Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Making America (and England) Hate Again

These jerks have a lot in common.

The voters have spoken, and the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Or perhaps it won't. Or maybe the kingdom will divide, and Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain in the EU while the stump of England and Wales leave. Except London would rather remain. And with the promises used to convince voters to leave turning out to be mostly exaggerations, if not out right lies, maybe they'll take another vote. Or not.

It's all so frustrating, so counterintuitive, so irrational, so...familiar.

The Brexit campaign was led by two British politicians: Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and probable contender to replace David Cameron as Conservative party leader and possibly prime minister. In their quest to flush the British economy, and possibly that of the rest of the Western world, down the loo, Johnson, Farage, and the campaign they spearheaded said many things about immigration, spending, and policy that they are now having to walk back or deny--not unlike a certain spray-tanned, wild-haired demagogue who will almost certainly be the Republican nominee for President. It turns out the racist populism that gave him the edge in so many caucuses and primaries doesn't even come close to representing a majority of the general electorate, and is, if anything, energizing not just minority voters, but independents, Democrats, and even some Republicans to commit to defeating him in November--and possibly costing the GOP their majorities in both chambers of Congress.

And yet, as Bob Garfield has written, the majority that will defeat Donald Trump dare not breathe easy. More than 13 million people voted for Trump in the primaries, and if he wins even 40 per cent of the general election vote, that number could rise to 50 million ballots cast for xenophobic populist hate mongering. Numbers like that turned the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. And here's another thing to consider: those Trump voters are both less educated, and better armed, than the German minority who gave Hitler his step up to demonhood.

The British voters who, in their ignorance, passed the Brexit referendum were mostly middle-aged and older, white, rural, and lower income. The "remain" electorate were predominantly young, urban, and better educated. Trump voters look a lot like "leave" voters, and have similar axes to grind: the global economy has left them behind, and in their anger, they blame those who look most global: immigrants who are also persons of color; and the business elites whose exploitation of the economy caused it to collapse in 2008.

I empathize with those voters. I, too, was hurt by the recession, RIFed out of my teaching job. It took me four years to return to full-time work. That's a big bite out of my eventual retirement income, and probably means I'll have to stay in the work force until later in life than most of my colleagues. This didn't have to happen: if the financial industry had been better-regulated, if the traders running it had had fiduciary responsibility, if the previous administration hadn't been obsessed with making the rich richer, if if if if if...

But happen it did, and working class and middle class people around the world suffered. Leap forward just a few years, and the culprits who caused the collapse are starting to feel uncomfortable. The Tea Party movement could easily have turned on them, but allowed itself to be co-opted into the Republican obsession with obstructing the Obama administration agenda. Ultimately, that movement fell apart, as its base had a series of "Hey, wait a minute..." moments, and realized the GOP establishment was not, in fact, any more fiduciary than the financial industry that donated so generously to its politicians. Rather than turn to the other establishment party, these voters found a voice in the erratic rants of a self-professed billionaire, a man who exemplified so many of the practices that caused the collapse. Somehow, rather than becoming the object of their anger, he channeled it, making common cause with them against immigrants and intellectuals. Working in parallel, the Brexit movement played a similar game, presenting a mix of xenophobia and unattainable promises.

I feel the pain of the Brexiters and the Trumpers, and I know these people. I grew up in small towns like those that voted out of the EU, or for the Donald. My schoolmates, my parishioners, and the parents of some of my students probably have a fair number of Trump bumper stickers on their cars. The typical Trump or Brexit voter looks a lot like me: white, middle-aged, male. Just as my generation (despite its counter-cultural youth) handed Congress to the Tea Party, so it is now handing the Republican party to Donald Trump, and England and Wales to Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. My generation sucks.

But hang on, hipsters: you're not innocent, either. If you had turned out in larger numbers in the Brexit referendum, you could've held the line against the Leave voters. And while poll numbers are looking promising in the American Presidential election, it's far too early to rest easy. A lot could happen between now and November 8. You can't count on my sucky generation to make the right choice at the ballot box. If you stay away on election day (as many of you disappointed Bernie believers have promised to do), we still might be facing a Thousand Year Reich in Washington.

Britain is reeling from its bad decision. Trillions of pounds vanished overnight. The economic earthquake was felt around the world: Wall Street had a very bad day, as well. Giving in to anger and hatred doesn't just hurt the objects of those feelings. It washes over the bystanders who thought they could stay out of it, and ultimately splashes back on the haters themselves, dragging everyone down with the scapegoats.

As much as Britain is hurting now, the impact of a Trump win in November would be far worse. The British economic is significant, but it's tiny next to Wall Street. The aftermath of a Trump win would make 2008 look like a walk in the park.

Brexit was enabled, to a large part, by the disorganization of the Remain campaign; and in the wake of the vote, both the Conservative and Labour parties are coming apart at the seams. The one thing Americans can do to avoid the Trumpocalypse from happening is to unite against it: every age, every ethnicity, every skin tone, every orientation, gender, class, occupation, political persuasion working together to turn back the tide of hatred. That means Sandersites making common cause not just with Clintonians, but with rational Republicans. We don't have to agree on any issue but this one: saying no to Donald Trump.

Can we do that, America? I sure hope so. Canada's too chilly for my tastes, Britain's not likely to be welcoming ex-pats of any nationality for some time to come, and Australia's just too bloody hot. I'd much rather remain.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Here to Stay

It begins: toasting our first house together, June 26, 2012.

I've just entered undiscovered country.

On the day I was born in San Jose, California, I was already getting ready to move: my father, then an American Baptist minister, was candidating for a new position up the coast in Fort Bragg. Five weeks later, we moved there, and the die was cast: for the next fifty-five years, the longest I would keep an address would be the four years I was in high school. I can't pin it all on my father's profession (although switching to Methodist, as he did in 1964, locked him into their peculiar practice of itinerant ministry); from college until Amy and I moved into our current home, the longest I kept an address was three years.

Note the word "until" in the last sentence, because as of today, I've set a new personal record.

We moved into this house four years and a day ago. For the first two years, we were renters, but then our property manager informed us the owner wanted to sell. We looked around the neighborhood for another rental, then hit on a crazy idea: what if we were to buy the house ourselves? And with that, the thin roots I'd put down in this house put on girth and dug themselves far deeper.

It helped that we had just gotten married in a simple ceremony deep in the heart of Forest Park, a place just up the road that we'd been exploring since our second date in 2009. It helped, too, that Amy's daughter Sarah was just starting high school, heralding a four-year commitment to the neighborhood. And finally, I was becoming more secure financial than I'd ever been, as I settled into my second year of full-time teaching across town in the Reynolds School District.

So here we are, and here I am, keeping an address longer than I ever have before. And here I will stay for the foreseeable future: the nasty cross-town commute to Reynolds will be replaced in September with the somewhat-less-nasty cross-suburb commute to Tualatin, and a position I intend to keep for the remainder of my career. The biggest reason for moving into Portland (a goal I've had since moving out here!) has evaporated: it won't put me any closer to work, and might actually increase my drive time.

