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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

When will they ever learn?

"You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" (Luke 12:56)

I've been thinking again about these words of Jesus from the gospel appointed for a recent Sunday service. I first heard them as very angry. Today, I hear them as deeply frustrated. It's a sentiment I share this morning.

Let me explain.

I recently made a decision not to attend my high school reunion. This was the first time I was actually invited. As you might imagine, there have been a few reunions since I graduated from high school. I won't say how many, but I'll just say this one began with a prime number and ended with a zero and we'll just leave it at that.

It was ultimately a matter of pragmatics. I have not yet learned how to be in two places at one time. I chose to be with my friend, the man who was my rector when I was going through the ordination process, as he marked his 40th year of ordained ministry and retired from Hawai'i to live in Thailand.

So, the choice was spending the evening with people I haven't seen since high school in Westport, MA or being in Honolulu, HI with my dear friend.

Hmm . . . Which was the better portion? As you might imagine, I didn't have to ponder that question too long to find an answer.

However, this particular anniversary caused me to go online and check out some of the local newspapers to see what's been happening in "my little town". Local newspapers are one of the best ways I know to check out the "sign of the times."

What I thought I knew about the place I grew up is that the Fall River - New Bedford area has always been (no doubt will always be) a predominantly blue-collar mill town. These towns, like so many like them across America, are always a magnet for the next wave of immigration.

In my home town, the first wave of immigrants were the English and the Irish, who worked the textile mills of Fall River and New Bedford, Lowell and Lawrence. Then, the French Canadians came, followed by the Portuguese, to work the mills and then the factories and shops.

There are now Cape Verdians and other Africans, Brazilians and Puerto Ricans as well as those from Portugal who come to live with their relatives who have "made it" - gotten their foothold in the American dream.

When I was in high school, the greatest emphasis was on education, which has always been the pathway out of oppression. When that path is followed, it ultimately places one on the road to success. Achievement and excellence, perseverance and diligence were the watchwords of my journey.

We were also almost literally carried along on the hopes and prayers of our grandparents, as well as some of our aunts and uncles. The memories of the sacrifices they made in order to be in this country were never far from our minds and our hearts. We had an unspoken obligation and a debt to pay, and education not only repaid that debt, but it also came as its own reward.

The American Dream has never been an easy one to achieve, but if newspapers provide an accurate read of the "sign of the times" then the American Dream has never been more illusive in this country for the next wave of immigrants as it is, presently, in my little town.

The Fall River Herald News did not disappoint in that regard. I was stunned to read of the increase in violent crimes - petty theft to grand larceny as well as more than a fair share of domestic violence - the overwhelming majority of which were drug related.

The really shocking news, however, was to read the front page headline of the latest referendum for the town of Fall River, my birth plance and one of two cities which sandwitch my home town of Westport, the other being New Bedford.

The mandate was that B.M.C. Durfee High School be required to provide each student with their own complete set of text books so that homework could actually be done at home.

Wait! Just hang on one millisecond and read that again.

The referendum is to provide a mandate that the school be REQUIRED to provide EACH student with their own set of text books.

Okay. Here's my question:

Since WHEN was that NOT a requirement of a public school?

There are larger questions: Can no one see the connection between the rise in violent crimes and drug use and the fact that students don't have books to do homework at night?

Can no one see that when you obscure the path to the achievement of dreams, you take away the hope of the poor?

Can no one see that when you take away the hope of the poor, one of the inevitable results is the increased incidence of violence?

Here I am, all these many years after graduation from high school, an Episcopal priest in the affluent suburb of Chatham, NJ. I could never have imagined, in my wildest high school dreams, that I would be where I am today. It is only because I dared to dream audacious dreams and ask bold questions that, by the grace of God, I am who I am and where I am today.

The Rabbi I follow, one Jesus of Nazarath, also dreams bold dreams and asks bold questions: "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens."

