Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When is a rosary not a rosary? When it could be a gang symbol.

Public school officials in Schenectady believe they have a gang problem and they believe they can quell gangs by regulating accessories and items of clothing worn by children. No caps or hats of any kind may be worn indoors. No display of handkerchiefs or scarves, no wearing of beads, no obvious religious symbols. Those are the rules and no exceptions are accepted. Period. Last year my granddaughter wore a hair clip shaped like a tiny hat and was made to remove it. Laughable when you think about it. An iconic hat as well as an actual hat is considered dangerous in the 6th grade.

Regulating symbolic clothing (beads, hats etc.) does nothing to make Schenectady schools safe or serious learning environments. Gangs are not effectively deterred from recruiting new members through regulating school-aged children’s garb. No matter which rules the school imposes, determined gang members develop a new set of images to suit their purpose. One gang now uses Sponge Bob Squarepants as their symbol. Others use athletic teams or Disney characters.

The media have been reporting on a specific case in which a middle schooler has taken to wearing a rosary as a necklace (rosaries have beads, thus COULD be a gang symbol). Rosary Boy has reportedly said that it makes him feel protected and close to two dead relatives to wear the rosary over his clothing. He could not be persuaded to wear the rosary under his clothes. His parents support his desire to wear the rosary as he sees fit. So does a right-wing civil liberties foundation from Michigan—they have swept in to protect the youngster’s religious rights.

While the Rosary Boy and his family are not Catholic and thus do not feel compelled to use the Catholic rosary in the same way a Catholic might, they still feel that it expresses something profoundly important to them. Who is to argue with them? Religion is in the heart of the believer, not in the eye of the beholder. If the kid feels tied to this symbol as a way of feeling a deep connection to dead relatives, who is to say that his commitment is invalid? Developmentally it is entirely appropriate for a child of that age to experience a concrete connection to god through a physical item. If he thinks his relatives are with god and believes this rosary connects him to them (the dead and god), I think we should all support his right to wear the rosary.

The official position of zero tolerance for potential gang symbols is bunk. Schenectady schools tolerate all sorts of bad behavior through impotent inaction when it matters most (trust me, I’ve been on the front lines of this for two years of watching my granddaughter experience severe bullying). The zero tolerance is directed solely at symbols rather than actions. If it looks like a duck squash it, but if it ACTS like a duck, well then the duck’s right to be a duck must be protected. It is facile to write down a rule about clothing and then enforce it to the letter, but how do you write down a rule about behavior that can’t be abrogated by nuance and he said/she said arguments. Enforcing civil behavior is simply more difficult than enforcing symbols, so the schools go with the easy path.

What looks like a religious argument, it turns out, is really just an argument about a child whose parents back up his right to be an individual in the midst of an institution that fears groups. We tested this out. My granddaughter began openly wearing and flaunting religious symbols in the same school as the Rosary Boy. If I had a rosary handy, she might have worn that to test our theory, but alas, all I had were Unitarian Universalist Flaming Chalice symbols. No one even noticed. So it seems that the more obscure your religion, the more you can flagrantly show it off! This is NOT about religious symbols.

There is a tendency for public schools to follow a path of adamant consistency when deeper understanding would pay off bigger dividends. Rosary Boy misses his dead relatives. The more exercised the school became the more determined the parents became. The parents will win this fight with the backing of well-funded religious zealots. There is no doubt about it. But what becomes lost along the way is common sense. Stopping a boy from grieving his own way will not stop gangs from operating in the school. Is anyone paying attention to common sense in Schenectady schools? Anyone? Anyone at all?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Social Benefits of Being Ugly

Maureen Dowd's recent column about a woman who got fired for being too attractive caught my attention. She points out that there is plenty of evidence that attractive people reap social and material benefits from their beauty, thus it is especially ironical that some one could get fired for being so attractive that she became a workplace nuisance.

I once got hired for having parts that the boss found attractive, but I didn't know it until later. I would have taken the job no matter what, but it is disgusting that a nice ass was my most important asset (no pun intended) when I was 18.

