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Armed, and In Charge of a Classroom

February 27, 2018

Many have asked me about President Trump’s recent suggestion to arm school teachers as a method of deterring and responding to school shootings.  My intuition is that it’s a terrible idea, but I decided to listen and consider all of the arguments being put forth in support of this proposal. To paraphrase a philosophy professor I once had: I have considered what you have to say, and I’ve decided I’m still right.

British thinker W.K. Clifford was a proponent of an idea called Epistemic Responsibility: in short, one should not hold a belief if there is no evidence to support it.  Bertrand Russell echoed this sentiment when he observed that  “It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it to be true.”  So what does the evidence tell us?

In a piece headlined “Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows,” Scientific American quoted physician and gun researcher Garen Wintemute’s summary of the state of the evidence: “There are a few studies that suggest that liberalizing access to concealed firearms has, on balance, beneficial effects. There are a far larger number of studies that suggest that it has, on balance, detrimental effects.”  Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that “The more guns are readily available, the more shootings occur. That’s what the latest research shows. When states make it more easy for people to carry guns, the number of incidents of aggravated assault grows.”   University of Washington epidemiologist Fred Rivara observed “There is no data supporting [the] argument that the further arming of citizens will lessen the death toll in massacres like [Newtown]. Mother Jones magazine, which maintains a database of mass shootings, pointed out that despite a 50 percent increase in the number of private guns since 1995 and numerous laws making it easier to carry a concealed weapon, there are virtually no cases of an armed civilian stopping a shooting spree. (Thanks to Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting for compiling this data).

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Of course, there are some anecdotes about shooters stopping a home invasion, and that’s certainly not to be dismissed. However, there is a difference between using a weapon to stop someone entering your home and having the presence of mind to stop a mass shooter in a public place with people screaming, scrambling for safety, and AR-15s blazing away.  Training someone to use a gun does not automatically suggest they are going to be grace under pressure. We’d all like to think that we will be cool and calm, but the fact is, not everyone is going to be.  Consider that the New York City Police Department–arguably the best trained police force in the country–only has an 18% success rate when discharging their weapon.  It’s hard to imagine the Math Department doing any better–and easy to imagine them doing much worse.  

This also raises the issue of police entering a school in an active shooter situation.  They will have a split second to decide who is the “good guy with the gun” and the “bad guy with the gun.”  It may not always be obvious, and there will undoubtedly not be time to carefully weigh the evidence.   The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper explored this in a piece a couple of years ago. It’s worth watching here: Good Guy With a Gun.

There is also, as President Trump has said, the issue of deterrence.  He insists that shooters are attracted to the fact that schools are gun free zones–never mind that night clubs, country music concerts, malls, and movie theaters are not gun free zones.  The other issue is that the vast majority of school shootings have ended with the shooter’s suicide.  Someone suicidal is unlikely to be deterred by the increased likelihood of their own death.

The entire notion of guns as a deterrent is suspect as it is.  We are told by Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch that we will feel safer with armed civilians in our schools, coffee shops, baseball games, etc.  I certainly didn’t feel safer on a tour of Mesa Verde with the guy next to me wearing a sidearm and a KKK tattoo–and I imagine the Navajo tour guide wouldn’t have felt any safer if he had known.  Furthermore, if large numbers of African-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, and South Asians begin going through their days armed, one can be certain the NRA narrative would change almost instantaneously.

Of course what this comes down to is money.  If the percentage of armed teachers President Trump has suggested were to come to fruition, that would be 700,000 more guns. This would be a spike in gun sales that would make the gun manufacturers–the NRA’s largest source of financial support–ecstatic.  The gun manufacturers are already worried: since Trump was elected, the Second Amendment crowd is no longer afraid their weapons will be confiscated and gun sales are way down.  This is the reason that the NRA has tried desperately to play up the violent threat of Black Lives Matter and Antifa.  A new enemy must be found.  

And if they can’t be sold as credible threats, then I suppose my students will just have to do.     

