Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What Happens When We Die and Go To Heaven?


Father Sarducci just has to be one of my all time favorite comedians. The outfit, the phony Italian(?) accent and his wit and satire still cracks me up. He is devilishly irreverent. 

In this riotous clip, Sarducci posits that life is a job, "Vita est Lavorum", and that God pays us $14.50 a day. But when we get to heaven, and he begins to settle our account, He deducts a certain amount of  cash for every sin, depending on the gravity of the offense!

I knew we had to pay for our sins, but this won't leave us much left in the end, speaking for myself.

Monday, May 23, 2011

LOL: The End of the World, Again

Being Catholic, before the 1950's we didn't hear much End of the World  stuff coming from the pulpit and it wasn't until I started dating a  protestant girl in high school and attending her church that I encountered the imagery and metaphor from the Book of Revelation, wars and rumors of wars, The Antichrist, Armageddon, the Seven Seals, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, earthquakes, fire and brimstone, and The Rapture.

My mother told me I was going to hell for attending another church but I decided to risk it for love. "Te vas ir al diablo", she would warn. But secretly I was enthralled with all this stuff I had never learned in mass. I even bought two Bibles, one the King James translation and the other, the Catholic Douay version and compared key passages in the New Testament!

One day, as I was telling her of the signs before the end time, war, earthquakes, famine, things I was reading about for the first time despite the Catholic Church's warning not to read the Bible for ourselves. "Se va acabar el mundo", I told her. I'll never forget her answer immersed in sarcasm, "Yes, the world es going to end alright, when you die!" And she laughed. It seemed a little sacrilegious to me because that is not what I meant. She seemed to derive pleasure from her ability scoff at things I was learning from the Devil's church.

"Beware of false prophets" the scriptures warned and of all the soothsayers who will arise in the end times, predicating the day and time regardless of Christ's admonition: "Of that day and time no one knows except the Father in heaven."  I looked for Antichrists, Hitler? The Pope? My neighbor? I trembled at the thought of the Heavens parting, and Jesus descending on the clouds, the dead rising from their tombs, and His parting the masses in two, the chosen whose names are written and the Book of Life, and the cursed damned to eternal damnation in a fiery hell!

I was puzzled by Christ's words "Behold, these things will come to pass before this generation ends." But many generations have passed and the end still looms, despite countless predictions like the latest one by Rev. Harold Camping who predicted our demise would occur at 6 PM (Eastern or Pacific Time?) on May 21, 2011. If he had been correct I wouldn't be writing this (or maybe I would if I had not been one of the chosen selected for the Rapture). But as far as I know all my buddies, family and neighbors are still here, except my compadre who I haven't seen since that day! Odd, because he doesn't go to church at all.

The whole thing must be embarrassing for believers since the fiasco served as a perfect opportunity for skeptics, atheists and non-believers to mock the faithful. Twitter and Facebook subscribers went nuts. Said one local believer "Something went wrong. God didn't give us the understanding correctly." That's right, blame it on God! He must have erred in communicating the details. I would say that Mr. Camping is the one who didn't "get the understanding right". Yet, I feel even sorrier for all the pitiable souls who sold their houses and belonging to follow this misguided fellow.

Yet, I'm going to confess something to my reader here. Though I too scoffed the whole idea, I didn't snicker too loudly in case the dude was right. I mean, he could have been right and had the last laugh. Reminds me of a religious billboard I once saw on Highway 99 which usually touted scripures. But this day it said: "I would rather believe in Hell and be wrong, than not believe in Hell and be wrong". In the former, if were wrong we have nothing to lose, except to perhaps have been a bit better person in life?

So I think I will continue to chuckle at these recurring prophets, but I will avoid laughing too loud just in case one of them gets it right! If enough people keep predicting the end of the world, one of them is bound to get it right. So I'll give it a shot, next Sunday at 9:AM. Pack your bags.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How Not To Conduct A Meeting

I drove from Stockton to Sacramento for the big summit, a gathering of Chicano intellectuals, bohemians and artists, mostly guys. The meeting was held in a dimly lit, abandoned store front and present were my old college buddies Jose Montoya and Esteban Villa.

