Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Numbers

Haiti is in the news again, and as usual it's not for anything good. I feel a bit about this new story the way I did back in February 2010, when a certain woman from Idaho was arrested for stealing children in Haiti. We only get a certain number of column inches. Why do they always have to be filled with stories like this?

"This," this time, is the allegation that the Haitian government and NGOs exaggerated the death toll from the earthquake. Here is Time Magazine's article about this and here is the piece by Timothy Schwartz that Time quotes. While the Haitian government used figures like 230,000 and 300,000, the new report prepared for USAID says the actual number who died was between 46,000 and 85,000. (By the way, notice that that is still a huge range.)

While I am unhappy at the idea that officials would simply make up numbers (and we still don't know that for sure), I ask you to think about how things were in Haiti at that time. There were bodies stacked in the streets. Every government ministry had fallen down. Bodies were buried in mass graves without any kind of records being kept. Some bodies have still not been recovered from beneath rubble. The government was helpless in the face of the disaster and couldn't meet the most basic needs of the people; are we really going to criticize them because they couldn't do statistical analysis? When we talked about it back then, we always said, "We'll never know how many people died." And, USAID notwithstanding, we never will. Nobody even knew how many people were in the Port-au-Prince slums to start with; how do we know how many died? Schwartz's mention of NGOs and international organizations losing no one is entirely beside the point. People who have jobs with NGOs and international organizations tend to live in sturdier houses than the average member of the population.

And besides, in what universe is the number 46,000 (to take the lowest end) deaths ever preceded by the word only? When compared with 300,000, that may seem like a small number. But it's not. That many people died in a single event? What about the ones who died of injuries later; are they counted? And of course, what about the survivors who are still, more than 16 months later, living in inadequate shelter? Shouldn't we be focusing more on them than on quibbling over numbers of deaths?

Let's not use these new numbers to allow us to shrug and say, "Well, they lied. Obviously that earthquake wasn't a big deal, after all." Here's what Time has to say:
"The huge death toll and widespread destruction helped justify an international outpouring of aid for the impoverished Caribbean country, including $5.5 billion pledged during a March 2010 U.N. donor's conference."
While of course there are ongoing problems with aid and how it is administered, I would hate to see worthy projects not get funded because of this.

Every one of those people who died was an individual, a person who was loved by other people and who is mourned. We lost one student from our school and several of our kids lost parents. Every single one of us lost people we loved. Each one of those deaths mattered, mattered infinitely. Stalin said it best (and those are words you won't read on this blog very often): "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Cleaning Up

I've been cleaning up my room today, shutting it down for the summer. I'm about to go home for the day, and I have half an hour or so of work for the morning. I have to wait until then to have my walk-through anyway. All that's really left is covering everything with plastic to keep (some of) the dust off of it.

We made it. We got through. Now for the summer.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Friday: Love is a Babe

School is out. One thing I have been looking forward to, while grading the mounds of work, entering the grades, writing the comments, was writing a poem. It had been so long since I had written one, and yesterday I did.

I listened to this, Why Write?, today, after receiving it in my weekly NCTE email. It talks about how the best moments in life are when we communicate, and that writing is a way to do that. I write for many reasons, but that's one of them, the chance to communicate with other minds.

Isn't it amazing to read a poem written hundreds of years ago, or in another language, or by someone very different from you, and to find it still communicates with your mind?

Today I am posting a Shakespeare sonnet, written some four hundred years ago, that speaks to me today as I find my love for the people in my life growing stronger and deeper. I've used this one with middle school students, and I find they really appreciate it when you read the second last line in a certain way: "Love is a babe." Yes, yes it is.


Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer;
Yet then my judgement knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose millioned accidents
Creep in 'twixt rows and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp'st intents,
Divert strong minds to th'course of alt'ring things!
Alas, why, fearing of Time's tyranny,
Might I not then say, "Now I love you best"
When I was certain o'er uncertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
To give full growth to that which still doth grow.

