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How Many More? The Umpqua Community College Massacre

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight just a short thought about the latest mass shooting in the United States, this one at Umpqua Community College, in Roseburg, Oregon.

I won’t say much, except that I have a hard time imagining that a society such as ours would continue to tolerate events like this on such a regular basis. Maybe I feel this way because I have been held up at gunpoint in my hometown in 1979. Maybe it is because I have been to war and been shot at by enemy forces. Maybe it is because I remember when the elementary school that I attended when I was a child, Grover Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton California became the scene of a massacre in 1989, some 17 years after I had gone there. Maybe it is because I know too many people who have be affected by gun violence.

Whatever the reason I find it troubling. For the first time in a long time I turned on the television news, and listened to President Obama speak about this. I had to agree with everything that he said; the fact is that such massacres have become routine to us, almost as routine as is the violence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland. The fact is that after every one of these events; Stockton, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Tucson, Aurora, the Washington Naval Yard, San Ysidro, Fort Hood, Charleston and so many others; many of which never hit anything but local media really do not move us to do anything. We have accepted them as part of life, and despite our protestations, our “prayers” and our outward sympathy for the victims we seem unwilling to do anything about them.

Guns are certainly a part of the problem; but there is something far deeper that we should be concerned about in all of this, it is who we are as a people. These events are not new, they have been occurring for well over a century in our country; lynching, bombing, gangland shootings, some committed by individuals, some by criminal organizations. But in addition to the true murderous sociopaths, many more seriously disturbed and even mentally ill individuals, who should have no access to weapons, commit many of these shootings.

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As yet we do not know much about the shooter, his motivations or his victims. We do know that his name is Chris Harper Mercer, a twenty-six year old student at the college. According to a dating profile said that he was a “conservative Republican” who “doesn’t like organized religion.” But most of us only care about those details to either titillate our need for information, or to back whatever our political position is regarding laws about gun ownership. The fact is that we don’t know why Mercer did this; evidently during the attack he was asking people to state their religion as he shot them. We will find out more as the investigation unfolds, but again to most of us the details won’t matter as our minds are made up, and we accept this as a way of life.

Some say we should take drastic measures to control guns; others that we should have more training and screening of potential guy buyers; others say ban certain types of weapons; still others say to eliminate all restrictions on gun ownership; while others say to increase the mental health screenings to keep mentally ill or potentially disturbed people from purchasing guns. Sadly, those who most loudly proclaim eliminating restrictions on any kind of gun ownership, even for the most lethal weapons are the same people who support politicians who constantly vote down funding for mental health care and restrictions on law enforcement in dealing with guns.

The fact is that no matter which side is argued people continue to die in gun violence everyday, and not just mass shootings like the one we saw today. I think the President is right, Americans and our legislators at local, state and federal levels need to find solutions that protect constitutional liberties for responsible gun owners with the safety of the public. Honestly, I don’t know how that happens; far too many lobbyists, special interest groups with conflicting interests, and the gun industry are involved.

But I have to say, with unfettered honesty, I really don’t think that we care, we have become used to the routine of this; we are no longer shocked, we are no longer offended, and we lack the political will, the compassion, or the courage to do anything substantive about the problem. But most of all I think that we, as a people have lost any sense of empathy for those who are killed and those who are affected by such senseless violence. In the words of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials Psychologist, Gustave Gilbert, is the absence of empathy.

President Obama was right; we have accepted these killings as a routine part of life. We say “how terrible, someone should do something” and then turn our backs until the next time. We should politicize the issue and through our political process try to find ways to deal with this with the appropriate checks and balances; because it affects every one of us. Every year over 10,000 people in this country die of gun violence committed by others. That number does not include the 20,000- 30,000 people who use guns to kill themselves every year.

How many more people need to die for us to recover any sense of empathy? How many more people need to die?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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National Teacher’s Day: Let’s Actually Start Valuing Our Teachers Again

What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Today is National Teacher’s Day and not a moment too soon. However most people probably don’t know or care that it is. Teachers are not valued highly in our society. They used to be but not anymore. Ask a teacher how they feel about classroom conditions, support from the elected officials on school boards that use their office to attack the institutions that they have been elected to serve. Ask any teacher about the effects of the “No Child Left Behind” on their ability to teach and be able to reach out to students that learn differently from the rote memory exercises needed to pass a standardized test.

Higher education likewise is being gutted the formerly amazing California State University System, and the California Junior College system which I attended is being decimated. Professors have not competitive wages in years, programs are being cut while tuition is increased. I attended San Joaquin Delta College and paid $5 a semester plus books. I averaged $200 a year at Cal State Northridge. Programs were amazing, class sizes good, professors and instructors, excellent. That system and many others are in crisis.

You see teachers, especially those in Public Schools have for the last 30 years or so, ever since Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 passed in California and gutted educational spending the target of right wing pundits, politicians and preachers. They are blamed by some people for almost every ill in the educational system. If teachers complain or take their case to the media they are made the villain. In most States they don’t make a lot of money for all the education, training and certifications that they are required to have to teach.  They have few protections and those that they do have, mainly in the protections that they gained through their participation in organized labor are being stripped away in state after state.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s my dad was in the Navy. It was a turbulent time for our family. Due my dad’s transfers as well as a school boundary change in one district I ended up attending six different elementary schools in three states, three schools in three states in 4th grade alone. During that time our lives were in a constant state of flux and as a grade school student it was my teachers that helped me get through that time. Because of the transfers I didn’t get to have the opportunity to remain in a community long enough to get established until Junior High School. I was always “the new kid in town.” Not that that is bad or that I have any bad memories of that childhood. I found the new places, people and schools to be a grand adventure. In fact when my dad retired from the Navy I was not happy. I wanted him to stay in because I liked the adventure.

