Archive for November, 2017

PERSPECTIVES

November 5, 2017

Perspectives

 

Last week, I had been invited to be the guest speaker at a luncheon for alumni for all graduation classes from my high school. The luncheon, one of four held tri-monthly each year, I had attended for the first time last July. Naturally I was curious about why I had been invited to speak, but as I mentioned in the beginning of my speech, I found out they couldn’t get Sean Spicer, so I was all that was left.

When I asked what they wanted me to talk about, the organizer said “anything you want.” Well, people who know me could have told him that’s a dangerous move, particularly since I’m not known as an outstanding public speaker, and I know that. One of his colleagues suggested, “Oh, talk about your memories of things in high school, and beyond”. I guess she was unaware how much “and beyond” encompasses, but at least it gave me a start. One caveat caused a problem, this was to be contained within a maximum 30 minutes, given that everyone in the audience had probably attained Medicare eligibility and individually has difficulty remaining in place for even that long. Some of them appeared to have Parkinson’s symptoms, and I’m sure that the majority probably wore hearing aids.

Over several weeks ahead of the luncheon, I started and discarded numerous attempts—They were either too long, not only for the allotted time period but also I doubted that they could hold anyone’s attention beyond the scheduled time unless I could come up with some interesting elements. I even tried to soften the atmosphere by telling them that years ago, while I myself was in the audience at a “keynote” speech, the speaker had commented on some research that indicated that at any one time during such a speech, about 20% of the audience were thinking erotic thoughts. They loved that statistic, and later I asked if anyone was in that percentage.

But back to my preparation. As I grew increasingly frustrated, I finally turned to an old friend who is a retired journalist, for help, and help she did! She said that everyone in that room has had a career, and probably wouldn’t find mine any more interesting than their own; we all had shared quite similar experiences in high school, and to some extent, “and beyond”. She said “what has been the most unique major event in your life that no one else in that room has experienced, and talk about that!”

And so, it became simple. I had been among the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to go overseas, and certainly had lots to tell! Weaving in anecdotes from my two years as a volunteer, from meeting President Kennedy in the Oval Office at the White House through the travails of my travels to Timbuktu, to living during my second year in the most isolated location in the country of Ghana, and to a final ringing down of the curtain in a private session with former President Harry Truman, I was able to use my Peace Corps experience as a vehicle to emphasize a concern which is of great importance to me.

It begins with the Native American poem, “Judge not thy brother until you’ve walked in his moccasins”. I strongly believe that the rampant polarization in our current society has its roots in the inability of various groups to appreciate or understand perspectives of other groups. The key word here is “perspectives”, or in less formal terms, opinions.

Those who have followed my blogging over the years will recall my concerns about people, and politicians in particular, stating their opinions as if they are facts. And as I took a closer look, I emphasized that most decisions are not based directly on facts but rather on opinions derived from filtering the facts through an individual’s or group’s background of education, culture, and experience. Given this screening, it’s to be expected that there will be differences in opinion, and greater differences the more divergent are the filters that form the opinions.

My Peace Corps experience opened my eyes to a multitude of things, not the least of which was a changing perspective of our own country. I had entered into my service with the belief that “America does no wrong”, and up to that point had never experienced anything from my white middle class background to cause me to reconsider that viewpoint. Now, suddenly I was immersed in an all-black culture, albeit one having a smattering of leftover British merchants, and a black milieu probably quite different from ones “at home”. But at various times during my two years, the early 60’s, events were occurring in the United States that were being featured in the local Ghanaian newspapers, complete with pictures of white policemen using clubs and vicious dogs against peaceful black protestors, of soldiers called in to provide black students access to schools, of persons seeking equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, and being murdered —- and I was being asked to explain “Why?”.

This was my first personal recognition of bigotry; I had had only minimal contact with other races while growing up, and our family avoided the use of any “bad language” including what I came to know as racial epithets. Now I was being asked, as a representative of the United States, to defend something that Intuitively I knew was wrong and not in accord with the declared values contained in my country’s virtually “sacred documents”, The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I had a new Perspective.

