Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.  The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?

The Book of the Week is “Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?” by Beth Fertig, published in 2009.  In this book, the author followed the lives of three learning-disabled adult students for approximately two years in New York City, in their belated attempts to learn to read.

For various reasons, all stayed illiterate through grade school and continued living with their parents thereafter.  This blogger opines that mentioning their ethnic group would bias readers, so it will not be mentioned.  However, suffice to say, their home environments were rife with television rather than books, and their parents came from large, low-income families.

Ms. Fertig pointed out that most literate people take reading for granted; “Yamilka,” “Alejandro” and “Antonio” had trouble with the simple verbal activities of daily living, such as reading a subway map or directional signs, purchasing items in a store and reading labels on medicine bottles.  This greatly hindered their ability to work at a job, and certainly, to drive.

Post-high-school age, they discovered they could enlist the help of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Children to sue the school system so that they could be awarded free tutoring by private companies (which would normally cost $80 to $100 per hour) to teach them to read.  The three students won their cases; meaning, for instance, they could get 1,500 hours of tutoring within a two-year period, compliments of New York taxpayers.

Yamilka was a 23-year old female who required speech and language therapy.  She had poor short-term memory and trouble with neural processing the sounds of spoken words.

Antonio’s social skills were inferior to his classmates’ and he was easily distracted. Nevertheless, he attempted to return to the high school he had quit, after legal negotiations with the principal.  His classes included the lowest level math, photography, history and reading classes for the learning disabled for his age.

Antonio told the author, “Seeing other kids being successful in class makes me jealous.” This may have been why he had a poor attendance record. The principal expressed his disgust with Antonio when he told the author that a disproportionate amount of time had been wasted on Antonio, as it could have been spent on another, more responsible, harder worker of the school’s 350 special education students.  Antonio “… didn’t know how to reconcile his conflicting desires for a paycheck and more education.”  He delayed collecting the documentation required for acquiring a state ID so he could get a job.

Alejandro did his tutoring. However, his reading and math skills were below the level required to pass the GED, so he also attended no-charge pre-GED classes at a community college in the Bronx.

Read the book to learn what happened to Yamilka, Antonio and Alejandro by the time the book went to press.

Johnny’s Girl

The Book of the Week is “Johnny’s Girl:  A Daughter’s Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska’s Underworld” by Kim Rich, published in 1993.  In this book, Ms. Rich described her unusual childhood in Alaska, a place to which organized crime figures such as her father fled, to hide from the authorities.  Her mother, an ex-stripper, was in and out of mental hospitals.  Ms. Rich came of age in the 1960’s, about which she had this to say:

“Life was a trip… The one sure way to fail was not to take the trip… out of the middle class, away from the lives your parents had led… The idea was, you would end up a happy, fully realized human being only if you took some risks.  Taking a risk could mean joining the Peace Corps or hitchhiking across Europe, dropping acid or dating a black guy, becoming a vegetarian or chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ or quitting a job to go to New Hampshire to campaign for Gene McCarthy.”

Read the book to find out what kind of trip Ms. Rich took.

Just For Fun

The Book of the Week is “Just For Fun” by Linus Torvalds, published in 2002.  This is the autobiography of a computer geek who fell into fame and fortune.  He hails from Finland, where internet access is extremely widespread.  While in graduate school, he created the kernel for a new computer operating system he named after himself, “Linux.”  It is based on the existing system, “Unix.”  Linux is “open source,” meaning, a community of computer users can change the system’s source code to improve it.  Theoretically, any user who wishes to, can volunteer to work on the code. If it is imperfect, others will correct it.  Also, the system can be downloaded free of charge.

Torvalds’ family lived in a region of Finland where the people were Swedish-speaking, and reticent.  Besides, Torvalds fit the stereotype of the computer geek; admittedly he “lacked any social graces whatsoever.”  One day in the early 1990’s, he started a project on which he was to work around the clock, for nine months straight.  It was “just for fun.” He explained that computer programming requires the simultaneous tracking of many ideas and lots of information when one is in the thick of it.  Of course, many people helped him with Linux, which was introduced just at the time the open source movement was becoming widespread among computer hobbyists.  He accepted donations through his website, to keep the project alive.

Surprisingly, Torvalds got married.  Unsurprisingly, he went to work for a tech firm in California, where he made some money from stock options (before it was too late).

John Purroy Mitchel

The Book of the Week is “John Purroy Mitchel, The Boy Mayor of New York” by Edwin R. Lewinson, published in 1965.

Previously a young attorney, co-Commissioner of Accounts and President of the Board of Aldermen in New York City, Mitchel was elected Mayor in 1913 on the Fusion Party ticket.  However, he was inept as a politician because both his speech-making and political-machine-building skills were poor. Like Mayor John Lindsay, Mitchel had good intentions, but did not get much done. He was brutally honest and never took action for the purpose of gaining the popularity of his constituents.

Like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mitchel’s economic concerns overrode all others, and his administration operated under a veil of secrecy. Mitchel rubbed shoulders with the Rockefellers, and thus acquired a reputation of favoring big-money interests. However, he wanted to keep the then-46 members on the Board of Education, rather than have the power to appoint only 9 members.  If he had such power, those 9 men would be difficult to find, in that they would be “required to give all their time.”  The only people who could afford to, were millionaires, “and they are the very worst type to put in control of the schools.” Further, “The tendency of mayors is to respect the aristocratic voice of the community and to forget the democratic.”

The irony of the Mitchel administration was that, although he was pro-education, he was more interested in saving money than providing New York City’s children with a decent education. The mayor was not a narcissist out to acquire power and appoint his cronies. Nevertheless, the Board of Estimate was a penny-pinching entity, and engaged in petty squabbles over money, with the Board of Education.  Estimate refused to spend money to build much-needed schools. Mitchel wanted Estimate to control the wages of Education’s employees, which included teachers.  Besides, during his entire time in office, Mitchel’s public relations was non-existent with teachers and parents.

