Monday, May 22, 2017
Jonathan Kozol's Theft of Memory, my Gram's Alzheimer's disease, and the need to have tough, great people for life's extreme obstacles
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I read a pair of books that knocked my socks off. These books, SavageInequalities and Death at an EarlyAge, both by Jonathan Kozol, reflected the feelings of how children in the inner cities were abandoned to economic inequality and the brutal issues that go with them. It’s easy to process how, even now, reading those books now could make a person feel like he or she is just like I was when I read them in 2000, inhaling them and wanting to change the world by making such a large leap to affect the world.
And for a fair bit of time, I really and truly considered it until I realized I didn't have what that environment took in the second half of my student teaching with some tough luck 6th graders (though some were really and truly great kids).
Of course, like anyone compelled to move toward a program that they advocated for, like Teach for America, there is the reality of why that huge endeavor is such a "noble idea" (registered trademark) and, at the same time, an unattainable victory for the vast majority of people who enter into it (though not all – some people are truly able to connect in such a tough environment and we need more people like them and Kozol fighting for others). Such is why Teach for America has a meticulous screening process before depositing well-meaning suburban people into inner city classrooms that present more challenges than a good social justice warrior could possibly figure out a way to battle through.
Rescuing worker people (i.e. those people teaching) from these conditions just isn’t the end goal of this program (though it is a necessity). Rather, they want to affect as many children as they possibly can. Unfortunately, The Onion’s different realities of this (A and B) are more real for many people who leave the show and get put through this show.
I remember one girl who got disqualified at the second interview. She was a strong student that I worked with, a cute, bubbly college gal, and a committed savior of the world (not that there's anything wrong with that). She would have given her all, but they saw something in her. Maybe it a bad interview, but more likely, it was just that she didn’t have a tough disciplinarian bone in her body or they sensed that she couldn’t have handled the failure of so many people despite giving it her all part. Failure sucks, but failure is worse when our own failures lead to other people’s failures or failing to meet subjective value terms of success (after all, not everyone is going to create a situation like Stand and Deliver). Even with 100% effort and a smile on her face, she just didn’t have something in her interview to be allowed to continue into it. I remember that she was heartbroken about this and how I thought that they did her a favor since she needed to grow into the full-fledged adult version of herself in a different way.
Her life was meant for something else. I’m not sure what since we were never close, but still, I’m sure she’s doing something else exceptionally. However, the great endeavor of getting in there and affecting people with education when they never got it before is such a tough battle that represents a bigger challenge than almost anything. To be a role model, everyday teacher, mentor, assistant, helper, or anything like that to include a playground leader type babysitter / daycare center worker is something that seems more attainable and more purposeful for people learning the ropes (and I remember going through my education classes thinking that a lot of elementary education majors would have done better in there). I say that in a serious way that in no way demeans those jobs since we need great caring and intelligent people to do them, but rather to say those jobs takes teaching reading, math, or science EXCELLENTLY out of the equation and doesn’t fight to get homework turned in while still fighting for these kids’ breakfast and lunch as well as a positive tomorrow for kids who are wrestling with that prison sentence of youth, which faces down gangs, poverty, and anything that could implode in the early levels of Maslow’s food, clothing, shelter, and safety.
I can’t imagine living like that. I don’t think anyone who didn’t live life like this could envision it, but I say once again that I’m glad that there are people who can do this and do this well enough to make dreams like 90 90 90 schools a hope. When they can give the real and get the results, then they have truly achieved something, even if the number above is too much of a stretch.
I know how in my experiences in 16 years of teaching, when wrestling to have students complete homework and read assignments as well as to deal with attitude, I’ve felt challenged to the extremes of my ability, and that doesn’t even get into prep time, overcoming life issues, redirecting expectations, speeding things up for the fast students, and slowing things down for the slow students while still grading and coming to every show as much of 100% on as I can be. Teaching is tough. It’s not just showing up and processing data. It’s about giving a hoot and having heart. I couldn't imagine doing that in a situation like this, and for those who do, my hat is off in salute to you.
For this, even though I know my calling is never going to be that of Mr. Kozol in the mid 1960s, I find his commitment and efforts to educational advocacy and empowerment are top notch incredible.
Recently, I had been looking at his books for a student of mine who is truly incredible. Said student spent a large chunk of her life giving back in difficult conditions (a decade or so of missionary nursing work in Guatemala), and I though these books would benefit her future. As I was looking for them, I came across Kozol’s latest work The Theft of Memory, which was about his parents’ death and his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. As my grandmother also had Alzheimer’s, I felt compelled to read it seeing as it came from a writer I truly respect.
