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Facing Pandora

March 13, 2018

I have discussed a troubled student of mine in posts here and here.  As you can imagine, it has been a difficult year for her.  She’s new to the school, a bit awkward and carrying a heavy burden.  She has made some friends, which is good, but she has cycled through others.  I suspect many 9th and 10th graders find her baggage to be a bit much to bear.

It certainly doesn’t help that both her parents have told her on more than one occasion that either a) the assault didn’t happen or b) it was her fault.  Unfortunately, when the people you trust with your life tell you something like that, you tend to believe it.  It certainly doesn’t help when both pieces of information contradict and also serve to make one feel like crap.  The short version is she doesn’t get a lot support from home.

In spite of those challenges, she’s made progress.  She seems to have found a group of “misfits”  who are supportive and accepting; she started playing soccer again for a local league, and has spoken of joining the high school team next year. She seems to be getting closer to her sister.  Overall, her grades are up, and I introduced her to something called the Youth Forum.  The Forum is a monthly meeting of students from all over the state who talk about issues important to them.  It’s an open and affirming environment, and I thought it would give my student a safe place to connect with others.  It worked–she enjoys the Forum, has made a couple of new friends, and even reconnected with an old middle school friend who coincidentally joined the Forum from her high school.

I knew she was starting to heal when she came to me and informed me of her plan to open the “box.”  The box contained all of her belongings from the sexual assault returned to her by the police detectives.  She had been keeping it in the back of her closet for a while–she couldn’t bring herself to open it for months. She had decided that it was time to open it, and that she wanted me to be in the room when she did so.

I told her that she didn’t have to open it right away–she could bring it in, and she could store it in my classroom. When she felt ready, it would be there.  She said she felt ready, and wanted to do it sooner rather than later.  I took this as a good sign. I know that part of the reason people blame themselves for things like assaults is that it’s a method of establishing control: if it’s your fault, then you are asserting control over the situation. Admitting it wasn’t your fault means a complete surrender of control.  That’s terrifying for most of us.  Opening the box was a way for her to reclaim some control over the situation.

I informed the support staff what was happening, and asked them if they had any advice for me.  I cc’d my message to the principal.  I received zero response.  I wondered if I would be called to another meeting, but that didn’t happen, either.  I guess everyone was done with me.  So, my student and I agreed on a day and time we would open the box.

She sat down at one of my classroom tables and stared at it. I told her to take her time, only open it when she was ready.  I called Lollie, my service dog, over to lay down underneath the table so she’d be nearby.  I said to my student that opening the box was likely to trigger flashbacks, and she should be prepared for that.  She nodded in silence, and then carefully removed the lid–as carefully as if she were working in bomb disposal.  I suppose in a way, she was.

Most of the contents seemed benign at first glance.  Some clothing items, a few bits and pieces from her pockets.  She discovered a ring her recently deceased grandmother had given her–she was wearing it at the time of the attack.  She decided she wanted to keep it, but hated the fact she now associated it with that day.  I encouraged her to keep it someplace safe and out-of-the-way–maybe one day she could look at it again, and just think of her grandmother.  She agreed and put the ring aside.

And then she pulled out the shirt she was wearing at the time.  I couldn’t honestly tell you what the shirt looked like–the only thing I was focused on was the blood stains.  The worst, though, was yet to come: an envelope with the photos of her injuries taken by the police.  The deep, black bruises on her neck, shoulders, arms, and chest.  The x-ray of her broken ankle.  I knew she had been hurt in ways that I couldn’t possibly understand.  Seeing the evidence there in black and white was too much to bear.  How could another human being do that to a child?  Most victims of sexual assault are attacked by someone they know.  My student was attacked by a stranger.  That means she will likely never have the satisfaction of confronting him or seeing him pay for what he did.  It also means she’s going to have to find the strength to heal without that closure or catharsis. I can’t imagine carrying that burden at any time of life, much less at thirteen.

After a moment, she asked in a voice no louder than a whisper: “The bruises mean I fought back.  Isn’t that right?  I fought back.  That means it wasn’t my fault.  Right?”

I took a deep breath.  With as much confidence as I could muster, I said “Yes. Yes.  You’re right.  That’s exactly what that means.”

 

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Welcome to the Turf War

March 13, 2018

As I have documented in earlier posts, I don’t always see eye to eye with my administrators.  I was union president for two years, and that tends to put one in the cross hairs of school leadership.  Since stepping down,  I have done my best to stay out of school politics and focus on my teaching, writing and putting energy into managing Parkinson’s.  Every once in a while, though, I get pulled back in.

This time, it wasn’t because I objected to what I thought was a terrible decision, or because I chose to have a shouting match with my principal in the hallway.  It was decided that I was to be taken to the woodshed because I chose to help a student.  If that strikes you as odd, your perspective is not misplaced.

When the student I referred to in a recent post decided to seek me out,  I communicated with the support staff (social worker, counselor, school psychologist) to let them know what was going on.  The social worker conveyed to me she was pleased that the student had bonded with me, and encouraged my continued support.  I was glad to be part of a team that could help this student.  Or so I thought.

One afternoon, my student decided she wanted to tell me about what happened the day of her sexual assault.  She hadn’t been able to tell anyone, and felt she needed to.   I did my due diligence, and encouraged her to speak to the social worker or the psychologist, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough to share with them.  I told the student that was fine, but I needed to let the support staff know what was happening.

