Thursday, April 30, 2009

Last year we made a very emotional and life-changing decision. The emotional fall out on all sides was palatable as we worked through our feelings and the ramifications of what we decided to do. I am reminded of this by a recent post on Alan’s blog:

We have had many spirited debates about our decision to leave the United Methodist Church, and their willingness to stay in the Presbyterian Church even with their prohibition against LGBT Clergy.
This was our initial letter sent after much discussion and tears:

Dear Trinity Family,
When we moved in to the house next door, we were greeted by many of you asking us if we were looking for a church home. From the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors” slogan, to the P-FLAG information in the narthex, we truly felt that we could make a home at Trinity United Methodist Church. Over time we were made to feel loved and accepted, and Trinity did indeed become our new church home. Even before we made the decision to adopt our daughter Anna, we wanted to find a church that reminded us of the respective churches where we grew up. Trinity United Methodist Church was that church home for us. As we went through the excitement and frustrations of waiting to adopt, as well as the indescribable joy of adopting Anna, we felt the love and joy of this church and its church family. From the shower that was held for Anna Laura, to the celebration of the sacrament of her baptism, we truly felt like we belonged and were accepted as members of this church. Because of this, Trinity United Methodist Church will always hold a very special place in our hearts.
On April 30, 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted on an issue that had a very strong implication on our ability to serve this church, as well as truly feel accepted as a family and as active members of this denomination. Unfortunately the General Conference let us down. The “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds,” motto was put to a test and hearts, minds, and doors were closed by this conference vote. The official stance that was upheld is that no one who is Gay shall be appointed to serve in the church. Although we have never felt such sentiment at Trinity, it makes it difficult for us to support and serve the United Methodist Church as a whole. Christ never once spoke about homosexuality or LGBT issues, but He was rather firm and vocal on His stance on divorce. It is ironic that the UMC supports and welcomes divorced members as both leaders and as clergy, but yet rejects LGBT people for service and leadership. Trinity has benefited from many individuals who have dealt with divorce and the tragedy that it brings as persons who have had an active role in leadership and in worship. Christ’s love and grace is unconditional, open to all who seek Him. The UMC has chosen to not demonstrate the same level of compassion and acceptance to those who are LGBT.
It is with broken hearts that we will be leaving Trinity United Methodist Church and the family we have grown to love in search of a new church home that we can physically and financially support, and a denomination that preaches God’s love and acceptance to all, above hurt and condemnation. We pray that in the future the United Methodist Church will stand behind its motto and welcome all of God’s children to worship and serve their church.
In God’s love, for all,
Tom, Tod, and Anna Laura McMillen-Oakley

After we left, it came to our attention that there were meeting held to discuss our decision to leave and what the congregation could do. We did not attend the meetings, but we were pleased to hear that they were being proactive in their response. However, we could not put our faith or our church attendance on hold while they worked out how to respond. This is our letter in response to the news of the meetings and an update as to where we stood back in June of last year.

Dear Trinity Friends and Family,
We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for meeting to discuss our leaving the church that we called home for four years. Although the meeting wasn’t specifically about us, we appreciate it for your intentions and concern. We completely understand and love the fact that Trinity United Methodist Church has been such a supportive and caring place for us to worship and socialize, and we realize that TUMC does not share the same views of our incompatibility that the larger United Methodist Church as a whole does… but we are still compelled to leave for a church body and governing body that finds us compatible and acceptable as ministers regardless of our sexuality.
Were this three years ago, we would probably stay and put up a fight, but now we have Anna Laura and the fact that she would be going through membership at some point, and this fact of incompatibility will come up, we decided to move on to more inclusive and non-judgmental grounds. We can accept this (although we don’t really understand it) but we worry about our daughter and her reaction to this aspect of our church’s dogma. We feel it’s easier to leave now and raise her in a totally welcoming environment than have to explain and perhaps move on a few years from now. We have been going to First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown and like what we see. The minister, Pastor Julie, and her partner have just adopted a baby girl, so we have made a strong connection there with both the minister and several members of the congregation.
We look forward to being good neighbors and good friends here on Greenwood. Please know that our hearts will always have a special place for TUMC, and that Anna still yells “MY CHURCH!” when we approach the point from 4th Street, but also know that we need to take a stand regarding this issue. We fight for so much as a Gay couple on a daily basis, so to continue that fight into a house of worship each week seems a little daunting and against the whole purpose of worship and praise to our Creator. It was mentioned that if we leave we can’t fight, but we have found a church where we don’t have to fight, and we like that. We will continue to pray for Trinity and its many missions and members, and we hope that one day the UMC will reverse this needless and discriminatory aspect of the book of discipline.
Until then, in Christ’s unconditional love,
Tom, Tod, and Anna Laura

