The blood sport of politics

It’s no fun having the flu.  This week, I hope you will accept a bit of recycled material from another blog I keep for random thoughts. It is several years old, but tragically, not at all out of date. Regular readers of this site know that whatever the topic, even if it is about politics or history, or the quirks of human behavior, I always manage to conclude with a call to reform education.  Not so with the following.  But feel free to draw your own conclusions.

(originally posted January 13, 2011)

Last weekend, a man named Jared Loughner shot 19 people  in Tuscon, Arizona parking lot, including a member of the U.S. Congress, Gabrielle Giffords, who was apparently the primary intended victim.  While we will probably never fully understand what went on that day in the desert, the compelling story of the incident includes many themes that ring in the American consciousness: violence, heroism, madness, and the innocence of childhood.  The story also has drawn the country once again into the swirling cesspool of political finger-pointing.  The combination of identifiable political viewpoints (in this case, anti-government extremism) and striking evidence of mental illness on the part of the shooter made it impossible to resist, I suppose.

The poisonous politics of objectifying and vilifying your enemies is the order of the day, and while blaming the folks who appear to be on the same side of the political spectrum as Jared Loughner has some cheap-shot appeal, sober minds will conclude that the act of a mad man is not representative of a political philosophy — not here in America.

But consider how this and similar stories are usually told.

Did you notice how Jared Loughner is crazy, Ted Kaczynski was delusional, Eric Rudolph was unbalanced, and Timothy McVeigh had no moral compass?  All of these guys had mental problems.  They identified their motives as ideological, but the public was excused from taking their ideas seriously because they had Fruit Loops in the cranium.  It turned out that the severity of their disease was proportional to the political need to punish them.

Thus, McVeigh was nuts, but not so much that he could avoid criminal responsibility for his acts, and he was executed.  Americans don’t shy away from executing the insane, we just don’t like to brag about it.  We also don’t mind ignoring mental incapacity when it comes to incarcerating notorious killers instead of treating their disease.  We tend to do what the level of public outrage demands.  But we don’t accept ideology as a plausible explanation for violence by Americans against Americans.

On the other hand, 19 men who went on a suicide mission in September 2001, and numerous other hapless suicide attempters who have been apprehended since have not been treated the same way in the press.  Despite clear indications of mental disease (for my money, desire to die is stronger evidence of insanity than desire to kill) these guys have been identified as cold-blooded actors in a terrorist conspiracy.  It was not insanity but ideology that made them want to kill, we are told.

But rather than attempting to understand the belief system that supposedly drove these people to violence, we are told that it is not worth the effort.  The men are perfectly rational, but their ideology is crazy because, after all, it revolves around mass murder.  If anyone suggests that people in other parts of the world might have a bone to pick with some U.S. policies, we are encouraged to brush it off as part of that looney and dangerous terrorist rhetoric.

This is all nonsense.  There are justifications for taking human life — accident, self-defense, mercy for the terminal and suffering — but people who claim to be motivated by some ideology to kill strangers are mentally ill.  Their actions neither vindicate nor invalidate their claimed belief system — they are not responsible proponents of any rationale they have for murder because, clearly, they are irrational.

What is more telling about all this is the people who line up on either side of the ideology in question.  Who uses these criminals’ actions to attack their political enemies?  Who calls for retribution?  Who expresses sympathy with their cause while condemning their methods?  Who expresses admiration for their actions, and their cause, while declining to act violently themselves?  Forget the crazy people.  What is the real motive of the rational people who step up to weigh in?  Instead of vilifying each other, why not use this as an opportunity to understand an opposing set of ideas or perceptions?

Terrorism is just the most flamboyant symptom of dissatisfaction felt to some degree by nearly everyone.  “My taxes are too high.”  “My religion is not respected.”  “My family is living under occupation.”  “I wake up every morning afraid I am going to die.”  Most Americans live on the mild end of this spectrum, but fear and feelings of powerlessness are tangible realities to most of us.  The fact that any of us lives in this condition is the business of all of us, whether or not we indulge in the luxury of ignoring it.

We need to learn to take these problems seriously, even if they are “not my problem.”  We need to hear each other’s real concerns and do what we can to reduce needless pain.  We need to stop focusing on crippling our enemies, and rediscover our shared humanity.

