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Sensible Talk is author Robert Niles' blog about... sensible things.

August 28, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Work That Even God Cannot Do

Robert Niles
The senior minister my church, the Rev. Jim Nelson at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, holds a "Preacher in You" class each year to teach church members how to write a sermon and conduct a church service. It's a fascinating look into another form of public speaking, so I took the class this year. And in the summer, the class participants run the service for a Sunday while the regular ministers are away. Here is my sermon from last Sunday. Prefer to listen than to read? Here's the audio of the sermon.

Robert in the pulpit

I loved Jay Ward cartoons: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Peabody's Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. How can you not love a show that name checks The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through a story about Bullwinkle the talking moose finding on the shore of a local pond a model boat encrusted with red jewels? That's right -- a ruby yacht. For a youngster struggling with his teachers' attempts to impose strange rules of grammar and syntax, I loved watching Jay Ward's characters gleefully blow up the conventions of language and of history and rearranging the debris for the sole purpose of making me laugh. I didn't understand most of the references. Heck, I was deep into my teens before I got that Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam joke. But I did learn an appreciation for the power of irreverence.

My sharpest memory of a Jay Ward character wasn't from one of his cartoons. When I was very young, I had a dream that Snidely Whiplash had tied me and Nell to the railroad tracks. The evil Snidely *always* was tying the beautiful young Nell to the tracks, just before Dudley Do-Right the dim-witted Canadian Mountie came riding to her rescue, brought there by his infinitely more intelligent Horse, who went by the name "Horse." This time, though, Dudley and Horse were nowhere. And the train was coming. I could feel it in the tracks. They started to sway, then shudder, then shake, and violently. I saw the train appear around the bend as the tracks erupted, breaking our ropes and throwing me clear of the approaching locomotive.

I woke up when I hit the floor next to my bed.

It was 6 a.m. on February 9, 1971 and we were living in Canoga Park, about 20 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake near Sylmar. I wonder how many children in the Bay Area might have had a similar experience this morning. Our thoughts are with them, and we hope that they are well.

Psychiatrists call this "dream incorporation," when a physical stimulus inspires and shapes a dream. In my mind, this melodrama with Snidely and Nell had played out for several minutes before the tracks ruptured, but in the reality outside my imagination, my mind quickly incorporated the shaking of my bed into a manufactured memory that became my dream. This is power of the mind. It can shape and define your reality.

A few years ago, I underwent surgery to fix my long-screwed up nose. The surgery required a general anesthetic, as well as an immense amount of packing and bandaging inside my nose. Thanks to the medical team, all went well, and I came to in a recovery room.

Like my moment with Snidely Whiplash, my memory of this time waking up remains vivid. But there was no mental narrative leading up to this moment. No train. No villain. No thought. With my nose packed, there was no breath. My dream incorporation was a view into absolute nothingness. Absence of sight, smell, sound, taste, feeling, even thought. What existed before I opened my mouth and drew the breath that finally opened my eyes was nothingness. The complete absence of life. Death.

I do not believe in God. Whenever I say this, inevitably a believer will challenge me: "Shouldn't you believe in God, just in case, for when you die?"

Thanks to that moment of clarity in the recovery room, this is what I expect when I die: nothing. My brain will stop functioning, it will stop defining and creating my reality, and I will simply cease to be, save for whatever remains in the memories and historical records maintained by others. But that is not me. That is simply the impression of me left upon others.

If you find that thought, or Sam Harris' words on the topic to be discouraging, please don't. For we are not dead yet. (I feel like I should say this in a Monty Python voice: I'm not dead yet!) Even if our brains and souls cease to be upon death, we can live beyond that moment in the works and words we leave for others. If having an afterlife is important to you, then do something now that you can be 100 percent certain *will* endure.

So I have a response for the believers and it's a question of my own: "Why shouldn't you *not* believe in God, just in case there is no all-powerful independent being who's going to come down and make this a better world?" Why simply invest your faith in a better death, when you instead could redirect some of that mental effort into creating a better life, right now?