We had gravitated towards each other, being part of a  handful of Chicano art students attending a prestigious art school in Oakland in the late 1950's. Having embarked on their careers teaching, the two were already accomplished in their art and they were busy fostering a new generation of Chicano artists, the RCAF, Royal (Rebel Chicano Artists Front), one they later dubbed Royal Chicano Air Force, working to define and validate a new art movement, Chicano Art.

We were tired of mainstream art, the kind of stuff that hung in European and American galleries and museums. We wanted an art that reflected us, our people, the barrio. We wanted to paint pyramids, Aztec and Maya symbols, farm workers, zoot-suiters, eagles and rising suns in bold reds, blacks and yellows and if the mainstream galleries were going to turn their noses at us, so what? We would simply create our own galleries, our own barrio centers.

I must admit it took me a while to buy into the concept of a "Chicano Art". At that point, to me art was just art and I was still into imitating the stylized and abstract painting of the 60's, with little inclination to change what my Europeanized art education had taught me.

I knew some of the other artists at the meeting having met them briefly before, Ricardo Favela, and Louie The Foot and I had grown to respect this new cadre of Chicano artists. I secretly longed to be a part of them but being in Stockton, some 45 miles away, it was not convenient. Besides, I was never invited.

About an hour past the announced time of the meeting, "Chicano Time", the artists finally sat down in some rickety old folding chairs and the meeting was called to order. By that time we had already consumed some red wine and a couple of beers. As the purpose of the meeting was announced, a fresh 6-pak was passed around the circle of members."This is my kind of meeting", I thought to myself.

"All of us in this room are accomplished artists and we have to value our work to reflect this. Our drawings and paintings deserve higher selling prices and too many of us are giving them away for next to nothing." Jose continued to argue that we had to set a higher standard, and that if people wanted to own our art they had to pay for it and that doing otherwise, was opening the door for exploitation of our work. He gave examples of how people could buy one of our pieces for $150 and turn around and sell it for $500.

A discussion ensued, interrupted only by the pop of another beer can being opened up by someone. Soon disagreements and tempers began to flare up. Some artists felt we should make art affordable to our people. They were not Anglos used to paying hundreds, even thousands for a piece of art! A wine bottle was passed around as the debate heated up. Funny, the thought had never occured to me, and like some in the room, I would have been content if someone had paid me $150  for one of my pieces!

 "Hey, that's a lot of bullshit, man. Sit down. Let this other guy speak!"
"It ain't bullshit man. It's the truth. What the fuck do you know, anyway?!"
"Sit down, pendejo!" "Who you calling a pendejo, guey?!"

I'm not sure what it is, maybe it's in our blood but when you get a bunch of Mexicans or Chicanos in a room and try to get them to agree on something, a fight is usually going to break out. Someone opened up another can of beer.

At one point I began to fear someone was going to start throwing punches. Everybody was pointing fingers and several debates ensued to the point of chaos. Then, a little old man who had been sitting to the back of the room began to raise his hand. He wanted to speak but no one was paying any attention to him being in the heat of battle. He kept waving his hand until I quieted the group. "Hey, this man wants to speak. Let's listen to what he has to say!" The group quieted down.

He wore a pair of old khakis and red and black checkered flannel shirt. I had noticed him when I arrived and assumed he was just somebody's father. "I am not a learned man like some of you in this room", he said "but I do have some advice to give you. When you gather like this to conduct business, never include alcohol."

I don't know about the others in the room but I felt small, embarrassed. I can't remember exactly how the summit ended but the old man's truth had cut through our bullshit like a sharp paring knife. It had taken the gentle wisdom of this little old man to put us all in our small, intellectual places.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Noche Bohemia: Poet Abuse

Last nite I participated in the 2nd of a new series of Thursday night events featuring poetry, prose and live music, "Noche Bohemia" (Bohemian Night), hosted by Chilean poet Eduardo Radrigan at Nena's Mexican Restuarant on Stockton's waterfront.