We may not be able to stop the murderous impulses of the insane, but we stand a good chance of reducing the insanity of day-to-day life.

But in this political climate, I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.


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Taking care in an unstable world

It was a tough weekend to be an innocent bystander.  Explosions in New York and New Jersey, a stabbing rampage in Minnesota, as well as the usual shootings that make up a Saturday night in the United States of America.

We live in frightening times.  We are becoming numb to the idea of mass killings, while clinging to a belief that guns are useful problem-solvers.  It is no wonder that in such a wealthy country, where there are so many opportunities for happiness, there is also so much violence.

Our first response to public violence is to ask if we can label it as an act of terrorism.  And unless we can find absolutely no connection between the suspect and some political or religious (but non-Christian) ideology, we seem to accept terrorism as a valid explanation.  Of course, there are exceptions.  A white self-identified Christian who goes on a killing spree must be mentally ill, we tell ourselves.

But I am not sure the difference in labeling is all that meaningful.  Whether or not a person has a well-defined guiding philosophy or agenda, whether or not a person states that his actions are at the behest of some group or in furtherance of some cause, the willingness to kill a lot of people and likely be killed in the process seems to me to be pretty good evidence of mental illness.

We Americans pride ourselves on our individuality; we pride ourselves on our ability to go it alone in the face of adversity.  We aren’t so good at helping each other – especially when it comes to questions of personal stability, feelings of safety, and fears of forces beyond our control.

For most of us, adolescence is a time of uncertainty and newly discovered fears.  The fortunate get by okay with the support of family and members of their community.  Most of us do not become mass murderers. … But then again, an awful lot of us enter adulthood unhappy and unstable, and this unhappiness and instability is triggered over and over as we go through life, resulting in broken families, abusive relationships, unproductive careers, and various anti-social and criminal behaviors.

What can schools do to help?  Quite a lot, I would say.  Public schools see more than 90% of our young population pass through their doors.  What better place to help them to establish good patterns of mental health?

But when President Obama last March issued a memorandum calling for the creation of a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorder Parity Task Force, he included the heads of many federal agencies – Treasury, Defense, Justice, Labor, Health and Human Services, and others – but he did not include any educators among the members.  Why on Earth not?[1]

A recent study stated that in a given year, one in five children living in the United States shows symptoms of a mental disorder.  But most won’t get the help they need.  Let’s face it, public schools can’t get the funding they need for facilities and instruction.  Mental health resources are simply not seen as a priority, and there are not nearly enough professionals with specialized training in mental health and social issues working in a school setting.[2]

Americans need to take notice of what is going wrong.  We need to take care of ourselves better, and we can begin by taking better care of our children.




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What I learned in P.E.

It was really the last place I expected to learn a profound lesson about success in school.  When I was young, I didn’t particularly love P.E. class.  I liked recess – getting to take a break from the routine of sitting still on a plastic seat with an attached laminate desktop, getting out in the fresh air, getting a chance to talk with friends.  The playground was the only place I got to see some of my friends who were in other classes.  But as recess gave way over the years to physical education, with structured games and instruction and tests – yes, they finally polluted the glorious recess of my youth with more standardized tests – P.E. class lost all its attraction for me.

It might have been different if I liked playing team sports.  But my preference was always for individual physical activities – biking, hiking, swimming.  I competed, but only took the challenge seriously when I competed against myself.  If there was something physical I enjoyed doing, I wanted to be able to do it better, and for a longer period of time, and so that I could enjoy it even more.  My yardstick was always my own pleasure, and if others could help me, I paid attention.  Otherwise, I didn’t have any interest in comparing performance.

Academic classes were different.  I wasn’t concerned with class rank or attention for doing well in school, but I seemed to have some natural talent, I enjoyed learning, and I recognized two great advantages to being student who made good grades.

For one thing, I believed, and saw plenty of evidence to back this up in my own community, that doing well and going far in school opened more options in life.  I wanted to have a lot of freedom in what I chose to do with myself after I was finished with schooling, and I took it on faith that academic success would buy me that kind of freedom.

