[Prelude: It is June 24th, and I have at last finished my final post for finALS. It is not the masterpiece I dreamed of writing, but I am not a writer, and it is from my heart. This Monday, my medical team, husband and I will explore palliative sedation to manage the terrible choking and gagging that now dominate my waking hours. Some people adapt; some never wake up.
Before I go, I must spotlight my husband, Paul Connell, who has, from the beginning, eschewed any limelight. Never has a spouse been more constant or devoted. And though we each have big personalities that clash, he has never wavered in his devotion or care.
I dedicate all I have accomplished in law school and after my diagnosis to Paul, without whose selflessness, I could have done little.
Well, I am back at last.
My doctor has called in hospice and used the phrase “last few months.”
And I have been paralyzed by the composition of this post.
You should all thank my writer friend David Klein that you are not reading my original idea. It involved stories of seeing Ken Burns speak in 2008–a version replete with quotations and commentary, I assure you–of how I wove segments from my beloved TV favorite, Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, into my teaching (again, with no shortage of inspirational anecdotes) and of how I discovered that the author and star of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shares my love for the show.
But this is not to be an artful feature delineating again the ideals that inspired my teaching or the late-life leap to law school that validated my life’s work and filled the 27 months since I was diagnosed with ALS with wonder and opportunity. And I would love to regale you with the story of my Network for Public Education friends and colleagues visiting my home with both a signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird ( I know, right?) and my education policy hero, Diane Ravitch. I want to describe the tears of joy I cried when they left and the tears of joy my family enjoyed when we were gifted tickets to Hamilton! My husband wept because I couldn’t go. I bawled like a baby because they could.
And I want to tell you how my daughter ended up with an older script of Hamilton that Miranda had given to a journalist!
But this is not another post about serendipitous meetings and virtually miraculous joy that have so fully packed my life since I was diagnosed with this heinous, degenerative, and terminal disease.
I have covered my blessings pretty well.
These are to be my final words. Not a lesson from a dying teacher. Not an argument from a dying lawyer.
But one last time to attempt candor and artless honestly about my passions, my regrets, and wishing that this cup could be taken from me.
A LAST LITERARY LESSON
It feels important as well that I not leave anyone thinking too highly of me.
I was blessed to accomplish much I am proud of, mainly because I genuinely bought in to the best ideals of those before me and found the courage to follow my callings–to strive always to do more and do better.
Deepest thanks to my teachers and heroes.
I would be terribly remiss, however, if I failed to share at least a few of my representative fears and failings.
I’ve thought often of Hawthorne’s exhortation in The Scarlet Letter:
“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”
While I will not spend this post mimicking the poor guilty minister’s self-flagellation (you’re welcome), I will be sharing some of my less admirable choices. In retrospect, in fact, I am certain that my shame and regret–my failures–motivated me to keep striving to do better.
A loud conscience is a benefit, I think. At long as it brings about striving to do better rather than paralysis via self-loathing.
I diverge from many of my progressive parent friends because I take to heart that a reasonable and loving authority figure is healthy and character building.
I have no regrets about that aspect of my parenting: I think my kids knew that we rode them because we love them.
And I think this model is more effective when I ride myself equally.
And I encourage you not to procrastinate or ignore an urge to change or do better. Following these feelings brought all the most rewarding experiences of my life. And though I am far from done–though I have more public ( political) and private ( personal) battles to wage and improvements to make, I am out of time. And terribly sad about it.
So emulate the best of the heroes in Hamilton, our flawed founding fathers–yes, many of whom were paternalistic slave owners, but–who genuinely wanted to do better. The tireless work of Diane Ravitch, who once embraced the errant ideology of the failed Bush education mandate, No Child Left Behind (newsflash: many of our most vulnerable populations were “left behind”) but who now is standard-bearer for Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, hundreds of leading education researchers, and hundreds of thousands of teachers and parents who are committed to the civic imperative of excellence and equity in public education.
