Monthly Archives: April 2020

Education a giant step toward freedom

Since classes at the University of Akron resumed on March 30, I teach the same class twice daily to accommodate my students’ schedules because some are essential workers while others have returned to homes in other time zones.

In a physical classroom, I seldom sit down. I walk between desks asking questions of students in an effort to spark discussion and as many “Ah-ha!” moments as possible.

Now, sitting at my desk in my home office, my students’ faces appear in little boxes on my laptop screen. Rather than robust discussions, we practically have to use Robert’s Rules of Order to hear one another.

In-person classes were abruptly and necessarily halted due to COVID-19. We lost two weeks of instruction while everyone scrambled to move to online instruction. I worry whether I can sufficiently prepare my students for next semester’s required composition course in rhetoric.

While we were off, I assigned the new documentary by filmmaker Lynn Novick, “College Behind Bars.” During our first week back, we discussed each of the four, hour-long episodes.

Bard College, through it’s Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), offers coursework in several New York state prisons where incarcerated individuals can earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. The program is overwhelmingly funded by private donations, which is pound foolish of our government.

For every dollar spent on college in prison, taxpayers save five dollars through dramatically reduced recidivism rates. Furthermore, receiving an education has the added advantage of giving a person, once released from prison, a far better chance of becoming an employed — and therefore tax-paying — citizen.

Dyjuan Tatro, 31, has served 11 years for violent gang and drug crimes. He is a math major with a 3.72 GPA and was part of the team of inmates who beat Harvard in a debate.

In the fourth episode of the series, Dyjuan Tatro, one of Bard’s incarcerated students says: “For the first time in my life, education is something I’ve totally dedicated myself to. How do I communicate the impact education is having on me? This is changing fundamentally the way I think, believe and [the way I] interact with people.”

Tatro finished his B.A. in mathematics after he was released in 2017. After working for an elected official and a technology firm, he’s now back at BPI as their government affairs and advancement officer, procuring funding to expand the program.

That’s a compelling message for students like mine, who are also reaching for the benefits of an education in difficult, if not as extreme as prison, circumstances. I contacted Tatro, and on April 8 he gave a compelling online lecture to my students.

In 1970, the United States had a prison population of roughly 196,000. Today, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of having more people imprisoned than any other country: 2.1 million incarcerated individuals, with another 4.5 million people on probation or parole.

Tatro pointed out that the increased number of people in prison does not correlate to a commensurate increase in the rate of crime. It is instead due to bad policies, most famously perhaps the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill, which created the “three strikes” rule in which people thrice convicted of even small, non-violent offenses were sentenced to prison for decades or, all too often, life.

That same bill also eliminated federal funding for college coursework in prisons, effectively ending most efforts to rehabilitate the swelling number of incarcerated people in America.

As our prison population mushroomed, so did the monetization of incarceration. Prisons, Tatro pointed out, are now considered economic stimulus vehicles for one group of poor people, often poor farming communities, to oversee the imprisonment of another group of poor people, often urban people of color.

My students wanted to know if Tatro saw his time in prison as a blessing in disguise, a question he’s often asked.

His answer could not have been more clear:

″Prison isn’t good for anyone and it’s not a blessing in any way. But Bard College was a blessing and it changed the trajectory of my life. Unfortunately, we live in a country that doesn’t provide all its citizens equal access to education.”

In one of the last public events I attended before gatherings were suspended by COVID-19, I ran into the president of the University of Akron, Dr. Gary Miller. I introduced myself and asked if he’d read the open letter I wrote to him in this column last November. In it, I encouraged him to do more to support our first-generation and at-risk students.

“We’re doing a lot more than you know,” was his answer. Hmmm, I thought, if that’s so, the university is doing a great job keeping those things secret.

Gosh, if I knew about these mysterious things, I would no longer ask students to sit with me in the library while doing their schoolwork in order to build effective study habits, or walk them to the health center, the counseling center and the writing lab.

What I said was, “I’m on the ground, in the classroom working with these students.”

“Oh, well, we have a lot of plans we just need to put them into place,” replied Miller before making a quick exit. Miller’s second comment is the opposite of “We are doing more than you know.”

Not only defensive, Miller’s answer was politically tone deaf. How hard would it have been to have instead said, “We share your concerns?” My open letter to Miller was full of encouragement for his tenure, though critical of the university’s board of trustees, a perspective commonly held by everyone who cares about UA’s students.

Esi Edugyan, author of the 2018 award-winning novel, “Washington Black,” said in an interview that while we think of slavery as the bondage of bodies, it also enslaved minds. How many brilliant enslaved men and women were never able to fulfill their potential to become scientists, writers, leaders? Their loss is everyone’s loss.

The University of Akron is an urban college with many first-generation college students and an abysmal graduation rate. My at-risk students are mostly intelligent, engaged young adults whose lives are full of competing responsibilities. We have a duty to support their education as it can have the same tremendous impact on their lives that Bard College had on Dyjuan Tatro.

