Clearing the Confusion

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on January 27, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

I woke up last Friday morning and slapped at my snooze alarm to no effect. A harder slap followed without stopping the droning of the news, so I crawled out of the covers and turned off my radio. The radio announcer still didn’t stop, and it took my sleep-addled brain a few moments to realize the voice was coming from outside my house. I raised the blinds to the newest sheet of blinding snow that had fallen on Stratford, and it was there I saw the slow moving police car using the bullhorn to wake up residents before their cars were towed to clear the snow. Even after all the news coverage of the recent snowstorms, many of my neighbors still didn’t know about alternate side of the street parking regulations during snow emergencies. Come to think of it, I didn’t know much about, them, either.

A trip to the Town of Stratford website cleared a few things up (pardon the pun). Because there are approximately 200 miles of town roads in town, residents are asked to cooperate with several regulations to help with the snow clearing process. The most important is where to park: parking is permitted on the odd-numbered side of the street from 8:00 a.m. of the odd-numbered day to 8:00 a.m. the following morning. Parking is permitted on the even-numbered side of the street from 8:00 a.m. of the even-numbered day to 8:00 a.m. the following morning. Beyond the obvious benefit of being able to clear the road completely on one side, it prevents the “showdown” moments when two cars are heading toward each other and trying to determine who has the right of way.

This becomes even more important on side streets because main roads are addressed first (especially those with steep hills and difficult intersections) and leaves side streets and dead-ends open to spontaneous games of chicken as drivers struggle to navigate through cars on both sides of the streets. After the main roads have been cleared, side streets are done next, then dead ends. The Town acknowledges that, “This may not seem fair to residents of side streets or dead ends, but main roads must remain open.” The residents of Stony Brook Gardens Co-op can certainly attest to the frustration of having to wait for the main roads to be cleared.

For those of us armed only with a shovel during an hours-long struggle to remove snow, two interesting tidbits from the website address our worst fears. First, the Department of Public Works doesn’t care how beautifully you’ve shoveled the snow off your driveway; they will plow snow onto it in the course of their routes. They suggest waiting until all crews have finished before starting on your driveway. I’ve learned some interesting new vocabulary words from my neighbors when the plows sloshed a sheet of slush at their feet just when they thought they’d finished. Even if you manage to avoid this, don’t forget that shoveling your driveway is not a civic duty, but your sidewalk is! “Property owners are responsible for removing snow and ice from the sidewalk along their property line within 24 hours after the storm and keeping them clear of snow and ice.”

While ” there are always going to be complaints, the Stratford Star’s own John Kovach outlined some of the hypocrisies involved. He reported Mayor Harkins’ comments that some of the same streets that complained about slow snow removal in the past failed to follow alternate side of the street parking regulations. Alerts are sent through the town’s emergency notification system, its Twitter account, and of course the Stratford Star. More importantly, town policy states that, “these regulations are automatically in effect during any period of ice or snow accumulation. The municipal ordinance prohibits any person who has access to a driveway from parking on the adjoining public street during a snow or ice emergency.”

With this winter shaping up as one of the worst in recent memory, it’s more and more important to pitch in and help the DPW plows help us.

The Cost of Closing Our Eyes

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on January 13, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

We have failed.

If we don’t acknowledge our failure, if we choose to ignore reality and maintain the low standards we currently encourage, then we are complicit in the violence and bigotry in which we sometimes find ourselves surrounded.

As I write this, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords remains in critical condition after a gunman shot her in the head at a political event in Tucson, Arizona. The gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, went on to kill six people and wound 14 others. Christina Taylor Greene, a nine-year-old killed in the shooting, had just been elected to the student council at her elementary school. This hit me particularly hard as I am a middle school English teacher, a part of a group of educators charged with molding the minds of tomorrow’s leaders. We are part of a pact that includes not only the students and their parents, but also every adult in their community.

It is our failure, one of many, that has deprived Christina and many more like her the opportunity to grow up and help us in spite of ourselves. Democrats are to blame. As are Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Party activists, and every other political party that has muddied the waters for short term gains at the cost of long term viability. Even as Representative Giffords fights for her life, factions are lining up on both sides of the political fence to use the tragedy to further their political agendas.

In an age where even our elected leaders act like children, why can’t we see the effect this has on our youth? Would you tell a child like Christina to draw gun targets over the heads of classmates to indicate those on the student council with whom she disagrees, or would you have her talk it out with them to avoid needless fights in the future? Would you teach her to shout down her opponents during council debate, or would you teach her to use the allotted time to discuss her points in healthy discussion in the hope that a mutually agreeable compromise might be met?  Would you teach her to divide her world into people who agree with her and those who do not, or would you teach her to appreciate the diversity of opinion that has made this country great?

Sadly, it’s too easy to answer these questions by pointing out how our society has lowered the bar. We’ve answered these questions with television ratings for Keith Olbermann or Glen Beck at the cost of shows that actually present unbiased views. We’ve answered them with Lady Gaga and Eminem over musicians whose purpose is to help us better understand the human condition. We’ve answered them with books deals for Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Justin Bieber and reality televisions shows for Paris Hilton and Flavor Flav.

No, there is something far more dangerous afoot. While the shooting was as senseless as the rhetoric that preceded it, we’ve chosen to ignore that, regardless of which side of the political fence it comes, this violent rhetoric affects the unformed and unbalanced more deeply than those in full possession of their faculties. To dismiss the individuals behind these attacks as “whackos” allows those who incite them in the first place to distance themselves from their part in creating the environment that allowed for their existence. Even as liberal talk show host Keith Olbermann apologized for any past comments he used that might have incited violence, he laced into his conservative peers like Beck and Bill O’Reilly and demanded they do the same. Conservative commentator George Will said that while the short term effects of this tragedy might resort in hands reaching across the aisle during the upcoming congressional debates, this temporary mood it will fade quickly as the emotions of the upcoming legislation comes to a vote. In other words, like New Year’s resolutions, the intent to improve is unlikely to survive the month of January.

Our failure is that while we all agree on the importance of basic civility when raising our children, we choose to ignore it in the course of our political discourse. The “whackos” seemed to have learned to “listen” to what we do, not what we say. The unformed minds that we are currently developing are not oblivious to the choices their parents are making. Whether we’re talking about the Board of Education’s decision to deny the expulsion for a student accused of sexual assault, the Town Council’s decision to raise the mill rate, or the controversy over the recent plea bargain in the memo leak case regarding Christian Miron, the way in which we choose to express our views not only defines us but serves as the model for our children to follow.

In light of our failure to live up to our own ideals, the surprising part of this most recent shooting is not that it happened, but that it hasn’t happened more often. As a teacher, I constantly refer to the hidden gifts of failure; properly addressed, it is an impetus to change for the better. For Christina’s sake, I hope we all open our eyes and become better students.