It is a fine rustic building with high wooden cielings, a spacious bar, and a patio overlooking Stockton's channel. In my heart, I love performing at these venues despite the often sparse crowds and noisy backdrops.

Last week, aside from the noise of customers, the rattling of plates and dishes, ringing telephones that nobody answered, blenders crushing ice for Margaritas and the electronic beeps of cash registers, two 42" TV's blared opposing sports events, the NBA Playoffs on one side of the bar, and of course, the Mexican favorite, a Futbol (soccer) contest on the other. The fans at the bar were not shy in cheering when their respective teams scored a point.

But you get used to it as the performer, competing with distractions, used to poets and musicians who often perform only for themselves, their girlfriends, family, and kids. However, this small crowd paid rigorous attention. They listened. They responded. And they clapped boisterously after each poem or song.

My friend Rudy Garcia, also a poet, joined me and the program rotated between poets and musicians. I even brought my guitar and sang a couple of songs. While most of the pieces or songs were done in Spanish, I chose to do poems using both English and Spanish.

But audience is the trick. It all lies with audience, a good one, even if it's just another performer. I often retold this story to my students about how during a premiere of one of Oscar Wilde's plays he was confronted by a woman who said" "Oh, Mr. Wilde, I sure hope your play will be a success!" "Mam", he answered "It's not a question of whether my play will be a success but whether the audience will be one." Yes! That's it! That's the ticket, a good audience, after all  one should never "throw pearls before swine?"

I once had a student who submitted a poem for one of my assignments in class. I was so impressed by it that I spoke to him after class. "Miguel, this is an outstanding poem. Do you write poetry?" "Yes, but I keep it to myself." "But poetry is meant to be shared", I pleaded. "Why don't you start sharing it?" "Because I don't want anybody stealing my ideas", he responded.

Poems and songs are to be shared, to be read, to be heard by others. Another student once told me after hearing one of my poems, "I almost cried when you read that poem." "I guess I must have failed", I joked. "Because I cried when I read it."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On The Labors of Reading

For those of you driven by fate, chance or bad luck who wind up at this blog I hope you are not being scared off by the length of my posts. When I first started this blog a couple of years ago I mostly wrote short stuff but lately I've been getting carried away and they have gotten longer and longer. My apologies!

I remember when I used to assign my students a new book or reading, the first thing they would do is flip the pages to get a feel for how long it was. Sound familiar? I am guilty of that too.

One of my college professors was fond of saying that all good literature was necessarily difficult to read, but that the reward was always greater than the work you expended reading it.

So, don't be put off. Read some of my entries and some ought to be worth your time!

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Liberal Education: A Degree or Knowledge?

 A liberal education can best be described as one which offers a "generous" (liberal) offering of study from many different fields or disciplines, art, history, science, mathematics and sociology, with a specialization in one, the one you "major" in.

When I went off to college as a dreamy, ideal teen I had no idea what I was getting into. My High School experience had been rocky, though I loved school and had excelled in it up until my Junior High School years.

Before this, I was an model student, an avid reader, one praised by all my teachers. What hit me in the 7th grade was girls, and a rebellious spirit whose need for attention became my downfall. Once, I arranged for every member of class to drop his/her book on the floor at a prescribed moment during class. They loved me for it.

It only got worse in High School, where I began running with some shady characters, being disruptive in class and ditching school until one day we got caught shoplifting some stuff from a smoke shop in downtown Modesto and were escorted by the police back to school.

I was sent to see the Dean. He was a gruff old man, and everybody was afraid of him. Mr. Rhodes shook his head. "I just don't understand, Richard, how you being such a good kid is running around with this kind of rift-raft". His words touched me. At the same time I was awarded first prize in an annual AAA Safety Poster Contest which inadvertently brought me all of the attention I was seeking. This time for the right reasons.

When a couple of my art teachers began to talk to me of college, the thought had never once entered my mind. To me college was for the White Kids, the smart ones, the rich ones. We were poor. We lived in the barrio on the south side of town. I did not know a single Mexican who went to college.