 

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Landing an Agent

August 15, 2017

To many authors, the search for an agent or manager begins to resemble the quest to locate a mythical creature.  One may come to think they have a better chance of locating a Roc in its natural habitat.

Certainly, this was my case for many years.  And like many success stories of this genre, it came about due to the confluence of hard work and good fortune.

First, the hard work:  Over the last fourteen years, I have completed five screenplays, one teleplay, three one-act plays, and one two act play.  And two novels.  Plus, nearly 100 poems.  That’s a lot of writing.  It may not be Alexander Hamilton (or L. Ron Hubbard) prolific, but given I have worked as a teacher each of those fourteen years whilst battling Parkinson’s, I’ll take it.  Most of my dramatic writing I have brought to the playwright’s lab at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in New York City.

The woman who runs the lab is a superb screenwriter and playwright—Ms. Lezley Steele.  She is also an excellent teacher.  When you workshop a script with her lab, you always get superb feedback. Plenty of criticism, of course, but it always comes with ideas on how to fix the problems, and praise for what does work in your script.  I always left the lab feeling that no matter how much revision I had to do, I was capable of doing it.  Most of the playwrights I’ve met who know Lezley agree—no one gives better feedback.

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Ernest Thompson

I am also proud to call Lezley my friend.  Our friendship has allowed us to stay in touch and encourage each other through both our creative endeavors, and the roadblocks life sends our way.  When I had completed my two act play, “Invincible Summer,” Lezley was kind enough to read it. She has actually read multiple drafts, always providing me with her high level of advice.  After one of the revisions, she announced much to my surprise that she would like to send my play to her agent.

I was flattered, but also cautious. Even if he agreed to read it—which he may not—there was no guarantee he was going to want to represent me.  Soon thereafter, Lezley informed me that she had contacted her agent and he was willing to read it. Thus, I sent off my play to Mr. Earl Graham.

And then I waited.

One day in March, I walked outside my school building and noticed a voicemail on my phone. A number I didn’t recognize.  A New York exchange.  I played it back: it was Earl, wanting to talk to me.  As my dear friend Darlene put it: “He’s not calling to tell you he hates it.”

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Jason Miller

Indeed, he called to tell me he loved it and wanted to help get it placed in a theatre. He also wanted to meet me for lunch soon.  So, during my April vacation, I took the train down to the city and had lunch with my agent.  I’ll be honest—I love that I get to say that.

Earl is an incredibly warm man, who told great stories about his career in theatre, his life in New York, and the fascinating people he’s known. I learned that he has represented some impressive clients, such as Ernest Thompson (“On Golden Pond”) and Jason Miller (“That Championship Season”—also Oscar nominated for playing father Damien Karras in “The Exorcist”)  He reiterated how much he loved my play, how much his assistant loved it , and how much his partner did.  He was also clear—it is very hard to get a new play in a theatre.  It would likely take a while, and it may not happen at all.  I need to be patient and have realistic expectations.  But if he could get someone to read the first twenty pages, he felt strongly they would be hooked–like he was. I understood the challenges he laid out, but I am still grateful to have this man in my corner.

After Earl agreed to take on my play, I had planned on contacting Lezley to tell her.  It appears though, Earl beat me to it.  I opened my in-box to find this message from her:

Earl called me today with the wonderful news that he is going to work on getting your play done.  He thanked me for sending him a beautiful play.  He said he cried when he read it.  I am so pleased.  I’ve given him other playwright’s plays before (just a few) and he has had no interest in them.  So I had my fingers crossed.

And even though it annoys her when I tell her so, I will always be grateful to Lezley.

On the Passing of Robert Hardy (1925-2017)

August 15, 2017

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the name Robert Hardy.  Some Harry Potter fans will recognize him as the actor who portrayed Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, in several Potter films.  My familiarity with him goes back much further.

