Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mary Oliver's Flare

Nourishing, rich and wise

Mary Oliver’s poem, Flare, invites us in with a modest greeting:

“Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.” Flare thus declares itself to be a particular type of poem, and one, probably, of limited virtues.

The misdirected reader can therefore be forgiven if she fails to notice right away that Oliver’s long poem, which kicks off her collection The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo Press, 2000), is wiser and carries a load much heavier than whimsy can bear.

In Oliver’s world “the finely hinged wings…” of the green moth, even one caught by a crow “…has trim, and feistiness, and not a drop of self-pity.”

Anything but silly, Flare rolls on:

“My mother
was the blue wisteria,
my mother
was the mossy stream out behind the house,
my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
as she carried it in her arms, from room to room,
oh, unforgettable.”

Yet the unforgettable lies deep within the forgettable, which Oliver knows and shares with us. She writes about her father:

this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.”

So matter of fact. But why not? Oliver has made her peace. A proud declaration, actually, a tribute to her parents; time to move on with the business of living:

“I give them—one, two, three, four—the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
of anger, of good luck in the deep earth.
May they sleep well. May they soften.

“But I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them responsibility for my life.”

What parents ask for from their children is not the issue here. But what parent, seriously, could ask for more than Oliver gives here. And when she is done with her prayers for the dead, with courtesy, sweet thanks, anger and good wishes, she moves on with living, and with her poetry. The ant has a tongue, primarily, Oliver tells us, “…to gather all it can of sweetness.”

And so the poem, which is less “…than the world…” not even “…the first page of the world..." flows on, making its way in a manner that defies Oliver's modest opening declaration:

“Live with the beetle, and the wind.

“This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the nourishing dark bread of the poem.”

I should be so silly.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Flawed Call to Action

The ironically titled documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” deftly portrays the nation’s longing for a high-quality, universally accessible public school system and some of the obstacles to achieving substantial reform. Along the way, the film celebrates some reformers and mounts a counterproductive campaign to cast teachers and teachers’ unions as significant obstacles to change.

Early in the film, Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, describes the devastation he felt as a child living in a dangerous neighborhood after his mother told him that Superman was not a real person. The news pushed Canada to the shattering realization that no hero was coming to rescue him from the widespread poverty and violence that characterized the area he grew up in. Canada’s tale of his awakening provides the underlying metaphor driving the film; if we as a nation want an educational system that prepares all our children for the world they will inherit, we cannot wait for a hero, we must perform that rescue ourselves, and together.

Overall, this is an easy notion to sell. Our system of public education has been failing for more than 40 years. Test scores in both reading and math have flatlined since the 1960s. Mid-20th century schools were mostly adequate to the challenge of preparing 20 percent of their students to move on to college, and another 20 percent to begin working as bookkeepers, stenographers and in other semi-skilled positions, while the remaining young people headed for the kind of work that would teach them the necessary skills on the job, or became homemakers in households with one parent at work earning a family wage.

But work life and the global economy have changed dramatically since then. If young people are to find a job in the modern economy, most need a college degree, but with high school dropout rates of 30 percent or more in most public school systems and only a tiny percentage of graduates going on to college, many leave school with no viable alternatives.

Through the dramatic personal stories of children and their adult caretakers desperate to find alternatives to the manifold inadequacies of their neighborhood elementary and high schools, “Waiting for Superman” outlines the collapse of public education and some of the consequent injustices. In the process, the filmmakers follow the work of a number of innovative and creative school reformers, including Canada.

Michelle Rhee, the young chancellor of the Washington, DC, public schools, has several strong scenes in the film, which portrays her as a frank, even confrontational, take-no-prisoners sort of leader. Rhee has been the head of the 45,000-student DC school system since 2007. She has repeatedly characterized entrenched teachers and their unions as one of the most significant obstacles to school improvement. She has fired or forced out more than 600 of DC’s 3,800 teachers since she arrived and has created a series of controversies as she proceeded with the terminations and closed neighborhood schools.

Many of Rhee’s admirers (and they are numerous, both locally and nationally) argue that she could not have moved so effectively against bad teachers and in eliminating underutilized and deteriorating buildings without offending some of the school system’s stakeholders. But the arguments in Rhee’s favor fade when considered along with her provocative assault on the city’s teachers. Virtually all observers agree that some percentage of teachers are extremely ineffective and cannot be coached or retrained to effectiveness, but this consensus cannot justify a reform strategy that appears to rely on sustained combat with teachers. The argument against partnership with teachers’ unions comes almost exclusively from young zealots like Rhee and historically anti-union groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Unfortunately, the documentary pays little notice to the efforts of education reformers, including Steve Barr, the founder of the Green Dot charter school network based in Los Angeles, and the Gates Foundation, who work with teachers’ unions in pursuit of fundamental change.

