Saturday, September 10, 2011

Where We Talk About What Happened And What We Might Do Now

 (The following remarks were given at Marshfield High School, Friday, September 9, 2011.)

Good Morning.

(Our musicians are a tough act to follow.)
Today I hope to reflect on the events of ten years ago and to try to fit them together with the current day and with this place.

I hope that you stick with me.

Every day I read the column of a young man named Ezra Klein. 

He writes about public policy, especially about economic policy, and he brings together experts I would never know about on topics like health care, taxes, education, and the environment.

About six months ago he posted a video. 

There have been a great number of these videos posted on YouTube; the famous and not so famous, even teams like the Red Sox, have created videos for a program called, "It Gets Better."

This is a program that has evolved out of a terrible tragedy.

A student from Indiana named Billy Lucas committed suicide after having been harassed about his sexuality all through middle school and high school.

He was all of 15 years old.

The idea behind these videos was to offer the comfort of the simple idea that, despite the intolerance and ignorance of the harassers, for gay and lesbian students it gets better with time.

Ezra Klein isn't gay but was, as a tween and as a teen, bullied.

He was bullied for liking comic books.

He was bullied for doing well in school.

He was bullied for not being in fashion.

After a while he was bullied because that was the only kind of relationship anyone had ever had with him.

In his video he talked about why it got better for him and why it gets better for nearly everyone. 

He said it got better because he came to have more power over his choices.  He found a new sense of community with ways to improve that community.

And that is what we are doing here.  We are trying to make it possible for all of you to do what you think will make you happy.  And if you change your mind, we want you to be able to swerve, or to reverse course all together.

Going forward you will have more choices and more people to support those choices.

Think about it; you will be spending more time with people who want what you want, are interested in what you are interested in, are focused on a common goal, come from a similar perspective or level of experience, or are willing to listen and to expand their experience by that listening.

It will get better and choices are why.


Now file that away for a few minutes; we will be coming back to it.

Ten years ago this Sunday, all of us, all of us, were shaken beyond describing.

I can say without any qualification, that I have never been the same. 

Most of you were quite young; some of us were not. 

Those of us who were not, we swore we would not forget.

It was a time of immense emotion.
 I don't know if you can easily put yourself in that place.

 Bruce Springsteen had a line in The Rising "...the garden of a thousand sighs." 

I remember doing that, breathing in and out trying to somehow exhale the hurt away.

The stories still come back to me so easily.

They are vivid and painful and I wouldn't let any of it go even if I could. 

I have looked through so many of the photographs and read so many accounts as I have prepared. 

It is as open a wound today as it was ten years ago.

I first heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center in the cafe. 

Mr. Centorino's mom told me.

I headed to room 146 where my next class was and Mr. Sullivan's class was watching Before the Bells; I switched it over to channel 5 and ABC had coverage.

As a class we watched the second plane hit, we heard about the Pentagon, and at 10:00 the first Tower fell.

I will never forget the reporter's tone of voice; I have gone back and watched it again and it is exactly as I remembered.

"The Tower has collapsed, Peter." "Part of the Tower has collapsed?" No, Peter, the whole Tower."

The reporter said it so matter of factly but with such an ache all the same.

No one knew how many were gone; no one knew who was responsible.

But that it was an act of war was likely and that there would be new responsibilities emerging was certain. Would anyone fly again? Every single commercial plane in the US was on the ground.  We heard immediately that there were anthrax deaths.  Our own central office was emptied when an envelope with a white powder was opened. People went to the hospital to be checked. It was terrorism at home and how open we could keep our society was in question.

As the class left that day I only said one thing to them. I told them that each day they were asked to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

I said that tomorrow you might just take the moment of silence that follows and reflect on what we had all just seen.

That night members of Congress sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capital and millions of us sat on the couch and bawled our eyes out. 

We also gave blood, donated food, first for a rescue and then for the recovery, spoke a little slower and listened a little longer.

Trivia was trivia and what was important was obvious. 

On the day of the attacks I took my daughter to the Town Common in Scituate - she was only 2 - and I brought her to each of the monuments there - WW1, WW2, The police, the firemen, soldiers lost in Korea and in Vietnam - I only did it because I didn't know what else to do.

I guess now that I wanted her to know and I wanted to be sure myself that this country had been through things as bad and had made it through.

In the weeks that followed, late at night, ABC ran tributes to those that were lost, brief profiles about these individuals that we knew by then had been killed entirely because they were Americans. It was their way of taking a statistic and making it an individual.

