ALMA ZULEIMA AND MR. PARKER

A short story by John Mears

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The day Alma Zuleima first went to clean Mr. Parker’s condominium, the sun was burning over Palm Springs as it had when her group crossed the Arizona desert with the coyote. Waves of heat poured down from the mountains over the rooftops and shimmered up from the street like some mysterious water.

The bus had dropped her off at the corner of South Palm Canyon Drive and Calle La Verne.  She walked in the smothering heat, past green lawns in front of stucco walls hiding condominiums, to the address on a little street called Puebla, the name of a city where two Mexican Federales had raped her cousin Estela.  She wondered if that was bad luck, the street being named Puebla.  She remembered a warning from a bruja in Los Angeles, to be careful in August.  Maybe Mr. Parker was a bad man who would rape her, too; but fresh in her mind also were the words of her favorite housekeeping customer, Mrs. Nelson, who owned the restaurant where this Mr. Parker had his fish dinner, alone, every Friday night.  Mrs. Nelson had said that Mr. Parker was a good man, a kind man, a generous man, who was patient with the servers and left big tips.  Mr. Parker always ate dinner alone, Mrs. Nelson had said.  He was probably single and lonely.  Mr. Parker had fish every Friday night.  He was probably Catholic.  Alma Zuleima was a born-again Christian; her brother, a storefront minister at a storefront Pentecostal church in Los Angeles, said Catholics could not be saved until they renounced their religion, but Alma Zuleima didn’t think they were necessarily bad people.

The iron gate to Mr. Parker’s condominium walkway screeched as Eva Zuleima opened the latch and let herself in.  Old rust bubbled up from underneath the flaking black paint on the gate.  On the phone, Mr. Parker had said something about a gate, but with her poor English she wasn’t sure.  Not wanting to embarrass herself, she had said, “Yes, okay” to everything he had said.

She walked the final steps to the door and checked her watch.  She was one minute early.  She said a few Hail Mary’s in Spanish, even though she had herself renounced Catholicism when her brother made her a born-again Christian.  She reminded herself that her father was dying of bone cancer in San Salvador and her mother would need every dollar she could get for the funeral and coyote fees to bring the rest of the family to California.

She pushed the plastic button of the doorbell, which was surrounded by corroded brass.  She heard no sound, but immediately the door opened and a white-haired man with a thin, gentle face opened the door.  Seeing Alma Zuleima, he smiled and said, “You must be Alma Zuleima.”

She noticed that half his chin was missing.

She pushed her cheeks up in her best smile and said, “Yes,” trying to ignore the right side of his jaw, which looked like melted plastic.

Mr. Parker extended his hand.  “I’m Bob Parker.  Please come in.” He spoke with twisted lips, but his smile seemed real.

She shook his hand and walked in.  Cold air blasted her neck from an air-conditioning vent over her head.  She continued past a dining room table into a living room with bright flower paintings on the wall and big silk flowers on the white sofa and love seat.  It smelled of dried eucalyptus and cigarette smoke.  Thankfully, there was no smell of alcohol.  Growing up with a father who loved his bottle more than his family, she had learned to smell whisky a mile away.

Mr. Parker was saying something about the weather being hot. Alma Zuleima nodded and said, “Very hot.”  He asked something she didn’t understand.  When she hesitated, he signaled with his hand, lifting an imaginary drink, and said, “Water?”

She said, “Si… yes, please.”

He opened a plastic gallon bottle of water and got some ice from the freezer and handed her a pink plastic glass filled to the top.  She sipped it while he showed her around.  There was a common pool in the back where two white families were sunbathing.  The parents and children were all sunburned bright pink.  Roses and other flowers bloomed all around the pool and the grass was green and thick.

Alma Zuleima remembered the big old brick apartment building where she had lived in Los Angeles, with its dirt lawn; the only flowers had been tired, thirsty geraniums crammed against the wall like a cholo being arrested by the police.

She looked at the kids playing and wondered if she would ever have children herself. In one job two years before, when she was living in Los Angeles, she had been a nanny for a divorced lady in Beverly Hills, and she’d taken care of two kids, one boy who was three and one girl who was six.  The girl was a monster but the boy stole her heart and when the mother was drinking and talking bad, Alma Zuleima had thought of running back to El Salvador with the boy.

Mr. Parker’s laundry area was in the garage, just off the kitchen.  He was telling her that he wanted her to wash his clothes.  It was very hot in the garage, and there was an old silver Mercedes.

