Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Shit. And Other Hard Feelings

Not for the squeamish or squirming of conscience.
Messy emotions are scooped out from one's
bowels and examined like pumpkin pulp
for the extraction of meaningful seeds.

"Who me" he cried with owl like innocence.
"Who me" I echoed.  I apologized
to my abuser, and felt like a loser.
I cried out to no one. Kept it all inside.
On account of that I myself despised.
He tried to trip me, and I felt guilty.

Saddens me that I can no longer believe
the man I adored because I can see
his shaky hand, and what is up his sleeve.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

My Radar Moment: An Open Letter to Senator Al Franken

Dear Senator Franken,

When I heard about the accusations of sexual harassment that were made against you, I felt really hurt and angry. I had what I consider my Radar moment.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye convinces Radar to drive to the nearby village and find some young woman with whom he can have some fun. A short while later, Radar returns on a stretcher.

Hawkeye operates on Radar, and then he gets drunk. When casualties come in, he has to leave the operating room to go throw up.

At one point Radar says to Hawkeye, "A lot of people look up to you. They want to be just like you."

That roughly sums up how I have felt about you, Senator Franken. You are a published author, a comedian, and now a Senator.  When I see you on TV, I see a man who reminds me of how my dad looked when he was in his sixties.  You are my landsman.

And like my dad, you are honest, ethical and you have an earthy sense of humor.  It's not that I wanted to be just like you, but you are certainly someone I always thought I'd like to know.

I joke about being crude, rude, lewd and socially unacceptable.  However, I am only that way when I feel comfortable with someone and rarely in public. My Litvac tendencies often overtake those earthier impulses. That's the Lithuanian Jewish side of my ethnic background. Litvacs, as you undoubtedly know, are the Jewish equivalents of Puritans.  Think of it as my superego and my id having an argument, and my superego winning.

If I ever felt as if I invaded someone's private space, I'd feel compelled to apologize immediately.  While what you have done is not nearly as bad as what other men have done, my reaction still is, "How could you?"

In your apology on Facebook, you mention feeling ashamed.  I personally don't want your shame, Senator Franken.  Neither shame nor guilt help us move forward.  We need to make sure we follow through on what I wrote about  here:

We all need to make sure that no girl or woman will ever again feel shame, guilt or embarrassment for what happened to them.  We need to make sure that all girls and women will be believed whether they report these incidents right away or take thirty-seven years like I did.  We all owe it to those girls and women to speak up now.

Senator Franken, I am requesting that you examine other times when you may have behaved in a manner less than becoming  a member of the Senate. If you really intend to advocate on behalf of women, then it is truly essential that you come clean about any questionable behavior that could potentially see the light of day.  As I recently tweeted half jokingly:  Sexual harasser pro tip: Preemptively confess before your accusers have a chance to call you out in the media. #skeletonsinyourcloset #MeToo

Perhaps it's not fair of me to hold you and other Democrats to a higher standard than I hold Republicans, but I expect more from you nevertheless. I expect Democrats to truly care about social justice, and it's disappointing when I observe a man like you falling short of the mark.

When I see a man like you doing things that are inappropriate and frankly disrespectful of women and denying us our autonomy, it makes me wonder about men in general. I have been dealing with trust issues for my entire life. There are things that happened to me that I still can't bring myself to talk about in the open, and seeing news about you and other men whom I have admired starts to close me down all over again.

Towards the end of that M*A*S*H episode, Hawkeye comes up to Radar and says something like, "If you must worship the ground I walk on, I guess I can live with that."

Radar responds,  "I'd just as soon not."

To which Hawkeye responds,  "That's OK, too."

Granted, Senator Franken, you never asked for me or other women to admire you.  Unlike Radar O'Reilly, I am much too old to be naive.  I have yet to worship the ground that you or any other man has walked on.  Although there may have been a time when I would have been reduced to awkward small talk, now I would look you in the eye and tell you to straighten up and fly right.  I insist you look at yourself in the mirror.

When you finally allow for introspection, then you will finally be able to champion women the way you truly intend to. And then those of us who have had those #MeToo experiences will find a way to heal and trust again. Meanwhile, I am not relying on men to help me get there.  I am tapping into that deep well of strength that I've had since I was about nine. 

