Thursday, March 9, 2017

Compassion or Enabling

Recently, I had someone tell me that requiring drug testing for welfare recipients was a human rights violation. The conversation that followed caused me to begin to ponder about the welfare system and its effect on the recipients.

I began to remember all the talk about "the War on Poverty" which was supposed to end all poverty in the U. S. The idea was that if people were poor all their financial needs (medical, food, housing) should be given to them with few or no strings until they could provide for themselves. The result was welfare checks which split families, removing the father from the household; food stamps which could be used (at first) to purchase anything a grocery store sold; and Medicaid which provided free health care. Interestingly, the number of successful "graduates" from the program is minimal.

Perhaps one of the most vocal "graduates" is Starr Parker who got off the system, got an education and now is a columnist. Her columns make more sense than any of the programs' ideas. She is very much opposed to the idea of lifelong recipients. She recognized the difference between compassion for the poor and the enabling of bad habits and poor life choices. Prior to reading her column, I had had only two encounters with the effects of our welfare system.

The first was the family of a student I taught years ago. He was one of six children in a single parent family. The mother had worked at night in a local restaurant until the father abandoned the family. Because two of the children were teenagers, she had quit her job to be at home to supervise her children. She was embarrassed that she was the only person in her family ever to have to accept welfare.

Her children were scrubbed within an inch of their lives, well mannered, always on time to school and always had their homework. She and her family participated for six years in a program our church provided for "striving poor." She made a garden every year, canning and drying food for the winter. Though they lived in a house with no running water and (when we first met) had no electricity; her children had grateful hearts. Her greatest fear was that her children would be "sucked into living like this." She need not have feared.

Years later, I encountered one of her daughters who updated me on the family. All six children and the mother were fully employed, buying their own homes (not one of the government programs which later sucked low income people into homes they could not afford), and active in food and clothing programs in their own churches. All had pursued post secondary training to equip them for the work world.

The second encounter with the effects of the welfare system was through a student I taught in a teacher education program. He already had a BS in social studies but had decided he wanted to teach. So, he had abandoned a very successful career as a professional bass fisherman to enter a post bac teacher preparation program. He was attending class at night and supporting himself with multiple part time jobs including being a substitute teacher. He was one of, if not the, most talented "natural" teacher I've ever known.

One evening he came to class visibly upset. When I opened up the class with my usual question: Does anyone have anything we need to deal with before we begin?

"I sure do!" he exclaimed. "You lied to us! You told us how wonderful teaching was but you didn't tell us how awful it can be!"

It turned out he had subbed in a math class that day. To make the lesson more interesting, he had combined the math skills into a real life application: the planning of a Super Bowl party. He had brought in the grocery sales sections from local stores. The premise he proposed was that each small group should use the papers to plan a party within a $25.00 budget. How many people could they invite? What could they afford to serve? How much would they need?

One young woman was totally disengaged with her group. When he tried to engage her, she informed him that she didn't need to know all this math stuff. He tried to coax her.

"When you're out of school and working, you will need this math to be sure your employer pays you correctly. You don't want people taking advantage of you."

"I don't have to worry about that stuff! I don't plan to go to work and, if somebody cheats me, I'll just tell the social worker and they'll go after them." He said her expression was smug and arrogant.

"If you don't work, how do you think you will eat?" he asked.

"Easy! First off, when I get me a baby, I get a check and housing and food stamps. I'll just stay home and watch my soaps. Then, anytime somebody messes with me, I just tell the social worker and they have all kind of ways of fixing it." He said she "positively sneered at me."

He told us, "I lost it. By that time, the whole class was paying close attention. I told her, 'Look around this room and point to the young man you think is dumb enough to give you a baby knowing his only value to you is as a stud.' Here I was trying to help her have a better life than her parents only to find out that's where she learned an alternative lifestyle that didn't value earning their way. Her dad had moved out so his wife and children could qualify for the welfare programs."

A few short months later, he left the program just months from graduation. He had lost the conviction that he could change lives.

Ms. Parker was my third encounter with the effects of the welfare system. She articulates a very convincing case that our War on Poverty programs are better examples of endenturement rather than compassion. She says they are "enabling" self-destructive behaviors.

As I once again pondered these things, I had to agree with Thomas Sowell (an incredible economics professor and columnist who worked his way up from poverty). He sees welfare programs as a modern day form of slavery. The government removes all adult responsibility from recipients, reinforcing negative self-image of themselves as dependent, incapable persons, destroying families and individuals alike.

Somehow, I can't convince myself that any of that is compassionate.

