Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The Great Unknown" appears in Hippocampus Magazine

This is my first piece to be both written and published after completing my MFA. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Becoming a Veteran" in the anthology Incoming

I wrote an essay about finally feeling like a veteran. The feeling wasn't something that happened as soon as I got home from Iraq, it took years, actually. It took leaving the Army and moving from Anchorage to Arctic Village, and the death of another veteran for me to understand my place in the heritage of comrades of armed foreign conflict. 

That essay appears in this new anthology produced by an organization called So Say We All. I hope you'll order a copy. There are at least twenty fantastic essays in here about various experiences of homecoming



Monday, December 14, 2015

On Literacy

Sometime in 2012, well into my second year of teaching, I read the book Boys in Poverty: AFramework for Understanding Dropout. This book connected what I saw happening in my classroom with trends seen around the rest of the country. It substantiated the importance of literacy, and in particular, the importance of early education. And though the data is stark, at best, especially for privileged folk, it should be motivating, not immobilizing.

Maybe it would be helpful to add context to where I was when I read Boys in Poverty. My career at that point was serving as a “Secondary Generalist Teacher” in a small indigenous Alaska native community. There were approximately 22 students in my classroom spanning grades 5 through 12. I say approximately because our school’s population varied throughout the academic year. Kids get sent off to boarding school and kids come back from boarding school. Our village was only accessible by airplane—one flight arriving once a day. Often kids went to town with family and could be gone a month or more. Often kids went to town and stayed with family and didn’t come back. There were also kids around the village not enrolled in school, especially older adolescents. Secondary generalist means there was the potential for me to teach any subject. I was hired as a qualified language arts and social studies teacher for grades 7-12. Upon arriving at the school my first day in the fall of 2010, I was told I’d be teaching math and implementing a new reading intervention program. Generalist means you teach whatever the district tells you to.

Boys in Poverty was published in 2011, so this data is now at least four years old, but I imagine not much has changed.

  • Nationally, about 70 percent of students graduate from high school on time with a regular diploma, but little more than half of African American and Hispanic students earn diplomas with peers.
  • Approximately two thousand high schools (about 14% of American high schools) produce more than half of the nation’s dropouts. At these “dropout factories,” the number of seniors enrolled is routinely 60% or less than the number of freshman three years earlier. “Dropout factories” produce 81% of all Native American dropouts, 73% of all African American dropouts, and 66% of all Hispanic dropouts. 
  • More than 1/3 of all dropouts occur in the 9th grade.
  • Approximately 75% of state prison inmates did not complete high school.
  • A male high school graduate with a D average is fourteen times more likely to become incarcerated than a graduate with an A average.
  • Dropouts from the class of 2007 alone cost the nation nearly $329 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity other their lifetimes.
  • Over the course of a lifetime, a high school dropout earns, on average, about $260,000 less than a high school graduate.

There isn’t one way to prevent a student from dropping out. The framework for understanding dropout is complicated and developmentally considers physical, emotional, cognitive and social behavior as indicators, though many studies link dropout to literacy. Proficient readers are less likely to dropout and some research even shows that by the fourth grade the likelihood of a student dropping out of high school can be determined merely by measuring reading proficiency. Reading isn’t the only antecedent. There most certainly are many other environmental concerns that affect a student’s success, but literacy plays a big part. Literacy doesn’t begin in high school nor does it begin in the fourth grade. Literacy begins before a student can even read, before they can even communicate. Infants begin cataloguing vocabulary by the time they’re 6 months old. They begin understanding math and logic almost immediately after they’re born. Emotional regulation begins at about the 3-month mark. Motor coordination is always developing. These are windows of opportunity, beginnings of literacy that start very early and according to many researchers, impact dropout.

So, what are we to do as future clergy? According to theELCA website, Lutheran congregations and synods operate more than 1,500 early education programs, elementary schools and secondary schools—the majority of these being early childhood centers (preschool and kindergarten). I’m curious what the demographics are. I’m curious about the socio-economic status of the student’s parents. I’m curious if we’re talking all day, day care style programming, or curriculum that emphasizes literacy. Public schools have mandated curriculum and nation wide testing, which private schools don’t. For better or worse, private schools have the liberty of autonomy.

When you get to your congregation what are you going to do with your church’s pre-school? Is it the first item on the list of budget items that can be cut? Is it stuck in the recesses of your building, someplace you rarely visit? Do you have a preschool because you’ve always had a preschool, or do you have a preschool because its part of the mission of your church, and a way of serving the community? How many families in the neighborhood around your church have children not enrolled in early childhood education?

While public school is freely available, largely funded by property taxes, preschool is not usually free. Unless a child is part of a special education program (SPED/IEP) they wouldn’t be authorized public preschool (often called “Head Start”). Could your church start a sponsorship program? Those young professionals in the congregation that don’t have children yet. Or those older couples with older children no longer in school. Create a scholarship program supporting families in your church’s community who can’t afford to send their kids to preschool. Empowering individuals through early childhood literacy could be the single most effective way of combating racial and social inequities in our country right now. 