Now that the floodgates have opened up with many of us coming forward with our #MeToo stories, I hope that this will lead to all of us healing and growing. Don't hold back, Senator Franken.  Confession is good for the soul. Not just your soul, but the soul of the nation.

Thank you.

Debra S. Gleason (Irish by marriage, Jew by birth, atheist by circumstances, and passionate warrior for all underdogs.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Switchblade Knife Against My Neck and Other Horror Stories

"Would you like to meet God?"

Before I could respond, I had a switchblade knife pressed against my neck. Stunned did not begin to describe what I felt at that moment.  Scenes in movies or crime shows often involved a woman being accosted by a stranger in a dark alley. But I wasn't being pushed against garbage cans  in an alley in the inner city.  We were standing  in the English Department chairman's backyard at the annual pig roast.    Although the yard was very large, we weren't even that isolated.  The only similarity to those scenes was that it was dark. 

This man, a PhD candidate with whom I had interacted occasionally, used the cover of darkness to attack me.  Did he intend to drag me off and rape me?  Did he just mean it as a bizarre practical joke?  Regardless, I was terrified.  I was couldn't utter a sound.  Thankfully another PhD candidate came along and very calmly removed this man's hand from my throat. 

"I will be forced to rape you."

That's what my friend's boyfriend told me when I refused to have sex with him.  He then went on to explain that, because he was of Scandinavian descent, he wouldn't fare well in prison.   

When I didn't react to the implication that he'd commit suicide in prison, he left.  I reckon I lucked out. 

"Let him drive you home."

When I began my graduate studies at Northern Illinois University, I was still a virgin.  Some members of the department had a goal:  corrupt Debbie.  I was the straight laced one. I didn't sniff coke. I didn't smoke.  I dressed modestly.  Even during happy hour I would nurse two, three drinks over several hours.     

Even though this TA (teaching assistant) invited everyone to a  party that was on the same night as Erev Yom Kippur, I still wanted to attend.  I went to services  carrying a bottle of wine.  After services were over, I walked off campus. I just had a bit of the wine, and left the rest of it for others. 

I played card games.  I kibbitzed with other members of the department.  After a while, I wanted to go home.  The woman who had invited all of us decided to play a joke on me.  She insisted that I not walk back to campus. It was obvious that the Director of Graduate Studies was drunk, yet she insisted I accept a ride from him.  I tried to beg off, but she would have none of it.

His driving made me so nervous that I decided to have him drop me off several blocks away from where I lived.  Just as I was opening up the door on the passenger side, he yanked me over to his side of the car. He tried to kiss me on the lips.  I turned my face away, so he only kissed my cheek.  As he tried to grasp me a second time, I managed to get out of his car.

The following Monday, I told the other TA what had happened.  I could tell from the horrified look on her face that her joke had gone too far.  No doubt she thought I'd just be frightened by the professor's driving and that would be it. 

Not once did it occur to me to report these incidents. The PhD candidate who helped me out never suggested that we call the cops or at least tell some authority figure at the pig roast.  Because of my misplaced loyalty to my friend, I didn't tell her about how her boyfriend had threatened me. I was afraid that she wouldn't believe me, and would stop speaking to me.

Neither the woman who had thrown the party nor our mutual friend suggested I report the Director of Graduate Studies.  Perhaps it didn't occur to them.  Or, perhaps, like me, they were just plain scared.  Perhaps none of us really knew what was the proper and necessary thing to do. 

My impression is that only recently has the broad definition of sexual assault been put forth.  Or perhaps I hadn't been paying attention.  When it finally dawned on me, I could no longer be in denial about what had happened to me.  And lately my mind has been screaming at me, "tell people about this.  Do it NOW!" 

Silence is NOT golden when it's used to cover up rape and other incidents of sexual assault.  A woman's credibility is always questioned.  And yet men on my Twitter timeline are wondering why it took so many years for women to come forward with these accusations.  When men are in positions of authority and can either make or break a career, it's clear to me that that alone would cause a woman to hesitate. 

In my case it was simply that I wanted to forget all about these incidents.  For years I had managed to block the switchblade incident.  I don't know what caused that memory to come flooding back to the forefront of my mind.  To this day I cannot remember that man's name.  I remember more or less what he looked like. I even remember liking him, and that is what makes what happened all the more jarring.

