We interrupt the ongoing celebration of Christmas, hard-hitting social commentary, keen insights into adolescents, and shameless self-promotion that form the normal work of this blog to post something that we just really like a lot.
We here at bradenbell.com are inveterate, confirmed Anglophiles. We love all things English--everything from country lanes to St. George, Shakespeare, and Queen Elizabeth. We are quite sure, that in some former life, we were best friends with Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes.
This, of course, makes us look on all things French with a certain amount of suspicion. Still, when it comes to a dispute between the Nazi Jerrys and the Frogs, we will quickly don our beret and shout, "Vive La France!"
To be fair, the French have probably the coolest national anthem in the world (although we choke up every time we hear "The Star-Spangled Banner." We find that if we are ever afraid or need to muster up fighting spirit, singing "La Marseillaise" is a supreme tonic.
This film clip is one of our favorite scenes from one of our favorite movies--Casablanca. The Nazis are insinuating themselves into French Morocco and come to Rick's nightclub where they disturb the peace by singing their noxious German anthems. Not to fear! A Resistance leader is on hand and he leads the patrons in a wonderful musical smackdown. This gives me chills every time.
To be very candid, I was not all that excited about Mitt Romney running for President last cycle--and it has nothing to do with his policies. I am fairly flexible politically. There are elements and thoughts in each party I relate to and agree with and elements and people with whom I disagree. I remain personally agnostic about the election next year. Moreover, I don't like to talk about politics on this blog too much.
So, I'm not addressing Romney's candidacy as a political matter. I'm approaching it as someone who happens to belong to the same church as Romney. And that is why I was not thrilled to see him run for President.
I suspected then that such a candidacy would create all kinds of opportunities for "Mormons-are-weird" snarkiness. Some would be inspired by political opponents, some would be cloaked as hard-hitting investigative journalism, and some would just be people trying to be funny.
Well, I was right. It happened then, and now that Romney appears to be a more viable candidate with a real shot, it's happening again.
Let me be clear, to borrow a phrase from another politician of national standing: I am not afraid of this. My own faith is not dependent on what late night comics say or whatever conventional wisdom the editorial page of the New York Times decides to reify. I believe my faith will survive and I think the larger Church will survive just fine. In fact, it's a pretty open secret that opposition and anti-Mormon sentiment has historically yielded periods of growth in the Church.
Still, I didn't and don't relish this because my faith is of great value to me and we can all pretend that we are tough and don't care, but I don't think that any of us humans like it much when one our loyalties or identity markers is mocked. And let's face it: there are plenty of things for someone to mock about ANY faith or lack of faith. In fact, I maintain that you can take any philosophy or belief system and mock it or even frame it in a way that makes it appear crazy and scary.
It remains a matter of great disappointment to me that enlightened people who would never consider laughing at a joke about women or ethnic minorities will chortle at jokes about unenlightened rubes like Mormons. But whatever. I think it's hypocritical, but that is for other people's own consciences to work through.
What I really do abhor, though, is bigotry. I think it is ugly , ugly, ugly--and it is equally ugly when it's directed at Jews or Mormons, Irish, Catholics, or African-Americans, men or women.
So, I particularly appreciated Walter Russell Mead's take on anti-Mormon bigotry occasioned by an op-ed in the NYT by Prof. Harold Bloom. Mead is someone I find very much worth reading on any subject because he is tough-but-fair minded and does not hew to the pieties and dogmas on either side. He's as close to an intellectually honest commentator as I've ever found (something that, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary to civil dialogue and is as rare as it is important). I think his whole piece is worth reading (here), but I liked these paragraphs especially:"This is not about Governor Romney, and it is not about the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Via Meadiatakes no view at this early stage about the merits or demerits of the various candidates, and our inveterate Anglicanism gets in the way of embracing the Mormon faith. But bigotry is something that needs to be fought in all its forms; unreasonable fears and prejudices based on religion will always be with us, but such fears belong in the gutter among the wackos, the haters and the tin-foil hat brigades on both the right and the left. When they rise from the sewers and the swamps into mainstream publications and can be casually uttered in polite company by distinguished professors, something is going very wrong, and people who believe in the American way need to speak up."
And this one in which he lays bare the partisan bias of the bigotry: "I say nothing about the motives of Professor Bloom or the New York Times. But so far as I know, neither has ever expressed any concern over the stout Mormon faith of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. If creeping Mormonism is a threat to our secular way of life, shouldn’t we be critical of those in both parties who are members of this allegedly terrifying church?
"There are scores of other Mormon congressmen and elected officialsfrom both parties who escape the censure of Professor Bloom and the Times. The only one who seems to worry them is the one who might end up getting the Republican nomination for president. In some circles, this would look like a cheap shot: stirring up religious bigotry to slime a candidate you feared. It would look like the kind of thing that any Yale professor would be ashamed to do, and the kind of piece that a great newspaper would refuse to run."
Well done, Professor Meade. Thank you for your candor and honesty--and for realizing that bigotry is ugly no matter which target it decides to smear. Agree or disagree with Romney, vote against him or for him--but do so based on the positions he holds and the policies he espouses. Not on your perception of what he believes.
