(Original Written February 18, 2013)
Most people want to provide their children the best of everything they can afford. It may only be when people attain the affluence of a Bill and a Melinda Gates that they begin to consider that their abundance of financial resources might become a detriment to their children and therefore start to divest themselves of funds by funding efforts to help other people’s children.
But really, we all benefit from helping other people’s children, and nowhere is this more true than in the area of education. Throughout the millennia, as well as being objects of love and pride, children have been a sort of personal social security policy. People invested in their children’s future in part because doing so was a way of investing in their own future. It was expected that if one’s children were a success one not only earned bragging rights, but also attained assurance that those children would make certain that one was well cared for when one could no longer care for oneself. Payback time.
Emanating from this point of view, is a desire not only to provide one’s children with all they need to succeed, but with all they need to compete. It is not enough that one’s child get good grades. One’s child must get better grades than other people’s children who may be competing for the same school or the same scholarship—or later, the same job. This perspective can cause people to feel resentment if earnings they could be spending on the betterment of their own children’s education are taxed to provide better education to the children of someone else—possibly someone who has not earned as much, or saved as much, or in some cases worked as much—only to enable those other people’s children to better compete with one’s own.
However, it is most likely on those other people’s children whom one’s life most directly depends. When we go to a deli counter or restaurant we need to know that instilled in the person working behind the counter or in the kitchen is an ethic that would not allow them to be handling our food if they are coughing and sneezing. When we hire someone to work on a home remodel we need to be confident that that person has mastered basic arithmetic and geometry and the requisite technical skills. We need to know that auto manufacturers have built for us safe and functional vehicles, and later when we bring those vehicles to an auto mechanic, we need to be confident the mechanic has analyzed and corrected all present problems. When we go to the pharmacy we rely on the ability of assistants behind the counter to properly transcribe our prescription so that it can be properly filled. Our own children, if well educated and successfully employed, are probably off at work—possibly even in another state. It is these other people’s children on whom we depend every day of our lives.
And it’s not just on the middle rung of the success ladder that we depend on other people’s children. We also need to know instilled in upper management is an ethic of responsibility, accountability, excellence, empathy and compassion such that the policies management puts in place ensure the best, most qualified people are hired, corners are not cut, supervision and oversight are provided, and people are given time off when needed—even if these measures appear to cost a bit more in the short term. At the same time, upper management requires skilled efficiency experts, putting in place systems that expedite service and hold costs in check without resorting to cutting corners or compromising on product quality or employee relations. These management skills do not come naturally. They must be taught. For a society, the most efficient time to teach these skills is in school—before people enter the work force. All corporations benefit from a work force and a consumer base that has been provided by the government a k-12 education. An evidenced-based program called Roots of Empathy is “changing the world one child at a time,” with guest-parent-infant workshops for grades k-8. More emphasis not less is needed on interpersonal and organizational skills. Whether applied to completing homework, putting on a school play, or playing a baseball game, all these habits of behavior can be taught from the time a child enters kindergarten through to the time they receive their diploma. Remember that book, “Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” What happens when students do not learn these lessons in kindergarten, or any other time from k-12?
Speaking of empathy and efficiency, government needs to provide clear and concise systems in which the public and private sector interface so that people do not have to wait years to receive Veterans’ benefits, or a professional license, or a green card, or action in response to a complaint. Many people have turned negative toward the government. But destroying government—“starving the beast” and laying off government workers—will not make government more efficient, nor will it make people’s lives any easier. Educated, quality government workers (from top to bottom) will. We need to be able to trust that people in government know how to create and communicate policies and protocols; and implement tools such as information systems, quality assurance programs, testing and licensing requirements, sick leave and wage minimums, equitable taxation and distribution of benefits, appropriate laws with incentives and penalties…. Effective legislation and forward-thinking public policy can create a healthy space for growth within the culture. However, it requires strong critical thinking skills to devise and communicate user-friendly systems that will fairly and effectively serve a global super-power with a populace as large and diverse as that of the USA. These skills need to be coached in schools. Civics, history, and literature classes are all rich with material for such lessons. Yet, I recently heard reported that most members of Congress only have a 10th grade level of communication competence. I don’t doubt that. However, what disturbs me even more than the lack of communication competence in Congress are the bizarre analogies I have heard uttered by Supreme Court Justices that have caused me to question not only their communication skills, but also their reasoning skills.
And then there are the geniuses on whom we rely. Chances are, it will be other people’s children who discover the next cures for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s…. Other people’s children will probably develop the next life saving medical devices and the next effective missile defense system. Other people’s children will probably invent the next high-tech means of information storage and communication, or modes of transportation. After all, your kid, as ingenious, and well educated, and industrious as he or she may be, can’t do everything.
In every aspect of life and at every juncture we rely upon other people’s children being knowledgeable, competent, and trained in conscientious ethical behavior. At no time is our reliance on these qualities being instilled in other people’s children more crucial than in those later years of our lives when we may be most helpless and unable to care for ourselves. Chances are, when we have our first heart attack it will be other people’s children on the EMT team and driving the ambulance (and other people’s children deciding whether to get out of the way or try to race out in front); and it will be other people’s children who hold our hearts in their hands and control the flow of anesthesia during the surgery; and other people’s children making sure that our catheter’s are kept hygienic, that our pillows are not placed on the floor when the linens are changed, and that germs are not being swept from another patient’s room into ours. One’s own children will probably be busy with their own lives, their own children, and the requirements of their own jobs. Hopefully, they will take the time to visit should we end up in the hospital, but even if present they cannot keep an eye on and control of everything. Our lives will likely hang on the skills, ethics, critical thinking, innovation, dedication, conscientiousness, compassion, expertise—and yes, education—of other people’s children. So when it comes down to it, from birth to death, morning to night, 365 days a year, it is mostly on other people’s children whom our own lives depend. In fact, it is mostly on other people’s children that our own children’s lives (and their children’s lives) depend.
So, as we as individuals, and we as a nation, consider how we want to allocate resources, we might want to contemplate just how much our own lives, and the lives of those we love, depend on our allocating our resources effectively toward the education of other people’s children.
