No More Fear

Of the stranger,
Of the friend,

Of the burning sun,
Of the moonless night,

Of the broken down minivan,
Of the billing department,

Of the pain in my back,
Of the ending of a beautiful day,

Of the end of joy,
Of the suffering to come,

Of the walk alone,
Of the crowded room,

Of the loss of life,
Of the future of what remains

I will not be afraid.

I will not live my life closed off from the other.
I will not close my hand into a fist.
I will not wrap that fist around the grip of a gun.

I will not hate.
I will not fear.

I will be open.
I will be vulnerable.

I will be trusting.
I will be hopeful.
I will be unguarded.

A life of fear is not worth living.

I choose a life of love.

Violence Is The Problem

After posting about the school shooting in Kentucky a couple of days ago, the eleventh such shooting in the country since January 1, 2018, I had a friend ask me a question that stuck with me.

(By the way, every time I think it’s time to walk away from social media altogether, someone posts some question or some expression of kindness that draws me back in. I suppose that’s the beauty of relationships and being willing to talk to each other.)

The question that my friend asked was as follows:

Russell, as an educator, what are you seeing from young people in regards to the sanctity of life? Have they become desensitized, or is this more of a mental health crisis?

I’m not sure that my response was really worth saving and reposting here. I’m not sure that I’ve captured what I’m really thinking, but I think it is a start.
And sometimes a start is enough.
I do not believe that young people are desensitized to violence at all.
Nor do I think this can be blamed on a mental heath crisis (although, the stress of this life and our complete refusal to fund mental healthcare certainly exacerbates that.)
In my experience, they’re all too aware of the unpredictable nature of the dangers surrounding them.
What has happened is that they are losing their sense of safety and security. There are few places in their world that are untouched by violence.
This doesn’t desensitize them. I would argue that it has the exact opposite effect of making them hypersensitive to violence and death.
And it’s this sense of an absence of safety that harms them and causes a lost sense of the sanctity of life.
If even school and church are places of death and destruction, life doesn’t seem sacred at all, does it?
America’s love affair with violence as a cure for what ails us, our insistence that violence is the only appropriate response to anything less than adoration, our love affair with instruments of violence as our only recourse, is what I see as the central problem.
The mere possibility of infringement buries the art of peaceable assembly, of petition in seeking redress of grievances.
We’ve denigrated the outstretched hand and replaced it with the fist.
And we’re passing it on, everyday, to our children.

Why I Write

When I was a young kid, there were three channels on TV.

Think about that for a moment. No shows on your phone (which was hanging on the wall). No shows on your computer (which cost, if you were lucky $2,000, and displayed text in green on a black screen). No shows in your room (we had one TV in the living room, and you had to walk up to it to change the channel on the dial).

Three channels. And not one of them was showing Star Trek at a reasonable hour for a 9 year old to watch.

There were no Blurays, DVDs, or even VHS or Beta waiting on the shelf for you to embrace your hidden geekiness.

The only time that Star Trek came on was occasionally on Saturday nights, at 11:30pm, on a channel out of Augusta rather than Savannah.

Which was a problem.

Cause the antenna on the roof was always pointed toward Savannah, not Augusta. (We could kinda pick up one channel from Augusta rather than three from Savannah.)

To watch Star Trek, one had to go outside, take the pliers, and twist the pole to point to Augusta, all while waking the neighbors as you shouted in, “IS IT ON YET?”

So the only geek show came on once a week at 11:30pm (with church the following morning—and a mom who would beat you if you happened to drop off). It was a hard time to be a Trekker.

Whatever should a trekker do, but learn to write his own Star Trek adventures.

You see, if you really wanted to be Captain James T. Kirk, you had to write your own adventures.

And so, I learned to love words because they could take me to strange new worlds. Through it, I could seek out new life, and new civilizations. Through my pen, I too, could boldly go where no man had gone before.

That’s the miracle of words, sentences, paragraphs and stories.

That’s why I write: because I want to create new worlds to explore. I want to dream of new life, and build new civilizations.

