Sunday, March 28, 2010
There is no debate about whether our United States of America is in financial crisis. Nor can there be an argument made for the fact that when budget cuts are necessary decisions have to be made in ways that will best preserve all that is most important to us as a nation and a people.
I am not a numbers cruncher nor am I knowledgeable enough to know how best to prioritize in areas in which I have no expertise. I’d also venture to guess that’s true for the great majority of us. Yet, I do feel we each have the right – at the very least – to voice our personal beliefs, preferences and predictions.
I am, therefore, taking the opportunity today to voice mine with regard to education in America.
For those of you who follow my blog each week, you may remember the one I devoted months ago to what I learned from my grandson about a new writing program that had been instituted in his public school this year.
I wrote about it because it excited me so to know how students as young as my grandson Eric (who will celebrate his ninth birthday Tuesday!) were being taught how to think critically and creatively.
Today, it saddens me to know that in nearly every state cuts are being instituted that will directly affect our school programs in devastatingly significant ways. Classes in foreign languages, the arts, and in some instances even gym are being eliminated. Positions such as school guidance counselors and aids to the handicapped are also being eliminated and/or reduced in numbers.
One has to truly wonder whether those in charge of policy decisions understand that school counselors are often the only people some children trust to deal with family traumas, school bullying, or personal emotional problems and that aides for the handicapped are never a luxury but a necessity in assisting those with special needs to navigate through the difficulties of their days.
Do those people not understand that such cuts will inevitably affect the tenor of every school as well as the basic education our children receive? Surely, it will also increase the load of already over-burdened school personnel and will, furthermore, give students not yet old enough to understand our fiscal problems the message that all that’s being taken away from them is of less importance than what is still a part of their curriculum. In other words, the arts and foreign languages (subjects that seem to top everyone's list) are merely frills to one’s education.
In my opinion, the opposite is true. While the "basics" offer invaluable knowledge and tools, the arts feed an essential part of the human soul, allowing for individual expression and the nurturing of other - equally important - parts of the brain.
As a psychotherapist and educator I see the current thinking and decisions that are being made as having irreparable ramifications. Ultimately, our children will be less informed, less challenged, less delighted to learn about subjects that they may have no way of knowing about or of being exposed to in any other setting but in school.
With all the technological progress that has occurred in the past decade, I’d trade it all just to have students be able to paint, sculpt, play in a school band, receive time necessary for physical exercise, and, yes, study foreign languages. In so doing they will enjoy aspects of learning that will also make them better educated, more well-rounded, with an opportunity for some to develop a passion that will sustain them throughout their lives and give life itself greater meaning.
While I certainly don’t intend to oversimplify or underestimate the many reasons why children become delinquents, school drop-outs or worse still young criminals (problems that confront society, educators, and families even during the best of times) they are certainly less likely to occur when children attend schools where the curriculum is rich and where dialogue is encouraged. In such schools students do not have as much free time and, more often than not, they get into less trouble. Their minds are occupied with productive, joyful activities; their hands are holding paint brushes, molding clay, and playing musical instruments.
By omitting or limiting such opportunities or not having the benefit of school counselors or aides for special needs students, we will be denying our children what for so many years we have all fought so hard to achieve – a diversified education that serves not only the rich but the poor, not only the gifted but those with special needs, as well as the majority who, in varying degrees, fit into the vast majority in the middle.
It seems clear to me that today's budget cuts are making our children victims of our economic woes, political in-fighting, and worst of all of a nation that seems to be at war with itself about what we cherish the most – something we can’t put a price tag on in our democracy or any other democracy – the right to provide the most opportunities in the best environment possible for all our children.
In one community alone – and this is admittedly not an example of a financially impoverished community – seeing their budget cuts on-line, the ones noted that cause me particular concern are:
*charging tuition for education of pre-K students
*the elimination of the Library Aide
*the elimination of a Special Education teacher
*the elimination of World language Program in grades K-5
*the elimination of elementary and middle school computer labs
*the elimination of 3 elementary teachers – effectively compacting
classrooms per grade and increasing class sizes from 17-18 to 20-23
Concluding comments reflected the fact that “this loss represents 20 positions across all areas of the District and includes a reduction in wages for a significant number of employees.”
While I don’t claim to know how best to solve this problem – namely what other cuts to make so that the ones in education wouldn’t have to be so drastic – I do know that the emotional and educational toll will be one that will not allow us to look back and say that we gave our children what they deserved and ultimately what would help our nation develop better leaders, more educated/ethical politicians whose values are not dictated by selfish/personal gain but are devoted to the better good in helping to promote a more “perfect union.”
Please let me know what actions, if any, you are taking to protect our children from these destructive decisions.