When I was in junior high school, I became an enthusiast of the “All Creatures Great and Small” book series by James Herriot. I was equally enthralled by the BBC television adaptation which ran for seven seasons, spread out over thirteen years.  Robert Hardy played the relentlessly memorable character of Siegfried Farnon.  Siegfried was a superb veterinarian, highly skilled and competent at his job, but was also plagued with a poor memory.  He could be stubborn and self-righteous, yet kind, generous and charming.  He was always unwilling to accept blame for his mistakes, yet was an incredibly patient and effective teacher and mentor.  In short, he was a complex and multidimensional character. Hardy sank his teeth into this splendid role, and put on what my father would describe as a “clinic in acting.”

“Watch carefully,” my father directed as we watched an episode. “Notice the shifts in his facial expressions, the changes of tone in his voice.  The subtle adjustments in body language.” My father went on to explain that these were not an actor’s choices, but instincts—they couldn’t be taught.  All the great actors had them, and the best part was the audience was usually unaware of these actions; they just knew the actor was good.  I developed an affection for Hardy, the character he played, and the series itself. It is the only television series of which I posses each and every episode.

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Hardy, flanked by his “All Creatures” castmates Christopher Timothy and Peter Davison

But Hardy was so much more than that.  He made a name for himself as a young man playing “Henry V” on stage.  His research into Henry became so extensive Hardy ended up writing a book about the Battle of Agincourt.   He also became so fascinated with the longbow–a key to British victory in that battle—that he became one of the United Kingdom’s leading experts on the weapon.  While a young student at Oxford, he had the good fortune to study with both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  He also befriended a drama student named Richard Burton. They would remain close friends until Burton’s death.  One of Sir Richard’s biographers described Hardy as Burton’s “sane friend.”  Lord knows the man needed one.

He also played Winston Churchill countless times on television and stage (including a one man show in Paris—in French).  Many accomplished actors have given great performances as Churchill.  None of them were better than Hardy.  None of them.

Perhaps more important than any of that, Hardy was a kind man, generous with his time. I know this personally.  Last year, I read on the BBC website that Hardy would soon turn 90.  I had always wanted to write him a letter, and express to him my appreciation, and I thought—if I’m going to do it, I should do it soon.  I located his representative on IMDB, and mailed the letter.

A few months later, I received a reply. That was surprising enough, but the letter he sent me was hand written.  A few excerpts, subject to handwriting interpretation:

“My Dear Fellow,

Thank you so much for your letter.  I am always delighted to hear from my American friends, and surprised when they fail to mention Harry Potter! I am thrilled my work on “All Creatures” meant so much to you.  It was a brilliant show, and I am very proud of my association with it. I especially enjoyed your description of what your father said about my acting. How wonderful it must have been to have a father who enjoyed and knew the arts.  While I am very sorry he passed away so young, always be grateful his last words to you were an expression of pride.  Most of us are not so fortunate…

Given what you describe as his great love of words, I imagine your father was a reason you became a poet and a playwright.  I therefore have no doubt he is still very proud of his son…”

Very truly yours,

Timothy Sidney Robert Hardy.”

Adieu, Siegfried.  Rest in peace.

Staging an “Invincible Summer”

January 24, 2017

And now for some good news.  This happened back in October, but I seemed to have difficulty finding the time to write about it.  The wait is over…

On October 9, 2016, at the DeSotelle Theater in Manhattan, I experienced the very first staged reading of my play “Invincible Summer.”  It was a great to have a play that had been rattling around in my head for a year and half finally performed on stage by actors, under the tutelage of a veteran New York theater director.  I learned a great deal from the process, and I am so grateful to have gone through it.

It all started last January, when a friend of mine named Larry Leinoff (who is also an excellent playwright) expressed admiration for my play and encouraged me to stage a reading.  He felt it was ready, and it also happened that Larry runs a company (Stage Dot Org) that puts on staged readings!  We talked back and forth for months while I worked on the play, received feedback from Larry and others (including a dear friend and another great playwright, Lezley Steele).  By early summer, I was happy with the play and ready to begin organizing my reading.

