Culture · Politics

In Praise of America

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FIRST CUP OF COFFEE: I feel like going back to bed. A few days ago I read about my corrupt governor, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, saying that “America was never great.” And then today I read about a guy who went to Washington Square Park in NYC and interviewed some students from NYU. They agreed with Cuomo—were even more critical. America has never been great, It’s just a POS. Good Grief!

Neither Cuomo or these kids know beans about America. No, it isn’t perfect, never has been, but a steady stream of oppressed minorities come here because it’s better than anywhere else. And it keeps getting better, in spite of the media’s efforts to make our relationships seem worse. And the reason America keeps getting better has to do with the ideals promoted by the Constitution and by Christianity. In my lifetime, the personal relationships between people of different races and religions have been spectacularly transformed for the better. The government passed laws that helped, but those laws would never have passed if Americans hadn’t supported them. Politicians don’t swim against the current. Asians still face prejudice from the Ivy League schools but that’s not going to last long.

With Respect to Women’s Suffrage,

America led the way. Wyoming, a state dominated by macho white males, gave women  the right to vote in 1869. The United States as a whole followed suit in 1919. Then came England in 1928, France in 1945, and Mexico in 1953.

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As For the Marshall Plan:

A while back a cynical young man told me the American Marshall Plan that committed the United States to helping the Europeans recover from WWII was just a way to keep the Russians east of the Elbe. First, what’s wrong with that? Where has communism brought people anything but misery? Second, American support for the Marshall Plan was based on Christian principles enjoining us to forgive our enemies and to help our neighbors. But, of course, Christianity can’t be mentioned in colleges.

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“It’s the same thing, without mechanical problems.”

Enough of this sermonizing. Years ago, I wrote a poem about a pair of cynical students, It’s not “made-up”; it really happened.

OVERHEARD AT LUNCH

A student at the table next to mine
said that his professor said
that stupid people used to think
that we Americans went over there
like superheroes in a comic book
and saved the helpless Europeans.
“Yeah,” replied his friend,
“We swooped down from the sky.”
They laughed, those two young men—
too wise already to be taken in.

After the Battle of Okinawa
a civilian wept and would not eat.
A Nisei questioned him and said he said
he’d killed his daughters and his wife
to spare them from
the atrocities to come.
Oh, yes, he read the leaflets promising
no civilian would be harmed,
But he was not a fool and had not been
taken in.

Childhood learning · Culture · Education · Role of Women

The Lesson Learned is not Always the Lesson Taught

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Herb is the one who usually writes about poetry, but I have something to say about a poem.

Miss Mary Braden, my fifth grade teacher, was a throwback to the Victorian era. Her skirt came down to her ankles, she carried a cane, and her long gray hair was tied up at the back in a big bun. She was a regular Gradgrind. and she hated children, or so it seemed to me. To Miss Braden poetry was a trusted pedagogical tool; To this day I can still remember many lines of the poems we were required to memorize and recite.

In School Days by John Greenleaf  Whittier was written in 1870 at the height of the Victorian era. It tells a charming story about children, but it ends with a discouraging message:

Self interest is the motivating force that informs almost all human interaction. So don’t expect to be given any consideration just because you are likeable (or even loveable).

 That was the lesson we were supposed to learn, but what we took from the poem was something quite different.

The setting is a one-room schoolhouse  at dismissal time. A boy and a girl linger behind.  There has been a spelling bee that afternoon in which the boy and girl ended up as the last two contestants, and the girl turned out to be the winner.

In School Days

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping.

* * * * * * *

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled:
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled

* * * * * * *

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand’s light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voce,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,”—the brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! The grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her,—because they love him.

Now we ten-year-olds knew nothing about life’s hard school, not yet having experienced it. The lesson of the ultimate stanza was therefore lost on us, but we could identify with these children.

I had brown eyes; I was a good speller. I was in love—_with Jack Sevier— as was every other girl in our class. “Tangled golden curls”? Well, okay, three out of four; I could still identify.

And although I could not have then articulated it plainly, here was a potent message packaged so that even a ten-year-old could understand it. It was a lesson girls were taught over and over in subtle ways long after Whittier and Miss Braden were around to teach it.  It taught girls how to behave and boys what to expect from girls:

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word,
I hate to go above you,
“Because,”—her brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because you see, I love you.”