Though “Waiting for Superman” portrays teachers’ unions as a, perhaps the, major obstacle to change, the Washington teacher union was not a major problem for Rhee while she fired, released or forced out some 600+ teachers and hired almost 1,000 new teachers. Rhee’s confrontational approach has even obscured other positive changes she has made, including a tenfold increase in the number of teaching coaches working for the system and the establishment of a master teacher program that uses demonstrably effective and experienced teachers to perform ongoing classroom evaluations.

“Waiting for Superman” makes the case that dramatic improvement in the schools will require significant changes in the way teachers are trained and educated. The documentary cites research that pinpoints substantial differences in the results obtained by teachers classified as highly effective or highly ineffective. Those teachers identified as top performers get through 150 percent of the standard curriculum during a school year, while the most ineffective teachers complete only 50 percent of the curriculum.

Ultimately, the film does a thorough job sounding the alarm about the sorry performance of public education in the United States and the dire implications for the country and for millions of children, But while it seems to be warning that we cannot “wait for superman,” its focus on Rhee seems problematic.

Just two days before the recent decent mayoral primary, in which the incumbent mayor, Adrian Fenty, who hired Rhee, was defeated, she appeared at a special invitation-only DC premier of “Waiting for Superman.” At the conclusion of a Q & A following the showing, Rhee made a final statement to the audience. There were still enemies of school reform out there, she said, and they would do whatever they could do undermine school reform and, presumably, force Rhee out. After overpowering the teachers’ union and terminating or otherwise eliminating more than 600 teachers in the last three years, Rhee’s continuing verbal assault is pure scorched earth.

If the claim is true that eliminating the six or seven percent of teachers who are the worst-performing in a district will lead to dramatic improvements in schools and significant increases in test scores, then some of the bloodiest steps toward school improvement have already taken place in Washington. Under the circumstances, it is time for peace with the remaining teachers. The worst are gone and the good efforts of the rest are key to any long-term improvements.

It is unfortunate for “Waiting for Superman” that Rhee turns out to have been such a flawed hero. The larger, more important point that the documentary highlights so well is that failure in school reform is no option; rarely have so many young people and their families required so much from the rest of us.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Eulogy for Audrey

May 24, 1925 – September 2, 2010

There are a lot of things to say about Audrey Epton, and it’s likely that some of those things will stimulate some of you to think, yes, that sounds like Mom, that sounds like Grandmother, that sounds like Audrey, but other items on the list won’t resonate hardly, at all. That shouldn’t surprise us; the truth is, Audrey didn’t share herself fully with most people.

A few of her friends, Hazel, Audrey, Jackie, Virginia, knew her well and long and, in some ways more fully than anybody else did, so maybe some of you can tell me later what I missed, what parts of Audrey I need to think harder about, and let me tell you, I will welcome that help. But here is my list about Mom, the things I knew or felt all along, the things I barely glimpsed, the things I am just beginning to understand:

First, she loved Bernie with a devotion that most people don’t experience in their own lives and he loved her back with that same devotion.

Second, in their lives together, Bernie was the show and Audrey was the rock. And because Bernie was the show--aggressive, charismatic, adventurous--most people never saw Audrey for who she was, because Bernie came first.

Third, Audrey never for a moment minded that Bernie came first. She was fully satisfied with her life. She had Bernie. She had children she loved. She had friends and she had excitement to fill a lifetime. And she would tell you all this, if you asked and she was in a mood to talk, but mostly she didn’t talk about such things. More than anything else, Mom, Audrey, was always of a mind to move on to whatever came next.

Everybody thought Mom was beautiful. And she was. And she was extremely careful about every detail of her appearance. But it seemed to me that she wasn’t vain about it. It was almost as if being beautiful was something she did for Dad. Of course, at the end of her life she was physically worn out and not feeling particularly pretty. But she was still Mom, focused on the family that would be left behind when she died and reminding us that we had to remain loyal to each other.

Mom wasn’t a great storyteller, mostly she left the stories to others, to Bernie, to brother Pete. But she told a few.

She was a brat when she was a kid, she said. And delighted in her own physical abilities—how fast she could run and how high she could jump. And those characteristics came together in a childhood she remembered fondly, the times when she teased and even tortured her older brothers, Doug and Pete, both of whom she could outrun by the time she was six or seven.

