Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Long Ago Killing

This is the best time of year for exploring lost neighborhoods. The snow has melted and no undergrowth has leafed out yet. Last fall’s leaves are flattened down by the snow pack, though not as much as usual after a mild winter. One can see far into the woods in early spring, and the stone walls, the cellar holes and abandoned roads are least concealed.

Finding old roads can be difficult. Not only are they overgrown, but many have also been used for logging at least once, and sometimes two or three times. Landings were bulldozed and skidders dragged hundreds of twitches along and across them. In some cases, the roads were improved for logging trucks, but not necessarily along the original routes. Conscientious loggers preserved some old roads by constructing water bars at regular intervals where they’re steepest, thus preventing washouts by spring runoff and summer thunderstorms. Trouble is, the water bars are sometimes too big to drive my truck over and I have to hike in with my aging legs. This may be the year I finally buy a four-wheeler.

Stonewalls have been breached in some places by skidders or bulldozers or just plowed under. Cellar holes have been filled in or buried in slash and cemeteries damaged. I ran into all these problems while exploring the abandoned neighborhood on the Lovell/Stoneham town line where Calvin McKeen was killed by John Coffin in 1860.

My first information about the incident came from the August, 2000 edition of “Cold River Chronicle.” It’s an old, but familiar story. Two men were drinking more than they should. One, McKeen, had a reputation as a hothead. The other, Coffin, had a gun. There were rumors that McKeen’s wife was involved with Coffin, an occasional boarder in the household. Over a bottle of rot gut rum, things got out of hand. McKeen evidently went after Coffin with a butcher knife. Coffin, a blacksmith, caved his skull in with a hot iron and then shot him. After a highly-publicized trial, Coffin was found guilty of manslaughter and served five years at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

Coffin was defended by Attorney David R. Hastings of Lovell whose photo appeared in Cold River Chronicle. Knowing his descendant and namesake, attorney and current Maine State Senator David R. Hastings III of Fryeburg, I was struck by the strong resemblance between the two though they’re separated by a hundred forty years and however many generations. Coffin’s sister later married the son of Maine’s governor Garcelon and they built an impressive mansion on the opposite shore of Kezar Lake from the abandoned neighborhood which still stands.

David Crouse, publisher of “Cold River Chronicle,” included a map of the old neighborhood. Looking around last spring, I ran across a solitary gravestone. It seemed out of place all by itself on a knoll beside an old road. There was no other indication that a cemetery ever existed there - no fence, no other gravestones, nothing. And it was not a primitive stone. It was innately carved marble on a granite pedestal and inscribed: “Caroline” most prominently, and beneath that was: “wife of William Sawyer. Died June 8, 1882 AE 65 yrs. 5 mos. 11 ds.” Caroline and William Sawyer lived in the house closest to the murder scene and were the first people informed on the night of Calvin McKeen’s death by both his widow and his killer.

Carrying 1858 and 1963 maps of the area as well as a DeLorme Atlas, I found several cellar holes and roads, but so far I’ve been unable to determine for certain which ones belonged to Calvin McKeen and Caroline Sawyer. Using the bridge over Cold Brook as reference point, I was thrown off. It’s a modern bridge and quite elaborate for what is now a sparsely-populated area. I asked Lovell’s John Chandler if the bridge was rebuilt on the site of the one it replaced and he told me it was. Exploring further, I found stonework upstream that may have been part of an older bridge. After the mud dries a little more, I’m going back in there and hopefully reach some conclusions.

But for cellar holes, stone walls, cemeteries and obscured roads, nothing is left of a 19th century neighborhood with at least two schools, a mill, two shops, and many farms. A few camps and houses have sprung up in the past few decades but most of the land is now part of the White Mountain National Forest.

Cold River Chronicle’s David Crouse and Robert Williams of the Lovell Historical Society are offering a program on Calvin McKeen’s murder at the Charlotte Hobbs Library in Lovell June 27th at 7:00 pm.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lining Up Last

At St. William’s School, we always lined up before doing anything. It was girls on the left and boys on the right whether we were going out to recess, to the lunchroom, back to the classroom, or wherever. The girls’ line always went first and sometimes I resented that. If I was shivering in the cold wind, I had to wait for the girls to file in first. Seldom did they seem to appreciate our sacrifice. They accepted their privilege as a matter of course.

Girls were more organized than we were. If I forgot to write down a homework assignment or lost it entirely, I could always call up Mary Bauer or Geraldine Hoyle. One of them would be home and able to tell me what it was we were supposed to do. Both were kind and helpful and I didn’t mind if they always went first, but some of other girls were annoying and it was easy to resent them. But it didn’t matter what I thought. They were girls and they always went first.