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Larry recommended a director that he knew and thought highly of:  Tom Herman.  We met for lunch in August, and I was grateful that Tom liked my play and was very interested in directing the project.  After some discussion, we agreed upon a date, and worked hard on making the reading happen.

One of the first things I learned was that staging a reading is a complicated process.  It takes time to find the right performance space, the right actors, and to agree on rehearsal times, all within the budget you have chosen to work with.  Of course, whenever you have smart individuals with strong opinions working together, you are going to have disagreements.  That is inevitable.  There were times when it looked like the reading might not happen; there were times when it seemed as smooth and as effortless as painting a polar bear in a snowstorm.

By late September, we had a venue, a cast (Rob Skolits, Marca Leigh, Brian Henry, Adrian Naccari, and Tamara Daley–I also recruited my colleague Emily Blanchard to come and play piano), and an official program designed by Melissa Nosal, a former student.  We had a reading!

Happily, it went very well.  The cast worked extremely hard, and put on an entertaining and professional performance.  It was exhilarating to discover how much of my play worked and also to get a sense of what didn’t work.  There were about 25 people in the audience, 15-20 of whom had come down from Connecticut to see the reading.  I was very grateful to all of my friends who were willing to make that trip.  They all gave me great feedback–much of it positive, but also some very helpful critical feedback that I know has made the play better.

Lezley is now helping me get the play into the hands of other professionals who can get it produced.  When I expressed my gratitude to Lezley, she wrote this in an email:

You don’t have to be grateful to me.  I believe in your play. Not just that it is a well written play but also because it is topical, and dare I say,  commercial.  I also believe in you.   Having a play produced is a nightmare.  You have to have the right personality to get through the process.  I believe you do….I forgot to mention that I was moved to tears twice while reading the script.

It appears I have reason to be hopeful.

Trump: What to Expect

January 24, 2017

Given we have inaugurated a new President, one who is likely to have a significant effect on the direction of education policy, I thought it appropriate that I comment upon him.  I was recently asked through email the following question, so I thought I would share it and my response:

Do you think that Trump and his (horrifying) cabinet will be moving to give states more control over their laws? How will that affect the way things are governed? Surely poor states will be really hurt?

Given that  Donald Trump really doesn’t care about policy, his philosophy of governance is really Mike Pence’s.  I think Trump basically ran for three reasons:  1) to feed his enormous ego 2) to improve his business portfolio and c) to eliminate and reduce taxes and regulations he didn’t like.  Anything else he doesn’t care about.  So, if it’s Pence’s philosophy, I think we can expect this:

An administration that cares about states’ rights as long as it comes to things like a) not paying health care costs for poor people b) privatizing education c) eliminating business taxes d) reducing regulations that protect citizens and the environment e) gerrymandering congressional districts and f) making it harder for black, poor, and older people to vote.  Essentially, the right wing-American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-Koch Brothers hit list.

They will not be interested in states’ rights when it comes to women controlling their own bodies; making it harder for businesses to refuse to serve gay people; preventing discrimination against transgender individuals;  preventing the racial profiling of blacks, Latinos, south Asians, or middle easterners; stopping the growth of charter schools; limiting the purchase of assault weapons and instituting thorough background checks; and selling medical or recreational pot.  All of these are things that a Trump/Pence administration would not be able to tolerate, and we will find their “pro states’ rights” ideology will suddenly disappear when it comes to these issues.  I think it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Pence is kept awake at night with the thought that he knows there are people doing these things and he has no way to control their behavior.  This is, after all, the governor who signed an anti-abortion law so stringent that a woman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for…having a miscarriage.

Add that to a secretary of education nominee that doesn’t believe in public education and doesn’t know anything about it; an energy secretary who doesn’t believe in the department of energy (when he’s able to remember that, at least), and doesn’t understand the department’s responsibility; and a secretary of housing and urban development who thinks the Egyptian pyramids were hollow and used as granaries. I suppose he does live in a house, which is the subtotal of the entire experience in his new area of expertise.  What we therefore have to look forward to is a troubling combination of ideologues and incompetence.

