Don’t Give Us Your Huddled Masses by Christina Knowles

Anti-Immigrant2

Recently, I have witnessed many angry outbursts on social media regarding the approximately 100,000 unaccompanied immigrant children pouring over the border, originating from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, choosing to leave their families and risk the dangers of traveling alone to cross the border in search of hope and safety. These children, who are fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland, turn themselves in to American immigration authorities and beg for help. But apparently, numerous Americans, many of whom claim to be pro-life, refuse compassion to these starving, freezing, and abused children, and just want them immediately deported—sent back to the violence and chaos from whence they fled. I do not understand this curious and callous lack of common decency and compassion for these suffering children.

A few weeks ago, a friend posted this on his wall: “I am ashamed that SO MANY Texans will argue that a fetus is a living human and deserves to live a full life. But when a little ACTUAL FOREIGN kid shows up on your doorstep. All of the sudden you find every excuse as to why you can’t take care of it.” This caught my attention because I have always wondered about this particular paradox myself.

Before I had a chance to chime in, a person, whom I do not know and who will remain anonymous, responded, “But it’s ok for some bimbo who can’t get her shit together and get on BC or keep her legs shut to have multiple abortions. In some cases these late term abortion babies are born alive and left to die. That’s so f—ing sad. Your [spelling was not corrected] right I’m not taking care of a little American or foreign child. I did not make that choice to have sex and create them. In the form of taxes you could say I already do take care of them. People are put in jail for animal abuse and it’s ok to murder someone you never gave a chance to live.”

Apparently, she wanted to prove his point. For some reason, many people in the pro-life movement only seem to advocate for the lives of unborn children, which, forgive me, strikes me as pro-birth, or even anti-abortion, but not pro-life. I, personally, don’t think one should label oneself pro-life, unless one is also interested in respecting all life, protecting the dignity of all living beings, having compassion on them, and doing one’s best to elevate their situation out of suffering. Unfortunately, these remarks and lack of concern for anyone except unborn fetuses are typical. Fetuses may, indeed, be human beings who have the right to live, but because another human being’s health and well-being is also involved, abortion is a complicated issue, but the question of whether or not to help these child refugees should not be complicated at all.

Most people who hold a hard line against illegal immigrants, in this case, more properly identified as refugees, do so because they fear that sharing our resources with others will cause our own people to go without. However, “the irony with today’s anti-immigrants is that they are themselves descendants of uninvited immigrants who came from countries lacking in opportunity a few hundred years before” (Headbloom). And although the angry and indignant reaction of those in opposition to any humanitarian aid for these children is based in selfish instinct, I suppose this is somewhat understandable. It will require sacrifice on our part. However, if we are to be the leaders of the free world we say that we are, then we need to set a humanitarian example. “The US is constantly insisting that countries around the world accept refugees. Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan are all accepting millions of Syrians, for example. They are much less equipped to do so based on their economies and their size in comparison to the numbers arriving,” according to Brenna Daldorph, journalist for France 24. Aren’t we, at least, willing to live up to the humanitarian standards we expect from others?

But beyond our reputation, I would like these people to consider that, both personally, and as a nation, our most valuable possessions are our character and compassion, and if we are able and willing to coldly refuse help to those who cannot help themselves, especially children, who through no fault of their own, flee horrific conditions for the chance at a better life—or any life at all, then we have nothing worth preserving anyway.

How soon we forget our own history and what this country has long represented. America has always been a nation of immigrants, and we used to be proud of it. We visit the Statue of Liberty and read the beautiful words inscribed there:

Copyright 2011. Jake Bowen & Alan Headbloom.
Copyright 2011. Jake Bowen & Alan Headbloom.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus)

And we are moved and proud. But we have no reason for this pride any longer because too many of us don’t care about the huddled masses, the suffering, the starving. And why? Because we want to keep everything for ourselves. We don’t want to lose what we have and become like them. But by doing so, by protecting ourselves from them, we have become something far worse. We are not even worthy of them or of our own heritage. If this is who we’ve become, if this is who we will be, then we truly have lost the best of who we once were.

As Americans, we need to once again become the nation worthy of being that “beacon of light,” that “shining city on the hill,” the country that stands against tyranny, protects the weak and downtrodden, and offers comfort and shelter at least as often as it wields its mighty force and influence. Like my friend who originally posted that he was ashamed, I don’t want to be ashamed of America anymore. I want to be proud, proud to be a citizen of a country who lives up to the lofty ideals of our forefathers, even if it costs us something. The price of protecting these children, we can afford. It is much more expensive not to; it will cost us everything, at least everything that matters—our character and our ideals.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Sources:

The War on Teachers by Christina Knowles

hands_bars_prison_jailBy now I’m sure everyone has heard that eleven Atlanta teachers have been convicted and sentenced on racketeering and other charges associated with conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests. This scandal shocked the nation and teachers for different reasons. While the nation shook their heads in disgust at the dishonest actions of those entrusted with the education of their children, teachers nodded in understanding—I don’t mean to say that they condone their behavior in any way, but we certainly understand it.

If you haven’t heard, eleven teachers apparently changed the answers on student standardized tests and passed them off as student work. The failing school where they worked reveled in the jump in student achievement, and when they were caught, all the major news outlets attributed their motivation to bonuses and incentives—but immediately, I was skeptical. There is no way any teacher would risk losing his career, punishment by the law, his ethics, and waste years of education for accolades and a bonus.

