Seeing Things

Choir Kids
Rehearsal before Mass on Sunday at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, founded 1848.

This weekend I had a chance to chaperone a junior choir trip to perform in Detroit.

Despite living an afternoon’s drive away for my entire life, it was my first time visiting this classic American city. Driving in on 94 we passed the Ford Rouge Complex from a distance. (They don’t call it Motown for nothing, right?) My dad worked at Inland Steel for 40 years so I’ve kinda got a thing for down-and-out midwestern manufacturing cities. Looking out over the stacks of the factory complex, deep down inside me, riding in a 15-passenger rental van, I could viscerally feel what Detroit meant to the world not that long ago.

Rouge Overview
A tiny sliver of the 2-million square foot Rouge Complex.

 

We build in educational & sightseeing opportunities on these trips so Saturday we had tickets to the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum.

Hitsville USA
Hitsville, USA – The Empire on West Grand

The Motown and Ford origin stories have been told a million times but we were traveling with 13-17 year olds who don’t have a solid personal grasp of that history.

For their surface-level differences, there was a common thread. Sitting at the hotel breakfast on Sunday morning, the dads who were chaperoning the trip spent time connecting the dots. Henry Ford & Berry Gordy are two men etched deeply into the fabric of the American 20th century. Visionaries, really. To the point where we speak of “Fordism” and “the Motown sound”, and build museums to celebrate them.

  • They’re both from Detroit 
  • Both refined raw materials into finished product
  • Both found new ways around the Gatekeeper 
  • They were in the right place at the right time: “the kids were ready”
  • Both marketed aspirations of better things
  • Both made changes with the times

The visits, and the stories we heard and the things we saw made an important time “real” for our kids. And they learned social lessons that apply even today. 

From a school standpoint I’m hopeful that our kids recognized that the world needs people who can recognize where improvements can be made (or revolutions started), and then use their unique skills to make the change happen. Their job over the next few years is to identify their “thing”, and then prepare themselves to see where their unique skill applies to solve (as the Rigor & Relevance people say) real-world, unpredictable situations.


One last thing our kids learned: A lesson that hit deeper than any book, lecture, or video could:

The Rouge Complex tour started with a video on the history of Ford Motor Company. It pulled no punches on Henry Ford. Our kids saw the photos of labor organizers being beaten by Ford security outside the Rouge plant in 1937.

Later on, after the plant tour, we had about an hour left before the museum closed. That meant we needed to prioritize our visit. Taking my son aside, we made a beeline for the “With Liberty And Justice For All” exhibit. We sat on the bus where Rosa Parks made her stand. A vehicle that the Henry Ford Museum spent $750k to purchase and restore.

Rosa Parks Bus

Every stereotype you have about middle school kids is true, to a point. They are definitely free-range kids. Getting seven of them together and focused on the same thing is a, uh, challenge.

But you should have seen these kids during the presentation on the bus. They were dialed in on the museum employee who gave them the background on the situation in the south in the 50s. They hung on every word of an audio interview with Rosa Parks, relating her story. “I guess I needed to find out what my rights were, exactly, as a human being.” One of the things that middle-school kids understand at a deep level is a recognition of when other people are being treated unfairly. They got it.

Rules of Engagement

I have no doubt they learned what they needed to learn on Saturday afternoon. And it happened because they got to see things they’re never seen before. They sat where Rosa Parks sat, stood where David Ruffin stood, walked past the candy machine where a young Stevie Wonder bought Baby Ruth bars with spare change, sang in a 170-year-old building, and felt the pulse of a city.

There’s a lesson in there for me as a teacher, too.

Studio A
Studio A. The 24/7 operation where the Motown magic happened.
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Power Boost

Back in 1998, America’s Greatest Living Writer, Peggy Noonan, sensing a Bad Thing coming, wrote a column called “There Is No Time. There Will Be Time“.  Two decades later, it stands up pretty well as a glimpse at life in the late 20th century. Near the end, she related a story:

“I once talked to a man who had a friend who had done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became, in fact, the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl’s high-school graduation, she won the award for best all-round student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she’s at college.

The man’s eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. “These are the things that stay God’s hand,” he told me. I didn’t know what that meant. He explained: these are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.

So be good. Do good. Stay His hand. And pray.”

–Peggy Noonan, “There Is No Time, There Will Be Time”, Forbes ASAP, November 30, 1998

“These are the things that stay God’s hand”….


 

I’m kind of a pessimist by nature. Every now and then I need to remind myself of the good stuff that’s out there. The good people out there. And every now and then the reminder kind of rears up and makes itself sort of unmistakable.

Then there are the rare occasions when I get three or four reminders in a row that just line themselves up like incoming flights at ORD. As St. John Paul II used to say:

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Over the summer, and again at the World Series, you may have seen the story of Hailey Dawson, a 7-year-old Henderson, NV girl who was born with a partially-developed right arm, and who now wears a custom 3-D printed prosthetic hand. She has a goal of throwing out the first pitch at all 30 MLB parks.

Her mom relates the excitement of the members of the engineering department at UNLV when they met with her to discuss designing a prosthetic:

“Normally when I walk into a situation like this, I was selling them on why they should do this for my daughter,” she said. “Two of the professors emailed me and asked me to come in, and when we met, they sold me. They were trying to sell me on picking them.”