Girls need to disown their accomplishments if they want to gain favor with boys.  And there are certain techniques that girls can use to be appealing   . . . the lifted (and lowered) eyes; the caressing hands, the trembling voice, the frank apology.

In spite of the genuine progress women have made since 1870, when Whittier wrote his poem, sad to say, some women still are reluctant to own their accomplishments, and some men would just as soon they didn’t.

Do you still remember a poem you were required to memorize in school?To leave a comment scroll to the top of the post and click on the word “comments.”

 

Culture · Poetry · Uncategorized

This is the Day We Learned that the War Was Over

FIRST CUP OF COFFEE

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We were jubilant; the war was over!

August 14 is VJ Day—victory over Japan. Ancient history to some. A war about what? Nobody remembers. But you don’t have to remember the past to be affected  by it. It helps, though, if you remember. I was reading Escape from Davo (a Japanese prison in the Philippines) the other day. Each chapter is preceded by an excerpt from a poem by Henry Lee. Who? There is nothing about him on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

 A NEGLECTED POET OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR

Captured on Bataan, he survived the Death March, and was imprisoned in Cabanatuan. Reports from Philippine spies about Japanese plans to massacre the prisoners caused the Americans to launch a raid behind the Japanese lines to save them. It is celebrated in Hampton Sides’ book, Ghost Soldiers and in a movie, The Great Raid. 

However before the camp was liberated, Lee and some other prisoners were sent to Japan. He did not survive the war, but he had buried his poems at Cabanatuan. His friends dug them up and gave them to a reporter. Many were published in the Saturday Evening Post. They do not reflect Wordsworth’s “emotions recollected in tranquility.”

They are patriotic:

“Our faith is in the blood of weary men / Who take the coral beaches back again. / My country—Oh, my country—well we know. / That final victory will be your part,”

and blunt:
So you are dead. The easy words contain
No sense of loss, no sorrow, no despair.
Thus hunger, thirst, fatigue, combines to drain
All feeling from our hearts. The endless glare,
The brutal heat, anesthetize the mind.
I can not mourn you now. I lift my load,
The suffering column moves. I leave behind
Only another corpse, beside the road.

After he’d been in Cabanataun for three years, he wrote:.

“Teach me to hate,” I prayed — for I was young,
And fear was in my heart, and faith had fled.
“Teach me to hate! for hate is strength,” I said
“A staff to lean on.” Thus my challenge flung
Into the thunder of the clouds that hung
Cloaking with terror all the days ahead –
“Teach me to hate — the world I loved is dead;
Who would survive must learn a savage tongue.”
And I have learned — and paid in days that ran
To bitter schooling. Love was lost in pains,
Hunger replaced the beauty in life’s plan,
Honor and virtue vanished with the rains
And faith in God dissolved with faith in man.
I have my hate! But nothing else remains.

But that wasn’t quite true. He had “one treasure nothing can destroy.”

Somewhere there lives a woman I suppose
Who once was you. All night I fought my brain,
All night with burning eyes that ached to close
I probed the whirling darkness while the rain
Played on the nipa with a rhythmic stamp,
And as forgotten memories seared my heart
The restless mutter of the prison camp
Mocked at the empty years we’ve been apart.
But now the hills that race the tropic dawn
Across a sky ablaze with pagan joy
Have touched me with their strength. Though you are gone
I guard one treasure nothing can destroy—
Across a spring green, a sunlit campus lawn
A golden girl laughs with her dark-haired boy.

Henry G. Lee’s one book of poems, Nothing But Praise, was published after the war by the Philippines Asia Museum. It’s out of print. The hardcover costs $495. Even the paperback at $88 is outside my range. But a few of his poems can be found on the internet.

P.S.  A SNOWFLAKE IS DISTURBED

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Survivors from Cabanantuan

While searching for Lee’s poems, I came upon a site that published “Three Years After” along with this accompanying photo of two surviving prisoners. The blogger said she’d read Ghost Solders and it “disturbed” her. She couldn’t accept the idea that the Americans were admirable and the Japanese despicable. So to reassure herself (and to sound wise), she claimed she saw “disturbing parallels” between what happened in Cabanatuan and “what has been done in our ‘war on terror.’” (Note the queasy passive voice.) What parallels? Do any of the Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo look like the Cabanantuan prisoners in the picture? I know, she’s young, so maybe I should go easier Unknown-2on her. But she read Ghost Solders!