The condo had two bedrooms.  The guest bedroom had two small beds and a computer on a desk where Mr. Parker seemed to be writing something; handwritten papers lay about and there were some paragraphs on the computer screen.

The master bedroom had a giant bed and a half-cathedral ceiling and mirrors on one side.  She wondered if Mr. Parker slept alone.

Now she started thinking about this man. Probably his chin had been half-eaten by cancer.  He was very thin, not handsome, with a long beak nose and a sharp Adam’s apple, but his mouth and what was left of his chin were soft and kind.  As he told her about the condo, she couldn’t understand most of the words, but she could tell he was being nice with her.  Sometimes he would make some joke in English that she didn’t understand; he would half-chuckle at his own joke, and she would manage a smile.

She looked at her own reflection in the large bedroom mirror.  She stood short and fat next to Mr. Parker, but she thought she wasn’t bad-looking for a woman of thirty-nine.  Not having children had helped, no doubt.  Her skin was dark next to his, like café con leche in a white china cup.

Mr. Parker was looking at her in the mirror, and she thought from his face that he liked her, but she kept a straight face and said, “Ok, I think seventy dollars a day.”

He said, “That’s fine.  Can you come on Mondays?”

* * *

For the next three Mondays, Alma Zuleima came to Mr. Parker’s condo at nine o’clock sharp and left at three. She always arrived early, because of the bus schedule, and waited outside in the heat until her little Samsung cell phone said it was nine on the dot.  She dusted, vacuumed, washed his clothes and sheets and towels, mopped his kitchen floor, took out the trash, scrubbed the black-green fungus off the shower tiles, and cleaned inside his refrigerator.  She wiped the kitchen counters, which had light brown tile with white grout, and she scrubbed the grout with an old toothbrush.  She got up on a chair and scrubbed the top of the refrigerator.  From the dust and grit, she guessed that it hadn’t been cleaned in years, but at least it wasn’t covered with congealed grease and oil, like in some kitchens where the ladies did a lot of frying.

Mr. Parker fixed her lunch every Monday:  first a turkey sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato; then a ham sandwich with mustard and pickle; and finally a roast beef sandwich with avocado.

While she worked, Mr. Parker sat at his computer and typed, shuffling papers.  She never asked what he was doing.  Sometimes he would go out for a jog or a swim.

The fourth Monday he made grilled cheese sandwiches, then sat and ate lunch with her, smiling fiercely, which made her nervous.  He asked if she wanted jalapenos with her sandwich, and showed her a jar of jalapenos.  She shook her head and smiled.  He said, “You don’t like jalapenos?”

She said, “No, thank you.”

He said, “I bought them just for you.”

“Thank you.  Muy picante.”

He made a face of surprise.  “Too spicy?  I thought people from Mexico liked muy picante.”

She felt her face turning red.  “My from no is Mexico.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Guatemala?” 

“No,” she smiled.  “My from is El Salvador.”

He said, “You’re from El Salvador.”

“Yes.”

His face changed.  “I used to be an English teacher.  Can you do something for me?”

“Something?”

“Yes, can you say this:  ‘I’m from El Salvador.'”

“You from is El Salvador?”

“No.”  He slowed down his words and gestured with his hands. “I…” (pointing to himself) “…want  you…” (pointing to her) “…to say…” (pointing to his mouth) “…I’m from El Salvador.”

She repeated it.  He made a little diagram showing subject and verb.  It was an English lesson. It was time for her to clean his bedroom, but he was teaching her “I am a woman” and “You are a man” and “I am hungry” and “It is two o’clock.”

She felt nervous that it really was two already and she hadn’t even started cleaning his bedroom.  Then the doorbell rang.  He checked through the curtains and said, “It’s my son.”  For a moment she had a funny feeling as if they’d been doing something bad.  She got up and took her plastic bucket with rags and spray bottles towards the bedroom.  He was opening the door.  She didn’t want to see the son.

From the bedroom, she heard the two men talking at the doorway. The son’s voice was loud and sharp, as if he was trying to dominate the conversation.  The son used the word “Mom” several times.  Maybe there was a fight between the parents and the son was in the middle.

The son left a few minutes later, slamming the door without saying goodbye.  Alma came out of the bedroom and saw Mr. Parker standing there at the closed door.  His head looked heavy on his thin neck.

She said, “Is okay, your son?”

He said, “He’s always like that.”

* *  *

For the next few weeks Mr. Parker was quieter than before, and he didn’t sit with her at lunch, but he seemed to be looking at her in a different way that made her more and more uncomfortable.  Then on the eighth Monday, at lunchtime Mr. Parker said, “Are you hungry?”