And maybe even me: a self-absorbed, working-class only child who grew up oblivious to her privilege, pursuing only middle-class self-interest, but who learned through education and experience to change…
… To strive to be better, and in so doing, lived an adult life that makes it much less difficult to face death.
I know my redeemer lives.
I did not embrace this belief until I was 28. And it is and has been the greatest gift of my life. I thank G-d for making him/herself real to me.
Every worthwhile accomplishment of my life–especially my love for my students and my passion for justice and tolerance–came from my faith.
My worst failings–especially my impatience, a hardness on others to live up to my (unjustified) expectations, and my intolerance for the intolerant–come from my failures to live out my faith.
I am grateful for forgiving friends and a forgiving G-d.
Regrets: Though I raised my children in church and strove to find churches that reflected the love of Jesus of Nazareth rather than the rules of so much organized religion, I never really prioritized participation in my church communities.
We moved several times when my kids were small, and I never fought hard enough to find the right church–a place that worked for social justice and where I could be confident that any person I invited would feel welcomed and loved for who they were.
For a couple of years, I asked my husband for us to tithe on our net, but I worried too much about birthday parties, vacations, activities, and home lifestyle to put giving first.
No Regrets: I did keep trying though, and about a year before leaving Charlotte, I bit the bullet and began shlepping my family to Warehouse 242, a place where I once saw one of my gay/trans high school students visit, and knew I had made the right decision! And when we moved to Chapel Hill, I at last found United Church of Chapel Hill, an open and affirming church community that focuses on serving “the least of these,” is active in the North Carolina Moral Monday movement for social justice, and actively promotes racial equity.
Despite my failures to live out my faith as I would have hoped, I was gifted lifelong friendship with several teens I led in a small group at a church in Charlotte that was much too legalistic for my comfort. I think I won these friendships because I never lied to the girls. I acknowledged the dissonance they perceived between the Jesus they knew or wanted to know and the legalism of our church and /or the politics of their parents.
Somehow I always respectfully challenged those I believe misrepresented the G-d who made himself real to me.
And for that, no regrets.
I do apologize to those with whom I disagreed, but failed to always love or respect. For example, the three arrogant social conservatives who poisoned my law school class: I held my ground against you in public, but I’m afraid I also referred to you surreptitiously as the unholy trinity.
And Andrew Brown, if you wonder why you practically had to rewrite your Law Review piece in which you demonized homosexuals and their rights as adoptive parents, well, that was me spending over twenty hours to eviscerate your pseudo-academic arguments and discredit your sources.
Oh, and Andrew, if you were my student and had used brackets to skew a quote to dishonestly promote your argument, I would have disciplined you to the outer boundaries of academic protocol.
Did you see what I did there?
I showed you that I enjoy kicking over the moneylenders’ tables in the temple a bit too much.
I think I was called to be a fighter, but I don’t think I always fought with love and humility.
May we all seek truth and justice while simultaneously striving to love our enemies as they are loved.
G-d help us all. S/he loves when we try and shows us unlimited forgiveness. This I know, and for this I am grateful.
It’s been a major issue in my life. And one I hate to leave on the table. Along with money in politics, corporate personhood, and the future of public education.
And so I find myself thinking of Greensboro.
The legendary lunch counter sit-ins.
This North Carolina city is now home to the Racial Equity Institute. My principal at Phoenix Academy, the alternative high school, sagely invested in each of his employees by sending us to the two-day introductory seminar of REI. The main reaction of attendees is “life-changing.” No guilting or emotional manipulation in sight, but two days of systematic realities steeped in history and taught by a diverse and largely dispassionate team. They are not crusading, but if you are interested in the statistics–the outcomes for people of color in health care, financial services, law enforcement, education, and other social structures, then they have the facts.
If you are ready and willing to face the not-so-just realities.
