Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Life: Expect Curve Balls

Last week as we attended the baccalaureate service for our graduating high school student — and may I pause to express tremendous gratitude that our child managed to graduate — we listened to a professional motivational speaker, who was the father of one of the graduating seniors.

The speaker suggested that the life of each of the graduating seniors would turn out rather differently than they then imagined. To illustrate his point, he asked any of the parents and staff present to raise their hand if their life had gone pretty much as they had expected at the time they were graduating high school. Of course, no hands went up. The speaker quipped that if any hands had gone up we'd know which people to test for drug abuse.

I knew a man that was renowned among his acquaintances for having successfully stuck to a plan he had made for his life. The story went that as a teenager the man obtained a large sheet of butcher paper. He listed his life goals and then made a map of how to achieve those goals, adding specific requirements and related plans.

The man consistently applied himself to his plan for many years. Sure enough, he obtained the education he desired, established the family he wanted, advanced in his chosen career as projected, and lived where he had planned to live. Indeed, he admirably achieved far beyond what anyone in his remote rural community might have expected.

But in his early 50s the man's keen mind began to show symptoms of what ultimately was diagnosed as Alzheimer Disease. His plan had not anticipated the decline in cognitive function and physical health that would be the central feature of his remaining days.

Life is like that for all of us. How could I have anticipated being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis as a young adult? The kind of software development I do for a living did not exist when I graduated high school. Moreover, having excelled in accounting in high school, I pursued and achieved a decent career in the accounting field. How could I have known that I would end up being a software developer for most of my adult life?

The baccalaureate speaker said that he wasn't suggesting that the graduating seniors should avoid planning ahead. Rather, he said that they needed to have a connection to something deeper and more reliable than those plans. It was this kind of spiritual connection that would grant them a level of stability as they dealt with the curve balls life would throw at them.

I once heard an interview with a well known agnostic that had previously classed himself as an atheist. He was not religious. But his research showed that for almost all people, regardless of level of religiosity, a time would come when spirituality would become individually important.

One man called the show and said that he could not imagine himself ever reaching that point. The scholar assured him that he would. The man replied that he would cross that bridge when he came to it. The scholar suggested that this was somewhat like making no preparations for impending retirement. He kindly invited the man to give the matter some thought and to make some preparation sooner rather than later.

I know from personal experience that when life proves itself uncertain — as it certainly will, it pays to be grounded on a spiritual "rock," a "sure foundation" (see Heleman 5:12) beyond one's own puny abilities.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

(Somewhat) Proper Decorum Is Not Dead

As a follow up to last week's post about our end of school year activity overload, I am happy to report that yesterday's high school commencement exercises were somewhat better than I had expected. Either I'm getting used to these things, or they did a better job of maintaining some sense of decorum than was the case when we attended the graduation ceremonies of our two older children.

The high school our children have attended (like most high schools in the area) always holds its graduation ceremony at a nearby university sports arena. Sitting about 12 rows up we had a good view of the mortar board caps worn by the graduates sitting in chairs on the arena floor. We noted right away that none of them had any customization of the tops of their caps. This differs dramatically from previous graduation events we attended, when there were some rather innovative and distracting cap top displays.

I noted that the event ran very efficiently. Each of the speakers was relatively brief. Mimicking the two hecklers in Muppet Christmas Carol talking about Fozzi's short speech, my wife and I turned to each other after each commentary and said, "It was ... short. We loved it!"

I'm all for short speeches at commencement exercises. Who remembers anything that was said at their high school graduation anyway? Of all the graduation ceremonies I have attended over the years, I only remember what one speaker said. That was when I earned my master degree. I distinctively remember part of one speaker's message, but only because I was the speaker. I doubt anybody else remembers a single thing I said.

At the beginning of yesterday's event the school principal read a brief statement asking that attendees refrain from using horns, bells, or other noisemakers when honoring their graduate. He explained that doing so often obscures the reading of the name of the next graduate, spoiling the moment for those that came to support that person.