All matters of convenience aside, I'm feeling an excitement that's very new to me. Over the course of my life, and the dozens of times I've moved, I've almost always felt some eagerness about moving, which has often felt like a cleaning of my personal slate. A new house! New neighborhood! New running routes! New restaurants! New new new! Usually there's been a new job to go with the new home, sometimes a new relationship as well. And in some places, there's been a sense of release attached to my departure. I've been well rid of some of my addresses, the most I've driven away from with at least a pang of regret.

The new frontier for me now is staying. What's it like to live in a neighborhood long enough to see it evolve? There's already some sense of that happening here: when we moved in four years ago, we were on the very northern edge of the unincorporated suburb of Bethany. Four years later, that edge has receded from us, as the farms to the north have been sold, subdivided, and built up into all new neighborhoods. The brand new school where Sarah went to fifth grade is now full to bursting, and another school is being built to accommodate the children moving into these developments. Meanwhile, the disconnected trails I've been running on since 2009 are being expanded, paved, and connected into a regional network. It's like living inside Sim City: I'm fascinated by the development process, wondering at one point our main intersection will be upgraded to have a stop light (rush hour traffic is already backing up for several blocks on Kaiser Road), when Springville Road will be widened and improved to encompass bike lanes and sidewalks, when the trails will finally climb the hill from Bethany to Skyline.

The greater frontier, though, is the house itself. From the outside, it's a house like any other in the neighborhood: at the time of its construction, in 1999, it was common to line streets with nearly identical homes. The only difference visible from outside is the size of the garage (ours is a 2-car, though we never park inside it). Our back patio is distinctive, but one actually has to see it to realize that. We've put our own stamp on that patio, filling the planter with roses, adding a Japanese maple, and furnishing it with seating for eight, as well as a small fire pit. During the summer, we spend plenty of time out there, eating, relaxing, and enjoying the roses.

Inside, we've been gradually upgrading since the purchase went through. We're putting the stamp of our personality on the house as we wouldn't have before we realized we'd be staying more than a few years: bold choices for the kitchen counters, non-neutral colors as we have the interior repainted. It's becoming a home that feels very much like our place, a place I'm always happy to come back to after a day at school or a week on vacation.

Most important, this is our house. This is something I've never really had before. As a college, grad school, and seminary student, I always lived in dorms. As a pastor, I lived in whatever house came with the church I served, and could make very few alterations to that home other than to request new carpet or curtains. As a single man during my post-ministry and early teaching years, I passed through a series of situations, from my room in the Peace House through two different apartments in Sherwood to a rental house in northeast Portland, two more apartments, and finally moving into Amy's apartment. At no point in that decade did I have any say in how those living spaces were put together, other than where my furniture and wall hangings were located.

Sharing this house with Amy, though, and having it be our house, is a whole new adventure for me. Anything we decide to do to the inside of this house is our decision to make, and for the most part, we make those decisions together. (There are some decisions where we authorize each other to make a choice of what plants or which audiovisual component to purchase, but the initial decision to make the purchase is still made together.) It's a heady thing to be making such decisions, to not simply have to accept and tolerate the limitations of a place because it doesn't belong to me and I'll be moving on to another one eventually, anyway.

But there's a much bigger adventure involved in this longer-than-usual address maintenance: planning ahead for the next stage in our lives. I'm 55 years old. Three weeks ago, I tripped and fell hard on a sidewalk while I was running. My knees are still recovering. I don't heal as fast as I used to, and for at least the first week, the stairs were a challenge. Barring any worse injuries (for my part, I am done with running on sidewalks), that won't be a major issue for us at least until I retire--but that's not as far off as I'd like it to be. At some point, we'll need a home without stairs. So as deeply as I'm settling into this house, and as happy as I am continuing to alter and upgrade it to better suit our lifestyle, the time will come when we have to find another.

All of this is new territory for me. I know many of my cohorts have been here far longer than I, owning their own homes, playing the long game that extends well into retirement. I've not been blessed with that kind of stability. In fact, achieving it now, living with it, soaking in it, extending it into the future, may just be the greatest adventure I've had thus far.

And as anyone who knows Amy and me can tell you, "Adventure!" is our middle name.

So here I go, setting a new record every day I wake up in this house, breaking that record every time I turn off the lamp and lay my head down on the pillow, and loving every minute of it.

Putting the Blame Where It Belongs

The SIG SAUER MCX, the gun used to take 49 lives June 12 in Orlando.

This graph tells a story:

It comes from an article in The Economist dated August 10, 2015, so it lacks data from the Santa Barbara and Orlando shootings; but even without those numbers, the statistics are stunning: the number of people killed or wounded in mass shootings has increased significantly since 2004, when the Assault Weapon Ban was permitted to expire. Here's another graph that tells a parallel story:

Since the election of Barack Obama, gun sales have gone up while, simultaneously, the number of gun owners has gone down. A minority of Americans is amassing personal arsenals. From time to time, one of those gun owners opens fire in a crowded place, and these weapons of mass homicide carry out the function for which they were designed: quickly, efficiently slaughtering multiple innocents.

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, anyone with a constituency has been making pronouncements. Many, citing the killer's own 911 call, blame Islamic terrorists. Others, noting the location where the shooting occurred and the sexual identity of the victims, put it down to homophobia. Still others note that the killer's own confused sexual identity and the confused nature of that 911 call (he claimed affiliation to Islamic groups that are sworn enemies of each other) pin the blame on his mental instability.

Advocates for gun ownership are quick to point out (as did Kevin Michalowski, editor of Concealed Carry Magazine, on last Friday's On the Media) that the vast majority of American gun owners are responsible persons who purchase, keep, and use their weapons safely and legally. Americans who use guns to kill other Americans or themselves are a tiny fraction of the gun-owning populace, and it is unfair to taint that majority with the misdeeds of the minority, let alone infringe on their Constitutional rights because of those misdeeds.

Here's another of those misdeeds: yesterday in Katy, Texas, an altercation broke out at a family birthday party. At some point in the argument, Christy Shears, a 42-year-old mother who had posted frequently on Facebook both about how much she loved her 17- and 22-year-old daughters and how much she loved her guns, picked up one of those guns and shot one of her daughters, then pursued the other outside to shoot her in the back. She returned to the house to reload, came back outside to shoot the still-living daughter again, and after being challenged by a police officer and refusing to lower her gun, was herself shot. Her husband Jason, whose 45th birthday had been transformed into a bloodbath, could only watch in horror, pleading with her not to kill their children. News reports state that police had been called to the Shears' address many times to resolve domestic disputes, and that Christy Shears had a history of mental illness.

