Bird Droppings September 23, 2011
Learning to Understand and or
Trying to come to grips with terminal consequences
Most recently the state of Georgia’s attention was drawn to a state prison in a small rural community just off the interstate. The Jackson State Prison is home to at least one inmate that I know a former student serving three life sentences. When I left teaching in 1977 I left a group of thirteen kids all of whom had learning issues simply classified as Learning Disabilities. One student in particular I had on several occasions asked and in writing proposed he be psychologically evaluated. This young man worked for me my summer after leaving teaching on our family farm and I will never forget after going to see a midnight showing of George Romero’s original zombie movie of how he and the other former student of mine who was working as well for me that summer did not want to stay in the quest house and asked to sleep in my wife’s and mine living room.
My last semester teaching in South Georgia this particular student had turned fifteen and was a strong average size kid although obviously from his demeanor had some physical and possibly mental issues. There was a slight speech impediment, a bit of shuffle to his gait very similar to what you might see in mild CP kids. The aspect of his behavior that concerned me was his self abusive bouts of tantrums where he would bang his head on a tree or brick wall when mad at himself. One day for a show and tell he brought his favorite pet that he talked about every chance he could his fluffy hamster. During a break several of the kids came in sort of scared and informed me he had stomped his hamster. I went out and he had already buried his hamster I asked what happened and was informed the hamster had bitten him so he stomped it. Over the next few weeks before I left that program he never brought up that incident again it was a terminal consequence.
Two years later I get a call to come south again this time to go to his mother’s funeral she had been diagnosed with cancer about a year earlier. I went to the funeral and this young man looked haggard and depressed. Through his life time his mother basically did everything from him or I should say provided directions. He had a difficult time deciding what to do or how to do things. About this same time his sister lost a baby to infanticide, the boyfriend angry over attention baby was getting smothered the baby while he slept. The family was having little time to cope with any grief. My former student now eighteen and legal drinking age was drinking heavily and wandering the streets of his town arrested several times and finally in an attempted rape of his former principals housekeeper institutionalized at the largest mental hospital in the world. He begged to stay since they told him what to do but after six months as downsizing was beginning he was released to a group home. Somehow he was allowed to babysit for two children. One day he stabbed the mother killing her and almost killed both children and police found him sitting on his bed with the knife in the kitchen sink. He was sentenced to three life sentences without any chance of parole. He has spent the last nearly thirty years living at the mental unit of Jackson State Prison.
On Wednesday another inmate made famous through his recent attempts to have a stay of execution Troy Davis was executed. As a society we have terminal consequences for specified crimes against humanity. While I cannot question the situation as I am not privileged to the case and facts I do know from what I have read this man was not a good man. He was involved in another armed robbery and supposedly was pistol whipping a homeless man at the time of fatally shooting an off duty police officer. Perhaps my point is the terminal consequence. For twenty two years appeals and repeals have cost the state millions of dollars and in effect kept the victims family on hold. I am not in favor of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime it has continually been shown to do nothing to prevent violent crime. Ted Bundy and Jeffery Daimler still would have killed all the people they allegedly killed death penalty or not. In the Old Testament one of the Ten Commandments states, thou shall not kill. As the story goes it only took a few minutes for the Hebrews to begin making amendments to the law. Within years over six hundred amendments covered a slave killing a Hebrew which was far worse than a Hebrew killing a slave. So where does that leave me this wet morning in Georgia and we need the rain so I am not complaining although I do have bus duty today. It is understanding why.
I was home alone for part of the weekend just a week or two back and while I probably do not get into the trouble the young man does in the movie version. I can always seem to find things to do and well not always what I had planned or my wife had planned for me. I did good on this weekend however shrubs got planted and flower beds mulched numerous animals cleaned up and moved out of the house. However Saturday night while everyone was gone I had an interesting incident. About 12:30 my dog woke me up wanting to go out. She had been pretty good lately been a night or two since a three or four dog night. We went out to a glorious moon, not quite full but almost. Off in the distance I heard my first coyotes in the area. I have seen coyotes as far back as 1978 but never heard one around here.
“Yearn to understand first and to be understood second.” Beca Lewis Allen
“I don’t understand you. You don’t understand me. What else do we have in common?” Ashleigh Brillant
I would attribute these thoughts to teenagers but unfortunately it seems we all seem to fall in this situation. We strive to be understood and in retrospect feel we are not understood. We walk around in a paradox, could be why there is so much anxiety in the world.
“It has taken me all my life to understand it is not necessary to understand everything.” Rene Coty
“I started out with nothing. I still have most of it.” Michael Davis
It is a learning process filtering out what we need to know, to understand and what we maybe should know and understand and what really is not needed. This is what teaching and learning should be about. So often in modern test driven curriculums it is simply memorize and documents and we are done.
“To know someone here or there with whom you can feel there is understanding in spite of distances or thoughts expressed — That can make life a garden.” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” Leonardo Da Vinci
Seeing that sparkle when the light bulb comes on in students often makes the days of frustration meaningful. One success can counteract many failures. When a child grasps and understands a concept or piece of information as a teacher that is when you feel successful. I use the analogy of a cloud or fog, and to be able to know after being in a cloud, opening your eyes and seeing or hearing when for so long not understanding has been the verdict. It is an amazing time.
“The thing is plain. All that men really understand is confined to a very small compass; to their daily affairs and experience; to what they have an opportunity to know, and motives to study or practice. The rest is affectation and imposture.” William Harlitt
“If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool.” Carl Jung
We all seem to when confronted with an unknown to be defensive and back away rather than seeking to resolve and know. Often labeling and categorizing in a manner to belittle and push aside, being in Special Education I see this daily. Many kids will hide the fact they are in Special Ed. Even though maybe only for consulate services.
“There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: you can know a lot about something and not really understand it.” Charles F. Kettering
“A man must have a certain amount of intelligent ignorance to get anywhere with progressive things.” Charles F. Kettering
Kettering was a simple inventor yet profound when all was said and done. His inventions and ideas still since his death in 1958 surround us and his legacies of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute are pieces of a far greater puzzle. But for him knowledge was simply the fact understanding was seeing what was inside and made that piece work.
“When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely — the mind being your heart, your nerves, and your ears- when you give your whole attention to it.” Jiddu Krishnarmurti
“The improvement of understanding is for two ends: first, our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver that knowledge to others.” John Locke
Knowledge is the beginning but only is it when we can share that piece of the puzzle we understand. It is when it has become a part of us that we truly understand.
“The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.” Baruch Spinoza
“We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.” Adlai Stevenson
In 1960 after a tumultuous political past and two campaigns for President Adlai Stevenson was selected by President John F. Kennedy to represent the United States in the United Nations. Stevenson fought through the 50’s against the ignorance of McCarthyism and came under attack often. Spinoza states so eloquently “to understand is to be free”. We need to learn for understanding and teaching children to understand could change all around us and perhaps prevent that which has happened in the past and could happen again. I think back often about what ifs and could I have done anything different. A new dawn is near please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and in your heart.