Archives for category: Personal

I was in New York City on 9/11/01. I lived about a mile from the World Trade Center, across the Brooklyn Bridge. I literally felt the impact when the first airplane his the first of the Twin Towers. I rushed to the waterfront and saw the second plane fly into the second tower. I was traumatized for months afterwards, maybe longer. I will never forget.

Please pause and remember the nearly 3,000 souls who lost their lives that terrible morning and the brave firefighters and police who died while bravely responding to the disaster.

This is a documentary that I have posted before about the greatest boatlift in history, the story of the spontaneous flotilla that rescued survivors.

An interview in which I talk about education, poetry, and changing my mind.

Happy birthday, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

When I was a student at Wellesley College, I would sometimes take solitary walks around Lake Waban and think deep thoughts. As I walked, trampling the leaves, I would often recite out loud Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beautiful poem, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child.”

This description of Hopkins appeared on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac.” Today is a big day, because it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter (“The Tale of Peter Rabbit”), Jacqueline Kennedy, Karl Popper, and Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware.

Today is the birthday of English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844) (books by this author), born in Stratford, Essex. He won a poetry prize in grammar school and then received a grant to study at Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Classics and continued to write poetry. His academic record was outstanding, earning him the approbation of one of his masters, who called him “the star of Balliol.”

While he was at Oxford, Hopkins (who had been raised in the Anglican Church) converted to Roman Catholicism. His experience was so profound that he decided to become a Jesuit priest in 1868, and he burned all his poetry, feeling it was not befitting his profession as a clergyman. He did continue to keep a journal, however, and in 1875, he returned to poetry. He was living in Wales, and found its landscape and its language inspirational. When five Franciscan nuns died in a shipwreck, he was moved to write a long poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland.

Once he was ordained in 1877, he worked as a parish priest in the slums of Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. He lived in Dublin from 1884 until his death of typhoid fever in 1889. Overworked, exhausted, and unwell, he wasn’t happy there, and his poetry reflects his unhappiness. Called the “terrible sonnets,” they show the poet’s struggles with spiritual and artistic matters.

Most of his poetry wasn’t published in his lifetime, and it was so innovative that most people who did get to read it didn’t understand it. As he wrote in a letter to Burns, “No doubt, my poetry errs on the side of oddness …” But it influenced such 20th-century poets as W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and Charles Wright.

Here is one of my favorite poems, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child”:

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

It is with great sadness that I inform you that our dear friend Bonnie Lesley, leader of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, died of pneumonia.

She was a champion for children, and we will miss her friendship and her guidance. She was beloved by everyone who had the good fortune to know her.

Her son Bruce posted this notice today on Facebook:

Our family is devastated and heartbroken that my mother, Bonnie Lesley, who has loved, inspired, and impacted the lives of so many, has passed away this morning from complications related to pneumonia in Waco, Texas.

Our family is immensely grateful for all the love, support, prayers, and best wishes her various communities have provided to her, us, and to each other through this terribly difficult time.

My mother loved you all (“y’all” from our Texas friends). Her boundless love for family, students, colleagues, neighbors, and those dedicated to improving the lives of others is so apparent in the outpouring support she received in return.

Although not normally one who liked people reading to her, she loved to hear each and every post that I read to her via texts, email, Facebook, and Caring Bridge. She was so pleased to hear the kind words she got from people all over this country. It give her some much needed peace and happiness through this crisis.

We are going to have a graveside burial service for her in Her hometown of Hedley, Texas, this coming Friday. More information on this is forthcoming as arrangements are finalized. In lieu of flowers, we would ask that people consider donating to the The Network for Public Education Action, Planned Parenthood, or the Alzheimer’s Association.

Recognizing this will be very difficult if not impossible for people to attend, we are planning an on-line “Celebration of Bonnie’s Life” in the coming weeks. We will let people know when and how to participate in the near future.

Thanks again to all of you for your love, kindness, and support of my mother and our Thanks again to all of you for your love, kindness, and support of my mother and our family.

-Bruce Lesley

I share this quote (slightly modified) that my Mom loves from Gabriela Mistral:

“Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his or her bones are formed, his or her mind developed. To them, we cannot say tomorrow, their name is today.”

Six years ago, I fell and broke my knee. That event changed my life in unexpected ways. For the first time in my life, I felt physically unsteady and vulnerable. My sense of invincibility disappeared. After a lifetime of bounding up and down stairs, I learned to hold onto a railing and watch my step.

In April 2014, I was running to the postoffice on a Saturday, hoping to get there before it closed, and I tripped down the stairs outside my house. My left knee landed on a flagstone, and I felt a horrible crushing sensation. I was alone at the time. My partner Mary was in Georgia, visiting with her college classmates. I just lay there on the ground for about five minutes, waiting to see how bad it was.