For this reason, my mom actually tried to talk me out of it. "College? What a dreamer! You actually believe what your teachers are telling you? How will you pay for it? How will you support yourself? In this society Mexicans are always on the bottom. Take it from me, I know."

But thanks to my rebellious spirit I defied her and left for college assured that I would make it somehow. But what "it" was I did not really know. Loaded with an armful of scholarships I embarked on the most amazing journey of my life... getting an education... and I loved it.

I ate it up, every class and devoured the books. My teachers were masters in their own right, some moonlighting at our small private college from the prestigious University of California, Berkeley and I loved them and the knowledge they represented.

While it was an art school, we were immersed in liberal studies and many students resented it. "We are artists by God, so why do we have to take all these stupid courses that have nothing to do with art? In my Junior year on a lark, I ran for Student Body President and won! I was frightened to death at the duties this small town boy was getting ready to assume in this office, but I excelled despite my fears of public speaking.

As fate would have it, that very semester, a student rebellion began to brew, prompting several spontaneous protests on campus, their anger directed at the administration for making liberal studies a requirement. One day the president of the college called me into his office. I was paralyzed at the thought of having to face the college president! "Richard, I am calling a student assembly to respond to the issue of Liberal Studies requirements and I want you to speak in support of the requirement."

"Wait a minute, me? Speak?" The thought paralyzed me. "OK", I stuttered and stumbled out of his office. While I thought the protests were uncalled for because I had always been taught to respect authority, I felt a shaky loyalty to the students and they wanted me to speak out in favor of their demands! I was torn and uncertain of exactly what my position was. I had simply accepted the institutional notion that liberal studies was good for us. It was good for everybody. But on the other hand, if we were just going to be artists, what good would it possibly do us?

As the day of the dreaded assembly drew near, the student unrest grew and there was even talk of walkouts, and my fear escalated to terror. What would I say? Who would I back? I knew what the students wanted me to say but I knew the college president expected me to support the college. The auditorium was packed and noisy, rowdy even.

I was introduced by the president to speak. I wanted to disappear, to run, to hide. But there was no hiding. I dragged myself to the podium. The crowd became silent. I swear to you now, that even at that moment I did not know what I was going to say! Would I throw down the gauntlet, defy authority and stand chest to chest with my compatriots or would I turn coat and throw my support to the enemy!?

I stood there like an idiot, my moth dry, my palms sweaty, my knees trembling. And then the words slurped out of my mouth, like a spoonful of hot soup that has just burned your tongue: "My fellow students... we must stop all this nonsense. The administration is right...." I could not even finish the sentence before the booing and jeering began. I was humiliated as I saw many of my friends, those who had loyally supported me, shaking their heads in disgust. My mind shut down. I had just betrayed my own people, abandoned them in their hour of need. I was a disgrace as their president.

I don't remember how that assembly ended or what ensued in the subsequent weeks but in time the unrest dissolved into the mundane comings and goings of college life and I was shunned by many of my classmates. But truth be told, now that I look back at it decades later, I had been simply too damned scared to speak out against authority. If only I had meant what I said. But things that are done, cannot be undone.

When I was finally hired as a Chicano Studies teacher some 10 years later, and I walked into that first classroom, it wasn't art that allowed me to survive and thrive as an educator, it was the Liberal Studies that gave me a broader view of every single topic I discussed in my courses and I thanked the powers that be for that beautiful, incredible generous helping of knowledge they gave to me. It cannot be measured, it cannot be quantified, as it is beyond value, priceless.

And now, I wish for one thing. That with what I know now, I could relive that moment, that raucous student assembly and I could say "Look, you jerks. Whatever it is you want to be or become with your college education, an artist, lawyer, cook, teacher, doctor, you will be better at it with a liberal education! Go back to your classes,and shut up, listen up, pay attention and enjoy the act of learning, enjoy knowledge for its own sake without regard to what good it will ever do you in the future. Knowledge is its own kind of power, a keepsake, a pearl of great value that can never be taken from you."