It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, this was not likely the motivation. In her April 1, 2015 Answer Sheet blog, she attributed their actions to “pressure to meet certain score goals at the risk of sanction if they failed” (Strauss PG 1). This might sound ridiculous to anyone who is not a public school teacher, but every year incredible pressure to outscore the year before is placed on teachers who are threatened with losing their jobs or having their schools shut down based on these scores.

I know what you’re thinking—Why don’t they just focus on doing a better job teaching? For an American school teacher in today’s society, meeting the impossible and ever-growing demands of this thankless job is not even remotely possible. Meeting the minimum requirements of a public school teacher demands a 14-16 hour day, and in reality, teachers could work round the clock and never catch up with what “needs” to be done.

Most of a teacher’s day involves actually teaching in the classroom, then meeting one-on-one with students, contacting parents, attending meetings, and copying the material they stayed up until midnight the night before researching and writing. Every night and weekend consists of grading hundreds of papers, lesson-planning, reading and researching for future lessons, and contacting any parents that they ran out of time to contact during the day. Maybe, if there is any time left over (yeah, right), they will analyze data and make plans on how to reach individual students who are struggling. An American high school teacher today has between 150 to more than 200 students to reach individually.

Today’s students are not the students of yesteryear, further complicating the job of the teacher. Today’s students have had it drilled into them that everything is the teacher’s responsibility. If they are not learning, then the teacher needs to adjust the way he teaches. If it is hard, then the teacher needs to make it easier. If he is failing, then Mom and Dad need to set up a meeting with the administration and give the teacher more responsibilities, such as typing up notes, modifying tests, and creating lots of alternate assignments to make sure the child succeeds, even though these accommodations don’t result in anything except a meaningless diploma—and lower test scores. Today’s students are allowed to be disrespectful in class and disrupt the learning of those who are trying with very little, if any, consequences for their actions. The teacher has no power to enforce detentions or any other punishment, and with the implementation of Standards Based Grading, students receive no negative consequences for ignoring homework. Sure, they will fail the test for lack of practicing their skills, but they can just take an easier, modified version of it after they Google the answers. If a teacher won’t allow this, Mom will set up a meeting. Maybe she will even get that teacher fired. And this does not even take into account attempting to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty, violence, and apathy with which some students deal on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, with every new requirement, with every new impossible expectation, worn out, stressed teachers continue to try and meet every demand for two reasons: They actually care about the kids, and they spent years preparing and doing this job and don’t want to throw it all away and start a new career. If only I can make it to retirement and collect my meager public employee pension, they think, I can just substitute teach, because even though they love the kids and the content, they only have so much to give.

Combine this with a struggling economy, student loan debt, and medical care for their acquired stress-related illnesses, and demoralized, unappreciated, and harangued teachers just may be beaten down enough to compromise their ethics and cheat when threatened by demanding administrators and superintendents to deliver the scores or be fired.

According to Strauss, this was likely the case when Atlanta public school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who died shortly before the trial of the eleven teachers under her supervision, refused “to accept anything other than satisfying targets [that] created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education” (PG 2). Hall and her top administrators did not threaten job loss just once before the crime was committed. This atmosphere of fear and oppression continually built over a period of several years to the point that when the cheating began, it was encouraged through fear and reward. Teachers who blew the whistle were quickly fired, while teachers who cooperated were awarded with praise and bonuses, in effect, creating a hostile environment of coercive practices by those in charge (PG 2).

One of these eleven teachers avoided jail time by making a plea deal and giving up the right to appeal, another managed to receive weekends in jail, and the rest received up to seven years in prison (Calamur PG 1). It is unbelievable to me that they would receive any jail time! College students who cheat on tests don’t even fail a class anymore, but we are going to throw the book at a few emotionally broken-down teachers trying to keep their jobs?

Of course, Hall is not here to take the responsibility, although surely she bears more of the guilt than any of the teachers, but in my estimation, the true responsibility for this disaster of public education lies with the government. Every year there are new rules and responsibilities to contend with, new threats of losing funding, new batteries of endless tests, all which serve only to further corrupt and destroy the system of education for our children. Why are they not on trial? Why are they not held responsible for declining scores because they are the true cause. They started this wrecking ball rolling in the path of every public school in America, and teachers and students had better get out of the way because it doesn’t appear to have any intention of stopping. Why should it, when teachers make such a convenient scapegoat?

So, yes, I understand why they did it. I get it. And I don’t think they deserve to spend one day in jail. In fact, I think they should sue their district and the government for creating such a hostile work environment and coercing them to cheat (I won’t even call it a crime because that is so ridiculous). These are not criminals. These are the used and abused teachers who loved our kids, who year after year, gave everything they had and more to help them succeed, and we said it wasn’t enough.

Although I work in an honest district where the strictest protocols for testing are followed, and no one even hints at altering tests, we still feel the ever-growing pressure from the state, and so do our students. The more tests we have to give, the more, understandably, the students rebel. During our last testing session, half of my students drew pictures instead of answering the questions or just held one letter of the keyboard down and filled the page with gibberish. They don’t care anymore. They want to be more than a test score. They want to do more than take tests. They want to get excited about something that inspires them to learn.

Luckily, I teach in a district with a principal who is supportive and understanding, yet even as this is the case, we, as teachers, feel the pressure. So, would I ever be tempted to change answers? Cheat on a standardized test? Fortunately, I am not even tempted. Not because it is such a detestable crime, not because there is no one telling me to, but because I just don’t care anymore. That’s what this system has done to me. Much like the students, I don’t care if they pass or fail a stupid state test. I do, however, care about them. I care that they learn to think and to communicate. I care that they find a passion and pursue it, something that will inspire them to passionately investigate.