** Nothing connected with this blog or this website should be considered counseling or treatment. **
(Original written May 7,
The Dalai Lama was giving a talk, “Upholding Universal Ethics and Compassion in Challenging Times” at three universities during a two-day time period and the events were being live-streamed over the Internet. I wanted to record the events for myself and a friend who had provided antiques from her shop to set the stage at one of the universities. Each lecture was roughly 90 minutes and after the final lecture I was feeling very composed. I got in my car and headed out to Radio Shack for supplies to make copies.
Turning onto the main street, within a block I was at a stoplight. It was a four-lane street (two lanes going in one direction and two going in the other) with just one car (an SUV) in front of me. The light turned from red to green, but the SUV showed no sign of moving. I waited a few moments, but as cars whizzed by on my right and left, and others stacked up behind me, I gave the person in front a toot of my horn, assuming that whomever it was had gotten distracted by a phone call or something and would step on the gas once they realized the light had changed.
Well, the person did proceed through the intersection—but once clear—slammed on the breaks and did not budge. Fortunately, I was moving slowly and carefully enough so that I did not rear-end the SUV. Equally fortunate, the person behind me was moving slowly and carefully enough so that they did not rear-end me. Now, I was stuck in the intersection as the time left on that green light was rapidly diminishing along with the calm I had experienced listening to the Dalai Lama. I could not back up because the person behind me had proceeded into the intersection too. I could not move to the right lane to circumvent the SUV because the traffic was moving swiftly in that lane. It was not quiet as bad as being stuck in the middle of a railroad track with an oncoming train, but it wasn’t good either.
Meanwhile, there was no one in front of the SUV that had stopped abruptly. With few options available, I honked my horn. The driver in the SUV stepped on the gas long enough for me to step on the gas—and then slammed on the break again! Fortunately, once again, I did not rear-end the SUV and the person behind me did not rear-end me. I believe we both suspected we must be especially careful around this person. I could see out my rear view mirror that quite a line was building up behind me. I still was not out of the intersection, and the clock was ticking. I honked again. The driver of the SUV eased onto the gas, and now began to drive about five miles an hour—obviously to irritate me.
Finally, there was a break in the right lane. The driver behind me hopped into it and then courteously waited for me to jump safely in front—apparently feeling sympathy for me in our shared plight. I would have stayed in that lane and tried to move ahead as far away as possible from what now appeared to be a seriously disturbed SUV driver. That is what the driver who had been behind me and others appeared to do, and is what I have done when suspecting a drunk driver. However, this driver did not appear drunk, and if I wanted to go to Radio Shack I needed to get back into the left lane, since I had to make an upcoming left turn. I moved back into the left lane, ahead of the SUV driver, who now stepped on the gas landing right on my tail. It was as if the driver felt that by my moving back into the lane in front I was somehow winning an imagined competition perceived to have taken place back at the light, when in truth I was just trying to get to where I had originally planned to go. By following me, the driver was in a sense surrendering whatever agenda they had begun their day with to mine—unless of course their agenda had been to go out and make someone miserable. In which case they were accomplishing it. I moved into the left turn lane, and the SUV driver made an abrupt move into the left turn lane behind me. I did not want to jump to a negative conclusion, but I now felt pretty certain that this SUV driver was following me with intent to intimidate. What to do?
The peace of the Dalai Lama’s university lectures was slipping from my consciousness. Going to Radio Shack was my chief reason for hitting the road that afternoon. I did not want to have to ditch my plans and besides—what else was I to do? I didn’t exactly want this person following me home and I also had other errands, including some in that mall. Since the shops in the strip mall all had plate glass fronts and glass doors, I figured that I was probably safer there than just about anywhere. I made the quick right turn that was required to enter the driveway of the strip mall. The SUV driver made the quick right, right behind me.
I bypassed the first store that I was going to visit, where there were a lot of people and cars parked in spaces several yards from the storefronts. Instead, I proceeded down to the end of the strip mall to Radio Shack, which had head-in parking directly in front of the windows and a glass door that usually had a salesperson nearby. No one else was parked in that section of the lot. I felt that if I parked directly in front of the door I would probably be okay, as I recalled that particular Radio Shack had been robbed at gunpoint a couple of months prior, and the guys who work there seemed to handle it well, the police being on the scene by the time I arrived and everyone appearing cool, calm and collected. I figured if a dangerous altercation occurred in the parking lot when I got out of my car, the employees at Radio Shack would call the police. I headed for that choice parking space. The SUV driver pulled in right next to me. Clearly, this was no coincidence.
I took an envelope from the mail I had picked up en route and a pen from my purse. The SUV driver (whom I now could see was a tall muscular woman probably in her mid to late twenties) got out of the SUV and headed toward me, blocking my egress to the store as I exited my car. She yelled at me at the top of her lungs for having honked at her. I silently moved around to the rear of her car to put distance between her and myself while I took down her license plate number. When she saw what I was doing, she began to rail “I have a newborn in the car! I have a newborn in the car!” When I heard this, I could no longer contain myself. I responded. “There could have been an accident.” She looked shocked and repeated my words as a question, “There could have been an accident?” “Yes,” I replied. “You put your child at risk. You could have caused an accident.” “I have a newborn. The light was red,” she screamed. “The light had turned green,” I calmly replied. “Well you better not ever honk at me again, or I’ll beat you up!” she yelled. “You will?” I responded. “Yeah!” she said. “Oh,” I nodded. “The police would like to know that,” I said, jotting down her words. She got back in her car and drove away. All this had happened in the time it takes to drive two blocks and park a car!
As I turned to go into the store, feeling quite rattled, I saw that a woman with a baby had moved into the vacant space on the other side of my car during the altercation and had emerged carrying the baby in a car-seat/carrier. I was glad that the situation had not turned violent in the presence of her child and her. A salesperson came to greet me as I entered Radio Shack, which is routine for them with customers. My heart was pounding and my mind was distracted, as he asked if he could help me with anything. His tone was steady and compassionate and I wondered if his inquiry was strictly a sales question, or perhaps a response to the woman threatening me. I made my purchase with no mention of the incident.
