Saturday, September 29, 2012

Death At An Early Age

“If poison were not spreading at this moment, I might agree with the people who say that Negroes ought to sit and wait a little, and let some of these things change at their own pace. But when time is destroying the present lives of your own children, I do not believe anyone should wait. No child in the ruined Fourth Grade at my school can ever have that terrible year returned to him (pg 84).”

                This is just one of the many powerful lines in the book Death At An Early Age, in which the author, Jonathan Kozol, serves as somewhat of an undercover agent-teacher at one of Boston’s  most over-crowded inner-city public schools in 1964. He details many disturbing scenarios that occur at a school in which White teachers were instructing a predominately Black student body. The reader encounters so many disturbing stories in this book that one rightfully wonders what chance the students have for productive futures. The real kicker is that these stories are true.

                From corporal punishment (although teachers weren’t supposed to be hitting the children), to calling the children “niggers”, to setting low expectations for their scholastic performance (and therefore teaching them to have low expectations of themselves), Kozol navigates the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences that these children suffer presently and those that they will most likely suffer into adulthood. Beyond poor treatment, the children are also relegated to attend a school that is in disrepair. Who can sit and pay attention in a school that doesn’t have enough books or classrooms and with a roof that leaks when it rains? (Actually, too many schools are still dealing with these issues today, less the blatant racism).

                Kozol published Death At An Early Age in 1967. He was born and raised in Boston, and this Harvard grad is best known for being a public education reform and civil rights advocate. Death At An Early Age was his first nonfiction book, garnering a National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion.  He still participates in speaking engagements around the country to this day (my mother went to one of them a few years ago. I wish I could have attended with her).

                This book is both disturbing and enlightening.  To know that these things were happening in public schools around the country (because we know that this didn’t just happen in Boston) during my parents’ generation is uncomfortable, to say the least.  My father grew up in an inner city just a few hours south of Boston.  Did he face teachers like the ones in this book?  Did your parents or did you, yourself, deal with this?  What’s worse is that the mentality that these teachers pretty much forced on these kids, one of self-worthlessness, feeling unintelligent, and probably hating school, was most likely passed down to the children and grandchildren of many of these inner city students.  If you’re treated like you don’t matter at school, why would you want to go?  Why would you take it seriously? If you’re not learning what you’re supposed to be learning, because you have teachers who think you’re incapable, then what’s the point?  And how then, can you raise children to believe that education is the path to success? And what about your grandchildren? It becomes a generational cycle.

                Because I take education seriously, reading this book was kind of emotionally draining for me, but it was so worth it. It’s an important part of recent Black history (and inner city Latinos can probably relate too) that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, as we can see the devastating impact it’s still having on many inner city kids today. Let’s re-read this 45 year old book, and consider how far we’ve come, how far we haven’t, and what we need to change.
                Do you know about Jonathan Kozol?  Have you read the book?  What do you think about Death At An Early Age?

Signing Off,
Photo Credit:, and

The Tao of Pooh (and yes, I do mean Winnie)

                                                                            Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Required reading for one of my undergraduate courses has become one of my favorite books.  This is one book that I did not sell back to the bookstore, or try to sell online, and instead decided to keep in my personal library at home.  I’ve read it several times over the years, especially during the most stressful times in my life, as a reminder to take a deep breath, and refocus. 

                The book I’m talking about is the Tao of Pooh, written by Benjamin Hoff and published in 1982. It’s based on Tao principles, which focus on “following the way” through wu-wei (action through non-action/ effortless action). If you’re not familiar with Taoism (I’m definitely not), it’s most common in China, and dates back to the 4th century BC. Hoff displays the difference between the Tao way, and the wrong way through the main characters in one of your favorite cartoons as a child, The House at Pooh Corner. And which character do you think exemplified the Tao way?

                Winnie the Pooh, of course. Pooh lived life simply, didn’t over-complicate situations, and although we wouldn’t describe him as an energetic go-getter, things always seemed to work out for him.