So, that’s what I teach them, and if my kids fail the tests, then they can call me a bad teacher and fire me. So what? I am a teacher. A public school teacher is highly employable because they are skilled and intelligent and capable of working long hours in the worst conditions. We put up with abuse, disrespect, and blame while never letting it change our love for the students or how we interact with them. Anyone would be smart to hire a former teacher because we are highly educated, critical thinkers, creative, good communicators, great at thinking on our feet, and excellent multi-taskers. Go ahead and fire me for low test scores and bad evaluations based on impossible tasks. You’d be doing me a favor. The only thing that worries me is who will replace us? Who will they get to teach our precious children when they have driven the last of the good teachers out of the profession?

We can say these eleven teachers were bad, and we are lucky to be rid of them, but our system made them in to what they became, and then turned them into yet another knife to stab at the profession. But I won’t make them the scapegoat. It’s time to stop blaming teachers, or we won’t have any teachers to blame. –Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2015

Sources

Calamur, Krishnadev. “Jail Terms Handed To Most Atlanta Teachers Convicted In Cheating Scandal.” The two-way: BREAKING NEWS FROM NPR. NPR.org. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015

imgbuddy.com. Photo of jail hands. web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Strauss, Valerie. “How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized tests.” Answer Sheet. The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

Living for Breaks by Christina Knowles

To-do listToo often being a teacher means living for breaks. Fall break, spring break, winter break, and summer break—that’s when we will begin living again.

In the life of the teacher, particularly high school English teachers, but also for most kinds of teachers, breaks mean catching up on everything from cleaning the house to exercising. There simply is no time during school to do anything other than school work.

I’ve tried to change. Every year I make new promises to myself about how I’m going to erect boundaries and take time for friends, family, and personal interests, and every year, I get trapped in the I’ll-get-to-that-on-break lie. Here’s the problem. By the time break comes, I have accumulated so many things on my list of catch-up-on-break items that I can’t possibly get through half of them, and thus, I am sometimes even more stressed out over breaks.

For example, I have not properly cleaned my house in over a month, I have piles of mending to complete, piles of stuff to organize, the paint is chipping—all the paint—on everything, and things are breaking and wearing out all around me. I quit exercising about three weeks ago to catch up on grading and to get more sleep that I lost out on while grading papers and attending nighttime parent-teacher conferences. I quit meditating several weeks ago on Sunday mornings to plan for the coming weeks of school and to write tests I had to administer before the end of the quarter. I quit cleaning the house to grade papers before parent-teacher conferences. I put away the book I was writing when school started and haven’t touched it since. My poetry collection is waiting for me to finish the cover, but I said I’d do it over break. My fish are gasping for breath in want of fresh water, and my dog forgot what it was like for his mother to walk him. I have so many pictures on iPhoto that I’m not allowed to take another photo on my phone, but I haven’t had time to save them somewhere else. I need appointments for my teeth, my car, and my body. My hair needs cutting, I haven’t had a manicure in six months, and my summer to-do list isn’t even halfway completed, and now it’s fall break.

When you are a teacher and everyone knows you have break, they naturally assume that now you will not be neglecting them—at least for two weeks. Your friends, your family, your kids, your husband, and your dog all expect that now you will finally spend time with them. And I want to—very much. However, after I schedule them into my calendar, the rest of the list looks pretty hopeless.

Of course, there were even a few school things that I thought I could nonchalantly slip into my fall break schedule—re-reading the chapter I’m teaching after break, writing a new unit, finding an example paper for that assignment the students are finding difficult. Why did I think I’d have time to do that over break? Because there isn’t time during my workday, or even in the evening when I finish grading.

Some may wonder how I find time to write this blog? I find time because if I don’t write, I will surely lose my mind, and then I will never finish my list.

On a positive note, I’m really glad I realized the futility of catching up on things so early in my break. Maybe now, I will be able to cast aside my hopes and expectations and actually relax. I’m not sure I can, but admitting the truth is the first step toward tearing up the list. We’ll see. Maybe I can just put everything on my winter break list because who needs to spend time with family celebrating Christmas? Maybe I’ll start living for retirement.—Christina Knowles

Originally posted in 2013

Photo source: pieceofmindcounselling.com

Democratic Socialism and the American Dream by Christina Knowles

Bernie-Sanders-Defines-Democratic-Socialism-not-a-dirty-word-2016-presidential-campaign-election--e1441232881750-620x442NOTE: This blog was originally posted December 5, 2014, but I decided to repost it after seeing various attacks on Democratic Socialism after the Democratic debate with Bernie Sanders. In the days following the debate, I’ve seen Democratic Socialism ignorantly compared to Nazi Fascism over and over. Also, please note that the abolition of Capitalism is not the goal of Bernie Sanders or of many supporters in America, but just to decrease the power of the corporate elite while empowering and creating a safety net for the poor and middle class, which will strengthen our nation as a whole, as well as being the moral thing to do.

Lately I have been so discouraged by the sentiments expressed by people around me regarding those in need. I consider myself a liberal, but I find myself feeling more like a moderate in some ways when I hear the views of those around me. It seems most people I am around are either much more liberal in their views of the causes and plight of the poor or much more conservative and cynical in their views than I am. It occurs to me that that is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals—conservatives are too cynical and liberals are too idealistic. I think I’d rather be idealistic.