There will be some nuance to this, of course.  Marijuana has turned into big business, so the Trump/Pence administration may have to leave that alone.  Also, they’re going to find it really hard to fuck with Jerry Brown, because he governs such a huge percentage of the American economy.  There will be citizen and interest group push back, and some of it will be successful.  But overall, things are about to get very dark.

Rock Steady Boxing

August 28, 2016

There are a number of tools I use in my “fighting Parkinson’s” tool box–yoga, massage, resistance bands, twice daily walks, medication, and a careful diet.  I have just added a new one: boxing.  Rock Steady Boxing is a program designed to use the techniques of boxer training to help fight the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

You may be reading this and thinking “wait–Parkinson’s patients are boxing each other?”  If so, not to worry.  We don’t get into the ring and and go mano a mano.   I think I could make a case that a boxing match between two Parkinson’s patients would be the worse thing ever.  Our training is centered around “working the bag.”

When I arrived the first day, I was assisted by a young Latina named Rihanna (no, not that one).  Rihanna works at the Bare Bones Boxing gym in East Hartford, Connecticut, and is herself a boxer.  Indeed, she wore a t-shirt that loudly proclaimed “I FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!”  She was very kind and helpful, and wrapped my hands in no time at all.  It would have taken me the better part of the day to do what she did in about four minutes.

Then, I was introduced to Stan, my boxing coach. Stan is a professional, who has coached boxers for years.  He was trained in the techniques of Rock Steady Boxing, which are designed to improve balance, coordination, and cognitive function.  Stan is a very nice guy and an excellent coach.  After two decades in a classroom, I know a good teacher when I see one.

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Stan got me hooked up with some gloves, and helped me fasten them in place.  In the center of the gym are rows of bags (probably between 25-30 of them).  This is where the class would take place.  We worked on warm ups that focused on our balance, and stretched out our arms, shoulders, and legs.  During the class, we would follow specific punching sequences (left twice, right twice, left once) that require us to also move our feet.  We would sometimes pause to lean into the bag, then do push-ups against the bag, and then leg lifts while pushing the bag.  We would also jog through the rows of bags, hitting each one with our opposite hands.  All of these exercises require balance, careful breathing, and specific focus on the sequences.  In short, everything that is good for me to exercise.

The class was also great fun.  Stan doesn’t like the hip hop/rap music many of the professional boxers prefer to train with.  The good news is when Stan’s teaching, he gets to pick the music and he loves classic rock.  So do several members of the class, as it turns out.  Want to see an awesome sight?  Then stop by the gym some time and see a dozen Parkinson’s patients punching bags while loudly singing along to the Beach Boys.

Stan is also great at making us laugh while encouraging us to keep pushing.  During the first class he shouted “This bag is Parkinson’s!  You don’t bitch slap Parkinson’s!  You punch it!”

I was also touched by how encouraging the professional boxers are towards the members of the class.  Many come up and talk to us, clearly aware of who we are and what we are doing, offering us encouragement and showing us great respect.  I never thought a boxing gym would be such a positive, supportive environment, but this one is.

My yoga teacher/massage therapist giggles every time I mention the class to her.  I assume it’s because she’s trying to picture me boxing, and that image makes her laugh.  To that, all I can say is…yeah, okay.  Point taken.  She will have plenty more chances to laugh at me, though–I’m a regular now.

 

If you are interested, her are three earlier posts relating to Parkinson’s:

Coping with Parkinson’s, Warding off Depression

Yes, I Am Grateful

Observing World Parkinson’s Day

Twenty Years of Teaching

July 5, 2016

This school year marked by 20th as a teacher.  I estimate that in those two decades, I have taught between 1600-1700 students.  Many of them I remember, and some I do not (which is embarrassing when I cross paths with them at the grocery store).   Some have become teaching colleagues, at least one went on to win an Emmy Award for computer animation, and others turn up in a number of surprising places.  For instance, one that turned out to be a very helpful police dispatcher when my dog went missing, and another worked at my favorite ice cream stand and insisted my money was no good there.  It was a fat and happy summer.