I am atheist, but do not for a moment assume that I lack faith and belief. So what do atheists believe? I'm sure you'll find more than a few to ask in this room. Of course, if you asked outside this welcoming congregation, we might not want to identify ourselves. Discrimination against atheists remains a socially acceptable, and often politically endorsed, form of discrimination in America.

A 2012 Gallup survey found that less than 10 percent of Americans said that they would not vote for an African American, a woman, a Catholic, a Jew, or an Hispanic simply because of their race, gender, ethnicity or religion. That is progress, to be sure. But 30 percent of respondents said that they would not vote for a gay or lesbian candidate. Forty percent of respondents said they never would vote for a Muslim. And 43 percent of respondents said that they never would for an atheist, the most discriminated-against group in the survey. Polls from Pew Research Center have returned similar results.

Despite a clause in Article VI of the US Constitution that prohibits religious tests to hold elected office, eight states still maintain legal or state constitutional prohibitions on atheists holding office in their states. When he was Vice President, George Bush (the elder one) once said "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic."

Regardless of my nation's hostility toward me and people who share my atheism, here is what I believe: I believe in you. All of you. I believe in the power of you and me, working together, to create heaven on this Earth so we don't have to settle and suffer for the mere promise of it in death.

We can do this. For two years, my wife and I taught Suzuki violin classes for dozens of first graders at Pasadena's McKinley School. Well, my wife taught the classes, and I pretty much just herded the kids the into place.

I would go to the children's primary classrooms and line up the students who were taking violin, then march them up the hallway to the room where we taught the class. Then, an hour later, I'd line them up and walk them back to their regular class.

But after a few weeks, I was beginning to believe that I might actually be okay at this. I picked up the gestures that teachers use to get their students' attention. I learned to project the confidence that would get some respect. And I figured out how to use kind words and friendly expressions to slide my way around emerging breakdowns, so the kids would keep behaving well.

I thought that I was learning how to teach children. Which shows just how little I'd actually learned from the experience.

One day in early December, I walked to pick up one of our classes of young violinists from their homeroom. On the window looking into their classroom, the students had posted little construction paper cut-outs of Christmas presents, with their Christmas wishes written upon them. Some kids come into first grade with the ability to read and write, but for many children that age, even writing something as motivating as a Christmas wish can be a challenge. But, with the help and patience of their first-grade teacher, they'd done it.

I read a few, while I waited for the kids to collect their violin cases and line up in front of me. "For Christmas, I want a soccer ball," said one.

And on another, from a more, uh, ambitious child: "For Christmas, I want an Xbox."

And then, the one that humbles me to this day: "For Christmas, I want to teach my mother English."

At that moment, I felt ashamed that I'd wanted attention, good behavior or anything at all from these kids. I recognized instead that *I* had been blessed with the opportunity to serve a child who'd wanted, simply, to give more than to get. And this child with that awesome Christmas wish was hardly the only one in our school who just wanted to learn, and to share that love.

Whether that young girl ever managed to teach her mother a word of English, she's given me a wonderful gift -- an opportunity to see the beauty of unselfishness, and the motivating power of service to others. But that's what happens when you give -- it's rarely contained. Gifts abide by their own Newtonian law of motion. They continue giving and giving, never ending... until someone tries to stop them.

How many of you have an account on Facebook? How many of you have unfriended someone, or at least been tempted to, because of the stuff they've posted? I have several friends from my time back in Florida who routinely fill their profiles with Fox News posts and right-wing memes. But I don't unfriend them for it. When I see one of those posts, I simply mute it and remind myself why I became friends with them in the first place.

Here's an example: When I worked at Walt Disney World, every year on the Fourth of July and at Christmas, we'd get a few free one-day tickets that were good at all of Disney's theme parks. It was one of the nice, union-negotiated perks we enjoyed for our work herding tourists. Now, as employees (sorry, cast members) we got into the parks for free whenever we wanted to, but I saw the value of these tickets as future wedding presents, so I hoarded mine.

But one of my fellow cast members didn't wait to make a gift of her tickets. She was in school, too, and had collected quite a few free tickets over the years. After picking up our latest free tickets with our paychecks one day, we'd ridden the monorail over to Epcot with some friends. On our way back, she'd struck up a conversation with a couple of kids about their day at Disney. They were gushing to my friend about everything they'd seen and pestering their mother if they could stay another day.

