could take onto a plane: two checked bags, a backpack, and my laptop. Of course I acquired goods overseas and even brought some home with me. What I remember at the end of those two years however was packing up my stuff, cleaning, sorting, and dumping things I no longer needed. I enjoyed that process and it was not that difficult.

And then I came back home. To America. And got married.

I’ve moved 3 times since I got married. First from my parents house to my wife’s apartment, second from that apartment to a new apartment, and mostly recently from that apartment to our new house. The first move was not that bad. Our first apartment was already furnished and she had being living there almost a year. I brought my clothes and a few other things and that was that.

The second move was…rough. We had to move it all in one day and that meant getting everything in boxes and ready to go beforehand. I confess to being a little clueless about how to pack up the entirety of a small apartment. My wife did the lion share of the packing and was amazing but on the day of it was just rough. Our new apartment was on the third floor which meant getting things up two flights of stairs. We had furniture at our parents houses which necessitated trips to both those places on the day. Our box-spring did not fit upstairs which meant we spent our first night on an air mattress surrounded by boxes. Did I mention we both dislike change? It was an overwhelming and exhausting experience.

Less than three years later I was quietly dreading another move this time with more furniture, more stuff, and more reasons to feel angsty about the whole process.

The process is not quite complete but as I sit typing this in my new dining room I can say this move has been pretty amazing. Not perfect or without stress but it has gone really well. There’s a number of reasons for that. First we have been able to spread it out over two weeks because we still have our apartment till the end of the month. Annoying but ultimately helpful. This allowed us to bring stuff to the house by car for a week before doing one final big push this past Saturday to get our furniture and other remaining items. It also allowed us to clean and paint a bit before getting all our stuff in as well.

The other big reason was all the help we had. We had friends just kill it this past Saturday with packing, unpacking, and organizing our stuff. New church friends, old church friends, no church friends, and family all combined to make our move relatively quick and simple. It’s hard to express how good this move was compared to our last one. And it’s hard to express how grateful we are to all the people in our lives who gave up hours and days to help us start here well.

So cups up to friends and family! I think I need to go paint something.

First Principles

This past week my wife held a conversation using the app Meetup to bring folks together to discuss spirituality and religion. I went with her this week and the question we discussed was, “What is your guiding principle in life?” We had a diverse group of people with various backgrounds and experiences and unsurprisingly the question provoked an interesting and wide-ranging conversation. At first the question came off as a bit challenging for people to fully answer but no one objected to the topic. I think at some level we all want to feel we have clear life principles and goals.

I grew up in a Christian home and have attended church all my life. I was even essentially a missionary overseas for two years after college. I feel like I grew up being taught, and then taking as my own, very clear first principles that have guided my life. These principals include the centrality of a relationship with Jesus for salvation, reading the Bible and praying regularly, and loving others. To give you a landmark these principles could be described as conservative protestant evangelical.

I have been far from the perfect Christian in my life but my adherence to these principals has always been near the forefront of my life. In high school I got into fights about abortion more often than I discussed going out with friends. I developed a huge interest in Christian apologetics in high school in order to better defend my faith. I have always tried to be as best I can to be honest, respectful, and kind to others. Friends and others, even when they disagree with me, have noticed these qualities in me repeatedly. I have grown a lot in the last ten years and I see many pros and cons to these first principals of my life but overall I am grateful for the grounding they have provided me.

The reason I mention the above is I read an article a couple of weeks ago that put these first principles up for a debate that infuriated me. You can read the article here. The article discusses how Trump earned the wide-ranging support of white evangelicals. The same white evangelicals I have been a part of my entire life. The most damning quotation to me in the article reads,

“The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

Conservative evangelicals whether you agree or disagree typically have incredibly clear and strong first principals. They are rooted in scripture and, if you grow up in church, you hear them from cradle to grave. I do not think all these principals are good or helpful but I think many are. And until November 8th, 2016 I thought most evangelicals followed them. With the advent of the Trump candidacy and now presidency, it is evident that many conservative evangelicals have either rejected, or never had, many of the first principals I thought they did.

I realize, as I have said before, that many evangelicals did not vote for Trump. I also realize why politically, morally, or spiritually many felt they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. What I cannot wrap my head around is why people with the strong first principles that conservative evangelicals supposedly have could justify voting for a man like Trump. As I have written before, he is a leader with the opposite in character, temperament, and ability that any conservative evangelical would want. Or so I thought.