The Orlando shooting was an epic tragedy, powered by the ready availability of assault weapons, and there have been far too many such incidents since those weapons became legal again. But we must not let this apparent epidemic of mass shootings blind us to the ongoing pandemic of smaller-scale incidents that have always made up the bulk of American gun statistics. Study after study has demonstrated that owning a gun greatly increases the probability of becoming a victim of gun violence.

One of Christy Shears's posts restated the frequent myth that having a gun in the house makes the family safer in the event of home invasion--a crime so infrequent as to be statistically non-existent. Instead, Christy used her weapon as so many other unstable outliers have, turning it on her own family.

As much as the pro-gun lobby would like to distract us with arguments about terrorists, criminals, and the mentally unstable, the common denominator in all gun deaths is, of course, guns. If Christy Shears had attacked her daughters with a kitchen knife, they'd probably still be alive. If the Orlando shooter had gone into the club with a machete, the death count would be a fraction of what it was.

However much Kevin Michalowski and his colleagues protest the unfairness of tarring all gun owners with the brush of the irresponsible few, the fact of the matter is that as long as guns can be legally obtained without meaningful restrictions, those irresponsible few are going to continue purchasing them and accidentally or intentionally killing other people or themselves. They will continue to leave their guns out where children can pick them up and kill playmates, their parents, or themselves. As unfair as it may feel to the millions of responsible gun owners, it is far more unfair to the rest of us potential victims that their Constitutionally protected hobby is endangering our lives.

The National Rifle Association frequently makes the claim that "the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." There may even be truth to that claim, though the cases of mass shootings being stopped by the presence of a legal concealed weapon are as rare as those of home invasions. What the NRA won't ever mention--and what Kevin Michalowski carefully avoided responding to--is the reality that it's not the bad guys with guns most of us need to worry about. It's the legal gun owners who are too immature, unstable, forgetful, or reactionary to be trusted with weapons that can kill people hundreds of feet away. The only way to stop these ordinary people from killing others or themselves is not to let them have guns in the first place. If that means inconveniencing the responsible hobbyists by making them jump through more hoops before they can add to their collections, so be it. This isn't stamp collecting.

One final observation: I used to avoid most bars because I didn't want to breathe second-hand smoke, and come away smelling like an ashtray. Since Oregon passed an indoor smoking ban, my options for eating, drinking, and socializing have proliferated. I realize I'm inconveniencing smokers, forcing them outdoors to better-ventilated areas to engage in their habit, but I'm okay with that, and I expect the bartenders and wait staff at these bars are, too. It's common sense that your right to engage in your preferred behaviors ends when it impinges on my right not to engage in them or, even more importantly, not to be injured or killed by them. Your right to smoke ends at my lungs. Is it that much of a stretch to say that your right to own guns should end with my right not to be shot?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Democratic Disruption

I don't know whether to be proud or aghast.

There are many things I want to say about the Democratic Congresspersons "occupying" their own meeting chamber. This being an opinion essay, I'm going to reverse the "inverted pyramid" and start with the least important--which is, oddly enough, the issue that would be my acid test for a politician were I to be a single-issue voter: gun control.

House Democrats staged this sit-in, disrupting the chamber's business and leading House Speaker Paul Ryan to take draconian, and futile, steps to stifle media coverage of the protest, in an effort to force a vote on the weakest gun control legislation yet to crash against the insurmountable reef of gun lobby influence: barring persons on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns. Had this measure been in place, it would have done nothing to prevent any of the mass shootings that have proliferated since the Assault Weapons Ban expired. Should it ever see the light of Congressional day, it will not prevent a single one of the thousands of annual American gun deaths due to crime, domestic violence, reckless negligence, or suicide. The only thing that can begin to reverse this death train is getting guns out of the hands of amateurs and criminals, and the only way to do that is to either re-interpret the Second Amendment to mean what it literally says (it's all about a well-regulated militia, not an unregulated anarchic free-for-all for civilians) or to repeal the damn thing and start over.

But back to the sit-in: it was only peripherally about trying to get even a thoroughly diluted piece of gun legislation up for discussion as the nation reels from the worst mass shooting in history (and before the next NRA poster child opens fire on the next crowded place to a chorus of useless "thoughts and prayers"). Fundamentally, this protest was about what the House has become: a gerrymandered abomination of abusive parliamentary government that in no way resembles the republican ideal it was created to embodied.

Parliamentary democracy operates with a winner-take-all ethos: whichever party (or coalition of parties) wins the election dictates what legislation will be considered, voted on, and passed for as long as the government remains in office. The task of the minority is to criticize the majority, to vote consistently against its agenda, and to maintain an ongoing alternative media voice; in two words, to be the "loyal opposition." Only another election gives the minority any voice at all in the actions of the legislature.

Since taking the House in 2010, with the aid of the Tea Party movement, the House of Representatives has functioned as a parliament. Democratic initiatives have been shut down again and again, as the chamber has voted repeatedly--and only symbolically--to repeal the Affordable Care Act and any other legislation or executive order that bears the stamp of the Obama Administration. As the sit-in was being staged, the House voted on another symbolic middle finger to both the President and the common people Congress supposedly represents: a repeal of an executive order that will require financial advisors to be fiduciaries whose first priority is the best interests of their clients, rather than lining their own pockets. (Like the NRA, the financial advisory lobby has given generously to Republican legislative campaigns.)

As conceived by the founders, the House was to be the people's chamber, a legislature elected directly by citizens. This was representative (small "r" republican) democracy at its purest. Congresspersons were to propose legislation, debate it, amend it, compromise on it, and ultimately batter out a consensus document that, with a majority vote, could be sent on to the Senate, and then the President, for ratification and enactment. While minorities might not be able to pass their own pure agendas, they could at least be heard, especially if they were willing to work across the aisle.

All of which assumes the House leadership is working with the best interests of all the people at heart.

Instead, the Republicans have taken their control of Congress to be a lock on not just the passage, but even the consideration, of legislation. Permitting even the most watered-down gun control legislation to come to the floor means permitting debate on an issue the NRA-owned party refuses to admit even exists. Even though the majority of Americans favor far stricter gun control measures than those being kept off the floor, the House leadership need not fear losing its majority in the next election, for the Republican party has so cynically and insidiously manipulated the system for redrawing Congressional district boundaries as to lock in Republican control of the House for decades to come. The House represents a gerrymander empowered minority, while the majority of Americans go under-represented in this chamber, not even given a protest voice by the absolutist Republican leadership.

This is what House Democrats were really protesting with their sit-in: a legislature perverted by power politics to prevent it from enacting the will of the people it was created to represent. When democracy has been effectively shut down; when the rules of representative democracy have been mangled to lock out the opposition; when minority voices have been repeatedly and consistently silenced; then there is nothing left to the opposition but to protest.