Post five in a series of five posts for a class at Luther Seminary this semester: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Dialogue with Public Theology Today."

Friday, November 13, 2015

What Makes a Hero?

Why don't soldiers like being called heroes?

Is there such thing as glory in war?

Where does this archetype originate and why is it still so prevalent in society?

What happens when you thank a veteran for their service?

This twenty minute mini-documentary from BBC is well worth the watch.

Click the image or follow this link: 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On Armistice Day

How did we go from commemorating the cessation of one of the worst wars ever to discount products at the local mini market, free passes to a local movie theater, and a plethora of adoration poured upon individuals that claim they “were just doing their job?”

Armistice Day: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, for all intents and purposes, it was the end of World War I. The war to end all wars. The Great War. Over 38 million casualties. Nearly 2/3 of all European ‘military age males’ either killed or maimed beyond the ability to procreate. And thus the recurring remembrance of Armistice Day was not for the dead, nor the living, but for peace. What we now call Veteran’s Day in the United States falls on the same day as the old Armistice Day, though it was originally a commemoration of peace, of the end of the ugliness that scoured itself across Europe and swept up most of the western World. But in 1954 the United States grew Armistice Day into Veteran’s Day, expounding recognition for millions of World War II and Korean War veterans.

What happened to the original intent? Is it still there somewhere? I’m not arguing for a dismantling of Veteran’s Day. Nor am I wishing to make my own disillusionment contagious so that civilians become cynical of the respect they have for Veteran’s on November 11th.
I’m curious how remembrance of peace evolved into admiration for Veteran’s, which now seems to manifest itself in nearly exponential adoration lurking within the proclamation, “Thank you for your service.” It’s not the ‘thanks’ bestowed upon the Veteran that degrades or detracts from the intent of the holiday, but when the ‘thanks’ over shadows the ‘service,’ because it is the service originally responsible for the holiday. I think the complication is the disconnect between the civilian and the soldier. Many soldiers don’t want thanks, and have few words to respond with when they receive thanks. While the latter part of the proclamation, the mention of service, is something vivid for the veteran but vague for the civilian. And so it’s the service that the civilian might not understand. The countless hours spent on guard duty, the vivid memories of carrying body bags to a landing zone to be picked up by a medevac helicopter, the sound an incoming mortar or rocket, the sound of outgoing artillery, the sound of gunfire in crowded streets, the sound of gunfire in open fertile farm country, the mixing of cigar smoke with diesel exhaust none of which mask the body order of 130 degree heat and smell of fear after an IED explodes and oily opaque smoke still wafts the air. Memories are on the forefront of a Veteran’s mind and a day that risks’ idolizing their service corrupts the recognition of peace which originated on November 11th and the peace which the veteran hopes for in their heart.

And so I’m wondering how we got to become a nation that unequivocally supports veterans while participatory rates of military service, even in a time of war, continue to dwindle? And when we so easily support our veterans through proclamation, do we risk committing idolatry? When we glorify our veterans as heroes, sharing proclamation and praising a popular phrase do we turn them into idols?
This is a time when fewer individuals are volunteering for our nation’s military, and particularly, during the last decade’s bout with war, less than 1% of our population participated in armed conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet we’ve continued to love and adore the soldier. Maybe our nation has a preoccupation with the glorified soldier archetype, which we idolize, and in doing so completely miss the nuance of the individual. But it’s the individual you need to know on this day. Not necessarily what they went through. But get to know the peace they seek after war.

So if thanking a soldier for their service creates momentary recognition of lifelong burdens the veteran will always bear, what do you do? Don’t not talk to the veteran and don’t be afraid of the veteran. Instead of echoing a line we’ve all heard, ask us how we’re doing. Challenge us to a conversation. Listen us into free speech. Be genuinely interested in what we’re up to. Create a space for relationship and opportunity—not adoration. And if you have no idea what else to say, share the peace. Say, “peace be with you dear veteran, on this day in particular.”

Post four in a series of five posts for a class at Luther Seminary this semester: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Dialogue with Public Theology Today."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brian Turner on Incoming

If you're not familiar with the poet Brian Turner, take 20 minutes and listen to this podcast from last Friday. So Say We All is a literary non-profit from San Diego promoting the lives of Vets through their series "Incoming."