I love the tenacity and audacity of the mom who contacted everyone she could think of to make something that would let her daughter do all the things every other 7-year old does. And I love how the teachers and students at UNLV were all in:

“We had been working with robotics with eight years. We had coached robotic teams. We had been working with 3-D printers for about 10 years, so it caught my interest just because it was a combination of robotics and 3-D printing and a cool story,” O’Toole said. “A little girl needed a hand because she wanted to play baseball and ride a bike.”


 

Anthony Rizzo is a cancer survivor, and a World Series Champion, and a philanthropist. That’s a good combination. MLB recognized him with its Roberto Clemente Award this year. And what happened next is so Rizzo:

You know the Clemente story. Or maybe you don’t. All I know is it’s the first headline I ever remember seeing in the Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1973. Rizzo’s gesture is perfect. Only someone who is genuinely paying attention could be that smooth. There’s enough horrible human beings in the world. We could use more Rizzos.


 

Of course, Anthony Rizzo is wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. The goodwill accruing to the engineering department at UNLV from the “Hailey’s Hand” story is priceless. It’s easy for them to give. But what about Joe Six-Pack? He can’t make a difference with the extra five bucks in his pocket after buying pizza on the way home from his kids’ basketball practice, and filling the gas tank, and buying a bottle of wine for his wife after a long work week… right?

My youngest son has discovered an old jacket of mine, an IU award-style coat with leather sleeves and “INDIANA” on a nameplate on the back. It’s ancient, but he thinks its cool and wants to wear it, so we took it to a cleaner in town. When we went to pick it up, I noticed a small, unassuming sign in the window:

It’s got like 125 “likes” and 700-some shares. Not because my post is all that brilliant, but because people want to do good things. And they want to nod their chin at others who do good too. And there’s something to that. We just had the conversation in class this morning that in 2017, the whole world is “every man for himself, I got mine, I give zero Fs”. Everybody can see the meanness in the world. A gesture like that from a mom-and-pop business in a little Indiana town confirms our best hopes for the world.

A small thing. But a big thing.


 

So…. so what. What can you do with that? How can I bring a little light to my little corner of the world? Here’s how:

“She didn’t give up on me because I was “too far behind” or because “it was too late”.  She changed the course of my life.  I graduated college summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.  I received a full graduate fellowship to Wake Forest University in mathematics.  I was able to choose the mathematics path because ONE teacher cared.

She is why I became a teacher.  She will forever be my inspiration.  I may not ever be as gifted of a teacher as she is.  However, I can care as much for my students as she cared for me.  Hopefully, I can improve someone’s life as she improved mine.”

-Julie Reulbach, “Change Someone’s Math… Care”, I Speak Math blog, July 7, 2010

Caring costs literally nothing. And yeah, I know we’re supposed to be doing that all the time. And we’re trying. But: It’s November, and I guarantee you the teachers I know are tired. Already. As a colleague told me one year around this time, “I’m just hoping to make it to Thanksgiving”. All it takes sometimes is a little reminder, or four, and it’s like an Underdog Super Energy Pill.

 

Power up.

Image result for John paul II quotes

 

Real World

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In 2017, we’re really bad at delayed gratification. Even the microwave isn’t fast enough.  I want results and I want them yesterday.

But for most of the really important things, we need to play The Long Game.

I write this on the feast day of St. Monica, a fourth-century African woman best known as the mother of Augustine, who was breaking his mother’s heart with his immoral lifestyle.

This holy woman followed her brilliant, worldly son all over Italy. Her best weapon, aside from proximity, was nearly 20 years of unceasing heart-rending prayer for him. Who (after he came under the tutelage of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan) we now know as St. Augustine, author of City of God and Confessions, and a Doctor of the Church.

Persistence pays off, people. A good teacher never hurts, either.


It’s easy to see kids as they are, and not as they will be. Even for those of us with a vivid imagination.

But: there is a tomorrow. And the world doesn’t stop spinning when they turn 18.

And that goes for our college-bound students, and for our kids who don’t like math and don’t like school. Those are my people, by the way.

I read a couple of success stories today that made me smile. One was of a student of mine a year ago, a cross-country runner who is rebounding from injuries and took first place at an invite over the weekend.

He ran well at the state track finals last May and has put in the work all summer, so this win wasn’t altogether unexpected.

The second item made me do a double-take.

Christian Ellison.PNG

Woah. A solid student and a good football player in high school, he made a name for himself at a JUCO outside of Chicago, but the NFL is pretty much uncharted territory for a school not known as a football factory.

Good for him. But there were others, you know.

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“There were eight of us, you know. It would mean a lot to them.” Image via mlb.nbcsports.com

One of the more interesting and unusual teachers I had in high school was my Journalism teacher, Ms. Mayer. All “creatives” stereotypes aside she was the type who dropped Jefferson Airplane references into her lectures, carried a travel mug of coffee everywhere (before Starbucks was a thing),  challenged our thinking and let free spirits fly their freak flag.

I was a wannabe jock at the time. Her take on the jock culture in high school was: yes, the football players and cheerleaders should march in the Homecoming parade. Of course. But so should the girls who work at Burger King, the guys who fix cars with their dads after school, and the kids who play in garage bands. Why was their extra-curricular activity not recognized?

Know what? She was right.

Those guys I wrote about up there? They earned the newspaper coverage they got. Don’t take that away from them. But I also keep in touch with a lot of former students via social media. With some space between them and high school, they are now moms, and dads, and husbands, and wives, and college students, and graduates, and servicemen and women, and folks holding down jobs and grinding out a living every day.

Guess they’re doing OK in the real world, huh?

I’m just happy that I’m here to see it. But happier for them that they get to live it.