Following the principal's announcement, I heard one fellow behind me say to a companion that his family would make noise anyway, "Because that's the kind of people we are." I though to myself, "What kind of people is that? Jerks?"

The principal's request didn't stop some people from blowing air horns. But I noted that the bursts of noise tended to be short. The feeling I got was that these revelers felt a sense of public shaming for their obnoxious actions.

When I told a neighbor about this experience, he expressed surprise that the principal would need to make such an announcement. I assured him that, based on past experience, it was absolutely necessary. In our present "it's all about me" culture, some people have no understanding of courtesy. Such a sense would require having some empathy for others, even strangers.

The qualities of individualism and/or family unity can be taken to the point that the needs and concerns of others are unimportant or seemingly nonexistent. Some people might refrain from obnoxiously blasting an air horn if they feel shame for doing so, even if they can't manage enough concern for others to desire to be courteous.

On the other hand, I'm certain that some would think me discourteous for quietly reading a book during most of the graduate recognition portion of the program. I wasn't bothering anyone, but I wasn't paying much attention either. After all, I knew that our child would be one of the last of the 600+ graduates, since the choir went after the final letter in the alphabet.

We all survived graduation. We even found a decent restaurant afterward that wasn't terribly crowded. Our graduate went with friends to the school's all night graduation party at a recreation center. He made it home safely well before morning, apparently having finished celebrating long before the event was officially over.

One of our university children recently asked if attendance at commencement exercises was necessary to receive his diploma. He has never much liked large public events and feels like the whole graduation ceremony thing is a bit silly. He was relieved when I assured him that he wouldn't have to attend any ceremony and that he would actually end up paying extra if he chose to do so.

On another note, the child that we feared might have to attend summer school is off the hook (by a hair breadth). With all schoolwork done, he now has only fluff left for the last couple of days. One of our university students thought he might have to take a summer course to boost his GPA enough to maintain his scholarship. But he also appears to have escaped that specter. One child still has school next week. And then it looks like we get a break for a few months.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Longing for the End of the School Year

The approach of the end of the school year always brings a cavalcade of activity. Not just at school. It seems like every organization that our kids are involved with — church, performing arts, Scouting, etc  — gets into the act. (I didn't add sports because we currently have no children involved in athletics programs.) It's as if all organizations have to get their events done before the end of the school year ... at the very same time that some (as in "my") kids are scrambling to finish essential school work.

On that note, it wasn't certain until 3 pm yesterday that one of our children would graduate high school next week. We're still holding our breath on whether another will have to do summer school. Yeah, these kids like to cut it close. It doesn't help much when a teacher is inflexible in dealing with a child's disabilities.

Last Saturday there was a piano performance for one child. On Monday night was the high school's choir concert. Tuesday night heralded a child's play performance. The kids had worked hard for months. But sketchy audio coupled with the varied skill set of the large cast (ages 3-14) made it feel like 10 minutes of enjoyment crammed into 2½ hours. A script editor might have been useful in reducing the endurance contest to 90 minutes.

There was Mutual and Scouts on Wednesday night, and a piano recital for two of our children last night. After work and school today, some of us will pile in the SUV for a two-hour drive to camp out in the rain with the Scouts. (Complaining about the weather after praying for moisture = ingratitude. So I'm not complaining.)

While the Sabbath is to be a day of rest, I have learned that this often means a rest from the things you'd like to be doing, not from the things you should be doing. So among the many "shoulds" and "shalls" we have scheduled for Sunday will be seminary graduation. On Monday night we will attend a Baccalaureate gathering at the high school. Tuesday will bring high school graduation (after years of wondering whether this child would actually make it).

Speaking of graduation, I recall some mildly undignified behavior by some of my fellow classmates back in the day. But the audience was generally quite well behaved. Some of today's seniors go out of their way to make lack of dignity into a YouTube-able moment. But their self-centered behavior is mild compared to the crass actions of some of their family members.

I'm not arguing for demonstrations of false piety. But is there no longer a place in this world for dignified behavior? It seems that even the coarsest of folk ought to be able to briefly subordinate their sycophancy out of courtesy for others.