That's why I'm proud of House Democrats for staging their sit-in. It bothered me at first, for I am, at heart, a Congressional Democrat. I believe in representative democracy, in the legislative process, the free exchange of ideas, the perfection of legislation through amendment, compromise, and reconciliation between legislative chambers. I would much rather see gun control issues be vehemently argued on the House floor, even though, in the end, the legislation would almost certainly go down to defeat. But that's no longer happening. The House has ceased to function as a representative institution, and there are no alternatives left but protest.
This has happened before. Sixty years ago, almost a century after the end of slavery, African-Americans were still unrepresented and oppressed throughout much of the United States. Democracy had failed them, was no longer available to them in any way. To obtain it, they had to confront their oppressors, peacefully, respectfully, but disruptively. John Lewis was on the front lines of those protests. Since 1987, he's been a member of Congress. Last week, he led the sit-in. What was happening in the House was becoming uncomfortably familiar, so he acted in the only way left to make his voice, and the voice of his party, heard.

Speaker Ryan did everything he could to shut down the protest, turning off the C-SPAN cameras, demanding the protesters surrender their cell phones, soldiering on with the anti-fiduciary vote even as the protest continued, and finally calling an early holiday recess. None of it worked: internet-enabled publicity kept the protest in the public eye. It did not, in the end, get the legislation on the floor; but it did make the voice of the opposition public. In fact, it may have resulted in far more attention being paid to the issue.

I'm worried about where this is headed. When the House reconvenes, will the sit-in pick up where it left off? And when, finally, Democrats are able to put together another majority in the House, will Republicans simply engage in the same tactics they've seen used against them in this protest? Does representative democracy have a future in this country? Or will our President be forced to enact all policies by executive order?

Then again, representative democracy hasn't been working in this country for at least six years. The Republican party has become almost 100% RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) in a way that conservatives never anticipated: they've rejected the republic. It remains to be seen if Democrats can restore it by living up to the name of their own party.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Lessons on Gun Violence from Happy Valley

Catherine Cawood is as tough a cop as you'll meet on any American crime drama--and she does it without packing iron.

The world keeps forcing us to think about the unthinkable.

Yesterday in Orlando, Florida, a young man carrying an AR-15, the same assault rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre, single-handedly killed at least 49 people at a gay night club. As always, this incident of gun violence raised a flurry of "thoughts and prayers" from legislators in the pockets of the NRA, and of resigned frustration from less gun-lobbied politicians appealing for minor restrictions on gun sales, knowing that such measures will get nowhere in Congress, no matter how desperately the American people want them. It's as if the minority of Americans who insist on absolute libertarianism with respect to gun ownership have a louder voice than the blood of the victims.

I'm not going to spend any time here arguing about whether this was an incident of international or domestic terrorism, or whether or not it was a hate crime, because quite simply, however the perpetrator felt about the rights of gay people or ISIS or whatever the hell else motivated him to open fire, had he not been able to get his hands on a semi-automatic weapon, the death toll would have been a fraction what it was.

This has all been cast in stark relief for me by a bit of pop culture I binge-watched last week as I was convalescing with strep throat. It had been in my Netflix queue for almost two years, ever since I read a favorable review of it, and I decided now was the time to watch it. It's called Happy Valley, and it's set in a small Yorkshire town ably policed by Sgt. Catherine Cawood, a veteran cop who blends toughness with compassion. Her home life s a mess, but once she puts on her uniform, she's all business. Over the course of the two six-episode seasons released so far, Sgt. Cawood finds herself in many precarious situations, as do the cops she supervises. She and her local police force have to contend with some tough customers, addicts acting unpredictably, an inept kidnapping plot reminiscent of Fargo, a serial killer who preys on aging prostitutes. There's plenty of violence, sometimes cruel, frequently bloody, always brutal. There's much to remind you that this is a British cop show: the gorgeous Yorkshire scenery, the accents,the neon colors of the police vests and vehicles--but the one thing that really sets it apart from a high quality American crime drama is that, in the entire twelve episodes I watched last week, there were only two gun deaths, one committed by a farmer using the rifle she keeps to put down sick animals, the other an anonymous contract killing. 

The police don't aren't shooting anyone. When these cops break down a door or wade into a brawl, they do it armed with night sticks, stun guns, and pepper spray. Mostly they use their fists. This adds to the tension, and plenty of them end up injured, sometimes severely. One dies when one of the kidnappers rams her with his car. And (as in Fargo), when the kidnappers turn on each other, there's plenty of mayhem, but it's all committed with knives.

I felt plenty of stress watching Happy Valley. I've gotten so used to watching American TV cops draw their guns before they check a door, and to seeing so many police calls devolve into gunfights, that I was startled every time I saw a neon-yellow-jacketed cop snap open a night stick, and found myself wondering "Will that be enough?" Sometimes it was; often it wasn't, and one of the police wound up hospitalized. The telling thing, though, was that even in the most brutal fight, they one that landed Catherine in intensive care, nobody got shot.

With that fresh in my mind, waking up Sunday to news of the Orlando shooting, I couldn't help thinking that there is something terribly wrong with the United States of America. We've got a virulent, deadly disease, and it's called gun ownership. Every year it kills thousands of us. If it were a virus, we'd be spending boatloads of money looking for a cure, and we wouldn't rest until we found it.

But we don't, and we won't, even though we don't have to spend a dime to know why guns take so many more lives in America than they do in any other Western industrial nation: we've got more guns. Take away the guns, and while there will still be violence, it won't be nearly as lethal. It's a lot harder to kill a cop, a drug dealer, a prostitute, an enemy, a partner, a child, a parent, a teacher, a classmate, oneself, if one does not have access to a firearm.

And yes, all you gun lovers out there, I am, in fact, calling for repeal of the second amendment, forced forfeiture of your lethal toys, and with it, a significant increase in the safety and wellbeing of every American.

Because "thoughts and prayers" are doing us no good at all.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Exhale

Starting in September, I'll be teaching here.

I felt it Monday morning when I woke up: a slight increase in the gravitational field holding me to my bed, coupled with a tightness in my throat. The pull of the bed I put down to still recovering from a bad fall I'd had Friday while out on a run, the throat scratchiness to the flurry of floral procreation going on throughout the Willamette Valley. Bruises, allergies--yeah, that's what's up. I shaved, showered, had breakfast, packed my lunch, kissed Amy, and headed off to my last full week of school.

Five hours later, the teaching portion of my day complete, I stepped into the cafeteria to do lunch duty, and within a minute, knew I had to go home. I checked with the vice principal to be sure she could handle it by herself, notified the secretary I'd be leaving early, then spent 45 minutes contradicting myself by ensuring everything was in place for my sub, and headed for home. That night, I had a fever of 100.8.

The fever and the throat kept me home for the rest of the week, though I didn't decide to see a doctor until Thursday. The diagnosis: strep. It's Sunday morning now, and while the soreness has mostly abated thanks to penicillin, I've still got some respiratory grunge bugging me. Much worse is my cabin fever: for six days, I've only been out of this house twice. I missed cycling in the warm weather, running in the cool weather, walking in any kind of weather, shooting pool with Amy, eating out with Amy and the kids, doing anything at all that wasn't confined to the living room and bedroom of this house.

