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, November 28, 2007

Growth, Change, Awareness


When I was a boy I didn’t like onions. Didn’t like mushrooms or olives either, but now I like them all. Tastes change. Other things change with age too - like fears. I remember being struck by fear the first time I encountered a dead cat. I was walking alone along a stream bed hunting for frogs and turtles to catch when I smelled something bad. Looking around carefully for the source of the awful odor, I noticed the cat’s head with parts of its jaw and teeth exposed in a hideous expression. It must have been hit by a car on the roadway above where I had left my bike. I could feel the trauma of its death still hanging in the air. Maggots crawled under what fur remained on the rotting corpse. It looked and smelled horrifying and I climbed out of the gully in a panic. I had seen dead frogs, turtles and snakes often, but not a larger mammal like a cat. I had petted cats and now had had a close encounter with a dead one. It struck me hard that everything dies and that some day I would too. That’s what I feared.

We all know this at an intellectual level sure as we’re born, but we usually avoid thinking about it, especially when we’re young. I’d been to funerals for grandparents and seen them laid out in caskets, but with so much make-up on faces and hands folded unnaturally around rosary beads, they looked more like mannequins than humans. That cat delivered me death’s unvarnished reality at an emotional level.

While a college student I worked as an orderly at a Massachusetts state hospital on the second shift. It was a chronic-care facility and people didn’t get better and go home. They only left when they died. When one did, part of my job was to wash the body, attach a toe tag, wrap it in a shroud, and take it down to the morgue. My first week there I had three. Luckily I was partnered with an experienced orderly because I was freaked. After a few months though, I got used to it. I had taken care of some patients for months as they got closer to their deaths and sometimes I discussed the subject it with them. I played cribbage with them. I met their relatives. I fed them, lifted them into bed, changed them, joked with them. Some died serenely. Others were consumed by fear. The difference was in how they perceived their deaths. After they passed, it was plain to me that they still existed somewhere, just not in the bodies I knew. As I took their empty bodies to the morgue where the undertaker would pick them up, I realized they had ceased to be people - they were more like abandoned houses no one lived in anymore.

Death can still scare me, but not my own. What I fear is the pain I’ll feel if a loved one should die before I do. There’s nothing I can do about that potentiality, so when it intrudes I put it out of mind. After two and a half years on that orderly job, some of death’s mystery dissipated. Awareness that it’s a certainty for each of us doesn’t diminish life - just the opposite actually. It enriches life. I don’t want to know when death is coming, but I’m better when I live like it could come soon.

Out for a sunset drive in my truck the other night, my wife and I drove up to the top of a hillside cemetery in Waterford and parked. The sun had set and we looked down the hill irregular lines of stones with hills beyond in fading twilight. A full moon came up and the air was crisp. Being in a cemetery at night used to scare me but I’m comfortable with it now. I guess that’s because I know now that death isn’t the end. It’s only the end of a stage and the beginning of another. Time was I had doubts about whether that was really true, but those doubts are gone now. I don’t feel the need to convince others because we all have to come to it in our own way. So don’t worry: I’m not going to preach. I only mention it because it changes the way I look at things - not just death, but almost everything. I don’t doubt anymore that there will be something beyond, but sometimes I forget it. Sometimes for hours I forget it, but then one thing or another will remind me. It might be a baby, a sunset, gently-falling snow, a smile - many different things can spark me to know it again. The duration of those forgetful periods is getting shorter. I hope there’ll come a time this side of the grave when the awareness is constant.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lacking Generosity



Grandpuppies and grandkitties. When aging baby boomers talk about the newest generation, that’s the lament I’m hearing from many. They wish they could take care of grandchildren for a weekend when their grown-up children go away, but there aren’t any grandchildren because their grown-up sons and daughters aren’t producing any. Instead, they raise dogs and cats, so they ask their boomer parents to watch their pets for them when they go to Bermuda or Cancun, or wherever. That’s what it has come to. It’s one unforeseen result of the fervent boomer belief that our planet is overpopulated.

Boomers grew up during the fifties when families produced a lot of children. When their turn came, however, they wanted fewer children than their “Greatest Generation” parents raised. Was it because birth control became more widely available? Must be a factor since they were certainly having sex often enough. This they proclaimed to the world as their “sexual revolution.” They separated sex from reproduction and family life, claiming marriage and family were too constricting. The institutions which had held society together for millennia were “oppressive.” “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one[s] you’re with.” Opposite sex? Same sex? Both? Didn’t matter. Boomers “liberated” themselves. They insisted it was all to the good. They still do in spite of mountains of contrary evidence. The Democrat Party platform reflects their “values.”

In spite of birth control, all that sex resulted in many pregnancies. “Liberated” feminists insisted they had a constitutional right to abortion and convinced a liberal majority on the US Supreme Court of this. Boomers would abort the children they didn’t want and many would insist that government (meaning people other than them) pay for the ones they did want. Democrats called it the “War on Poverty.” Forty years hence they say “It Takes A Village” to raise a child. It’s the same concept though. Fathers and Mothers aren’t important anymore. They would get rid of “Mothers’ Day” and “Fathers’ Day,” claiming such terms are “sexist.” They insist gender roles are artificial but homosexuality is natural. Government knows what is best for kids, not parents. How will government pay for all this? Raise taxes on the “rich” or course. The rich are defined as people other than them.