Often at work, surrounded by conservatives, I hear the poor discussed with such contempt. They say those who utilize social programs, who depend on government programs, are lazy and expect others to take care of them without lifting a finger to help themselves. This infuriates me. Do they realize how easy it is to lose everything and become homeless? How some people don’t have a support system in place if trouble arises through no fault of their own?

But then I went to a community discussion group comprised mostly of liberals and heard the opposite extreme, that it is never their fault, that no one chooses to live off of welfare, that everyone would rather work and take care of themselves. They have no responsibility for the hand life has dealt them. And I find myself annoyed with this thinking as well.

I think that it is often through no fault of their own that people fall on hard times and cannot pull themselves up and out without help, but I also think there are people who take no ownership of their problems and who would rather not work, but collect a check instead of working hard for inadequate wages they cannot live on anyway.

It seems to me that to really put a dent in the problem of poverty and homelessness in America, we have to decide what kind of people we want to be, reevaluate our values. This was once a country that promoted the idea that regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth, everyone had the same opportunities to succeed and raise his station in life. It has always been a myth that we have the “same” opportunity, but at least there was an opportunity. The truth is that every year, it becomes harder and harder to move up to a higher income class if not impossible. But forget moving up. We are struggling to stay in the one we are in. Every year we lose citizens from the middle class to the poor. We aren’t raising our stations; we are lowering them. Most of us are one catastrophe or illness away from poverty.

Look, I work hard to earn a living when I would rather stay at home and write poetry, so I know what it feels like to resent seeing someone standing on the corner collecting money for nothing. I know what it feels like to not be able to afford to go the doctor because I didn’t have enough in my account for the co-pay, but I made too much money to qualify for any assistance. For years I gave an extra few dollars on my utility bill to contribute to their Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), but one month, when I was a single mom and couldn’t afford to pay my utility bill, they refused to help because I made too much money. I don’t begrudge help to those who are truly in need at all, but we need to do more to stop the middle class from sliding into that position. Sometimes it is easier to give up and be indigent and qualify for aid, rather than struggle as the working poor with no help.

When we get past the idea that poverty could never happen to us, then we may be more willing to support social programs to help others. When did we become so selfish? We won’t even help others unless we believe that we may need help someday. Of course, that is a gross generalization, but why such disdain for the poor among conservatives? I think it is a mixture of cynicism and a love for rugged individualism.

I also get really tired of hearing that liberals just want someone to take care of them. Well, I’m a liberal who hasn’t been out of work in thirty years. I am the hardest working person I know, putting in hours and hours of overtime every week with no compensation. That’s right, I’m a teacher, and I have never in my entire life expected something for nothing. In fact, I can’t stand the idea of someone else supporting me. I want my independence, and I like knowing I can pay my own way. But I also realize that life happens. I am not immune to the misfortunes of this world. I could get sick, unable to work. I could get laid off and be unable to find another job. I could lose my house and be out on the streets. I could get in a position where I couldn’t take a shower or get a clean set of clothes to even look for a job. When you’re homeless, what do you even put down for an address or a phone number on your application?

If you don’t have a support system in place, like family and friends who could give you a place to stay until you get on your feet, what would you do? I can hear the conservatives now. “There are shelters, resources, places to help them out.” Every time I hear this, Ebenezer Scrooge’s voice comes to me, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Sure there is help, but do you know what it would take for a homeless person to take advantage of them? We have no decent transit system, and all these services are separate and far apart. How would you even find out about them? Pull out your iPad and Wi-Fi? I hear the response, “They could do it if they wanted to. They have to help themselves.” I kind of agree with this, but on the other hand, if you’ve been beat down by the system and life in general, will you even have the wherewithal to take on such a task? It would seem overwhelming.

Sure, I think, if it was me, I would pull myself out of it, but no one really knows how bad it is, and how we would react until put into that position.

So it seems to me that conservatives are overly harsh and cynical about the poor, and liberals are overly magnanimous and idealistic about them. What if there is an in-between? What if we expect them to help themselves, but we provide the jumpstart for them to do it? What if we made it more profitable to work even an unskilled, dead-end job than to collect welfare? But conservatives don’t even want to raise the minimum wage. They’re asking for people to go on welfare.

I am a Democratic Socialist, so most people think that means that I want everyone to have a free handout, take what you earned and give it to someone else. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In Socialism there are no free rides, no sitting back, doing nothing and collecting a check. Everyone works or they don’t get to participate in the system.

Here’s a scenario: I lose my job as a bookkeeper because I am no good at math. I don’t want to get kicked out of my house, and I like to eat, so I look for a job. The only experience I have is as a bookkeeper, but all my references say I’m not suited to this kind of work. No matter where I apply, no one will give me a job. I apply for government assistance. I qualify and am given a work assignment in a clothing factory that provides clothing to prisoners and orphans. I discover that I am good at sewing. I do a good job and my boss is happy, but I only make the government assistance minimum wage. I can live on it, but I’d rather make my old income and in a nicer environment, but at this kind of job that I like and am good at. My boss gives me an excellent reference, and I am hired by a trendy art-nouveau-type clothing manufacturer at the same pay I made as a bookkeeper. Why the same exact money? Because the hours of one human being’s life is equal to another’s. We want to believe that our pay is based on how hard we work, but do you really believe that? No, it is the profitable value we place on the service you provide. It has nothing to do with how hard you work. If it did, teachers would be the best paid people on the planet and corporate executives would make much less than cooks.