Mind you, I was productive: I completed all my grades for the semester, wrote four (and with this one, five) blog posts, played the piano, planned summer trips. I also napped much more than I'm comfortable with, naps so long it took me hours to shake the grogginess once I emerged from them. And I watched twelve hours of a British crime drama I'm convinced is a match for The Wire in its realistic portrayal of messed-up human lives, even if some of the plot twists come dangerously close to stretching credulity. (It's called Happy Valley, there are two seasons of it on Netflix, and it made me really homesick for northern England. Give it a go.)

Still, I'm frustrated and impatient, and it's been showing. My temper is short, and I've lost interest in doing any of the things I normally grumble about not having time for. Some of that crankiness is emanating from spending a week indoors with no exercise. But there's another factor that's at play here: grief.

I'm grieving the toughest job I've ever had.

This was supposed to be the week when I had my final lessons with fifteen of the twenty classes I teach. With the younger children, I was planning a "greatest hits" lesson, revisiting favorite songs and games from this year's curriculum. With the older children, we were going to have final drum circles. These lessons would be a way for me to say goodbye to kids I know better than any students I've ever had before. At the end of each day, I would've come home melancholic, but fulfilled.

Instead, strangers covered those classes, and I sat on the couch, or lay in my bed, reading, blogging, watching, grieving.

I've written a lot in the last three years about this job. Teaching music in the Reynolds School District is like white water rafting on a river with very few calm stretches: after awhile, the excitement ceases to be fun, and you just want it to be over. The high poverty creates behavior issues in every classroom, as well as an insufficient tax base to provide adequate staff, program, or facility support to address those issues. Turnover rates for students, teachers, and administrators are high, creating consistency problems at every level. After teaching there for just a few months, one realizes that the entire district is perpetually in crisis mode, never able to catch its breath long enough to think beyond the next catastrophe.

My own job is an excellent example of how this affects teachers. My first year was divided between two buildings, Margaret Scott and Hartley. In both buildings, I taught in huge echoey gyms with loud ventilation systems. My second year (thanks to the Portland Arts Tax), I was able to be full time at Scott, and now I was in half a classroom. The other half was a computer lab, frequently occupied by noisy classes (though when I was teaching drum circle or recorder, the joke was on them). For year three, I lost that space, and had to spend mornings itinerating to home rooms, afternoons in the gym. Next year's music teacher will be back in the classroom I had last year, though finally he or she will have the whole room. Other music teachers have had themselves involuntarily assigned to different buildings, had their jobs broken up between multiple buildings, or, in one case, reassigned to teach second grade. The location of the music room is never certain from one year to the next, always dependent on student numbers for the building.

And then there are the ever-changing administrators. In my three years, I had three principals. Only one of them was willing to acknowledge his own ignorance of music pedagogy, and to respect my training and experience enough to let me do my thing as best I could in the compromised conditions in which I had to teach.

It takes a special kind of teacher to stay in Reynolds, as the assistant superintendent I worked with last year in my role of music coordinator told me--just a month before he took a better job in the Portland School District. I've got great admiration for the veteran music teachers on my team, two of whom will be retiring next week after decades in the district. The rest of us--the newbies who are all still probationary--spend every summer applying to every other job that opens up in the Portland area. Especially once we've been through a couple of years in Reynolds, we see how things work. We've had enough of the erratic discipline policies, of never knowing what space we'll have to teach in, or how often we'll see students, or how we'll be evaluated by the next administrator to pass through the front office. And sometimes, we find ourselves having no choice but to look.

That's what happened to me in February, when I learned I would not be keeping my job at Scott. I've been down this road before--during the most recent recession, I spent four years un- or under-employed--so I jumped right onto the job boards, reactivating my profile, searching district upon district, filling out application upon application, until finally, after two months of holding my breath, I landed the elusive better job I'd been looking for, a photo of which appears at the top of the page. (It's Byrom Elementary School in Tualatin, and every time I think about teaching there, I feel an involuntary smile coming on.)

So I'm exhaling. No time will be spent on unemployment, or on a substitute's half-wages and minimal benefits. And for the first time since coming to Reynolds, I'm eagerly anticipating the next school year.

But lest you think it was all bad, I'll remind you what I said earlier: I'm grieving. As bad as this job has been, these children have gotten under my skin. I've always loved my students, but never as profoundly as the Mustangs of Margaret Scott.

It's not that they always behaved for me; far from it, as I've written again and again. It's not that they performed well for me; in fact, I was never able to put on a true concert at this school. No, it's something far different, a blend of the intensity with which they both needed and embraced music to bring some beauty and truth to their difficult lives with the sincerity of their appreciation for me as the agent of that musical blessing. As I've said repeatedly since taking this job: more children hug me in a week at this school than have in an entire year at other places I've taught.

I expect that I've contributed to this special relationship, as well. Teaching in these conditions has forced me to grow as a classroom manager, an improviser, a storyteller, and to be simultaneously more strict and more relaxed in my presentation. To go back to my rafting analogy: once you've survived enough Class IV rapids (and by the way, once was more than enough for me; you will not get me in one of those rafts again, ever!), I expect you can handle entire rivers of them with aplomb. I can smile through all but the most hectic and disrespectful classes, zeroing in on the moments of learning and engagement as my, and the children's, real reward for each lesson, minimizing the importance of the misbehavior, rejoicing for the fun we've had.

I can't get back the four days of goodbyes I just missed. Tomorrow, I will at least be able to teach that final lesson to the five remaining classes. Then Tuesday is Field Day (no specials), and Wednesday is the final day (hopefully no Rhythms, but if we do have to run it, it'll be a play day), and at 1:05, with happy summer music playing, I'll be in front of the school, waving as the buses pull away. During my free time (have I mentioned that I have entirely too much of it, that the Portland Arts Taxpayers aren't getting their money's worth with me only teaching music once a week to these children? And no, Rhythms doesn't count.), I'll be packing up all the equipment, most of which I've been unable to use, and printing out an inventory so my successor knows exactly what's there. It'll be a ridiculously well-equipped music room, probably better-equipped than what I'll find at Byrom. Here's hoping the administration hasn't decided between now and September that they need that room for something else, booting music back to a roving cart and a gym, and all those wonderful Orff instruments back into storage.

But that's not my problem. My primary task in the days ahead is to relearn how to exhale.

Whew.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An-Di-Fan No More





An-Di-Fan is no more.