That brings me to the heart of the matter: not tarring all men with that same insidious brush.  I love men.  The menfolk whom I consider friends I know I can trust implicitly.  The menfolk I count as friends are mensches.  We may disagree about various issues, but I know that they will have my back.

To all you honorable menfolk out there:  Thank you.  We need more men who will believe women, stand up for women, and encourage us to fight our own battles by speaking up about injustices we have experienced and to support the many other women who have had similar experiences. 

To all the girls and  women out there who have been too frightened to come forward,  #MeToo is not a fading fad.  #MeToo is for all the girls and women who have come before us who didn't ever have anyone tell them that it was not only OK but necessary for them to speak up. We all need to make sure that no girl or woman will ever again feel shame, guilt or embarrassment for what happened to them.  We need to make sure that all girls and women will be believed whether they report these incidents right away or take thirty-seven years like I did.  We all owe it to those girls and women to speak up now.  Loudly and clearly.  And, above all, we need to refuse, once and for all, to let ourselves  be silenced. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Rest in Peace, Riotous Richie

My dear friend, RicHard Makepeace, passed away mid-July.  Why, you wonder, is the H capitalized in the middle of his name?  Because, as he explained it, it was HARD to be RicHard. This was especially true during the last two years of his life. He struggled with depression and PSTD on top of multiple health issues, including diabetes, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea and being on blood thinners.

Richie had an exceptionally difficult childhood. He was the eldest son born to a couple of abusive grifters. Both his mom and his dad used to beat him.  When Richie was about nine years old he had been beaten so badly by his mother, that he had to be resuscitated.

During the Vietnam era, Richie ran away from home and enlisted in the Marines. One day, when he was coming off the shooting range, he was told he was going to be sent overseas. He became a conscientious objector on the spot. He argued that he wasn't going to go overseas and shoot at people who had never harmed him.  Because he refused a direct order, he was sent to Leavenworth. His girlfriend contacted the American Friends Service Committee, and they helped him receive a general discharge.

Many years later, Richie  changed his surname to Makepeace, because it occurred to him that his calling was exactly that:  to make peace.  Prior to making that commitment, he  struggled with alcoholism.  He used to steal from people, much like many people who struggle with various addictions.  He regularly attended AA meetings which was essential to his recovery.

By the time our paths crossed, Richie had been sober for many years.  He became my mentor as well as my friend. He started me on a path towards peace and away from rage.  Although we only saw each other four times, we talked on the phone fairly often.  And, although I continue to have anger issues, I am much more able to get my outbursts under control.

Back when I first knew him, he referred to himself as Riotous Richie.  He had a great sense of humor.  Richie used to poke gentle fun at his upbringing.  Given that he was born and spent his early years in rural Ohio, he used to talk about what he called "hillbilly ebonics."

Richie had a way of putting people at ease. Making them laugh. He almost always had some interesting observations to share. Richie was probably the least judgmental person I ever knew.  He always had a way of seeing another person's point of view.  He helped me gain perspective on a number of occasions.  He did more than tolerate someone else's viewpoint. Regardless of where a person was on their life's journey, he accepted all people for how they were.

As Richie aged, he started to feel as if he was more of a burden and believed himself to be useless. I couldn't convince  him otherwise. During the last two years of his life, I ended up giving him a lot of emotional support.  When Richie and his  wife moved from New York State to Washington State, that cross country move took him away from friends, family and, more importantly, from his AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) community. Richie felt terribly isolated.

The work that Richie did for AVP gave his life purpose in a way that few other things did. Richie felt very energized in his role as an AVP facilitator at prisons. Because he spent his pre-teen and teen years living across from projects in New York City, he was able to cross cultural and racial divides in a way that most white people could not. Richie used to joke that he was really an old black woman trapped inside a white man's body.

When Richie finally connected with the Washington State AVP communities I thought he was going to pull out of his downward spiral, but it wasn't meant to be. Instead, Richie turned more inward. He started dwelling more and more on his abusive childhood.  Although he stood by his decision to separate from most of his biological family, there was still  part of him that wished things had been different.  When he heard that one of his sisters had passed away and that both his mother and father had also died, Richie regretted that he never had a more concrete way to come to terms with them.