With best wishes for all who are celebrating Passover this week, Easter, April 4th, and all other holiday festivities in the coming weeks.
Posted by Linda Appleman Shapiro at 12:38 AM
Sunday, March 21, 2010
As all power failed us, we were powerless; as trees were up-rooted, so, too, were our lives!
Though compared to other parts of the world which have known far greater degrees of devastation than we have experienced here in America, this past week brought those of us in the northeast torrential rains which pounded our roadways, knocked out our power, injured hundreds of people, killed others, and forced us to witness and be victimized by the forces in nature's that can be devastatingly destructive.
While we can't possibly know what it is like for those in Haiti, for example – people who are still in shock, most homeless and without life’s basic necessities such as food, water, and medicines – it is true that no matter how resilient and resourceful many of us think we are, there are times when certain catastrophes make us feel that not only are our lives in jeopardy but our ability to cope seems too far out of reach. Fear overrides all else.
Sadly, for some of us it’s not possible to rally our reserves; it is, indeed, too daunting. And, yet, when the vicious winds die and the rains cease, most of us are able to pick up the pieces and move on.
What's perhaps most difficult to alter are the images that remain in our memories of the familiar trees that had adorned our streets so gracefully before the storm but have since crashed down across our road or onto a neighbor’s roof, on top of another’s car, and even killed people en route home from religious services. Those images and occurrences are enough to make many of us feel not merely fragile but totally powerless, totally at the mercy of what some call nature’s fury and others call God’s wrath.
For me, for today, at least, even with the the fallen trees and all the debris still visible - as the sun is shining and the sky is awash with the purples and pinks that just days ago had disappeared from view - I am stopping to catch my breath and to be grateful for all that I DO have.
For those of you who may have been less fortunate, I hope you are receiving the assistance needed to help restore a semblance of normalcy to your lives and, perhaps more importantly, the emotional strength and HOPE needed to allow you to move forward.
With warmest regards,
Posted by Linda Appleman Shapiro at 7:15 AM
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Driving home the other day, I heard an announcement about a possible new TV series to be set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The plan was for it to focus on the new wave of Russian immigrants who have reclaimed my childhood neighborhood.
A young would-be resident/actress of the beach was being interviewed. In a rather thick accent, she giddily stated her name, the town in Russia in which she was born, and her age, before adding: “Yah, Yah, this is now the new Russian Mafia. A wonderful place to put on the television. Will make for many good stories!”
Luckily, I stopped for a red light, pausing long enough to allow me to identify what I was feeling and figure out whether my instinct was to laugh or to cry. Part of me heard the bizarre humor in what she was saying, but most of all, I think I felt sad. A sadness that speaks of tainted memories, of someone trespassing on precious territory without asking permission. In this case, it was my territory, my permission. And though the memories of the Brighton of my youth are also peopled with Russian immigrants, they were a different breed – the post WWII immigrants whose values and way of life reflected a different time, a different mentality – and not the one to which she was referring.
When I began writing this blog shortly after the publication of my memoir,
FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS, I promised to include chapters from my book, and I have done so a few times. Today, I am choosing to look back, to share with you images, memories and, I suppose, my particular loyalty to the Brighton Beach in which I grew up.
The following pages are from the PROLOGUE to FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness.
"..... On any day — not just during holiday times — Brighton bristled with frenetic energy. Each block along Brighton Beach Avenue (or the “Avenue,” as we all referred to it) had a grocery store, fish market, butcher shop, and fruit and vegetable stand.
Vendors displayed their colorful stock, knowing that the women shoppers would touch, pinch and squeeze before selecting “the best” lettuce, tomato, or melon the second a sales person’s back was turned. “Next time a little gentler, please,” storekeepers would say, turning around, hands on hips. “Someone else, please God, will be eating that after you’ve squeezed it and thrown it down. You wouldn’t want I should let someone to touch what you’ll be eating, would you?” Such words, however, fell on deaf ears. The women smiled and touched, pinched and squeezed anyway.
Chickens — some plucked, others still feathered — hung from hooks inside the kosher poultry markets where each was cut and salted in front of every customer, as kosher tradition dictated.
Aufrichtig’s Appetizing Store lived up to its name with an abundant supply of exotic cheeses, herrings, lox, whitefish and tuna salads. There were also clothing, hardware and appliance stores, a Woolworth’s and a handful of family-run restaurants lining the Avenue from one end at Ocean Parkway where the Tuxedo Movie Theatre gave out free sets of dishware to “lucky winners,” to Brighton 3rd Street with its tiny movie house, the Lakeland Theatre(affectionately referred to as “the dumps”), past Coney Island Avenue, where Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knishes was a landmark and the Oceana Theatre a main attraction.