The first time I heard David Yeoman tell the "Booze Yacht" story, I knew I had found my heart's home in the Down East area of North Carolina. I grew up in Georgia (not my fault but my mother's migration) with a family of storytellers differing from liars in that their stories were real events that actually happened. All the older generation seemed to "own" a story and pity the poor soul who tried to retell a story they did not own!

If the owner of the story was present, the pretender was toast!

Everyone gathered round would drown them out with cries of, "That's Susie's story! Nobody tells that story like Susie!" And, of course, Susie was then obliged to retell her story. If Susie was not around, others could retell her story without being shouted down as a fraud if they introduced it with the proper respect. For example, "I know no one tells this story like Susie" or "I always loved to hear Susie tell the story about ......" (fill in the blank). Then, the story could be told to be best of the recounter's memory though woefully aware that he or she was not up to Susie's caliber.

In the winter, on Friday nights or Sunday afternoons, we would visit someone's home who had a fireplace. We would sit around the fire eating popcorn and drinking hot chocolate. Just the thought of that combination now makes my stomach rebel but, as a child, I thought it was great.

In warm weather, we gathered where there was a large porch (front or back, it didn't matter). If we were lucky, there would be churns of homemade ice cream. The alternative was someone's signature pie or cake. As with the stories, if you didn't "own" bragging rights to the pie or cake, you'd best not try to serve your attempt at one of these gatherings. There was no such thing as serving cookies.

The annual alternative to these gatherings was the family reunion...almost always held in August with "dinner on the ground." No one ever explained to me why the hottest month of the year was chosen for the family reunion which, quite often, was held at the Roe home place with dinner on the ground. For that one day, we were all one big happy family unless and until someone tried to "steal" another's story or recipe! The children had a choice on that one day of either listening to the storytellers or playing ball in the adjoining pasture.

On one such day, I remember asking (don't ask their names, I only saw them one day a year and at funerals!) why everybody sat around telling the same old stories every time they got together. I got two answers. The first was, "It's family history. You need to know it." When I protested, "But, we have albums for that" I was told, "Pictures fade. Memories don't." My IQ dropped about thirty points with that person because of the question and her face showed it! The second answer was, "When we were growing up, we were so poor, the only toys we could afford were words." I liked that answer.

Decades later, in my first year teaching, I was appalled to find that many of my fourth graders could not even sequence the events of that day let alone the events of a story they had been assigned for the night before. I was further appalled to find that many could not even make up a story of their own even with prompts!

I've noticed, over the years, that storytelling seems to be a regional thing. That came to my notice as I got a different response from friends north of Mason Dixon or west of the Mississippi. Their eyes glazed over as a story sprang forth from my lips. But, I also noticed that, if those same friends had a close relative from south of the Mason Dixon or east of the Big Muddy, they responded just like my mother's family.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Power of Language

Words have power.

Consider which you would rather be known as: famous or notorious. Both mean approximately the same thing: being widely known for a trait, a skill, or a characteristic. Most of us would prefer famous to notorious though my grandmother would probably have told you that her preference depended upon who was offering the descriptor. That was not my first acquaintance with the power of language though.

My mother's family was known for their ability to tell great stories and conversation was a form of entertainment. The easiest way to start a brouhaha was to try to tell a story for which some other member of the family was known. You would be given an immediate invitation to repent: "Nobody tells that story like Bob does." Failure to repent would result in specific instructions to "get your own story."

Even before I was exposed to the family's stories, my fourth grade teacher (Miss Eva Saxon) really focused my attention on the power of words. One of my previous teachers had described me as "chatty." Miss Eva saw me as having "strong verbal skills which we need to channel to her advantage." Decades later, when I taught, I tried to emulate her focus on the positive. In the younger grades, when a parent would apologize for their child talking too much in class (a description they shared with me from previous teachers), I would tell them how important a child's oral language was as a foundation for learning to read.

Miss Eva was one of three maiden sisters who taught in our district. One had already retired and the other taught me in high school. All three sisters were known for their no nonsense demeanor and their wardrobes. They wore business suits in rather drab colors with a single splash of color.

Miss Annabelle (the algebra teacher) always wore a very colorful blouse or it may have been just a dickey. We never knew which because she never removed her jacket. The oldest of the sisters wore a business suit and a bright scarf the only time I ever saw her (in the grocery store). Miss Eva had a plethora of colorful handkerchiefs, one of which she pinned with a cameo on her left shoulder when she entered the school building and removed when she left.  The one time I saw her outside of school was in the grocery store and I didn't recognize her without the handkerchief.

She also taught me how to use the words "acceptable" and "appropriate" in the classroom. When we broke a rule, she would quietly say, "That's really not acceptable behavior at school." If our behavior didn't break a rule but did disrupt class, she would sweetly say, "That's not appropriate here or now." The way she said it was enough to make the devil himself repent. Neither of the sisters I knew ever raised their voices. I followed that lead in my classrooms as well.