The mother told them no, that this was the last day on their tickets and that they'd go to the beach instead tomorrow. As she said this, my co-worker reached into her purse, pulled out the free tickets she'd just gotten and - to my shock - handed them over to the mom.

The mother looked stunned.

"I insist," my co-worker said, as the kids squealed.

The monorail arrived back at the Magic Kingdom, and my co-worker got up to exit before the mom could refuse. I collected my jaw from the floor and ran after my friend. I was going to ask, "Why?" but when I saw the huge smile on her face... I had my answer.

Sometimes, you find the greatest joy not in what you get or what you achieve, but in what you do for other people. That's why I won't de-friend her or any other real-life friends over their Facebook posts. Fox News can stir up people's anger, but I refuse to believe that it can completely extinguish the capacity for kindness that exists in every human heart. Yes, I believe in us. All of us.

We began the service this morning with one of my favorite hymns: Jerusalem, by Charles Hubert Parry with lyrics from a William Blake poem. The conceit of the poem is that Jesus is said to have visited England with Joseph of Arimathea during those "lost years" in the Gospels, between Jesus' birth and ministry.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up. One minute we're walking with Jesus among the green and pleasant hills of England, and in the next line, we're toiling in a "dark, Satanic mill"? It's like someone changed the channel from Teletubbies to Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

And this is why I love this song. Because it says that Jesus himself can come walk into your country; you can build the promised land of Jerusalem in your hometown, and none of that is going to save you from ending up in toiling in some dark, Satanic mill one day. None of it.

So where's the hope? Bring on the next stanza:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land

God's not going to save us. We are. And if we are to accomplish the work that even a God cannot, we will need every weapon, every asset, every resource, every person we have. We will need the immigrant children and our native-born, from our schools to the detention camps on our boarders. We will need the conservatives and the liberals. The atheists and the believers. We will need everyone who can have the faith to stop turning on one another and start believing in each other instead.

So bring us our teachers, inspiring our children.
And bring us more unions, so our work might earn worth.
Bring us more scientists, and run them for office,
so we can have governments that care for our Earth.

We mustn't let fear shut down our minds,
nor let ballots be snatched from our hand.
For only we, together, can build a just and righteous paradise
and save a green and pleasant land.


May 1, 2014

My final word on public education reform

Robert Niles
If we're going to improve public schools in America, we need three things: 1) The abolition of charter schools and voucher programs -- all public funds should be spent on schools under voter control. 2) A reaffirmation of neighborhood schools -- kids should be assigned to the schools nearest them (with options for kids with unique talent to go to other schools with specialized, audition- or application-based programs). 3) Aggressive new funding to support kids from poor families -- this includes restoring state funding for extracurricular activities as well as for lowering class sizes and paying for after-school and vacation-time tutoring and child care.

What we don't need? 1) More standardized testing -- let's better replicate "real life" by asking students to demonstrate their ability by creating projects in the subjects that interest them instead of taking tests that don't replicate any real job experience. 2) Tying school funding to test results -- that's a death spiral that chokes funding from schools serving poor kids, who are more likely to score poorly on standardized tests. 3) Changing work rules to leave teachers with lower pay, fewer pensions, and weaker job security -- if we want better even teachers, we need to offer better compensation, not worse.

Education suffers when we view it as something for "them" rather than something that is a cooperative effort by all of us. That's why charter schools and voucher programs are so corrosive. They reduce education to a consumer product, provided by organizations separate from community oversight and control. We need to restore community support for our local schools. Attacking the corporate-funded lies about American public education is just a first step. (When you account for differences in family income, American school test scores are rising, and rank among the top in the world, despite the public beating that our politicians have been administering to schools since the Reagan administration.) The next step is to quit making public schools behave like consumer products, and to allow them to once again focus on serving the kids in the neighborhoods nearest them.

The "education problem" in America isn't one of teachers, of curriculum, or of administration. It's the problem of child poverty, which has been growing for more than a generation as tax, trade and employment policies in America have worked to destroy our middle class. If we want to improve educational outcomes for all American children, we need to attack child poverty by helping their parents -- working men and women -- to get a larger share of the value that their work creates, rather than allowing so much of that value to be sucked upstream by owners and CEOs.