But more immediately, I saw that being a “good student” while I was in school meant that life was going to be easier in the short term.  I didn’t need any recognition, but I did like being left alone to do my own work.  “Struggling” students either have to deal with adults hanging over their shoulders or worse yet, have to deal with being labeled as not very good at the only job they have ever had.

And so when I got into teaching as a profession, I brought with me this bias.  Academic classes were to be taken seriously; P.E. was fluff, and only tangentially related to the real business of education.

But almost immediately, I learned how wrong I had been.

You see, my sister grew up with a somewhat different attitude about team sports, played on a series of successful soccer teams as a teenager, and realized after a few years of trying different career paths that her passion was for fitness education.  She began a remarkable career as a physical education teacher for middle and elementary students, and a coach for varsity sports.  At one point, she would become the first female athletic director for a high school sports program in the history of the state of Georgia.

One of the first steps I took towards becoming a teacher was to spend time with her, observing her classes, discussing values in education, and working on creating an understanding of the dynamics of a group of energetic young learners.  During this same period, I also made some observations and had discussions with the academic teachers of these same students.

I was struck by how insightfully my sister seemed to read each of her students’ personalities, how well she knew their communication styles, how accurately she could access their ability to learn and so adjust her instructional style to address their needs directly.

Their teachers in academic classes were without exception intelligent, perceptive, and caring educators.  But they seemed to be operating from severely limited information.  They knew how good their students were in academic subjects.  They knew whether or not their students had trouble sitting still in class, or how they behaved in the line for the cafeteria.  But their understanding of students’ personalities was limited by the very narrow range of behaviors they expected the children to perform.

In English class, even if the teacher knew that a kid was good with spatial relationships, there was little opportunity to use this information productively.  In Math class, knowing that a kid is a natural leader, or a talented musician, or a skilled communicator was unlikely to affect a teacher’s instruction.

In P.E. class, all of these strengths could be brought to bear in building a strong team, or in making sure a cooperative activity worked.  And by working with others who possessed different skills, each student could learn how they might improve their own performance within the group as well as discover areas in which they might want to become stronger.

The more fluid, constructivist environment of the P.E. class – if deftly handled by a great teacher – is an outstanding place to learn about students’ strengths and personalities. More importantly, it is far more reflective of the real world environment students will encounter after their years in school are concluded.

And life after school is what is really important here, isn’t it?  Beyond basic knowledge of mathematical concepts, conventions of verbal communication, principles of science and civics, most of the information we need to succeed in life is specific to the situation we are in.  Adaptability is the key.  It is far more important to be able to learn what we need, and to work with others than it is to have a past record of success.

The education establishment in the United States must take a close look at the real world, and work backwards to construct a better model for teaching the next generation.  The information is there.  We need insight, vision, and the will to make some changes.


This article calls for improvements in teaching “soft skills” such as communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.  Tellingly, the headline refers to these skills as “the basics.”

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Labor days

On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a federal holiday.  Six days later, he ordered 12,000 federal troops to break the massive railway strike that originated in the company town of Pullman, Illinois.

The United States government has always had an uneasy relationship with organized labor.  Our Labor Day was deliberately placed at the end of the summer, and not where it is situated in much of the rest of the world, on the 1st day of May.  There is a good reason for that.  In the late 1800s, May Day evoked in the minds of many Americans the memory of a tragic event that represented a connection between unions and violence.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, working people were coming to terms with the idea that the value of their work was no longer directly related to its productive outcome, but that it was instead a commodity that would be bought at the lowest market price.

On May 1, 1886, a massive and peaceful protest began in Chicago as workers demonstrated for better pay and working conditions.  Four days into the demonstration, a terrorist detonated a bomb in Haymarket Square.  Seven policemen were killed.  Police responded by firing into the crowd, killing four and wounding dozens more civilians. In the aftermath, prosecutors convicted eight “anarchists” of conspiracy.  Seven were sentenced to death.

In many other countries, May 1 was designated International Workers’ Day in honor of the victims in Haymarket Square.  In the United States, it was a different story.

Despite little evidence or logical reason that labor advocates would attack their own rally, and despite the lack of evidence that any of the defendants had actually thrown the bomb, the public seemed to come away from this sad episode with the conclusion that organized labor equated to violence. It would be years and a Great Depression before the public would adopt a more favorable attitude towards unions.