This is not merely a political issue for me. If white evangelicals had gone for Cruz and Rubio I would not be writing this. This is not about a mostly republican base voting for a republican candidate. This is a about a group who promotes clear first principles reject them to vote for a chance at what they perceive as power.

I am beyond disappointed at how all this has gone down but ultimately I am not worried about myself. In spite of everything I will still attend church and believe that , at our best, Christians can do much good in the world. I do worry about our witness to the world though. What does it say to the world when our first principles have to be so soundly ignored and rejected to bring us to a man like Trump? What does it say to our young people? Why should a secular person care about the moral compass of a philosophy that explains away the incompetency and moral failings of our current president?

I do not write this to demean people who voted for Trump. Many did who are not, in fact, evangelicals. He was elected at a specific point in history, via an arcane electoral system. But it needs to be said, as a life-long evangelical, I feel betrayed and this cannot bode well for the church or its mission in the world.

A Journey in Nostalgia.

canaan summer 2017Teachers get the summer “off” which typically means taking classes or raising their families or working odd jobs to supplement their salaries. Off might be the wrong word but that’s a topic for another entry. I happen to be taking a class on Ancient Greece and to start the class they asked me to read the ambitiously titled, “The Complete World of Greek Mythology.” About halfway through there is a section on the Trojan War and of course the journey home of Odysseus. The author starts the section with a brief discussion of the etymology of the word “nostalgia.” In the typically flowery language of a lifelong academic he explains,

“The English word ‘nostalgia’ has acquired a romantic patina, but its Greek semantic roots have, in combination, a harsher edge: nostos means ‘return journey’, and algos means ‘pain.'”

Needless to say the book has been a bit of a slog. But that breakdown of the word nostalgia has stuck with me the past couple weeks. I have been in many ways nostalgic as I have thought back to memories and experiences from my life and childhood. I’ll just highlight a couple.

When I was a kid my family spent a week at what is today typically called ‘family camp.’ I do not think camp is a super accurate term because we stayed in hotel style rooms and had all our meals made for us but branding is not something I  have dedicated my life to. In any case I loved my week there each summer. There was always good food, good activities, and as I got older a great place to make friends. I went back there as an adult a number of years ago and just the smell of the hallways brought me back, in a wave of nostalgia, to the fun I had had as a kid.

This family camp actually ran an actual summer camp where my sisters and I started attending as kids. I later went through their training program and became a counselor and eventually leadership staff for 6+ summers. I have always thought of this camp as ‘old-school’ in the best possible way. No gimmicks or expensive nonsense here. Just plenty of food, awesome activities and games, and great staff. The camp worship songs we sung were always better sung at camp. This morning at church we sang an updated adaption of a song we sang at camp and the nostalgia nearly knocked me over. I was right back in the camp gym with 200 sweaty campers and staff, reverent and exhausted.

My last example is my families summer house in small town New Hampshire. My great-grandfather bought it in the 1950s as a place to spend his summers in retirement. He enjoyed 18 summers there but four more generations of his family have continued to return there, summer after summer. It’s very old now and it’s not in amazing shape. There is however a photograph of the house in the dining room from what is probably mid-century and it is glorious. The garden is filled with flowers, there’s a stylish car in the driveway. Everything, even in back and white, appears pristine. In moments of nostalgia I long to see the house as it once was, decades ago. I visited it last weekend, however, and sat on the porch on a beautiful afternoon and took a few pictures. The view has not changed much and for that I am incredibly grateful.

I love how the origins of the word nostalgia brought me back the last few weeks. I kind of hate it too. So many images and experiences are indelibly stamped into my consciousness and a smell, a song, a view can bring me right back to remember and experiences those things again with gratitude. But there is undeniably pain there too. A pain at realizing childhood is over, the glory days of that time and place are gone, that things can never quite be what they once were. I think ultimately the tension of the word nostalgia gives it its power. The joy of the memories increases the pain at not being able to go back. But I also think there is maturity in accepting nostalgia for what is it, for being thankful for the good things that have occurred in one’s life. Many have little to be nostalgic about. I hope that whatever we may or may not have nostalgia about we would be motivated to create such moments in the lives of others that they, one day, would have the same mix of feelings I am having this summer.

