Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Day to Remember

For we are not a nation that says, 'don't ask, don’t tell.' We are a nation that says, "Out of many, we are one." -- President Barack Obama.
On September 20, 2011, the federal law and U.S. military policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was officially repealed. No longer must gay and lesbian military professionals be forced to lie about a fundamental aspect of their humanity to serve the country they love. Consistent with the ideals of America’s founding, these patriotic Americans who wish only to serve their country can now do so without fear of rejection and retribution stemming from an unfair and immoral law.

I do not know personally what it means to be gay any more than I know what it means to be black or female. But I do know that, as human beings with sexual needs and preferences, all of us, gay or straight, are what we are; our sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. It just is. I did not choose to be straight any more than I chose not to be gay. Sometime around the age of twelve I woke up and discovered that girls were not so bad after all, that they looked better and smelled better and that I was increasingly motivated by mysterious forces to want to be in their company. Talk to anyone who is gay and you will discover that things were not much different for them, except they were not permitted to openly discuss their feelings for fear of being bullied, ridiculed, or worse.

The discovery that one is gay in America often is accompanied by great internal struggle and resistance. According to a 2009 study by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, adolescents rejected by their families for being gay are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. As writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh has noted, "The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere." Sexual identity is not a lifestyle preference, but a biologically driven fact of life, a concept so fundamental to the issue of gay rights that I continue to be confounded by the silliness of the opposition. And yet, walk into a conference of the Southern Baptist Convention in which war, poverty, guns, and equal rights for gays are on the agenda, and guess which one they are most passionately against.

In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the armed forces, thus ending what until then had been a disgraceful contradiction of American ideals. Although Truman was not an enlightened man by today’s standards on matters of race, he nevertheless believed that any man who risked his life fighting for America’s freedoms was entitled to the dignity and respect afforded all soldiers; that men willing to die defending the Constitution were entitled to the same protections guaranteed by that Constitution. Sixty-three years later, it is difficult to imagine that we ever felt differently. Today, many of our most decorated soldiers and some of our finest officers and generals are African Americans. With the formal repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we can begin finally to apply the same principles of justice and equality to the many dedicated and committed gays and lesbians serving our country.

According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, since 1993, when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell became federal law (a political compromise agreed to after President Clinton was lambasted for attempting to do what is now the law of the land), more than 14,500 military personnel have been discharged simply because they are gay. The United States has refused to allow thousands of highly qualified men and women to serve, not because they did anything wrong, not because they were disloyal, insubordinate, or incompetent – indeed, most served with great distinction – but simply because it was discovered that God had created them in a manner deemed unworthy of military service. That they were attracted to, or in committed relationships with, a person of the same sex caused them to be discharged, in many instances, simply because they refused to lie about who they loved, or lived with, or with whom they engaged in private, consensual relations.

“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one,” reads the epitaph on the tombstone of Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam War veteran who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and who, in the 1970’s, became the first gay service member to fight the ban on gays in the military. The Army and Marine Corps take pride in teaching values such as loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and courage. They appropriately expect their soldiers to live up to these values. Until the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, however, it was legally required that gay soldiers violate each one of these precepts. The U.S. military expected gay service members to be disloyal to their partners, dishonest with their superiors, and to suppress the personal courage needed to publicly lead lives of integrity.

Discrimination because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation in almost all contexts is morally wrong and unjust. It also is counter-productive. Eighteen years of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has negatively impacted military readiness and weakened the nation. Since 2003, at the very moment when the country desperately needed Arabic-speaking and other foreign language specialists in the war on terror, the military discharged over 300 Arabic and Farsi translators on suspicion of being gay. As the writer Ernest Gaines asked, “Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?”

I am confident that someday we will look back with disbelief on the time when a decorated and capable soldier could be court-martialed simply because he or she had admitted to being gay, or was found to be in a loving relationship with a person of the same gender. Someday perhaps we will express the same sense of dismay as we do now over the racist laws of the Jim Crow South, or the outdated notion that African Americans and women were not capable of effectively serving and defending their country. That the landmark repeal on September 20th came and went with limited fanfare suggests that we are headed in the right direction, that it is just a matter of time.

There will, of course, remain people settled in their narrow and limited mindsets, convinced by misapplied biblical texts or unscientific and disproven views of sexuality that the United States, by embracing acceptance and greater understanding, is a nation in decline. In a generation or two, most of these intolerant voices will be gone. By then, the military will have adjusted to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell with little difficulty, and we will be a stronger country. As President Obama reminded us this week, “For more than two centuries, we have worked to extend America’s promise to all our citizens. Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans.”

