Christmas in Sanford – Just Like Us

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Sanford, Florida brings forth vivid images of Trevon to most of us – Images of hatred, intolerance and separate worlds. This is both unfortunate and ironic, since for decades, Sanford has been a microcosm of middle-America in the South.  Black and white can work, and despite the headlines, it usually does.

Most families have memories of holiday get-togethers that didn’t go well.  Ok, typically alcohol was involved.  It’s frustrating and painful because its family, but much funnier when it involves a spouse’s family.  My brother-in-law is considered a “rascal” for reasons and stories that aren’t my business or relevant to this post, except that he and my other brother-in-law had “words” again, this year involving Sanford.

Donnie loves Sanford, FL for lots of reasons.  There is so much tradition – historical houses with Spanish moss, famous persons, and family lineage.  Jeff asked what seemed like an innocent enough question regarding “gentrification” of the neighborhood, basically the changing socio-economic evolution (and property values) of the historical. and surrounding neighborhoods, and how the whole Trevon Martin thing had affected everything.  Donnie got all upset, thinking there was an implication that he should move the family the hell out of there if the neighborhood wasn’t “improving.”  There were really, really bad neighborhoods (the ‘hood) just a few blocks away, and the folks often stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air.  He replied with something I never expected, but frankly I never really wondered why he lived here.

“Jeff,” Donnie addressed him tersely, “This is all part of the package; we live in the community, and we’re part of it.  We love Sanford, and embrace her with all her faults.”  Jeff was simply stunned that someone would live here by choice, regardless of how cool the vintage house is or how many wonderful friends he had, black and white.

Now don’t get me wrong, Donnie isn’t some “flaming liberal,” or someone who ignores common sense to make a statement.  He and I are both just to the right of Ronald Reagan on most issues, but only “tow the line” when it’s logical, moral, and practical.  For example, I do drive a Prius, but not because I really am convinced that hydrocarbons have changed our climate, and so I want everyone to see me shouting about it.  I traded my Jeep for my Prius, because I drive 94 miles each direction, and frankly, have already paid for it twice in four years worth of commuting gas saved.  Donnie’s the best joke teller I know, and his repertoire includes many of “color,”  complete with colloquial expressions and accents.  Never mean spirited, his jokes typically include Sheniqua, but if she heard them, she too would laugh.  (Alternatively, they may include Lars and Yan, Norwegian farmers in Meenasoda).  Anyway, so I did a double take to hear him preach about what it takes for us to get along and actually function with cultural diversity.

So, I was struck by Donnie’s realistic altruism, a kind of pragmatic open-mindedness.  This, though, is the love that makes the world go round.  It’s one thing to say you are tolerant, something entirely different to actively seek a world with tolerance.

Still thinking to myself, “Hmmm…,” I left the next morning for a training walk.  (I haven’t officially announced it yet, but I’m counting the weeks until my next adventure, one that may begin to define how I commemorate my darkest day, May 17th).  About an hour into my hike, I found myself walking along railroad tracks, a little bit lost, listening (of course) to Audrey Assad, Matt Maher, Sarah Kroger, Brandon Heath, and Chris Tomlin in a playlist shuffle that had me deep into thought (who would have guessed?)  Technology to the rescue! IPhone out, MapMyHike Ap opened, and there was the route I had been travelling – not lost at all!

I soon saw a sign announcing that I had wandered into “Washington Heights,” looking like a typical middle income suburbia.  It wasn’t gated, but was laid out with predictable cul-de-sac’s and dead end streets that had me passing many houses twice, coming and going.  As I put two and two together, I passed a “Neighborhood Watch” sign and began to actually notice that all my new friends were black.

The irony was haunting, the previous day’s conversation about a community with diversity that actually functions, how that process may well be forever tainted or even ruined after Trevon Martin, a guy from out-of-town (me) walking through a neighborhood which is clearly not my own, now looking up at a Neighborhood Watch sign.  The only thing missing was the hoodie.  Or maybe not if the hoodie was a metaphor for some form of dress code inconsistent with the locals.  I wasn’t exactly dressed like Ron Burgundy (Anchorman), but in my T-Shirt and plaid jeans, and my dorky walk and mannerisms, I certainly appeared as out-of-place as Treyvon did.  Ok, in all fairness to Martinez, my “hoodie” didn’t make me look threatening, or hide my identity, and there hadn’t been months of criminal activity by someone dressed like me.  So, fair or not, I wasn’t tailed by a “watch commander,” and the cops that were parked in the driveways actually waved back at me.