She’d tease them to distraction and then dash off; Pete, in particular, was relentless in his pursuit, but he couldn’t catch her, though there came a time when they dashed through the kitchen and he pulled a fork from a drawer as he ran by and threw it at Audrey, sticking it in the wall as she ran off. I always wondered what Grandma in England said about the fork sticking in the wall of her kitchen, but somehow we never got to that part of the story.

When Mom was 14, the Germans started bombing London and so she slipped from childhood into war with nothing in between. I don’t think that those of us who were born and raised here can fully grasp what it means to have your childhood go up in smoke and fire, but that was what happened to Mom’s childhood.

At 16, after a couple of years of air raids and blackouts, Audrey’s sister Eileen, pregnant at the time, moved back into the family’s home, to live with Mom and Grandma and Grandpa. Eileen’s husband, Arthur Sanders, and Pete and Doug were then fighting a losing battle in France.

One night, while Grandpa was on duty as an air raid warden, Eileen went into labor. Unfortunately, the Issett home was situated in a fairly isolated part of London. Because of the blackout, Eileen and her mom had to make their way on foot over a long bridge to get to the women’s hospital. There was no light other than that provided by bursts of flak, exploding bombs and burning buildings. Audrey watched Eilene and her mom cross the bridge, disappearing in moments of sudden darkness, reappearing in the light of sudden gouts of flame. Eventually, they made it off the bridge and disappeared from sight.

When I think of what I was doing when I was 16, knowing nothing but peacetime, thoughtless about my options, taking casual strides toward adulthood, I wonder what it means to have the world around you become so relentlessly unsafe and to wonder whether or not you will ever see your mother or sister again. Mom did see them, again, and they brought home baby Roger, who brightened the war years and whom Mom once called, “the love of our lives.”

But childhood was definitely over by then and, soon, Audrey was enlisted in the British Army’s Women’s Auxiliary, stationed on the channel coast as a plane spotter assigned to anti-aircraft crews. Audrey met Bernie in 1945, at a dance that brought her auxiliary company together with a squadron of American airmen. Bernie served as liaison between the two groups and, in the process, warned his fellow officers that he would be escorting the beautiful Brit.

In a matter of months they were married, and Mom was pregnant with Teri, while Dad was rotated back to the states without her, to train for the invasion of Japan. But by the time Mom, twenty years old and pregnant, managed to squeeze onto a US Air Force flight to the states, Dad was back in Chicago. This was the point when she met more Eptons, all of them, in fact; an event which she obviously survived, but I’m guessing had the potential to be at least as traumatic, if physically less dangerous, than the bombing of London. Eptons, as many of you know, manufacture their own special brand of fireworks.

Uncle Jerry and Aunt Marilyn are the survivors of that generation of Eptons and knew Mom longer than anyone else. And, perhaps, when we get back to 1110 later today, Uncle Jerry, the greatest Epton story teller of all, can tell us what really happened when Audrey met them all.

Now, remember, this summary of Mom’s life from when Pete threw the fork until she came to the United States and, in 1946, had Teri, appears in the middle of a list of things that seem to me to be true about Audrey. And there are several more things to add to the list.

Over the next few years she and Dad had three more kids, me and Mark and Dale. During the years of our growing up, Dad was the extravagant one, treating all of us, Mom especially, with a great deal of generosity. Mom accepted everything Dad gave her with the grace with which she accepted all the events of her life. But while Dad liked to demonstrate his love with gifts, Mom never actually required that, at all.

She never doubted Dad’s love and never asked for much. She got used to living well, of course—who wouldn’t—but she stayed attached to the simple things, her family, raising her children, living in partnership with Bernie, who was always off to the next big thing, which often was running for political office, for Congress, for the state legislature, eventually for mayor of Chicago. Audrey never shrank from any of it, and never complained about the demands.

If you include Dad’s years as president of innumerable civic and professional groups, as a founder and member of national organizations and political committees, you’re talking 40 years of political days and nights, of networking and campaigning, of schmoozing and making nice. As an actual reformed politician myself, let me say that imagining four decades of that sort of activity is as difficult for me as imagining being bombed at home when you’re supposed to be in bed. But Mom remained Mom despite the relentless demands, never complaining and always moving forward.

It was after Dad died that we all got to see how ingrained those characteristics were in her. She never stopped mourning Bernie, but mostly she mourned in private and somehow, though the only man she ever loved died twenty-three years ago, she learned to love another, Bob Bentley.

I think it took Teri, Mark, Dale and I a little time to catch up with Mom and to understand that her embrace of Bob and his family said nothing about her love for Dad, but was simply her moving on with life. She loved traveling with Bob and she loved spending summers at Bob’s place in Michigan where there were always a mix of Bentleys and Eptons hanging out together and enjoying the process by which families grow, rather than shrink.