In 1914, Mitchel and other city officials visited Gary, Indiana to observe an education experiment, and decided to introduce “The Gary Plan” to New York City’s schools. The Board of Estimate favored the plan because it saved money and saved school-building space. Not surprisingly, teachers and parents opposed the plan. Under the plan, students could opt to start learning a trade in middle school. The schools superintendent published a two-year progress report showing poor performance among students in the two “Gary” schools in New York City.  The plan was abandoned in 1917, after 35 participating schools experienced negative results.

In 1917, Mitchel ran for re-election because he wanted New Yorkers to support the United States in World War I. He accused others of being unpatriotic if they did not support the war. He himself attended a military camp while still in his first term. When he lost the mayoral election to John Hylan, he joined the Air Force, which was at that time part of the U.S. Signal Corps, and was sent to San Diego, then to Louisiana for training. Although he was 38, he wanted to fight in the war.

In July 1918, Mitchel did not have his seatbelt fastened when he died in a solo-flight accident in Louisiana.  More people paid their last respects to him than did people who attended New York’s 4th of July celebrations just a few days before. He was highly praised for his “bravery, patriotism, his integrity and his ability as a public official.”   Mitchel Field, an airfield just finished on Long Island, was so named in his honor.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.  They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

A Gift of Laughter

The Book of the Week is “A Gift of Laughter” by Allan Sherman published in 1965.  This is the autobiography of song parodist and co-creator of the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Sherman became most famous for the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” which describes the humorous adventures of a kid in summer camp. President John F. Kennedy was heard to be humming his song, “Sarah Jackman” while walking through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  Some of Sherman’s other songs, such as “J.C. Cohen,” “Al ‘N’ Yetta” and “Harvey and Sheila” also captured Jewish stereotypes, but had American appeal.

In the book, Sherman provided bits of trivia on Hollywood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. When he had finally become rich and famous, he bought a house next door to Harpo Marx, with a rubber tree in the yard.  When he was interviewing candidates to hire a secretary, he came across one who deliberately failed a typing test.  She admitted to him she was a member of an “Unemployment Club.”

The goal was to stay jobless for the maximum membership duration, six months, at which time her unemployment benefits ran out, anyway.  She was receiving $55 a week, which was pooled with benefits of eleven other people, who were renting a sprawling ranch house in the Hollywood Hills (that had a swimming pool), and a convertible car.  Members engaged in sunbathing and skinny dipping, and practiced free love.

Sadly, Sherman died at 49 years old of heart disease, possibly due to his admittedly poor diet of Kraft macaroni and “cheese” dinners. He was survived by his college-sweetheart wife, a son and a daughter.

A Smile as Big as the Moon

The Book of the Week is “A Smile as Big as the Moon” by Mike Kersjes, published in 2003.  This book tells the story of a Midwestern special education class that got to go to “space camp” at NASA’s facility in Alabama. Each week, the camp engaged students from several schools nationwide in a competition in which the students played the role of astronauts.

The students in the special education class had various problems such as Tourette’s syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, learning disabilities, etc.  However, their teacher wanted to prove to them and the world that they could function just as well as students in regular classes.  They practiced long and hard for weeks prior to the competition.  The teacher was also coach of the high school’s football team.  He was instrumental in instilling confidence in and encouraging teamwork among the kids.  Read the book to find out what happened.

Everything is Broken

The Book of the Week is “Everything is Broken” by Emma Larkin (an alias), published in 2010.  This book discusses the actions of the oppressive regime of Burma (aka Myanmar) with respect to Cyclone Nargis, which hit on May 2, 2008.

In addition to describing the nation’s violent history, the author also delves into the religious side of Burma, which includes an active monastic community.  Such community ended up on the losing side of an ugly dispute with soldiers in the summer of 2007.  There had also been a famous 1988 student uprising, which resulted in imprisonment of the dissidents.

Well over 100,000 people died in Cyclone Nargis, which did devastating damage to the Irrawaddy Delta.  Many lives could have been saved had the Burmese government– run by military generals and one general in particular– for almost a week, not refused disaster-relief workers entry into the country. The government also barred the media from the affected areas, blockading road and river access.

Human corpses and cattle clogged the waterways.  The one and only newspaper (a propaganda font) distributed in Burma, reported that people were eating fish and frogs they caught in the rivers, because they were not receiving foodstuffs from aid workers.  A famous comedian who publicly contradicted this account was summarily arrested and imprisoned, in accordance with the government’s practice of draconian censorship.

Although Burma has drawn harsh criticism from international civil rights groups, the generals do not care because their land contains precious minerals, teak and most luckily of all, natural gas and oil deposits.  Other countries of the world such as France, the U.S., Thailand and China are still eager to do business with it.

The author writes of the Burmese authorities, “The facts were already bloated with hindsight, overblown by rumor and sound bites from the more sensational elements of the international media and activist groups, and underplayed by the regime’s own meticulously archived propaganda machine.”  People in developed nations might feel this quote depicts their situation on a local level, even given the standard of living and freer political climate in their communities.

Nevertheless, there is a slight difference between this very common tale in third-world countries– oppressive military governments ruthlessly let people die in natural disasters, or persecute citizens at the slightest provocation; developed countries’ governments might impose education reforms that worsen conditions, or violate the civil rights of a particular group of people so that they lose their livelihoods, but violence and murder are extremely rare.

A book like this allows a reader to put things in perspective, and feel grateful that he or she does not live in Burma.