I'm glad Shakespeare wrote this, and that I can read it today and connect with his mind. The poem I wrote yesterday wasn't in Shakespeare's league, but it communicates with other minds too. And that makes me happy.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

First Day

The last day of one thing leads to the first of another, and today is the first day of summer vacation. Officially, it really isn't; today is a teacher work day. I showed up dutifully on campus, and met my husband (who had gone in far earlier), who greeted me with the dreaded words, "Hi. You're not going to be happy with me." It turns out that a visiting organization needed a room for a seminar, and my husband had allowed my room to be elected. Since I can't do the work I had planned for today and tomorrow, I have been lounging and reading. Nothing very intellectual, either: Facebook, and a copy of People magazine (a friend sent me the commemorative edition from the Royal Wedding, and I thoroughly enjoyed it).

This afternoon I think I might take a nap.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Last Day

Today was the last day of school. We had our Eighth Grade Promotion this morning, and then we had a DVD for the kids, but most of them just hung out together, waiting to be picked up.

Tomorrow is a teacher work day, and I have a full day's work ahead of me shutting down my classroom, but I went ahead and pulled down my bulletin boards, and then sat looking around the bare room. What a year it's been. It feels like a great achievement to have just survived it, and almost a bonus if anybody learned anything. At the beginning of the year many of the kids were jumpy, panicking at sounds or vibrations caused by passing trucks. I sympathized because I was exactly the same. Some days they wanted the door open so they could make a quick getaway in case of an earthquake. Some were grieving huge losses; some had been under the rubble themselves. We were all fragile, our lives disrupted; we were finding new ways to live. Now we're certainly not "over" the earthquake, but the problems and drama of each day were more normal by the end of the year, more the way things used to be before January 12th, 2010. The speeches in Promotion mentioned that day and how it marked all of us, but the earthquake wasn't the focus; the kids were. Kids who, while crazy-making, are brimming with potential and are going to be fabulous adults in a few more years.

On their final quiz, I asked my students to tell me what they had written this year that made them the most proud, and their answers were wonderful to read. Some spoke of speeches they had made, some of poems that expressed who they really are in a way they hadn't done before, some of stories or profiles into which they'd put a lot of effort. Few mentioned grades; they were telling about what they were proud of, not what their teacher appreciated. The pieces they valued most were the ones that were most personal, which is exactly why I do Writer's Workshop. One talked about her earthquake piece, which, she said, was "engraved on my heart." Reading about their favorite books made me happy, too; there was so much variety, and so much excitement in their recounting of plot twists. One student talked about the "BFF feeling" her book had given her. (I love that! What teacher doesn't want students to have a book as a BFF?) On Tuesday I finished the read-aloud I was doing with my seventh graders, with about ten minutes to spare in our last class period together. I couldn't have made that work out so perfectly. (It was Peak, by Roland Smith, book #18 of the year for me.)

In general, this last couple of weeks contained many positive, encouraging interactions with kids, after a month or so that had been difficult. I'm ending this year the way I began it, loving my kids and hopeful about their future. Sure, many of them still have iffy punctuation (sorry, ninth grade teachers, I really tried; next year's eighth graders will still get some attention before you deal with them), and my middle schoolers have lots of growing up to do. But we made it through the year, our first post-earthquake year, and as I said goodbye to them and prayed for their summer, I thanked God for bringing me back to Haiti for this school year.

Pretty soon, I'll start thinking about next year; I'm already making my shopping list. But for right now, as I clear the debris in my room, cover my shelves with plastic, and put everything away, I'll be praising God for this year. We made it. He brought us through. I'm so grateful.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Poetry Friday

I'm awfully busy today, since it's the last full day of classes. I don't think I'm going to get around to a Poetry Friday post of my own, but fortunately other people did better. Go here for the roundup.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Reading Update: The Help

In her afterword to The Help (which was book #17 of the year), Kathryn Stockett quotes Howell Raines:
"There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism."
That's basically what this book is about: relationships between white families, but mostly the women and children, and their black house help in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. The good, the bad, and the very ugly. Stockett says:
"Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us....I am afraid I have told too little....What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s, I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity."
I can relate so well to Stockett's angst here, and I admire her courage in writing about the cruel, complicated world of her childhood the way she has, almost to the same degree that I admire Nadine Gordimer for writing the book July's People. I relate as a privileged, spoiled (and yes, bleeding heart liberal) white woman writing about Haiti, and feeling always that I tell too much and too little. Stockett uses the analogy of her mother: she says that she can complain about her mother, but nobody else had better try. For me that's complicated even more by being a foreigner and not even being able to call Haiti my mother the way she calls Mississippi hers. I relate as well as a person with a lovely, lovely lady who works in my home and whom I love like a sister. (I know, it sounds as though I am protesting too much, but it is really true.)