Because of the shame he felt from the verbal and emotional abuse heaped on him by his wife, Richie could not bring himself to ask people for the emotional support he so badly needed. He felt that, as a former Marine, he ought to have been stronger and much more self contained. I couldn't convince him otherwise. I am grateful that, as his friend and chosen sister, he at least felt comfortable enough to reach out to me.

It was hard to watch him struggle. I understood implicitly that Richie had to help himself, and I felt, for the most part, that he was either unable or unwilling to do so. Because I had no access to the AVP community,  I was unable to do more for him. From fall 2015 until the end of his life, he was focusing more and more on just wanting to leave.  Not just his home but the planet.

One thing that Richie always said to me was, "love them more."  He always kept his side of the bridge open. He always kept a door open.  Regardless of what people thought of him, he always loved them.  Since then, I have tried to do the same thing.  There is always a path towards both forgiveness and redemption.

I wish that Richie had applied "love them more" to himself the way he did to other people.  He could not forgive himself for weaknesses he perceived himself to have. During a particularly tumultuous time he was having with his wife, he considered staying with us for a while.  He abruptly changed his mind. Later on, Richie told me that he was sure I'd end up disappointed with him.  It saddened me that he couldn't trust that our friendship was strong enough to overcome any disappointment or disagreement we may have had.

I repeatedly told Richie, he wasn't heavy.  He was my brother.  And, so, my brother, I hope that you have finally found the peace that eluded you during your lifetime.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

My Not So Ridiculous Reason For Voting For Hillary Clinton

During the DNC, Sarah Silverman told the Bernie or Bust folks, "you're being ridiculous."   That is not how one wins people over, assuming they can be won over to begin with.

That remark, coupled  with remarks made by the sorest winners I've ever encountered, have caused me to think, "Oh the hell with it.  Let them vote for Hillary Clinton."  I was thinking that, for the first time in my adult life I would not vote for president.  Only down ticket.  I rationalized further that since I live in Illinois that it doesn't matter whether or not I vote for Hillary Clinton.

After hearing Khizr Khan's speech I started to rethink my attitude. But what really caused me to shift was this article sent to me by my eldest brother about the fate of Lithuanian Jews during World War II.  

I started to think about why my grandparents came here. They came here because they had witnessed pogroms.  They came here, as did all immigrants, in hopes of a better life for their children and their children's children.

My Grandma S, my mother's mother, never forgave herself for leaving her father behind because he ended up starving to death.  She really had no choice.  During World War I, she had to hide from hungry German soldiers who went from house to house looking for food.  And so she left on an arduous journey that would take her from her beloved Vilna to Amsterdam where she boarded a ship that took her to a port in Canada. From there she wended her way to East Texas where Tante, as she was known, had settled with her family.

My Grandpa S, my mother's father, joined his brothers in Chicago.  Their sister went down to Texas and that is where she met my Grandma S's older brother.  My grandpa went down for the wedding, and that is how he met my grandma.

For many years I thought that my great aunt, Anna, was my grandpa's only sister. Then, in 2001, after my uncle (my mother's brother) and my aunt returned from Lithuania and Belarus, I found out that my grandpa had had another  sister, my great aunt Rachel who had stayed behind.  After they visited my grandpa S's shtetl, which is now part of Belarus, they took a trip to Ponar, the mass murder and burial site mentioned in the Newsweek article.  They said Kaddish for my great aunt Rachel and her family. This is the grave site.

That is when it began to sink in as to why I should vote for Hillary Clinton.  And, because his own father came here to escape certain death, perhaps is part of the reason why Bernie Sanders has been urging us diehard supporters to do so.

From the Wikipedia page about Bernie Sanders:

Sanders became interested in politics at an early age: "A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important."[25][26][27][nb 1]

Back in February when I traveled from my neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side to a Bernie Sanders rally at Chicago State University, a friend of mine, who is of Hispanic origin and no stranger to the streets, expressed concern for my safety.  When I took the Red Line on the way home, I started out in a predominantly black neighborhood.  I wasn't the least bit concerned about traveling on an el train very late at night because I was surrounded by Bernie supporters.  It was only when three young white men boarded at 35th Street (Bridgeport), that I had to keep from jumping out of my seat.  All I could think of was that they were of Lithuanian descent and, if they knew I was Jewish, they'd want to harm me.  It may seem silly, but when I am surrounded by men of Eastern European descent, I get scared.