Oh well, maybe next time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Que Viva Zapata!: Hollywood Style

Marlon Brando and Jean Peters
I just watched (again) one of my all time favorite films, Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata", a fictionalized biographical account of Emiliano Zapata, one of the great rebel leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), based on the screenplay by John Steinbeck, nontheless.

The film stars Marlon Brando as Emiliano, Jean Peters as his wife Josefa, and Anthony Quinn as Emiliano's brother, Eufemio.

I remember seeing it as a kid when it was first released and feeling a surge of pride in being Mexican and the child of parents who actually lived in Mexico during these tumultuous times. It was a far cry from the canned films of the 50's and a daring departure from Hollywood's stereotyped depictions of Mexicans as drunkards, brawlers, womanizers, servants and Latin-lovers in so many movies.

My mom was from Torreon, Coahuila, the home of one of Pancho Villa's most celebrated victories(1914), in the North against the more strongly armed and disciplined Mexican troups, Los Federales.

Villa, and Zapata who led rebel forces in the South of Mexico (Morelos), were god-like heroes to the poor masses of Mexico. Dozens of corridos (ballads) extolling their heroic and tragic lives live on today. My mom used to tell me stories that Villa would ride into town, shoot up the wealthy Hacendados and rich merchants, sometimes killing them, and how she and her mother would wander through the streets of Torreon, the empty stores and search dead bodies, rummaging for anything of value.

Moreover, even then,  the 50's, we entertained the unspoken and restless unease about Hollywood's insistence on casting White actors as Mexicans. It angered us. It embarrassed us. But being simple people, we had no words for it. When I found out they had glued Marlon Brando's eyelids to give him a "indian" look in this film, I felt cheated. Why wasn't Anthony Quinn, who played Zapata's brother Eufemio, cast as Emiliano? Was it their fear that a Mexican cast in a leading role would not be a draw at the box office?

Still, Brando being Brando, pulls off a powerful portrayal of a simple, intense, charismatic and humble man willingly giving his life for the rights of the poor people of Mexico with no glory or reward for himself. Quinn is masterful in the film, at his usual best playing a passionate volcano of bravado, and a womanizing Macho, like he did in "Zorba The Greek." The beautiful Jean Peters was cast as Josefa, Emilian's loving and faithful wife, despite their differences in social class. In black and white she looks almost Mexican in parts.

All of this is forgiven though in light of the great cinematography, many shots reminding us of actual photos from the Mexican Revolution. Kazan in fact studied actual photos to help him recreate scenes for the film.

The faces of Mexico, the old men and women especially and the beautiful light and dark hues, the shadows created by black and white film are compelling.

Forgiven too is the occasional staccato of abrupt fade-ins and fade-outs, the melodramatic music and overacted scenes remnants of the silent film era. Realistic accents were generally non-existent with the exception of Quinn's, of course, another bothersome detail.

Perhaps the film's most memorable sequence is that of Zapata's betrayal and assassination at the end of the film. As he rides into a trap he himself suspects, he cannot resist the lure of the tons of machine guns, rifles and ammunition that has been promised him, just for the taking. Cautiously entering into the courtyard of the military garrison, he is welcomed with a kiss on the cheek (reminiscent of Christ's betrayal by Judas), by a General Guajardo,and further enticed by the sight of his favorite white stallion. Dismounting, he embraces his long lost friend but the horse is restless and begins to neigh foreshadowing the impending terror to come.

Guajardo raises his sword giving the order to fire, and dozens of uniformed soldiers appear on the rooftops of the garrison and begin firing. The camera shots of Zapata's body, cringing on his knees, shielding his head, and the in the fury of hundreds of rounds tearing his body apart is unforgettable, reminding this viewer of the the closing scenes of "Bonnie and Clyde",  or "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid", when the protagonists are mercilessly gunned down.

The ending is predicatable as Zapata's white horse "escapes" to fuel the myth to follow that Zapata is still alive, that he can never be killed, that as long as injustice rears its head, he will be there to lead the people against it.

