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Archive for the ‘Short Essay’ Category

The first crime committed in the Sandusky 2002 child rape scandal was not five adults failing to do the right thing – after the fact.

It was 28-year-old Mike McQueary walking away after witnessing the 58-year-old former coach raping a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State football shower room.

Imagine what lesson was emblazoned on the boy that day.

This story first focused on Joe Paterno, the 84-year-old coach ousted after a storied career. But the story and crime truly begins when former graduate assistant McQueary did nothing to stop the rape of a child in progress.

The criminal indictment of Sandusky says a shaken McQueary first asked his father for advice and then slept on it. It wasn’t until the next day that McQueary told Paterno what he saw. Paterno then told his bosses. Yet no one ever called the police.

And it was 10 days before Penn State officials talked to McQueary and then longer before officials finally banned Sandusky from bringing children onto campus. That ban sent the message that Sandusky’s crimes could continue off campus – as long as they were out of sight and out of mind of Penn State football.

While all the skirting, ducking and pushing under the carpet was going on, a 3rd or 4th grade boy, who had been knowingly raped, was left unprotected. It is sadly obvious that Penn State was acting much the same way the Catholic Church responded when charges of child sexual abuse by priests surfaced.

Penn State continues to care more about the enterprise of football than the atrocities of child rape that allegedly occurred on their campus. Should they have canceled last weekend’s Nebraska game as a statement of solidarity to get this right once and for all, to send the message to fanatical students that child protection is far more important than worshipping football?

But they did not cancel the game. One child, eight children, a hundred children, it doesn’t matter, the game goes on. Is this the same ethical mistake they made in 2002 when State officials chose to lamely ban Sandusky from bringing children onto campus instead of calling police. Once again, they focused on the game, the machinery of making money and pushed the “problem away,” out of sight, out of mind, a clear statement of their priorities.

The boy, now 19, lesson, then and now is the same, that his suffering doesn’t matter, that powerful men get away with crimes, that nothing is more important than money and football, in this case.

When McQueary walked away, he made it clear to the boy who saw him that he was unworthy of the former quarterback’s protection, that he was invisible and forgettable. When Penn State students rioted and pushed over a TV van because they were upset their beloved hero was ousted, the message was clear: “We don’t care about the suffering of children when stacked up against our scared football habit.’’

In the end, the boy is left alone. He has no option but to get up each morning, go to school and probably continue to deal with Sandusky preying on him. And maybe, the boy thought, it was all his fault. Maybe he should have called out, cried “help!” Maybe then the big man with red hair would have done something.

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He was smart, maybe too smart for his own good. He was a listener from a very young age and he thought he understood. He listened because he thought he should, because the tension was there in front of him, being served up daily like his morning cereal. He never thought to go to another room, to hide his self from his parents’ unhappiness. Instead he listened and felt like he was pulling a wagon people were shoveling dirt into, making it impossible to move in any direction.

The problem was probably his intelligence combined with enormous feeling. It would have been easier if he didn’t think so much about why his parents were unhappy or why kids were mean at school or why adults were careless with him and how no one did anything when it was obvious something needed doing.

At first he tried to help his parents see that fighting made them unhappy, and his teachers see that that children were being excluded at recess and not just him. But they nodded dismissively and said, “don’t worry, we’ll handle it,” and they never did.

Instead of getting lost in video games, he worried about why adults weren’t better at being adults. And if adults couldn’t do something, who could, because there was no one else besides kids and adults, he thought. I suppose he might say, if he could articulate his feelings without adult prompting, he felt unsafe, which made him weary, which made him not trust, but no one asked him how he felt and he certainly didn’t think to tell anyone anyway.

At school, he knew he was on his own. Homework was easy and always would be. The real problem was he didn’t have friends. There was no one to play with during recess. The other boys controlled the football and threw to the kids they liked. Every time the ball didn’t come his way, he felt a pain in his head, like they were hitting him even though they weren’t. He looked at the adults looking like everything was fine and instead of asking for help, he told them he felt sick and they sent him to the nurses office.