My friend Chris ages beautifully and is not afraid to utilize medical science to assist her. Her red hair might be enhanced chemically, but you can't tell. One of my favorite things about her beauty is that she lives and dresses for herself, to please herself, not to make an appearance that is for the gazer, but rather to perfect and enhance what she was given.

My friend Linnea was also given great beauty and it has provided for a life of great adventure. At age 70+ with the lines one might expect in a Scandinavian face that has seen many sunny days she still stops traffic. At dinner recently we walked up to a table to claim possession as a man of a certain age was leaving it. He looked at Linnea and blurted: You are VERY attractive!" Grocery clerks young enough to be her grandsons openly flirt with her. She's the Betty White of her community! Her inner beauty contributes to this phenomenon, no doubt; her spirit exudes tranquility and envelopes anyone within 30 feet.

My daughter, similarly, was blessed with great beauty. People have been known to cause accidents while being distracted by her beauty. More than once I have witnessed a man run into a stationary object while craning his neck to continue to look at her as he passed. Perfect strangers snap her photo as though she COULD be a celebrity whose name they can't place. One time as we arrived by limo at a relative's elegant wedding in a ritzy part of NYC (was it The Ritz?) tourists clogged the sidewalk gawking at the guests disembarking from the row of limos. When Heather slid her perfect 18 year old self out of the car and onto the sidewalk, the crowd pressed in and camera flashes exploded the twilight. When she stood to her 5'9" + four inch heels height (probably weighed about 100 pounds then) audible gasps could be heard.

As I followed out of the limo a woman pulled me aside and said, "I know her, I know her, who is she?" No, I retorted, "You don't know her, that's just my daughter."
"Yes, yes, I understand but WHO IS your daughter? I can't come up with her name."
"Seriously you don't know her, she isn't a celebrity."
"Well," the woman shot back, "when I figure out who she is I am going to send a nasty note to her because fans have the right to be acknowledged!"

Heather meanwhile remained completely oblivious to the chaos spilling into the evening all around her. At the wedding the photographer persisted in finding reasons to take pictures of her. So many Heather photos showed up on the proof pages that the relative negotiated a partial refund for the photog's failure to focus on the important people--the bride and groom!

No one would mistake me for anyone beautiful. It is possible to see that Heather and I are related, but clearly she was given (thanks to her father's genes!) a perfected canvas--eyes set the right distance apart, jaw line crisp and well formed, the perfect oval face with apple cheekbones and a full-lipped smile. Eyebrows that arch just so and a nose that sits perfectly symmetrically in the center of her face (her maternal grandmother's nose for sure). Smooth milky skin with no lines even at age 35. The camera loves that face. The face opens doors of possibility. With sleek almost-black hair, she could be Latina, Or Italian? Greek maybe, or Native American? (Answer: Welsh, English, German, Irish, Dutch, Native American)

Take similar features and pull them apart like silly putty: squeeze the eyes close together, elongate the face, add a too-prominent brow bone, an oddly masculine hairline, a nose that flares too widely and then really bad skin--and you get me. I am not complaining, just describing an average to homely face with ambiguous ethnicity. It is a face that makes many people comfortable (homely after all can mean unpretentious), or it used to. People who have known me a long time deny this, but I am definitely starting to look increasingly masculine. I can read it in strangers' eyes--has she had a sex change? Or just cross dressing? I can hear strangers think this, I swear.

But my face has always looked at least a bit masculine. My five brothers and I sat for only one family portrait--in 1968. I had three dresses I could have worn. Two had lace or ruffles or embroidery details conveying femininity. But my mom thought they were too dressy and the brothers were going casual for the sitting, thus I wore the third one: a shirtdress with a button down collar and placket. My haircut: a side parted bob--just like my brothers' Beach Boys style longer locks. so there in the center ("a rose among thorns," my daddy said) is just another smiling Mapstone boy!