I think I'm glad I didn't go "home" for my high school reunion. I think it might have broken my heart to see what has happened in my little town since I graduated from Westport High School - a time when I, like many of my classmates, was full of hope and ambition and excitement about my future.

It makes me wonder how God's heart must ache that we do not use the gift of our intelligence and read the signs of the times. The relationship between hope and peace and despair and violence has never been more clear. What will it take for us to open our eyes and see what is right in front of our eyes?

We, in my generation were called "the flower children" - mostly because we rebelled against an unjust war and worked for peace. Lo, these many years later, it seems history is repeating itself. I understand it often does, especially for those who dare not learn its lessons. At least, that's what I was taught at dear WHS.

Pete Seeger, one of the psalmists of my generation asked, "Where have all the flowers gone?"

One of the answers was, "Young girls have picked them every one."

Another question was, "Where have all the graveyards gone?"

And the answer was, "Covered with flowers every one."

The question still is asked, "When will they ever learn?"

Indeed, when will we ever learn?


Bill said...

Elizabeth+ Asks: “Here are the bigger questions: Can no one see the connection between the rise in violent crimes and drug use and the fact that students don't have books to do homework at night?”

Yes, absolutely. Kids are not stupid they learn from the time they are babes to read the mind set of adults. If they see that the adult establishment doesn’t care enough to provide the proper learning tools and the proper learning environment, then in their view we don’t care. We’ve effectively told them, “You’re on your own”. They feel unloved and unwanted. Then they turn to the only place left where they feel wanted and that’s where their peers are. If their peers are in the streets and in gangs, that’s where they will end up. That was clearly evident in last years motion picture “Freedom Writers”.

Jim said...

I suppose that in small part it depends where one went to school. In the 'inner ring' suburb of Chicago where I went to school, and most of what I knew of Illinois at the time, no school provided text books. We bought them, and sold them back rather like the college systems. We knew that particullarly disadvantaged students could get a voucher.

I recall brining home the reciept for the check my mom had given me in blank. I had needed help to fill it in, I did not know how to write a check for more than $99. She was stunned. I can imagine that in some households those vouchers were a blessing.

Here in the political issue. I do not think providing books is the State's job. I think it was mine when my kids were in school, and is now my son's for his kids. I do think that in cases of real demonstratable need, the community should help.

In that simple paragraph is a major set of political assumptions. I am sitting here unemployed and soon to be in foreclosure. I do not look for the State to bail me out, I look for jobs. Who knows, even at 61, I may find one!


KJ said...

This is my 30th year post high school. Oy! I must confess that I have been relieved that my class has not managed to put together a reunion yet. I graduated in a class of 21 from a very conservative Protestant Christian school. So now post-out, a reunion sounds like a lot of work since I wouldn't go without my husband, and there's nothing quite like being the only ones wearing red noses at a party.

Muthah+ said...

The job of a prophet is not to tell the future but to interpret the signs of the times. Keep it up, sister.

Lefty said...

I can't tell you how much this post has bothered me.

While it's true that we in the greater Fall River area are facing huge challenges with drugs and crime, our local economy and the quality of our educational system, there are so many factors that account for that, that I find it a bit unfair that your comments are based on just a snapshot view of what's going on.

The rising cost of housing has sent the poorest of the poor from the Boston area to seek residence in our area. It's a demographic that just isn't equipped to contribute to the local economy while at the same time placing additional burden on local agencies and schools.

The manufacturing and textile base that has fueled our local economy for over a century is practically nonexistent leaving behind a local economy struggling to diversify with a workforce ill equipped to do much else.

Federal and state mandates in education (No Child Left Behind/MCAS) place huge burdens on cities and towns to improve education but the Federal mandates have been underfunded (as we pour money into Iraq) and the state has slashed local aid forcing communities to cut the very programs that were beginning to show results.

And the list goes on and on.

Despite our troubles the region is still a gem of ethnic culture, history, and geography just waiting to be discovered.