His strong thinking and feeling moved unobserved through the grades and by 6th grade, a hard crust replaced his once soft malleability; his hard understanding of how the world worked made permanent grooves in his pliant brain.

By 10, his thinking made so much sense; he started to grow a turtle’s shell, a shell strong enough to last his lifetime.

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In Japan, damaged nuclear reactors are threatening a nation of people with radiation. A tsunami wiped out shoreline villages. Thousands of people are washing ashore and we are on the verge of … not caring … That’s not it.

Why are we not responding the way we did with Haiti, when we sat glued to the TV, when we sent money and cried? The poverty and other-worldliness of Haiti separated us in a way that insured their plight would never be our own. We could feel for them because we were not them. But Japan is too much like us. They are rich, strong and powerful and what is happening to them could, might, maybe will happen to us. That truth triggers denial, a need to turn away. To avoid feeling the dread that something is very wrong, we distance ourselves. Feeling that the world is limping to some awful end overrides caring with fear which trips into apathy or a mild form of shock. We harden for protection.

There’s nothing any one of us can do to fully stop the cosmic imbalance of man nudging nature and nature ferociously retaliating. There’s nothing anyone can do to stop earthquakes and tsunamis. Human beings are left to pick up the pieces and our efforts seem so small. We huddle and watch storms descend. Storms, whether they be age, disease, crime or accident storms, remind us of our vulnerability – more importantly – our humanness.

Maybe we are morphing like a transformer morphs into another being as protection from a greater threat. Maybe, with each disaster, we are changing into harder, thicker versions of ourselves where we care less, feel less, in order to withstand the battering, the great losses, the sweeping away of lives in broad remorseless strokes. In the end, we are infinitesimal opposite the earth shaking, waves heaving and rain falling without stop. We are ants beneath our own feet, instantaneously regrouping after being knocked into chaos. As the Japanese have shown us, we need a return to order, the order of building castles, tunnels, roads to bring in food, to carry out the dead, to take care of one another.

For us to survive any descending maelstrom, we must not distance ourselves with fear and apathy. What is happening in Japan is happening to us. Our vulnerability is our strength. Our ability to care and feel is what makes us human. No storm can take that away, as long as we know what we are protecting.

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“Who are you?” I ask.

I’m a mother, father, son, daughter, student, worker, someone who loves to write, swim, bike, cook, eat out, read, sleep, make money, someone who wonders, worries, questions, doubts, whether I’m good at anything, whether people value me, whether I value myself. I’m someone easily angered, afraid of anger, always happy, never happy, who laughs too much, who never laughs, someone who thinks the world is out to get him, the world is my oyster. I am someone who works hard to make money to support my lifestyle, who stays home with the children and resents it, loves it, is unable to motivate, who takes risks. I am someone who carries grudges, blames, who points the finger, someone who accepts responsibility, someone who is on the sidelines. I am good, bad, indifferent. I am someone who dreams of being an artist, of starting my own boutique, of writing a book, of growing a family, of loving and being loved, of running away. I am someone who is afraid of my own thoughts, my shadow, who is depressed, who believes in God and goodness, in Hell, who is forgiving, who will never forgive. I am someone who is lost, who feels unloved and unprotected, who will stand up for you, who loves unconditionally, who loves with expectation, who measures and reacts, who will never say no. I am someone who doesn’t understand feelings, who hates feeling, who listens to music to feel, who easily cries, who never cries, who loves life and laughter, who resents happy people, who is riddled with anger, who doesn’t understand what’s happening, who is alone, can’t be alone, wants to be left alone, whose life is overcrowded, whose content as is. I am the good boy, the bad girl, someone who needs people, needs myself, who is misunderstood, understood, confused, clear, directed, inspired, who watches TV every night and fights with her husband, who sleeps with the light on, who doesn’t sleep at all. I am someone who is depressed, who is not, who is on medication, who is not, who depends on others to make me feel better, who is self-reliant, lives in the past, in others, in the moment. is on hold. I am someone who is burdened beyond what she can handle, who escapes into shopping, drinking, gossip, who is imprisoned, who is free. I am someone who tries hard and someone who gives up. I am educated, uneducated, stupid, smart, open, closed. I am someone who is defined by others, by money made, by the people and the material things that surround me, who needs little, who is never satisfied. I am someone who doesn’t care about anyone, who is addicted, who is healthy, who eats well, who does yoga, runs and meditates, who cuts and cries and hates, who hates and loves her body, her mind. I am someone who loves, who turns way, who is too complex, too simple. I am a child, a boy, a girl, a man, a woman. I am old and young. Helpless and strong. I am…