That many who died that day, at each of the sites, were not American is a point to be made here too.

There were great numbers who were not Americans but had come here for the things America was and still is.

I remember one of these tributes more than any of the others.

The guy was a big bear of a guy- they had him in home movies, in costumes, goofing around, you felt you knew him the minute you saw him.

It hurts even to remember this guy because he was so alive in these film clips and you knew he was gone. 

His beautiful widow was so strong telling these stories about him and that was part of the time too. 

So many, behaved, so well.

So many discovered a grace we all hope we have when the worst comes.

She did break down though and this has always stuck with me; she broke down finally asking the reporter,
"What am I going to tell my kids at Christmas, he was always the best at Christmas."

Too many were gone and their families and our nation has missed them all at Christmas and the first day of school and at ballgames and recitals and just hanging around the house.

Too many are gone and today we take a few minutes to reaffirm our commitment to their memory.

The enemies of this country justify the violence of 10 years ago in several ways. 

They assert America is weak and decadent. 

Wasteful and irreligious. 

Spiritually bankrupt, materialistic, imperialistic. 

We know better. I know better.  I work at this high school with all of you.

Walk through any hall in this building, during any block, and you will see students and teachers working on the future.  What we do here is far more than a list of sins.

The list of flaws may be long; I have to teach our inheritance on race issues, on gender equality, on the treatment of Native Americans and the environment;

I know the list of flaws is long, but I also know that that the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave are not just words in a song.

On Tuesday September 11, 2001, men and women entered burning buildings with no thought of their own safety, climbed flight after flight in the darkness, leading many to safety before the collapse.  Men on flight 93 retook the  plane rather than let it be used as a weapon. Think  about that for a minute. 

These men and women saw lives at stake and went forward, toward the risk, for the sake of someone else they did not know.

It would be appalling if we did not remember that from time to time. 

And if we do not assert that there is selflessness, there is compassion, there is love in this country and around the world, if we don't do it from time to time, our enemies will be more right than wrong about the United States.

So we return to  Ezra Klein and try to tie these two things together and make a third.

Freedom, Liberty, To follow your heart,

To decide, to pick,

 Self determination,

 The pursuit of happiness.

Each of these terms is at the heart of American ideas and American lives.  We get to choose.

Our enemies hate this freedom.

My daughter once asked me about the war in Iraq. She had seen a photograph and wanted to know what it was all about. In a roundabout way I explained it came down to freedom.

 For our enemies, life is lived in a very small circle and to step outside it is the greatest crime.  They would have all the world live in that straight jacket. For them freedom is a poison. For us it is the antidote.   How is life going to be great, how is it going to get better if there are no choices?

So what are some of the choices you have. Let's consider that.

You can choose your words.

And words matter. Words matter a lot. 

A young man was behind me in the hall last week, the first day of school, cursing like crazy. I turned around and looked at him and I thought, he will be the saddest kid in this school if he doesn't move past that.

Choose your words carefully and you create your world carefully.

You decide what the experience will be.
Make it harsh words and your life is harsh. 
And I am not talking about living a phony, make believe, Peter Pan never going grow up, Hallmark card existence either. 

That said, you can be accurate and not be mean. 

You can be candid and not slashing.

You can be truthful and be kind.

What else do you choose, well, Your actions matter.

Do you make a situation worse or make it better? 
Do you try to push the buttons you know will calm something down or rile it up? 
Do you honor the experience of someone else and recognize that it is at least as good as your own is to this point.  We are all learning, growing, reassessing what it will take to achieve a balance in our lives.

You have to take things in stride and stay properly humble and properly proud of all you get done in a day. We are right to celebrate the arts and the athletics and the academics here at this school but if you don't keep it in perspective, then you take choices away from your friends, from your teammates, and from yourselves.

When you throw your weight around,
put yourself up by putting someone else down, you are on the wrong side of the conversation.

Gordon Sumner is a singer/songwriter who goes by the name of Sting. 

His song "Fragile" was the background theme for the ABC coverage that I followed each night ten years ago. The lyrics are:
          If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
           Drying in the colour of the evening sun
          Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
           But something in our minds will always stay
           Perhaps this final act was meant
           To clinch a lifetime's argument
           That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
           For all those born beneath an angry star
           Lest we forget how fragile we are

Choose carefully, choose thoughtfully, be alert to those times you come up too close to the line and forget how fragile we all are. Violence lurks in a million corners.  And nothing comes from it.

