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Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Fear of Kids: Are Teachers Losing Their Minds?

Marie Waltherr-Willard's Fear of Kids

     Marie Waltherr-Willard, a Spanish/French teacher, began teaching French in 1976 at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2009, after 33 years at the high school, the language teacher was transferred against her wishes to a middle-school where she had to teach 7th and 8th graders Spanish. The move took place after the high school French program went online.

     In the middle of the 2010-2011 school year, Waltherr-Willard abruptly retired and began receiving her monthly pension payments based on an annual retirement income of $70,000. In June 2012, the retired teacher filed a federal lawsuit against the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her disability: a pathological fear of young children, a phobia she said had been diagnosed in 1991.  The former teacher claimed that by forcing her to teach middle-schoolers, her employers had discriminated against her by refusing to recognize and take into consideration her disability. The plaintiff's attorney claimed that, as a result of her forced early retirement, his client lost $100,000 in potential income.

     According to the plaintiff, being around middle-school school kids had shot her blood pressure up to stroke levels. Moreover, the little buggers pushed her into a state of general anxiety, mental anguish, and gastrointestinal illness. The civil trial was scheduled for February 2014.

     A U.S. District Court judge dismissed Waltherr-Willard's ridiculous lawsuit in June 2014. In February 2015, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that decision. (Lawsuits like this remind us there are too many lawyers.)

The Red Pen Alert: Abusive Grading

     The idea that marking up a student's test or homework with red ink upsets kids who don't appreciate criticism, isn't new. (Ever since Mister Rogers started telling children that they were all extremely special, most of them can't handle the sad truth that 90 percent of us, on a good day, are ordinary.) Since 2008, hundreds of schools across the country have replaced the insidious red grading pencils and pens with writing instruments that produce colors that are less aggressive and mean. (I can't imagine a kid who got an F on a test feeling better about himself because the F is written in a nice shade of blue.)

     Education researchers at the University of Colorado published a study that confirmed the theory that marking up a kid's work in red as opposed to more neutral colors caused unnecessary anger and embarrassment. Red ink splashed all over a paper supposedly makes the lousy student feel more harshly criticized. Assuming this is true, so what? What's wrong with criticism with a little zip? If students are offended by red ink, they can solve the problem by doing better work. (Maybe the geniuses at the University of Colorado should come up with strategies for that.) I'd like to get my hands on that study, and in red ink, write: "You people are idiots?" (Is that too harsh?)

Radical Anti-Bullying Advice From a Knucklehead

     Gabrielle Jackson was a sixth grader at the Central Middle School in Moline Acres not far from St. Louis, Missouri. Gabrielle complained to her mother, Tammie Jackson, that bullies at school were making lewd and insensitive comments regarding her large bust. Tammie called the school district to report the sexual harassment of her daughter and was not pleased with the response to her complaint. Over the phone, an unidentified employee of the school district suggested that the 13-year-old student have her breasts surgically reduced. Presumably the anti-bullying expert didn't provide this mother specifics regarding just how small the breasts would have to be to disinterest bullies. Moreover, if the plastic surgeon got carried away and made them too small, kids might bully her for being flat chested.

Zero Tolerance for Paper Guns

     On January 22, 2013, Melody Valentin, a fifth grader in a Philadelphia elementary school, inadvertently took a folded piece of paper to school that roughly resembled a handgun. Her grandfather had fashioned the toy weapon. When Melody realized what she had brought to school, she threw the paper gun into a classroom trash can. A fellow student who witnessed Melody's attempt to ditch the contraband, squealed. The teacher seized the evidence, hauled the offender to the front of the class, and gave her hell for being so reckless with all of their lives. Later that night, the distraught girl's mother found her daughter in the bathroom crying. As a result of the negative attention, some of her classmates were calling her a murderer.

     This example of schoolhouse hysteria came on the heels of an incident in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania involving a pre-schooler suspended for threatening to shoot a playmate with her pink Hello Kitty soap bubble gun. School officers called the incident a "terroristic threat." (See: "The Kindergarten Terrorist: The Hello Kitty Soap Bubble Conspiracy," January 22, 2013.)

     I'm afraid these school employees are so stupid they are immune from ridicule and embarrassment. (Still, I try.) Obviously there are bright, competent elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, but just how outnumbered are they by all the fools and idiots?

     

Can Problems in Forensic Science Be Fixed?

     The nature of science itself, and the fact that forensic science is a service mainly delivered by the government, makes solving its problems a real challenge. Science is complex, constantly in flux, and often subject to disagreement. Government is slow, resistant to change, and difficult to hold accountable. The difficulty in dealing with the government generally is exacerbated by the convoluted structure of our criminal justice system, and the adversarial nature of the trial process. Today, trials are more about winning and losing than achieving truth and justice.