And Greensboro is also the home of my former law school classmate and honors writing scholar, Jessica. She married an African-American man, and they have three of the most beautiful biracial children I have ever seen. And though she has been busy with three children under five, she has come to Chapel Hill and fed me and my family on multiple occasions, and today she drove round-trip from Greensboro so that I could meet her two-month-old daughter before she had to pick up her toddler boys … or be charged a dollar a minute.
When I see the videos of those bad apples in law enforcement dragging black teenage girls in swimsuits to the ground or toppling one out of her school desk, or arresting Sandra Bland, I think of Jessica’s daughter. When I see the statistics and remember the stories of everything from violence to injustice to mere humiliation endured by my former students and my friends, I think of all our citizens of color and the ugly truth of Americans who must raise their children in fear.
And I hurt for white America, too many of whom deny the reality of our country’s latent and simmering injustice to so many people of color.
A child of the Deep South born in 1964 to parents raised on farms and in rental shacks around Vidalia, Georgia, I was lucky.
My parents taught me the right words:
- Don’t judge people by skin color.
- Everyone should be treated equally.
- Don’t use the N-word.
But there were no black kids in my Mississippi elementary school and no black families in my neighborhoods… ever.
And the bulk of my south Georgia relatives never got the N-word memo.
By high school, I was passively non-racist but had never had a non-white friend.
Regrets : My worst memories…
- When I was a high school sophomore, some popular girls I longed to befriend me asked me to go out after the football game. We got sundaes at the McDonald’s, and one had a hair in it. And so we circled round to request a replacement. Four privileged white girls in nice clothes carrying their generous allowances and riding in a parent’s new sedan. When we returned to the drive-thru, my new friend spoke into the speaker to the African-American girl at the window: “We need another sundae, and this time, hold the ni–er hair.”
- I alone didn’t laugh, but I also didn’t speak up or get out of the car. And I still burn with shame at the memory.
No regrets: Junior year University, I brought my roommate home for Thanksgiving. I did not even think to tell my parents she was black. But when my poor mother said that she was afraid of what the neighbors would think, I stood up.
Dr. Anne Sharp, Dr. Albert Somers, Dr. Zach Kelehear and the wonderful English and Education professors unmasked the systematic racism of our education systems and even our very linguistics.
Never in my teaching career could I say “with liberty and justice for all” without adding “someday, if we all work for it.”
I am proud to have passed these lessons to my students and to reap the harvest of watching them work for a more just society. And of course, the root of the problem is not race alone, but the evil human propensity to divide ourselves by skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and myriad other traits. We declare our own group best or righteous, then marginalize and scapegoat “the other.” And in doing so, we undermine the promises of equality in both our Declaration and Constitution. We also fail to love our brothers as ourselves. As shared before, here is the story of my finest hour.
Which I pray will counter the all-too-prevalent voices of evil flourishing in our political, and even religious arenas.
I have celebrated the election of our first biracial president only to witness a stunning political backlash and obstruction. I have witnessed racial attacks on President Obama and even his family. I witnessed the police attacks on black men and women, and the overtly racist slaughter in a Charleston church.
And now I have seen the most openly racist candidate become the GOP nominee for the upcoming presidential election. Ken Burns shares my concerns.
I go with hope.
My children mirror my generational progress. My professors at UNC Law and the leaders in my church are standing up… and long have been. And oh, my amazing law school classmates, at so many centers and organizations, working for true equality for all.
I am so grateful to know them all. And to see Ta-Nehisi Coates win a genius grant. And to see Hamilton become the greatest Broadway sensation with a predominantly non-white cast portraying our crusty white founding fathers.
My hope is that America’s majority culture can admit that it is harder to be a person of color here and that this reality does not comport with our ideals.
For soon after that tipping point, this ugly reality will cease to be part of our identity.
“Someday… If we all work for it.”