I hear the conservative voices in my head once again saying, “But what would be their incentive to work if not to make more money?” The incentive would be 1) to keep a roof over your head because you could still get fired if you don’t do your job well, and if you like your job, you want to keep it rather than exchanging it for something you may not, and 2) you would choose your job according to your natural talents or passions rather than how much it paid—this is the best reason to do it. If people get to work all day at what they love, they tend to put their heart and soul into it. Would you rather have a surgeon who had a passion for science and medicine and wanted to help people, or one who just wanted money and social position?

Oh, and you wanted to know who was just lazy and who really needed help? Well, here’s your solution. If they refuse to take the work assignment, they don’t get any assistance. In true Socialism, the community matters, not just the individual. The individual does well if the community does well, so there are no freeloaders. Now if someone is developmentally or physically disabled, they are given a job that they are able to do. The only people who would be exempt from a work assignment but could still get assistance would be the severely physically or mentally ill.

Socialists don’t want to take what’s yours. They want everyone to do their part, and care for each other when they need it. We want people to be valued as human beings instead of a bank account or earning potential. We think a street sweeper should have just as much respect as the executive of a bank or a doctor, and his life and his time are just as valuable and shouldn’t have a monetary value placed on them. If a person works 40 hours per week, then he should be able to live as comfortably as anyone else who works 40 hours a week. But I think Americans work too much anyway. Thirty to thirty-five hours would be healthier and more productive.

And education should be free, so those who are apt to achieve academic success can do so without being drowned in debt for the rest of their lives. They can give back to the community by serving as doctors, scientists, and teachers because they love it, not for money but for passion. Socialism isn’t about everyone being the same and not standing out, just equally valued. Free education would truly level the playing field so that regardless of the circumstances of your birth, you would have the same chance to follow your dreams as anyone else. Only your motivations and natural abilities, or lack thereof, would affect your achievement.

Sure, no one would be rich and no one would be poor. Money never made anyone happy. In excess, it is only used to control and oppress others anyway. But this would never happen in America anyway. Democratic Socialists don’t advocate for forced, all-or-nothing change. We can balance things without completely ridding the world of Capitalism. We can support workers, small businesses, and create a safety net that is good for everyone and still be the land of the free, still celebrate entrepreneurship and personal innovation.

The conservative voice in my head asks, “But isn’t that Totalitarianism? Weren’t the Nazis Socialists?” No, actually they were Fascists and just called themselves Socialists. At most they were a distorted dictatorial socialism. It’s true that in Socialism, the government plays a large role and has to regulate many things, taxes would be higher, and the money collected would pay for many of things we need but cannot now afford like complete and continuous health care coverage, education, and public recreation and transit. But in Democratic Socialism, the people are the government. We would need a true democracy to pull it off—none of this republic rubbish, where those we elect do not represent us at all. We would decide how to spend our money. The popular vote would suffice for most things, but before the conservative voice tells me that the 49% can be enslaved by the 51%, understand that constitutional protections of civil liberties would make that impossible. Civil liberties should never be up for popular vote. Side note: Democratic Socialism is more in line with the teachings of Christ than Capitalism, but Christ is not accused of being a Nazi.

But even if Democratic Socialism isn’t your thing, let’s at least admit that Capitalism breeds greed and encourages contempt for the poor. I believe Capitalism causes poverty, at least our crony capitalistic plutocracy does. It doesn’t create jobs; it creates indentured servants and gradually worsens their conditions, hoping they won’t notice, and finally sends their jobs overseas to those who cannot afford to refuse them. We are undoing everything that the labor movement fought to improve for some fantasy ideal popularized by Ronald Reagan and his “trickle down theory.” I think after waiting thirty-plus years for it to work, we can try something else now. In fact, Reaganomics pretty much caused the banking crisis and the bailout of the banking system by deregulating them in the eighties as well as increasing the deficit by practically eliminating the corporate tax burden. Yet, he is lauded by conservatives as a great president because he could deliver a patriotic speech with sincerity. And I do believe he was sincere, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue his failed policies forever.

In 1931 James Truslow Adams coined the term The American Dream when he wrote “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” This original version wasn’t bad, but it has evolved into much worse. When I ask my students to tell me what the American Dream is, they usually respond with “To get rich,” or the more realistic ones say, “To have a house, a good job, and provide comfortably for a family.”

But we have moved past the image of a middle class home with a white picket fence, two cars in the garage, two children, a pet, and a retirement account. Today in the light of a struggling economy and tough job market, the dream may look more like affording a decent apartment. having health insurance, and worrying about the future later.

Although Adams coined the phrase, the ideals behind the expectation of life for Americans have been around since the Declaration of Independence was signed, or maybe even since the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock. All those who come to America have certain expectations and dreams. Those born in America seem to have expectations, but they are more unconscious, and therefore, even harder to attain.

It’s time we redefined the dream and our values along with it. We need a definition of the American Dream that we can be proud of, one that embodies valuing people instead of profit margins and defines happiness and contentment as success rather than fat bank accounts. How would you define the American Dream for modern times? I have an idea for how I’d like to define it:

1) A land where every person, regardless of race, country of origin, gender, religious belief or lack of it, regardless of sexual orientation, and regardless of political or philosophical view 2) would have the same opportunities available to them should they choose to grasp them. 3) They would only be inhibited by their own natural skills and abilities and by their own inclinations and motivations, 4) and their social class at birth would have no bearing on their chances of success 5) to pursue happiness in any way they saw fit that 6) did not infringe upon the rights of others to do the same and did not endanger society or the people therein. 7) A land wherein such people would have guaranteed civil liberties under a constitution of their own design, 8) and all other issues arising, not considered civil liberties, would be subject to a popular vote.