Be ready to laugh at yourself and to put aside the laughter that cuts down someone else. For when you tear someone else down for who are they, for where they want to go, for their dreams, for their heart, you help the bad guys.

I would ask you to never take for granted the gift of Freedom that has been earned with the blood of so many, ten years ago and across two centuries.

Remember too, that you have to live together as much as you have to be individuals.

For that is how we win, that is what the peace looks like in the war that started ten years ago.  That's why It Gets Better.

In America you get to choose and the choices  make things solid and positive and you can meet the worst of days with the support you want and need.  

In America there is diversity and change and patience and impatience when an injustice is recognized and there is devotion to working out problems thoughtfully and not at the point of a gun, or a knife, or a suicide bomb, and certainly not in a nasty instant message or on a Facebook wall.

It Gets Better here, better than, any other place on earth because of our freedom, and the wide awake way we use it.

The journalist David Halberstam wrote an Essay called Who We Are just a month after the terrorist attacks; in it he described how writers who had spent some time living overseas came to understand:

"that freedom in America, ... is not just the freedom to move about but the freedom to be who and what you want to be, to be different from those who went before you in your own family, to if necessary reinvent yourself and become the person of your own imagination.  I believe as a matter of political faith, ... that all our great strengths - industrial, scientific, military, and artistic - flow from it.  The freer we are, the more we are able to use the talents of all our people.  We waste less human potential than any other society that I know of."

And isn't that what we want here.  To set all of our talents and dreams free in a real way. The events of ten years ago, as devastating as they were, could never touch that.

This summer I was with a friend who has retired from teaching. I told him I was preparing these remarks and he told me of this Native American story.

An old Cherokee was teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy.

"It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." 

He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Your choices matter, your words and your actions matter.
And when you choose to do things right, you send a powerful message to those ugly corners of the world who have lost sight of the genuine connection we all have to each other.

Remember that in all that you choose.

And Remember those lost to us who died in that spirit.

Thank you all.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Show a Few Pictures of Haley

Haley turned 12 this week. Here is a short photo essay on the 4383 days of the Haley Experience.

My mom said this little head was like an orange.

It wasn't long before some personality was apparent.

She cleaned up pretty good for Lee's Wedding.

Losing teeth and going to the Y Day Camp marked a summer.

She also became a kayaking wizard.

Now she's the Lighthouse kid.

Occasionally she even gives her old parents a smile.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

To Say It One More Time

It was just a year ago tomorrow that the family and friends gathered for a memorial service to my mother. I made some remarks at the time and have waited until now to post them. I don't think that anyone has forgotten - it may be that I'd just like to reread them.

After this service we will be getting together at the GAR Hall on Country Way for a reception – Parking there is limited but there is a big lot across the street at the Masonic Hall – we hope you are able to come. As my mother would have said there will be some “nice sandwiches” and some “nice juice” for you when you get there.

I was told me earlier in the week that I should keep these remarks short and I will, but only after I get a few things out of the way.

Teachers have a strategy – it is called activating prior knowledge – to do this I will need a little cooperation from you.

By a show of hands – how many of you were ever on a beach with my mother? How many of you stayed on that beach when it began to rain because, and I quote, “There is a little sun just over there.”

Again, with a show of hands, how many of you had my mother help you with a family party, or an anniversary, or a wedding? How many of you knew how much she enjoyed those events, how much pleasure she took in having that day or night be a success.

How many of you ever heard her order a hamburger burned beyond recognition at a restaurant? How many of you saw her heat up food until it was the temperature of a nuclear reactor core?

Since we have the chance, let’s settle something here. How many of you heard her say that Kenny was her favorite? Lee? Chris? Me? Okay, how many of you heard her say Haley was her favorite? I thought that would go that way.

How many of you ever had a piece of her double decker fudge? Don’t worry about that Ken has that figured out now.

How many of you knew of that she used a fork to eat ice cream in the middle of the night or that you could count on finding at least one cracker when you helped her change the bed? Or that song lyrics were entirely optional - la, laing and who, whoing and gathering up the cheese she went.

How many know of her genius with bleach? A true maestro - unparalleled - the Arthur Fiedler of Clorox. Proctor and Gamble sales are plumetting as I speak.

One last question – how many of you came a way from a phone call or a night around the table at Turner Road or from running into her at Charlies (How does he do it) and felt better going away than you did when you started? I thought that might go that way too.