ON LAW & POLITICS
I am failing fast: my abilities to swallow and breathe are plummeting. I will therefore need to be succinct and, hopefully compelling in this potentially off-putting yet crucial section.
In 1981 I told my A.P. English teacher that I was apolitical. Though I doubt I knew that term. I’m sure my arrogance was less articulate.
I believe I made this claim because she asked me a question about politics, and I was far too self-involved to watch even the evening news, and so I could not give a knowledgeable answer to her question.
But I remember her upbraiding, partly because she was right, and partly because this truth haunted me and grew in me for decades.
She called bullshit like only a legendary, scholarly, and terrifying old English teacher who has been setting entitled little snots straight for decades can.
She looked me in the eyes and told me not delude myself. For we are all political. She described how almost all of our choices–where we shop, what we buy, where we live, where we educate our children–are all political actions. The only question, she assured me, was whether these choices would be informed decisions or whether I would be too lazy to become informed.
I am loath to admit how slow I was on this curve.
No regrets: During college, life abroad, graduate school, and almost two decades of teaching, I never forgot the clarion truth of Ms. Braswell’s words. I only wish that I had been more informed and much more civically active sooner.
Two tough truths I learned along the way:
- “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
― Paulo Freire
- “Allowing the ratio of time we spend enjoying our freedom, wealth, and justice to materially surpass the time we spend preserving those blessings virtually guarantees they will diminish, or even be lost while we are not looking.” – Vivian Connell
When I came to UNC Law in 2010, North Carolina was a moderate state, considered progressive for the South. The Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill topped lists of best places to live in America.
But then moderates and progressives busy enjoying this status looked away, and paid a disastrous price when dark money flipped our General Assembly to the radical right. It hadn’t happened in a century, but it happened the moment citizens disengaged from civic attentiveness. We have seen national model education programs dismantled, and our voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and, most recently HB2,”the Bathroom Bill,” have pitted us against federal authorities and made us a national laughingstock.
Of course, these developments are no joke to the poor without health care, to minorities facing all kinds of discrimination, or to public school teachers and advocates who have seen their resources and rankings plummet.
Here are a few of the fights that must be fought when citizens in a democracy cannot be bothered with the work of politics:
Me, just out of law school in 2013:
It is really this simple: you are political whether you knowingly control the influence you wield or whether you cede your power to others through superficial participation or non-participation.
Informed participation, though. How the hell does one manage it?
Where can one find the truth untainted by special interests?
Obviously, by reading and viewing a variety of sources, some of which do not rely upon special interests for funding.
And if you become frustrated by how “they” have made terrible laws or skewed public policy in a way in which you disapprove, you might want to become one of “them.” I did, and I sought to get to the heart of the democratic process by attending law school.
Now would be a good time to be succinct.
The gravamen of almost every issue demands that we prioritize either our ideals or our economy. And while we need to maintain our economy, there are two essential ways that we have prioritized money to an extent that it is undermining our democracy.
- money in politics
- quarterly capitalism
Money in politics
Because of a Supreme Court decision called Citizens United–often named along with Dred Scott, Plessy, and Bush v. Gore as the potentially worst Court decision ever–uber-wealthy entities can buy elections.
We must support campaign finance reform so that ideas determine victors. We must find, recruit, and elect representatives who will govern for the greater good. We must recognize and reject empty rhetoric in superficial, soundbite ads.
When one of our most conservative representatives challenged Democratic senator Kay Hagan in 2014, I agreed to act as spokesperson in a $3 million ad buy for the NEA. I loathed the simplistic script because I knew Thom Tillis’s record on education and would have vastly preferred an hour-long, fact-based debate on a website that would not have cost the educators I represented a penny.
I pray that with Citizens United‘s author, Justice Antonin Scalia, deceased and the legion of young Sanders supporters, the coming years will see true campaign finance reform. The reality of special interests and corporations disproportionately deciding ought to horrify anyone who loves this country and the truly democratic ideals for which it stands.
