Getting To Know You – Quickly

It’s quite a challenge: an 826 Valencia podcasting field trip with high school students who have written letters to the president-elect. The object is to take these letters and turn them into two minute essays the students will record and 826 will podcast. The challenge is to get to know this student in a hurry so that I can advise and encourage in a way that means something to her, and so that the words that result are hers. It can’t be about what I might want to say to the man.

So I sit down with an African-American teenage girl and try to find a few areas of experience that will support her opinions without losing her anger. I start by reading her original letter, a rambling rant against demonstrated intolerance characterized as “crazy”. This doesn’t have much to do with mental illness, it’s used as a synonym for hateful bigotry. She tells him he doesn’t know what her life is like and he’s too stupid to try to learn. He doesn’t like Latinos and because of that he shouldn’t be president. She’s not interested in being diplomatic or showing respecting the man who will soon be president. He has forfeited the right to respect by rejecting her and her friends. The challenge is how to shape this prose into a coherent statement without sanitizing it into meaninglessness, how to support the anger with examples, how to teach her a bit about writing without losing her distinctive voice. I’m not dealing with grammar and punctuation here, rather with enhancing an argument by incorporating examples and comparisons to support her position.

She talks about her Latino friends and their families with compassion, but without ever losing the hard edge that defines her relationship to the world around her. There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in her narrative. We talk for a few minutes, I suggest a few additions, then she surprises me by beginning her rewrite with a moving mini-story about a family trying to cross the border and the hardship and violence they face. She writes of the pregnant mother using the last of her money to hire a coyote and the death of the coyote in a violent confrontation with border patrol. She goes on to write about a Latino family as if they were her own and I encourage her to dig a little deeper with details of where they live and what they served her for dinner, but she’s not interested, loses focus, and turns her attention to her phone. When she’s through, her anger returns and she finishes the essay with a statement of hopeless impotence. I ask her if she might want to end with a bit of hope for the future, a hope I do not feel but wanted to inspire. She did not. I tried to be positive, telling her that when things don’t go our way we have to take action, express our dissatisfaction and try to make things better. Action can give us hope for a better future. She didn’t buy it.

It is America’s shame that we are having this conversation in 2017, more than fifty years after the long-delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is our failure that our children fear for their freedom because a man with dictatorial inclinations was elected to the highest office in our country by attacking the press and promising to exclude those he doesn’t like. This is not an ordinary election, this is the most serious threat to our democracy we have seen.

It is now 10:00 AM on January 20, 2017, the president of the electoral college is now the President of the United States.

 

 

The Worst Week – Ever

I’m trying, trying to escape the pit of despair. I’m not doing very well.

Went to a march in Golden Gate Park organized by the folks who run the Richmond District Blog. Lovely day. Nice people. All on the same side, happy to be together aligned against the dark side.

img_1224Didn’t help. There is no denying what this election says about America. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that racism, xenophobia, hate, misogyny, and ignorance have seeped to the surface because he made it acceptable.

I don’t want to hear about how he’ll moderate his views now that he’s faced with the reality of governing. I don’t want to hear about how he said all those things just to get elected. I don’t believe it and it doesn’t matter because by saying them he revealed what America really wants and believes. He gave the haters permission and they responded.

Take all that hatred, now socially acceptable, combine it with all the guns in this country and the growing right to wear them in public, and you have a prescription for a tsunami of violence. Hate crimes rose dramatically in Britain after the Brexit vote but their firepower pales in comparison to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

img_1232So much damage already done. So much worse to come. I’m looking, but I can’t see the light.

And then the death of Leonard Cohen. So long Leonard, no longer playing in the places where he used to ache. At least we still have the music.

©2016 Ron Scherl

The Day After

The kids are frightened. So am I. This election brought fear and despair, a violent anxiety took root in my gut and remains. It was a struggle just to summon the will to leave my apartment and when I did it seemed odd that people were going about their daily business and the sun had risen. I’m scheduled to volunteer at 826 Valencia on Wednesdays but I felt drained and hopeless, not certain I wanted to live in a country that could elect that man. But I went, not making a decision with purpose, just walking to the bus and then the Tenderloin Center on auto-pilot, propelled by a sub-conscious desire to do something. I expected to find like-minded people at 826 and, of course, I did. But I didn’t want to try to put a happy face on a cataclysmic tragedy: these kids: African-American, Muslim, Hispanic—at the beginning of their lives—were going to suffer much more than me. They will have to grow up under a government elected on a platform of ignorance, racism, and misogyny. They can look forward to a Supreme Court dedicated to limiting their freedom in order to protect wealthy white men. I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning and I can choose to leave this country. They are so young and already faced with the significant obstacles of “otherness”. Now what?