Plus, as Stephen King likes to say, it’s still a good way to pass the time.

And that’s what writing can bring to you, too.

You see every one of us sees this world and this life and this civilization through different eyes. And the only way those worlds will ever come into existence is through the act of piecing words together into stories.

And that’s why we write: to bring life to the unique, individual ideas that are bouncing around in our heads.

To paraphrase, Uncle Walt, we are large, we contain multitudes. We simply need to let them out.

What It Means to be an American

I am proud to be an American.

Mr. Trump did not have my support during the election. His policies are often the exact opposite of what I believe the country stands for and believes in.

I have been “giving him a chance” since he won the Republican nomination in the hopes that if he were to win, I could find a pathway through the next four years that wouldn’t be damaging for my family.

I have certainly been giving him a chance since he became the President-Elect.

His actions, his immaturity, his selections for cabinet members, and his public statements for where he is planning to take the country have only increased my concerns for the direction that he and the Republican Party are heading.

His policies, his actions, his attitude are directly hostile to my family. And so, in the tradition of the protests that have long made this country great, I will protest against the actions of President-Elect whenever he attempts to take the country in a direction that I believe harms people.

This is, for me, what it means to be an America: To stand in opposition to oppression, hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear. To speak for the voiceless. To give comfort to the sick, the injured, the homeless, and the hopeless. To sing of this sweet land of liberty and justice for all.

What I will not do is what Mr. Trump did for most of President Obama’s term in office. I will not attempt to delegitimize the person in the office simply because I don’t like the color of his skin, the name he calls himself, or where he was born.

In short, after Mr. Trump takes the oath of office today, I will be hoping for him to mature and lead this country in a way that would bring honor to us all. I will also be ready to stand and oppose his actions whenever and wherever I believe it is necessary to do so.

I will, however, respect the office of The Presidency even if Mr. Trump does not.

And so, Mr. President, it’s time for you to lead, and to do so selflessly for the good of all the country, even those you call enemies. If you do, you will have my support wherever I can give it.

If you don’t, I will stand, armed only with my reason, to oppose you. Because that is what it means to be an American.

Be Human

Today, Woody lost his head. Literally.

Woody has been doing his Nearly Headless Nick impersonation for the last day or so, but today, he lost it altogether.

I had been trying to substitute another Woody for the past day; we have many of them in our house. But none of them were the right one. And Woody lost his head before we made it to the store.

And when he did, my boy’s heart snapped in two.

Every time he tried to put Woody’s head back on without success, the boy’s heart broke again.

But he kept trying.

And he handed Woody to me about halfway through the car wash, and through his tears he cried, “I need help, please.”

So I tried. But Woody was as broken as the boy and his daddy, sitting there in the car wash crying together.

When we got home, I took Woody inside for a moment while the boy cried in the car, and Crazy-Glued his head back on.

But the pain was still there. And so for the next hour and a half, we mourned Woody together. One of us, at the top of his lungs, hands to his head, crying out the pain of losing his friend.

Eventually, the tears dried, and the new Woody had arrived home, and the old Woody’s head seemed to be holding.

But the loss of a friend still breaks our hearts.

I mention this not so you’ll mourn with us, but feel free to do so if you want. That’s what the boy wanted today, after all.

I’m mentioning this rather so that I can help you to see that kids on the spectrum are not cold.

They are not dispassionate.

They are not heartless, and they are absolutely not loners.

Yes, there are times when human company is overwhelming for the boy. Hell, there are times when human company is overwhelming for his dad.

But when your friend loses his head, no matter who you are or where you are on the spectrum, you still want someone there who will try and help.

And if help isn’t possible, you still want someone there who will cry with you.

My son wanted me to share his loss.

Cause that’s what it means to be human.

When there’s a story circulating out there that kids on the spectrum are loners and thus dangerous, I hope you’ll remember this. What my boy wanted was someone to cry with him.

Now that Woody is better and new Woody has found a home where he’ll be loved, all my boy wants is someone who will play with him.