She wasn’t sure until he made a hand signal for “eat.” She felt confused because he hadn’t made her the customary sandwich.  He opened the door to the garage and motioned.  She followed him.

He was pushing the garage door, which opened for the first time that she had seen.  The old Mercedes looked newer in the sunlight.  He opened the car’s door for her.  It smelled like old leather and cigarettes.

He drove them to Mrs. Nelson’s restaurant, “The Ancient Mariner,” where she had never been.  The restaurant had a big painted wood carving of an old English sailor holding up the sign in front, with a sea bird over his head.

The restaurant was cool and dark inside.  It smelled like whisky and beef and French fries.  Mrs. Nelson wasn’t there.  Alma Zuleima was glad.  A blonde girl showed them to a corner table.  A Mexican boy brought them ice water.  Nobody seemed to be noticing this old man with a weird jaw who was taking his housekeeper out to a nice restaurant for lunch.

When the waiter came, Mr. Parker said something to him quietly.  The waiter, a dark Latino, brought a big bouquet of flowers and set them on the table in front of Alma Zuleima.

Alma looked at the flowers and all the air went out of her body. They were beautiful:  red roses, yellow chrysanthemums, white calla lilies, blue irises.  Mr. Parker said, “They’re for you.”

She said, “Thank you.”

He smiled.  “You’re welcome.”

He moved his hand towards hers, but stopped himself and pulled his hand back.

The waiter gave them both menus. Everything on the menu was in English.  She looked at the menu with a blank stare.  The waiter said, in Spanish, “You like steak?”

Bistek?  Yes.”

“Salad?”

“Yes, okay.”

The waiter took Mr. Parker’s order – sole fillet – and left.

He looked at her again.  “Alma, you know I live alone.”

She wasn’t sure what that meant, so she nodded.

He said, “I’ve been alone for… almost five years.”

She said, “You alone five years.”

“Yes.”  He smiled.  “You’re a good student.”

“Thank you.”

He thought for a moment and said, “I’m tired of being alone.  I want you to marry me.”

She thought she understood the word, so she said it.  “Marry.”

“Yes.”  He pulled from his pocket a little box of black felt.  He gave it to her.  “Open it.”

She opened it.  Inside was a small diamond ring.  Her throat hurt and she couldn’t say anything.  Instead she started crying.  She remembered her sister’s wedding in the Pentecostal church in Los Angeles.  She remembered her own wedding in a small Catholic church in Chalatenango, El Salvador.  She remembered the way her husband had changed, the drunken beatings and the shame of the divorce and why she’d had to come to California.  It all poured out and she couldn’t think or even feel anything except sorry that her life had turned out so badly.  Accepting Jesus had felt like this, too, but she wasn’t accepting Mr. Parker.  He was an old man who smoked cigarettes and probably had cancer and his son was horrible and she wasn’t going through another divorce.

She felt his hand on hers and opened her eyes.  His touch wasn’t cold or warm… it was just a touch.  He looked worried.  “You okay?”

She said, “Si, yes, okay.”

“Good.  You don’t have to answer now.  You can think about it.”

“Think about it.”

“Good.  You think about it.”

She gave him back the ring.

He smiled.  She was surprised that he wasn’t angry.  He seemed happy, which she didn’t understand.

He drove her back to the condo, and she finished cleaning his bedroom and the master bath, and she rode the bus back home, holding the flowers close to her chest.  A few bus passengers saw the flowers and smiled.  Embarrassed, she watched the bare-rock mountains slide past with the sun baking their sides, thinking that if he had really wanted to marry her, and if he really loved her, he would have given her a ride.  But maybe he was busy, or maybe he thought she needed time alone to think.  Anyway, she was glad she had time to think about it.

The more she thought about it, the gladder she was that he hadn’t offered her a ride. A weird joy rose inside her stomach.  Mr. Parker had given her something better than a ride home, better than the flowers, better than the diamond ring.  He had given her freedom. 

The End

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Freedom and Independence

IMG_6844 - CopyOn Independence Day, we in the USA celebrate our country’s independence from England, and the freedoms we enjoy as U.S. citizens & residents. We like to say we’re the “greatest country in the world,” and that we have more freedom than the people of any other country.  However, there are many kinds of freedom and independence; freedom from want; freedom from debt; freedom from addiction, bad habits and/or compulsive behaviors; freedom from mental illness and toxic relationships; freedom from ignorance, from superstition, and from religions that teach false, limiting or pathogenic ideas. I think it’s fair to say that many “Americans,” in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” are – in one way or another – slaves or indentured servants to someone or something.