Well, 826 is a special place. Kona encouraged us to talk to the kids about the election, let them express their feelings and encourage them to write about them; help them to develop their voices, let them know someone is listening. I had been thinking of my task as helping them unlock their imaginations but this was a more important job. They need to know their feelings are valid and they must be heard.

I was working with two Hispanic kids and a young Muslim girl. They began by feeling me out. “Who did you vote for?” I told them I had voted for Clinton and they said they did too, or they would have if they could vote. They said their parents voted for Clinton and they were afraid of Trump. He doesn’t like Mexicans. He’s a racist. He’s going to build a wall so no more Mexicans can come here. One kid looked at me and asked if he could write about anything he wanted. I smiled for the first time that day. “Of course.” He wanted to know if he could just call him Trump, not President. I said that was fine and he wrote about the wall and all the Mexicans stuck on the other side. He wondered if Trump would build a wall around the whole country and what that would mean. It frightened him.

Another child said she didn’t want to talk or write about it because the election made her parents angry and she was frightened when they got angry. She just wanted it go away and wanted to finish her story about a very small banana split. The third child arrived late and began by asking me how I felt about the election. I said I was very, very unhappy and she said she was too. She said her parents were worried but they didn’t want to talk about it.

I said this was a difficult time and we were all a little scared but we were there to help and support them and that would continue. My voice broke and for a second I thought I would not be able to stop the tears that were imminent all day. I got through it, had to because I had to push my lazy problem child to start writing.

I didn’t expect to finish this piece on an optimistic note—it’s not my usual inclination—but I have to search for sanity in a world I see as dangerously unbalanced. On the ground level, programs like 826 can often feel like entering a battle naked and unarmed. It can seem impossible to do enough to make a difference. But it’s not. The ability to communicate is power and if we can help these children learn to express themselves, if we can foster their confidence and support their ambitions, their time will come and they will be equipped with the tools they need to succeed. They need to know now that their voices matter and surrounding them with adults who listen and take them seriously is a beginning.

Election Day

Like just about everything else in Maury, elections are a family affair. People come to vote with dogs and kids, greet everyone in the room, bisous and handshakes all around and take a moment to chat about the weather.

Voting ©2012 Ron Scherl

I arrived around 10:30 in the morning and the Mayor and Jean Batlle were checking names on the voter rolls, Jean-Roger was accepting ballots and Pierrette was gathering signatures. I asked the mayor if it was alright to take photos and he said of course; then I promptly tripped on a step I didn’t see and fell against one of the booths, fearing that I was about to take the entire French democracy down with me.

I managed a sheepish “Excusez-moi” and Charley, who always has an expression of deep concern said: “No, no, are you alright.”

I was fine and the democratic process was still intact.

Marie-Laure ©2012 Ron Scherl

So here’s how it works: you show your voter card, pick up an envelope and cards with the candidates’ names – you must take both – and go into the booth where you place one card in the envelope and drop the other in a trash bin. Then you’re checked off the list, place the envelope in the slot of a plastic box and an official pushes a lever dropping the ballot into the box while you sign the register.

Voting ©2012 Ron Scherl

Now you kiss or shake hands with anyone who arrived after you, catch up on any local news you may have missed and go home to lunch. The morning was busy and Marie told me most people vote before lunch. Sensible people don’t let politics ruin a Sunday siesta.

 

The Count Begins ©2012 Ron Scherl

I returned around 5:30, and the last few voters straggle in to a chorus of ahhhs and in one case, applause. Pierrette, the president of the Cave Cooperative, takes her ballot. She likes to be the last voter. At 6:00 the polls close and the count begins after a shuffling of furniture. About 30 people have arrived to witness the count by the mayor and members of the municipal council and the room gets very quiet. The mayor opens the ballot box, all the envelopes are counted and the tally compared with the voting records, then they are divided into batches of 100, opened and counted. Null ballots which may result from an empty envelope, both candidate cards in one envelope or a vote cast for someone not on the ballot are tallied and set apart. The mayor counts out loud in groups of ten, while others record his count. All totals must agree. The votes are entered in a spreadsheet, reported to the regional government and then up the chain to Paris and posted on the door of City Hall.

Counting Ballots ©2012 Ron Scherl

It’s a very sober process. There’s never a hint of partisanship, not the slightest indication of any interest in the results, just the sense of doing an important job, doing it efficiently and accurately and going home when it’s done.

For the record:

 

Eligible voters:            702

Voting:                        574

 

Francois Hollande:      305

Nicolas Sarkozy:         239

Null ballots:                  30