My heart continued to pound as I got back in my car. The incident consumed my thoughts. What struck me most were the woman’s words, “Well you better not ever honk at me again, or I’ll beat you up!” Did she actually think she and I were likely to ever see each other again? “You better not_______ ever again, or I’ll _______,” statements are the sort of things people say to someone who is actually in their life on some sort of ongoing basis, like a parent, sibling, spouse, child, friend, coworker. They’re not the sort of things one says to a complete stranger during a chance encounter in a public space.
For some reason, as I contemplated this, my heart started to calm; my mind started to clear. This woman was not reacting to me at all. This woman’s rage, her repeated slamming on the breaks and maliciously trapping me in an intersection, her moving like a snail when I was stuck behind her, her following me and yelling and threatening to injure me, were all really directed at someone else. I just happened to be there. I felt sympathy for her family and dread for the newborn—if there really was a newborn. What must those people endure! Cognitive behaviorists emphasize that how we perceive something effects how we respond to it. I was witnessing how my perceptions of this incident effected my physiological response to it, and therefore probably also my behavior.
It was disconcerting to think this woman with hair-trigger rage was out there on the road in something that could conceivably become a weapon. I felt responsible for my knowledge of her existence, the way one might feel responsible for knowledge of toxins in a reservoir. I wondered if I should report her to police for reckless driving and for threatening me with bodily injury. Who knows what she’ll do next or to whom? Then again, I considered the reality that if I report her to police, it would likely just turn into a “she said, she said,” with no positive outcome. In the meantime, I would likely have to provide my name and address as part of the report, and this woman would then have a legal right to my name and address because (as I have learned in the past) the accused has a legal right to know their accuser. I did not want to make myself any more vulnerable to this unpredictable out of control person through our legal system than I had already been made vulnerable by chance. A former neighbor of mine had once gotten so angry with her husband that she shot his car full of holes, much to the mortification of her teenage children. I did not want this gal showing up in my driveway.
As I contemplated what to do next, I also contemplated what I might have done better. Considering the woman’s unpredictably dangerous behavior from the start, instead of getting out of my car to get her license plate, I could have called the police from inside my car, and waited for them to arrive at the Radio Shack. Given her rage, however, she might have started beating on my car. That could have been expensive. I believe it was only my getting her license plate number for the police that made her back off. That and possibly the presence of the other woman who drove up and could have served as a witness on my behalf, though that woman’s arrival could not have been anticipated. I also could have driven to the police station—though I’m not really sure where the police station is. The station might have served as a deterrent, causing her to drive off—or had she followed me in, possibly that lot would have cameras to record her plates and behavior—I really don’t know.
She did not appear to be a rational decision maker, but I believe danger to bystanders would probably only have been present if she had been armed—and if she had looked like she was packing a pistol, I would have fled in my car and called 911. In our current culture, however, we don’t really know what someone is carrying. I think of how the day before the incident I share here, Verna McClain, a 30-year-old nurse whom accounts say had a miscarriage, reportedly admitted to shooting a stranger, Kala Marie Golden, to death in front of witnesses in the parking lot of the victim’s pediatrician’s office and then steeling the victim’s three-day old son. It’s chilling to think with whom one might be dealing at any place, any time.
As it was I had two blocks to make a decision in a strange, rapidly unfolding, stress inducing, situation. Becoming distracted at a stoplight is something that probably happens every minute of every day somewhere in the USA. Responding to a ‘wake-up’ toot by driving through the intersection and then maliciously jamming on the breaks to trap the tooter in the middle of the intersection as cross traffic is about to begin is so deranged I had never seen such a thing before in all my life. Looking back on this incident, I wish I had been more flexible in my response. My natural inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt and to steer clear of trouble. I am not alone in this. Bizarre behavior is often hard to register and respond to immediately and intelligently. The success of shows like “Candid Camera,” “Punk’d,” and “Off Their Rockers,” count on most people responding with disbelief and an attempt to graciously proceed as usual even in a most ungracious most unusual situation. That’s what makes such scenes so funny. But there was nothing funny about the scene in which I found myself. In the future, I hope, I will immediately recognize that such behavior is so abnormal I require no further evidence to flee from the person ASAP—even if that means making a change in plans. Had I to do again, I would put my planned agenda aside, drive to the police station, and then call the officers from the car and wait for them to come out. That way, not only could I have gotten their help, but if she needed help (and this woman clearly needed help) maybe police intervention would be a first step on the way to her receiving it.
How did this woman become this way, I wondered. What made her tic—like a time bomb? Years ago, I had a very sweet, very gentle, friend who told me she suffered such severe post-partum depression she felt like throwing her newborn out the window. But as I contemplated this woman’s repeated reckless behaviors—not just behind the wheel, but also her leaping out of the SUV to confront me—and the absolute silence from inside her vehicle despite her ranting, I doubted she actually had a ‘baby on board,’ and therefore doubted a postpartum mood swing. This woman was in no way focused on protecting a child. I suspected she merely saw the other woman’s infant and opportunistically invented the story of an infant as an excuse for her own behavior, which possibly appeared embarrassingly bad even to her at that point.
My initial experience of this woman was that her behavior reflected a personality disorder wherein everything was experienced as a competition and any correction as a narcissistic assault—but her threat of bodily harm went beyond that. Was her behavior something she learned from her family? Was she a victim of abuse? Was she hard wired for rage? Was she in the manic phase of a bi-polar disorder? Or could her behavior be the effect of drugs? She did not have the wasted away look I have seen on patients addicted to crystal meth. In fact, she looked to be in better physical shape than just about any woman I have ever encountered. She could have beaten me up in a minute, and clearly knew it. Might she be taking steroids? They have been known to cause rage.
There was something contained about this woman however—despite the fact that she was ricocheting like a bullet trapped in a hard-edged world. She did not strike me as an innately menacing human being. Her behavior seemed reactive—over reactive—but capable of being reversed within a reasonable period of time. After all, she did deescalate and back off during the course of our brief encounter. It occurred to me that she might be caught in a syndrome, possibly subsequent to trauma.