My grandmother took possession of the house 71 years ago, purchasing it, sight unseen, from the botany professor who'd owned it, I think, since it had been built. She bought it as the most tangible part of her new life: my grandfather, had died suddenly, and rather than retreat into widowhood, Grandma chose to make her own mark in the world. She'd led a productive life already, working alongside him in his positions as a missionary in Shanghai, then a college president, first in McMinnville, Oregon, and finally in Redlands, California. She'd already established herself as a free-lance writer--I remember seeing a feature of hers in one of the old (1940?) Life magazines she kept upstairs in her house--but she aspired to more. She earned her doctorate and returned to McMinnville to be a professor and administrator at Linfield College. This house was waiting for her when she arrived.

"An-Di-Fan" was a name brought back from Shanghai, a Mandarin transliteration of "Anderson" that translates to "House of Peace." During Grandfather's time as president of Linfield, the name was attached to a cabin in the Coast Range where he and his family would retreat from the pressures of academic life. The cabin is long since gone, but the property remains in the family, so I'm not sure exactly when Grandma decided to relocate the name to her house on Baker Street; but in my mind, that was where the name belonged.

In my childhood and well into my 20s, An-Di-Fan was a place rooted in the past. Appliances, furniture, decor, even the doodads and knickknacks that filled the house were from early in the twentieth century. The walls and floors were stained with a dark shellac, the couches had ancient springs, chairs and tables were solid but creaky, and even the 1960 vintage record changer was housed in a huge Victrola cabinet that still (it was passed on to me after Grandma's death) has, within its drawers, replacement needles from the original 78 rpm phonograph. Upstairs closets and bureaus were filled with mementos from the family's early years, including stacks of old Life, Time, and National Geographic I would leaf through during our annual summer vacations there.

As Grandma entered her 90s, An-Di-Fan shrank. My immediate family now lived in Oregon, so we rarely stayed at the house; and while she had a live-in housekeeper/caretaker, the upstairs fell into disuse once Grandma turned the first floor family room into her bedroom. She died in that room in 1988, 97 years old and still lucid. 

Two years later, my newly-retired parents moved in. They'd never had a home of their own: as a pastor, Dad was always partially compensated with a parsonage, so we lived in whatever house came with the church. There was never enough in his paycheck to invest in property, so he had no retirement savings apart from his ministerial pension. Inheriting this house meant my parents had a place to live, a place already steeped in memories from three generations of Andersons passing through it to visit, sometimes to stay.

The house and the huge garden were beautiful, but they had suffered neglect in the last few years of my grandmother's life. My parents and my two youngest brothers now went to work renovating the house and grounds, transforming it with paint, wallpaper, rewiring, new appliances and furniture, and much more. My father's brilliance as a jury-rigger and handiman put the stamp of his personality on every room. This was the first home he had ever had that he could call his own, and like his mother, he decided to spend the rest of his life in it.

And he did. Twenty-six years after my grandmother died in the family room that had been turned into her bedroom, my father died in the same room, again repurposed as a bedroom once he could no longer climb stairs.

My parents never lived longer at any address than at An-Di-Fan. My mother's 25 years there are the record for my immediate family. For my brothers and our families, the house has been a constant, even as we moved again and again, parsonage to parsonage, dorm to dorm, apartment to townhouse to rental house to mortgage to commune to whatever came next. Just as it was a place of unique stability for us growing up, it took on a similar significance for our own children.

With Dad gone, though, it was time for my mother to move on. She needed her own place that was smaller, easier to tend, and closer to the rest of us. Selling the house was more arduous than any of us expected, but finally, two weeks ago, the last boxes and furniture were loaded up, and Mom moved to a ranch-style house in Wilsonville. She's five minutes away from the home of my brother James, and his kids can bicycle to see her. It's a longer trip for me--half an hour when the traffic cooperates--but it's still a vast improvement over the hour it took to get to McMinnville, and it's just minutes from the Tualatin school that will be my new workplace in September.

The family will be traveling to New Hampshire in August to enurn and scatter the last of my father's ashes. While we're there, James will gather some new granite scraps so that he can build a new mosaic, modeled on the design that is still in the patio of the McMinnville house--until the new owners dig it up, anyway--of the family monogram, the Chinese character "An." The house in Wilsonville will not have the history of that grand old manor, but it will be the place where the family comes together, An-Di-Fan once more; just as each of our homes, now that we have scaled back on our roaming, is itself An-Di-Fan, a house of peace.

A few paragraphs back, I noted that my parents' quarter-century in McMinnville was the longest anyone in our family had held a single address. In two weeks, I'll be passing a milestone of my own: own June 26, Amy and I will have lived in this house for four years. That's the longest I've lived anywhere since high school, and I was in that house for four years, so every day after that will be a new record for me, as together we create our own An-Di-Fan here in Bethany, just as we will anywhere else we may live once this house passes into other hands.

Keep on Bernin'

Do a Google image search on "Bernie Sanders," and you'll get a whole lot of this:



It's the quintessential Sanders, voice raised, hand up to emphasize the point he's making, hitting on the same points he's made hundreds of times in the last year about the inequities of American politics and economics. Of course, he didn't just start campaigning for these values in April 2015, when he announced he would compete with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. He's been an activist for leftist causes since before I was born, and his message has never wavered: equal rights for all people; redistribution of wealth and power; socialism as the cure for all our nation's ills.

That stubborn consistency singles Bernie out from the political class, who by and large succeed by adjusting their positions to match or at least work in sync with the shifting views of their constituents. It helps, in Bernie's case, that his entire career as an elected politician has been based on New England, a region that values bluntness over polish. It has not, however, yielded results in Washington, where as first a Congressman and, more recently, a Senator, he has had few legislative victories. Until he decided to run for President, he was not even affiliated with a major political party, calling himself independent but caucusing consistently with the Democrats. While his principled stands have earned him the admiration of many of his colleagues, he has not had many friends on Capitol Hill. Of all the 538 potential Congressional candidates for President, he seemed the unlikeliest to attract a following.

And yet this stubborn curmudgeon came within a few hundred delegates of winning the nomination.

To be clear, I have never been on the Bernie Bandwagon. I liked what I said, would be delighted if any of his dreams were to come to fruition; but I knew that the office of the Presidency had no power to implement any of those programs, that in fact the President's greatest influence lies in the realm of foreign policy, an area that is a Sanders weakness; and I worried that a socialist heading the Democratic ticket would ensure a Republican victory in November. For all that, I have been impressed with his tenacity, amazed by the youth and passion of his following, and I very much hope we are seeing, at last, the awakening of the Millennial generation to its own political power. Over the next few decades, I expect Bernie's movement to remake American culture and governance, to nationalize and institutionalize the gains in equity made since President Obama took office, to shift political influence from the wealthy back to the populace.

But what of Bernie himself? At 74, he really is too old to have another shot at the Presidency. But I don't believe that was ever the right place for him, for one simple reason: prophets ought not be kings.