This is how I see the American Experiment. This seems like what America should care about, and it’s very similar to the ideals of our founding fathers whom my conservative friends are so apt to quote. Isn’t this the heart of their intentions? Certainly not the worship of money and the subjugation of the poor. If they were here to see their precious experiment in self-governing torn asunder by corporate lobbyists and super PACS, they would probably redefine it too.

And to my conservative friends, stop acting like you are against big government involving themselves in our lives when you support controlling a woman’s body, forcing religious views on the non-religious, supporting corporate greed over workers, denying science in favor of enabling the fossil fuel industry, and entering every conflict around the world. Your definition of government seems to be of the corporation, for the corporation, by the corporation while Democratic Socialism encompasses the true intentions of our forefathers by embodying the ideals of the people, not corporations, as the government.—Christina Knowles

Originally published in 2015

Un-American by Christina Knowles

un-americanIf we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Yet, we don’t forget, and we still repeat it. Perhaps, the narcissistic tendency to justify all our personal actions sufficiently blinds us from our own reflection.

For the last century, America has boasted and puffed itself up as the greatest democracy that ever was, the shining city on a hill. We ignore America’s horrific past, the massacre of its native peoples, the brutal enslavement of a race brought here against their wills, the internment of loyal Americans because of their ethnicity, the oppression of women, the obliteration of civil rights during the Red Scare, the denial of civil rights to marginalized groups currently, and the continued conquests of world domination under the guise of aid. We blow out of proportion that which we do right: Our fierce determination, our stubborn independence,  our personal commitment to liberty, our strength against all odds, and our citizens’ numerous humanitarian efforts.

But our claim to fame is our beloved constitution, which really is our best redeeming quality. And, ironically we modeled that after the Iroquois Constitution and the Magna Carta, yet we insist on our originality. I love every concept in the Declaration of Independence and many of the beautiful words of our forefathers. They are admirable ideas, profound truths, and something to be proud of. I am patriotic regarding these things. I love my beautiful country. I love the rights I enjoy under our constitution. I love our spirit and our right and willingness to speak our minds. I love how most Americans are willing and eager to rush to someone’s aid, foreign and domestic. This is what it means to be American.

I am not un-American for recognizing the limits and flaws of Capitalism. I am not un-American for believing that affordable health care for all of our people is the very least our country can do for its citizens. I am not un-American for believing that we should take care of our elderly, and to believe they should not have to struggle to work until they die, poor and abandoned by the country they contributed to their whole lives. It is not un-American to expect more. It should be un-American to keep quiet in the face of injustice, to fail to fight for the human rights of others.

Instead, the fascists now in power would have us believe we are un-American if we do not worship Capitalism, hate our neighbors, crush those who cannot compete, and leave the weak to die in the streets.

But I will not be bullied into Nationalism. I will not be a flag-worshiping robot, insisting we can do no wrong. I don’t care if you think I am un-American because your definition of American is not who I want to be.

Interestingly, we are the only large democracy that obsesses over such Nationalistic terms. However, they were very common in highly oppressive Totalitarian states, such as Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union because dictators need blind patriotism in order to manipulate the masses, to turn otherwise decent people into bigoted ideologues that will do their bidding. This is Trump’s America, the next Totalitarian state.

Are we willing to see the truth of our own identity? Can we recognize ourselves in history’s mirror? Or will we repeat the mistakes of other countries that allowed themselves to be caught up in their own grand illusions, denying the possibility that we are too good to let these things happen while we stand idly by? Maybe it’s time to idealize kindness, compassion, liberty, and truth, instead of a flag, and then perhaps, that flag will mean something once again. I will always love America, yet I am not ashamed to be un-American.—Christina Knowles

Originally published in 2017

Stand Up and Take a Knee by Christina Knowles

Take a Knee
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

I’m an American. I tear up over Pearl Harbor footage, I swell with pride reading the Declaration of Independence, I am fiercely independent, and I believe freedom is the highest good. But I still don’t get it.

I’m referring to the disturbing Nationalism sweeping our country, the dangerous Nationalism encouraged and flouted by our own president. I’m talking about the sacralization of our National Anthem and our flag.

Certainly, everyone does seem to be in an uproar over, first, the fact that some NFL players, beginning with Colin Kaepernick one year ago, were “taking a knee” during the National Anthem in protest over police brutality, specifically aimed at African American men. Next, people were incensed over Donald Trump stirring up his base in true Trump fashion, suggesting that we would just love it if one of these NFL owners said, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired! Fired!” (Criss).  Of course, Trump could not help tweeting on Saturday, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect….” and “…our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” (Criss).

And now, some Americans are furious that several NFL players locked arms in solidarity during the anthem at yesterday’s games.  In true American rebel fashion, #TakeaKnee became an instant trending hashtag across social media because, as all Americans know, when someone tries to interfere with your freedom, particularly your freedom of speech, you respond by doing exactly the opposite of what the presumptuous offending party told you to do, especially when he’s an authority figure. Nothing could be more American.

So, why do so many other Americans have a problem with this response? Apparently, this is a common symptom of Nationalism, and a result of sacralizing our symbol of freedom. By sacralizing our symbol for freedom, we condemn the very freedom we say we love.