While we do that, we need to support the emerging majority of American students who come from families too poor to provide for their children without public support by providing that support. We need to spend more to provide more and better meals to ensure that students get the nutrition they need, and not simply empty calories that leave them overweight and undernourished. We need to spend more to restore state funding for a full range of extracurricular programs, to keep more students engaged in school by providing activities that awaken their passion for life. And we need to spend more for after-school and vacation-time tutoring to provide the help, guidance and engagement that children who can't count on getting that support at home. How will we get that money? Easy -- we grow the backbone to finally raise taxes on those owners and CEOs who have grown richer than ever.

Look: Public education is one of government's greatest expenditures, along with defense, health care, and retirement support. That's made it a juicy target for business people who want to get their hands of some of those billions of tax dollars. Like Harold Hill trying to convince the people of Iowa that they have a problem with their youth in order to sell them band instruments, these "reformers" have been trying to sell the American public on the idea that the nation's poverty problem really is just a problem with teachers and principals, and if we only just give our money to the business people instead, all our problems will go away.

Except that they don't. And won't. So let's try another approach. Let's turn away from charter schools, voucher programs, and standardized testing. Let's do away with all that corporate welfare and try spending money on the true education professionals -- the teachers, counselors, coaches, and principals in publicly-controlled schools who need our support, not our scorn, to help our children achieve their great potential.

April 21, 2014

School attendance zones should build, not break, communities

Robert Niles
The Pasadena Unified School District is asking for public input as it redraws the attendance boundaries for its elementary, middle and high schools. By redrawing its attendance zones, PUSD has an opportunity to fix one of the major problems that's been crippling the district in recent decades. But will the district take this opportunity, or let it slip away?

PUSD attendance zones

Currently, PUSD breaks up its elementary classes, scattering kids from the same elementary to multiple middle schools. The same thing happens when children move from middle school to high school. The district's attendance zones for secondary schools cross the attendance zones for the various elementary schools, instead of overlaying them neatly. Throw in an elementary school, a K-8 school and a 6-12 school with no geographic zones — where students are selected for attendance by random lottery — and it's nearly impossible that a child entering a PUSD school in kindergarten will find the majority of his or her classmates attending the same school with him or her in high school.

Here's the problem with that: When the district breaks up elementary school communities, it doesn't just separate kids. The district separates parent communities, too. Active parent communities are vital in raising money and providing volunteers to support field trips, sports teams, performing arts programs, and many other student activities. When a district breaks up the networks that parents form during their first six years in the district, that makes the challenge of moving up to middle school even more difficult. And when parents don't see a functioning parent support community at the secondary school where they've been assigned, if they have the resources to leave the district, there's a strong chance that they will.

Unfortunately for all Pasadena-area kids, the parents with those resources are the ones most needed to lead and cultivate those school support networks.

Breaking up school communities also changes the way that secondary schools look at and work with elementary schools in the district. Under the current system, secondary school teachers, coaches, and directors don't know which students they'll be getting into their programs. So their focus becomes one of marketing, trying to attract students and parents to select their schools. With better-defined assignment zones, people at the district's secondary schools will know which elementary programs will feed into their school, and that they will be getting all the kids from that school.

That changes the relationship from marketing to kids to cultivating them instead. Instead of trying to "sell" to everyone in the district, secondary schools can begin to refocus on building stronger relationships with their designated feeder schools and their teachers. Secondary-level music, drama, science and sports programs can develop better feeder programs at the elementary level, working with parent support communities and creating a situation where more kids get engaged at an earlier level, encouraging more students to stay in school and to stay in the district.

Right now, the lack of defined feeder schools stands in the way of building the relationships that can cultivate and sustain these programs, keeping PUSD from offering many of the extra- and co-curricular activities available in neighboring districts.

PUSD can stop shooting itself in the foot by stopping its insane practice of breaking up elementary and middle school communities when students advance to the next level. It's time for the district to redraw its attendance zones so that all kids from one elementary feed into the same middle school, and all kids from the same middle school feed into the same high school.