I began to wonder if she could be returning military suffering from posttraumatic stress. Many returning members of the military have reported experiencing flashbacks while driving due to having lived under the constant threat of IED’s and ambushes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the woman’s age and buff physique, and the county where this encounter took place, I suspected she might well have military background. Had she experienced roadside explosions and loss of comrades? Had she been lost in another world when I tooted? Did my horn trigger a fight response for which she had been trained? If so, I owed her my gratitude for her service, patience in her suffering, and a prayer that she get help before she hurts herself or somebody else. The more I considered the possibility that her behavior might be a result of military service, the more sympathetic I became. After all, if her behavior was a consequence of her service to our country, then, as a citizen, I was partially responsible for her suffering. I could see why she might be angry with me, and the rest us.
I noticed how when I thought of her as having served in the military, I kind of liked her. I told myself, she could well be an exemplary human being. In truth, she could be the kind of person you would have trusted with your life; before whatever experiences may have set off the syndrome that now put those she encountered at risk—that is if in fact she was suffering from posttraumatic stress. I kind of wanted to think she was. It made me feel better about her, and it also gave some reason, even logic, to her otherwise illogical behavior, which was comforting on some level. The world was not randomly bizarre.
As I considered the possibility that she had served in the military, I began to recall her commanding presence; evident from the moment she stepped from her vehicle and marched over to me. I noted how initially comfortable she had been taking charge of the situation, while at the same time being respectful of the authority that the police represented, retreating upon their mention. I could imagine her being capable of both giving and taking orders—leading and following. That’s an essential trait for success in the military, as well as other institutions with clearly defined structures.
However, I did not respond to her in the way she expected. She didn’t seem to know what to do with me—command or obey? I was out of uniform, so to speak. Consequently, she just threatened to beat me up at some future time if I did not behave according to her pleasure when our paths crossed again. Perhaps she had grown accustomed to her path crossing from time to time with the same set of people with whom she would develop varying degrees of relationship, and therefore needed to establish roles and protocols of behavior. Hence, the absurdity that this random encounter would ever repeat itself was maybe not so absurd to her. That also may reflect a person who has lived within a military milieu, a person who is accustomed to everyone—even strangers—being part of a tight ongoing community. Whereas from my experience, she was just one of billions of people anonymous to me whom I might encounter, and her behavior made her seem as if she had been dropped from another world. It was as if I, and the world in which she now found herself, were in conflict with a picture of reality she had fixed in her head. There was a mismatch. We didn’t fit her schema, and she didn’t know where or how she could fit into ours—and in those moments she did not fit. Layers of complexity emerged as I began to question my initial impressions of this woman.
Whether she was afflicted with a bi-polar disorder, or was a person who served in the military and was now suffering from post traumatic stress, or a victim of abuse, or a sociopath, or someone with some other disorder—enduring or temporary—all this simply did not cross my mind in real time as this situation rapidly unfolded. Or if it did cross my mind, it crossed so rapidly I could not unpack, analyze and respond to it in the manner that I now wish I had. I did what it occurred to me to do at the time. I’m not the Dalai Lama. If I were the Dalai Lama, maybe I would have calmed the woman and steered her to counseling. If I were Jesus maybe I would have healed her of whatever misery had caused her to behave that way. As is, I was just relieved to escape the situation with no one being injured.
In English grammar, a direct object receives the action of a verb. A person kicks the ball, hits the wall, shoots the car. The ball, the wall, the car are direct objects that receive the action of the verb that precedes them. To the woman in the SUV, I was no more than an object, devoid of humanity, something at which to hurl her hostile bio-chemical impulses, or a chimera of all those who had caused her previous insult or injury, or maybe a flashback to an enemy in the field, something to be made the object of her anger. She did not see me at all. In her rage, she was blind. As a sentient being I can recognize that and choose not to receive her rage, but rather calmly take whatever steps I need to take to keep myself, and others, safe, and possibly even offer help. I see that now. In a sense my encounter with this woman was the living lesson of the Dalai Lama’s lecture; more than mere words could hope to teach.
Ever since President John F. Kennedy pronounced, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” people of different ethnicities from Cairo to Campuses in California have proclaimed “I am_______,” or “We are all_______,” as a sign of solidarity with individuals and groups, particularly with those who are oppressed. For example: when word spread that Mitt Romney reportedly had put his Irish Setter, Seamus, in a crate strapped to the roof of his car for a 12-hour drive from Massachusetts to Canada, the dog showing serious gastric distress down the rear window while the Romneys drove on—Mitt Romney reportedly stopping only briefly to hose down the car and dog, and then continue with the now wet dog still in the crate strapped to the roof of the car, I hashtagged #WeAreAllSeamus. I hashtagged this because I honestly feel that were Governor Romney to become President Romney, 99% of us would find ourselves at least metaphorically wet, and shivering, trying to get a grip on a slippery, shaking surface, loosing the contents of our digestive systems from both ends at once, while strapped to the roof of Romney’s vehicle as he heads undeterred to his personal destination. That’s just my read. I’ve known people like that. Maybe I’m wrong about Romney—but I’d rather not find out.
With similar sentiments, people of all races have stood in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the African American teen who was reportedly followed and then shot to death walking to the home of his father’s girlfriend inside a gated community by volunteer watchman George Zimmerman, who is identified as Hispanic. But, before proclaiming, “I am Trayvon,” it may be important for some to first say “I am not Trayvon.” As a middle-aged white woman who looks Irish even from afar, “I am not Trayvon.” For one thing, as a middle-aged woman who would look clearly white even under a hoody in the rain, I don’t think Zimmerman would have found my presence in the community suspicious—though I don’t live there and know no one who does. If Zimmerman were to have questioned me, it would likely have only been to inquire if I wanted a ride home in the downpour. As a middle-aged white woman, I would have answered him no, since I would not have trusted him or any stranger enough to hop in their car. If it was really pouring and my walk was really long, I might have been tempted to make an exception for a woman offering a ride, but that would not be a smart move. As we have seen, women have been accomplices in kidnappings and murders—such as the women found guilty for their parts in the kidnappings of Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart, and the woman suspected to have taken part in the abduction and murder of the Vermont teacher, Melissa Jenkins. I myself have been seriously conned by middle-aged white women whom I did not suspect in the least. I’ve also been conned by middle-aged white men whom I trusted.