Why this is important to me could be seen later, when another PCV and I were meeting with President Truman. He asked, “Well, what did you learn over there in Africa?”. I replied, “Mr. President, I got a different perspective of our country. I saw some things that are wrong with it.” He bristled and said, “You’re in helluva shape if you think there’s anything wrong with this country!”. I responded, “I don’t mean to argue with you, Mr. President, it’s not the country, it’s some of the people in it!”. A different perspective.

That was 60 years ago. My perspective has continued to undergo revision as each new experience in each new location appeared to toggle my beliefs and attitudes. I worked in the first integrated public boarding school in the U.S., in Winston-Salem, N.C.; later with the Black Panthers as I was picked to establish an education program in the inner city of Gary, Indiana under a Model Cities grant. I taught math in a Kansas City, Missouri all-black high school, such having changed from an all white school as people moved away and others moved in. I had three years as a principal in a Native American elementary school; I taught Anthropology in a Southern Baptist University where students were demonstrating for the right to wear shorts on campus, while other schools were crusading for civil rights. I supervised student teachers in NYC schools while helping in a Peace Corps program training teachers for Nigeria; I evaluated schools in rural Wyoming, where I’ve lived for 45 years, and on military bases and in private international schools around the globe. Most of the last 50 years I’ve been involved toward improvement in education, treating it as a subculture and applying the principles of Applied Anthropology to change and development. I have perspective! (and it’s still changing).

I’ve either lived in or used as my home base for 45 years a small town of 3000, overwhelmingly white, and many of its residents have never even been out of the state. Given my background, my attitudes and opinions are quite different from many of those I see around me. Controversial topics such as those arising from the furor over athletes kneeling during the National Anthem raise many hackles among the locals, even though in most cases they haven’t stopped to really understand what it’s all about. They get their news from conservative talk radio and television; almost any waiting area in a service provider has a television continually tuned to Fox News, for the entertainment of the clients. Local perspectives are, in general, highly limited in the scope available to use in making decisions, particularly those dealing with long range and widely-encompassing policies. And given the insularity of most Wyoming communities, there’s little pressure to change.

These, my meeting with former President Truman and my long-time residence in Wyoming, are just two examples of many from my personal life that illustrate how peoples can become “poles apart”. I could add a lengthy and enlightening email correspondence with an Islamic colleague, made more illuminating by her outstanding writing ability, that has helped me to not only have a better understanding of her religion but also aided me in clarifying my own. But I’m not aware of many other persons seeking to enhance their personal perspectives regarding this topic. Mosy merely “reject”, as they’ve been told to do.

Finally, I want to say a few things about Patriotism.

I hear people often saying, “You must be proud of America”, or “You must be proud to be an American”. In truth, I’m not quite there yet. I’m proud of the ideals written by Jefferson and his colleagues in establishing this country, but I’m not proud of the way those very ideals are being trampled and set aside in favor of personal greed and grudges for and against persons supposedly being fellow citizens entitled to the same rights and privileges as all of us. I think in that, I share to a degree the aims of those athletes kneeling peacefully, without disrupting, events in which they are a part. My perspective on that is that they are merely saying, as I do, “We’re not there yet”. More accurately, at least in my personal beliefs, I’m lucky to be an American, and proud that we have in our established governmental system the means to create that pride.

I’ve thought a lot about pride, and come to the belief that most simply it comes down to “a warm feeling” in seeing something good happen, whether it’s your children achieving a goal, a successful program in which you had a part, an action taken by our government to ease the suffering of people here at home and around the world, or just about anything showing positive outcomes toward the improvement of The Human Condition.

I would like to see The Pledge of Allegiance broadened to specifically state the ideals drafted by our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence, and that in reciting the Pledge each of us is committing to incorporate those ideals into our personal lives, and to act in accordance with them. That, to me, would be true Patriotism.

So, in conclusion I return to that Native American poem for help. I believe that if we all “would walk in our brother’s moccasins” we would have a better understanding of each other and perhaps cause polarity to become only a bad memory.

Always Be Happy            To Our Youth

 

 

 

 

 

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