And that is the lesson for today – we have a lot to be grateful for –

My mother was a serious, complex, often disappointed woman – lots of things in her life did not turn out the way that she wanted –she had more than her share of struggles - when a doctor would ask her for a medical history he would have to cancel other appointments – and despite all that, she had a ton of fun. She traveled when she could. She kept in touch with everyone. She was kinder than most and no one was more patient. She was trusted implicitly and as a result she was connected to more people than Kevin Bacon. You could play 6 degrees of Jeanne Gallagher and never quite be finished. She laughed a lot and she made more from less than anyone you could think of.

And we have it all still – we remember it all and we pass it on –

I told Haley the other night that Grammy wanted us to work hard and to be honest –
No one hated a sneak as much as my mother –
and if I had thought of it at the time I would have added one more thing – My mother wanted us to have a laugh once in a while – she loved the clever line, the play on words, the cutting reply, and she was not above the pratfall – Aunt Barbara fell one time – I think it was at the Clipper Ship – I don't think I have ever seen someone laugh so much trying to tell the story.

John Turner reminded me this week of how many times a group would be in the house and a conversation would begin and suddenly there would be chortle, a guffaw, from that middle room.

We would all turn into mimes - “She’s awake!!”

“Only since 1938” Because she didn’t miss a thing – especially if there was some humor in it, no matter how bleak things might seem, no matter how tough, there was a laugh to be had in every moment.

So here is your assignment – keep working hard, hold on to your integrity, find some more laughs – If Mum is looking down now – if there is not a program on that she doesn't want to miss or she is not out in a garden – then she is telling us to keep at it, to get back to work, to tell the truth, and to find the fun.

Thank you all for being here with us today.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Where I can discuss the news of the day.

Senator Kennedy's passing is the news of the day.  The outpouring of regard by the President and Vice President, along with his fellow Senators and those families whose lives he touched directly, has been moving.  The Vice President's remarks this morning were especially so I thought.

When my mother was disabled following her back surgeries it was Senator Kennedy's office that was the most helpful.  While Congressman Studds office got the ball rolling for her, it was only when the Senator's office got on the case that she got the attention she needed and the result she wanted.

My family has always been Kennedy supporters.  My first tie clip was a PT 109.  I believe that my grandfather cast an electoral college vote for President Kennedy.  I have a Robert Kennedy campaign poster in my classroom. I have read a great deal about the family, including a terrific little book about Honey Fitz.  I have read and studied this family as a story of shifting unifying political ideas in the 20th century.  Local concerns became national concerns became international concerns within 3 generations.  Only Teddy Roosevelt's political arc can be compared to it.

I attended the Senator's announcement for the Presidency in 1980. There was an article a number of years ago now in the Sunday Globe magazine in which I can be seen along the barricade as the Senator walked in.  I was 19 and studying political science.  The possibilities for government were very much on my mind and I was looking to hear what the Senator thought they were.  President Carter had said the country was suffering from malaise but had not offered a course of action for the community as much as he had for individuals. Candidate Reagan would take the position that there was a substantially limited government response needed and that no malaise exisited.  It was the return to a long standing public debate in American life. The Senator's role taught me a lot.

My friend Peggy Rice had an encounter with the Senator in the days when his behavior was suspect.  She had been invited to a party at Hyannis Port as her husband Peter had a relative that was marrying RFK's son. She sent me a memorable postcard in which she described the fading condition of the Kennedy Matriarch Rose (I describe it here with massive understatement) and how she had to dance with the Senator.  "It was gross." was the memorable end to the card.

My curiosity about the Senator always extended to why he served. He was the heir to considerable wealth, had noticeable appetites, and was subject to unrelenting criticism each and every day of his life.  He could have taken his ball and gone home.  I have never understood what he got from the positions he took or his willingness to stand in the political arena as a punch line. He would have been every bit as much a Kennedy had he not held office.  He would have been his brothers brother as a private citizen.  The place that John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy have had in the public sphere proves the case for me.  Even the place that Joe Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Jr. have had proves it for me. He could have had all the perks and far less of the grief had he left office at any point.  I always wondered why he didn't and often wished he would for his own sake.  The trial of William Kennedy Smith was a very ugly episode and I wished then that he would just call it a day and go sailing. 

The issue of who will win that seat looms.  I will have to teach it now, along side teaching the ascension of Justice Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.  Political Science 101 taught that the succession crisis was the most dangerous in any regime. It will be fascinating to watch the potential candidates raise their funds, stake out their positions, and bargain among themselves over issues like possible debates and formats.  I would think the announcements would begin as soon as September 11.  The war will not be the biggest factor in the race but the anniversary of the terrorist attacts is a date that could be used as a break from the mourning that will have to last at least two weeks.  Two weeks from today is September 9th.