Graduation is not the end, since two of our children will still be in school for a few more days. Some of the kids will be attending youth conference just after the end of the school year. And then we greatly look forward to having a brief respite from a whirlwind of activities.

At least this whirlwind marks the end of the long slog of the school year. Those that would force everyone into year round school apparently fail to comprehend the need for the downtime. It's not just students that need a break. Teachers and parents need it too.

While parents have to deal with their kids during the off season, at least they don't have to grapple with the fallout of streams of useless (i.e. all) homework, stupidizing standard tests, dictatorial teachers, ignorant administrators, and inflexible school systems. Many teachers and administrators do as well as they can in the system in which they find themselves, but there will always be those that seem to thrive on making life miserable for some of the students and their parents.

At any rate, we're feeling the effects of scrambling to be everywhere we need to be and doing everything we need to do. The end of the school year can't come quickly enough.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

I Lived Under a Totalitarian Dictatorship

It's true. I lived under a totalitarian dictatorship when I was in junior high school. Mind you, it was only for two days and it was only during school hours on those days. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had received a letter from our school's principal a few days earlier explaining the exercise and asking them to keep it confidential from their children until after the plot unfolded.

We went to school one morning in December, most likely with visions of the gift cornucopia that Christmas morning would bring a couple of weeks later. School started as normal. But then the school was invaded by guys in military outfits bearing very real weapons from the "State of Triangula." They had the kids that were in charge of the school's flag lower the American flag. Then a white banner emblazoned with a black triangle was hoisted up the main flagpole. American flags were removed from the classrooms and we were put in a state of lock down.

I found a the local newspaper's coverage of the event on this Ancestry.com page (requires subscription). Recalling that the event made national news back in the day, I was able to find coverage from a couple of other newspapers: see Daytona Beach Morning Journal article and Gettysburg Times article.

To add some perspective, bear in mind that this occurred at a very unpopular phase of the Vietnam War. Domestic and foreign events over the preceding several years had caused many Americans to question the patriotism that had been common in the years following World War II. But it was also during the height of the Cold War. Tensions between Western and Eastern Bloc countries were high and fear of communist oppressive ideologies was rampant among Americans.

The Dec. 14, 1972 local Standard Examiner article featured a photo of our student body president destroying the Triangula flag at the end of the event.
The text of the article, titled "Students Free 'After Siege' In N. Ogden" follows:
"Hooray, the Americans are coming," said one North Ogden Junior High School student this morning at the sight of an officer of the U.S. Army.
Freedom returned to the “embattled school” today at a special “freedom assembly” at which Principal Carl C. DeYoung announced the end of 50 hours of enemy occupation.
Students have attended classes, eaten, studied — and gone without smiles under the watchful gaze of armed soldiers from the mythical foreign government of Triangula.
The soldiers, actually volunteers from the local 6th Battalion, 83rd Artillery of Army Reserves, turned up at the assembly in civilian clothes to the cheers of their former captives.
Mark Jenkins, student body president, tore up the black-on-white Triangulan flag to the kind of delirium usually reserved for basketball in the school gymnasium, where the assembly was held.
The ninth-grader was asked to dispose of the flag by Lt. Col Clair Frischknecht, the 83rd’s commander, who posed as chief of Triangulan forces during the occupation.
Special tribute to the organization committee for the exercise — William Woodard, Richard Johanson and Mrs. Lynn Miller — was paid by Col Frischknecht and Maj. Gen. Ray D. Free, USA-Ret, who appreciated the military precision of plans.
Mr. DeYoung said the experience was planned for students to instill in them a feeling for the American flag and what it symbolizes— “and it’s hard to teach a feeling.”
For two school days and this morning until 10:30 a.m., students lived under a totalitarian regime, including facing a military court for infractions from tearing down the Triangulan flag (Tuesday) to smiling in class.
Signs of smoldering revolt were evident at all sides this morning: dozens of students wore red, white and blue clothing to school, others wore armbands of the same color, and holes were torn in paper covering trophy cases and seasonal decorations in glass-walled banks.
“They didn’t catch me, and I’m glad,” said eighth-grader Matt Berrett, describing how he played a trumpet rendition of “God Bless America” this morning.
“You know, it sounded kind of sweet floating down the halls,” said one teacher, still wearing the Triangulan lapel pin.
Despite unaccustomed cooperation from pupils — who were required to stand whenever a teacher entered or left the room — some teachers grew weary of the occupation and began to sympathize with the “underground.”
“A lot of us wore the school colors (purple and gold) today rather than the dark clothing,” said drama teacher Mrs. Joyce McKean, adding “about half of my class wore armbands this morning and they’re in detention, so we’re having trouble practicing for our plays.”
Another group of “partisans” about which not much was said demonstrated the widespread interest in the experiment.
A group of about 60 boys from Weber High School formed an expeditionary force for a sally to North Ogden to free the school, according to Dr. LeGrande Hobbs, who has to children at North Ogden and one at Weber High.
“The (sic) finally decided they might get kicked out of school,” he added.
Gen. Free, a Salt Lake City businessman who once commanded the seven-state 96th Army Reserve Command, said the re-raising of the American flag brought back memories of other such visions.
Recalling seeing the flag over liberated territory in Attu, Kwajalein, The Philippines and Okinawa during World War II, he said: “A thrill went through me as it rose and fluttered and showed again that freedom was abroad in the world.”
Citing Paul the Apostle that “all things are bought with a price,” he told students and parents at the freedom assembly “of the price of freedom.”
Many of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were wealthy and respected men, he said, and dozens came out of the Revolutionary War with only “their sacred honor intact” after pledging that, their lives and fortunes.
Lessons then and now
More than four decades have passed since the invasion of our school by Triangula forces when I was a seventh grader. I was among the many students that were sent to trial for the misdeed of showing patriotism. I was shuffled back and forth between bureaucratic judges until I was finally sentenced to service in the library.