And with that, I put on a hat I haven't worn in awhile: theologian.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly referred to be Christians as the "Old" Testament), there are two classes of prophets: those who work for the king, speaking for God in ways that, by and large, affirm his policies; and those who independently speak for God against the evils of the dominant culture. We only hear about the king's prophets when they come up against the independent prophets, and typically, they wind up disgraced or dead (the Bible is not kind to toadies). The independent prophets, though, are the heroes of the Scriptures, railing against injustice and corruption, predicting destruction for the leaders and their followers, offering up a vision for a future that is just, equitable, and righteous. There's no glory in this job: prophets lead their lives in isolation and poverty, under the threat of persecution, imprisonment, and execution for their treasonous views.

Read the Biblical narrative from end to end, and there will be little doubt in your mind who the true prophets were. Even the best kings come across as flawed individuals. Prophets, on the other hand, stay true to their messages, no matter what the cost.

And now I'll put my pundit hat back on.

Bernie Sanders is a prophet. He's been a prophet at least as far back as 1960, when he joined the Young People's Socialist League at the University of Chicago. As an activist through the 1960s and 1970s, and as an elected politician since 1980, he has continued to prophesy, holding true to a message that is wholly compatible with the prophetic ministries of Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah: justice, righteousness, mercy. He has, quite remarkably, managed to hold true to this prophetic work from within the government he criticizes--though he's done this at the cost of legislative effectiveness, and by virtue of representing a region of the United States known for its idiosyncrasies.

There are many within the Sanders movement who are grieving now, angrily railing against the system that kept their prophet from becoming king. They're right in their belief that the deck was stacked against him: the politics of any republic favor candidates of the middle, and it is rare for a candidate from either extreme to ascend to office without manipulating or subverting the system in some way.

That's as it should be. Had Bernie won the Presidency, he would have either spent one frustrating term of accomplishing nothing, finding every one of his radical policies rejected by Congress, the only branch of government that could put them into practice; or he would have had to compromise every one of them to the point at which they became unrecognizable. The United States is not a dictatorship; the executive branch does not have the power to implement policies anywhere near as radical as those proposed by Bernie Sanders.

Continuing with how it should be: this keeps Bernie where he belongs, prophesying from Capitol Hill. But there's a difference now: thanks to his campaign for the Presidency, both his colleagues on the Hill and the next occupant of the White House will have to reckon with him. He's no longer just the junior senator from one of the smallest states in the union. He speaks for a movement of millions of voters, voters who were the majority in nineteen state primaries and caucuses, most of whom will grudgingly vote for Hillary Clinton in November, but none of whom will just disappear. These voters are the future of center-left politics in America, and ignoring them will cost the Democratic party dearly. The Republican party is on the verge of self-destruction because its own fringe candidate's following proved far stronger with voters than any had suspected; Democrats of future elections could face a similar fate if they don't heed the message of the Sanders movement.

That's why I'm glad Bernie Sanders is not going away. Don't get me wrong, Hillary Clinton has an essential, historical role in the immediate future. But long term, Bernie matters more. He speaks for those who will, more and more, decide future elections. We know he won't be silenced--25 years on Capitol Hill have proven that. The difference is that he can no longer be ignored. He speaks for millions.

So no, Bernie, you don't get to be king. And that's just as well, because from the very beginning, you were called to be something far more significant: prophet.


Friday, June 10, 2016

Flirting with Armageddon

Sometime soon, these two may be able to occupy the same room with smiles on their faces.

Think back to a time when you wanted something with every fiber of your being, wanted it so desperately that you would've given your life for it, in fact in some ways you did give your life for it, and once you realized you couldn't have it, you grieved so deeply the world could have been destroyed around you, could've been destroyed because of you, and you wouldn't have cared, in fact you wanted everyone to feel your pain and no one to ever smile or laugh or enjoy life again.

That paragraph was far too easy to write for the simple reason that I've been in that place myself several times. The occasions: losing an election when I was 17; being "friend-zoned" by a girl I had fallen deeply in love with a week before I turned 21; and the apocalypse that kept on giving, my first divorce (because when kids are part of the picture, you get to revisit the hellmouth every time there's a major custody dispute). There were others I could list, but those are the big ones that come back to me again and again.

Think back to your own private collection of apocalyptic losses, and you'll find two things in common: that sense that the world simply could not go on unless you had that one thing you longed for with such gut-wrenching passion; and the contradictory realization, whether it abruptly came to you the day after you finally lost all hope or gradually crept in over the weeks and months afterward, that hey, the existence of the world isn't actually dependent on whether I get my way.

That's how it was for every one of the cataclysms I've endured. All is lost. There's nothing left of me but a puddle of tears. Somehow I come back together enough to crawl into bed. I don't sleep that night, at least not until it's almost time to get up anyway. And then I do get up. Maybe I go to work. Maybe I call in sick. Maybe I spend the day picking up pieces, rearranging my life around this new reality. I spend some time--days, weeks, months--mending, noticing that the sun keeps rising and setting, that children are still friendly and playful, that it feels good to work out, that food and drink are tasting good once again, that there are people who love me and want me to be happy, that there are other things I can do with my life that don't demand as much of me and may ultimately be much more fulfilling than the black hole I poured myself into before it blew up. At some point, I realize I've let go enough to move on; and then I really have moved on, and I'm in a new, better place, and I can't believe how of my world I was willing to sacrifice to get that one thing, and I promise myself that next time I'll be wiser. Sometimes I am, and I manage to avoid a repeat apocalypse. Other times it comes out just as bad--and in one case, even worse, though this is no place to go into that. 

I'd like to say it's gotten easier and more rational as I've aged, except it's just not true: in February I had a professional apocalypse as I poured myself into trying to keep my job, fighting for it as far and as long as I could. Emotionally, it was like every other time I've been down this road. The one thing that's gotten better is the speed with which I start picking up the pieces: the day after I lost this battle, I began updating my profile on employment websites. And after just two months in limbo, I landed a far better job.

But back to the archetype: when we find ourselves on the field of Armageddon, face to face with the forces of destruction, or worse, when the battle has ended and we're lying on that field, maimed, our essence draining into the mud as the foe we devoted our lives to defeating marches away victorious, we may just wish we could push a button to launch a doomsday weapon and wipe the slate clean. Luckily for me and the people I love, I haven't gone down that road. But it's been tempting.

There are millions of patriotic Americans who are waking up to the realization that the cause they poured their hearts and souls into is lost. They threw themselves into a campaign to remake politics in the United States, to remold this capitalist nation into a social democracy, and they came far closer than anyone in the know thought they could to putting their candidate at the top of the ballot. Their passion has been plain in the seemingly endless Bernie Sanders memes they've posted on Facebook, and the vitriol that filled their comments on my essays criticizing his campaign and his platform. In the last few weeks, as it became clear to the campaign that Hillary Clinton would emerge from the final primaries with a clear majority of both pledged and super delegates, some of these Sanders supporters faced reality with resignation. Others turned up the heat, and began talking about petitioning super delegates to change their votes, to hypocritically use an aspect of the system that Sanders had vilified to steal the nomination from the popularly elected candidate. Even as Sanders has laid off campaign staff and has spoken of uniting with other Democrats to defeat Donald Trump, rather than dividing the party so he can quixotically continue his quest, they've gone on insisting that the nomination isn't decided until every delegate's vote has been counted at the convention. Some go beyond these hopes, and speak of literal revolution: marching in the streets of Philadelphia, using anarchy to lay bare the divisions within the party.