Take 10 minutes and write without stopping. The writing prompt is “Who are you?” Imagine yourself and everyone around you.

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A Moment

Yesterday, the cashier at Rite Aid, an older, tired, angry-looking woman, was looking intently out the front door. I found myself drawn in by her intense gaze and stood nearby to see what she was looking at. There was only the empty parking lot, dirty, hard mounds of snow and a congested street of cars plodding their way home.

“What’s happening out there? What’s so interesting?” I asked. She looked dully at me and said, “just the snow.” The snow? So I looked again, and yes, the wind was blowing the softer snow that had fallen earlier in the day into dusky, smoky swirls. That was pretty sort of.

When checking out, she didn’t look at me. Her mind was somewhere else and I knew that it wasn’t the snow she was looking at and that it was none of my business. I’m not sure why I asked, except that it’s becoming rare when the ordinary routines of everyday living are broken up by intensity and focus. We have become like the plodding cars mindlessly following grooved routines home, to TV, exit behaviors and banal addictions.

As I swiped my card and she bagged my two items, I said, “It’s cold by the door.” Her register, by the front door, received an unpleasant blast of cold air every time someone went in or out. “This is a cold spot for you,” And she said, “Tell me about it. All winter long.” Words were being spoken but nothing was being said. She wasn’t talking to me. This conversation wasn’t happening.

“Thanks,” I said and left through the front door letting in more cold air. But this time I stopped for a moment to look more closely around the parking lot, the pile of snow and the traffic in the street and could see nothing out of the ordinary.

When getting into my car, I saw her again outside the store looking intently up and down, for someone, maybe an errant employee, a husband bringing dinner, a lover, a friend. I didn’t know. All I knew was the tease of my peaked curiosity in the midst of the mundane.

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I had fair warning. From the moment of their births, I knew this job would end when I was older… and now I’m older.

I’ve been a pretty good mother though I wish I learned sooner how to manage my emotions and didn’t succumb to stress as often as I imagine I did. But my children are in good shape. They know we are invested in them and that I gave the center portion, the gut and the heart of my life to taking care of them. I didn’t want to do anything else. It was the best J.O.B.. I had four children who adored me and I them and being with them, doing what we wanted, when we wanted, was freedom. We liked each other’s company and I was the Sargeant Major of my own life – with no one above me.

Now I am 50 with one child at home and Kevin whose never been busier in his life and suddenly I’m not working enough hours (compared to the hours raising four kids) and find myself feeling disposable, unneeded, unable to really focus on a single purpose and it’s concerning. I had a cry, a great big one, a few weeks ago, questioning whether being a full-time mom was a mistake because now at 50, I’m starting over. I knew this was coming. Maybe there’s no way around it.

These are the questions I’m asking: Who am I now? Where do I belong? Where is my tribe? And am I even asking the right questions?

At 37, I went back to school for a BA and two Master’s (just to drag out the process even longer). I feel older but not smarter. I have less energy. Oh God! I like Sudoku. I have digestion problems, allergies and still can’t articulate myself well enough to communicate all that goes on in my head. What reserve of confidence I had stored from my short list of life accomplishments is being used up as I tread these new waters asking all the while – where the hell am I going?

This past summer, I looked forward to this time, with only one child at home, but all I feel is bereft of the big house, the noisy children, the friends, the dogs, the community and connection of family, the “collage” of my former life that held and grounded me.