I think about my great aunt, Rita, who, as a young dentist, was conscripted  by the German army during WWI  to take care of their soldiers. I think about how she and her husband hid out in the Parisian countryside during World War II. I think about the bureaucrat who told my great uncle not to sign up for rations, and probably saved their lives. All the Jews who signed up were rounded up.  I think about the letter my grandma received, written in several different languages, talking about how she and Sasha came out of hiding after the war.  I think about how all I have to remember her by is a grave in New Jersey, because, after surviving that horror, she died in a hotel fire in New York.

I think about how my father's mother left behind sisters back in the Ukraine.  I wonder how many of them either perished in the concentration camps or were murdered and buried in mass graves just like my great aunt Rachel.

I think about our Kid Q, who has studied about the Holocaust.  I have told her a bit about my family history.  She knows that we have lost people.  During the Republican convention, she asked my husband and me if we would have to move if Trump becomes president.  My husband said no, but I am not so sure.

When I think about all of the hate rhetoric directed at Muslims, I am reminded of that quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I read a remark on a Facebook page about how four years of Trump won't be so bad.  For folks like that, I invite them to read about Martin Niemöller to whom the above poem is attributed.  By his own admission to Leo Stein, he originally supported the Nazi party and welcomed Hitler:

I find myself wondering about that too. I wonder about it as much as I regret it. Still, it is true that Hitler betrayed me. I had an audience with him, as a representative of the Protestant Church, shortly before he became Chancellor, in 1932. Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: "There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany."

I really believed, given the widespread anti-Semitism in Germany, at that time—that Jews should avoid aspiring to Government positions or seats in the Reichstag. There were many Jews, especially among the Zionists, who took a similar stand. Hitler's assurance satisfied me at the time. On the other hand, I hated the growing atheistic movement, which was fostered and promoted by the Social Democrats and the Communists. Their hostility toward the Church made me pin my hopes on Hitler for a while.

I am paying for that mistake now; and not me alone, but thousands of other persons like me.

My ancestors did not endure conditions in steerage just to see the United States of America become like Eastern Europe had been and continues to be.  Perhaps I am being overly cautious, but people who claim that what happened in Germany cannot possibly happen here are in denial about human nature.  When a presidential candidate talks about "Second Amendment people," it is time to think about ensuring that that person doesn't get elected.  For people who claim, from a progressively purist standpoint, that Hillary Clinton isn't good enough, let me remind you that "perfect is the enemy of the good."  Sometimes we need to settle for good enough.  Now is one of those times.

Your vote is your voice. Now more than ever.  If the Bernie or Bust folks view me as a sell out, so be it.  I am a romantic and idealist at heart, but I have a layer of pragmatism over that.  Survival trumps idealism.  I will vote for Hillary Clinton because my ancestors left an oppressive situation in Eastern Europe.  Those who chose to stay, like my great aunt, Rachel, have only a grave marker to remind people of their existence.  I want to leave more of a mark than that.  Not only do I owe it to my ancestors, but I owe it to my daughters to set certain feelings aside and do the right thing. And that is casting my vote for Hillary Clinton for President of the United States.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Words Are Not To Be Played With: An Appeal To The City of Galt, California

There's this town in Northern California called Galt.  They have a Facebook page and a Twitter account.  According to their Wikipedia page, "The population was 23,647 at the 2010 census, up from 19,472 at the 2000 census." Still a small town by most standards.

How did this town come across my radar?  Someone on Twitter retweeted this article by the National Down Syndrome Society about Special Ed's Brewery in Galt, California, owned by Ed and Cheryl Mason.

The article concludes with a request that we contact Mark Crews, Galt's mayor. Listed his email address, his phone number, his fax number, Galt's Facebook page and Twitter account.

I am as much into word play as the next gal, but I draw the line at word play that could be hurtful.  I figured, as was confirmed by this article in The Sacramento Bee that the owners of this restaurant, Ed and Cheryl Mason, merely meant that as a play on words.

As Cheryl states, " “People are complaining about the name. The name is Special Ed’s Brewery, not Special Ed Brewery. My husband has been known as Ed or Eddie all his life, and he’s special to me,” she added.