I am addicted to computer games – one of my favorite and least embarrassing in a list of what could be reasonably be called “bad habits and/or compulsive behaviors.” Many people I know have at least one of the following monkeys on their backs: debt; addiction to Facebook, junk food, cigarettes, or gambling; schizophrenia; and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

One of the most newsworthy and talked-about problems facing the USA now is opiate addiction. It’s hard to get hard statistics on addiction, but according to the National Center for Health Statistics, deaths from overdoses on prescription opioid pain relievers in the USA tripled between 2001 and 2014, from around 6,000 in 2001 to around 18,000 in 2014.  Heroin overdoses during almost the same time span – 2001 to 2013 – quadrupled from around 2,000 in 2001 to around 8,000 in 2013.   (See graphic, below.)

CDC WONDER Data for Website_02-04-15.pptx

Consider the most recent reports about student loan debt:

Credit card debt is also a huge problem.  A headline on thestreet.com (March 2016) reads:  “Credit Card Debt Is at Dangerous Levels.”  The sub-headline says:  “U.S. consumers are compiling credit card debt far faster than they can pay it down….”  According to the Federal Reserve, revolving debt was $935.6 billion in December 2015, up 5.1% from December 2014, even though interest rates went up on average from 11.9% to 12.1% during the same period.

This means that average households owe almost $7,900 on their credit cards.  The U.S. hasn’t seen this much credit card debt since the run-up to crash of 2008.  According to Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of credit statistics and analysis site CardHub,  “There comes a point at which credit card debt becomes unsustainable, whether due to an increase in unemployment and the corresponding decline in income levels or because the cost of interest on rising balances grows to the point that even minimum payments are no longer feasible,” Papadimitriou says. (More here:  https://www.thestreet.com/story/13505178/1/credit-card-debt-is-at-dangerous-levels.html.)
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke out against financial slavery in his Four Freedoms speech (technically the 1941 State of the Union address) on January 6, 1941, when he proposed four freedoms that people “everywhere in the world” ought to have:
  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Current government programs and fiscal policy in the USA do not seem to be addressing #3.  Perhaps pressure from “Democratic Socialist” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will change that.

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An open letter to the Koch brothers

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Me with my daughter at her graduation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Charles and David:

My name is John W. Mears, and I am an English teacher living in the Los Angeles area.  I write to you now as a father, and – hopefully, one day – as a grandfather. I write out of concern for the world in which my daughter and her children will grow up. I am sure that you also would like your children and grandchildren to grow up in a world with a viable future.  Further, I am guessing that, as forward-thinking men, you would like to be remembered by future historians as having done more good than harm to our world.

Many have demonized you, and made “the Koch brothers” synonymous with all that is evil with capitalism and conservative politics.  There has been much propagandizing and many accusations.  I wonder if anyone has approached the two of you as intelligent, reasonable human beings, capable of compassion, vision, fair-mindedness, open-mindedness, and a genuine concern for the future of our planet, and for our children and grandchildren.

As I’m sure you know, a United Nations report issued in November 2014 cited “clear and growing” evidence that human activity is causing changes in the climate system.  The report warned that — if left unchecked — climate change will be very bad for all of us.

I’m sure you also know that the overwhelming preponderance of scientific data and other evidence points to the conclusion that — because human activity is causing dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate — Arctic and Antarctic ice is melting.  This has already begun to cause a rise in sea levels, which threatens every coastal city in the world. Additionally, wrenching changes in earth’s ecosystems are already beginning to cause the extinction of many species, as well as convulsive scarcities in water and food that could ultimately lead to increasing international conflict, global thermonuclear war, and the extinction of life on our planet as we know it.

And yet there is hope. R. K. Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said in November 2014:  “The solutions are many and allow for continued economic and human development. All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change.”

However, as I’m sure you’re well aware, time is running out.

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Hurricane Sandy in New York City

 

Through your vast wealth and influence, you are uniquely positioned to affect massive changes for good or ill. Until now, however, it seems you have used your considerable influence — through your think tanks and lobbyists — to deny that humans are causing climate change, thereby greatly hindering efforts to save the world from the coming catastrophes.

David, you have a residence in New York City. If the trends towards climate change and sea level rise are not changed or reversed, your beloved Manhattan will at the very least get a lot smaller, and your subway stations will start to look more and more like this.