And some will vote for Trump, because they've swallowed the hokum that it would be better for the country to go up in flames than to have Hillary Clinton as President.

To those of you too wracked with grief to step into the promise of a new Clinton Administration: I get it. We all do. When you invest so much of your being in a particular outcome, losing it feels like death--except death would be more merciful, because you wouldn't have to go on living with the pain. And to those of you whose devotion to this outcome was powered as much by anger as by hope, we get that, too. We've all wanted to blow the world up when our righteous passion went unfulfilled.

But to those of you who, furious that you couldn't make a true majority of Democrats "feel the Bern," want to literalize that pun and bring the whole thing down in flames: stop. Think. Remember who Bernie has worked for his entire career: the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. These are the people who will suffer the most under a Trump regime. They'll find their recently-acquired Obamacare cut, rather than expanded. They'll lose their unemployment benefits. Many of them will be deported. Others won't be able to get in. And as the economy goes up in flames, the suffering will expand far beyond the low rent districts. It really will be an apocalypse.

There's far more at stake here than your hurt feelings. So step back from the brink, take a deep breath, hold your nose if necessary, and acknowledge the truth: Hillary Clinton is better for the nation, and the world, than Donald Trump.

And who knows? Once Hillary and Bernie get past the ugliness of the last couple of months, they might just find they have far more in common than they realized. Working together, they can put forward a more progressive platform than the Democratic party has had in decades. They can pressure the party to standardize its nominating process. They can capitalize and Sanders' enhanced stature to move Congress toward real reforms, to simplify and broaden health insurance coverage, and to continue expanding civil rights. Working together, they can build a stronger, more compassionate party, nation, and world.

Or we can have an anarchic revolution that brings the whole thing down in flames.

Just speaking for myself, I like the first option much better.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Abel's Marble



It was just a marble: a small sphere of glass with a ribbon of color in its center. ToysRUs will sell you 160 of them for $4.99. I had bags of them when I was a kid.

And when Abel put it in my hand, it felt like the Nobel Prize.

I first met Abel as a feral kindergartner. Kinders are developmentally puppy-like: inquisitive, cuddly, playful, unhousebroken. For no reason at all, they will pile on top of each other. They will also hug anything: each other, a teacher's leg, a post. Abel had all these qualities, plus two more: he had the body and face of an anime version of a Mexican child, round eyes, round face, a shock of black hair, a teddy bear physique; and he spoke no English. I assume that was the case, because in the five months I taught at Margaret Scott that year, I never heard him say a word. He also seemed not to understand anything I said to him--or perhaps he chose not to. He'd run across the gym on a whim, forcing me to stop the music lesson entirely and try to corral him before half a dozen of his classmates joined in. After school, when I did bus duty with his class, he always wanted me to hold his hand as I took him to his bus.

In first grade, Abel became one of the better-behaved children, working hard to earn my approval. But he was still almost entirely silent: when he was concerned about another child's behavior, his tattline involved taking me by the hand and pointing at the culprit.

Abel's coming to the end of second grade now, and he does occasionally speak to me. His English still leaves much to be desired, but somehow he always manages to get his point across. During the morning duty I have this year, I've seen that Abel is well-liked by his classmates, that he is usually behaving appropriately while he waits for his classroom teacher, but that occasionally he feels his oats and joins in the rough-housing common to 8-year-old boys. He's not usually one to tattle, though when he does, it's in short sentences, using as much English as he can muster.

Ten days ago, Abel gave me a marble.

He walked up to me during morning duty, and I assumed he was going to express concern about a classmate taking cuts in line or having some contraband in his backpack. Instead, he held out his hand, said "Here!" and gave me a marble. Then he told me he wouldn't be coming back in the fall. He didn't articulate why very well. It could be his family is returning to Mexico--or maybe just moving to a different neighborhood. I told him I would miss him, and he smiled sadly.

But then, I'll be missing all these children.

I have a lot of favorites at this school. Yes, I know I'm not supposed to, but any teacher who claims not to have favorites is lying. Some of my favorites are children who are especially enthusiastic about music; Desale, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, was one of those. Some of them are just nice kids, always listening attentively, quick to remind their neighbors (with appropriately silent gestures) that it's time to stop talking and attend to the lesson, eager to help clean up at the end. Some are effervescent child stars, so charming that every adult in the school knows them by name, and has stories to tell about their precocity.

But there's only one Abel.

He's gotten taller lately, lost some of his baby fat, so that he no longer looks like he jumped out of the pages of a manga. Don't get me wrong, he's still adorable. If he was a puppy being given away outside a supermarket, he'd be the first of the litter to be adopted. And as I said, he's started to pick up some of the traits I associate with boys his age. And as I also said, he is speaking now, if haltingly.

For all that growth, he's still the same serious little boy who used to take me hand as I walked him to the bus, whose focus on the music we were making was so acute that he didn't need a translator as I taught.

Since he told me he wouldn't be coming back, I didn't feel the need to tell him I won't be, either. I'll be in a far better situation next year, a suburban school on the west side that's got a dedicated music room, and is filled with well-behaved middle class children. I know I'm going to love this new job.

And I haven't loved the job I'm leaving. There's so much that's been wrong with it: the spaces I've had to teach in, the equipment I can't use because of those spaces, the erratic schedule I'm on, the spotty behavior management, the high percentage of high flyers hijacking my lessons.

But for all that, I've had more favorites at this school than anywhere else I've taught. Part of it is the diversity: where else can one see children from India, Eritrea, Samoa, Mexico, and Russia playing together as if they're all cut from the same stock? I love it that my white face puts me in the minority in this building, and that, for the most part, the children seem oblivious to their ethnic differences.

Another part is the poverty. Children like Abel know how precious school is. It provides them with the stability, the nurture, the enrichment they can't get at home. The enthusiasm they express when I enter their classroom with my box of musical treats is sincere and profound. They love singing, dancing, playing musical games, and it takes very little coaxing to get them on a roll. Of course, some of them become over-engaged and have to have the brakes applied--see that comment above about high flyers--but I can't fault them for that.

So while, in many ways, it's been the most frustrating job I've ever had, it's also been the most rewarding. I won't miss the hassles, but I will miss the children. Badly.

And lest I forget how precious these children are, how important they've been to me, how much I owe them for teaching me that music can make a real difference in the life of a child, I'll keep Abel's marble in my desk; and every once in awhile, as I'm rummaging through the drawer in search of a post-it, a pen, or a hearing aid battery, I'll see it, smile sadly, and then get back to teaching music to my next crop of favorites.