It’s hard to believe that it has been a year since all this happened. Time does indeed fly by. But we do feel grounded in our new church home and are excited with the prospect of our new minister starting this summer. We officially joined the church on Easter Sunday and can now vote and have a more active and hands on role in the decision making process at First Congregational UCC.
In a few years, Anna will step forward with some of her other Sunday School peeps and be confirmed in the church, a day we look forward to knowing that we are all welcome and we are welcomed for who we are, and not discriminated against for who we love.
God is indeed still listening.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sleepaway Camp

The first year that Tod and I were together, his week away at camp with his students was painful for sure. We were just getting to know each other and the time apart seemed to hamper that growth and discovery. The year was 1996, and I was getting ready to say good bye to my first group of students that spent four years with me at Columbia Central H.S. It was a bittersweet year on many levels, personal, professional, and emotional. I was on shaky ground as I had come out of a loveless four year relationship with the Latinowhoshallnotbenamed and that, coupled with the uncertainty of where I was going to live, who I was going to live with, and a whole host of other issues made his week away a nightmare.

I remember driving into Camp Storer to visit Tod that first year, probably one of my first times since leaving in 92 and I was feeling many different emotions. I wasn’t really missing the work, as it was a lot of physical work for not a lot of pay. I still have my W2 from my first year there in Outdoor Ed and it’s only about $1000 after taxes. But I missed the people I worked with. This was my first professional cohort and I have built some strong friendships from my brief time there after college. I was so happy to see Tod that first year, and we stole away to the nature trail across the street from the camp so we could steal a kiss and talk. We were like to school kids trying to hide from the chaperones at a dance, but in this case, we were hiding from his students and their gossipy mouths. As anyone remembers, those first few years are magic as you get to know someone in a deep personal relationship. Subsequent years had me helping him pack and get his stuff to the car as the trip to camp usually coincided with my end of classes at JCC, which, coupled with him being gone and having to deal with the house and pets made for a logistical nightmare. Toss in Anna Laura in 06, ten years later, and the troops had to be called in to help make the week at camp work with graduation, portfolio reviews, and the final art show.

Is that magic gone from those first years? Hell no. Each day is a trip with us now that we have our own family 13 years later. Each day has its own special wonder and insanity. I will miss Tod while he is gone, but the doubt that plagued my mind back in 96 is gone. I have a great man who loves me; I have a great home with two mildly insane pets and the kid of my dreams. But as we used to say at camp: “how can we miss you if you never leave?”

Hurry home Tod.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A mind is truly a terrible thing to waste

I was driving around town the other day with Anna in tow in the back seat and we came across a billboard for a local Christian School (see the link to the school above). From a distance, I thought it might be an ad for the amazing Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, as they often use cheeky animals to catch your eye on the road. One of my favorites from past years showed a giraffe with its tongue stuck on a pole with the copy saying: Closed for winter, for a good reason. As we got closer, I realized that it was not for the zoo, but for Jackson Christian School. The ad is certainly provocative and will appeal to a number of folks in this gun n’ God lovin’ town of ours, but it bothered me to think that this school was using one book to teach their students: the bible. While I have nothing against the good word, I do have issue with it being the only text in the education of their students in regards to science.