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Hurricane Sandy


Charles, you have a house in Wichita, Kansas. Perhaps you know NASA scientists have predicted that global warming could dry up the Midwest by 2050, in long-lasting “megadroughts” that will make the Dust Bowl look like a bad day for a picnic.

With great power comes great responsibility. How would you like to be remembered in history, if indeed we survive the coming centuries? Do you want to be remembered as saviors, or destroyers of humankind?

In any case, none of us wants to leave our grandchildren a world ravaged by megadroughts, rising sea levels, convulsive weather patterns, mass starvation and endless wars for vanishing resources.

Please join humanity’s struggle to survive imminent disaster. Instruct your lobbyists and think tanks to advocate for – not against – a sustainable future for our home planet.

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Let’s save our planet for future generations. Photo: the hills above Tehachapi, California

 

 

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Lady Liberty

A beloved symbol of the USA is the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from the French people in 1886.  Its name in French is “La Liberté éclairant le monde,” meaning “Liberty Enlightening the World.”  Chinese pro-Democracy demonstrators created their own version, a 33-foot-tall “Goddess of Democracy and Freedom,” in four days during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.  That was destroyed by Red Army soldiers clearing the square after massacring thousands of demonstrators; however the spirit of democracy and freedom continues to inspire people around the world.

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In the late 1800s and early 1900s, around thirty-four million people immigrated to this country; around 75% of them stayed and made the USA their new home.  For those who came on ships, entering by way of New York harbor, our Statue of Liberty was the first thing they saw in the United States of America.

Most of those immigrants could not read English, so of course they could not have read the poem carved on the pedestal that supports the statue.  The poem — “The New Colossus,” written by the Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus — is quoted in its entirety below.  Here I will quote the part of that poem that means the most to me:  “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless… to me.”  This quote is exceedingly dear to my heart — in part because my wife is an immigrant from China, where she suffered terribly under Mao Tse Tung’s Communist regime, and in part because my job for the past twenty-five years has been teaching immigrants how to understand, speak, read and write English.

There has been much in the news recently about immigrants and immigration.  Without wading into the fray, let me just say this:  President Obama was right in saying recently that we are a nation of immigrants.  All of us are ultimately of immigrant extraction.  My maternal grandparents were from England; my father’s ancestors came over with the early English settlers.  But scientists say that even the Apaches and the Arapaho and the Sioux and Chumash peoples — all native Americans, or indigenous people of this continent — originally came here from Asia.

I speak not only as the husband of an immigrant and the teacher of immigrants, but also as the neighbor of immigrants (Armenians, Koreans, and Latinos primarily on my street), in saying:  Let us remember what it says on the Statue of Liberty, and welcome immigrants to our shores, and not round them up like cattle and treat them as invaders.

They are human beings, and they come to share the “American dream.”  Let’s not turn that dream into a nightmare.

Long live the spirit and the dream of freedom and democracy for all!  And let us make that dream a reality.  Sooner, not later.

Here is the entire “Statue of Liberty” poem, as promised:

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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My father, the Army surgeon

FKM_Jr_Studio_CollegeAs I write this, it is Veterans’ Day 2013, and everywhere people are honoring and memorializing members of our armed services.  My father, Frank Kennedy Mears, Jr., was a major in the U.S. Army.  When I was three, in 1955, we lived at Carlisle Army Barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Dad was an Army surgeon.

Raised a Quaker in Philadelphia — attending Germantown Friends School, and then Haverford College — Dad was taught that all violence and war are abominations, but having witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he came to see — rightly, I think — that sometimes we have to fight evil with more than prayers and words.  His military service, as an Army doctor, was a reasonable compromise, and throughout his life, my father strove to always be a reasonable man.

Many others in this world are not so reasonable, and a lot of them are prone to violence.  Some of them even occupy positions of great power in national governments, including our own.

In my personal view — and I think Dad would have agreed, had he still been alive — the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was a triumph of stupidity over reason, a clear case of ambition, greed, ignorance and war hysteria trumping common sense.  True, there were those (like Barack Obama and myself) who at the time raised their voices in opposition to the war, but our voices were drowned out by the drumbeats of rage and unreason.  As a result, we committed our nation to seemingly endless years of bad news, to tens of thousands of shattered lives among our servicemembers, to hundreds of thousands of shattered lives among the Iraqi people, and to hundreds of billions of dollars of tax dollars wasted on a harebrained adventure that strengthened the hands of those who hated us and soiled our nation’s reputation and moral authority.