Not all boomer-raised children swallow that entire philosophy. They avoid children because raising kids is very expensive, requiring a lot of work and enormous sacrifice of time and emotional energy. They pursue a lifestyle in which kids would just be a drag. If they should get lonely, it’s much easier to get a dog or a cat. They can be left alone all day without a babysitter. On extended vacations, they can be boarded somewhere or left with friends or with their boomer parents. If pangs of guilt about their refusal to reproduce should intrude, they can justify their selfishness claiming they’re conserving resources and shrinking their “carbon footprint.” Their “green” lifestyle is saving the earth. They’re doing homage to Gaia. They’re preserving habitat for other organisms by not reproducing themselves.

Aging liberal boomers should be rejoicing that their children are living out their philosophies, but the ones I’ve talked to don’t seem to be. Rather, they seem sad. They feel they’re missing out on something and they are, of course. Western civilization’s advances have enabled them to live longer lives, but they can’t spend those extra years with the grandchildren if their children aren’t producing any. Similar things are happening in Japan where doll manufacturers are now making artificial, robotic dolls which function as surrogate grandchildren for the grandchildless. I’m not kidding.

Population in Europe is declining too. They’ve increased immigration from Muslim countries to the south to compensate, but that is presenting another set of problems and a backlash has begun against it in Holland, Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany. Europe’s population is aging and there are fewer young people to support the old folks because the generation in between hasn’t generated much. Liberal European retirement benefits cannot be sustained much longer.

Lamenting this situation with a Spanish priest I met in Jerusalem last May, I asked him why he thought young Europeans or Americans were not having children. His answer was simple and succinct: “They lack generosity,” he said. I had been inclined to discuss the subject further but I paused. He was right. It was that simple. When all is said and done, that’s what it comes down to. The “It Takes a Village” to raise a child view is misleading. What it really takes to raise a child is generosity and self-sacrifice, so let’s just say it out loud: Village or no village, today’s young people don’t have what it takes.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Cherishing Victimhood


“Well, the cowboys beat the Indians again,” said Rick Doyle, governor of the Passamaquoddy Reservation near Eastport, Maine. He believes Maine voters discriminated against Indians by voting down their second effort to open a casino. “Every time we propose something, we get put down. It feels to me that we continue to be oppressed by the dominant culture.” (Portland Press Herald 11-8-07)

We’ve been hearing it a long time now. Indians are victims. White people took their land and destroyed their way of life. They’re a separate nation within our nation. They receive the benefits of being US citizens as well as maintaining certain other rights the rest of us don’t have like fishing, hunting, educational scholarships and opening casinos. They’re entitled to special treatment.

My wife is half Abenaki. Her mother’s ancestors were Indians from the reservation at St. Francis, Quebec, formerly known as Odonak. My children are one-quarter Abenaki with genealogy records to prove it. One of them learned that she could go to graduate school on scholarship if she could be officially admitted to the “tribe,” so she pursued it. Abenaki tribal headquarters are in Swanton, Vermont near the Canadian border, so she called and wrote to them repeatedly. April, the woman who was chief, was never able to come to the phone and never answered her mail either. After months of this, my daughter and I drove to Swanton with all her paperwork after assurances that the chief would be there on a certain day.

Headquarters were in something resembling an old laundromat. Unused computer stations lined the walls and long tables in the middle. People were playing cards at the tables and smoking so much it was difficult to breathe. Amber stains from years of burning tobacco covered walls and ceiling. The computer stations were piled with papers, dust and other detritus. And, wouldn’t you know it, the head woman wasn’t there. She was out checking an archaeological site at an expanding road project nearby, we were told. We drove out to the site but we couldn’t find her. We spoke to archaeologists from the University of Maine working the site and they were interesting, but they hadn’t seen the head Indian lady either. Back at the headquarters again the chief still among the missing, we were assured that the tribe wanted to do everything right. They had applied to the US Government for official tribal recognition (so they could open a casino I suggested, though they denied it) and they wanted to be very careful. They would examine my daughter’s genealogy records and get back to her, they said, but we knew they wouldn’t. To admit another member would mean a smaller slice of the casino pie for each of them. We knew they would go back to smoking, playing cards and making excuses. My daughter eventually gave up.

The Indians as victims rhetoric is getting old. I’m tired of hearing it and, judging from last week’s vote, the reservoir of white guilt in the rest of Maine is running out too. The day after the vote though, I heard someone read the result and lament their plight, saying: “Well, we took all their land.” I responded that I didn’t know what he might have done, but I didn’t take land from anyone. Whatever happened more than a hundred years ago is history. No white people alive today took land away from Indians. None of their fathers or grandfathers did either. It’s time to move on.

