Au nom de quoi?

 A rose placed in a bullet hole in a restaurant window the day after a series of deadly attacks in Paris. The note reads "In the Name of What?" Credit: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

A rose placed in a bullet hole in a restaurant window the day after a series of deadly attacks in Paris. The note reads “In the Name of What?” Credit: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(thanks JD for the inspiration)
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Veterans Day

A military parade with crowds of excited spectators along 5th Avenue, in celebration of Armistice day and peace in Europe following World War One, New York, 1918. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images)

A military parade with crowds of excited spectators along 5th Avenue, in celebration of Armistice day and peace in Europe following World War One, New York, 1918. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images)

Today is Veterans Day, originally celebrated as Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11am. I have often felt the conceit of the “elevens” strange and somewhat unsettling. The armistice had in fact been decided at 5 am that morning of the eleventh, but the Allies insisted that 11:00 be maintained so there was time for the word to go out to all commanders. I have wondered about who on the staff inside Foch’s railway car in Compiegne, 30 miles north of Paris, first noticed that it was the eleventh day of the eleventh month and cleverly suggested 11:00 for it all to end.

The fighting did, in fact, continue until 11:00, some claiming that it went even well beyond this time limit. And it was fierce fighting, almost as if all were trying to use up all their stores of ammunition, a “farewell to arms.” It is estimated that nearly 11,000 died on that final day, in a last flurry of pointless aggression.

The last day was a microcosm of what the war had been for 4 years—a lot of lives destroyed for no purpose. It is hard to fathom why the commanders and soldiers were compelled to fight to the bitterest end, firing up to and beyond the 11:00 deadline, in a war that had already taken 20 million lives. One story recalls the Germans waving allied soldiers back indicating the war was over and the allies continuing to aggressively move forward causing the Germans to fire back (the last American soldier to die was killed in this attack, Private Henry Gunter–perhaps even the very last soldier to die including all the armies involved). Some commanders sent their men “over the top” one more time in those last hours. Americans especially suffered heavy casualties on the last day of the war because General Pershing believed that the terms of the Armistice were soft on the Germans and that the Germans needed to be taught a final lesson, so commanders were urged to fight until the last possible moment.

Americans lost 3,000 men on the last day which tremendously angered the American public once they learned of this statistic. Pershing himself was questioned before a House Committee on Military Affairs which was trying to determine whether senior military officers were acting “appropriately” on the last day of the war. Pershing never apologized for his orders and repeated that the Germans had gotten off easily in the armistice and that he did not trust that they would stop the fighting at the end. He said he did what any “judicious commander” would do and that even Marshall Foch, the Allied supreme commander, had urged all to “pursue the field greys (Germans) until the last minute.” Pershing was never charged with negligence.

On this Veterans Day, originally commemorating the Armistice of WWI, it is good and important to remember and honor the veterans who have placed their lives in great danger with patriotic intention and innocent trust in politicians, veterans who have made tremendous sacrifices in the name of democracy.

But it is equally important on this day to remember the ultimate folly of war.

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A t-shirt that a middle schooler wore to school today


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What is truth?

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Every year as we study the Constitution, I show the students Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is an amazing 1939 film with an incredible cast —Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey, Claude Rains— directed by Frank Capra. The story is based on an innocent Mr. Smith who is appointed as a senator by the governor because of the death of a senator. This happens right when a bill is about to be passed by the Senate which includes a section about a damn to be built and the land  it is to be built on (and sold to the United States) owned by a corrupt machine. Lots of greed and graft and profit to be made. Of course, the young innocent senator stumbles into the truth and tries to stand up to the political machine which very nearly destroys him. In the end of course, the truth comes out after a dramatic filibuster in the Senate and a passionate confession by one of the perpetrators of the graft.