Or consider the words of the inimitable Andy Borowitz.
My Business Associations class–a course called Corporations at some law schools– enlightened me as to the core legal atrocity that undermines the ability of American companies to contribute to not only our economy but also to the greater good of our society.
Do you wonder why so few corporate officers or companies ever pay for their bad, or virtually fraudulent choices? It’s because our laws protect them from virtually any risk they take. If they can concoct any rationale that their risk was a potential money maker for share holders, then they are protected.
Worst, this singular focus on immediate profit means that corporate leaders face not only disincentive but potential lawsuits should they wish to take a longer and broader view of corporate citizenship. The law prevents them from investing in worker training, more research and development, community betterment, education enhancement, programs to reward and protect their consumer base, or other forward-looking ideas that would enrich all of the corporation’s constituents.
Please listen to this indictment of this system, in which corporate officers decline to consider actions for the long-term benefit of their companies and their constituents–investors, workers, clients, neighbors, and their habitat–if doing so might mean dropping even one penny off their stock price for the quarter.
Thus, we have codified greed and outlawed wisdom.
Our companies should make more than money. They should enrich their communities, workers, business, and society.
Even our Judeo-Christian tradition tells us of a year of jubilee in which debts were forgiven and indentured servants freed. And while I suggest nothing so radical, I insist that we must reform our corporate law AND adhere to financial reforms in Dodd-Frank if we are to retain a robust middle class and remain a society in which business serves people, and not vice versa.
If you can, see Robert Reich’s Inequality for All.
My heart aches. Other than wife and mother, I have predominantly been a public school teacher. It hurts and angers me to see what special interests and the last two administrations, Bush and Obama, have done to this cherished civic responsibility.
It is funny–not “ha-ha” funny, of course–that I wanted this to be the richest section, a big finale, but it is likely to be the most truncated. I am sleeping more each day and struggling to swallow and breathe during the hours I am awake. And as much as I might write about various policy initiatives, like charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, and especially the insidious philosophy of market-based reform (that would have us apply profit-making principles to the complex, subtle, and sacred art of educating our populace), I want to get to the core.
I have spent over three hours this morning working with my hospice nurse, my saint of a caregiver husband, my tireless and loyal assistant, to clear my secretions and stop this horrific gagging and choking, so I regret leaving this section for last!
But seriously, folks…
I regret failing to integrate the promotion of civic engagement during the early years of my teaching. It certainly distinguished the final years of my career, and I am grateful to have lived to see so many of my students become teachers, lawyers and activists.
The hundred-plus emails and messages from students, the tens of visits ( most from Charlotte to Chapel Hill) made by students and even a couple of parents who helped unpack from my move (Jodi Brown) and even execute a plethora of retirement and insurance documents to assure our children’s trust would be the beneficiary (Hallie Hawkins) are major blessings. A couple of weeks ago, two young women visited– including one who feels a profound connection with my daughter, for which I am so delighted – – and when we had a nurse cancel, they cared for me like I was their own mother.
I hope this means that they know I really loved them.
Even when overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and demeaned by many who genuinely believe that “those who can’t, teach, ” I regret not even one day I spent in the classroom.
Closing comments about education policy:
First, in lieu of embarking upon a treatise on education policy, I’ll let a passionate young history teacher who just marched to Raleigh to practice civil disobedience tell the story in a much more engaging manner.
And if You wish to remain informed about public education and align yourself with one of the most important social movements of the age, follow Diane Ravitch and support The Network for Public Education. They will be on the right side of history.
I am most concerned with all schemes to create “for-profit” charters for K-12 education. A quick Google search of charter school and fraud yields over 1 million results. Which makes sense: as you will remember from our discussion of quarterly capitalism, businesses exist to serve their owners. (If anyone wants to read my rather prescient Law Review note eviscerating corruption in for-profit higher education.
Can any first-rate, moral country exist and thrive without providing its citizenry with quality education?