What’s more if police had arrived at the scene and found my body lying there shot to death, with Zimmerman claiming to have fired in self defense; I doubt authorities would have taken his word—even if, instead of being found with ice tea and skittles (as was Trayvon Martin), I had been found holding one of those little pistols Nancy Reagan said she carried, but did not know how to use. And yet, even our first black President has been described as being threatening when simply conversing on a tarmac, and his statement that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon, has been interpreted as hateful by some.
My intention here is not to litigate the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman. In my opinion, that should be done in a court of law. I think it tragic for Trayvon’s family and for the nation that, due to what appears to be multiple failures in the legislative, legal and judicial systems in Florida, the media has been forced to launch it’s own investigations and rally it’s own forces to call for a justice that has thus far been denied. My purpose here is to give an account of seminal race related moments in my own life, hoping that, by this peek through my little window, light will be shed on the bigger picture we all face.
Roughly fifty years ago, I entered a public school kindergarten at the age of four after having attended a private nursery school for two years. The usual age for beginning school was five, but an exception had been made for me because both of my parents worked (which was not common at the time), I already had two years of school experience (also not common at the time) and my parents needed to conserve what little money they had (probably pretty common at the time). The public school was located in an area that was becoming suburban with the baby boom, on the border of the city in which my parents had been raised. Just prior to my first day of school, my father took me aside and told me the “n” word. He told me what it meant and said that I might hear it in school, and if I did I was never to repeat it. I was to use the word “colored” instead. The “n” word was the first bad word I had ever heard. I would not hear another until I entered junior high school. It was a different time back then.
This was the only instruction I recall my father giving me in preparation for public school. It may seem odd that my father felt it so essential to explain all this to a four-year-old, but looking back, knowing things now that I was only later to learn, I may be able to better understand. My father was the son of Irish immigrants to New England and he had grown up in an Irish/Jewish/Italian neighborhood that was becoming African American as the Irish, Jews and Italians moved to the suburbs and African Americans moved North. When I was in my teens and attending a public school that was predominantly Jewish in population, I learned that as a child my father had been the Shabbos Goy in the neighborhood temple that some of my classmates’ parents had attended. A Shabbos Goy is a person who is not Jewish and who weekly lights the candles and performs other tasks in Synagogues where Jews are not allowed to perform such works on the Sabbath. My father told me that his mother was a big believer in religious and ethnic harmony and insisted he do this favor for the Jewish community—in spite of the fact that he had to run from the temple each week with his head tucked under his arms to protect it from the rocks that Irish boys threw at him as he dodged and darted his way home. When he told me, I remember thinking that as much as I believed in religious and ethnic harmony, I doubted I would have risked my son sustaining brain damage to assert it. Still, looking back, it appears he learned from his mother (who died years before I was born) an important lesson about prejudice that he wanted in his own way to impart to me before I went out into the world, so to speak. As the youngest of eight, he had inherited no material goods from his parents who died within a week of each other. His older siblings claimed it all, and he was not up to bickering with them, I am told. But this lesson against prejudice that his mother imparted to him was an inheritance worth more than any material good. Sharing this inheritance with me was his way of passing on her legacy. In this way lessons are taught and generations are shaped.
My father needn’t have worried however. There were no African American students in the school I attended and no one there spoke the bad word. A few years later, however, we moved to an area that was more rural—an area where many of the roads were named after families still residing there. Population growth in the town had been limited because it had reservoirs that served the city and much of the property was owned by the water company and considered watershed. It wasn’t a wealthy area at the time, and as I recall when I began that September it seemed like the kids in my class were nearly a year behind the kids in my class at the prior school. Demographically, it was low SES. Later in life, an African American friend of mine who had moved to the town after it gentrified would laughingly refer to the indigenous residents of the town as “Swamp Yankees.”
My family arrived to this new town in the summer. The town had a large public pond that probably had a lifeguard, though I’m not sure. If it did, I took little notice. I had not been raised with the concept of drowning. To me, water was something that supported you when you laid down on it and transported you when you moved through it. I recall my father dropping off my older sister who was entering junior high school and me to play in the pond during the day. She went straight to the diving board with the teenagers. I was only seven, and I don’t recall if any arrangement had been made regarding my supervision, other than the unwatchful eye of my sister. Maybe there had been. My parent’s were usually pretty good about such things. By today’s standards it seems unthinkable to leave a child to play in the water without directly putting them in the care of an adult, but my father and his friends grew up swimming in a swimming hole with no lifeguard and no supervision, and I was certainly never taught to fear the water, so I just don’t know for sure. Anyway, I spent the day playing with an African American girl who was there with her mother. The girl was a few years older, possibly my weight plus a quarter again as much, and at least a foot taller than I, maybe more. Having started school a bit young I was used to being smaller than everyone, and none of our physical differences concerned me in the least. If I recall correctly, I was trying to show her how to float, something I had learned to do on my own as a toddler when a wave lifted me up in the ocean. Afterward we played on the edge of the pond, where she appeared to be more comfortable. I had a wonderful day with her, and her mother probably took care to make sure we were both safe. My father came and got me at the end of the day.
When I got in the car, before my sister came, my father started to explain to me that sometimes people who don’t have any friends will make friends with someone new to town, and that if I made friends with someone who had no friends the people who did not like that person might not like me either. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he mentioned that the child I had been playing with was colored, and that if I locked myself into playing with her other people might not want to be friends with me. I was shocked. I was confused. I was disappointed. Was this the same person who told me never to use the “n” word? Was this the same man who with my mother had just rented our old house to a Jamaican family that was the same color as my new friend, and never mentioned anything to me about their color? Both my parents had only expressed joy that they had found such wonderful tenants, and great respect for the father who was a doctor and a professor. Where was this crazy directive coming from? What was I to do?