                After reading the book, I wondered who Benjamin Hoff was. Hoff, of Oregon, published this book at age 36.  It seems like he had a great interest in Chinese culture, even earning a BA in Asian Art just a decade or so before writing the book. According to the info I found on Wikipedia about him, he also comes across as a free spirit, given all of his career changes: tree pruner, antiques restorer, hospital orderly, journalist, reporter and musician. He wrote 5 books in total, but in 2006, he publicly resigned from book writing.  I have no idea what career he’s pursuing now.

                He followed up the New York Time best-selling book with another one about Winnie the Pooh and his friends called The Te of Piglet. In this piece, Hoff describes how Piglet’s te, or inner power and heart, allows him to live in harmony with the Tao, while the characteristics of some of the other characters prevent them from living more fulfilling lives.
                                                                        Photo Credit:

                One lesson I came away with after reading this book is that the mind that is given rest, often comes up with the most innovative solutions. While it’s not realistic to aim to live your life like Winnie the Pooh (he was kind of an airhead), it is a great reminder to stop and enjoy the simple things: silence, family time, meditation, nature, a good book, or great food. We need to savor these moments. Afterall, if God forbid we don’t wake up tomorrow, then what was all the fuss and rush for?

                At 158 pages, it’s an easy read for people who are short on time.  Check it out and let me know what you think!

Signing off,


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Walk to Beautiful

A Walk to Beautiful

Director: Mary Olive Smith
Executive Producer: Steven Engel
Co Producer: Allison Shigo
Field Director and Producer: Amy Buchner
Editor: Andrew Ford
Cinematographer: Tony Hardmon
HD Cinematographer: Jerry Risius
Awards: Audience Award for Best Documentary, Best Human Rights Documentary

This summer, I was blessed enough to visit Africa, and now, I just can’t learn enough about the continent, its history, and its many cultures. So, when I came across the 2007 documentary, A Walk to Beautiful, I was glued to the screen! The film follows several young women from Ethiopia who are suffering from obstetric fistula, which is essentially a condition, typically caused by prolonged labor (more common when the mom’s pelvis is small or the baby isn’t positioned correctly) that creates a hole in either the rectal area or the bladder area. This leads to consistent and uncontrollable urinary and/or fecal leakage.

It’s bad enough that many of the women in developing countries who suffer from this don’t have proper access to the medical care they need for reconstructive surgery, but they also face rejection and marginalization from their husbands and extended family. The film shows one woman whose family banished her to a hut behind the family home because they did not want her to leak in their house! I couldn’t even imagine that kind of rejection from my loved ones.

Some are fortunate enough to learn about the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital’s free services, and so they make the long journey from the Ethiopian country side to the capital (on foot, on buses, however they can), where they hope to be cured and start a new chapter in their lives. Many of them have been dealing with the constant flow, and its accompanying odor, for years with no recourse, so they understandably have high hopes for the surgery. Imagine how crushing it would be if the surgery doesn’t correct the problem, though.

While watching the film, I was in awe of the Ethiopian women’s natural beauty (there was no need for them to "walk to" it, although I'm sure they weren't feeling beautiful, hence the title), but I also felt blessed that I do have access to the proper healthcare here in the US. I don’t know anyone, personally, who has had to deal with this embarrassing condition, but I had heard of the condition before…

Photo from

Ever read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese? This novel, released in 2009, focused on twin brothers Marion and Shiva Stone, who were adopted and raised in a family of doctors. While the story was more so about romantic love and brotherly love, a large portion of it took place at Mission Hospital in Ethiopia, where Shiva performed surgeries to correct obstetric fistula.

I highly recommend both “A Walk to Beautiful” and Cutting for Stone if you’ve never heard of them. Both are honest, eye-opening, and interesting all the way through.

If you’ve already watched this film or read this book, what did you think?

On another note, whenever watching, reading or talking about Ethiopia, does anyone else start craving tibs? (Ethiopian food is delicious! And if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're missing out!)

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