She mentions they had no intention of making fun of special needs people.  I would take that statement at face value, except for one thing.  Their advertising slogans are anything but innocent.  As quoted in the National Down Syndrome Society article, one slogan is, "ride the short bus to special beer."  That is bad enough, but the second slogan, mentioned in The Sacramento Bee article is really beyond the pale.  "'tard tested, 'tard approved."

These slogans make Cheryl Mason's claims really disingenuous.  I have no doubt that she think her husband, Ed, is special.  But this couple crossed the line to objectionable language that is hurtful and filled with prejudice against the special needs people they claim not to be insulting. At the very least these folks are simply being ignorant.  At the worst they are being malicious.

Perhaps, as a writer, I am more aware of words and their meanings than the average person.   There's an old saying, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me."  Words do hurt.  They can go straight to the heart as sure as any bullet.

Our daughters Kid O and Kid Q both have special needs.  Kid O is  severely disabled and cannot speak.  Kid Q is ablebodied, but she is learning disabled.  As their mother, I am aware of what an uphill battle they both face in terms of being accepted by a society that values conformity over anything else.  I know that because I knew as a kid that I didn't fit in.  As hard as I tried, the more I was aware that I was an outsider. I gave up trying because being a nonconformist was better than being depressed trying to be a conformist.

I have always wanted to fit in.  I felt for years as if everyone was joining hands in one big circle and I was running around the outside looking for someone to let me join in.  It has made for a very lonely and painful existence.

Our daughters and their Special Ed classmates have challenges ahead of them. Kid O, who is now twenty, can be very primal.  Sometimes she screams at the top of her lungs.  I know that some people have assumed that we are either neglecting her or harming her.  We know that we are taking care of her the best we know how.  It would help if either she could speak or we were telepathic.  She does her best to communicate, and we do our best to understand.

Kid Q just graduated from 8th grade. Sometimes she panics and sometimes she even wanders off.  Early last September she had a bout of insomnia that caused her to wander off in the middle of the night. Thankfully I am a light sleeper and heard her slam the front door  as she left the house.  I woke up my sound sleeper husband and we, with the help of a few friends, went searching for her.  My husband and good friend brought her back about a half an hour later.  Except for the fact that she was barefoot, she was otherwise safe and sound.  We never did find her gym shoes.

I do my best to reassure Kid Q.  I do my best to be with and take care of Kid O without expressing frustration or resentment.  One thing they both know is that I love and accept them.  My husband and I are one of the few people who will love them unequivocally.

Aside from love, an individual needs and deserves respect.  We all deserve to be treated with dignity.  I know that I have been scrutinized by neighbors and strangers ever since Kid O was a baby.  People stare at us all the time. Someone, probably a kid responding to a dare, wrote "Mental" on our masonry.
One kid once made some noise at us while I was rolling Kid O to her bus.

When we casually toss around words like "retard" or "'tard" or "moron" or "idiot," we usually mean to express contempt.  It's a way, similar to the use of racial or religious slurs, of denying someone's  humanness. We can only express contempt towards people who we don't know.  Many people do not know people with mental or physical disabilities.  Or, if we do, the disabilities are perhaps more mild and that makes it easier for us to accept.  It makes it easy to use these words because there's no one who comes to mind.

As AM Baggs said, "Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible." I wrote to expand upon that idea.

There are people behind these words. Although Shylock was talking about being a Jew when he said this:  " If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die," it can be applied to all people who seem to be different from ourselves.

Mentally and physically disabled people are no different from the rest of the population.  They have needs. They have desires. They love and are loved. They laugh. They cry.  When they are pricked, they bleed.  When they are called names they die.  Not literally but words do affect the heart and the spirit.  It's a death by inches.

According to Cheryl Mason, we are all being "ridiculous" in our reactions on behalf of people we love and care about.  That doesn't seem apologetic to me.  My impression is that she resents being called out on her prejudices.  No one wants the Masons to close down their business.  We simply want her and her husband to have some compassion towards mentally and physically disabled individuals.

It's not my intention to hurt the Masons. I simply want them to be aware that words are not to be played with. If they are willing to make a move in that direction then my little petition  will go away.  