I also have nothing against religious or other private schools, as long as they prepare the students for REAL LIFE and an education beyond what they can offer to the student in K 12. I have had plenty of students come to me from the various private schools (both religious and not) with no art background what so ever. I begin to discuss the Renaissance and start dropping common names like da Vinci and Michelangelo and they know nothing beyond the TMNT. And don’t even get me started on home schooling.

That is child abuse, plain and simple.

I have had many students come to me at the college who were home schooled and couldn’t handle the rigor of a regular classroom. Their work was unprofessional and their social skills were usually in the toilet. I remember taking one of my first classes at JCC to the library for orientation with one of the librarians. She was talking to the students and getting to know them, asking where they went to school and the like, and it came out that one of the students was home schooled. The librarian nodded and went on with her talk. She then asked who in the group had a library card. She immediately put her hand out in front of the home schooler expecting him to drop one in her hand. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. She became indignant with him and began yelling at him in front of the other students. “What do your parents use for textbooks?” “How do you do research?” and a whole host of other queries. It became apparent that his Mom was his sole educator and she relied on what she could find on line and with what help their church offered. He was apparently a graduate, but had never done anything in the way of chemistry, music, or art. And, did I mention he was socially retarded?

Now, we go to weekly tumbling lesson with Anna at a local park with a rec center and we get to see what is going on with the home schooled kids in the way of phys ed. Basically, the gym is open with some equipment out and they go in and stand around. Some of them actually play, but most of them keep to themselves and their book/Ipod/or imaginary friend and go about their business. And, did I mention they were socially retarded?
And the parents? They are not there. I can only assume that this their prep hour and they are at home busy working on lessons and handouts. I talked with one of the Moms who is home schooling her entire family and asked her what was done for art and art history for the kids and the kids in the local home schooling association. She sighed and said it was hard to do all that in the course of a day and that with all these kids, it was tough to do ANYTHING. But somehow they managed to get out of the house for playtime and tumbling. And, did I mention they were socially retarded?

So some may say that I am being too harsh, but when I asked the Mom what her educational background was she laughed and said that she depends on the local home school group for help and that was IT. Great. She can’t handle her own kids at home let alone teaching them all at their various levels. While some may get all nostalgic and reference the one room school houses of yore they must realize that these were usually taught by actual trained teachers from one of them there university type places and not some Mom or Dad with little or no education or pedagogy experience.

So why am I so pissy about this issue?

As parents, we need to do whatever we can to prepare our children for the real world, and that includes their education, both religious and secular. If a parent puts their own beliefs first and limits their child’s education to either bible-based curricula or goes at it on their own, they are putting their child at risk in the future because of THEIR beliefs and that is child abuse. There are those that equate LGBT parents with child abuse, as they feel that we will raise a kid that will eventually be Gay. This twisted logic is behind many ballot initiatives and ridiculous legislation prohibiting LGBT adoption and foster care. “It’s for the kids!” is the typical whine from the right, so I am adding my voice to this never ending chorus. “It’s for the kids, dammit!” We need to prepare and arm our kids with knowledge and the skills to compete in an ever-evolving society.

While I have no hard evidence (only theory) to support my belief in evolution, I also have no proof that the world was created in 6 days by some dude with a beard and a mauve robe (if you know the work of Michelangelo, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about). But I will teach Anna the wonders of science and watch gleefully as she trots off to Sunday School each week for a more biblical perspective. It takes a village for sure, and I am glad that Tod and I are not in this alone and that we can rely on the amazing machine that is known as public education… with all its good and bad points. Yes, we’ll do our best to supplement what Anna learns at school with our own perspective, but we won’t be the only voices she hears in her quest for knowledge. Nor will we limit her exposure to books other than the bible. There is much out there in the world, for all children. The misedumacation of a children is inacceptable.

Just look at the past 8 years.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Remembering Columbine

It was ten years ago this week that the massacre at Columbine High School took place, and set into play the other culture war now mostly forgotten. I was still teaching at Columbia Central High School at the time, and the news story shook my very foundation. I remember turning on the classroom television and watching the students run from the building in Colorado with their hands on their heads. I was lucky that the art room was along an outside wall, and actually had two access doors to the outside. While they were a distraction to some students who couldn’t keep still or needed to run outside to smoke, they suddenly became my life line should a tragedy such as this unfold in Brooklyn, Michigan.

