Heroes

To the Man in the Black Hat

To the man in the black hat

walking the white dog

who passed me while I was taking a break

from running in the park,

my back to him as I stretched under the

canopy of green trees

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

whose gray hair hugged his tan neck

while I watched him walk away on the path

enjoying my freedom in the cool breeze

on this late day in spring

 

To the man in the black baseball hat

with the yellow letters that cradled the opening

on the back of his cap. Seven letters that seemed to call out to me,

as if to say: “This is what today is for. This man fought a war–maybe

two, maybe five. Maybe he is still fighting a war

–within–

so you can stand here and stretch in the afternoon sun

with all of your limbs, and no understanding of what it means to

stand on a battlefield–to risk your life for God and country.”

 

To the man in the black hat with the golden-yellow letters that spelled

V-E-T-E-R-A-N

“Thank you.” I wanted to say those words as I watched you walk by,

and I read the word on your cap. But I felt foolish, listening to my pop music

while I sought out hills to climb for the sake of climbing, and you walked down the path, perhaps off another battlefield in your mind.

 

“Thank you.”

 

I did not have the courage to say it then. But I say it now, to honor you, all of you

who so bravely served, and fought, and perhaps died, or lived to tell your tale, or to simply wear your

cap as you stroll through the park on THIS day, the day we call Memorial Day.

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Spring Sting: A Runner’s Reflection on the Boston Marathon

Originally published April 23, 2013.

The irony of the Boston Marathon: America has stopped running! This epiphany came to me as I was participating in a 5k at my boys’ elementary school over the weekend. I have these moments of clarity when I run, and during the annual Spring Zing, I was preoccupied with thoughts of the bombing victims in Boston. Then it came to me: America has changed. This latest attack was different.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you have learned that I am a runner. I am as a shocked as everyone else who knows me that I am this athletic in my forties–much more than I ever was as a child. I have participated in close to fifty races in the past two decades. Fifty! And invariably when I run, there is usually a moment in the race when my eyes well up with tears. I am overcome with emotions–pride, joy, disbelief, humility. This is not the person I was slated to be in my youth. Not the overweight, unmotivated, smoker. Yet, here I am. And beyond the disbelief that I am an adult runner, is the pride I feel for being a part of something so palpable, so uplifting. I am forever grateful to have discovered running. For it is my love of running that has helped me explore the world around me and within me. Running has allowed me to process so many things I would have missed otherwise in my daily routine.

landscape-photo.net

Cherry Tree, by: Bruno Monginoux

The Spring Zing is a very sweet affair: A 3.1 mile race that winds through  the neighborhoods that surround our local school, and a 1 mile fun walk for the younger kids. These events are followed by an auction of gifts and crafts created by the various grades–paintings made out of thumb prints, mosaics and garden baskets constructed with tiny hands, etc. The money raised benefits our elementary school, and its partner school in Africa. One of the highlights of the school year, this event has become a reminder for me about the joys that springtime bestows on us. Sadly, this year’s fun was tarnished by an exhausting week of national sadness in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Saturday’s race was especially bittersweet because it is the one race I do that involves many young children. Over one hundred young people, ranging from first to fifth grade, participate in the 5k. My sons have yet to do this race, but truthfully, many of the children who sign up for it are out of their element. They are not ready for this distance. But I don’t think that matters. The point is, they are developing an awareness for running distances–for setting a goal and doing their best to finish it. Many of them do end up walking some, most, or all of the course–but they all cross that finish line! Whenever my boys ask me if I won a race (NO), I always reply, “Anyone who finishes the race is a winner.” This might sound lame in our “I am number 1” culture, but I mean it. In running, as in life, the race is only against yourself.

As I watch so many children “running” with their parents, I am filled with excitement, looking ahead to the day when I might run side by side with my boys in a race. I have dreamed of such a day since they were born. This thought alone is enough to fill my eyes with tears. But on this day, my smiles toward these families are interrupted by images of other runners whose limbs were lost just days ago pursuing the same passion. I feel the power of my stride hitting the road, only to imagine my feet missing. Next, I envision the youngest victim, Martin Richard, running beside these innocent, naive children, and I shudder at his image that is now burned in my mind: holding up his P-E-A-C-E poster with the plea “No more hurting people.” Richard was my son Owen’s age.  Such stark thoughts of this heinous act try to sabotage my race.