Cause that’s what it means to be human, too.

A Gun At A Car Wash

Love The Car Wash

Update: For a solid two weeks now, this story has been on my mind, and I think I know why. It isn’t that I find myself thinking, as I was asked, the “what if?!?” questions. Honestly, and I’m not bragging here, my head doesn’t work that way. Living with the boy really has taught me to focus on right now. The “what ifs” can take care of themselves.

No the main thing that keeps popping up in my head is this: I wonder what kind of hellish life that young man must have had to make him so afraid of the world around him?

Our world can be hell. But it really doesn’t have to be.

How’s that for naïveté?

About two weeks ago on a bright, Saturday afternoon, my boy and I went to the car wash as is our custom. (As he is on the Autism Spectrum, the sameness of the car wash is perfect for him.)

While we were continuing to follow our custom of vacuuming the floor mats, so the boy could play with the vacuum for a bit, a young, white guy of about 22 years of age approached his car parked in the slot next to ours.

He had caught my attention earlier because he was smoking, and with my son’s asthma, I was going to try and keep his door shut despite the heat. It wasn’t much of a problem–we’re at the car wash nearly daily, so this was more about keeping the boy’s routine rather than cleaning the truck. So as the young man started to light up again right beside the boy’s door, I subtly closed the door as I was walking the vacuum hose back to the holder.

As I did, this young man was staring me down, following me with his eyes.

This was strange, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. However, when I turned around, he had turned his body so that his right hip was facing me as he continued to stare.

On his hip was a pistol (sorry, not being a gun expert, I could not tell you what kind of pistol it was), but it was in a holster that appeared to be in danger of falling from the jeans pocket of his shorts where he had it clipped.

I glanced at it and back up to him, to re-meet his eyes as he continued to stare at me. I nodded and said hello.

He eventually turned away as I walked to the driver side of the car and began to climb in to leave.

So far as I am aware, the only threatening move I offered was to gently shut my son’s door so that he wouldn’t be exposed to this young man’s second hand smoke.

Did this guy have a right to smoke? Sure. I didn’t say a word to him about it; I simply closed my son’s door, so the boy wouldn’t have to breathe the smoke.

Did this guy have a right to openly carry his firearm? I have no idea. Maybe. But as he appeared to be threatened by my closing a truck door, I certainly wasn’t planning to ask him to produce his open-carry license.

And you see, that’s part of the issue . . . I had absolutely no way of knowing if this young man who seemed threatened by my having pulled into a space beside him was a “good guy” with a gun or a “bad guy” with one.

The presence of his gun that day might have possibly made him feel safer, I really have no idea. He didn’t appear to have a sense of safety. (Maybe old white guys with their sons vacuuming a truck are threatening to him. Again, I have no idea.)

But this I do know. Despite the car wash being a place where my boy and I are on a first name basis with the employees, despite it being broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, and despite there being about 20 people in the parking lot cleaning their cars, this young man brandishing his hip so that I would notice his firearm did not provide a sense of safety to my son and me.

A gun did nothing to make our world safer that afternoon. Nothing at all. Sheriff Woody’s empty holster is a model we should work to emulate.

Busted Routine: It Was Going To Be Bad

I knew it was going to be bad.

Just knew it.

Matthew wanted to go to the store. So we went to the store. It was getting late, but we went. It was the beginning of the routine, but it was happening out of order. We should have gone out to jump first. But we didn’t. It was going to be bad.

When we got home, Matthew wanted to jump outside. The routine was happening backwards, but I couldn’t stop it. Every attempt to redirect him toward something else just wasn’t happening. It was no use. He wanted to jump and no amount of iPad screen time would redirect.

(And yeah, I know. Let the boy jump, right? Exercise is FAR better than an iPad. Except, I knew what was coming next.)

So we jumped; even though it was after 8:00pm, we jumped.

And as I was helping him off, he asked for what I had feared in letting him jump: “Wanna go to the library?”

I hate being right.

“The library is closed, buddy.”


“Yep, I’m sorry man.”