I forced myself to overcome the urge to cross-over to the other side of the street when I approached a group of teenagers, nodding and uttering what I thought would be an appropriate greeting, “Sup?”  After all, I was in their home and uninvited, but never once felt in danger.

Admittedly, this was not the ‘hood that was previously mentioned, but simply another middle class neighborhood in suburbia.  There were crime-watches because they don’t want crime in their neighborhood either!

I switched my playlist over to the soundtrack from “The Way,” because this was feeling more and more like another leg of my Camino de Santiago.  I’ve learned that we’re always walking on our journey, and its up to us to learn those lessons our Lord puts in front of us everyday.

This was one of the humbling days, and my embarrassment profound as I realized how surprised I was to discover these people really were my brothers.  I might have needed to travel to Haiti to recognize my that those who lived quite differently than I do are my brothers, but I shouldn’t have to go anywhere to recognize my brothers here at home.

Indeed, “these people” are just like us.  Better, in fact, in many ways.  Every one of the little children, playing on the sidewalks and in the streets looked me strait in the eyes and waved and responded when I said, Hi,” or “Merry Christmas.”  Would that be the case towards a black man in my own neighborhood?

I looked and smiled at the hundreds of empty toy boxes, lining the street next to the garbage cans, displaying all the toys that are popular this year, virtually shouting “Merry Christmas” at me.  Dozens of kids on trampolines, riding mini-bikes, skateboards, and bicycles.  Most young fathers (they weren’t absent in this neighborhood) also smiled and waved at me, one as he washed his dog in the front yard.  I was struck by the number of floks sitting in their front yard, socializing, watching the kids, drinking a beer, BBQing, being out together and enjoying Christmas together.  I saw company logos, Miami Dolphin license plate holders, Obama bumperstickers (who knew?), and believe it or not two NObama! and one Nobamunist! stickers.  Another “Hmmm…” this neighborhood of color had its own “diversity.”

I had spent almost an hour hiking up and down every street in Washinton heights, and headed out, towards my own Christmas dinner with the fam.  Two blocks further, and I started getting hustled by a few teenage kids, anxious to provide whatever it was that I “was looking for.”  Why else would this goofy looking old white guy be walking around through this part of town?  I just smiled, knowing sometimes the best finds aren’t looked for, but rather stumbled upon.

Many times when we stumble, we fall.  We naturally avoid those uncomfortable events and unfamiliar places to avoid the anxious tension that makes us squirm.  And so, as we lose our balance or realize we’re a bit lost, we often so focus on keeping upright and not falling, we miss the sunrise and the blooming flowers.  I’ve done this most of my life.

A few blocks further I again smiled as I declined another kind offer to get ‘something’ for me.  “Thanks, bro,” I replied, “I’m good.”  I was now in “the hood,” and realizing why I had seen so many “Neighborhood Watch” signs during my walkabout in Washington Heights.

Soon I left the classroom of this unplanned social experiment.  Guess I was gone longer than I had planned, so I’d better gather some ammo as an excuse for not helping prepare for the 25 guests due to arrive in a few hours.  Then I realized I’d been walking for two hours, and knew they’d be concerned, and wondering where I had been.  But as I opened the door I simply slipped in and started frying bacon for the brussel sprouts topping.

As I turned the sizzling rashers, I thought of the Christmas the families on the other side of town were having, and I looked around at my own, and smiled again.

I Love My Teacher

Whatever we think of the state of our public education system today, there is no denying that being a teacher is one of God’s holy callings.  Being a parent is difficult enough, requiring patience and restraint, smarts and courage.  But they are, after all, your own flesh and blood, and we seem to feel obligated to do our best to see that our own turn out well.  (Most of us anyway.)

However, can you imagine what it requires to do this for someone else’s children?  Some schools are for children resembling spoiled pets, who have never heard a reprimand or had any rules or criticism, resulting in a child feeling quite entitled.  Many children from many cultures have never felt that love and compassion that we take for granted.  Too many “me-first” parents who dump the kids off the first chance for someone else to “deal-with;” There’s just not enough time to spend with their spouse (if there is one), and certainly not for these inconvenient creatures.  Funny how some parents only have 24 hours in a day.

