Archive for July, 2012

We had been talking for nearly an hour, my friend in Canada and I, and I knew that eventually the conversation would have to turn to the events in Aurora, Colorado.  This was on the Sunday evening following the early Friday morning shootings at a movie theater in the Rocky Mountain State.

“I don’t mean to pick on the United States,” she tentatively said. “But what is it with your country?”

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Should I respond, “Well, it doesn’t seem to be as big as Virginia Tech?”  Or was a better response, “It reminds me of Columbine.” Neither answer seemed just right, just then, so I muttered something about the debate over gun control that was certain to follow.  “Nothing will change,” I told my Canadian friend, uncertain if that was a good thing or not.

I mustered some courage then, or false courage, and mentioned mass shootings in Scandinavia and elsewhere.  She acknowledged those incidents, and then brought up that one of the woman killed in the Century 16 multiplex had survived a similar inexplicable shooter in Toronto.

We spoke a bit more about the most recent tragedy and then, surprising myself, I said, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”  She respected my request.

During our conversation I was thinking about more than Aurora, and Columbine, the Texas tower, and Virginia Tech.  At some point, absorbing the events in Colorado on July 20th,  I was also thinking about Apollo 11 and the first landing on the moon.  It also happened on July 20th but it was 43 years ago.

I was young when “The Eagle” landed, and, “One giant leap,” was taken onto the surface of the moon. I’m not saying how young, but the memory of that moment is clear in my mind.  Earlier on that summer 1969 day, I was riding bikes and fishing with Steve M, a friend from grammar school.  Late in the afternoon, I told him I had to go home to watch the moon landing.  Steve didn’t know what I was talking about, and maybe because of that or, the different schools we would be attending in the fall, I never saw Steve M again.

But I did see Walter Cronkite on CBS, the grainy, black and white images of a man descending from an oddly constructed space vehicle, and the leap-step Neil Armstrong took from the ladder of the LEM to the dusty surface of the moon.  My life changed then.

So I was a child of the space age and becoming an astronaut was the first of many things I wanted to be when I grew up. I built models of space ships, and gazed at the craters of the moon and rings of Saturn through my father’s telescope. When and earlier space mission, Apollo 8, became the first manned vehicle to orbit the moon the three-man crew was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City.  My mother took me to see astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders as they sat in an open top convertible and waved to hundreds of thousands of people while tons of shredded paper floated down from the offices above.

I can’t say that the years of America’s race to the moon were an ideal time. If anything, America’s triumphs in space stood in sharp contrast to other events of the decade. There was a war in Vietnam, racial and social unrest, burning cities, and political assassinations.  Still, there was something magnificent about watching the tall rockets launch into the sky. Every flight seemed to be a first, something humans had never done before, and we gazed upward.

When my friend in Canada agreed that we wouldn’t talk any more about the shootings in Aurora, I mentioned the anniversary of the first moon landing. “I didn’t know that,” she said.

“America does some really incredible things,” I added.  She agreed.

Now, as I follow the events of Aurora, and almost know for certain there will be other Auroras and other Virginia Techs, I am left thinking about my friend’s question:  “What is it with your country?’  There will always be bad events which grab our attention, tragedies which are almost unspeakable. But where is the balance?  Where is the mission to the moon or the rocket to Mars which allow us to turn our gaze upward?

Photos from NASA


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The sight of some serious, but mostly light reading

There is a saying among teachers that the two best reasons to be a teacher are July and August.   Years ago, my dad, who taught high school English, was the first one who told me that. Decades later, I have often heard teachers I work with say the same.

But for a lot of teachers I know, the summer months do not mean a break from working.  Many of them teach summer school, either in our district or at some other school.  Quite a few hold summer jobs far removed from education.  Others become students themselves and take college courses to achieve another degree or certification in another subject area.

True, many of the teachers I know welcome the end of the school year, and quickly embrace their time off.  They spend it with their families, gardening, vacationing, or pursuing any number of other interests. This seems to be especially true for teachers with young children or long serving teachers whose children have left the nest.  This latter group is far enough up the pay scale, and getting close enough to retirement that, July and August can really be the two best reasons to teach.

I’ve been spending my summer doing a lot of reading.  In late June my goal had been to review the social studies content (especially global history) as well as some of the sciences.  I started off in earnest, yellow highlight pen in hand and a notebook nearby.  But then the current heat wave set in, and sapped my ambition.

Each morning, after coffee, I think about “hitting the books” but then I steal a glimpse of my nearby pond and my resolve weakens. History books?  Or swimming?  I debate the issue, but swimming seems to always win.

As the day progresses, the serious reading always seems to lose out to the lighter fare.  I have a copy of Alex Woolf’s “A Short History of the World” but I can’t seem to move past the ancient river valley civilizations.  Meanwhile, in just a few weeks of lolling in a hammock, I’ve read three suspense thrillers by Harlen Coben, one by James Patterson, and I’m nearing the end of Allan Folsom’s “The Machiavelli Covenant.”

At least Folsom’s book is about global politics, involves the influence of a 16th century book on power written by Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli, and has as one of its main characters the president of the United States.

All of these books, the hammock, and swimming have given me greater insight into the students I teach. Now I understand why they don’t always complete the assigned readings, or have homework turned in on time  There are so many other things to do that will delight their minds more than the few pages of text I might ask them to read.

So summer flows on, the pond beckons, and there is a delightful hammock hanging across a screened porch.  The time will come to get serious about preparing for my new teaching job, but for now I’ll enjoy at least one of the two best reasons to be a teacher.

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