Life is difficult. Of that we can be sure. It’s more difficult for some than others, but nobody really escapes. We’re dealt a hand in life and we have to play it out. Whining about our cards doesn’t get us anywhere. As long as we have equal opportunity to play them out, how we do it is up to each of us as individuals. We have nobody but ourselves to blame for what we do. We should help each other along the way as much as we can, but we must realize that we can’t help people who aren’t willing to do the work necessary to help themselves.

According the November 8th Press Herald article by Josie Huang:
There are plans to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Passamaquoddy Bay, and strong interest in harnessing tidal waters and the wind for energy production ventures. But the tribe has focused for nearly 15 years on getting a gambling facility, and the latest setback only reinforced nagging suspicions that voters were discriminating against the tribe . . .

Same old - same old. The energy projects sound too much like work. Much easier to let some out-of-state outfit come in and build a casino in the Indians’ name so tribe members can sit back, collect the revenues and whine about what victims they are.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Vouchers Please

It’s my misfortune to have been a public school teacher during more than three decades when public education has been in decline. The reasons are too voluminous to account for here, but I’ll point out two: increased power of teachers’ unions and increased intervention by big government.

The teachers’ unions make it so expensive to get rid of bad teacher that administrators usually just try to just work around them. One report claims it costs an average of $200,000 in legal fees to fire someone if the union contests it. How can a principal build an effective team if (s)he can’t get rid of deadwood? Under most contracts, the only easy way to get rid of a teacher is through the RIF process - Reduction In Force. If a budget is cut or if student enrollment declines, teachers can be laid off, but administrators still don’t have the option of laying off dysfunctional teachers. It has to be “last hired, first fired.”

Then the federal government enters the picture and mandates that local districts spend more and more on students who don’t function well. Trouble is, many slow learners for whom this spending was originally intended over thirty years ago are being dropped from services. They get help in their early grades, but then they’re tested again in middle school and even though they’re still struggling, regulations say they’re operating at the level they’re capable of and they’re declared ineligible for services. Meanwhile, students who are quite capable but who won’t function for whatever reason, receive most of the help. They get an increasing share of services while many slow learners are cut loose to fend for themselves. Regular classroom teachers are expected to tailor their curricula to slow learners who have been reclassified as “low normal.” At the same time, they must put up with the presence of the others who can work but won’t and they must try to keep bright, motivated students interested - all in the same room at the same time. Educational “experts” insist this can be done if teachers receive training in “differentiation.” One result of this is the grade inflation prevalent at nearly every level of education.

As in so many other social programs since the 1960s, millions and millions of our tax dollars are spent to subsidize dysfunction in public education. Why should we be surprised when it increases? Such students learn that the less they do for themselves, the more someone will step in and do it for them. It’s called “learned helplessness” and it has a pronounced effect on the atmosphere of a class. Such kids do nearly nothing for themselves because they’ve learned that there are essentially no consequences for drifting along. They’re passed along year after year. Few ever stay back anymore because the “progressive” experts insist it does them no good. And, they insist that students be grouped heterogeneously - that is, the functional ones are in the same classes as the dysfunctional ones. This way, a whole class is held back rather than just the students who refuse to learn. This condition is most pronounced in middle school, because in high school students may choose advanced courses after the first year and the many dysfunctional students drop out along the way. The “experts” are afraid of grouping students according to their ability and their willingness to do the work necessary to learn, because bright, motivated students would progress so much that the gap between the functional and dysfunctional would become a chasm and attract scrutiny.

The teachers’ unions are the biggest constituents of the Democrat Party and major donors as well. With their pronounced leftist bias, they push the party to port and are largely responsible for bringing Planned Parenthood sex education programs and homosexual activists into public schools with all the accompanying propaganda. Students down to kindergarten level are exposed to it. What’s going on at Portland, Maine’s King Middle School lately - prescribing birth control to middle schoolers is a good example of how far that envelope is being pushed.

Whatever money is left over in teachers’ union coffers after contributing to Democrat candidates is used to fight voucher initiatives in whatever city or state they might arise. The unions know that if low and middle income parents had a choice about where to send their children to school, it wouldn’t be the local public school for many. With the choices vouchers would offer, the enormous political power of the teachers union monopoly would be smashed and public schools would have to compete for students. Unions insist that voucher initiatives would “take money away from public schools,” but one wonders what kind of fuzzy math they use to make those calculations. It costs an average of over $10,000 per year for each student in public schools. Voucher initiatives which the unions have defeated over and over call for less than half that amount to be spent for students to go to private schools. Parents would kick in the rest. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that vouchers would leave more money for public schools, not less.

In spite of all this, my career has provided much reward because I’ve had the freedom to deliver my curriculum the best way I can and it’s been my privilege to work with almost three thousand Maine children, most of them terrific kids. Also, I know that although union power is at its greatest right now, cracks are beginning to form. Utah's legislature approved a voucher initiative and it was signed by the governor. Teachers' unions pushed through a petition forcing a referendum, outspent the proponents, and defeated it at the polls yesterday. New York City is considering one too. Eventually it's going to happen somehere and then spread, but probably not until after I retire.

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