Live. Life. Like. Luke.

Luke Swearingin, an eighth grade student where I teach, died on Wednesday. He was loved by everyone and will be greatly missed. A student came up with a very apropos symbol to honor Luke, which students wrote on their knuckles — L. L. L. L., which stands for Live Life Like Luke. If we could, it would be a great way to live. To my Raymore-Peculiar family, I love you all. God be with you.  The “I” in this is meant to represent the reader, whomever they may be. Luke had something to teach all of us about creating a better world.

Sometimes, I can be mean to others. Luke was never mean to anyone. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I let the stress of my day get to me and I forget to smile. Luke never forgot to smile. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

There are times when I lack the confidence I need to try something new. Luke was always ready to try new things. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

On occasion, I have doubts about my ability to accomplish a task. Luke never doubted his ability and gave everything he had to any task at hand. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I let sadness overwhelm me, making me forget how truly blessed I am. If Luke was sad, he never let it show, but instead, knew he was blessed. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I stop noticing all the blessings around me, the people I love, the people who make life worth living. Luke noticed everyone, spreading happiness everywhere he went. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

There are times when I cause others to feel pain, either with my words or deeds. Luke only gave others joy. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

On occasion, it seems like my troubles are so heavy that I cannot bear the load. Nothing was too heavy for Luke. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, days go by when I do not give my all. Luke gave his all in everything he did, no matter how small. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, the noise of the world drowns out the beautiful music that would just make me want to dance. Luke never forgot to dance. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

Sometimes, I forget to love. Luke never forgot love. I need to remember  to Live Life Like Luke.

Thank you Luke. Thank you for reminding me how to live. I love you.

J. VanPelt

P.S. Sometimes, I let the light of my soul be dimmed by the shadow of sin. The light of Luke always shined bright. I need to remember to Live Life Like Luke.

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Bunch of Bridge Jumpers — The Dumbing Down of American Discourse

As a teacher of mass media and journalism, my classroom is filled with various magazines, ranging from Popular Science and Mental Floss to Upfront and Popular Photography. There is one magazine that will no longer be featured in my room. Newsweek has been banned.

In what can only be surmised as an effort to appear edgy, relevant or modern, Newsweek’s editorial board under the direction of Tina Brown allows the gratuitous use of profanity, with a great emphasis placed on the utilization of the “f word.” It is a sad day when a national newsmagazine has to be banned from the classroom of a fierce advocate of free speech, but I teach 12 to 14-year-olds, and free speech takes a backseat to their needs.

I am not going to be a hypocrite and say that I have never uttered a swear word. I have stubbed my toe. I have been cut off in traffic. Just like most people, profane words have escaped my mouth during incidents such as these. If your leg gets blown off by a landmine, a lot of cussing is expected.

My concern is that we are on a downward spiral, losing the ability to debate challenging topics, interact and simply communicate in an intelligent, meaningful way. The use of foul language in a national newsmagazine is just one more symptom of the “dumbing-down disease” plaguing America. While it takes time, effort and respect to build a sound argument for or against something, it is so much easier to just result to profanity or insults. Too often, we choose the latter.

A case in point is the recent hubbub over Emma Sullivan’s infamous tweet about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. The high school senior posted that she told Brownback in person that he sucks (a blatant lie) and she also said “he blows a lot.” When asked by her school principal to apologize, all these alleged “free-speech advocates” rallied to Sullivan’s defense, claiming she had no reason to apologize because she was just exercising her First Amendment rights.

The problem is we take the First Amendment too far in justifying all our inanity. It guarantees freedom of speech, even the freedom of “stupid speech,” but that does not make it right. People also have the freedom to call you to account for what you say.

I teach my students that if they are going to come at me with a complaint, they better have reasons to justify the complaint and a plan of action to solve the problem. This leads to quality discussion and, if warranted, needed change. Just saying something is “stupid” does not cut it. Telling the governor he “sucks” does not cut it. You can disagree with him all you want, but criticism should be constructive. Why do you disagree and what do you propose to change? These are the questions we should be asking.

Really, though, my problem is not with Sullivan, but with the adults who went to the school board demanding answers. As I watched the news, I could not help but cringe when some woman got up and said “she (Sullivan) was just talking the way young people do today.” This is the crux of the problem, the reason we are in this dumbing-down spiral. Instead of trying to raise people up, instead of trying to educate, refine and enlighten people, we are busy making excuses for their bad behavior and choices.

My parents always said to me, “If everyone is jumping off a bridge, are you going to jump off too?” To the detriment of our society, there are an awful lot of bridge jumpers.

The Teacher Shuffle: One Great Big Lie

All the calls for “education reform,” mainly revolving around the phrases “teacher accountability”  and “test scores,” sound so reasonable when uttered, but are really just a cover for a great big fat lie.