Buried not too deeply within this drama is a powerful civics lesson. We learn about appointments for vacancies in the Senate, how a bill becomes a law, how senate committees function, how the process of expulsion works, and of course, the filibuster itself. The movie is further peppered with Senate rules, national monuments, and quotes from Abraham Lincoln and much of the movie takes place in a perfectly recreated Senate chamber (and the National Press Club too) on the studio lot. It also cleverly, adeptly, and effortlessly weaves this information into the dramatic story and romance — the words beautifully, wittily, smartly crafted by Sidney Buchman. By the end of this film the students are visibly hooked and riveted to its outcome.

When the film was screened in Constitution Hall in 1939, with 4000 guests invited including 45 senators, Capra reports in his autobiography that many senators walked out and many others screamed at the film. Many politicians and some media thought the film was anti-American, in fact, even pro-Communist and blasted it for the way it showed corruption in American government and politics. This is probably why the movie still holds up and feels just as true as ever. In fact, a bill was passed by the Senate as pure revenge for their negative portrayal, the Neely Anti-block Booking bill, a piece of anti-trust legislation, which effectively broke up the studio-owned theater chains in the late 40s when the bill was finally passed by both houses, proving the point Frank Capra was making in the first place.

This film works today because the corruption is not wiped out at the end . The truth comes out only because of the confession of Senator Paine. The democratic system remains poisoned. Mr. Smith is a hero, but not because he really affected the overall systemic injustice of the system.

The kids were moved. They understood its patriotic underpinnings, but they also were fully aware of how democracy had sold out to its highest bidder.

“Even democracy has a price doesn’t it?” EB said.

“I don’t think a real Mr. Smith could ever really battle it all,” CL responded.

“Of course he could. This is not how it is all supposed to work.”

“How is it all supposed to work?”

And then class was over.


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Crab apple butter

IMG_3749 (1)JB has always talked about how his mother made crab apple jelly and jam. The family would pick crab apples in Humboldt Park and she would cook them with plums, cinnamon, allspice, and sugar. After using a food strainer to remove seeds and skin, they would put the mixture in mason jars and cover the tops with paraffin and refrigerate. I had never tasted crab apples before, let alone cook with them.

When I got home from work today, we picked crab apples off the volunteer tree in our front yard. This last spring was the first time that the tree was spectacularly covered in blossoms. After taking the stems off the fruit, I covered the crab apples with water and simmered them for about an hour. We also threw in about a dozen rose hips we picked from the garden. Then using a spoon, I pushed the softened mixture through a sieve. Crab apples are really tart, but I didn’t want to use sugar so I cut up two apricots and two medjool dates into very sIMG_3755mall pieces. I reheated the mixture to soften the dry fruit, needing to add some more water to the mixture as well.

The results came out like a fruit butter, a very spreadable and tasty delicacy. The dates and apricots sweetened it a bit without erasing the amazing fresh tartness of the crab apples. In my arrogance I had always dismissed the crab apple as an unimportant fruit, too small to be of any significance, meant only for the birds. I have totally changed my mind. I am hooked.

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IMG_3729It has taken me a while. I have had to be reminded several times to do it. But today I finally sent my resignation letter to school. Everyone has known that I will be retiring this year but it hasn’t been made official. Of course, the school will need to hire someone new, but to do so they need my official resignation letter. I have been putting it off, perhaps because at some deep level I am feeling ambivalent about leaving something I love and feel so comfortable doing (for almost 35 years). But today in a short letter to the director of my school I wrote:

This has been a good run these almost 11 years. I have grown as a teacher, as a colleague, as a human being. Thank you for the opportunity to work at this most amazing school filled with awesome students (especially the ones who are the most challenging), incredible colleagues (especially the ones who push my thinking), committed administrators (especially the ones who truly listen and are open to change), and supportive staff (especially the ones who truly love their jobs and the kids).

This letter is to officially declare that I will be retiring at the end of this 2015-2016 school year, leaving my position as an 8th grade Humanities teacher.


Alright, that’s done. Now back to planning for Monday’s classes.

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