Let’s back up for a second. Our flag is a symbol for our country, which embodies many ideals, most commonly freedom, independence, and determination. We feel pride when flying our flag, not because the flag has actual value, but because it represents something we believe is real—something about American character and values. When we say that soldiers died defending our flag, this is a metonym for our country’s ideals and way of life. It is a piece of cloth. It is not actually our country.

Yet, when we transpose all of our feelings of what we love about our country on to this piece of cloth and elevate it to the sacred, we do ourselves and our country a disservice. Once sacralized, we can no longer look at it reflectively, with an unbiased eye, with a view to grow and improve. It becomes a dangerous form of Nationalism through which, as opposed to ordinary patriotism, we are unable to see ourselves clearly and with an objective eye. It (the National Anthem, our flag, our country, our ideals) is perfect and can never be questioned. To question it, would be to defile it and be, in essence, blasphemy.

But, not everyone sacralizes the National Anthem or the flag, or even the actual America. To many, it is the ideals behind them that are held in high esteem, and when the realization of those ideals is in question, the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, or the National Anthem is an obvious symbol to which we turn in order to draw attention to these contradictions between what we say we stand for and what we actually do. It’s a logical connection, and it in no way indicates that we are not patriotic or that we do not love and appreciate our country, and it certainly has nothing to do with disrespecting soldiers. We fly a flag at half-mast when we are grieving; we fly it upside down to signal distress. We do not stand for the anthem or pledge our allegiance when we see a discrepancy in the ideals we say we represent and in the reality of what our country, or our leaders, in most cases, shows that we actually represent. This is clearly Colin Kaepernick’s thinking when he explains, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (Gillespie).

According to Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided Over Politics and Religion, conservatives tend to sacralize symbols and traditions like the flag and the anthem, while liberals tend to sacralize other things, such as compassion and human rights (Haidt). They aren’t disrespecting soldiers who gave up their lives fighting in a war; they are making a logical connection between what we say we stand for and what we will stand for.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop referencing the rules for flags and NFL players. It is completely irrelevant what the rules are, or even the laws, for that matter. The most effective protests throughout history have been illegal. It’s called civil disobedience. If protestors concerned themselves with whether or not they were allowed to do something, women would still be unable to vote, and Rosa Parks would never have sat in the front of the bus. It’s effective precisely because it is not allowed. The risk of consequences demonstrates the level of commitment and the intensity of the desire for change.

I submit to you that those who refuse to stand for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, whether it be to protest the president encouraging the squelching of free speech, or the systemic racism endangering the lives of black Americans, are the most patriotic of citizens. These protestors recognize what the flag and the anthem, and indeed, our country, are supposed to stand for, and refuse to settle for anything less than the ideals that form this great experiment. Truly, standing to honor that which fails to live up to all we mean it to be is dishonoring to America itself at its very core. As historian Howard Zinn once said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” So, show us how much you love America, and take a knee.—Christina Knowles

Originally published in 2017

Sources:

Criss, Doug. “A president shouldn’t tell an NFL team what to do, Trump tweeted … in 2013.” cnn.com. Updated 25 Sept. 2017. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.

Gillespie, Nick. “Donald Trump Should Stop Telling NFL To Fire Players for Anthem Protests” 23 Sept. 2017. Accessed 25 Sept. 2017.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided Over Politics and Religion. Vintage Books, 2013.

BOOK REVIEW – Signs of Life: A Memoir in Poems

Wow! This is the best review I’ve ever had. Thank you, Zaney!

Ranting with Conviction

A diverse collection of poetry, thought-provoking and breathtaking, inspirational, and altogether wonderful, Knowles’ memoir is moving, hustling the reader through memories and philosophies that had me laughing at times and weeping at others. Engaging, unexpectedly page-turning for long-time lovers of poetry, and eye-opening to those discovering poetry for the first time, these verses, sometimes eloquent and elusive, sometimes brutally honest and abrasive, will draw you into the ancient art of poetry and leave you hungry for more. The author leads the audience, expertly, through a journey simultaneously spiritual and rational. Like a depthless ocean of free-thought, it tossed me back and forth, presenting views on both faith and logic, but it never fails in thoroughness, sincerity, or heart. The poet’s captivating imagery, descriptions of nature, metaphorical prowess, and artful rhyme schemes are a treat for anyone with an appreciation of literary devices. To those who merely dabble, occasionally, in poetry…

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The Business of Dying by Christina Knowles

seidoryu       As an atheist, I shudder at the thought of a chaplain at my bedside when it’s my time to die. However, today I was privileged to listen to a truly profound and helpful chaplain guide someone close to me on “the business of dying.”

Shortly after being informed that she had very little time left, the chaplain arrived, and instead of a long dissertation on theology, endless prayers, or reading cliché bible verses, he merely accepted her word that she was confidant of her eternal life and moved on to the harder part, the present.

At first, I was concerned. He seemed pushy and inconsiderate. When he asked her what she was feeling, and she replied, “It is what it is,” he pushed, aggressively.

He led her through each possible emotion, explored them, talked about them, and acknowledged their validity. He said it was okay to grieve your own life, the disappointment, the lost time, the things that you will never be able to do, time with loved ones stolen. He asked about fear, not fear of the afterlife, but fear of the actual dying and fear about leaving loved ones behind. He validated all emotions someone might feel and empathized.