And so again, I tried to redirect. It didn’t work.

It was going to be bad.

Eventually, we drove to the library. So he could see.

It was going to be bad. The routine was FUBAR.

So we went to the library, and the library was closed.


We got out of the car, so he could see. But it didn’t help.

And it became bad.

After twice carrying him back to the car and eventually getting him buckled in, we drove home, screaming all the way.

It was bad.

You see, we struggle with self-injurous behavior. Without the words to express frustration, other outlets replace it. And slapping his head is his go to move for letting us know just how frustrated and hurt he is.

The slapping had started; I could hear it.

So I pulled over despite being less than a half a mile from home to restrain him.

Except when I looked in the mirror, I noticed that the slapping sound interspersed with the screams of protest over the library being closed, was NOT coming from him hitting himself on the head.

This time, despite being a truly bad one, this time, Matthew was slapping his hands together.

Rather than express his pent up frustration at the radical departure from his routine that the closed library was causing him, my son had redirected his anger, on his own, by slapping his hands together.

I was wrong.

It wasn’t bad at all.

It was one of the more amazing moments of growth my son, or anyone I’ve ever known, has ever shown.

Sometimes a busted routine opens a whole new world of awe and wonder. Thanks, little man, for the reminder that terrifying change is often an amazing thing.

I love you, my son.

Sharing Our Stories

One of the pedagogical approaches I’ve been using in my comp classes is projecting student writing up on the wall during peer review so that we can all learn from each others’ mistakes and successes.

This is, at times, extremely risky, and I try to keep in mind when I project an essay that there is a vast difference in the ability of my students.

But that vast difference can be a huge benefit as well.

Last week, I posted an essay from a student who had written a comparison essay comparing cats and dogs.

I go out of my way to discourage these types of topics for comparisons, after all, what are you going to write that would seem interesting to someone else about cats and dogs?

But this student wrote such a comparison anyway.

One point of comparison was that both cats and dogs are “clean, human, amphibians.” (Yes, you read that correctly.)

This is where it gets risky.

First, there was significant laughter from the class. That was, until I pointed out to them that their essays would also be posted up on the wall soon. They tended to grow significantly quieter then, but in many ways the damage was already done. I saw it in her eyes.

And so, I walked her though her thought process, right there in the open. And when the class saw that I was taking her seriously, they did as well.

Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after long time. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Looking at her comparison, I asked her, and the rest of the class, to think of their stories with their pets. As we talked, the class began to see that their thoughts and understanding of their pets weren’t all that different from the writer’s.

There were stories of playing with toys, of giving baths, of taking long walks, of running in the rain, and as always, of picking up poo off of someone’s pillow who had had the temerity to “Bad Dog” the pup after she was caught eating the couch. Their stories, in their similarity, brought the class together in laughter and shared commiseration.

And what we realized is that yes, our pets are human to us as well.

While there wasn’t much that I could do with the amphibian claim, it did offer an opportunity, in an English class, to stop and examine what an amphibian actually is.

And to the surprise of several students who laughed, they learned what an amphibian was as well.

What could have been a terrible moment turned into a moment for everyone to learn from one another. (There was, of course, one student who chose not to participate in the discussion. Some people choose to exclude themselves when community forms. Always have; always will. And that’s instructive, too.)

But for the majority of the class, by sharing our stories, we found that we had far more in common than separating us.

That’s the power of our stories. That’s the power of authentic education. This is why our country needs our classrooms, and while I’m anything but an expert teacher, this is why we need experienced teachers in our classrooms.

And this is why I really want to go swimming with that amphibian dog.

Light It Up Blue

Light It Up Blue for Autism Awareness

Today is the World Autism Awareness Day, and April is Autism Awareness month. 1 in 68 are on the autism spectrum.

If I could ask, as the father of a wonderful little guy who is on the autism spectrum, for one favor, I think it would be this.