When I graduated from eighth grade, I went to a Catholic all-male high school and my sisters went to a Catholic all-female high school nearby. After graduation, young men my age were last in line again as Affirmative Action programs were getting started. Women and minorities were given preference over Caucasian males in hiring and promotion. Then we had to get in line for the draft during the Vietnam War. Women were exempt from that. They didn’t have to line up at all.

In those days there were demonstrations in which women demanded equal pay for equal work. I had no objection. In the kinds of jobs I was working at the time, women were getting the same low wages I was getting. I didn’t see any wage discrimination, but that’s not to say it wasn’t happening somewhere else.

When my first three children were girls, I was glad women were guaranteed at least as many opportunities as men were. With Affirmative Action and other developments, they were likely to get even more opportunities than men. They were born in the 1970s when girls were thought to be disadvantaged in schools so special programs were set up to assist them. Evidently they’ve been successful, inasmuch as girls’ performance is measured against boys’ performance at least. Girls are way ahead.

Most feminists pushing these special programs believed there were no differences between males and females beyond the obvious physical ones. We’re all the same, they insisted. They really believed this and still do. The only reason men achieved more than women was because the evil patriarchy conspired to keep women down. They insisted that if you raised girls the same as boys, they would turn out the same.

The most tragic result of this fallacious teaching is what happened to an unfortunate boy born an identical twin in 1965. When he and his brother were circumcised, his was botched. A woman using an electrical cauterizing device accidentally burned off his penis. His parents were persuaded by Dr. John Money of Johns Hopkins University that the boy could be raised as a girl just as easily as his twin brother would be raised as a boy. So the rest of his genitalia were removed in a sex change operation. He was raised as a girl and given hormone treatments during adolescence. In spite of socialization, hormones, the nurturing as a girl, he never adjusted. He didn’t want to play with dolls; he was prone to fighting; he peed standing up. Finally, he was told what really happened to him and he set out to reverse it. He had surgery again to reconstruct a penis and even married. Two years ago, at age 38, he killed himself. Dr. John Money is still writing and lecturing, however, about how there are no differences between males and females beyond the obvious physical ones.

At a recent in-service workshop in MSAD 72 called “With Boys in Mind,” two veteran elementary teachers offered data convincing most present that boys are in trouble. Nationally, boys make up 2/3 of students in special education and are more likely to be classified as hyperactive. Boys earn 70% of D’s and F’s and fewer than half of the A’s. Boys represent 90% of discipline referrals. When it comes to grades and homework, girls outperform boys in elementary, middle, high school, and even graduate school. Men make up less than 40% of college graduates these days. Boys are many times more likely to commit suicide than girls and women.

There were brain research findings indicating that girls mature earlier than boys. One woman at the workshop wondered aloud if men ever caught up. I told her we would eventually, but we die too soon. The average life span for women is several years longer than for men. Finally, men are allowed to go first - to the morgue.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bias in the Classroom

As a teacher who has been accused many times of conservative bias in the classroom, the stories caught my eye. Two teachers, one in Colorado and one in New Jersey, have been accused of teaching with a liberal bias during the last two weeks.

Both stories broke the same day on the Drudge Report. One teacher in Colorado, Jay Bennish, delivered a dizzying diatribe in his 10th grade world geography class that was recorded by a student using an MP3 player. The student provided the recording to a local radio talk show and it stirred up a hullaballoo. Rambling from topic to topic, Bennish claimed that capitalism was “at odds with human rights,” compared President Bush to Hitler saying there were “eerie similarities” between what Bush said in his State of the Union Address and “things that Adolph Hitler used to say,” and he claimed the United States was “probably the single most violent nation on earth.” Bennish was suspended with pay for a week pending an investigation.

The New Jersey teacher, John Kyle, taught a senior AP government class. With permission of his principal, Kyle was conducting a week-long “war crimes” trial of President Bush. Other teachers and students played roles of present and former government officials like Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld delivering different perspectives on Bush’s alleged war crimes. One “witness” is an Iraqi citizen claiming his family members were killed in a US bombing attack. Students researched their positions in preparation for the trial. Kyle’s assumption that there would be probable cause to try Bush as a war criminal seems dubious, but beyond that, his lesson plan allows for many points of view to be aired. If I taught in his school and were asked to participate, I would. Kyle’s school district has taken no action against him or his “trial.” That’s as it should be.

Anyone can listen to the MP3 recording of Bennish online. I did, and he was cranked up like a televangelist on steroids. It was obvious that Bennish believed passionately in his left-wing views. He tried to engage students, but it was mostly him. Capitalism would be a relevant theme in a world geography class in that it’s an economic system, but Bennish’s description of it was anything but balanced. Comparing Bush to Hitler and calling the US the most violent nation are questionable on their face and certainly obscure themes for a geography class. We can’t know if that 20-minute recording was representative of all Bennish’s classes, but if it was, he needs to be reigned in.