Next, he asked her what she wanted. He said she didn’t have to answer now, and that it didn’t have to be one big thing, but that she should think about that every morning when she wakes up and ask, “What do I want today?” He explained that he meant real things, good things like asking for a hug or asking to have a conversation about a memory or about what someone means to her. He encouraged her to go deep inside herself everyday to really get in touch with her heart’s desire. He said to not let these things go by undone. If she needs to say something to someone or just relive a memory with someone, ask for it. If she needed closure, to fix a relationship, or address a regret, she should have that conversation.

The chaplain told her that part of the business of dying was to celebrate the life she’s lived. He said to reflect on her life’s accomplishments, things she was particularly proud of, things she enjoyed, and things that she did right. He told her she lived a life that deserved acknowledgement.

He ended his counsel by asking her if she wanted anything else from him. She asked him to pray with her. He laughingly responded, “Is that what you want, or do you think that’s what I want to hear?” She said she did want it, and his prayer was beautiful, specifically saying that she was in control of her life and how she lived it to her last breath.

He was brilliant and profound, comforting and respectful. I thought, This is what a chaplain should do. So many times, I’ve heard the well-meaning pastor spout clichés that seemed more concerned with reinforcing religious beliefs than dealing with real emotions and concrete issues. I always cringed at the shallow recitation of the typical platitudes. Finally, a chaplain who knows what to say to the dying, what they need to know in their last days, what not to forget in the days to come. The compassionate and practical advice I heard today cut through all the nonsense of avoidance. People don’t need vapid dictums when they face the end of their lives; they need something real, something meaningful and honest to go about the business of dying. –Christina Knowles

photo via seidoryu.com

So, You Find Cat Videos Annoying? by Christina Knowles

knowyouwantmeme Facebook is getting tedious, more so by the day. Constant misinformation, misattributed quotes, and fallacies run rampant on political memes. Facebook posts have reduced my estimation of the collective intelligence of our population, but worse, it’s reduced my belief in the basic goodness of humanity. Not only are these tedious to see, but it’s a full-time job posting Snopes and Politifact links to these comments, but I try to be a good citizen. But don’t get me started on trying debate an issue on social media. It’s a lost cause that sucks you in and won’t let you go for about twenty-four comments, two unfriendings, and a blocked participant later. I’m not against all political posting. I love when people post actual news articles, thoughtful opinions or news that raises awareness, and links to insightful editorials. I like to have a calm exchange of ideology, as long as we adhere to facts for evidence and not tabloid headlines, but how often does that happen?

Then, of course, we have the “god blessed” me posts, crediting God with everything from parking spaces to the random luck of the wind failing to blow down a fence. (Wow! Aren’t you special! I guess your neighbors aren’t cozy with the big guy, huh?).

The next most annoying thing about Facebook is over-sharing, where people admit way too much, like how they were fired for stealing office supplies, to having gotten so drunk, they woke up with a total stranger. Really? This is information that only your best friend should have. Don’t force me to judge you, please. It’s not who I want to be. (Caveat: Sincere opening up and sharing who you are with the intention of self-expression and engaging in a relationship with your friends is not offensive, but someone never taught these people about the circle of trust.)

Then, there is the under-sharing, the ones who post some vague melancholy comment, and when someone asks what’s wrong, they say, “I’ll text/PM you.” If it was so private, why publicly build everyone’s curiosity by posting anything at all?

But, honestly, the most annoying posts on Facebook to me are the ones that try to manipulate me. I don’t surf social media to be guilted or forced to re-post or comment to feed your fragile ego. First, we have the chain letter post. The one where you are commanded not to simply share it; you must COPY and PASTE it into your feed, especially if you do not want to have your hair and fingernails fall out by morning. If you do repost in the proper manner, you will enjoy a landslide of money, blessings from Jesus, and all forms of good luck. If you don’t, well, you obviously don’t love your mother.

The other form of Machiavellian Facebook posting is compliment-fishing by pretending to hate yourself. I mean how can you really keep scrolling past a photo with the caption, “I look so (Insert word of choice: terrible, ugly, fat, old) in this picture.” I feel like I’m being forced to say, “No, you don’t. You’re beautiful.” Even if I mean it (which I often do—some of the prettiest people do this), I don’t like being manipulated into feeding your ego. But I have to on the unlikely chance you really mean it and are so depressed you are about to off yourself. I mean, someone would have to be a little depressed if they actually do mean it and want to draw these inadequacies to the attention of the world, right? Truthfully, whenever I see these posts, I can’t imagine why they think this of themselves or why they’d want to announce that they think it (again, over-sharing). Anyway, I feel manipulated because I don’t want to be responsible for someone’s low self-esteem resulting from my lack of compliment-commenting. It really is exhausting.

So, remind me, please, why were we complaining about pictures of dinner, glam selfies, recipes, and cat videos? –Christina Knowles

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Book Signing Event!

If you are in the Colorado Springs area on January 14th, please join me for a book signing party, celebrating my brand new release, Signs of Life, A Memoir in PoemsI’d love to meet you!

Copies of The Ezekiel Project and Signs of Life will be available for purchase, and I’ll be signing those and any you bring in. While you’re there, enjoy a wonderful homemade Mexican meal from the Hernandez family, featuring old family recipes from Señor Manuel, himself. You will receive a discount if you purchase a book or bring in one to get signed.

It’s sure to be lots of fun, so I hope to see you there at Señor Manuel Mexican Cuisine!

knowles-book-signing-flyer-2

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