The similarity in the names of the high schools was enough to raise the hair on my neck, as was the description of the two gunmen. I went into teaching art because when I was in high school, the art room was a sanctuary for me. I could go in and create and be flamboyant and not have to worry about being judged different by my classmates. The same was true of my association with the drama department at Whitmer High School. While I never actually graced the stage, I did earn a letter in high school for my involvement in the Thespians and back stage work. I wanted that same kind of special place in CCHS’ Room 112 for my students. Taunting, teasing and name-calling were all forbidden. While I am certain that some did take place under my watch, I did what I could to stop it. My classroom attracted the outsiders of the school, the kids who wore makeup and dark clothes and listened to Marilyn Manson and NIN, the kids who openly mourned when their hero Kurt Cobain took his life a few years earlier. These were also the kids whose sexuality was called out because of this were often the most comfortable in my class, as I didn’t forbid the outrageous clothes and would play their music when it was appropriate.

While some may look at my clothing back then and when I was a teacher and call me a closet preppy, the fact of the matter is that I am punk/goth/emo kid at heart. I may not dress that way, but deep down, the music and attitudes of those movements make me smile and my music collection reflects this secret love. When it came out that the two gunmen were member of the Trench coat Mafia at their high school, shivers once again traveled up my spine. While we are hardly considered an urban school, we were far from rural as well. We straddled that awkward middle ground with kids coming to school with hip and trendy urban clothes and kids coming in with more rural, western/cowboy wear, including the long dusters that the trench coats wore. Suddenly, suspicion was turned on these students and a call came out for banning that type of coat and all backpacks. This hysteria was a prelude to the insanity that followed 9/11 and the prohibitions put on flying with liquid and the checking of shoes. The high school became a police state with doors kept closed and locked and secret staff meetings held after school to discuss students and their behavior.

While I am not here to memorialize the two students who perpetrated the massacre, I am here to remind folks of the power of intimidation and bullying in the classroom (at any level). Had these two students had the chance to go to school and not be taunted and bullied, this may have never happened. The LGBT Blogs that I read feature far too many stories of kids who took their own lives or were murdered because they were either perceived as LGBT or were indeed Gay. Ironically, while the two killers were on the receiving end of taunting on a regular basis, they were not above calling students who they perceived as weak “queer” or “fag.”

I watched Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and enjoyed the silliness that he brings to his movies. But my mood suddenly changed as the film switched to grainy black and white security cameral footage from the day of the massacre. I sat up and could hardly breathe as the cameras showed the two young men going from room to room killing those in their way. I had to ask Tod to stop the DVD for a moment while I collected myself, as I realized that the same thing could have happened when I taught high school. Things aren’t perfect at the college level, and I have actually had more problems with unstable students at the college level then at the high school level, and have had a student removed from my class because of their outrageous behavior. While my teaching philosophy waxes eloquently and perhaps sounds a bit Pollyanna, I do stand by its simple message of “all students can learn.” However, if you’re bringing a car full of crazy to my class, then you are infringing on the other student’s right to learn and we need to talk. If you are skipping your meds and wondering if it’s safe to take off your space helmet in my classroom (yes, this happened) you need to help yourself before you even begin to learn how to draw or sculpt. If you have zero social skills and have alienated most of the class because of your behavior, I will do what I can to help draw you back into the group, but if you continually work to destroy that help as well, you’re on your own pal.