After a week-long investigation, Bennish was reinstated by school superintendent Monte Moses. “Some think Mr. Bennish should be fired. Others think he should be praised,” Moses said. “In my judgment, the answer is neither. Jay Bennish has promise as a teacher, but his practice and deportment need growth and refinement.” Fair enough. Bennish seems like a popular teacher. Several students demonstrated in his support after his suspension. Obviously an intense advocate for his views, that intensity is probably contagious in his classroom. The 28-year-old teacher promised to be more balanced in his approach to his subject.

Others students demonstrated in support of the student, Sean Allen, who recorded him. “I never wanted him fired,” Allen said. “I just wanted him to go back to teaching geography. Hopefully, he won’t be teaching the things he previously taught.”

Although Colorado’s Mr. Bennish obviously has a leftist bias, we can’t be certain about New Jersey’s Mr. Kyle, but I hope he has formed opinions about the war in Iraq. “Social studies” teachers - what we call history and geography teachers these days - should be passionate about their subjects and most of the teachers I’ve met are. If we’re thoughtful people and not robots, we’ve studied our subjects thoroughly and arrived at some conclusions about the major events in history - tentative conclusions at least. Therefore, we have biases in favor of some things and against others. We serve our students best if we disclose our biases and let them filter what we say accordingly. We’re bound to teach passionately what we believe passionately. Unless we’re talented actors, we won’t teach what we don’t believe as well. Students should be aware of that. As scholars, we must be thoroughly cognizant of arguments opposing our chosen positions and be able to articulate them competently if not compellingly.

Most complaints about me over the years have been from people who assume that I teach the same way I write, which I don’t. Nonetheless, I’ve been the subject of more than one investigation here in MSAD 72. It appears that both the Colorado and New Jersey school districts have handled their respective controversies properly and fairly. I’m happy to report that my district has handled questions about me fairly as well.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tougher Standards Needed

Ten years ago, Maine public schools outperformed Massachusetts public schools. Now, however, Maine has fallen behind Massachusetts. Why? According to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald: “Spending does not appear to be a factor. Maine in 2003 spent $9,521 per pupil when adjusted for regional cost differences, the seventh highest in the nation and about $1,000 per student more than Massachusetts.” So what is it then?
Evidently, it’s accountability, or lack thereof in Maine’s case.
Massachusetts passed a tough education reform law back in 1993 - the result of a very unlikely political alliance. Liberal Republican Governor William Weld teamed up with his former opponent, conservative Democrat John Silber and good-ole-boy, Boston-Irish political hack Billy Bulger, the Senate President. This unlikely troika got together and did something good; they bucked the state teachers’ union and forced graduating high school seniors to pass a statewide test to prove they could meet minimum standards in English and math by passing a test before getting a diploma. The teachers’ union howled, but the collective political influence of Weld, Silber and Bulger proved too strong for them. The graduation tests took ten years to phase in but by 2003, graduating seniors had to prove they had what used to be just an 8th-grade-level proficiency in English and math. Ninety percent passed the tests - more than almost anybody expected. Why? Because they had to if they wanted a diploma. They rose to the occasion.
In Maine, I remember that in 1995, then-governor Angus King wanted to require the same kind of testing for Maine’s graduating seniors. The teachers’ unions howled here too, but King couldn’t hold out against them. According to the article, “King acknowledges that it may have been a mistake to succumb to political opposition that forced him to compromise and abandon the idea of exit exams. ‘If you want to measure kids in math, why does Brunswick have to have a different test than Windham?’ he asked. ‘Isn't long division the same in both places?’” He was referring to policy Maine adopted which gave every school system the right to design their own “local assessments.” There was also a statewide test called the “Maine Educational Assessment Test” given in 4th, 8th, and 11th grades, but there were no consequences for students who failed it.
Most teachers I talked to back then were against Governor King’s high-stakes graduation tests, but I wasn’t. I got the feeling that if too many of their students were unable to pass minimum-competency graduation tests, they were worried about having to explain why those failing students got good grades in their classes. There was and is a reluctance to admit how many teachers dumb down curricula and inflate grades. Poor results on high stakes tests would shine a strong light on that and force its acknowledgment.
Back in 1988, I published the first column I ever got paid for, called: “Nobody Stays Back Anymore.” The Press Herald paid me $25.00 and I got positive feedback from veteran teachers all over the region. I described how students were passed along from grade to grade although it was clear that an increasing percentage of them had learned very little. That was almost two decades ago and it hasn’t gotten any better, in this state at least. Business owners who paid high property taxes (three quarters of which fund schools in Maine) complained of high school graduates without the language skills to fill out job applications. Who could blame them?
Since the Carter Administration, we’ve had a Department of Education in Washington. Republicans once tried to abolish it, but changed their minds. If the federal government has any reason for being in the education business at all, it should be to institute minimum competency exams in English, math, history and geography for graduating seniors nationwide. States could use them or not as they wished. But, wouldn’t you want to know how your local high school was doing compared to those in the rest of the country? There would be pressure at the state and local levels to use them, but it would be their choice, thereby preserving local control. The feds couldn’t dictate how to get students to pass the tests; that would be up to states or the local districts. All they would do is set a minimum standard. States could continue to develop assessments measuring how far beyond minimum their students get, but at least we’d know that possession of a high school diploma meant you could at least read, write, and do simple math.
If the US Department of Education can’t figure out the essentials of what students must know upon graduation, and then design a way to measure whether they know it or not, it should be abolished.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Melting Pot Redux