When I picked this up, I thought I would think more about my Gram while I read it, but I didn’t. I did think about her peripherally, but Jonathan’s relationship with his father Harry, who he called “Daddy,” reflected on a neurologist who used hermeneutic phenomenology to express the early days of his diagnosis and his need to be diagnosed for a situation he, himself, had treated and that now would come to reflect his final days. To me, that was something very valuable, both for neurological insights and for personal empathy and understanding, which are, as always for Kozol, very strong.
Much of the senior Kozol’s life reflected on his being a doctor, his marriage, his failing body, and how he treated and analyzed Eugene O’Neil and Patty Hearst as well as a murderer named Albert Desalvo. To me, I related more to those sections out of solid interest in the cases as well as the history of them. Much of the talk of Kozol’s mother, also suffering from age-related memory loss, felt like it plodded through save for her revelations of the complications of being married to Harry and their infidelities, which somehow felt like “something that happened” while each of them did what they had to do in order to make their team work.
As that infidelity is not my life, I can't justify or explain it, but it was something that was their normal.
The story traces the arc of diagnosis to death with memories that come from his father’s medical notes. In that time, his father goes from nursing home back to his home through his son’s love and some amazing caregivers being there for him until Harry’s body finally gave out at 102 years.
Here, I did think of my Gram. I had spent many weekends with her until late elementary school. I got to hang out on weekends, play with Star Wars figures, make forts, and be with my Gram, who I don’t really remember talking much, though she was kind and loving consistently. If not for her, I wouldn’t have had near as many Star Wars figures, that’s for sure!
My Gram did her fill-in puzzles all the time. When she was diagnosed, she was still doing them, but when they were looked at to see how much of her comprehension was left, the letters were gibberish and not words. She was still chain smoking. That was something she remembered she did, but eventually, she forgot that, too. Isn't it funny how, sometimes, the worst can do OK things, too?
Eventually, Alzheimer’s patients forget a lot of things going back, and yeah, these aren't OK.
The last memory of my Gram is Christmas 1990 after the early days of Air Force training. I picked her up at her care facility in my uniform. She didn’t remember me, and it just hurt. I had a lot of hurt at that point in my life after struggling to adjust to the Air Force, but something in that situation put the icing on the cake.
I remember seeing her again in 1992 and 1993, but after that I never saw her before she died in 1994. I was in England at the time, and I couldn't make it home for the funeral. It was just too far and too much since I was in England.
Nevertheless, in reading The Theft of Memory, the end of it (final 3 paragraphs of the very powerful epilogue) put the last 3 decades into perspective.
“It will soon be seven years since the night I bent down by his bed to press my ear against his chest and listen to his breathing and his life come to the end. But even now, and even after rounding out the story of his sometimes turbulent complexity, as I’ve felt obliged to do in order to keep faith with the reality of who he was, it is the reaffirming memories that crowd out all the rest.
The sense that I was on a journey with my father – seventy-two years is a good big piece of anybody’s life – did not end abruptly on the day I buried him. On cold November nights when I’m in a thoughtful mood or worried about problems with my work or personal missteps I have made, and go out walking by myself along the country roads around my house, I like to imagine that he’s there beside me still, tapping the old cane of his, making his amusing comments on the unpredictable events and unexpected twists and turns in other people’s lives.
Perhaps over the next few years, that sense of the continuing companionship will fade. It probably will. But some part of the legacy my father and good mother gave me will, I know, remain with me even when their voices and their words and the expressions on their faces and the vivid details of their life’s adventure become attenuated in the course of time. Some of the blessings that our parents give us, I need to believe, outlive the death of memory.”
And here is where I knew I learned from her. I was given time to be me. Pictures of her are still in my office. I never knew her as a wife (my grandfather Dan died before my dad was 2). I never thought of her as a single mother, but she was to my dad and his half-brother Bob. She did housekeeping at a nursing home to make ends meet. All in all, she was a tough lady, and for all she did for me, my dad has gone on to do this for my godson.
If this is a review of the book, then the book is 4/5 though I don’t see myself rereading it, though the last chapter was powerful. The stories of nursing home failure and finding meaning with powerful caregivers resonate that there are people who care and make a difference out there.
One of those people is Jonathan Kozol. If you want to see how his father’s memories play out in him, the ones that fought with him, pushed him, and encouraged him, are all on display in this video. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be influenced to make a difference in a tough luck situation and have what it takes to do it.
We definitely need good people who can push through to be great for others in many fields.