I convinced myself that I would replace family with work and I planned with perfect synchronicity children leaving with my stepping into a full-blown career to avoid any unpleasantness and self-doubt that would come at this great juncture. Instead, I am in the place I wanted to avoid – facing my own limitations, my dullness, my edges that won’t be smoothed and worse of all – my humanness. In the end, my hope is that I refocus my belief that I am needed and have purpose.

I’d like to see social and emotional learning programs in every school, not the teach-em-by-the-book kind, but the creatively facilitated, relationship kind that builds community through authentic connection. It’s what I needed growing up, it’s what we tried to give our children and quite frankly, it what I need in my life now.

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Have schools moved from a book life education to a movie/computer life education? A book life is one that takes real time, patience and perseverance to complete. There is deeper understanding, empathy for the story and connection to a myriad of characters different from your self. There is emotional investment and the delaying of gratification. A book life stretches our attention spans, expands our understanding of our selves and the larger world and makes us more compassionate.

A movie/computer life is a life of instant gratification, manufactured by a quick fix culture perpetuating superficial knowledge and generalized ignorance. We know little about a lot and have a hard time finding and focusing passion.

Because speed is what is important, we want it (gratification) faster and easier. The lines of impatient, instant gratifiers at the Apple store attest to this trend toward a movie/computer life (and I’m right in line with them).

In the movie/computer life, we don’t problem solve or reflect deeply. We take in information and spew it out quickly and unceremoniously, without savoring what it is we were actually ingesting. We don’t ask what life means, and we choose to buy into the romanticized, glossy cover remakes of real life. Nuanced human interaction is blunted by commercial renditions of identity and in our confusion, we believe, because it’s entertaining and because it’s just easier.

The addictive quality of a movie/computer life is that it is easier and that ease quickly becomes escapism. Escapism from what? – Maybe from disconnection, from apathy, from intolerance of feelings, from loss of identity and purpose, from lack of drive, from passion and the willingness to be uncomfortable, from aloneness and reflection, from simply not knowing, from the silence and the noise within all of us.

The movie/computer life is a shallower human experience, one that should never replace a book life because it does not honor the depth and complexity of human interaction. This life doesn’t allow for relationship building and intimacy. It is ultimately a lonelier, isolating existence, an existential existence. In this life, you sit side by side not across from one another. You give up meeting the warm eyes of “other” for the emptiness of a blinking screen.

Have we come to a place where we choose computers over relationships? Go into any café in the world and witness the buzz of human interaction replaced by people staring into computer screens while sipping mocha lattes.

Our children’s short attention spans, lack of real interest in school and compromised emotional health has everything to do with living this movie/computer life. Our children are the school environments they spend inordinate time in and what they are becoming experts at is escapism.

Not only do children spend hours a day watching television, they spend additional hours a day on the computer. One writer darkly likens our growing need to be plugged in to heroin addiction. You want more and more and before you know it, daylight has turned to dusk and you have had little real human interaction and worse, somehow you don’t miss it – because our brains are evolving.

We have all seen children miraculously sedated when the TV is turned on. Their eyes glaze. Their body and mouths go slack. They become like zombies. This behavior management technique is used in schools and homes but what does it mean, this physical and emotional powerlessness to screens? Are we all helpless to technology? Are we replacing our edgy, curious, creative humanity to blunting, paralyzing disconnection?

The less we interact with one another, the less we want to. Escapism is a real problem for kids today. Their inability to tolerate feelings, to know themselves, to care about their neighbor, to pull themselves from apathy to action are learned behaviors, learned at home and in school. No one is learning when they are escaping.

Being human means engaging with one’s self and one’s world in authentic, real ways, where eyes meet eyes and words are heard and people become visible to one another.

We must never take the education of our children’s humanity for granted. Brains have one active rule of operation – use or lose it. Social emotional learning in school is the book life we need. Where else can all children work together what it means to be human?

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