I just saw on the news that the Kansas City, Mo., school district is firing 100 teachers at the end of this school year, replacing them with 150 Teach for America candidates for next year. According to the news report, district officials said they are only letting go of teachers who have received negative evaluations and whose students have scored poorly on state assessment tests. This is another great big fat lie.

Come on teachers. Come on people. When are we going to wake up and see what is really happening? When are we going to start sticking up for ourselves and stop letting them tell these lies?

 This is not at all about improving the state of education. This is not at all about the “students.” Everyone spouts off about the “children.” The powers that be say things like, “We are doing this for the children. You know, it is the children who should come first.” Guess what that is — another great big fat lie.

The powers that be do not care about the children. They do not care if every child truly gets the best education.

They are not putting in 12 hours in the classroom and then another four at home so their students can have an engaging lesson. They are not patiently sitting there next to a reluctant student and continually offering encouragement until finally one sentence is written, and sadly, they do not realize what a victory that truly is sometimes.

No test can ever show that. No test can ever account for small breakthroughs like that. That student probably will still score poorly on the test, but that little moment may have just changed his life. The test cannot reveal the future. The test cannot tell you if a child has grown. The test cannot tell you if a child has “learned.” The test can only tell you if a child can remember.

Yet, the powers that be spout on about the test. They will never tell you this, but the test is their ultimate secret weapon. It is not about the children. The fact that they do not even compare the results of a group of students to the same group the next year tells you that. That would be a true measure of growth. That would be a true indicator of progress.

This is not about growth, or learning, or progress. The only thing that matters is money. That is all this is about — the almighty dollar. The test is just one more way to get rid of teachers who cost too much. Why pay a teacher with 20 years of experience $60,000, when you can get two Teach for America kids for less than that? Inevitably, the experienced teacher will have a year with a more challenging group of students who do not test well. That will be just what those in power were waiting for, the ammunition they need to get rid of that expensive teacher.

I have worked with teachers who entered education through non-traditional routes such as Teach for America. While some of them did quite well, overall, they are not as effective as teachers who attained certification through an accredited school of education.

In general, they do not manage classrooms as well. They do not create lessons that are as challenging, preferring to rely on textbooks and worksheets. To top it off, a higher percentage of them wash out within the first one to three years. Do you think any of that matters to the powers that be? Why would it?

This is a guaranteed way to put a warm body in the classroom for the least amount of money, and then to top it off, they can do it again in just a couple of years. Throwing the new “teachers” in the grinder and pushing them out will save school districts millions of dollars over the next decade.

That’s right folks. These Teach for America kids might as well just be volunteers, they are paid so little. Remember, they are “giving back to their country.” What they are really doing is giving school districts a way to show their experienced teachers the door and saving a ton of money in the process.

This is also why graduates of education schools are being ignored. There are plenty of them out there, ready to get to work. Districts do not want them because they will stick around longer. Eventually, that means they will cost more. If they stick to hiring the Teach for America volunteers, the odds are greater that they can just keep hiring 23-year-olds who will be gone before they hit 26.

Will the Kansas City district get rid of some truly poor teachers when they fire these 100 educators at the end of this year? Yes, they will. In the group, there will be some who should never have been teachers in the first place. But, this will be a much smaller number than everyone will be led to believe. Test scores can be misinterpreted or misapplied. Evaluations can be based on personal beliefs and feelings more than actual effectiveness. 

There is no profession that does not have some low-performing individuals. Odds are if I dismiss 100 people from any job, five or six will have been truly bad. Just wait until all these Teach for America kids get in there. The percentage who are low performing out of the 150 will be much higher than it is among the 100 educators who were fired.

This is all a scam. It is being sold as “education reform” and as a way to “cure the ills” of our education system, but that is the greatest, biggest, fattest lie of all. This is not going to cure our system. This is going to kill it.

Reasons Not to Smoke

This list was originally compiled on Valentine’s Day, 2008, the first day I really quit smoking. I smoked from 1988 to 2008. I have not smoked since that day and am so glad. Three years ago today, I became smoke free and am breathing easier. This list has hung on the refrigerator ever since as I reminder of what really matters to me in life.

1) I love my wife and want to be her husband for a long time. I want to grow old with her and experience my love for her for as long as possible. I want to turn 90 and, on that day, I want to still be holding her hand. I want us to enjoy each other’s company. I don’t want to stink anymore. I want to be able to kiss her whenever I want and not miss kisses because I am self-conscious about my smoky breath. I will not have smoky breath if I do not smoke; therefore, I will no longer have to be self-conscious. I will be able to kiss her when I want, as long as I want. Instead of cigarettes, I can kiss my wife every day. Now, there’s an addiction.