That won't be easy, but that's no excuse for not doing right by Pasadena's kids. Take a look at the numbers, and you'll see that they don't line up easily, as you try to imagine how to assign elementary schools to specific secondary schools:

  • 15 K-5 elementary schools
  • 3 K-8 schools
  • 3 6-8 middle schools
  • 2 6-12 secondary schools
  • 2 9-12 high schools

But this is not impossible. I looked up a district map, and tried to assign the district's elementary schools to their nearest middle school facility, and then to do the same for middle and high schools. Here's a plan that I would like to propose to the district, as a way to keep student and parent communities together in the transition from one school to another.

After each school, I've listed its current attendance, according to published district data. In parenthesis is the average number of students per grade level at that school. For the secondary schools, I've posted a third number, in italics, that is the sum of the average number of kids per grade level at the schools that would feed into the secondary school under my plan. Under each high school, I've listed the secondary schools that would feed into it, and then each elementary school that would feed into that school.

Pasadena High School 2028 (507) 513

  • Sierra Madre K-8 School 1079 (120)
  • Wilson Middle School 667 (222) 393
    • Don Benito* 638 (107)
    • Field 514 (86)
    • Hamilton 558 (93)
    • Willard 644 (107)

Marshall Fundamental School 1848 (284) 266

  • Marshall Fundamental School
    • Webster 511 (85)
  • Norma Coombs K-8 School 414 (46)
  • McKinley K-8 School 1217 (135)

Muir High School 1112 (278) 334

  • Eliot Middle School 665 (222) 334
    • Altadena 346 (58)
    • Franklin 340 (57)
    • Jackson 316 (53)
    • Jefferson 471 (79)
    • Longfellow 520 (87)

Blair School 1153 (165) 337

  • Blair School
    • San Rafael 381 (64)
  • Washington Middle School 499 (166) 273
    • Cleveland 252 (42)
    • Madison 471 (79)
    • Roosevelt 259 (43)
    • Washington 654 (109)

The schools noted with an asterisk currently do not have a geographic attendance zone, but would need one under this plan. You'll see that for all but Marshall, my plan would assign more kids per grade than the district's high schools currently enroll. That shows the existing "leakage" of students from elementary to high school, due to drop outs and kids moving out of the district, usually to private schools.

This plan also assumes no school closures. But you can see from the attendance data that PUSD has some seriously underutilized school buildings. And we've talked before about the community's struggle to support four high schools, when compared with the level of community support enjoyed by high schools in neighboring districts. However, I've created scenarios involving several possible secondary school closures, and this process still works. PUSD can create an attendance zone map where secondary schools zones do not break up elementary school zones.

The question remains as to how to draw the elementary boundaries. I would hope that the district would start with a simple concept of assigning each home to the nearest elementary school, then moving those lines as needed to balance attendance levels. Perhaps that leads some families to be assigned not to the nearest elementary school, but to the next nearest one. In no case, however, should the district gerrymander attendance zones to send kids past two other PUSD elementary schools to get to a third, or further school.

The current zoning situation with Blair, for example, is crazy. My home is assigned to Blair for high school, even though three other public high schools are closer to my home than Blair. (In order from nearest to farthest, they are San Marino, then PHS, then Marshall, then Blair.) Everyone who lives south of Colorado Boulevard is assigned to Blair, even though almost no families with high school students in that area east of Lake actually go to Blair, according to people I've spoken with in the district who've looked at that data. Everyone I know personally who lives near us and have sent their kids to PUSD schools chose the nearer PHS or Marshall in open enrollment. Those who got in usually stayed in the district. Those who didn't, left.

I suspect that not only would the plan I propose help keep grade-level communities together, and promote stronger relationships between secondary and elementary schools, it might just help the district to retain families by reducing the need to rely upon open enrollment for families to get into the schools they want their kids to attend. Even if that doesn't happen, though, retaining and strengthening relationships among students, teachers, parents and administrators within the district can only help improve the district and make it a more attractive system for everyone in the community.

Again, let's stop letting PUSD shoot itself in the foot with its crazy attendance map. It's possible to draw a map that doesn't destroy communities. So let's insist that the district do that.

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