Oh gosh. Wow. National treasure. This comes from the era when America's popular culture was also good and full of merit. When singers and songwriters were genuine artists. But I digress. You know, of course, that White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin--a Russian Jewish immigrant? Think of it. One of the most iconic, beloved American Christmas songs was written by an immigrant to this country, from a religion that didn't celebrate Christmas! I love it. That is the whole melting pot thing right there. This was a huge hit during World War II, as soldiers heard it and remembered home and family during a tender time. This song really has it all.
Another classic Christmas song. Nat King Cole. They don't make them like this anymore.
For those of you just joining us, Christmas is a big deal here at bradenbell.com, and the music is a big part of that!
I'm doing an assignment with my chorus classes this year in which they listen to and analyze iconic Christmas songs sung by iconic singers (Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" for example). I thought that would be a fun way to talk about what makes music "good."
Anyway, it's been so fun going through some of these great songs, I thought I'd share some of them. Here's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" by Frank Sinatra. I'll post one of these every day or so.
In the past, I had a student who was undoubtedly the social center of her entire grade. She was outgoing and energetic, athletic and friendly. Her peers genuinely respected her and, to an outsider looking in, she would have been the clear Queen of the grade. The faculty universally agreed that she was the dominant social force in the grade and to state that in a staff meeting was incontrovertible. In twenty-five years, I don't think I've ever seen such a clear-cut case as this.
So I was surprised when, sometime later, I had a conversation with her mother. She told me all about how her daughter was not really all that popular, and was on the "B" list as opposed to the "A" list and was generally on the social periphery.
I was shocked. What she said contradicted three years of what I watched every day.
So who's right?
Well, in a sense, I suppose, the faculty are right in that we were impartial observers who watched up close for many years. However, it doesn't matter how popular the teachers think you are if you don't feel it in your own heart.
And that brings us to the rub. NO ONE feels popular in middle school. Period. Even the ones everyone thinks are wallowing in popularity.
Yes, that might be obvious--why do I bring it up?
Because I recently finished two days of parent/teacher conferences and almost every parent expressed concerns about how their child was doing socially. And, more than anything else, this is probably the main concern I hear from parents all year long. The parents know that 7th grade is an awkward time for everyone, but they feel that their child is suffering uniquely and it's very difficult.
(Incidentally--if you are a parent and you are worried about helping your child navigate a difficult time and emerge as a confident adult, that's good. If you are worried about their social status on it's own merits, or based on how it reflects on you, then you may have a problem and need some serious self-examination, possibly therapy).
Because our children's emotions hit us in such visceral ways, I think it's helpful to be reminded that nearly everyone else at this age is going through the same things (and if they're not, they either did it early or haven't hit it yet). One of the most interesting things I've observed in my experience at school is how socially awkward almost all of the kids feel.
In another year (different from the one I mentioned above) I was talking to the mother of a vibrant, popular girl who appeared to be the social ruler of her grade. Our conversation went something like this. "Oh, I don't know what to do. Philemina (not her real name) is having such a hard year. She just doesn't fit in. The other girls are so mean to her especially Bertha (not her real name, either)."
Bertha, you see was another very popular girl--always surrounded by friends, very much a Queen Bee.
A few days later, I was talking to Bertha's mother who said, "This is such a hard age! Bertha is really having a hard time. Philemina and Honoria (not her real name--can you see a pattern here?) are really mean to her. She just doesn't have any friends."
And on and on it went. That year, I had similar conversations with Honoria's mother, as well as Violet's, Louisa's, Marianna's, Myrtle's, and Deborah's.
All of these girls were, to any observer, popular, well-liked, and in a position of social authority in the grade. And yet, none of them felt like they were "there." They all felt like they were on the outside looking in and were, at best, very tenuously placed socially.
The moral of the story is that in middle school no one--and I mean NO one--feels confident or secure. Everyone feels like they are on the margins. Everyone feels vulnerable.
This means that they perceive the least little things to be BIG deals. Garden-variety unkindness or even thoughtlessness is perceived by students and parents to be intentional bullying because they assume that the offending party is "cool" or "popular" and is picking on their unpopular victim. That does happen occasionally, but less than you might think. More often, it's two kids, both of whom feel insecure and are convinced that they are on the social margins doing immature things. That's important, incredibly important, to remember when coaching your children through these problems.
Usually, this all gets better with time and maturity. Until then, it's rough. Just know you are not alone.
Wow, The Road Show got a great review on the Association for Mormon Letters bulletin board this morning. You can see it here. Thanks to Beth Roach for the review.
It's always nice to get a good review, but this was especially welcome since it's been a while since the book was published (over a year now) and so interest in it has pretty much fallen off the map--that's not a complaint, it's the normal way of publishing. You write and write and work on something and then it's a big deal for a few weeks and then it's not. And, being released in the summer, I just never felt like the book got all that much notice at the time.
So, to get a nice review from such a prominent, credible source is like Christmas come early (or Thanksgiving staying late. Either one).
Anyway, it's a great start to a bleak and gray, rainy Monday morning!