Delicatessen stores lured people in with window displays of salamis hanging above trays of sizzling hot dogs on a grill, sauerkraut nearby, and pastrami and corned beef steaming in their bins fogging the windows. Such delis, open from early morning until after midnight, were common meeting places where people ordered a glass of tea knowing they would be given a free basket of bread. Those who could afford an occasional “meal out” did so on Sunday, the busiest day of the week for all restaurants in Brighton.
Subways whistled and roared throughout each day, but only visitors to the Beach heard them. For those of us who lived there, it was the background noise that lulled us to sleep. It bothered no one. It came with the territory.
What excited me most was venturing outside our four rooms, witnessing the iceman deliver his ice — large blocks wrapped in canvas, strapped to his back — or hearing the rag man sing from his horse-driven wagon, “Rags for sale, rags for sale.” Along with Mr. Yutnik, the shoemaker at the corner, Harry the fruit man, and Sophie the bakery store lady across the street, they were all anchors of familiarity.
So, too, were “The Refugees,” the grocery store where everyone shopped and where Mother sent me — as young as six years old — to buy whatever staples we needed when she was too tired to go herself. I’d walk or skip along the straight seams of the cemented sidewalk to our corner, swing left onto Brighton Beach Avenue, where the fascinating array of stores stretched across and underneath the elevated BMT line, until I’d reach the grocery between 2nd and 3rd streets. I learned only years later that the grocers were not Mr. & Mrs. Refugee, as I had thought. Everyone simply called them “The Refugees” because they had arrived from “the other side”more recently than my parents or the parents of any of my friends. When I’d enter their small, crowded store, the owners were usually unpacking canned goods, filling the emptied shelves from the day before, while their wives stood behind the counter, packing customer’s bags and working the cash register. Barely tall enough to reach the counter top, I’d wait my turn before asking for a nice rye bread, a good quarter pound of butter and an excellent half-pound of fresh pot cheese, just as Mother had told me to do. One of the men would find whatever I’d need, place it neatly into a brown paper bag, where, after adding up the total, he’d count aloud in Yiddish, then lick an unsharpened pencil and write the amount due on the outside of the bag. I marveled at how he, like my father, added numbers in his head by rolling his eyes upward and then down again, mysteriously arriving at the sum.
Beyond their pleasant smiles, though, I was frightened by the other numbers, the ones tattooed on their arms beneath their rolled up shirtsleeves. I had to force myself not to look at those numbers because Mother, who seldom cautioned me about anything, had told me, “Never stare at their arms, mamaleh. It will only remind them of terrible things. In America, thank God, you’ll never know from such numbers. Here the Hitler devils won’t dare come! But the Refugees? God alone knows what they went through! He should only spare them now. Give them a little peace. Let them make a living. Enjoy some little pleasures.”
Each time I left the Refugees, they thanked me and reminded me to “Say hello to Mama!” before one of them added, “You’re a good, sweet maydaleh, Lindaleh.”
I’d walk home feeling proud, having shopped like a grownup. However, once Mother had put the notion of devils into my head, I began thinking that even our cozy neighborhood was no longer safe. Despite the fact that everything seemed familiar — the freshness of the ocean’s salty air, the brightly colored fruits and vegetables displayed outdoors, the occasional overhead screech of the elevated subway — even so, safety became relative. The mystery of the numbers on their arms and the sadness I saw in their eyes stayed with me."
[End of quote from Prologue]
Years later - after I was married, had children, and had long since left the Brighton in which I grew up - it was featured in many of New York’s newspapers as “The New Odessa,” a revitalized neighborhood where houses were being renovated by a new wave of immigrants (mostly Russian, some Korean). I returned to see it and what I found was quite startling.
That all happened years ago. And while the saying, “You can't go home again,” clearly has relevance, we do have the option to return to where we spent our childhood years, though what we find may seem familiar, memory often distorts the size and shape of things, along with the meanings we have attached to them.
What I remember about the Brighton of my youth – albeit peopled with many immigrants from the same part of the world as reside there today – is a bustling world filled with immigrants, whose experiences were deeply reflected in the very essence of who they were and in what they expected from the America for which they had left their homeland. The Brighton they created was, therefore, very different than the Brighton of today.
Today’s young Russians grew up in a secularized country where Communism separated them from many of the world’s various cultures. They were not, as my parents were, survivors of WWI, witnesses and victims of the ravages of WWII, the evil of Kristelnacht and the burning death of many loved ones. My parents awareness of life’s possibilities and probabilities were totally different from those of the giddy young woman eager to offer American TV watchers an exotic sense of the Russian immigrants of today’s Brighton Beach. My parents and their generation were too busy trying to “fit in,’ to become Americanized and have their children excel, planting new roots in a New World. There was not much that was “exotic” about their lives, and those of us who were their children felt, in turn, that we owed so much to them and to our country.