Monday, May 2, 2016

Landscaper! There's a Weed in My Sod: Why We Need Inclusion in Classrooms and Community

Note:  I wrote this several years ago and had originally posted it at my now defunct Educollab blog.  Special acknowledgement to Alec Couros @courosa who shared this video which inspired this post.   I decided to republish this after seeing the Autism Speaks celebration at Kid O's high school.  Rewatching this video by AM Baggs, I continue to be struck by her strong concluding statement:  ,"Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible."  This is what we all must strive for.

Waiter! There's a fly in my soup! What's a fly doing in my soup?

Looks like it's doing the backstroke.


The homeowner is explaining to the decorator and head of landscape team what colors he wants his rooms painted. Outside the team is putting down sod. As they enter each room the homeowner turns to the decorator and says, "I want this room to be painted (insert color here.) The decorator, instead of acknowledging what his client just said, shouts out the window, "Green side up!" This continues room after room after room. Finally the peeved homeowner turns to the decorator. "Have you heard anything I said? I keep telling you my color preferences, and instead of acknowledging them, you keep shouting out the window, "Green side up! Why is that?" The decorator reddens. "I am so sorry, sir. I have been taking notes. If I do not keep shouting green side up out the window, there's a chance that the (insert derogatory slur for ethnic or racial group of your choice or offensive term like "retard") will not remember to set the sod the right side up."


I have been engaged in doing my usual proto-gardening, as I call it. I have been removing dead leaves and other debris that have been covering the ground. I established two new garden spots last fall, so this is especially important. Much as I love winter, I need to do this out of anticipation of new growth. I get anxious to see, what, if any, of the bulbs I planted the previous fall are starting to come out of the ground. I call it, "coaxing out the green." It's a sacred time for me as my world shifts from darkness to light. When I see a tiny bud start to poke out of the ground, I very painstakingly uncover a bit more soil and remove any debris around the tiny plants. They are not my plants. They belong really to Mother Earth. I treat each tiny thing with a great deal of reverence. "Welcome to the world," I whisper. And, yet, when I see a blade of grass or a tiny bit of clover, I yank it. I have no qualms about yanking gill o'er the ground, as wonderful as it smells, since it would crowd out the rest in no time at all. It is, as gardeners would say, an invasive species. Not to be confused with non-native, which is a different thing altogether.

This past week, as I have been clearing out my garden spots, I have also been haunted by In My Language
written and acted and produced by A M Baggs. I forced myself to watch this three, four, five times, even as I feel myself recoil at another human being who is so very different from me. She is noisy. She moves. A lot. She offends my sensibilities which desire stillness of action and quietness of mind. Every time I watch I want to shout, "stop, stop, stop!" Her perpetual interaction with her environment just about exhausts me. And, yet, in the end, my heart centered self manages to feel empathy, something that I suspect would seem really ridiculous to her and possibly even mistaken for pity. She would probably be just as baffled by my emotional connection to my world as I am by her endless movement. In the end when A M Baggs asserts,"Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible," I am thrown back on my heels. She expresses exactly what I have felt about why kids like Kid O, the child of my heart, need to be included. Both profoundly autistic people as well as severely physically disabled people are labeled as non-persons. So even if A M Baggs wouldn't get my emotions and perhaps be repelled by them, she would understand my desire for others in school and in the community at large to accept my daughter as fully human.
None of us are weeds to be disposed of. We all form an intricate part of the educational ecosystem. We all have our loud humanity that demands attention. And care. And understanding. As we slide into the charter school chasm, we need to remember how individuals make up a community. If gifted children are not exposed to kids like Kid O, then we run the risk of teaching these children that only kids like them deserve a quality education. Kids who attend charter schools may be a racially and religiously and culturally diverse group. But there are certainly no weeds. No intellectual eyesores. Poor tester that I am, it is doubtful even I would find my way to a charter school let alone my beloved Kid O.

When the first ed psychologist placed his stamp on Kid O, he essentially denied her not only a place in a classroom, but a place in the community as well. When the advocate who was helping me, in a nominal way, try to advocate for Kid O's rightful place, he told me that since she couldn't speak, perhaps their assessment was right. I knew he had a special needs son who had received assistive technology. I asked him if this was "I've got mine and the hell with you." He paused. Then he apologized. All along he had been discarding my observations and implicitly siding with people at the school. Because she couldn't speak, he was dismissing Kid O's humanity, sight unseen, perpetuating the narrow definition of who is human and who is not.