P.S. Should have a Middle School Monday post up later, so check back!
I seriously I love Thanksgiving. In fact, it might be my favorite holiday. It's fun and exciting, but it's flexible enough to be whatever you want it to be--a major family dinner, or some take-out from a restaurant. In fact, it seems to me to be the quintessential American holiday. It's something unique, something we invented. At the same time, it's flexibility allows people to celebrate it in all kinds of ways. We went to a Thanksgiving feast at our congregation in New York, for example, featuring ox tail, plantains, and rice and beans.
It's got religious underpinnings, so it's spiritual but it's not tied to any specific faith. I also love it that you can say, "Happy Thanksgiving" to nearly anyone and know that they won't be offended. (I know a few people will be, but they are clearly so grumpy and professionally unhappy that I don't care too much if they are offended).
So, it's the ultimate democratic (small-d) holiday. It pulls us together and celebrates what we have in common--which is a whole lot of blessings.
Personally, I love how mellow it is. It's got all the good stuff about Christmas--family and food and good times, without the pressure. (I do wish there was a canon of really cool music. That's the one thing it lacks). I also love that it falls between Halloween and Christmas, which means it hasn't been commercialized yet. The retailers just jump from Halloween to Christmas. Other people complain that Walgreens puts Christmas decorations up November 1st, but I think it's great. It means that my precious, mellow Thanksgiving is untouched.
The older I get, the more and more I cherish the memories of Thanksgivings past--memories of grandparents and cousins, of aunts and uncles. Growing up, my Thanksgivings were about as close to Norman Rockwell as you can get. The times I got to spend with these people--people who are either no longer alive, or people by whom I no longer live--become more and more precious to me. My memories become more and more golden as the law of Supply and Demand make that which is rare all the more precious.
I can't wait to spend time with my own growing family--the children who have begun to leave the nest already. We'll be down one child this year--which would be unbearably painful were it not for the fact that he'll be with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents--making his own memories.
We'll eat and then I'll doze while everyone else watches football. We'll watch Miracle on 34th Street that night (original version, thank you very much). We'll go get our tree the next day and decorate it, then eat sugar cookies and drink egg nog.
But before all that, in the quiet days between now and the beginning of Christmas, I'll think long and hard. I'll thank God for a generous bounty of material goods that is almost unheard of, by historical human standards. I'll thank him for a warm home that is warmed (and cooled) with the flick of a switch and not with wood that I've had to cut myself.
I'll thank him for food to eat that has come to me without having to reap or plow or slaughter, pluck, or skin.
I'll thank him for the priceless gift of an education--which is now, in turn, providing a fantastic education for my children. I'll remember how fortunate I am to have a job--especially one that challenges and stretches me, that brings me into contacts with students that light up my life.
I'll thank him for a loving wife who walks, hand in hand, along with me. Patient in my weaknesses and committed to our vows and our family. I'll thank him for healthy, happy children who are flourishing and growing and learning.
I'll thank him for a faith that grounds me--that gives the positive inside of me a direction and channel, while providing a structure for me to address and try to weed out the negative--a faith that provides an anchor and shelter when the storm and winds blow.
I'll thank him for his love--manifest daily in a splendid tapestry of ways--most notably the continuing gift of his son and the healing that has brought into my life in so many ways.
I have so very much to be grateful for this year. Most of us do--notwithstanding the difficulties we face.
Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you have a meaningful holiday filled to the brim with whatever makes you happiest!
Today, I received a letter from a former student. She thanked me, in specific terms, for a way that I had helped her. I can't begin to express how much her letter moved me. This was an act of great generosity on her part--and it has changed my view of myself and my job.
I've been a bit down lately, career-wise--nothing major or serious. But at times, I wonder if, after all the laughs and smiles and applause are over, I've left a mark--hopefully for good. I've wondered if some of the ways my family struggles because of my job choice are justified by a larger good. I've wondered if I've touched anyone's life, or just made a few classes fun.
It seems that, for at least one student, the answer is "yes," and I am probably as grateful to her for telling me that I made a difference as she is to me for making a difference. There's an interesting symmetry in that. I helped her at a hard time and she did the same for me.
Life is good.
I want to propose a thought experiment. Take any of your deeply held political views--something significant, not small and trivial. This should be something you feel very strongly about, one you feel is important in a moral sense.
Now, think about why you feel the way you do--what is the moral and logical reasoning you went through to come that opinion or belief?
Imagine someone on the other side of the ideological spectrum--someone like Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow (whichever one opposes your views) describing your position and the people who hold it.
Do you recognize yourself in their description of you and the position? Do they grasp WHY you feel that way?
They might be able to sum up what you believe and give you a label (eg. pro choice or pro life). The label might even be technically accurate, but do they do justice to the moral and intellectual process that led you to that belief?
Or, do they tend to reduce all of the thought and feeling and life experience you bring to your conviction as disordered thinking, assuming at the outset that your belief is wrong and that you are either foolish or stupid or evil for holding that view?
Try this a few times and look in the mirror that your opponents hold up. It seems to be very distorted, does it not?
So, is view that we get of the opposing team likely to be much more accurate?
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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