Stay tuned because at some point a collection of redeployment/reintegration essays will be released. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

On Being an "Upstander"

In July 1931 Arthur and Edith Lee purchased a home in the Field Neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Arthur was a veteran of World War I and had a job working for the United States Postal Service. Over a decade since the Great War ended, I imagine Mr. Lee living each day within a comfortable routine. Taking care of his property. Like most soldiers, I imagine he had the skills and the wherewithal to complete most of the little projects necessary with being a homeowner. After seeing something as ugly as a war and risking one’s life on foreign soil, I imagine what Arthur enjoyed most was coming home and spending time with Edith and their young daughter. Unfortunately, the Lee’s only lived in this south Minneapolis neighborhood a short while because five years prior a covenant had been drafted and signed by other homeowners prohibiting blacks from moving into this neighborhood.

I’ve owned three houses so far in my life. I’ve been blessed not only with opportunity and prosperity, but a heritage of economic stability. And though I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon, my wife and I have been fiscally blessed because of the freedoms white landowners have always had in this country.

While driving home from class last Friday, I heard Judge LaDoris Cordell’s lecture given to students at the University of Minnesota—replayed twice on MPR—and I now better understand the closed doors African Americans have faced over the course of several generations. After listening to the lecture I see why the current frustrations in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, which have caused rioting and outcry, is an oppression that dates back, and repeats itself, over several generations. Among so many other issues, it can trace origins to neighborhood covenants that prohibited “blacks” from “moving in,” to legislative zoning systematically planned out to create inhospitable ghettos, to bigoted politicians in the 19-teens, 1930’s, and 1960’s who 'red lined' the cities to quarantine African Americans into less desirable areas of town, places that lacked opportunity, places that lacked infrastructure for healthy living, places where home ownership wasn’t an option.

Reflecting back on my adolescent years, I know I was raised in a cloud of suburban, lower-middle class entitlement. Then as a 14-year old I made a series of bad decisions and wound up in juvenile court. After being sentenced to a chunk of mandatory community service hours, my pastor set me up at the local homeless shelter, which our church regularly supported. Up until a few years ago, when I started working with homeless youth in Fairbanks, Alaska, I hadn’t really reflected on the importance those first community service hours had on me. I ended up completing the hours sooner than planned, and stuck around helping at the shelter until my high school years overwhelmed me with other jobs and social events. In 2006 and 2007 I spent fifteen months in Iraq. My platoon of 25 was made up of all men, mostly under the age of 25, mostly from the lower end of the socio-economic scale and racially and ethnically diverse. As the sole officer in the platoon, I was the only one with, and required to have a college degree. Though we were young, we were all highly trained and heavily armed, spending nearly every day of that deployment “outside the wire” supporting the American mission in the Middle East. After surviving the war, there was little more I wanted than to come home and enjoy freedom. The first months after returning I felt naked without my rifle, frequently jerking for it as if it were a ghost whose presence was still felt. And though it’s been nearly eight years since I came home, the war’s something I think about daily. But my thinking occurs within the safety and freedom of my own home. I’m blessed to have a home that has become a place of healing and relaxation, a home to take pride in and invest myself in through small projects and tasks. Owning a home brings clarity and focus. Going about a task and seeing it to fruition not only is a way of caring for my own well being, but also expresses responsibility and security for my family.

I can’t imagine what Arthur Lee must have felt when nearly 4,000 people congregated nightly in front of his home and tried to persuade him to flee. 4,000 people that had stood behind this country through his service in the trenches in Europe now told him he had no right to live where he wanted to live. If we call this history, if we paint this as a picture of the past, we run the risk not only of forgetting, but also of allowing it to happen again. In her lecture, Judge LaDorris Crodell says there are bystanders and upstanders. The bystanders stand by. They throw up their hands and say ‘what difference can I make.’ They don’t necessarily participate in the hate and the bigotry and the oppression, but they aren’t helping to fight it either. While an upstander is someone who ‘stands up,’ ‘sings up,’ ‘lawyers up,’ and ‘speaks when silence is easier.’ Someone who runs the risk of being ostracized for the justice they proclaim. A bystander is passive. An upstander is active. How many community covenants still have repressive language that keeps people away? How many doctrines and charters are still out there oppressing in ways we allow to occur because we are bystanders? 

When I was a child I did childish things and was sentenced to give back to my community. My works didn’t save me, but they did get me out of a possible stint in detention and showed me other ways of the world. My desire for more service became a charity, but charity isn’t good enough. Charity is only giving a part of your self. Being an upstander for social justice is giving all of your self. What I learned working with homeless teens in Fairbanks is when I ate what they ate, shared their rejoices as well as their sorrows, I was giving my whole self. I prayed for them and with them. As the name of our agency detailed, I was being an advocate, working to be an upstander.

Being a bystander makes the world about you, a person who is present, but doesn’t take part. Being an upstander it can’t be about you, it can only be about others. Judge Ladorris Cordell taught me to know history because it shapes the present and inhibits the future. Know history because it’s full of people that have bled, cried, and died writing it.

Post three in a series of five posts for a class at Luther Seminary this semester: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. in Dialogue with Public Theology Today."