2) I love my sons, Kale and Landon, and I want to see them grow up. I want to be there when they skin their knees and need their daddy. I want to be there when they ride bikes for the first time all on their own. I want to be there when they get their first hit in a baseball game. I want to be there for their first date. I want to be there when they graduate from high school. I want to be there when they enter college. I want to be there when they fall in love, get married and have children. I want to hold their children in my arms and spoil them, my grandchildren.

3) I love to sing. I want to be able to continue to do so. I want to sound good.

4) I love being healthy. I want to be that way for as long as possible.

5) I love to be mobile. I do not want to be tethered to an oxygen machine. I do not want to be disabled.

6) I love to breathe. I would like to do so without the aforementioned oxygen machine.

7) I love money. Cigarettes are extremely expensive. Quitting will save a great deal of money for things that are still pleasurable, yet not deadly.

8) I love my family. I want to enjoy decades more holidays and fun times with them.

9) I love playing volleyball. I want to play without wheezing.

10) I love to walk, swim, eat, play, dance and just jump around like a crazy man. I want to be able to do all of those things to the fullest. When I eat, I want to taste my food. When I dance, I want to do so without becoming so tired.

11) I love my life. I want to live it.

 

 

 

National Anthem is About the Nation, Not the Singer

They sing the wrong words. They sing the wrong notes. Sometimes, it is as if they are singing the wrong anthem.

I am tired of listening to singers butcher the national anthem. The “Star-Spangled Banner” is a gorgeous, moving, challenging song. Lately, the mashed, twisted, rearranged versions I am hearing make my ears ring; not from the bombs bursting in air, but the notes twinging, twanging and trilling without ever finding a home.

Listening to Christina Aguilera’s version of the national anthem during the Superbowl on Sunday was so horrific to me that I did not even notice she had messed up the words. Her notes were so wrong, so off, that I completely missed the fact that there were no ramparts anymore. Honestly, all the trilling really is just a sign that she cannot hit and/or sustain a note.

When I was a younger man, people sang the national anthem the way it was written. And, you know what happened, everyone sang along.

That is what I want. I would die and go to heaven if I could perform the national anthem at Arrowhead with all 73,000 people belting it out with me.

Now, that would be powerful. That would be awe-inspiring. That is the way it used to be.

Sadly, singers think it is all about them now. That is the problem; our selfish, hey-look-at-me culture. They want to be applauded for how great they sang the anthem and how they “made it their own.”

It does not belong to them. It belongs to the nation. It is not about them. It is about our nation.

That is what we have forgotten. It is time for us to take it back. Let’s put the “nation” back in our national anthem.

Ready for Rachel’s Challenge

She was the first to die that day. She will never be the first to be forgotten.

Rachel Scott was just another high school student the day her life was taken by two of her fellow classmates in the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. Using her words from diaries, letters and poems she wrote, her message of love and compassion lives on through an educational school and community program that tours the country.

The assembly we had at school today was so incredible. It was so deeply moving to me, especially because I remember that tragic day so well. A special assembly will be presented to the community in the gymnasium at Raymore-Peculiar High School at 7 p.m. tonight (Dec. 2). If you live in the area and can make it, it will be worth your time.

Called “Rachel’s Challenge,” the assembly asks us to do five things:  Treat others the way you wish to be treated; dream big; seek good influences in life; spread “positive gossip,” good words about others; and, lastly, start a chain reaction. 

I love this message. It is very similar to what I have been saying to my students for the past eight years and to readers of my newspaper opinion columns for the five years prior to that.

After asking my students if they believed they had the ability to save a life, I told them a story,  a story about a young girl. Sad and alone, she walked through crowds of people in a busy city. She came to the river. She continued walking, right into the river. Swept away by the current, her body was finally located several miles downstream.

On shore, a simple note was found, snagged on some brush near where she walked into the river. The note said, “No one said hello.”

Ever since I first heard that story, I was moved by its power. Those four amazingly simple, yet so profound, words….”No one said hello.” If someone would have just done something as simple as greet her and smile, she would not have taken her own life.

I know there are days I feel down. There are times when someone just says “hello” to me and I know I will then be able to make it through the day. Maybe that person was you —  if not for me, maybe for someone else. You might have saved a life already and not even known it. We have more power than we realize.

You may not believe this, but I do know how it feels to be alone in a crowd. I sometimes feel I have spent my entire life that way. I can make people laugh; I know I have that ability. One thing I sometimes struggle with, surprisingly, is making myself happy.

Somehow in conversations over the years, I mention that comedians are actually among the most depressed people of all. I do not know if anyone ever caught on, but I was including myself in that.

If people are laughing, they are too busy to ask you about your life, they are too distracted by the humor to see the truth, they are too misled by your comedic wit to ever think you could be withering. I suffer from serious bouts of depression, it is true. It is not something I normally discuss. It is something with which I simply deal (and most of the time just refuse to acknowledge).