In the 1930s, the federal government adopted the view that unions could be players in a competitive, capitalist marketplace for productive resources.  Beginning with New Deal legislation such as the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, unions were given legal status to negotiate terms for the labor of their members.  Wages rose, working conditions improved, factory production increased, Americans were able to support a middle class lifestyle by working an assembly line.

The American economy has changed since the high water mark for labor unions – also the peak of the American manufacturing economy – in the mid-20th century.  Thanks to inflation and spiraling consumerism, the wages required to sustain a middle class lifestyle exceed the resources many American companies are willing to pay for labor – especially given the availability of other options overseas.  To most Americans, Labor Day has no connection to the struggles of labor unions to establish a decent standard of living for workers.

But it’s hard to argue that a paid holiday doesn’t improve one’s quality of life.  One day of bread and circuses, then it’s right back to work.


A popular but inaccurate engraving depicting the Haymarket affair from Harper’s Weekly in 1886


For another reflection on Labor Day, labor, and its relationship to education see

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The standard history


Is history an unchanging record of the past, or is it a set of clues, subject to reinterpretation with every generation?  The answer can have a great impact on how we teach this core subject in schools.  More importantly, the way we teach history can have a great impact on the attitudes of children towards life and the history they will create.

By definition, history is a chronicle of past events.  Which is to say, it is a record of events – not the events themselves.  Records are created by people, and people usually have reasons for the things that they do.  Some events – important or not – are simply never recorded.  Perhaps the actors lack the time or ability to stop what they are doing to record anything. Of the billions of human beings who have ever lived on this earth, most have been illiterate. Think of the stories that have been lost.  It is axiomatic that the victors get to write the story of the war.  But think of the many other ways stories have been suppressed – the stories of the slaves who were prohibited from learning to read, the stories of the poor, the immigrants, and women, that no one bothered to collect or preserve.

And if the stories do survive, will they become part of our history?

We should remember – history is not the events of the past – certainly not all of the events.  If we are going to be honest about it, it is not even a selection of the most important events of the past.

Importance is subjective, and can only be assessed from the present day looking backwards.  Whoever it is that selects the stories we read as history has a perspective and an agenda that we can rarely understand in full.  If that was not enough to contend with, we should also keep in mind that the perspectives and values of the present keep changing.  And so our history changes as well.

Ironically, part of the reason we look to the past is for support, for evidence that we are on the right track, and for guidance when we fear that we are not.  It is disconcerting when our history changes.  We are not looking for something elusive.

We want our history to be something definitive; and yet we need our history to be adaptable.  We rewrite accounts of the past – sometimes based on new evidence, often because of new needs.

With each generation, we create the history that we carry into the future.

In an educational culture governed by standardized tests and a standard curriculum, this act of creation has been carried out for us.  Those things that are included in the standards are taught.  That which is excluded might be lost altogether – at least to this generation of learners.

What vision of the present does the standard curriculum support?  What is being left out?

See for yourself and decide.  Read what is being taught, and tested, in Georgia public schools.  Why did the state department of education include what it did?  What questions do you have that the standards do not answer?  What answers do the standards give where you think the questions should remain open?

The Georgia Performance Standards for world history are found here:

The Georgia Performance Standards for U.S history are found here:

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Judging Mr. Gadsden

“… of course, you need to get students to see the events of the past the way that people at the time saw them,” the assistant principal explained to me.

I was getting some advice about how to set goals for my classes in U.S. history from a high school administrator who had never actually taught at the high school level.  I nodded and tried to shift the conversation in another direction.  I was fighting the urge to add a little nuance to his comment, but I knew that this man did not handle nuance well.

I understood what he was trying to say.  It is not enough to get kids to remember a set of events; they can’t really understand why things unfolded the way they did without an appreciation for the context in which they occurred.

But I also knew that part of the process of understanding the past is developing an awareness of one’s own context in the present day.  We can’t help but be who we are.  We have our own set of values and priorities. We operate from a “conventional wisdom” that is informed by the successes and the failures of the past.  We assess, we evaluate, we judge those around us – and sometimes we learn something new and change our opinions.  It is a good exercise for students of history to try to understand the perspectives of those who lived in different times.  But the idea that we suspend all judgement and immerse ourselves in the past, setting aside our values and opinions in favor of those of people from another era … well, that just seems wrong to me.  It seems like yet another way to reinforce the idea that history is irrelevant to people today.  As a history teacher, that is the last thing I want my students to believe.