I come from a family of educators.  Mom taught and was a guidance counselor for forty years, my two sisters are teachers: Tina for years in Mobile, and Maureen still does in St. Louis.  I think I’m pretty objective, but yeah, some of this is personal.

My wife Sharon has taught exceptional needs and disabled (ESE) children for over a decade, lately in a Title 1 school, where 90% of children can’t afford lunch.  Almost exclusively minorities, most are from neighborhoods my friends don’t even know exist:  The projects.  A trailer behind a warehouse.  A neighborhood that rots with the stench of crack, weed, old beer and urine.  Most don’t know their father.  Many don’t know either parent.  These children are the least of our brothers, and although most do not endure the poverty I witnessed in Haiti, they may well have more despair and frustration, and certainly less love and hope.  School is the highlight of their day.  Many find their only food there, and some stay as late and return as early as they are allowed, because there is no electricity at home for lights to study by.

Their teachers smile and encourage, love and encourage.  They aren’t allowed to hug them, but do so regularly.  These are role models for these kids.  They know their names and treat them with respect and dignity.  They share stories about siblings, and piece together familial stories.  Based upon this, home visits with a teacher and her principal, along with a social worker or the law sometimes is required to check a story out.  Sometimes without merit, but these “leads” often put an end to unfortunate abuse when scars and bruises are noted at school.

Shar has bought as many shoes and socks for her students as she has her own children.  Sometimes there is a need for a change in clothes, because of an embarrassing body or urine odor.  You think children lack self-esteem from not having a new cell phone, or new $200 Nike’s?  Try walking with your head held high when there’s no electricity or running water at home to bathe with.   Children at these schools can be cruel too, and disparaging comments cut deepest when they are true.  Teachers notice drooping heads, eyes on the floor, and little to feel good about.

My wife is one of the most incredible people I know.  The strength, compassion, love and empathy she exudes is contagious.  I find it almost impossible to pass someone with a cardboard sign now without rolling the window down.

Two weeks ago I went to (another) Matt Maher / Audrey Assad concert with my daughter Emily, and (of course) they were begging for Compassion International sponsors.  For $38 a month you get a picture for your refrigerator of a third world child, and knowledge that you have fed, clothed, and educated them.  Sharon, was quick to explain that we had “sort of” already done this.

I’ll omit the names for obvious reasons, but Sharon teaches two children of a family with six.  Both of these kids are behind their peers developmentally and intellectually.  One is what we used to call “retarded,” and may well never be able to function independently in society.  None of these six children have ever had what “we” would consider a “typical” Christmas.  Their father works hard as a gardener (field hand?) and handyman, and provides as best as he can.  They do have water and electricity, and usually ample rice and beans on the table.

This year, the teachers and the PTA took the initiative and approached many of these families to ask what a nice Christmas would look like.  Without hesitation, Shar found their family name on the tree in the teacher’s lounge.  Each of the children named something that seemed reasonable, certainly not the frivolous “must-haves” for most of America.  At 40 or 50 bucks apiece, it was a bit of a stretch for us, but well beyond the reach of a family like this that struggles to provide food and clothes after the rent and utilities.  One wanted towels for her mom and tools for his dad.

The day before Christmas break, the students were allowed to go to the “School Store,” to purchase items for family and friends at a nominal cost.  Sharon gave $3 to each of the six to buy something for themselves or a friend.  The children pooled their money and bought their Papa a flashlight, and their Mama a necklace and brooch.  Our “disadvantaged” family had children that had never been able to give their parents a present.  This year was different.

Sharon described them walking from class to the bus as if walking on a cloud.  Heads held high, and smiling from ear to ear.  They were so anxious to see their parents reactions on Christmas morning! The parents won’t have the only happy faces on Christmas morning.

Like Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, Sharon and her principal delivered the packages to the baby Jesus on Friday.

Merry Christmas.

Please know that although Sharon is an exceptional teacher and an exceptional person, she is not alone.  Teachers are a special people.  Please remember financially our unfortunate families and children, but also remember those who feel called to this profession in your prayers.  The work they do with our children, the time spent into the wee hours grading papers and planning, and the money they take out of their own pockets for their classroom supplies is unknown to the general public.  Pray for our teachers, and if you know one, tell them how much you appreciate them.

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