As we struggle with the many challenges and issues confronting the country; as we debate the proper means of countering the threat of terrorism and the merits of our continued presence in Afghanistan; as we seek political and economic solutions to increasing poverty and unemployment at home, we can as Americans at least be proud that, by ending the shameful legacy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we have appealed to the better angels of our nature and have upheld the founding ideals of our nation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mrs. Ellis and the Power of Teaching

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. -- Carl Jung

Walking along the Horsham bike path the other day, I admired the fullness of the tall, green stalks enveloping the corn fields, standing tall and upright as they reached for the heavens.  For a few days last week, the air turned brisk and a cool breeze whisked in from the north, the distant white clouds gliding along the bright blue expanse of the horizon.  As autumn beckons, when hot August nights traverse into cool September mornings, life feels fresh and new again. As I listened to the Hatboro-Horsham High School marching band practice in the distance, the drum cadences dictating a rhythmic precision, I was reminded again of life as a young man, before September became just another month, when the end of summer marked the start of a new school year.

Although the venues change and classmates come and go, the steady march of time passes through the generations as youthful endeavors forever recede into eternity.  For nearly two decades now, September has promised my two daughters each a new beginning as well – new classes and teachers, new friends, and the hope for new experiences.  As they enter their senior years, one in college, the other high school, the promise of a fresh start continues to endure and rejuvenate.

I still remember my first day of school in September 1964, my stainless steel lunchbox in hand as I waited nervously at the bus stop on the corner of Parry Drive and Cooper Avenue in Moorestown, New Jersey.  Although I tried to appear brave, the butterflies in my stomach betrayed any sense of coolness as the mysteries of kindergarten awaited me a mile-and-a-half away.  I survived, of course, and quickly adapted to the rhythm of school.  I remember little else about that first year, though, other than half days filled with simple arithmetic, snack time, recreation time, and nap time.  Kindergarten was but a weigh station to first and second grade, when the real work would begin, and life would be forever altered by the ability to read and a desire to learn.

Recently, I happened across a picture of my second grade class at South Valley Elementary School taken in the spring of 1967, when I was eight years old and possessed a devilish innocence that bespoke an eternal, if reticent optimism.  Though the faces are familiar, I remember few names and can only wonder where my classmates are today, where the paths of life have taken them, how history and experience have affected them.  Not surprisingly, the person I remember most vividly is my teacher, Mrs. Ellis.  A kind, warm, African American woman of grace and stature, she taught us during the two formidable years of first and second grade.  It was Mrs. Ellis who taught us to read, to multiply and divide, to follow directions, and to think for ourselves.  She was one of the best teachers I have ever had, a dedicated public servant who represents everything that is good and decent about America and the value of education.

Mrs. Ellis understood instinctively the words of President John F. Kennedy, that education was “the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation."  Mrs. Ellis did not merely teach us to read and write, add and subtract – though these she did quite well – she developed our young minds and helped us mature and to feel valued as human beings.  She inspired us to want to learn, to want to achieve, work hard, and improve our lives.

I especially appreciate a good teacher, because in the United States, at least, the teaching profession has always been undervalued.  “Modern cynics and skeptics,” said President Kennedy, “see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.”  A half-century later, little has changed.  When a hedge fund manager makes more money in a week than a schoolteacher makes in a lifetime, there is something wrong with the world.  Someday, when we are past our prime and looking back on life, when our children are older and beyond the need of a parent’s advice, it will not matter what kind of house we live in, or car we drive, or how many stock dividends we claim on our tax returns each year.  What will matter is how we influenced the lives of others and whether we left the world a better place than when we entered.  Mrs. Ellis has long since passed that test. 

"It is not what is poured into a student that counts,” said Linda Conway, “but what is planted."  Mrs. Ellis was the gardener of my early education, planting the seeds that helped make me what I am today. Her influence over my young and developing mind was real and magical.  “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist,” said John Steinbeck, “and that there are as few as there are any other great artists.”  Mrs. Ellis was a true artist indeed.

I have been blessed with many outstanding teachers and professors in my lifetime, but Mrs. Ellis will always be special, for it was under her guidance I learned to read, to write, and to embark on a journey of the human mind and spirit.  Today, when I read a good book or write something of substance, I think of Mrs. Ellis. Looking now at the above photograph (I am in the front row, fourth from the left), I am in awe of this group of naive, innocent, wide eyed children, full of life and dreams and limitless possibility.  An all-white class taught by a positive, uplifting black woman, we were oblivious to the civil rights movement and not cognizant of the many inequities and injustices of life.  And yet, fully enraptured by this vibrant, strong, kind woman who led, taught, molded, and cared for us as if we were her own children, we knew we were in good hands, secure in the knowledge that if we tried and failed, if we fell down along the way, Mrs. Ellis would be there to help us to our feet and to try again. 

“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Thurgood Marshall once said. “We got here because somebody (a parent, a teacher . . .  or a few nuns) bent down and helped us pick up our boots.” When we think back on the teachers and mentors of our lives, we especially appreciate the effective ones, those whose influence left a permanent mark.  But it is the few who touched our humanity that we remember with deepest gratitude.  Here’s to you, Mrs. Ellis, and to all the great teachers past and present.