History lives.  You can see its power and influence all around us, if you know how to recognize the signs.  And sometimes, you can see the appropriation of historical images and ideas, dusted off and repurposed with new messages and new meanings.

Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a ruling in a case brought by an African American worker against a fellow employee alleging that the co-worker’s insistence on wearing a cap with the image of the Gadsden flag constituted racial harassment.  The complaint had stated that the cap was offensive because the image had been created by a slave owner and trader in human beings.  The EEOC found that the historical usage of the Gadsden flag during the Revolutionary era was not racist, but that the appropriation of the flag in recent years by the Tea Party movement and by certain white supremacists raised the question of whether it had acquired a racist connotation today.  The EEOC ruled that it would not dismiss the complainant’s case until evidence on the modern meaning of the flag could be presented.

Gadsden_flag.svgI am curious about what the EEOC will eventually decide.  I am always interested when historical images are used to power contemporary arguments.  Images and messages can change over time.

But I wonder about the argument that the judges in the case seemed to dismiss so lightly.  So the flag was not used in the past to promote a racist message.  What about the fact that it was produced by a man, Christopher Gadsden, who was clearly a racist – a man whose livelihood depended on activities that would not only be illegal, but would be condemned today as immoral and unforgivable?

We are accustomed to giving our “founding fathers” a pass when it comes to slavery.  We tend to try to see things the way they must have seen them.  We judge that this massive conspiracy to violate the human rights of millions was merely a moral oversight.  We declare that our “fathers” were heroes in the context of their times.  Let’s just ignore the fact that they would be criminals today.  Let’s declare them to be heroes of modern times as well.

We seem to have decided – at least in history class – that we need Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and many, many others to be heroes.  But why?  Surely, as with all people, there are some things about these figures that are worthy of admiration, even emulation.  But there are other things that merit condemnation.  In some cases, their reprehensible acts are so unforgiveable as to taint even their most positive contributions.

Is slavery one of those reprehensible acts?  Should we revoke hero status from all those who worked to sustain the practice for so many generations?

This is a serious question, with an answer that depends both on an appreciation of the perspectives of those who lived in the past and on the values and judgement of those who study history today.

Why not give students the tools to answer the question for themselves?


An article on the case involving the Gadsden flag image on a hat

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Cecily, and the way we remember what we’ve learned

The first thing I did was to flip through the pages looking for my name.  There it was at the bottom of page 50 – an easy number to remember, I noted.  It was pretty exciting; a former student had just published a book and had mentioned me in it. [1]

Cecily was a student in my AP US History class about ten years ago.  She was interested in theatre and social issues, and seemed to appreciate history.  Once I began to have conversations with her I realized that she had experienced a rather chaotic home life.  Both parents were alive and well, but apparently they were unable to take care of their 16-year-old daughter.  So she lived with a foster mother – a beautiful and charismatic woman named Nairobi that Cecily had met through a theatre group.

My first memory of her is that she came up to me and introduced herself – something a lot of teenagers wouldn’t do on a dare.  She was a new student in a small school where many of her classmates had known each other since preschool.  But she seemed to have no trouble making friends and finding ways to feed her interests.  And she certainly made an impression on people.

As the year went on, Cecily made an impression not only in my class, but also on the school’s mock trial team, where her quick intelligence and theatrical skills made her an unstoppable force.  She also, and perhaps most importantly as it turned out, became a leader in the Student Political Action Club (SPAC).  I have written about Cecily and about SPAC before. [2]

Cecily spent only one year at Decatur High School, where I taught at the time.  The following year she was at nearby Grady High School.  I heard some updates on how she was doing through her friends on the mock trial team, and then didn’t hear Cecily’s name again until about two years ago.

I received an email notice of a fundraising reception for a local woman who had been arrested and jailed during Occupy Wall Street.  She had been held in the prison on Riker’s Island for about two months, where she came face-to-face with the routine violations of prisoners’ human rights.  She was now fighting legal battles of her own while trying to mobilize support for prisoner’s rights and other social justice issues.