I was on Long Island, and none of my neighbors was home. I tried to stand but I couldn’t. I dragged myself on my back up the stairs (three of them) and into the house. I pulled down the phone and called a neighbor who lived a few doors away and she called an ambulance. I was transported to the closest hospital, in the small town of Greenport. They couldn’t help me. The next day my son took a bus out to pick me up and bring me to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. There, the doctor x-rayed my knee and told me I had well and truly broken it and needed a total knee replacement. Mary had already had double knee surgery, and I had some idea of what was in store for me.

I had to wait two weeks to get into surgery, and during that two weeks I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, using a walker, to receive the Grawemeyer Award for my 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. When I walked to the podium at the University of Louisville to accept my award, I did not use a crutch or a walker, and I thought maybe the diagnosis was wrong. But when I got home, I was dressing to go out, lost my balance, and almost crashed through a wall. Surgery it would be.

After the surgery, I went to rehab diligently, but my leg simply would not straighten out. It was bent. The physical therapist assured me I would wake up one morning and it would be straight, but day after day I felt my leg locked into a bent shape. I could not straighten it. I fell into the deepest depression of my life. I believed I would never walk again without a walker.

Then a dear friend from college days told me to go at once to a different physical therapist. I did, and the therapist told me that my knee was encased in scar tissue. I went back to the surgeon, and he performed a “manipulation.” That means that I was given morphine, knocked out, and while I was unconscious, he forced my leg straight. He took pictures to show me that my leg was straight. But when I woke up, my leg almost immediately sprung back into a bent position.

Back to the physical therapist, who said there were only two people who could help me: One was a sports medicine doctor in Vail, the other was a sports medicine doctor in Cincinnati. I chose the latter because the flight was nonstop and closer. I went to Dr. Frank Noyes at the Noyes Knee Institute at Mercy Hospital. As it happened, he literally wrote the book on scar tissue (arthrofibrosis). He told me I was too old for surgery but that he could fix my leg. We went into a small room, where I sat on the edge of a table and stretched my bent knee so that my heel was on another table. Then two very large men on either side of me pressed my leg down until it was straight. The pain was intense, and I was crying, but while they forced my leg straight, they quickly built a plaster cast around it, then cut the cast open, filled it with cotton and gauze, put it into a large box, and presented it to me. Dr. Noyes told me to wear it eight-ten hours a day for at least six weeks, wrapping it tightly with ace bandages.

After six weeks, the cast straightened my leg. I was able to walk again. I could no longer run or even walk fast, but I could walk without any help.

I asked my surgeon why no one in New York City was able to perform such a simple procedure. He explained that he was a surgeon not a rehabilitation specialist.

I mention this story not to share my personal pain, depression, and recovery but to share the understanding that there are sometimes ways to fix what seem to be impossible physical conditions. Not always. I thought I would never be able to walk again without a walker. My gait is somewhat stilted, but I walk without crutches or a walker.

If you need the same kind of help, you now know where you can get it. Dr. Noyes may have retired by now, but he trained others in his methods. Every time I see someone with a bent knee, on a walker, I long to tell then this story. That’s why I’m telling it now. It might help someone else.

That’s a joke headline. True that it’s my birthday but I write what I choose every day. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong, but I write what I choose. This is a freedom I gained when I realized that I’m free from ambition. At my exalted age (82), there is nothing to tempt me. I don’t yearn for a job or an appointment to anything. I don’t seek money. I have enough.

So I will share some hard-earned lessons.

Do what’s right and let the chips fall where they may.

Don’t worry if you have enemies. If you stand on principle, it will confuse some people and anger others. Don’t let the naysayers turn you round or intimidate you. In my case, they are paid to try. No one pays me, so that’s a source of freedom too.

Don’t be too certain. Listen and learn. Weigh the evidence. You might be wrong.

If you realize you are wrong, apologize and make it right. When you have made a mistake, don’t dig in. Admit it. Apologize.

It’s okay to change your mind when you learn new things. Emerson said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”

Stand up for people who don’t have a voice. If you have a megaphone, as I do, share it. Use it to protect the weak and vulnerable.

Don’t be afraid. Illegitimi non Carborundum. It’s a fake Latin phrase but it makes sense.

During a global pandemic, wear a face mask. Only fools refuse to wear a mask to protect themselves and others. The Lone Ranger and Batman wore masks. Wonder Woman didn’t but she would have if it were necessary to save lives.

Read myths to your children and grandchildren. I read D’Aulaires’ myths to my children and grandchildren. Read the myths of many cultures to broaden your children’s understanding and appreciation of others and to see the oneness of humanity.

Read poetry. I have a long, long list of my favorite poets. I read poetry for solace and inspiration.

If life gives you lemons, you know what to do with them.

If you want to help me celebrate this milestone, make a donation to the Network for Public Education. That’s where it will do the most good. I don’t want for anything. I would like to get rid of every worldly possession except the clothes on my back, a change of clothes for the sake of hygiene, my cellphone, a few books, soap, and a toothbrush. After months without a haircut, I am tempted to shave my head. But I don’t have enough courage to be that bold. Maybe next year.