     Most problems in forensic science can be placed into one of three categories: personnel, jurisprudence (courts and law), and science itself. Many of these problems--cuts in governmental funding, the quality of law enforcement personnel, and what legislators and judges do and don't do--are beyond the control of forensic scientists. For these and other reasons, forensic science in America will continue to perform well below its potential. This arm of the criminal justice system therefore represents a failed promise. The gap between reality, and what television viewers see on the CSI shows, is widening.  

The "Mainstream" Novel

Authors often believe that if a novel can only be categorized "mainstream" that it will automatically ship to stores in large quantities and sell to customers in big numbers. That belief is naive. So-called mainstream novels can sell in tiny numbers. That is even more true in the category of literary fiction. Authors with such labels face a double struggle in building their audience. For one thing, they cannot tap into the popularity of an existing genre. They must build from the ground up, creating a category where none existed before--their own. It can be a tough job.

Donald Maass, The Career Novelist, 2001 

The Immigrant as a Literary Protagonist

During the late 1990s, we saw the rise of a new literary subject: the postcolonial immigrant. In the metropoles of the North Atlantic--in London and New York, Paris and Toronto--the protagonist emerged: a parvenu, an outsider with a sturdy work ethic, a grocer or taxi driver seeking to make it in his or her new home. There were geographical variations, but central to these narratives was the direction of movement. The postcolonial subject moved from the outside in, from the former colony to the metropole, from beyond to the imperial center. Gatsby-like, he or she often tested the outer limits of the American dream--that still regnant myth about capitalist self-making. The narrative arc was that of the arriviste: a story not only of assimilation and the arduous passage toward citizenship but also of accumulation and the trials of "making it."

David Marcus, "Dangling Man," Bookforum, Dec/Jan, 2015 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Death Penalty in China

     In China, the Chengguan are municipal law enforcement officers considered a notch below regular cops. As enforcers of city ordinances, these low-level officers have a national reputation for over-enforcement and brutality. This is particularly true in the way these enforcers handle unlicensed street vendors.

     Over the years members of the Chengguan have been accused of physically abusing hundreds of street vendors. Since 2001, sixteen of these licensing offenders have been beaten to death. In July 2013, in Hunan Province, the government paid $150,000 to the family of a watermelon vendor killed by a Chengguan officer. In China, these ordinance enforcers are extremely unpopular, feared, and even hated by millions of chinese citizens.

     In May 2009, in the city of Shenyang in northeast China, Chengguan officers arrested a 33-year-old street vendor named Xia Junfeng. Xia, a laid-off factory worker who sold sausages and kabobs from an unlicensed street cart, dreamed of sending his son to art school in Beijing. His wife held two jobs as a cleaning lady and baker at a school.

     While being given the third-degree in a police interrogation room, Xia, with a knife he used to slice meat, stabbed two Chengguan cops to death. A local prosecutor charged Xia with two counts of first-degree murder.

     One of the Chengguan officers Xia stabbed had a long history of police brutality. In 2008, the officer broke the arm of a woman he had arrested for selling umbrellas without a license.

     At his murder trial in November 2009, Xia pleaded not guilty on grounds of self-defense. The prosecution asserted that Xia's repeated stabbing of the officers went beyond what was necessary to defend himself. According to the defendant, had he not used deadly force, the officers would have beaten him to death. Xia's attorney put six witnesses on the stand who testified to Xia's beating at the hands of these officers.

     Testifying on his own behalf, Xia said, "He [one of the arresting officers] began to beat me as soon as I entered the [interrogation] room. His fists pounded my head and ears. As I tried to run outside, I came face-to-face with another officer. Right away he grabbed my collar to stop me. He also struck me with his fist...and kicked at my thighs." When Xia put his hand down to protect his groin area, he felt the knife he kept in his pocket. This was the instrument he used to stab both of the officers to death. (Why wasn't Xia searched pursuant to his arrest? Do these officers receive any training?)

     The trial judge found Xia Junfeng guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Xia's wife, Zhang Jing, took up her husband's crusade by publishing a blog. As a result, both she and the condemned man became famous as his case worked its way through the appellate process. Because there had been prosecutorial improprieties at the trial, Xia's supporters were confident his conviction would be overturned.

     In 2011, while millions of Chinese citizens were expressing online sympathy for the street vendor convicted of killing two Chengguan officers, justices on the nation's supreme court upheld his conviction and sentence. "The crime he committed was heinous," wrote one of the justices. "The method he used was extremely cruel and the results serious. He should be punished to the full extent of the law."