My junior year of high school, I had two great language masters as teachers. Miss Ethel Thompson taught English literature. The summer before she taught me, she had broken both hips but she insisted upon teaching that last year to match her mother's and her sister's record of 60 years of teaching. Her dresses came almost to the floor and her shoes were clunky, chunky two inch heels. Her walk was very stilted with tiny little steps. Only years later did I realize why.

Every day she met us at the door and welcomed us in. She would then shuffle over to the straight backed wooden chair by her desk. Our class assignment was on the board when we entered as was our homework assignment for the next day. She would sit in her chair, back ramrod straight, both feet firmly on the floor, hands clasped gracefully in her lap. As soon as she did that, everyone sat absolutely still and every mouth closed. She would take out her grade book, look around the room, noting who was there and who was not. Not a word was spoken. She would look up at the class, seeming to make eye contact with each of us.

Then, without a book in hand, she would say softly, "Let us begin" and she would conduct the entire class sans book quoting whole chapters it seemed. No one dared make a move or a sound for fear of losing some pearl of knowledge from her lips. Well.....not really. It wasn't so much the pearls of knowledge we feared to lose.

There was a legend that a few years before, a class clown had not been quiet during her class. After several glances of reproof, she had stood up and carried her chair to the hallway, closing the door behind her. She returned to the class five minutes before the end of class and  replaced the homework assignment with "Prepare for an exam over chapters 3-5. "

When the class erupted in protest, she held up one spindly little hand, smiled sweetly, and said, "I know you are already prepared since you did not require instruction today. Good day." She walked to the door, opened it, and dismissed class.

Clyde went to her that afternoon, after having been harassed by his classmates for most of the day,
and begged her not to give the test. She firmly held her ground. She gave the test and no one knew until they got their final grade that it had not counted. But, none of us wanted to take any chances.

The second great language master was Miss Sandra Worthington who taught speech and drama and coached the debate team. She looked like a fashion model: tall, slim, skin like porcelain, and always elegantly dressed. She also wore the tallest heels of the day. Her Introduction to Public Speaking class was a requirement of ninth grade English. She taught us diction, enunciation, and pronunciation.

Diction, according to her, was the "elegant choice of just the right word or phrase." Enunciation was the "proper execution of each sound" in the word and pronunciation was the combination of enunciation and proper accent in the word. As Henny Youngman might have said if he had known her, "She could tell you to go to the privy and make it sound like such an elegant place to go." The combination of the three, according to her, would result in eloquence.

Besides being a stickler for details, she also expected hard work of the debate team and drama casts and crews. We did not get Christmas holidays off  if we were members of the team, cast, or crew. Instead, the debate team met weekly to turn in assignments and receive new ones. The drama casts and crews had three rehearsals a week. None of us did much dating during the season. I was very grateful my senior year when she allowed me to take a four day trip to Virginia with my father and his wife to visit my grandparents and brother. Never mind that she gave me double assignments.

In addition to the hardships, she kept a sharp eye for talent. No matter how meager one's natural attributes might be, she always made time to discuss our "strengths and needs." We never had weaknesses. We just "needed some work." Because of her, my scholarships to college were delivered to me in January before I filed my application to the college in August.

In each of these instances, I learned the power of language. Words can break a spirit or foster a dream but, either way, the power of language is exhibited. These three teachers healed my broken spirit and made me believe I could do anything I set my mind to and I have.

The Double-edged Sword of Rote Memory

While there are those who would disparage the use of rote memory in worship, there is evidence that memorization can play an important part in worship. There is a notion that every time rote memory is engaged, it devalues that worship to mindless ritual. But, what neuroscience has discovered about the types of memory and how each is acquired tells us differently.

Unless you are one of those people who has a photographic memory, establishing a rote memory requires multiple recitations. Each recitation stores only a fragment of the whole of the targeted information, thus creating a sort of concordance. That concordance is important because it makes the essence of the memory available under different circumstances and for varied purposes.

For that reason, Scriptures and prayers that are memorized become available in varied situations for varied reasons. That knowledge helped me to understand the difference between suffering the loss of rote memory and enduring that loss.

The loss of rote memory happened to me, as it does to many people, as the result of a closed head injury. Although my therapist had assured me that I would eventually be able to access the memory, though not in whole, I panicked in disbelief. After several years of working to re-establish the mundane items one normally knows (mathematical items such as telephone numbers, social security numbers, and basic math facts), I found I was able to access Scriptures, poems, and prayers using the essence of the meaning of those data. Words to songs are less easy to access. I've learned to use my “personal concordance” to help me access information memorized decades ago.