None know the true cost of war better than its victims:  those whose homes and families are destroyed; those who fight in the war and come home scarred from skin to soul, often missing limbs and faces; and those who must clean up the messes left behind.  Iraqi children are still being born with birth defects due to depleted uranium ordinance used by our soldiers.  Afghan families are still trying to make sense of drone strikes that killed their grandparents, their children, their pregnant wives and mothers.  Vietnam War veterans are still dealing with the after-effects of Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Hundreds of thousands of veterans are unemployed, mentally and/or physically disabled, and/or homeless.  The Veterans Administration gets laughs on the Daily Show for its incompetence, but the truth is that we were eager to rush off to Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, but are too cheap and heartless to really take care of our men and women who returned from those wars.  Politicians talk about taking care of our veterans, but what do they actually do about it?

So this Veterans’ Day, I pray for three things:

  1. That we will truly start living up to the promises we’ve made to our veterans, to offer them everything they need to put their lives back together when they return from conflicts overseas: easily accessible health care, job training, jobs, and housing;
  2. That we will stop sending them into debacles like Bush’s Iraq War; and
  3. That we will hold accountable those who manipulated our nation into that pointless, no-win war.

I pray that we will truly become a nation that values peace over war, that finds peace within itself and promotes it around the world, and that prioritizes peacetime progress over unjust wars of choice.

And I pray that on Veterans’ Day we will also honor those who did not serve in the military, but who fought in a struggle that is even more important:  the struggle for racial, social, and economic justice in this country.  That struggle goes on every day, and a struggle in which I am proud to have played a part, with so many others I am proud to call my family and my friends.

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LABOR’S LOVE LOST: Why labor unions sometimes suck, and why we need them, anyway

I write this on September 2, 2013.  Labor Day.  Facebook is today full of posts about labor unions with platitudes on why unions are important (see below).  Meanwhile, union membership is at its lowest level since World War II, conservative governors are rolling back labor’s power in government, and unions seem increasingly irrevelant.

1235229_10151599025886674_1067949406_nFor a five-year period ending in June 2013, I was “chapter chair,” or shop steward, for United Teachers Los Angeles at a large occupational center that at one time had 150 teachers.  I might elaborate on that experience in a future post, but here it will suffice to say that those five years were intense and — for the most part — stressful and unpleasant.  This is because — for the most part — labor unions see their job as fighting management.  They tend to exist on the basis of conflict, opposition, and acrimony.  Many people like that sort of thing.  I, personally, do not.  For that reason, and many others, my school is lucky to be rid of me as its union boss, and I count myself fortunate to have been there, done that, and moved on.

535002_10151599024516674_1619209403_nUnions representing teachers — along with nurses, policemen, firefighters, and other government workers — are among the few surviving bastions of organized labor’s power in the USA.  And teachers’ unions are currently under attack as never before, especially with the school reform movement, which in most cases equals charter schools — private schools that are funded with government money, and which bypass many laws and regulations, including union representation.

Personally, I can understand why a school administrator might not want his or her teachers to be unionized.  Unions bargain for things like tenure (permanent jobs), benefits (health insurance, pension plans, and paid vacations), and teacher input on the management of schools and school districts.  These things are good for teachers, but expensive and/or cumbersome for school districts.  I started my teaching career at a private school, where I started for $7.00 an hour in 1981.  A few years later, I was working for Los Angeles Unified School District for three times that.  A few years after that, I had a permanent job and was enjoying three weeks of paid vacation a year, not to mention great health insurance that covered dental, vision, and — yes — even mental health coverage!  (Believe me, everybody who works in any educational institution should have mental health coverage.)

I love teaching, and I profoundly appreciate the benefits that I enjoyed because of UTLA’s bargaining on behalf of me and all my colleagues.  That is why I agreed to serve at UTLA chair at my school; because I wanted to give back.  However many teachers — in fact, many people in this country — do not appreciate at all what UTLA and other unions have done for employees nationwide and worldwide.  Therefore, I feel compelled to offer some reasons as to why we need labor unions:

1.  Most bosses and business owners don’t really give a flying f*ck about their employees.

In countries without labor unions, factories are often sweatshops where workers toil for pennies per hour, under conditions that are at best extremely unpleasant, and at worst fatal.  They have basically no rights.  Is this because bosses and business owners are cruel?  Well, not all of them are.  But if you do a web search for “wealth” and “sociopaths,” you get a lot of hits.  Here are a few.  The first makes the point that rich people tend to be sociopaths:

http://markcrispinmiller.com/2012/04/the-rich-are-different-from-you-and-me-theyre-sociopaths/

This next one says rich people tend to be less ethical:

http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/27/health/rich-more-unethical/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn

You get my point.  People with money and power are unlikely to share or relinquish their money or their power without some kind of intense pressure, and that’s where labor unions come in.