Like most of America, I was riveted by the bizarre turn of events that began on Monday, April 15th and ended with cinematic flare five days later. I still cannot fully comprehend what transpired. Yet, I am proud of the reaction that so many have had in response to this latest act of terror. In numerous news accounts it has been noted how, rather than flee the horror caused by the bombs, many people ran into the fray, determined to help, refusing to kowtow to cowardice, adamant that these monsters would not continue to paralyze our national consciousness. Strangers held one another, clothed one another, administered first aid and comforted one another. They remained. This approach echoed throughout America in the days that followed. Rather than cancel races in the wake of such destruction, more races were organized. I witnessed this locally in Philadelphia, where thousands of men, women, and children ran through Center City just three days after the attack, in honor of the victims and all who ran the Boston Marathon. And many other races have been created in response to this act. 

Yes, the irony of the Boston Marathon is that America has stopped running! As a nation, we are tired of being fearful. The city of Boston has demonstrated the bravery and dignity that is required to stand up to evil. Sadly, we have seen this bravery too many times. But with every new attack, we just grow stronger, more determined. The American people will not live in terror. We will not let this defeat us. In the end, the bad guy will not win–good will continue to outweigh evil. This courage is inspirational, and indicative of what America is becoming, has become, post 9-11. 

Halfway through the race, I realize this. I am emboldened by the courage of all those people who were in Boston that day, and put others before themselves. I think of all the brave law officers, military, and medical personnel who worked tirelessly to save lives, capture these perpetrators, and restore order and safety to the streets. I decide to put my fears–my thoughts of blood and death–away. I look up at a beautiful sky, where the sun begins to emerge from a billowy cloud. I breathe in the crisp fresh air. I smile. As I backtrack the mile and a half left of the course, I see a collection of children on the other side of the yellow line in the road. They are running. We are running. We are all united in this race. We are all united in our freedom as a country. I raise my hand, and begin to high five anyone and everyone. Kids respond without thinking. Parents reflexively put their hands up to match mine. We connect. I spend the rest of the race connecting with all of the amazing people who have come into my view on this glorious day. Each of their smiles, every high five, is a testament of our will to continue. For make no mistake–the race is not over. 

cc by-nc-nd Bruno Monginoux www.photo-paysage.com & www.landscape-photo.net

Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net (cc by-nc-nd)

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

heaven

Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

Who are your heroes?

In the comments from my last post, Atticus Finch is my hero, one reader, Brian, was prompted to ask who was HIS Atticus and was it a literary figure or someone real. Such a great question, and it got me to thinking about the word hero and what it truly means. Clearly, I think Atticus is my role model. But I realize now that I have other heroes. Here are a few people who inspire me to challenge myself to be the best that I can be.

1.  Dr. Dan Gottlieb

Dan Gottlieb is a psychiatrist from the Philadelphia area. I first discovered him years ago as a teen when I would read his weekly column about mental health in The Philadelphia Inquirer. He was one of the first people I encountered that made me begin to think of this thing called MENTAL HEALTH. Decades later, I continue to be inspired by him through his lectures, books about his grandson Sam, and his “Voices in the Family” radio show on NPR. One of the things I love best about him is that he has been confined to a wheelchair for 33 years, yet he refuses to be a victim. An amazing person, Gottlieb has helped thousands of people feel better about who they are and where they’ve been.

2. Kwesi Koomson

A teacher at Westtown Friends School in West Chester, PA, Kwesi Koomson is originally from Ghana. Kwesi is responsible for educating hundreds of students in his homeland. Wanting to give back for all the good fortune he had, Kwesi began a program that would help those students in his village pass the high school entrance exam, which was historically under 50%. In 2004, he returned to his home village with the intent of starting a small school. What started as 32 students in a church has ballooned into a complete K-12 program known as the Heritage Academy.  In 2012, the Heritage Academy enrollment stands at over 1,100–and their high school exam pass rate: 100%.

3. Jeanette Walls  

Jeanette Walls wrote an amazing memoir: The Glass Castle. Her story is so raw and compelling, it definitely brings to mind the adage: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” What I love most about her story is the courage it took her to reveal all the sordid details of her family’s past, at the risk of losing her status in society. What she discovered along the way was that writing the truth unleashed all of the anger, guilt, and shame she had been harboring her whole adult life. A true heroine.

Now it’s your turn. Who is one of your heroes? Please post someone, even if you can’t fully explain why! We need to be reminded of our heroes more.

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