I wonder how many of you have returned to your childhood neighborhoods and, if so, what your experiences were. If you would enjoy sharing them with me, I’ll be happy to post them in next week’s blog.
Posted by Linda Appleman Shapiro at 1:54 PM
Sunday, March 7, 2010
I suppose that's an answer that applies to more questions than I choose to think about. I also admit that I am an incurable idealist and ask that you forgive me, if you must, or applaud me, if you prefer, as you read on.
The topic to which my title refers is the OSCARS, the star-studded event that will be watched by millions tonight.
Though some of you may not know this, the first awards were presented on May 16,1929at a private black tie dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with an audience of about 270 people. Since that year, the awards were broadcast publicly first by radio and by television in 1953.
Clearly, if we as a society were not invested in competitions, an event such as the Oscars would not be the extravaganza it has become. But there must be something inherent in human nature that enjoys pitting one person against another, one team against another. Competition captures our attention and is something that children as young as 5 and 6 participate in and enjoy a particular feeling of victory when their team has won, whatever the emotional cost may be to their best friend who happens to be playing on the opposing team.
As for the Oscars, some think it's admirable that the votes are cast by members of its own industry. Considering the vast sums spent on soliciting votes through advertising (and other means), however, it's interesting to note that as recently as last year in 2009, William Friedkin, an Oscar winner and producer of the Academy Awards, spoke critically at a conference in New York, characterizing the Oscars as "the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself."
Has it been a successful scheme? By most standards, I suppose we'd have to say YES. But, in my Walter Mitty fantasy of how to honor those in the industry, I'd go so far as to nominate the 10 best in each of the current categories. I'd then have them stroll down the same red carpet, dress in whatever way makes them feel regal, and offer each of them his or her well-deserved trophy.
While I do believe that we should recognize and reward talent, if we are to value the performance of one actor, for example, as being better than another, should we not do so only if we are comparing how each performs the exact same role? To have two accomplished actresses this year such as Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock, for example, compete against one another, when the roles they portrayed were so totally different seems preposterous. Each needed to make significantly different choices, drawing upon totally different skills in order to best portray two totally different women. Considering that, does it make any sense to compare their performances? And, yet, that's exactly what’s being done in every single category, not just acting.
My question is why? Is the only goal for the industry to profit financially and for money to be the ultimate reward? To stretch a metaphor, would a jury find it acceptable to consider the guilt or innocence of an industry's system of awarding its members by not examining the entire body of evidence but instead calling a mere side bar and excluding ALL the evidence in the case?
So, while I'm rooting for all who have been nominated, I still maintain that the hoopla played out in the media prior to tonight's event is misguided. In deciding who and what is BEST, “best” often points to what has and what will continue to make the most money. Furthermore, as far as I'm concerned, it turns all artists into money-making machines for the studios as well as for themselves, diminishing the worth and deserved recognition of those to whom the Oscar does not go.
Extraordinary talent is raw, raucous and rare. Why not award ALL those who deserve our gratitude for entertaining us in original and often outrageously miraculous ways?
I'm not so naive as to be unaware of the fact that artists have always needed patrons, that art does not begin and end with an artist's creation. Producers, backers, promoters of all sorts are needed to market even a masterpiece, let alone what’s mediocre. Yet, in the end, neither the art nor the artist should be a victim of the marketplace.
And while winning an Oscar has made many talented people more sought after for a while, the opposite has also been true. A moment of fame has been just that, a moment! With a great deal of money perhaps, but at what cost? And for the studios, a mega profit as in any other business.
Still, I will end where I began. Meryl Streep's greatness as an actress` will not be diminished for me should she not be handed an Oscar tonight and, along with many others, I will be happy for Sandra Bullock should she be given one.
The artistic process itself is an act of creation in any medium which is at its best original, intense and a labor of love. Yet, for it to be made visible to the public - whether in a gallery or museum, on the stage or in the cinema, in a concert, opera or the ballet - I understand that there must be those who are financially willing to back it and produce it. My only gripe is that when an event such as the Oscars becomes larger than the arts which have led to its creation, something is essentially wrong. Those of us who are hopelessly idealistic will continue to question its primary goal when it appears to be no different than that of any other business, and puts into question what the competition adds to the artistry, value and morality of those who have participated in sharing their talent with us?
I will feel differently only if and when the nominees will all walk down the red carpet and we, in turn, will all feel gratified in knowing that everyone goes home a winner!
Posted by Linda Appleman Shapiro at 9:11 AM
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