A primary will likely be held in late November or early December.  By law (unless it is changed and I believe the change could be challenged as an ex post facto law) the general election has to be held by the first week in February.  A late November election allows for an 8 week campaign season interupted by Christmas and New Years. That seems a reasonable period of time for any candidate to introduce and advance his or her record to the whole state.  I hope that it works out that way.

The passing of a public figure whose family has been part of the political fabric of Massachusetts for more than 100 years is destined to be an occasion for hyperbole. I won't add to it. I will look forward instead for materials to surface that lets us tell a bona fide historical story based on a record. There is currently a historian named David Nawsaw who is working on a biography of Joseph Kennedy Sr.  He was said to be given total access to a wide range of previously unavailable materials.  With the passing of the Senator and recently of his sister Eunice Shriver, there is only Jean Kennedy Smith to approve or reject the result of Mr. Nawsaw. We have the chance that a reformulation of the Kennedy family and its place in American life will emerge from his scholarship. For me that is the next stop in what has been a life time study.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Take Your Medicine

Where I can make a point about the current debate on healthcare.

Daily the headlines include news and commentary on a number of plans designed with a number of goals connected to medical services and their costs in the United States. I follow this discussion. I read each of the plans proposed by the candidates in the last election and an independent analysis done by the firm for which a colleague's son works. You could say I'm as up to date as much as a layperson might be.

The conflicts are not insurmountable. If medical care in all its forms is to be a market commodity then the time tested way of providing more of it is to increase its supply. We could fund more medical training with the caveat that this savings be reflected in the cost of care provided later. A greater number of doctors should provide for greater market coverage. This would eliminate the fear that care would need to be rationed to a greater extent than it is now and make no mistake health care is rationed now. We could also seek the prescription competition that is currently illegal. Surely there are countries with standards comparable to our FDA and we could import medicines from those countries and allow the market mechanism to lower price. These are a couple of ideas that would seem to be part of any solution that rests on a generally open market.

If on the other hand a collective decision was made that healthcare in the United States was not a commodity but rather was to be available to everyone regardless of means, and this is somewhat the case as no one can be turned away at an emergency room, then an attempt to control costs could begin with an emphasis on preventive care. Just as we require school children to be vaccinated in order to attend school, we could insist on standard screenings at appropriate ages that could interdict long term health issues. An example would be every thirty year old woman having the tests appropriate to her age and the tests being certified. The form would be included in a tax return. The results are kept confidential but that the test took place at all is an investment in lowering costs long term. Insurance companies are already rewarding proactive measures like this. A new designation of physician, a new means of providing medical service, emerges as a neccesity to replace the emergency room. The Nurse practioner model comes to mind. This would be the group who would carry out these new screenings.

The common point in either of these models is that there does not seem to be an incentive to become a doctor or nurse who provides medical services at a lower cost. This point was not addressed by either candidate in their platforms and it is not present in the current headlines and commentary either. That leaves this question for now:

How does the United States develop a policy that encourages people to be trained in medicine and act on that training at a lower cost short term and long term?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Play that Funky Music

Where I can ask a question.

Artists have begun to tour with the idea of playing an entire album as the basis of their show.  Van Morrison is touring with Astral Weeks.  This week Steely Dan is playing in Boston with Can't Buy a Thrill and Aja.  As I understand it the artists will play other songs as well but the whole concept got me thinking which albums I would like to see performed live.  Jules and I were talking about it the other night and came up with a couple.  Talking Book by Stevie Wonder was my leader in the clubhouse.  Coming up behind were Hotel California by the Eagles and The Joshua Tree by U2. Jules offered up Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens.

My question is:  Which albums would you like to see performed live?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Raison D'Etre

There should be a place...

Where I can write about things that are not connected to the job or to the Lighthouse.  This will be that place for anyone who cares to follow along.  

I took a look at Facebook this weekend to see if that would do the trick and ran into the issue of the students requesting connections.  Not at all what I want to do.  It also seemed like a ton of work to manage all the information that kept popping up on the page.

Here is where I can put down the sports stuff, the music stuff, the movie stuff, the book stuff and anything else that occurs to me without the overwhelming side of so many voices and so much happening simultaneously.  This format suits me  and will let me separate out the cultural ideas from the domestic events of the Point.  

There should be a place.  And now there is.