But enough about me. Let me say something about the book.

Skeeter Phelan is a member in good standing of the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi. Like every other white person in town, she was raised by a black maid, and this woman, Constantine, was the person she loved most in the world. When Skeeter went to college, Constantine disappeared, and Skeeter can't get anyone to tell her exactly what happened. There are lots of other things about Jackson life that are starting to confuse and disturb her, too, and this discomfort and her need to find out about how to clean houses for her newspaper job, lead her to begin talking to the help in her friends' homes. The book is told in Skeeter's voice and also in the voices of Aibileen and Minny, two maids. As I am thinking about the characters in this book, I realize what a great job Stockett did of showing us the whole gamut of Jackson society. Most of the people are presented even-handedly (although Hilly Holbrook doesn't seem to me to have any redeeming qualities and it's hard for me to understand how she and Skeeter ever got to be friends, let alone best friends). We see families who love their maids and treat them well, or at least as well as they can figure out how to, given the horrible attitudes which prevail in the town. There are others who treat their help in ways that are painful to read about. Aibileen takes care of children, and like Constantine did with Skeeter, she tries to raise them right, to compensate for the neglect and mistreatment they get from their mothers, to communicate to them that they are lovable the way they are.

This was a thoroughly engrossing book, full of memorable characters. I recommend it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Poetry Friday: J. Patrick Lewis

I was excited to hear last week that J. Patrick Lewis was the new Children's Poet Laureate. I was going to post about it this morning but Blogger wasn't cooperating. I just said goodbye to my seventh graders, and I can't remember all the eloquent things I was going to say, but I did want to link you to an interview at the Poetry Foundation site with Lewis. You can read that here. Here's a quote to whet your appetite:
"Great poetry is a circus for the brain. It’s ten pounds of excitement in a nine-pound bag. But children won’t know what that means unless we offer them the best. Soon, they’ll be asking for second and third helpings. Even though few children will become poets, poetry helps them realize that one of the most phenomenal gifts humans get free of charge is the English language. And there is nothing in any language more beautiful, more inspiring and thought-provoking than poetry."

At Lewis' own site, you can find some bookmark poems to print out and laminate. My favorite is very appropriate to the mosquito situation in my classroom:


keep a
trick pet
for you'll
she has

J. Patrick Lewis is going to be a great Children's Poet Laureate. He's an excellent choice.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Poetry Friday: Angels

In this post I shared two poems that asked angels questions. I said I was going to write my own poem asking angels questions, and I did. Here it is:

Questions for the Angel

Excuse me?
Guardian Angel?
I have some questions.

You know how people say
"Your guardian angel's been busy"
When you escape an earthquake
Or when lightning barely misses you?
Well, what about all those other people?
The ones who didn't escape,
The ones whom lightning struck?
Where were their angels?
On coffee break?
Do angels drink coffee?

And why, Mr. Guardian Angel,
Why aren't you enough for me?
Why do I need powerless human beings
When I have your muscly guardianship?
Why am I not satisfied by your cool angelic touch
Or the brush of your wings?

Speaking of wings, why can't I fly?
Sometimes, Angel, it would come in very handy;
Maybe you'd be less busy then,
Because it would be easier for me to dodge.
And maybe I could stumble less, be more graceful,
More like you, in fact, though only an earthly angel.

Do you feel anything, Angel?
You look impassive in the paintings,
Alabaster smooth and white,
Calm, unruffled, free of the storms
That shake me.
Is it that you know how things really are?
And if so,
Would you tell me, please?

You don't talk very much, do you, Angel?

Ruth, from thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

I asked if anybody else had an angel poem to share, and Janet sent these.

Denise Levertov's poem "St. Peter and the Angel" starts like this:

Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained--

unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening--
And along a long street's
majestic emptiness under the moon:

one hand on the angel's shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,
eyes open but fixed . . .

You can read the rest here.

And here's Steven Curtis Chapman's reminder that even though there may be lots of questions we want to ask angels, there are some things humans know that angels wish they did:

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.