Born into a Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrat family, I was taught early about how the British oppressed the Irish for eight hundred years. For whatever was wrong with the Irish, the British were to blame. It was a convenient way for so-called Irish-Americans to look at the world because it wasn’t necessary to examine ourselves for any faults. Why should we when there was such a convenient scapegoat? That there weren’t any British in America wasn’t an obstacle to this world view because there were the descendants of British colonists here to criticize. We blamed the “Boston Brahmins” or the Yankees or the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who kept the Irish down. There was, no doubt, some discrimination. However, even when the Irish had virtually taken over Boston and elected mayor after mayor during almost the entire twentieth century, they still blamed the Yankees or the British for their problems and bragged about sending money to terrorists in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) to blow up Protestant pubs and British soldiers in Northern Ireland.
Gradually though, the Boston Irish assimilated into the great melting pot as they married Italians from the North End or moved out to the suburbs. After a while, most identified themselves as just Americans with no hyphen. When I moved from the Boston area to rural Maine thirty years ago, the “Protestant Ethic” still prevailed here - what dictionary.com calls: “a belief in and devotion to hard work, duty, thrift, self-discipline, and responsibility.” In other words, if something was wrong in your life, the first place you should look for a reason was in the mirror. It was the polar opposite of the “oppressed victim” mentality prevalent in the Democrat Party. Bit-by-bit, however, Maine morphed into a liberal Democrat state much like Massachusetts - ever ready to champion victim groups.
Victim mentality dovetails nicely with the newer, liberal Democrat ethic of “multiculturalism” which is quite different from the traditional melting pot model. Multiculturalism would encourage people to identify with their minority group rather than assimilate into the larger culture. Multiculturalism is a loose concept which seems to claim that all cultures are equal, but that allegedly oppressed cultures are more equal than others. The least equal of cultures would be the previously-dominant Yankee culture which established the Constitution and all the individual rights people in victim groups enjoy. Multiculturalists believe minority victim groups should not assimilate into a great melting pot, but should cherish and preserve whatever makes them different from everybody else.
Wikipedia defines multiculturalism as “the public policy for managing cultural diversity in a multiethnic society, officially stressing mutual respect and tolerance for cultural differences within a country's borders.” It’s official federal policy in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and it’s the prevailing ethic in humanities departments of almost every college and university in the western world. Critics of multiculturalism, including this writer, are called racist and xenophobic. Afraid of such labels, few spoke out against it, but that is beginning to change.
While not yet official government policy in the European Union, multiculturalism has certainly been the practice in western or “Old Europe.” It’s major flaws are exposed by fast-growing minorities of Muslim immigrants and their descendants in nearly every European city. At first, they were embraced by liberals as victim groups and granted “asylum,” but that’s wearing thin. It’s getting difficult for European liberals to maintain tolerance when Muslim minorities in their countries riot, burn cars, rape women, burn synagogues, torture Jews to death, kill fim directors, blow up trains and busses, and threaten Europe with September 11th style attacks because of a few cartoons. Muslim neighborhoods want to follow sharia (Islamic law) instead the laws of their adopted countries. European Muslims are a stridently intolerant minority in their attitudes toward women, homosexuals, Jews, and other minorities. It’s getting extremely awkward for liberals to celebrate that kind of multicultural diversity. How do you tolerate a culture that wants to destroy your way of life? Will the multiculturalists tolerate intolerance too?
Multiculturalists are beginning to realize that they shouldn’t have chucked the old American “Melting Pot” model. Their “cultural mosaic” model, and “salad bowl” model, and “celebrating diversity” models are all disintegrating with the onslaught of radical Islam all over the world. Several of Europe’s most liberal countries including Netherlands, France and Germany are taking steps to drastically cut, eliminate, or even reverse Muslim immigration.
It looks like the diversity celebration is almost over in Europe at least. Last call still a ways off here in the USA, but it’s coming.

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