This is an interview with Russ Roberts of the Hoover Institution about SLAYING GOLIATH.

The Hoover Institution has a huge endowment, and it is committed to free markets. Its funders do not like public schools. They disparage them as “government schools.” They like vouchers and charters.

Russ is a nice guy, and he believes in choice and charter schools. We disagreed. You might enjoy this podcast.

I was a Senior Fellow at Hoover from 1999-2009. Then when I realized that testing and choice were failing and were doing damage to schools and students, I left and began a campaign to stop what I once supported. At Hoover, testing and choice are dogma, and I no longer was a true believer. Hoover is situated on the Stanford University campus but has touchy relations with the university. While I was attached to Hoover, I donated my papers to the Hoover archives, which has a fabulous collection of personal papers of all sorts of people, including educators.

In the midst of this awful time of isolation, our friend Audrey Watters lost her son Isaac. Audrey is a brilliant critic of the misuse of technology in our lives. Our hearts go out to her now, acknowledging her terrible loss.

In 2013, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Cuba with my partner and two friends. The Obama administration had relaxed restrictions on travel, and we visited as part of a people-to-people program. Our group flew to Miami, then boarded an American Airlines charter jet that brought us in less than an hour to Jose Marti airport in Havana. Many of our fellow passengers were a Cubans carrying large packages of appliances and other hard-to-get goods to their relatives in Cuba.

We traveled with our travel agent, a native Cuban who had fled the island as a child in 1960 (part of the so-called ”Peter Pan” exodus of Cuban children) and was now an American citizen living in New York City. We stayed in a lovely hotel in the center of Havana, where there were few Americans but many European and South American tourists. We visited museums, the homes of artists, and wonderful small restaurants. The Cuban people we met were friendly, welcoming and looking forward to better times, when the decades-long embargo would finally end. My overall impression was that the embargo had impoverished Cuba and cemented the Castro regime, and that the end of the embargo would stimulate small businesses and breathe life into a stagnant economy. In other words, our policy goals for Cuba—to end the dictatorship and revive a market economy—had utterly failed, but would be advanced by ending the embargo.

Cuba is a beautiful and very poor nation. We were lucky to have gone when we did, because Trump has reversed the limited lifting of the embargo by the Obama administration and made the embargo as punitive as possible.

Commonweal published an article By a Cuban scholar describing the effects of the renewed sanctions. Its main effect seems to be further impoverishing the Cuban people. Trump was pandering to Republican Cuban voters in Florida.

After 60 years of embargo and sanctions, don’t you think that it would be clear by now that the punishment has failed to achieve its aim of regime change and serves only to hurt the Cuban people? If we really wanted to free Cuba, we would open relations and encourage commerce and tourism, as we did with Vietnam and Cambodia, which now have booming economies, or did have before the pandemic.

Carl Cohn is a veteran educator who served as superintendent in Long Beach and in San Diego. He has received many awards for his service.

The selection of a new superintendent in Long Beach prompted him to write his thoughts about previous crises faced by the district and about the importance of teachers today. No superintendent can succeed without building relationships of mutual respect and collaboration with trusted teachers.

I first met Carl Cohn when he was selected to clean up the damage done by the first effort to disrupt a school district. That was San Diego. At the turn of the century, San Diego was one of the most successful urban districts in the nation—perhaps the most successful—but the school board decided it needed a massive overhaul. They hired lawyer Alan Bersin to disrupt the district. I described what happened there—including demoralization of teachers, and a philosophy of changing everything all at once because (as the saying then went) “you can’t jump over a canyon in two leaps.” The philosophy of the leadership was that change had to be abrupt, immediate, and “pedal to the metal.” Billionaires sent money. Books were written about the “bold” reforms. The infighting and controversy became so inflamed that the public eventually threw out the “reform” school board. San Diego, however, was the model for Joel Klein’s disruptions in New York City, which were the model for the same in D.C., and on and on.

I spent a week in the district interviewing teachers and principals and school board members. My last interview was with Carl Cohn. I saw him as a calming figure whose job was to restore morale, order, and professionalism. He succeeded.

After the collapse of the disruption era, the San Diego school board hired an experienced educator, Cindy Marten, who had been a teacher and principal in the district. Although she has had to impose devastating budget cuts, she has been a steady hand at the tiller. I met her in 2006, when she was a principal, running a progressive child-centered school. When I visited San Diego a few years ago, she took me for a drive, and I surprised myself for taking a paragliding ride at Torrey Pines. Needless to say, I am delighted that San Diego has such trustworthy, experienced leadership again.

I began my book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education with the San Diego story. It is a cautionary tale. If you read one chapter in that book, read that one. It ends with my interview of Carl Cohn.