The next day that my father brought me to the pond he put me in the care of a redheaded woman who, like me, looked Irish from afar. Like us, she had moved to the town somewhat recently with her family. She had a daughter my sister’s age and a daughter who was just a year ahead of me in school and not quite so much taller than I. I had an okay time with her, but her mother called me a “milk bottle.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that my skin was white like milk, but not to worry because she used to be that white too, and that with sun I would get a bit of color. Why would she say such a thing, and to a child she did not even know? Was she trying to impress upon me that I was white? If I remember correctly, I mentioned her comment to my mother who pointed out that she too was milk bottle white and not to be concerned about it. I had never thought of the color of my skin prior, and ever since, even to this day, I feel embarrassed in a bathing suite because I never did acquire much color.
It seems that after that I mostly hung out with my sister at the diving board where I learned to front and back dive. I don’t know if my parents had told my sister to keep me with her because I wasn’t to play with the African American child and the Irish woman had caused me distress by calling me a milk bottle. I also don’t know if it was the Irish woman who initially drew my father’s attention to the fact that I had been playing with a black child that first day. It’s quite possible she had seen my father who at the time looked a lot like Brian Dennehy, and took it upon herself to caution her fellow Irishman about my selection of playmates, offering her own children as a more appropriate choice. As the years passed I found this woman to be quite the busybody (though otherwise pleasant) and it was not at all beyond her nature to interfere with me. It’s also possible my father had simply seen me playing alone with a child who was significantly older and larger than I, and surmised that the girl had sought friendship with me because no one else would be her friend, and then deduced that possibly no one would be her friend because she was African American, and everyone else was Euro-America.
Though my father’s intervention in that friendship was disturbing to me then, and now, I suspect this too had its roots in his childhood as the Shabbos Goy. Racism was as rife when I was a child, as anti-Semitism was when he was a child. You know that house I mentioned my parents had rented to a Jamaican family? Well, when it came time to sell it the buyers pulled out because they drove by and saw that a black family was living there. They were even willing to forfeit their deposit rather than live in a house that had housed black people. No doubt my father deduced the situation at the public pond and probably just didn’t want to sacrifice his seven-year-old daughter’s popularity on the pyre of other people’s prejudice. I can’t blame him. After all, as I said, had I been his mother I likely would not have had him suffer a stoning every week in the name of inter-faith harmony. My father probably just didn’t feel it was my burden to bear—but I have borne it anyway. We must all bear the burden of racism. That summer when I learned about race at the pond still plays in Technicolor across my mind. I wish my father had stuck to his initial stand with me about race, and not been fearful for me regarding my inter-race friendship. If I were going to be bullied at least I would have suffered the bullying for a cause. I ended up being bullied for a spell anyway before those grade school years would come to a close. But not before I would witness something that made me very sad.
I barely ever saw the African American girl at school because she was so much older, possibly in the sixth grade, and had class in a different building. However, it turned out that her mother was a teacher at the school. One day we children were all playing outside at once. I don’t remember if it was a Field Day featuring intramural sports or what, but for some reason her mother was leading a group of children in a game and I was told to go join her group, though she was not my teacher. She was asking the children to form a circle by holding hands. I ran up to hold the hand of one of the children in my grade when I heard the teacher call out to come close the gap. I turned and saw her daughter standing to my left many, many, many yards away, her mother holding her left hand, but no one holding the other. I thought of what my father had said to me in the car and realized that the huge gap was there because none of the other children wanted to hold her hand and were staying as far away from her as they could on that account. I felt terrible, and embarrassed for her, and also somewhat excited because I had actually never held hands with someone who had dark skin before—at least not since being taught to recognize race. I ran to hold her hand as quickly as possible letting the circle close between us. I felt for her mother in that moment too. I felt how it must have hurt her to see her daughter being rejected in that way, and I felt badly about my own behavior at the pond, for having not sought her out the next day as I would have done had I been left to my own nature.
So this brings me back to Trayvon Martin. Yes, George Zimmerman reportedly shot Trayvon to death, and that act can never be undone. That life has been taken. In my opinion his life was taken because he was black. Trayvon is not the only youth whose life has been unjustly taken because of the color of his skin. There have been many more killings than those we learn of, and we almost did not learn of this one. All of these deaths are tragic. But how many serial murders of the heart have African American boys and girls suffered silently because a friend they were playing with inexplicably disappeared from their life and never came back. How many times have “little black boys and black girls” stood there humiliated and hurting for what must feel like an eternity waiting for “little white boys and white girls” to take their hand and close the circle. How much shame have little black boys and black girls felt in front of their mothers and fathers when made to feel less than the other children. And how many mothers and fathers of little black boys and black girls have wept over the pain they see their children suffer, not knowing whether preemptive explanations will make them fearful or forearmed. Before proclaiming, “I am Trayvon,” I believe those of us who are not black would do well to contemplate to what degree we may also be George Zimmerman.
Since the killing of Trayvon Martin, I have heard African American adults talk about how their parents tried to prepare them, and how they have tried to prepare their own children with advice about staying alive in a predominantly white world. Some have cautioned their sons that they bore the burden of other people’s race-based fears; and told them never to run, lest someone assume they were running from a crime. Some have advised their sons not to put their hands in their pockets, lest someone assume they have a weapon. Some have told their sons to put their hands on the dashboard and leave them there if pulled over by police. Some have told them to be polite and compliant, as anything they say may be interpreted as hostile or threatening.
But when I, a middle aged white woman, hear the audio of what sounds to me to be Trayvon’s terrified cries for help, I cannot help but think of the advice that many parents, teachers, newscasters and other authorities give young people of all races today in this age when we are acutely aware of sexual predators abducting, raping and even murdering young males and females.
We tell them not to speak with strangers and if a stranger gives them undo attention to run—if they can. If they can’t run, to pull out their cell phone and call for help. We tell them to yell and scream and make as much noise as possible if the person gets too close. And we tell them to kick and hit and fight with all their strength if the person tries to touch them. How was Trayvon to know whether the unidentified, ununiformed stranger following him was not another John Wayne Gacy or Wayne Williams? How could he know whether if he ran away the man would not prey on someone else, perhaps someone younger or smaller or in some way more vulnerable. It appears to me that Trayvon was stuck in what psychologists call a double bind, having two conflicting mandates that he is expected to enact simultaneously. As a young black man faced by an older non-black man, he was expected to cautiously stay put and passive. As a potential victim, he was expected to run or fight for his life. I don’t think many white people know what it feels like to be a young black man like Trayvon, developing an identity within that double-bind. I don’t think Zimmerman realized the double-bind he was presenting Trayvon.