Regardless of these minor glitches, this period-piece remains on of my favorite films.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

To Whom It May Concern

As a teacher it often fell to me to write letters of recommendation for my students, be it for jobs, scholarships or college applications. And I usually did it with enthusiasm.

When I knew the student well from his/her work in class it was easy to say positive things about them. When I didn't know them well, well I had to stretch it a little.

One day years ago Jose came into my office to tell me he was applying for a job and needed a letter of recommendation. "I would really appreciate it if you could write one for me, Mr. Rios", he said. "When do you need it?" "Maybe this Friday?" It was Monday. "I'll have it ready for you, Jose", I told him; we shook hands and he left.

Later that evening as I thought about Jose's request, I looked over my grade book. There I saw that Jose had already missed class 5 times, and it was only mid-semester. He had failed to turn in two essays, and of the two he had turned in, one was a C- and the other a D. I recalled that he often arrived to class late, and  without his book, too. "How could Jose even have the guts to ask me for a letter?" I asked myself.

The next couple of days, I wrestled with what I should say in the letter. Should I stretch it, and say Jose was a good student and doing acceptable work in my course? Or I could tell him, "Look Jose, I simply cannot write this letter in good conscience because I really don't think I can say something good about you", I pondered to myself.

By Thursday, I had still made no decision! That night, the angel on my left shoulder (or was it the one on the right?) spoke to me: "Write the letter, Rios and just tell the truth. You wouldn't want to be responsible for some poor slob of a boss hiring this jerk, would you? If you were the employer, wouldn't you want to know the truth before hiring this lackluster specimen for an employee?"

I picked up a nice, clean sheet of the college's letterhead typing paper, slid it into the typewriter and wrote:

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter is written on behalf of Jose Benavides, who is currently a student in my English 35, Chicano Literature course. While Jose is a amiable and outgoing person, his course work in unacceptable. He comes to class habitually late, unprepared, and has excessive unexcused absences.

Therefore, I would not recommend him for employment.

Your Truly,
Richard Rios, Instructor

I sealed the letter in an envelope and the next morning, right on schedule, Jose came for it in my office. "Here, is your letter Jose", I chimed, handing it to him. He looked at it, then at me with a big smile. Taking it, he said "You don't know how much I appreciate this Mr. Rios", as he shook my hand vigorously.

I felt joyously sinister, almost evil inside.

Whether or not Jose ever got that job I would never know. He never returned to class, and I never saw him again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Letter From Imprisoned Minds

During my 33 years of teaching, many moments in the classroom stand out but one incident is near the top of the list. It happened in a section of my English 1A course when I assigned my students to read and discuss Martin Luther King's brilliant essay, "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

The letter was written in 1963 after King was arrested during a sit-in at a Birmingham diner in response to an article posted by eight of King's "fellow clergyman" in essence withdrawing their support of him because his actions though peaceful and "non-violent" precipitate viloence. The piece, scribbled on the backs of napkins would go on to be reprinted in hundreds of anthologies.

 While not an easy piece, I would have settled with my students grasping 50% of it, though getting them to read in general was a formidable challenge. I had set aside 3 periods for a what I hoped would be a detailed analysis of the central premises in the letter.

I had envisioned a lively discussion with strong divisions among the students. What I got was something I had not prepared for, nor could have prepared for in any teacher training program.

I usually began the discussions by asking for general reactions to the reading. Good, bad, like, dislike. When no hands showed, I usually moved on to specific sections of each reading, quoting assertions by the writer then asking for specific responses to each. The essays in all the readers had enumerated paragraphs, making analysis of specific points easier to address.

"Class in paragraphs 25-26, the writer claims such and such is so. Do you agree? Disagree? After long intense silences, with students staring at the floor or the ceiling, at their books, or at one another waiting for some brave soul to raise a hand, they panicked when they began to fear I might call on one of them! This day, I was spared the indignity when one older White lady raised her hand.

Unlike most of the 18-21 year olds in my classes, she was about 60 I guessed. I looked forward to the contributions of her wisdom and experience to our discussion of King's letter.