I just deal with it. And all you have to do is say “hello.”

I just want to strive to be as good as Rachel Scott knew we could all be everyday of my life. I know I will not always be able to do it, but I vow to try. I accept Rachel’s Challenge! If you want to know more, check out www.rachelschallenge.org.

Normally, I would not publish my poetry on here, but this is a poem I wrote shortly after another tragic school shooting, this one at a school in California called Santana High School,  and while thinking of the tragedy of Columbine. Here is that poem:

 

Safe Haven

 By John VanPelt

In Memory of the Students of Santana and Columbine high schools

 

I crawl to natural science

To study the evolution of man

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

This wasn’t in Darwin’s plan.

 

I stroll to history

To explore ancient times

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The blood-stained hands of crime.

 

I saunter to Spanish

To master a foreign tongue

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

The last dying gasp of the young.

 

I skim to English

To read great authors of the past

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

How long will this pain last?

 

I scurry to biology

To examine the innards of mice

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

To violence we are desensitized.

 

I sprint to algebra

To solve complex formulas of math

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

We move backwards on the wrong path.

 

I tear home

To escape the safe haven of school

Blood on the windows, blood on the walls

 The lesson of death has become the rule.

 

We live in such strange times, with such mind-boggling tragedy. Let’s get through it together. Let’s get together.

 

Everyone, just smile and say “hello.” We will save lives.

 

***Photo courtesy of Rachel’s Challenge

When Anything Goes, Everything Goes

Weed, grass, pot…let ’em smoke it. Gay, homosexual, partners…let ’em put a ring on it. Inconvenient, unintended, accident…let ’em kill it. Decent, moral, compassionate…let ’em all just forget it.

When I read an article by Jacob Weisberg in a recent issue of Newsweek, that is exactly the message I took away from it. Weisberg seems to think if enough people want to do something, every one else should just get out of the way and let them do it. My problem with this short-sightedness is that when anything goes, everything goes.

“Our forms of prohibition are more sins of omission than commission,” Weisberg writes in the article, titled, “Gay Marriage & Marijuana: You can’t stop either. Why that’s good.”* “Rather than trying to take away long-standing rights, they’re instances of conservative laws failing to keep pace with a liberalizing society.”

While I do think too many in the media would love it if Americans could just lounge around all day massaging their same-sex spouses, inhaling cannabis, eating Doritos and shooting babies with BB guns, I do think a majority of Americans still disagree. Certain elements of society — namely, the media — are “liberalizing,” but many Americans such as myself feel like a lot of this is being shoved down our throats. We are starting to choke.

Weisberg quotes the president, Barack Obama, saying, “‘I inhaled — that was the point.'”*  That is just one more reason I am glad I did not vote for the man. Seriously, even when he admits he consumed illegal drugs, Obama does it in a condescending way.

Pointing out that the bastion of conservative ideology, The New York Times, (can you hear my sarcasm?) has recognized gay unions on its wedding pages for the past seven years, Weisberg says this reflects “evolving social norms.”* I say this is just another example of a media outlet foisting its views on us.

Weisberg writes, “What’s advancing the decriminalization of marijuana is not just the demand for pot as medicine but the number of adults — more than 23 million in the past year…who use it and don’t believe they should face legal jeopardy.”*

Wow, I am amazed the “but Mom, everybody else is doing it” excuse can be used at any age now. Weisberg calls this the “evolving definition of the pursuit of happiness.”* I call this another example of our declining civilization.

Rome crumbled once the societal elites turned to hedonism. Is that the path we wish to travel? Should we let just anything go?

Discussing the relaxing of marijuana laws, Weisberg reports, “In L.A., you need only tell an on-site doctor at a walk-in pot emporium that you feel anxious to walk out with a legal bag of Captain Kush.”* Well, I have to stay up late to get this article done. How long before I can step into a walk-in methamphetamine boutique to pick up some Captain Keep-Me-Awake?

This is exactly my point. Where do we draw the line? When does it stop? Who is going to stand up and yell, “Enough!”? When are we going to realize what I said before — when anything goes, everything goes?

I do not think the problem is that society is becoming more liberal. I think the problem is that we are becoming weak and spineless.

We are too afraid of appearing judgmental. We are too afraid of being deemed politically incorrect. We are too afraid of causing offense.

I say the whole thing about not judging others is a load of crap. We judge others all the time. It is in our nature to do so. If I hurt your feelings and you think I am politically incorrect, go cry to your mama. If I offend, maybe you should be offended. Perhaps that is exactly what you need.

* Quotes from the article, “Gay Marriage & Marijuana: You can’t stop either. Why that’s good.” Newsweek. Nov. 9, 2009. (24).