A Better Story

This past weekend President Donald Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, one of the premier evangelical colleges in the US. In a presidency that so far has never been short of headlines, this one is completely unsurprising. The President of Liberty, Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early supporter of Trump and invited him to campus during his campaign. In recent weeks he has gone so far as to say that Trump was a “dream president” for evangelicals so far.

President’s Trump victory was surprising and even shocking to many whether you were ardently opposed to his candidacy or not. Much analysis will continue to be done on how he accomplished this victory but a major factor was his deep support from white evangelicals. The most common statistic I have seen is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. This number has been parsed in many ways often to minimize how religious these “evangelical” Trump voters really are and to an extent I agree with that. I know anecdotally that many Christians either refused to vote, or voted for a third party candidate. Many Christian leaders began and remain in the #NeverTrump camp. But a quick search on the internet reveals a deep swath of support for Trump from white evangelical leaders and the group as a whole.

As someone who is essentially a white evangelical and still attends church this troubles me deeply. I know this will be almost impossible but take away the politics from Donald Trump as a person for a moment. Who are we left with? We are left with a man who rarely, if ever, tells the truth. A man who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.  A man many consider racist or at least deeply hurtful. A man who, whatever his political views, seems woefully unprepared for the office of the presidency. And most damning to me, a man who seems the polar opposite of what I thought white evangelicals would want in a presidential candidate.

I realize no one is asking for my advice but writing this is simply one small way that I can tell myself that I spoke out against this man. As a Christian I think we need to cut our losses. We need to speak out against the white evangelical leaders who undercut their entire lives of work and ministry and their moral rightness in advising that Mr. Trump was somebody evangelicals could support. Leaders like Mr. Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas, among many others. They can keep telling us that we saved the republic by voting for Mr. Trump but we should not listen to or support their claims. I’m not asking anyone to become a democrat who is not or that they should have voted for Hillary Clinton. I am not proposing that either political party is all good or all evil. I am simply asking the white evangelical community to renounce their support for Mr. Trump and to move on.

The leaders I name above are all Christians. They fancy themselves as truth-tellers. They want to believe we avoided catastrophe by electing Mr. Trump. They want to believe that Mr. Trump’s presidency is adding to the story that all Christians tell of the gospel, the good news. In fact Christians have a better story. A much better story. A story that can change lives and even societies for the better. Mr. Trump does not add anything to this story, he undercuts it at every turn. Our moral witness as Christians means nothing as long as it is tied to the support of this petty and incompetent man. We can do better. We have done better. We must do better in the future.

A Weekend in New York

My family celebrated my grandmother’s 80th birthday this past weekend in New York City and I’m currently almost caught up on the show This is Us. I cannot say if those two things are related but it’s said that writing is therapeutic so I decided to write about this weekend.

Over thirty family and friends were invited to come together for dinner to quasi-surprise a woman who has gone by many different names in her life. My sisters, cousins, and I have always called her Nanny. She lives in Florida year-round now and regrettably I have not been able to see her as often as I would like in recent years. But 10 seconds with her this weekend and she was the Nanny I have always loved and had fun with. Her laugh, her quips, her personality. One needs not be old to have waves of nostalgia wash over them on occasion.

She technically is my step grandmother but I only mention that to recognize how nonsenical and unnecessary that extra word is to me. She has always been the one who bought giant packs of kids mini-cereal boxes she would never touch because she knew her grandkids would like them. She taught us how to eat a whole lobster properly in Maine. She took us to the beach and flea markets in Florida. She would always be kind and nice, hilarious and generous. She has always been Nanny.

Family is such a complex multilayered thing. It is so vital for folks and also so easy to screw up. Every family, even ones who are not particularly close, have the memories and shared experiences that come from the times when they had to be close because that’s what families do. You grow up together. You learn together. You share meals.

This weekend we shared an amazing meal in a stunning restaurant in a world class city. But as great as it was the setting was truly secondary to being able to spend time with family and Nanny. At a smaller gathering the night before the main meal, she noted herself that an occasion like this was “very special.” Simple words but, in an awareness I rarely show toward others, I could sense the affection she spoke them with.

It has never been easy or natural for me to really show my feelings or emotions outwardly. Safer to keep things hidden inside right? But this weekend I felt a great freedom to hug and talk with my grandmother openly. And it was great. Family can be messy and uncomfortable sometimes. But it also runs deep. This past weekend we celebrated my Nanny’s birthday. I cannot wait to do it again.