"I think this essay is a bunch of crap", she asserted defiantly. I was stunned. The students were stunned. I looked around the room hoping someone would challenge or even agree with her. Nothing. Caught off guard I had to think on my feet. "What do I say now?" I froze. My reputation as a teacher was on the line! Finally, it came to me.

"Exactly what part of King's essay is crap?" I asked with surgical skill. "All of it", she countered. "Everyone knows King hates White People and says what he says only for the love of his Negro race." Then, I saw it. My opening. And I prepared my masterful assault. "Could you discuss one specific point in the essay where King says something you disagree with?" "Well", she hesitated "all of it!" "No, no that's not what I'm asking. I am asking you to point to one specific paragraph number, one specific point he makes in one specific paragraph which is as you say crap?"

I had her. She hemmed, she hawed, she shifted her weight from one side of the desk to the other like a fish who had just been pulled on to dry land, hooked and floundering on the ground. I stood defiantly in front of her desk, eyes glued on hers. She looked away. The silence in the room was stifling.  And then it came.

"Uh, I didn't read it." I looked at the others, and they squirmed like unearthed earthworms. I knew it. None of them had read the essay except me, their teacher! As the period mercifully ended, I put the topping on the cake. I was offended. I was angry. Not at the lady necessarily but at each and every student in that room who had let me, their teacher, and that poor lady languish alone on the hot pavement of that confrontation.

"Today's, real lesson class is that I am absolutely apalled ed by the silence of each and every one of you. Not one single student in this class had the balls to say, 'Yeah, she's absolutely right, this essay is a bunch of crap' or to challenge her and stand up for even one of King's arguments", I said to them like a matador, thrusting the Sabre to the hilt. 

We all, students and teacher, left the room with our heads bowed.

In paragraph 26, Dr. King writes "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the the good people." Do you agree or disagree?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Mediocrity: The New Excellence?

A student of mine once told me this story. Her teen daughter, a student in Middle School, was handed a note by her teacher from the principal's office announcing that she had been selected as one of the school's outstanding students. An award would be presented at an upcoming assembly.

When the word  of her achievment spread among her peers, instead of congratulatory responses, she was made fun of. "Look at Myra, she thinks she's so smart." "She's a smarty pants!" She thinks she's better than the rest of us!"

Things turned even uglier, a couple of days later, when was approached by a couple of Cholas (tough girls), who threatened "If you show up to the assembly, we are going to kick your butt, homegirl." Myra shuddered but did not respond. She went home, shut herself up in her room, and didn't utter a word of it to her mom.

On the day of the assembly, Myra was late getting out of bed. "Come on mija", prodded her mom, "you're late for school!" "I don't feel well today, mama, I think I'm getting the flu", Myra shouted through the closed door. "Ok mija", stay in bed and take care of yourself; I'm late for work. I'll see you tonight."  Sometime later, the school contacted Myra's mother about her daughter's unexplained absence on the day of the assembly. The award arrived in the mail the next day, inside an envelope.

The story shook, but did not surprise me. Peer pressure to fail, to be stupid, to be mediocre, to be a pendejo is rampant among our kids today. "All I want from life is a C", is the debilitating mentality. The student who studies, the one who gets good grades, who succeeds in school is often bullied and ridiculed by his peers. There are few things worse than being labeled "teacher's pet."

Students gather in groups when they receive their graded assignments. "You got an F? Me too!! They cheer each other on, excitedly. The few with the A or B papers, even dread telling it to others, fearing the response, "An A?? What did you do, kiss the teacher's butt!?"

The greater tragedy is that their parents, sometimes their teachers, even the greater society, languishes in this kind of mediocrity. The term derives from the Latin "mediocris: to be in "a middle state." We don't want to stand out, to be seen as different from others. Tragically, to be smarter-or more intelligent-to be educated-often becomes a life sentence to separateness.

We need only to look at the long history of great people, thinkers, philosophers, artists to witness the tragic and lonely lives they lived. There is a price tag for success.