Fortunately, I was trained by my Sunday School and VBS teachers to memorize Scriptures. We were also taught to “pray the Scriptures,” using them as the basis of prayers. An interesting outcome of this is the Gloria Patria which I memorized in the 1970s. I still can access that prayer in only one circumstance. When I am praying fervently for some emergency or in such emergency, the Gloria comes to me in whole when the prayer is being answered. I have learned, when that happens, to act on that assurance as though I can see it with my natural senses. I find that fascinating but reassuring.

Having shared these circumstances, I'll share also the plight of those with photographic memories. Though they are able to recite passages (prayers, poetry, Scriptures), those passages have no meaning except the sequence of the words and, so, no “personal concordance” is built. How sad that the great truths and the great beauties of all those memorized passages are lost to them!

One of the best things that happened to me in my doctoral studies was the course on Neuropsychology which transformed what I had considered suffering into enduring. At the time, I thought the course was useless but the Lord had other Ideas and I'm so glad He did.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Parenting is the only job you will ever have where ALL the training is "on the job." Some technical schools call it "just in time training." I wish I could assure you that your parenting training will always be "just in time." However, there is a way to beat that problem. Look at the parents and teachers you have known whom you admired. Since parents are the first teachers a child has, I copied, without apology, the positive examples and learned from the negative examples.

I had a wonderful fourth grade teacher who saw "Chatty Cathies" as children with "strong verbal skills which should be channeled to their advantage." Research decades later supported her supposition that "strong verbal skills" contribute to becoming good readers. She saw stubborn children not as willlful but as persistent and said that made them be "persistent to task." Again, research decades later supporter her. Miss Annabelle would probably have seen children whom others call "stupid" as "having undeveloped potential." To this day (60 yrs later) I still appreciate this woman and, when I parented and when I taught, I tried to emulate her. 

Another great teacher I had was my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Anita Garrison. She taught us that obeying our parents was training for obeying God. She taught us that obeying them was not a one at a time decision but a commitment. She explained that if we just made the decision that we would be obedient, we would have a much easier time obeying them than if we looked at everything they told us to do as a decision we had to make. I didn't understand that for a very long time. But, when I made the commitment to follow Jesus, I didn't have to make a decision for every choice (or temptation) I faced because I had already made that decision once and for all time. Once I made the decision to "do it as unto the Lord," that all made more sense.

When we got our first foster children, those discussions came back to me. That's when I realized what an awesome job parenting is. It's up to parents to deal with their children with the same consistency that God deals with us. That's how we train them to expect consistency from God and that helps them to know how to recognize temptation.

It's a lot like using a yardstick to measure inches and feet. The distance between each inch and the number of inches in each foot and the number of feet in each yard will always be the same. That's how it is with God's expectations of us. They are consistent and knowable and reliable.

Why are all these lessons so important?

Every interaction a parent has with a child is a lesson we are teaching. That means what we do as well as what we say is a lesson for them. When our actions don't match our words, that too is a lesson. It's a lesson in unfaithfulness. They may never process it in that manner but they will imitate it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Each of us battles our own personal hypocrite

When I worked with children and young adults with disabilities, I had one iron clad rule. Never avoid or accommodate limitations which should be confronted. And, yet, recently I found myself doing exactly the thing I forbade them to do.

A little over three years ago, I took a hard fall on my right arm on a tile floor. For a few days, it was just sore. Then, it became sharp stabbing pains. As I relinquished to it, the pain dulled. After several months, I asked our parish nurse to recommend an orthopedist. She gave me the name of several. When I asked her to tell me about them, I quickly realized they were orthopedic surgeons and, just as quickly, I crossed them off my "to do" list.

As time went by, I began to limit more and more activities as each one became either more difficult or more painful. It wasn't until we had returned to our former house in NC and needed help dressing that I realized I needed help.

Fear of the likelihood of its being a torn rotator cuff drove me to an orthopedist up here whom I already knew. His office referred me to the sports medicine specialist there. He gave me a shot and scheduled me for physical therapy three times a week. The therapist group are very good. They have "homework" assignments.

Yesterday was a milestone! I took my pea coat on and off without any help! Not once but three times! This was the first time in well over a year that I had been able to do that. In fact, I have only two blouses with set-in sleeves that I can put on alone.

As I mentally congratulated myself on my progress, I realized that all those students whom I had held to that higher standard now had every right to call me a hypocrite. I had expected them to confront their limitations before avoiding or accommodating them but I had not.

Lesson learned. If confrontation does not produce success; then, and only then, should we try to avoid or accommodate the limitation. I put this in writing so I will be reminded and, if it aids you, even better.