I fired off an email and with that done, she began to tell her story of that awful day.  When you hear the words “rape” or “sexual assault” you of course intellectually understand the horror of such an event.  But when you hear someone tell their story, you realize how inept your rational perspective is.  It becomes clear that the terror and trauma is deeper than you can truly comprehend.   So I sat and listened, hoping my presence would reassure her in some small way.

After she was done. she sat before me, trembling, sobbing, wiping her face with the sleeve of her hoodie.  The bell rang and she was supposed to head off to her English class.  It was clear, however, she was in no shape to do so and the last thing I was going to do was send her away at that moment.  I sent an email to her English teacher–I detest being interrupted in class by a phone call so I try to avoid doing that to my colleagues–and let my student continue to process her grief.  When she seemed able to do return to class, I would write her a pass to class.

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A short while later, the school psychologist shows up and says she wants to take my student back to class.  At that point, my student felt ready to return, so I thought it was excellent timing.  I was pleased that my student was starting the process of healing.  I knew it would be a long, hard road, but I was glad that my colleagues and I were all on the same page.

Except, it turns out, we weren’t.

At the end of the day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. He wanted to speak to me about the student.  To my surprise, I was informed that I was behaving irresponsibly, because my student should have been in class.

I responded that in my professional opinion she was in no shape to be in class.  I countered that I have had a number of students over the years miss a number of classes to speak to support staff, including one who misses at least one class per week.  Why, I asked, didn’t they need to be in class?

The response from my principal was that the support staff were professionals that were qualified to make that call–the implication being that I was not.  I asked my principal to specify what it was that disqualified me:  my 22 years in the classroom, or my degree in counseling from the U.S. naval academy?

Unable to answer that question, he finally admitted the rub: that the support staff was upset my student was speaking to me, and not them.  I informed the principal that the student, for whatever reason, has decided she trusts me, and not them.  Furthermore, if he thinks I’m the kind of educator who turns away a troubled student looking for support, he clearly has no idea who I am.

After the meeting, I spotted an email from the school social worker: “If [my student] is more than five minutes late, the office should be called immediately.  And is she arrives late to class with a pass, it can only be from a member of the support staff, and not any of her classroom teachers (emphasis added).”  I wonder who she meant.

What I was hoping for was that the support staff  would respond by saying “We’d prefer she speaks to us, but since she’s bonded with you, let’s find a way to use this to our advantage and help her.”  Instead, they complained to the principal about me.  Instead of prioritizing what was best for this student, they decided protecting their turf was much more important.

So, they can have it.  They can fight over the turf all they want to.  Me?  I’m just going to support my student any way that I can.

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.     

 

Misfit Island

February 20, 2018
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My classroom?

There is more to teaching than just being a teacher.  We can spend a staggering amount of energy planning our lessons, grading papers, rethinking our lessons, filling out paperwork, grading papers, going to meetings, rethinking our lessons—I think you have the idea.  I have maintained for years that teaching, primarily, is about relationships.   Relationships with colleagues, administrators, and parents are essential, of course.  But nothing is more important than the relationship with students.

Relationships are how you engender respect, and respect is how a classroom functions.  It is a challenge, often to engender respect—especially from students who lack it for adults in general and educators in particular.  Some are skeptical, but are open to being won over.  And some—for whatever reason—decide they like you right away.  And sometimes, those students seek you out.

It has long been the case that the students I describe as the “smart misfits” seem to connect with me the most.  The ones who are thoughtful, sometimes intellectual, usually creative, and don’t feel like the really fit in.  I suppose they consider me a kindred spirit.  They’re probably not wrong.

A student new to our school decided this year to be my newest “misfit.”  I realized she was shy and intimidated by her new surroundings, but none of that stopped her from approaching me after class one day.  She asked if it would be all right if she spoke to me from time to time about “things.”  I told her that wouldn’t be a problem, and we can figure out a good time for that.  She also pointed out that she thought I would be a good person to talk to—that I wouldn’t judge her.  I thanked her, knowing full well that she was serious.

As I have gotten to know her, it has become clear to me why she needs to have someone to talk to.  She came out to her parents as a lesbian a couple of years ago, yet her parents will often inform her that she’s not really gay, or that her being gay is affront to their beliefs.  As a result, when students bully her for her orientation, her parents respond by telling her that the bullying wouldn’t happen if she wasn’t gay.

I have learned the key to this sort of conversation is to listen.  Students don’t always want advice—and if they do, they usually ask for it.  Mostly, I have learned what they want is someone to listen, to let them know they are not crazy, and they’re not going to be told they’re wrong or be judged.  Sometimes, you need to let a student know you are worried about poor decisions; but mostly, it’s your job to listen.  It’s also essential to have boundaries, and be abundantly clear what they are.

We’d have one of these talks about once a week, and then she dropped a bombshell:  she had twice attempted suicide and had been sexually assaulted last June.  Moreover, her parents tell her either that the assault didn’t happen, or that it did and it was her fault.  I had suggested to her on earlier occasions that she might be more comfortable speaking to guidance, or the school psychologist, or the school social worker.  She does see them, and talk to them, but of all the adults in school, she feels most comfortable in my presence.

I suppose I could have ended our discussions right then and there.  I imagine a number of my colleagues would have done, so, and I can’t really blame them.  But it never occurred to me to do that.  I watched for years as the teachers that mentored and nurtured me work to make sure the kids on the fringes didn’t slip through the cracks.

And that’s the sort of teacher I had become.

 

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.

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