Today or sometime this month, if, no save that, when you see someone who doesn’t behave the way you think people should behave, when you see someone who is too old to be holding Woody from Toy Story but is doing so anyway, when you see someone bouncing on their toes or putting their fingers in their ears, when you speak to someone who doesn’t speak back, or when you see someone who is just different, my favor would be to ask that you find it within your heart to accept that it is because of our differences that our world is the amazing place that it is.

Our world is a better place because there are those who never forget the importance of play no matter how old they are.

Our world is a better place because there are ballerinas who are gifted with the grace and skill to move through this world on their toes.

Our world is a better place because there are those who can hear the quietest whisper in the hurricane of noise the rest of us ignore everyday.

Our world is a better place because there are those who don’t feel it necessary to scream their opinions every time there is a quiet moment.

Our world is a better place because we are different from one another.

And the blue sky shines down upon us, hugging us, all.

On the Magic of Books

For the first time on Monday, I will get to fulfill one of my life long dreams: I get to teach 1984 by George Orwell to a class.

(Yes, I have simple dreams, what of it?)

This is a dream that began long ago, long before I ever even dreamed of being a teacher, long before I had even really had the language necessary to put into words the desire I had to share this book with someone else for the first time.

That’s how a great book is, isn’t it? As soon as we’ve finished one, we really want to share it with someone else. For me, that list of books is fairly long. With almost every book I read and finish, I find myself thinking, “I know who needs to read this one!”

My obsession with 1984 begin quite early. I believe I was 13 when the copy that I’m planning to teach from next week was given to me. Books are wonderful that way, aren’t they? (And yeah, I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to books.)

This copy was given to me by the wife of a young couple who attended for a short while the church that I grew up in. They left shortly afterwards to be missionaries.

In hindsight, this was a remarkably subversive act as my church didn’t really embrace critical thinking; this book had much to do with my learning to question authority later in life.

When she handed the book to me and suggested that I read it, she said, “Read this. It’s a great book, but beware that when you get to the ending, it’s going to make you mad. When I got to the end, it made me so mad that I threw it across the room.”

This was unheard of territory for me. I couldn’t imagine at the time getting so worked up by a book that I would want to throw it across the room. Honestly books had and still have a sacred quality for me that the idea of throwing one seems hard to imagine.

I was, at a minimum, intrigued.

So I read it as quickly as I’ve ever read any book. And while I didn’t throw it across the room, the ending did make me angry.

Thus, book that I’ve been reading regularly since I was about 13 years old, I get to teach to a class of students beginning on Monday night.

The edition I’ll be teaching from was published in 1975 in the UK, and wasn’t supposed to be sold in the US. It’s the same book I read in 1981. It was the same book that was thrown across a room by a young future missionary who surely had no idea what a whole new world she was opening up for a young boy from a little town in Southeast Georgia.

It’s the same book that has every passage I’ve ever underlined, still underlined and waiting for me to share it with a class starting this Monday. (And yeah, I can actually read my own handwriting.)

Some of those quotes include:

Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered? He wrote: Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

And on being a minority of one:

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun: to-day to believe that the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him: the horror was that he might also be wrong.

And the beginning of Thought Crime being putting pen to paper in a diary:

The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would deb punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced labour camp. . . . To mark the paper was the decisive act.

And the true nature of power:

‘We are the priests of power,’ he said. ‘God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: “Freedom is Slavery”. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone – free – the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. The second thing for you to realize is that power is power over human beings. Over the body – but, about all, over the mind. Power over matter – external reality, as you would call it – is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute.’

And finally:

I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.

And so from 1975 when this book was purchased by a young future missionary, to 1981 when she passed it on to, of all people, a 13 year old boy growing up unconsciously in the deep south, to Monday when I use that same book to help my students to understand the power of marking the paper, to be comfortable with the idea that when they’re a lone voice calling out it isn’t the worst thing to be thought of as crazy, and to see the importance of understanding why and not just how, 1984 will continue, if I’m a decent teacher, to change lives and as a result our world.

Maybe, just maybe, the world will become a bit more conscious as a result.

“Books,” as Stephen King likes to say, “are a uniquely portable magic.”