I remember every one of my elementary school teachers names, save one in 4th grade where were we not at the school long. There was the strict Kindergarten teacher, Mrs Brandenburg who made sure that she write with my right hand.  To this day my handwriting is illegible but who cares now when I type everything. Then there was my 1st Grade Teacher at Oak Harbor Elementary School, Mrs Christian. She was a sweetheart her husband was an airline pilot and in 1st grade, probably because of my handwriting I was tested for some learning difficulties. I guess that there was nothing wrong because that didn’t last long. In Second Grade I had Mrs Jackson. Then in 3rd grade a new school was opened and I attended Olympic View Elementary School.  My 3rd Grade Teacher was Mrs King.  It was in 3rd grade that I really began my adventure in reading. I devoured every book in the biography and history section that I could find in the Library, especially those dealing with military and political leaders, sports figures (especially baseball players) and military history.

I began 4th Grade at Olympic View but my dad was transferred to a travel intensive assignment in Long Beach California in the fall of 1968. I had my first male teacher at Olympic View, Mr Alguire who I really liked. We moved to Long Beach and it was a difficult move. there were a number of deaths and serious illnesses in the extended family and I attended Robert E Lee Elementary in Long Beach for just a few weeks before my dad had my mom, brother and I go live with my Grandparents in Huntington West Virginia. We arrived there in early December and I found that I was out of my element. My teacher at Miller Elementary was Mrs Gates. She was very tough and I was hammered with more homework than I had ever seen. I was also the “new kid” and since we had just moved from Long Beach a “city slicker” and was challenged to a fight in my first week. It was a draw. However Mrs Gates was a great teacher and I continued to read, write well but illegibly and learn to speak in front of the class.

When the school year was done we moved back to Long Beach when in a different neighborhood just across the cement lined San Gabriel River from Orange County I attended Hawaiian Gardens Elementary School where I met my friend Chris Brockel who I have managed to stay in contact over the years. That was probably my most fun year in school. I was asked if I wanted to skip 5th grade but I told the principle that I wanted to remain in my 5th Grade Class. My teacher was another gem, Mr Oliver. It was a great school year combined with the fact that my dad was always taking us to California Angeles baseball games.  But dad received orders to the elderly Aircraft Carrier USS Hancock CVA-19 home ported in Alameda California at the end of that school year which made another move necessary and initially thought had ruined my life. heck I had baseball, Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, the Queen Mary and Sea World. I saw my first professional hockey and basketball games and it was a dream life.

Since it was the early 1970s and the Bay Area was in turmoil and I had a great Aunt in Stockton  we moved to Stockton just down the street from her. In Stockton I attended Grover Cleveland Elementary School and had the woman that I think was my best teacher of elementary school Mrs Dietrich. My dad was underway or deployed most of the time between 1971 and 1974 when he retired. That first year was hard and like my other teachers Mrs Dietrich was a rock of stability who encouraged me to learn and think for myself.

I attended Stockton Junior High and Edison High School and there are were teachers at every grade level who I remember fondly. My French Teacher from 7th-9th Grade was Mrs Milhousen who was very patient with me. My history teacher was Mr Silvaggio who my brother would later teach on the same faculty in his first teaching assignment. I remember my Printing Shop and Wood Shop teachers, back then you had to become familiar with trade skills as well as academics. I learned to play the French Horn in band class which was taught by Mr Hull.

At Edison I still remember great teachers like Gloria Nomura, Mr Riley, Mr Oji, all who taught History or Social Studies, Donovan Cummings my Speech teacher, Coaches Charlie Washington, Vick Berg, Duke Pasquini.  There were others but two of the most important were my Naval Junior ROTC instructors LCDR James Breedlove and Senior Chief Petty Officer John Ness.  I could go on and on about teacher.

That continued in college and seminary. I am indebted to the wonderful, gifted and dedicated men and women that were my teachers.  My mom was a teacher’s aid when life settled down in Stockton when dad left the Navy and retired from the school district. Likewise my brother Jeff is a teacher and in administration at an alternative school in the district, his wife is an elementary school teacher.  I now have a BA and three graduate degrees. I am indebted to my teachers and cannot forget them. Teaching is hard. I have taught a couple of undergraduate level Western Civilization classes and the amount of work is enormous.

When I hear the Unholy Trinity of Right Wing Politicians, Pundits and Preachers that beat up public school teachers at every opportunity. School Board members who seem to be more interested in political careers than education and those that hack away at programs that cater to the whole person I am disgusted. When I went to school those things that made me what I am today, the library, the gym classes, athletic programs, the foreign languages, art, music, speech, and things like shop were required. They helped give me an appreciation for the world and for people in general. They helped make me a more rounded person. From what I see now those kind of programs are being decimated and our kids will be poorer for it. This is not the fault of the teachers. They work with the crap being forced on them by politicians in Congress, statehouses and on school boards with ever shrinking resources and always increasing requirements.

We need to actually care about our teachers and educational systems. Policy and budget priorities set by politicians coupled with parents that are either bullies or absentee are the reason our schools are in trouble.

I hate to lecture but teachers matter. Education policy matters. Educational funding matters. If we want to be competitive in the world we need to make education a priority again and start giving teachers some measure of respect and stop using them as a straw man to divert attention from the real causes of our educational crisis.

Today is National Teacher’s Day. Admittedly it is after hours but take some time in the next few days to thank a teacher.  If you don’t have kids, go back and thank one of your own.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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