Like George Zimmerman, most of us take our own circumstances, our own good intentions, and our own behavior for granted, and therefore fail to examine ourselves from an external perspective. It appears Zimmerman failed to recognize how suspicious his own behavior was making himself appear, and how his own behavior put himself and others in danger. Zimmerman’s recorded call to 911 and continued armed pursuit of Trayvon (despite 911 advising him to stand down and wait for them) indicated he was not going to risk letting Trayvon get away. Zimmerman appeared so convinced of Trayvon’s criminality that had Trayvon fled, the boy might have been shot in the back. We know Zimmerman carried a gun and was not afraid to use it. Friends and family claiming to speak for George Zimmerman have said that if Trayvon had just stopped and spoken with the approaching Zimmerman or if neighbors hearing the scuffle had come out to help Zimmerman, Zimmerman would not have shot Trayvon. It is understandable that those close to Zimmerman would try to make his actions everyone’s fault, but his own. All this secondhand testimony is troublesome as it just allows stories to be floated without holding anyone, Zimmerman in particular, to sworn testimony. But, in any case, audio evidence reportedly shows neighbors took the appropriate action by calling 911 because hearing the scuffle they were afraid to go out—with good reason we would learn because there was a man with a gun out there. And cell phone records reportedly indicate Trayvon called his girlfriend while he was being pursued by this ununiformed stranger, and she has stated Trayvon expressed fear of this stranger. Under the circumstances it is hard to imagine Trayvon behaving other than he did. George Zimmerman may not have been a sexual predator, but one cannot deny that Trayvon had good reason to fear him. After all, the man reportedly did shoot him dead.
** Nothing connected with this blog or this website should be considered counseling or treatment. **
Whitney Houston had the voice, and the face, and according to many who knew her best, the heart of an angel. Her death has touched the nation and caused many to ask, what, if anything, could have preserved her life. At the time of this writing, no one knows for certain what killed her, but I believe it can be said with certainty that her extensive experiences with substance abuse did not make her body stronger.
Discussing Houston’s life and death with television host Martin Bashir on MSNBC, Georgetown University Professor of Sociology Michael Eric Dyson pondered how people who are close to a performing artist with a substance abuse problem could know when that person has gone too far. His underlying premise was that it can be the nature of, and possibly necessary for, a performing artist to have personal demons like substance abuse with which they wrestle. As I pondered this question myself, the words of Houston’s hit “How Will I Know,” played in my mind.
Dyson made some important observations, the most important of which I believe is that measures must be taken so performing artists can carve out protective boundaries for themselves. To be up there at the top, alone before the crowds, requires that a person have privacy in areas where they want privacy, space for healthy relationships, unselfish guidance and structure for support, rest when rest is needed…. One only need think of the grueling schedule Michael Jackson was looking forward to when he died. Mega artists may be superstars, but they are not super humans. They have all the same needs the rest of us have, and many of those needs are strained more than we may ever know.
However, when it comes to Dyson’s assertion that substance abuse is at any point essential to creativity, I have to part ways. It is always easier to emulate a person’s weakness than their strength, and such myths may prove damaging to the impressionable. Yes some artists, black and white, male and female, have abused drugs. But the overwhelming number of successful artists do not abuse drugs, and the overwhelming number of people who do abuse drugs are not artists. Some are good people. Some are bad people. But I have never met a human being whom drugs made better.
Some African American female performing artists, like Billy Holiday and Etta James, had personal histories marked by the tragedy of drug abuse, and this may have created a mystique around drugs in the African American community. Such a mystique can make drugs seem attractive or even essential to young people who don’t know better. But I would argue against drug abuse being essential for their creativity, or Houston’s. When Houston began her career she was perceived as the “good girl.” Some see that image as having changed during her relationship with Bobby Brown, whom she married in 1992, after three years of courtship. If a person in Houston’s situation were to ask me, to borrow from the words of her song, “How can I know if he really loves me?” I would answer, “If he gives you drugs, he doesn’t really love you.” He may have feelings of love for you, but “love” is also a verb and if he is introducing you to things that could potentially harm you, he is not loving you—no matter what warm and fuzzy feelings (love as a noun) he may be holding inside for you.
This brings me to Professor Dyson’s question. How will you know when a person you love has gone too far when it comes to substance abuse? My answer to Professor Dyson’s question is as simple and direct as my answer to the preceding question. If a person is using an illegal substance, with all the risks that implies, or using a legal substance in a way it has not been prescribed, then the person has gone too far. It’s time for an intervention.
I strongly disagree with Professor Dyson’s premise that a substance abuse problem indicates a personal or inner demon, or is in any way a necessary part of the creative process that needs to be given rope. The rope it is given will form a noose that strangles the creative process. There are enough joys and trials in life for a creative person to transform into art without adding to these the ups and downs of drug use. Heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, and anxiolytics are external substances that once taken begin to make physical and psychological changes to the person who has taken them. Ultimately, if abused, these substances will lead to the person’s undoing. Some may be more susceptible than others, but the person taking these drugs does not necessarily have personal or inner demons to begin with. The demons, if you want to call them that, come from the drugs themselves.
In addition to the chemical changes substances can create within a person, a person’s outward behavior may change in ways such that the person begins to construct a new narrative for their life, a new personal history, a new identity. Temporary effects of substances can cause people to be late, or to get into an accident, or to otherwise disappoint the people in their life and themselves. If by nature they are a good, caring, considerate person then these failures will likely cause guilt. This is not a sign that the person has an inner demon. To the contrary, it is evidence that the person is not a sociopath. Unfortunately, once a person has been introduced to the quick emotional fix of substance abuse, they are more vulnerable to trying to numb the pain of guilt with more substance abuse. Add to this the physiological changes in the person’s mind and body that take place with continued abuse, along with the agony they are likely to feel during withdrawal once they have become addicted, and it becomes very difficult for a person who has started down this path to turn around and go home to the person they once were.