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2.  Labor unions don’t just help union members

In many instances, employers of non-union businesses will give their workers better salaries, working conditions, and other benefits as an incentive for their employees NOT to form or join a union.  I have heard instances of this at non-union charter schools, and at Toyota factories in the USA, where management offered their non-union employees good wages and benefits to keep them from joining United Auto Workers (UAW).

3.  Labor unions often champion progressive political causes

An oft-disregarded fact of the 1963 March on Washington, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is that the UAW was key in helping to organize that march — with financial support, logistical support (protest signs, drinking water, etc.), and organizational know-how.  Unions generally tell their members who they should vote for, and those candidates tend to be liberals and/or pro-labor.

Of course, this helps explain why right-wing pundits hate unions in general, and teachers’ unions in particular.  More on that in another blog post, perhaps.

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4.  Labor unions are key in supporting middle class salaries

In my case, my salary went from poverty level (around $600 a month in 1981) to middle-class level (around $3,000 a month in 1987) because I went from a private school without a union to a public school district with a union.  At $600 a month, my wife & I could barely keep an apartment, even in 1981.  At $3,000 a month, we were able to afford a modest house.

*

As we go to press (WordPress), workers in fast-food restaurants and WalMart superstores across the USA are agitating for union representation.  Even more exciting, labor organizers are trying their luck in China and other countries.  I could give them plenty of reasons not to bother.  But I could give them plenty more reasons why their struggle is a worthy one — worth, in my case, five years of trouble and strife, but in the case of many labor organizers in history, worth dying for.

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LAUSD’s New Abuse Scandal

  • (AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This post was originally published on March 31, 2013.  Since then, much has happened.  Please see the end of this post.)

On January 15, 2013, Randy Traweek — a distinguished veteran teacher employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — stood in front of LAUSD’s Board of Education and said, “LAUSD is now the Soviet Union of public education.”  Traweek was protesting a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse implemented by LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy in 2012.  Traweek decried the injustices of this policy, which he alleged to include the psychological abuse, unfair accusation, and de facto imprisonment of teachers, with nothing resembling due process.  Board President Monica Garcia asked Deasy, “How long has this been happening?”  Deasy replied that for more than fifteen years, it had been district policy “…that when an individual is accused of an egregious act, like molesting a child or being arrested for prostitution… then they are housed while there is an investigation.”

What Dr. Deasy failed to mention is that, in the years before he became LAUSD Superintendent, only one or two dozen teachers and administrators a year were “housed.”  But according to “Brian,” an activist teacher who is now being housed:

Currently, there are over 300 teachers housed at any one time. When they terminate 20-30, then they bring in another 20-30 and terminate them, then repeat the process.  I have seen 6 different rotations of 20 brought into the room in ESC [Educational Service Center] North since August.  Over 600 teachers district-wide have been victims of this system since August of 2012.  The real horror is that once the teacher has spent 3-5-7-9 months in the room they are terminated and the new ones that come in do not know anything about the process.

Deasy also failed to mention that most of the “egregious acts” that get teachers in trouble are — in many cases — for doing what any good parent would do:  hug a child, say “I love you,” or break up a fight.  Several “housed” teachers told me that they were “rubber roomed” for protecting their students from violent classmates.  In one such case, a student – let’s call him “Bruce” – accused his teacher (let’s call him “Mr. Adams”) of physical abuse.  Bruce is a well-known bully and trouble-maker at the school, frequently disrupting classes and intimidating fellow students.  Bruce was on top of another student and beating him when Adams pulled him off by his shirt sleeve.  According to Bruce’s parents, Mr. Adams roughly grabbed him and manhandled their child.  For that allegation, Mr. Adams was “removed and investigated.”  Even though a police investigation found nothing, Adams spent months in a “rubber room” at an administrative office while a substitute taught his class.  During that time, Bruce was heard by his classmates to boast that he “got rid of” Mr. Adams.

Another teacher who taught teenaged dropouts was accused of telling his students, “I love you,” and hugging them.   Let’s call this teacher “Dave.”  Near Dave’s desk were Post-It notes from his students, in ghetto-type language, expressing their affection for Dave.  (At graduations, graduating seniors frequently thanked Dave, to loud cheers from their classmates.)  Dave told me that his love for his students was the main reason for his success and for his continuing to do what would many would find to be a thankless, or even impossible job.  Many of his students come from troubled or broken homes, and the hugs and kinds words they got from Dave were the closest thing to parental affection they had ever received.