     On September 25, 3013, millions of Chinese citizens were outraged by Xia Jonfeng's execution by lethal injection. On the popular website Sina.com, 28 million people had posted messages of support for the man who had killed two members of the hated Chengguan police. Following Xia's execution, Chinese censors were busy scrubbing commentary on dozens of blogs protesting the death of the man who had come to represent resistance against oppressive Chinese law enforcement.

     In China, public support for capital punishment has diminished over the years. Ten years ago the authorities were executing 12,000 prisoners a year. In 2012, 3000 Chinese prisoners died by firing squad or lethal injection.

     

Isaac Asimov on Writing Science Fiction

I can write nonfiction science without thinking because it requires no thought. I already know it. Science fiction, however, is far more delicate a job and requires the deeper and most prolonged thought.

Isaac Asimov, I Asimov, 1996 

The Sins of Book Reviewers

There is the critical sin of covetousness, which may cause the book critic to seek fame at the expense of the author whose work he exploits. The closely associated sin of envy leads to the denigration of the work of others for the hidden purpose of self-aggrandizement. To indulge the sin of gluttony is to bite off more than one is prepared to digest, denying others the right to partake. To be lustful is to indulge an inordinate desire for the gratification of one's sense of power. The deadly sin of anger leads to the loss of one's composure and sense of balance during the inevitable exchanges of differing opinion. The deadly sin of sloth is to repeat accepted lies about an author or body of work because the critic is too lazy to dig out the truth.

Carlos Baker in Opinions and Perspectives From "The New York Times Book Review," edited by Francis Brown, 1964 

The Locard Exchange Principle in Forensic Science

     The theory that a criminal perpetrator leaves part of himself at the scene of a crime, and takes a piece of the crime site with him, was postulated in 1911 by Dr. Edmund Locard in Lyon, France. Referred to as the Locard Exchange Principle, this concept, along with the idea of interpreting physical evidence to reconstruct what took place at the site of a criminal act, is the basic rationale behind crime scene investigation. The term "associative evidence" describes items that, pursuant to the Locard Principle, can connect a suspect to the scene of an offense. 

America's First Bomb Murder Case

The earliest case which I have found of the use of a bomb to commit murder was in 1854, when William Arrison sent one to the head of an asylum where he had been confined.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Constitutional Right to Give Your Kid a Stupid Name

     Generally, because of the First Amendment right of free speech, there is nothing the government can do to stop a parent from giving a kid a weird and arguably stupid name. The only remedy for victims of bad names is to legally correct the problem when they become adults. Recent examples of ridiculous names include Ruger, Irelynd, Blaze, Cinsere, D'Artagnan, Abeus, Troolio, and Dusk. (I once had a student named Misty Dawn. For some reason, movie stars have a tendency to to burden their children with bad names.)

     Several years ago in New Jersey, the parents of a 3-year-old they had named Adolph Hitler Campbell, sued a bakery for refusing to write that name on the boy's birthday cake. While the bakery won the suit, the state of New Jersey did not have the authority to have little Adolph Hitler re-named.

     If you can name an innocent child Adolph Hitler, you can pretty much name a kid anything you want. There are, however, a few limitations to this right. In most states a name cannot be an Arabic number, an obscenity, or a symbol. Names that are extremely long are also forbidden. So, could a mother lawfully name her kid Promiscuous or Fecal? I don't know, probably.

     Jaleesa Martin, a resident of Newport, Tennessee, a town of 7,000 in the rural foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains, gave birth to a boy in January 2013. The boy's father, a man named McCullough, wanted his son to have his last name. The mother wanted to give the child her last name. The couple did agree, however, on the baby's first name--Messiah. (Good heavens.)

     To settle this domestic dispute, Jaleesa Martin, in the summer of 2013, asked child support magistrate Lu Anna Ballew to approve the name Messiah DeShawn Martin. Following the hearing in August 2013, Magistrate Ballew ordered the parents to name their child Martin DeShawn McCullough.

     The magistrate said she disapproved of the child's first name because "the word 'messiah' is a title and it's a title that has been earned by one person and that person is Jesus Christ." Moreover, Ballew reasoned, that first name "could put him [the boy] at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has no choice in what his name is. (What kid does have a choice in this matter?)

     In announcing that she was appealing the magistrate's decision, Jaleesa Martin told reporters that "I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn't think a judge could make me change my boy's name because of her religious beliefs." (The mother could have pointed out that in 2012, more babies were named Messiah than Donald, Philip, Bruce, or Gary.)

     On September 18, 2013, Judge Satan Forgety (just kidding, his first name is Telford), overturned the magistrate's ruling. Pursuant to an agreement reached by the parents, the kid's name was changed to Messiah DeShawn McCullough. (The boy had siblings named Micah and Mason.)

     While Judge Forgety's ruling was a good day for the First Amendment, I'm not sure it was a good day for little Messiah.