In retrospect, I think my act of disobedience was as much about revolt against oppression as it was about love of country. But I can say for certain that there was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoyed when the school was 'liberated.' Emotions of gratitude ran very deep among even the most hard core students.

Pulling off a project like this today would likely be impossible. I expect that it would be met with heavy denunciation from around the world via the court of the Internet. Back then a couple of parents opted their children out of the experience. You'd have far more parents do that today. Administrators would be investigated and disciplined, maybe even fired and perhaps jailed. But that was a different era. Can you imagine the flack that would rain down nowadays after having militia troops armed with automatic weapons storm the halls and guard the children?

The article above notes that some teachers started to sympathize with the students. That kind of thing only happens very surreptitiously in actual oppressive regimes, because such regimes are careful to fill positions like that with loyalists. My father saw this when he grew up in Nazi Germany. Government positions of all kinds, including teaching and dog catching jobs were slowly turned over to Nazi party sympathizers. Dad said that all teachers were replaced by people that knew only one thing: how to beat the hell out of the students.

Moreover, most Americans today have a different understanding of patriotism than once was the case. Trust of government is at an all-time low. Many Americans still love their country, while simultaneously harboring suspicion and distrust of that country's government. The exercise in 1972 mixed these elements, but that approach might backfire today.

My point is to demonstrate that the culture we experienced in 1972 is different enough from present day culture that it might be difficult to nowadays understand the two-day occupation project my school ran back then. It would be easy to cast aspersions at the episode from our present sociocultural understanding. But I think that doing so would cause us to miss some valuable points.

This event left a lasting imprint on me. I venture to say that more than four decades after the event, all of the surviving students that were involved — except those that ended up burning their brains out on drugs — have visceral memories of the occupation. Thus, it was quite memorable.

At the time of the event, most students involved actually thought about what it might be like to live in a society with more restricted freedoms. I can't say, however, whether the goals of instilling appreciation for what the American flag represents and gratitude for the blessings of living in America were achieved. That would require studying that body of former students.

I think that the experience has at least helped inform whatever opinions those former students currently have of government, country, and patriotism. That ought to form part of a monument to the careers of those that worked to pull off the project.