Dave was later exonerated of child abuse charges, because no student had complained; apparently his supervisor was the only person making allegations against him.  However, according to Brian — the housed activist teacher — an overwhelming majority of housed teachers are terminated.

John Deasy’s “rubber room” approach to teacher discipline first reached public awareness when the child-abuse scandal erupted at Miramonte Elementary School early in 2012. Deasy “removed and investigated” the entire 169-member staff of the school, including teachers, janitors, office workers and administrators, and brought in substitute or replacement staff while the 169 original employees were housed in a recently-constructed school that had not yet opened for business.  Many of those are still awaiting LAUSD’s “verdict.”

As of this writing, in late April of 2013, four high-ranking LAUSD administrators have also been “housed.”  (See below.)

*

History is replete with examples of draconian methods being employed for what must have seemed, at the time, like a good idea:  the Spanish Inquisition; the Salem witch hunt; the forced relocation of native Americans to reservations; the internment of Japanese in the U.S.A. during World War II; Abu Graib Prison.  History has, in each case, shown that these draconian methods usually: a) are cynically motivated and utilized; and b) bring shame upon those who employ them.

History will probably not be kind to Superintendent John Deasy.  For now, shame is heaped on every teacher who is removed from his or her classroom and detained in a holding area while investigations proceed.  The teacher’s reputation is stained forever, no matter what is found in the investigation, because in the public’s mind, he or she is a child abuser.

We need to protect innocent children, but when do we cross the line into a new form of abuse?

The current policy of zealous rubber-rooming creates the following problems:

  1. exorbitant cost:  around $15,000,000 per year – at a time when many programs have been closed due to lack of funding
  2. disruption of instruction
  3. injustice to the teacher, which discourages many good teachers from being teachers at all
  4. encouraging the worst students to continue their worst behavior (including false accusations against teachers), while discouraging the best teachers from giving many students what they need:  encouragement, affection, and protection from bullies.

History is also replete with examples of hysteria being triggered by child abuse, or even suspicions of child abuse, and causing innocent adults to be abused by our legal system.  At least two of these examples happened in southern California:  the McMartin Pre-School case, in which the McMartin family and their business were destroyed, despite their exoneration; and the Kern County child abuse cases of the 1980s.  In the latter, thirty-six people were convicted of being part of a child-abuse ring near Bakersfield, California, and most of them spent more than a dozen years in prison.  All but two of those convictions were later overturned, as the “abused” children, now adults, recanted testimony that was often scripted, coached and/or coerced by overzealous social workers and the Kern County Sheriff’s Department; two died in prison before they could clear their names.

To use an analogy from medical science, LAUSD’s current policy of housing and investigating teachers for the slightest hint or allegation of child abuse is like treating every tumor, no matter how benign, with aggressive cancer treatment:  radical surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and even amputation.

My mother used to sing a camp song with the lines:  “Go get the axe, there’s a fly on baby’s head.”  John Deasy, the guy with the axe, is hurting not only hundreds of innocent teachers and their families, but their students and the students’ families as well.  He has caused other harm, which I shall address in future writing, but LAUSD’s Board of Education needs to stop the rubber-room madness, ASAP. The current policy hurts good teachers, wastes millions in scarce public-school funding, and teaches children and administrators to be more effective bullies and/or sociopaths.

UPDATES:

1. In mid-April, the following article appearing in the local press about steps taken by LAUSD boardmember Tamar Galatzan to address some of the issues discussed in this post:

http://www.dailybreeze.com/education/ci_22974861

http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Galatzan-Proposal-Would-Take-Investigations-Away-from-Principals-203313461.html

2. On April 25, 2013, the “rubber room” phenomenon touched administrators:

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-four-lausd-removed-pimentel-20130425,0,6682399.story

For your further edification:

1.  The video of Randy Traweek in front of the Board of Education:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=r4dfdPpNDIk#!

2.  A good overview article in the Daily News:

http://www.dailynews.com/news/ci_22078074/lausd-jails-fill-teachers-misconduct-complaints-rise

3.  A follow-up to the above on susanohanian.org, an activist blog:

http://www.susanohanian.org/outrage_fetch.php?id=1494

4.  Opinion posts from perdaily.com, another activist website:

http://www.perdaily.com/2013/03/teacher-randy-traweek-speaks-out-against-lausd.html

http://www.perdaily.com/2012/12/lausd-making-up-the-rules-as-they-go-along.html

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