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Finding silver linings while sheltering at home

Once upon a time, a woman complained to her rabbi that her mother-in-law, who had recently moved in with the woman’s family, was driving her crazy. “She tells me my food is inedible, I don’t clean right, that my kids are lazy brats. What can I do?” The rabbi paused before telling the woman to move her chickens into the house.

The next week, the woman told the rabbi things were worse. Her mother-in-law was still as mean as a snake and she now had to work harder than ever to keep the house clean with the chickens inside. The rabbi listened before telling the woman to also bring in her goat and the week after that, her cow.

Finally, a month after she’d first confided to the rabbi, he told the woman to move all the animals out the house. A week later, the rabbi asked the woman how she was doing. “Oh, my goodness, my life has never been better since the animals went back to the barn!”

Shelter-in-place laws have upended our lives. And while I don’t want to minimize the reality that some of us will lose loved ones to COVID-19, I try to look for the few lotuses growing in the middle of this muck.

I’ve read several articles on successfully coping through this time and have incorporated some of these ideas along with my own as we map out the new structure of our days. If there’s one take away, it’s this: Be gentle with yourself.

Homeschooling

I respect parents who commit to high-quality home education, but it’s never interested me. I want my children to go away for six-to-eight hours every weekday, which is now indefinitely impossible. Luckily, our heroes—the kids’ teachers—quickly generated at-home lessons.

Will students have the same rigorous education as if school had remained open? No. But will they learn other important things? Undoubtedly. And come May, I hope to build a chicken coop and purchase six bantam chicks. Boom! Spring homeschooling, check.

Food

Now is not the time to diet. No COVID-19 14-day weight loss programs, people. The stress we are all feeling is comparable to deep grief. Eating comfort foods has been shown to improve mood in uncertain times.

Potatoes are my most beloved comfort food—baked, mashed, roasted, fried. The first several days of shelter in place, I was nauseous by 2:30 each day. Once I limited my intake of daily news, my stomach improved, but until I did, salt-and-vinegar potato chips helped calm my roiling stomach.

Do your kids want frozen pizza every day? Or is pizza all you can manage to cook? Nobody will suffer long-term health consequences from eating pizza for a month. Most kids have a favorite fruit and veggie—for Lyra it’s broccoli and grapes, for Leif, it’s cucumbers and kiwis. With little preparation, daily servings of these favorites helps balance out the frozen pizzas.

Sleep

Everyone seems to need more sleep right now. Even my three adult sons are wiped out by 8 p.m. Again, it’s the ongoing undercurrent of stress that wears us down not just emotionally, but physically. Go ahead and sleep nine or 10 hours a night, it’s downtime we need and good for the immune system.

Hugo and Rutabaga

Adopt a dog or cat

There really isn’t a better time to adopt a pet. You’re stuck at home and lonely. You have more time than ever to train your new pet. And, especially if you adopt a dog, they will add needed structure to your day.

Most area animal rescue organizations remain open by appointment. You can preview animals online and then set up a time to meet them. My son Hugo adopted my first “granddogter” last weekend. He and Rutabaga, the cutest thing, now join my dogs and me on our daily walks.

Exercise

Ohio Department of Health director, Dr. Amy Acton (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) recommends walking outdoors while social distancing. Walking outdoors is always great for both mind and body, which we need now more than ever.

Walking with some dog buddies and their humans

On my daily walks at the Akron dog park off Memorial Parkway, I see many of the same people, but do not know their names. Instead I know them as the mom or dad of Karma, Bailey, Tony, Rosie, Tanner, Quinn, Snoopy, Reecey, Felix, Sabine, Freya, Buddy, Rocky, Pepper, Maura and Shadow, to name a few.

It’s been a lifeline to walk (six feet apart) with people I’ve come to know. We chitchat as our dogs romp, thereby filling, if just a little, the socializing void. Frequently, Leif and Lyra come too, with their bikes, which they ride up and down the trail with the dogs chasing after them.

Read

Take advantage of this break from our normally busy lives and read books. I am sending friends and family Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, written by Eliese Goldbach who worked for three years in the Cleveland steel mills. In her nonfiction bildungsroman, Goldbach unflinchingly recounts episodes in her life that formed her into the woman she’s become.

Though she’s young enough to be my daughter, Goldbach and I studied for our MFAs in creative writing together more than a decade ago. From the first time I read one of her pieces, her talent floored me. With crisp prose, she pulls readers into the complexity of the mills and her life, while highlighting the resilience of Northeast Ohio’s working class citizens.

Stay calm, stay healthy and most importantly, be kind to yourself and others. When we are finally released from sheltering at home, may we, like the woman after her farm animals returned to the barn, find renewed appreciation for the many things we so recently took for granted.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 6, 2020.