And families do grow, at least this one has—let me count the ways—the grandchildren, Doug, Nate, Amanda, Julie, Stacee, Abraham, Mike, Jori, Gordon, Claire, Brendan and the great grandchildren, Manu, Ollie and Ethan. First to last, Audrey was thrilled by their very existence. Their youth, their love and their potential gave her both comfort and hope.

And there is one more family group, sons and daughters, also, who shared Audrey’s moments of joy and sadness—Owen Pulver, Marrianne McMullen, Ella Epton and David and Linda Bentley.

There were some profoundly sad moments for Mom these last couple of years, no Bernie, no Bob and her own cancer diagnosis, but by and large she remained the young Audrey, always on the run, only with fewer people to tease. She had her cranky moments, to be sure, she and Hazel, Elaine, Audrey, Vi and Jackie would gather for cards and, often as not, complain to each other that they were getting too old for real fun and sometimes, tragically, too old to share a cocktail. But to the end, they all gave it the old college try, drinking more often than they should and looking forward, not behind.

Ultimately, Mom had one other love—the White Sox and all last week while Mom lay in bed, breathing slowly, lying quiet, the White Sox were winning. This did her a great deal of good, we know.

How do we know? Because for Audrey, the athlete, winning was the point and we know she heard us, even if she wasn’t saying much. Last Tuesday, Teri, Mark, Dale and I were gathered around her bedside, talking casually. At one point, Dale said to her, “we know you’re uncomfortable, Mom,” and though she had said very little for hours, she responded, “I’m not uncomfortable.”

That was Mom, self-contained and private, but sharing what needed to be shared. She died exactly the way she lived, with her grace, dignity and extraordinary sense of privacy intact and evident. Audrey’s was a good life and a fine death.

When Mom died

When Mom died
there was a moment
when I thought
my eyes would run with tears forever.

But though her dying will never stop,
eyes do run dry,
and mind and focus drift.
When the grief slipped away,

I dreamed instead of Mom
the way she dreamed herself;
fleet and sure-footed,
a goddess in full stride.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Audrey Epton

May 24, 1925 - Sept. 2, 2010

At 14 years old, Audrey Issett was a typical English schoolgirl, albeit a faster runner and fiercer competitor than most. But she grew up quickly after the bombing of London began in 1939. Though the school days she barely tolerated continued, the track competitions she loved were gone instantly, while nights became a welter of black outs and exploding bombs.

Four years later, Audrey was enlisted in the British Army’s Women’s Auxilary, serving on the English coast as a plane spotter for anti-aircraft gunners. Regular dances with U.S. Army Air personnel provided occasional diversion for Audrey and her comrades. At one such event Audrey met American airman Bernard Epton, who had served as the liason with Audrey’s unit in setting up the dance. In the process, Capt. Epton made it definitively clear to his fellow officers that he would be the escort for the beautiful Brit named Audrey.

Though the war certainly accelerated what came next, Audrey and Bernie always seemed made for each other. Their impetuous and, perhaps, reckless decision in 1945 to marry and start a family turned out to be the best of many decisions they would make together.

After less than a year of marriage, Bernie rotated back to the states to begin training for the invasion of Japan. Audrey, still only 20 years old and pregnant with daughter Teri was left behind until she wrangled a spot on an Air Force transport to New York and made her way to Chicago. There she finally met her new in-laws and, after overcoming the language barrier created by Chicagoans trying to speak the king’s English, she joined Bernie in a life-long love affair in and with the city.

After Teri’s birth came Jeff, Mark and Dale in reasonably quick succession. And for the next 40 years, Audrey thrived as mother of four, friend of many, and as the wife of a politician who could be both charming and controversial. The highly charged Chicago mayoral election in 1983, which Bernie barely lost to Harold Washington, came near the end of their life together, but for Audrey and Bernie it was just one more episode in an eventful life. Though it was not the life she imagined growing up, Audrey was always quick to acknowledge that it was a life rich in love, excitement and beauty.

Together she and Bernie had seven grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, one great grandchild and two step-great grandchildren. Though she never remarried after Bernie’s death in 1987, Audrey found love and a long partnership with Robert Bentley, who passed away in 2007. Since Bob’s death, she has maintained a loving relationship with Bob’s son, David, his wife, Linda, and their two children.

“People should listen to their mothers more,” reflected older daughter, Teri, as the family gathered at Audrey’s bedside. And, it was evident from Mom’s expression as she lay there that she agreed—Teri should have listened to her mother more.

In death, Audrey is survived by her still growing extended family in the United States, brother Pete, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces in England, and numerous loving friends everywhere.