I want my final commentary to address the purpose of education, a topic which ought be at the heart of every education debate yet which too often parents, businessmen, and the general populace presume to be settled.
But is the goal of education to produce a workforce or enlightenment? Should it indoctrinate children to sustain and succeed within the status quo or to challenge what is and strive ever for progress, even if change is painful?
As a country born of revolution and the Enlightenment, our answer must be the latter. Every educated citizen should have a working understanding of our government, as well as a belief that their civic engagement is essential to maintaining our democracy and that they can make a profound difference in their worlds.
Children in our best schools already come away with this understanding. Unfortunately, many of today’s education reformers are powerful business entities and politicians who would defund the liberal arts.
North Carolina governor Pat McCrory made the following telling remark: Liberal arts Programs, he said, ought to continue, but not receive government subsidies.
Let me translate: If you are wealthy enough to attend a prestigious private university, then you may study whatever you like: anthropology, minority Literature, developing political systems, gender studies, dance. But if not, you ought to be required to study subjects that promote the economic interests of those in power–business, technology, and skill majors. The goal of the education haves can be enrichment; the education have-nots will be herded into a compliant labor force.
Governor McCrory did not mention that his undergraduate degree from a private school is in philosophy.
Or that the majority of U.S. senators majored in the liberal arts. So did the majority of lawyers.
The study of history, Literature and the arts inspires and empowers, and it must remain accessible to all. And all of our public schools must equitably prepare every child to pursue his or her calling, whatever it may be.
And as long as there exist schools in our communities that are not considered good enough for some children, yet which remain the only option for other kids, we must acknowledge that the playing field of the American dream is not level.
And that until it is, we continue to fall short of justice for all.
Finally, most of you will have heard of “the achievement gap”–the disparity in educational outcomes between the predominantly successful students and those who fail to thrive or become functional members of society. Researchers have long (and largely accurately) identified poverty as the key demographic of “failing schools.”
But about a year ago, a Gallup poll found a more specific predictor of academic success: hope. And the miracle of Tangelo Park has born out the truth of this finding.
These poor minority students–kids many middle-class and affluent parents don’t want their kids to have to go to school with–suddenly began graduating at over 95 percent, one of the best in the country. Why?
Because they knew that if they got into college, they could go. It would be paid for. They were given the power to win in a system stacked against them.
They were given hope.
And none of us should rest until every American child has that hope.
I have arrived at the end time of this disease, and it is horrific as they say. As I struggle not to choke and gag, I do wish that I had fewer regrets. Of course, these wishes that I had been a better wife, mother, and friend are tempered by all the love and mercy with which I have been blessed.
I want to thank the many amazing and generous people who have helped us in too many ways to innumerate. And thank the thousands of you who have read and shared my blog ; I am deeply honored that anyone has found value, comfort, or inspiration in my words.
May G-d bless and keep you all.
As I often told my students, few of us will be a Mother Teresa or a Hitler, but we will each make the world a little better or worse.
May we all strive to make it better. May we engage responsibly in the miraculous gift of our democracy and support public-interest lawyers and entities working for social justice. It feels so much better than following thoughtlessly in consumerism and self-interest.
History has its eyes on us all.
And as for death, I will quote Grandpa Blakeslee from Olive Ann Burns’s novel, Cold Sassy Tree: “Hit’s what you get for living.”
And though ALS is one of the worst demises imaginable, I’ll take the trade.
P. S. I will be listening to the beautiful Gilead, the Harry Potter audio books as well as all my favorite playlists. (As Dumbledore says, “Ah music. A magic beyond all we do.”) My whole family will be listening to Hamilton–and how lucky I was to be alive right now. And I made it through The West Wing and The Newsroom again. Bless all of you who listened and watched with me, especially my patient and loving husband and my wonderful and Sorkin-savvy children! Thanks also kids for sharing Doctor Who. I would not have missed it for the world.