I went to the reception not really sure whether Cecily would remember me.  To my great surprise and pleasure, she greeted me enthusiastically and told me that I was a big part of the reason she had embraced the fight for social justice, and that SPAC had been an awakening experience for her.

A few months later we got together for a real conversation.  By this time, she was writing her book, her legal problems seemed to be mostly past the crisis stage, and there was time to reflect.  She told me that many members of her generation were frustrated, and that Occupy Wall Street had spoken to some widespread fears and anger.

“We did everything the way they told us to – worked hard in school, filled our schedule with extracurricular activities so we would be able get into the best college we could, got the degree, then went out into the world to find that the future we had been promised just wasn’t there.  So now we are competing with each other for that assistant manager’s job at Starbuck’s and wondering what it was all for,” she explained.  “There is a real feeling among many people my age that we were lied to, and that the system was rigged all along to benefit a few while most of us have ended up wildly overqualified for the opportunities that are actually available.”

I have thought about these words many times since that conversation.  I have considered how the Occupy movement has fed other actions for social change, and how the frustration Cecily described most likely fed into the support among young people this past year for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. I wonder how this sense of unease will contribute to the shaping of Cecily’s generation as they proceed through life and make their mark on the world.

But I am not sure I got the words she spoke that day exactly right.  And with the passage of time, I may have changed the message to fit what I needed to hear, regardless of what she was trying to communicate.  In the end, it is kind of irrelevant.  I came away with what felt like an insight, information that would inform my interactions with millennials, and a tool I could use to interpret history as it is being made.  So if my attempt to recreate a statement from a conversation that happened over a year ago is a little off – or even a lot – it doesn’t matter that much to me.  We take from life’s experiences what we need.

What is clear to me in reading Cecily’s book was that she took what she needed from her experiences with me as her teacher, mock trial coach, and faculty sponsor of SPAC.  And that’s great.  That’s exactly the way it is supposed to work.

I couldn’t be more pleased with how she described me.  “He was tall and bald with a whimsical step, a sharp mind, and sometimes, a sharp tongue.  He didn’t teach, he told stories; he didn’t sit at his desk … he zigzagged around us, pulling us in with his variety-show style …. Mr. Patton never told us how to think, but he did inform us where we had come from as Americans and challenged us to seriously consider what our country had become since and what changes should happen next.”

And I don’t care that a couple of details are a little off.  The lesson she described featuring Olaudah Equiano’s account of the Middle Passage was not part of the unit on the abolitionist movement, it was in the unit on colonization.  I think it is important for people to realize that there were Africans in Virginia before there were Pilgrims in New England.  The fact that Cecily remembers this window into the experience of slavery as part of the movement to end it says a lot about her attitude towards social justice.

Even more telling is the way she remembers me teaching about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  I did show her class a video describing a student-led action to protest the segregation of schools in Farmington, Virginia.  I remember that the Birmingham action is described in a packet of readings I distributed during the unit on the Civil Rights Movement.  I may have discussed it with the members of SPAC – I really don’t recall.  But I didn’t really “teach” about the Children’s Crusade.  That was something Cecily learned about at her own initiative.  What I did was encourage her to learn, to pursue the things that had meaning for her, and to act on what she believed.  The fact that she attributed this part of her learning experience to my teaching is flattering, but the truth is more impressive.

The ideal role for a teacher to play is not storyteller – although stories are a great way to fire the imagination, not variety show ringleader – although there are many ways to engage young learners and a good teacher should have a lot of tricks up his sleeve.  The ideal role is for a teacher to encourage and support his students to learn in a way that is meaningful to them – and to discover for themselves the true value of knowledge and insight.

I am delighted and quite honored that Cecily mentioned me in her book, and that she seemed to take something useful from her interactions with me.  She was an unforgettable student, and I am very pleased now to have the chance to see a bit of how her life is unfolding.  I am humbled by her generosity in giving me any credit for her education and accomplishments.  I am also impressed with her skill in storytelling and a bit awed by her resilience in the face of significant obstacles.

Buy her book.  It is a very readable tale of a remarkable young woman.  The part with me in it starts on page 50.


[1] The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan

[2] Freedom of Speech versus the Criminal Consequences


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