Excluding people on the basis of whether or not they had received the gift of speech was never acceptable. With technology it is now inexcusable. It is also inexcusable no to be openminded enough to be generous of heart and spirit. AM Baggs is right. When we do not take the time to learn how someone else is in the world, we do not give them human rights. Should not be easy to deny someone else's humanity. We do that when we label people instead of interacting with them. We do that when we call someone by their disability instead of by their name. Kid O is not cerebral palsy. She is Kid O. We do not do anyone a kindness when we shrug and say, "Oh, that is just them. Just who they are." When we do that, we give them an unacceptable out and us along with them. It is then that we can justify placing one child in Special Ed and one child in the gifted program. I have known kids with CP who have been kept out of gifted programs. They are kept out, not because of lack of demonstrable intellect, but because they are not ablebodied. What impact does being able to walk have on whether or not a person can read or is capable of critical thinking? None. And yet we use disability as a reason to exclude all the time. Would John Milton be rejected from the gifted program? Would Helen Keller?

When we place all the gifted kids into charter schools with the sole aim of preparing them for an Ivy League education, we do them a disservice. We are practicing a form of reverse segregation. Now I am not even remotely suggesting that kids like Kid O belong in the same classroom. But they should at least be in the same building. There is a charter school less than a block away from where Kid O attends school, and `yet those kids and Kid O may as well be worlds apart. It's unlikely their paths will ever cross.

When we segregate gifted kids from the rest of the population, we keep them from learning from people of all abilities and all walks of life. We cheat them out of a life that is richer and fuller because we give them the message, implicitly or explicitly, that "you are better than them," and so close off so many possibilities for many different encounters and interactions. We also do not prepare them adequately for certain curveballs that may be thrown their way. Would they know how to cope with life's disappointments? I am not so sure, when the pressure is for them to succeed at all costs.

When we segregate Special Ed kids from the rest of the school population, we do not allow other kids to learn from them. We also do not allow the Special Ed kids to have interactions they may not otherwise have. When we do not allow for the human element to enter into the equation, then we are left with the freak show that A M Baggs talks about. Gifted kids grow up to go to Ivy League schools and great careers and Special Ed kids grow up and end up in sheltered workshops. We are talking about extremes when we should be talking about happy mediums. We should be talking about community. Not that gifted kids shouldn't go to Ivy League schools, but that Special Ed kids should have the opportunity to interact with them and vice versa. These two populations need each other. Together they thrive. One is not better than the other. Just with different strengths and different weaknesses. They could give each other mutual nurturance. They could accept each other's humanity. Love, compassion and acceptance flow both ways.

All kids need community. We all need to feel a sense of belongingness. When we emphasize competition over collaboration, we perpetuate the idea that someone has got to win and someone else has got to lose. We also perpetuate the idea of us versus them. That is a false dichotomy. There is only us. And together we all need to succeed. We need to bring all of us along, regardless of race, religion, disability and how we perceive all of those things. We cannot have human rights for some and not for others. That cannot stand. By the same token, we cannot have educational opportunities for some and not for others. We cannot have life opportunities for some and not for others.

If we had community then all would learn and all would flourish. All would then learn to the best of their abilities, and none would be left out. We have one planet, one community: the community of mankind. If we were to extend what Dr. King said about not being judged by the color of one's skin but by the contents of one's character to also include regardless of disability, then we could have a really strong community where many more people could be more actively a part and not merely living on the fringes.

When gardens are all uniform, they are not as interesting. When communities are more homogeneous, they may lend comfort to those who dwell within, but there is little to recommend them from the outside. There will always be weeds. There will always be people who live on the fringes. But there are also wildflowers which can lend diversity. When we label someone without examining the whole picture, then sometimes students do not get the help they need.

Some of the best people I have known have been weeds. They do not conform to "sod" standards. We lose much in this society when we do not make the effort to know the weeds and to benefit from them. In other cultures, the witch doctor or shaman knows the benefit of weeds. They use different plants for their healing powers. In some cultures, people who are different are revered. Not shunned. A disabled person is not of any less value than a gifted student. Sometimes they are one and the same.

What is this weed doing in my sod? Giving it nuanced beauty, and much needed character.