Recently I had the opportunity to spend an extended time in close proximity to an extraordinary number of intelligent and attractive women of various ages. Almost to a person, I found that they couldn't readily make eye contact with me until after they had a reason to speak with me. Did they think ugliness could be a contagion perniciously poised to leap onto them? It almost never is.

I try to smile almost constantly as a mater of spiritual discipline and self-defense against my naturally aging ugliness. Should I forget to smile, someone who does not know me will likely take it upon him or her self to remind me to do so. Smiling evinces the joy that is always available should I choose to pay attention and the smile mitigates against the universe's need to send messengers to remind me to find that joy. The bell of mindfulness can ring internally.

The older I get, the more contented I feel in being alone with my thoughts. As I become less and less attractive, I can almost disappear. I have become so good at disappearing, that sometimes I have to wave and get noticed--here I am --like when I am in the front of the line, but the clerk asks the person behind me if they need help. Probably I wasn't smiling just then. Disappearing means, one can listen and observe unobtrusively. Disappearing protects one from interruptions. No one says to me "do you come here often?" or "don't I know you from somewhere?" when really they mean "Please! I want YOU to notice ME!" People don't want to be noticed by people they don't notice. I like it this way much more than I would have imagined I might. I have always preferred introversion to extraversion. Now it is easier to be left to my own devices.

Working title: Cooked Goose

This is a piece I wrote in about 15 minutes as a freewriting exercise to begin to find "rabbit holes" that might lead to clarity on how I want to write about my brief career in ministry. The "rabbit hole" concept came from my workshop teacher Susan William Silverman at the Bear River Writers' Conference. Names have been changed but little else.

Lesson: I am not entirely comfortable making fun of people about whom I have feelings of care and concern, but finding humor in the predicaments of ministry does feel better than the bitterness I also feel. Writing helps and apparently I am guilty of good comic timing when I read this out loud. Who knew? I thought my spouse was the funny one.

Cooked Goose

I should have known my goose was cooked when a member of the search committee who had just weeks earlier so enthusiastically recommended me to the congregation came up to me on a bright fall Sunday after church, leaning close to whisper in my ear, “ Just so you know, I am an avid birdwatcher. If the sermon is good, I’ll tell you so, but if it isn’t, I’ll just tell you the number of species I saw out the window over your shoulder. Today it was 12.”

While the sermon might truly have been less than adequate, in my defense I ask you, who could work optimally in such conditions? The worship space had backward acoustics. Every scratching chair scoot and each whispered commentary assaulted my ears while the congregation could barely make out my carefully crafted words, no matter what we did with the microphones and speakers. To make matters worse, the minister emeritus had gone nearly deaf but deeply desired to remain in close community with the congregation and so each Sunday he would take up residence in the front row, dutiful wife by his side. “Please join me in a moment of silence,” I would say. Felicia echoed, shouting into Andrew’s ear “VALERIE WANTS US TO ENTER IN TO A MOMENT OF SILENCE!”

If all the shouting and whispering weren’t enough, people would blandly and blithely get up and wander about the worship space, refilling coffee, tinkling the spoon against the side and tap tap tapping the drips back into the cup. And why was the enticing aromatic coffee IN the worship space anyway? Why so no one would have to leave the service just to refill their cups of course!

Besides Felicia’s fidelity to repeating each word to Andrew, we were blessed with ever-present member Marcus who deemed it his divine right to challenge my ideas and reflections, in place, during the sermon. “Whaddya mean by that? Where did that stupid idea originate?” And he expected—no demanded a response—Now!

One Sunday after I told a children’s Hanukkah story and gave each cherubic child a piece of chocolate gelt to take to Sunday School classes, the service moved on to a contemplative prayer. Hazel, our senior female curmudgeon (there is also a senior male curmudgeon and several junior ones of every gender) loudly proclaimed to the woman next to her, “When is she going to get over this Jewish shit?” I continued my prayer as though nothing at all unusual had transpired but Myrtle, a board member, slapped Hazel--hard-- on the arm. Hazel hit back and a scuffle broke out. The newcomers sitting behind the pair intervened and separated them. We never saw that family again..