But the process I am speaking of is due to the introduction of a destructive influence into the body and the life of an otherwise healthy person. I consider it quite possible that had Houston not been introduced to drugs, she would not have wrestled with “demons.” Sure, she would likely have had to deal with anxiety, loneliness, sorrow, and all the emotions with which we all have to deal—magnified to astronomical proportions given her position on the planet. But when you think about it, prior to taking drugs, Houston was performing in front of huge crowds, touring, and in her greatest successes she was facing down attacks to the core of her identity from those who would say she wasn’t “black enough.” I’d say she dealt with all of this better than just about anybody.
So why did Houston become involved with Brown and drugs? I don’t know. Maybe she was bowing to criticism and trying to be “more black”—whatever that means. If that is the case, than all the more reason to break through the mystique of the tragic, drug addicted black artist here and now. Houston’s artistry was not contingent on drug use. I think we can all agree she performed better without drugs. Maybe she was simply given something before a show or after a show to deal with the pressure behind the drive to be the best in the world at what she did, and wrongly started to connect being the best with use of the drug. Maybe she was given something in a moment of intimate bonding, and the heightening effect of the substance on the sex, made the sex seem more than it was. There are people who have never had sex without the concurrent use of a substance, and cannot even image sex without the use of a substance. Maybe she was with such a person who brought her into his world. Maybe she confused the intensity of the feeling with love.
Houston’s voice lives on, as does the message of her untimely death. When I was a little girl, every year I would watch repeats of Judy Garland in The Wizard of OZ. It was a high point of the year for me back in those days before VCRs…. As a young woman Garland was wide-eyed, healthy looking and in command of her space, like Houston at the same age. When, Garland got her own variety show, I became familiar with the person she became as an adult. She appeared skinny, and shaky, and lost. I would not have recognized her. When she died at age 47 my mother told me she had died from pills and liquor. There was no mystique of the artist stated or implied. Just a talented woman with a problem that killed her. My mother made a reference to how Garland had looked on the variety show and said Garland had been abusing pills and liquor for a long time. I made the connection that there was nothing romantic, artistic, or appealing in any way about addiction. Addiction was destructive. It was to be avoided. It is my hope that little girls who grew up watching Whitney Houston will celebrate her phenomenal talent, her generous heart, her indomitable courage that kept rising up again and again and again—and I hope they will hold in mind that everything that they love and admire most, possibly even the woman herself, could be destroyed by something as superfluous to her greatness as substance abuse.
** Nothing connected with this blog or this website should be considered counseling or treatment. **
I am interrupting my Toddler Moms and Dads series for a matter that is too important not to address in a timely manner. Some have been criticizing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for overturning the Food and Drug Administration’s plan to remove the age limit on Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd’s Plan B One-Step birth control commonly called the “morning after pill,” and make it available over-the-counter to children sixteen-years-old and younger without a prescription. I have even heard some claim that this was a strictly political move on the part of Sebelius and the President. Currently, the drug is available without a prescription to females 17 years of age and older, but they must show proof of age and receive instruction from the pharmacist. Children under the age of 17 years must obtain a prescription. To be effective the drug must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
I fully understand the desire to make reproductive healthcare rights available to all persons irrespective of age. However, in the current environment, where most of us are painfully aware of the sexual abuse of children, I find the argument in favor of over-the-counter availability for the morning after pill to be shallow. The pregnancy of a girl of 11-16 years of age is not just a biological matter, but a bio-psycho-social matter that cannot be resolved by the taking of a pill. If a girl of 11-16 years becomes pregnant, there is a good chance that the male who has made her pregnant is over 16 years of age, and may well even be over 21. If the morning after pill were available over-the-counter, such a male could purchase the pill, even in large quantities, and have a younger girl take the pill each time after he has unprotected sex with her. The child might not even know what she is taking. Such a pill being available over-the-counter is a pedophile’s dream. The administration has cited the possibility of children 11-years-old not fully understanding the written instructions as a major reason for having an age cutoff for obtaining the drug without a prescription. The problem, in my opinion, is not so much whether an 11-year-old girl would understand the accompanying written instructions, but whether she (or those younger) would even see the instructions.
Making it necessary for a girl under 17 years of age to obtain a prescription means that hopefully responsible adults will become aware of her situation, and make themselves available for guidance. If the girl is not comfortable telling a parent, there are Planned Parenthoods and other clinics that can treat young people regarding reproductive issues in many states without informing the child’s parents, and most sexually active females are aware of such places. Some are already going to clinics for birth control and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and those who are sexually active and not using birth control might want to consider the unplanned situation as an opportunity to discuss with clinic staff how to make better plans for the future—and the role of human sexuality in those overall plans for their future. This opportunity for counseling and expanded reproductive care is not present in an over-the-counter situation. Just as important however, is the fact that these clinics are mandatory child abuse reporters and if they learn that a child has been statutorily and/or otherwise raped they can intercede and hopefully put a stop to the abuse for that child and others who may be preyed upon.
Furthermore, Planned Parenthood currently provides confidential treatment and birth control free of charge to those in need and many clinics provide the same. Providing the morning after pill through clinics may be the most treatment-rich, private and cost effective way for a child—or an adult—to receive the morning after pill. Making the morning after pill available over the counter would just likely mean that it could be shoplifted more often than it is purchased.
Regarding the claim that not having over-the-counter availability to the morning after pill unnecessarily subjects adult women to the ill regard of pharmacists, all I can say is, “Get over it.” There are bigger concerns. Adult women already see pharmacists for birth control pills and diaphragms…, and most pharmacists are professional in this regard. Pharmacists who for religious reasons object to the morning after pill would probably also have problems with other forms of oral contraception and likely would simply not carry it. The needs of children must come first and, in my opinion, making the morning after pill available over-the-counter is not meeting their needs.
Devorah Ann Fox, Psy.D.
Nothing connected with this blog or website should be considered to be counseling, psychotherapy, or treatment of any kind.