I started my career in 1996, which was a very different world than the one we currently inhabit.  Bill Clinton was about to run for reelection, Hillary was First Lady and still four years removed from her election to the United States Senate.  A charming and talented rapper turned actor named Will Smith was just on the verge of becoming a bankable superstar.  This new invention called the internet was very exciting—or, we hoped it was, because to try to use it usually took three hours to log on via phone line.  And just as you were about to reach your first World Wide Web page, someone would pick up the phone and there went your connection.  Certainly, the idea that we would carry the internet in our pockets was a technological advance deemed unthinkable just twenty years ago.

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When I walked into a school for the first time in August 1996, it was not at the tiny, rural school I have taught at the last 19 years.  I was interning at an inner city school in New Haven.  This school had 900 students, and probably 800 were African-American.  Others were African immigrants, some were Hispanic, and maybe a half-dozen were white.  The school, like many underfunded schools in impoverished neighborhoods, had problems.  Certainly not “Joe Clark with a baseball bat” problems, but there were issues nonetheless.  The building was old and in decay.  Many of the classrooms were outdated.   A number of the teachers were burned out, and running out the clock to retirement.  There were students living in shelters, others haunted by broken families, some coping with the gunshot or stabbing deaths of family members.  One student was reportedly the local drug dealer—his rare presence in school and the fact that he drove a brand new Acura only fueled that speculation.

But there was hope as well.  There were a number of students who wanted to learn, and viewed education as (Jamie Escalante once put it) “The Great Equalizer.”  Some of them wanted to return to the neighborhood after graduation and make it better, to be good role models for the young.  There were a number of teachers who were not burned out—many worked very hard to give their best to their students, and the students knew it.  It was a great environment to learn to be a teacher, because students didn’t wait to see if you were worthy of respect—they presumed you were not and then you had to prove otherwise.  If you had failed to do so, they would let you know in no uncertain terms.  I had failures, of course, but I also had successes.  At the end of my year, I was certain I wanted to be a teacher.  It therefore may have been the most important year of my career.

I have stories and even a scar from my time in New Haven.  I once broke up a fight between two female students and one of the combatants’ fake fingernails ended up lodged in my arm.  The story I remember the most, though, involved an aspiring DJ named Laurence.  Laurence didn’t care much for school, but he was popular, and loved to make people laugh. He certainly had the passion for music and the personal charisma to be a good DJ.  He already had business cards at age 16, which he loved to share with his teachers.

My year in New Haven was a challenge in a number of ways.  I was going through a divorce, and the stress of that combined with learning a new career, taking night classes at a nearby university, and a two-hour daily commute began to wear on me.  I know it was starting to show, even though I was doing my best not to let it.  It was during one particularly bad day that Laurence sauntered up to me in the hallway.

“Hey, Mr. Brodie.  I gotta question for you.”

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Hey, what does DNA stand for?”

I was very excited.  This was going to be one of the very first teachable moments of my young career, and I was ready with an answer.  “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  It’s a molecule that carries all of our genetic information—“

“No, man,” he said, in mock impatience. “That’s not what it stands for. You want me to tell you what it really stands for?”

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but how else could I respond?  “Sure.  Tell me!”

“It stands for… Dis Nigga’s Attractive!!!”

Extremely pleased with himself, Laurence strolled away. I stood in the hallway, and could not stop laughing.  I did my best to stay focused the rest of the day, but I couldn’t.  Each time I thought about Laurence’s joke, I giggled.  And I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It kept me tickled all day.

I don’t know if Laurence perceived my mood, and thought I needed a laugh, or I was just conveniently in front of him, but it was just what I needed that day. It’s funny to think that he’s now in his mid-thirties.  I don’t know what happened to him—I’d like to think he made it as a DJ, but mostly I just hope he’s happy.  I doubt he remembers that day.

All I know is I’ll never forget it.  And when I think of the year I spent at the high school in New Haven, it’s still the first thing I think of.

 

 

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