So why this post? Yes, it’s a bit rambling, but that’s how I felt back then regarding what happened, and to a great extent still do to this day. My heart goes out to the 15 people killed that day, and to the countless injured. But my heart also goes out to Dylan and Eric’s parents and friends who must wonder each day what they could have done to help prevent this massacre. There are some lessons to be learned from all this and as time marches on, we’ll find out more and more about what happened. Now that I am teaching at the college level, I size up my students when they come in and ask them for a letter of introduction on the first day. I think the more we get to know our students (and coworkers for that matter) we can begin to watch for signs of this kind of behavior and get them the help they so desperately need.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Proud Teaching moments, brought to you by Miss California

The recent news stories surrounding Miss California and her comments on Gay and “Opposite” Marriage reminded me of a time when I was teaching high school and had to deal with a little Diva in my afternoon class. I dug up this entry from my Live Journal account and thought I should share. Not a proud teaching moment for sure, but one that I will never forget. For those of you who went to CCHS, you’ll know EXACTLY who I am talking about. For the rest of you, just be glad you don’t know her.

I had my fill of pageant girls when I taught at Columbia Central High School. One of my students, Maleah (not her real name), was one of those kids who did the pageant circuit. She was an obnoxious mess and made my life hell at times. It didn’t help that she had family in the school’s administration so she got away with murder most every day. Imagine a toxic mix of Phoebe from “Friends” and Glinda from “Wicked” rolled up with a bag of BRATZ dolls.

We were a Channel One school, so we had cable and televisions in our classrooms. I was watching the Westminster Kennel Club dog show one afternoon during my lunch/prep hour and I forgot to turn the television off when the students came back in for 6th hour. Maleah walked in, went to the back of the classroom and yelled up, “What is that on TV?” I told her it was the dog show, and she yelled back, “That’s soooooooooooo GAY!”

I thought I had turned off my outside voice, but her attitude and comment got the better of me. I responded by yelling back, “What’s the difference? You do the same thing. You get all brushed up and parade around in front of judges just like the dogs!” You could head gasps from the other students, and I had to bite my tongue when one of the independent study students (in the studio space behind me) mumbled under her breath, “Well at least the dogs don’t sing”

She sprinted to the door in an attempt to get to her family member before I did, but I beat her to the office and told her to park it while I went in and explained to the family member the situation with his relative. He was laughing and told me that she was the one in trouble not me, even though she threatened to get me fired for my comments. I left the office and she just glared at me as I went back to my classroom. When she finally did come back, there were little barks and howls from the other students as she went back to her seat. Her pageant training paid off, as she didn’t break her stride nor dip her head. Rumor has it, she moved to some northern state to be eligible for their Miss Northern State pageant thereby making her eligible for the Miss America pageant.

God help us.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I tinkle on your grave

Proud Parenting Moments:

If anyone knows how to get in touch with that midget medium from Poltergeist, please have her call me. Why you ask? Well, I think we might have angered the dead in a big way the other night on our walk home from dinner.
We went to Ted’s Firehouse Pub for their gut busting dollar night and sucked in some greasy goodness and cheap beer. Tod had a massage, so Anna and I decided to take advantage of the great weather and walk the short walk home after dinner. Our street is a pretty diverse street. Greenwood Avenue is capped on each end with a church and houses the city’s Mosque and a Hispanic church in between. There are abandoned homes as well as stately homes from the past (such as ours, natch). There is also Mount Evergreen Cemetery, the final resting place for many of Michigan’s earliest residents. Some of the monuments are buffed smooth by the many years of Michigan weather. Some are amazingly ornate, others are simple stones propped up in the ground. The cemetery is truly a mini mountain (hence the name), and its monument dotted grounds roll and pitch behind wrought iron fences.
As we merrily walked along Greenwood, we came across one of the few access gates along the street. Anna bolted into the cemetery and ran for a few dozen yards. I was chasing after her and she finally stopped and turned back to me and said, “Papa, what is this?” as she pointed to a grave marker carved to look like a tree stump. I began telling her about how this was a place where people went after they died. Death is a relatively new concept for her thanks to a recent visit to Grandma and Grandpa McMillen. Not sure how or why the concept of death came up, but she was suddenly worried that Yukon wouldn’t be around much longer when she came home. We had a nice little toddler talk, and I think she’s okay with the general concept of death. Thanks Grandma!

She seemed generally interested in the grave stones and deftly meandered through the cemetery. We climbed up a rather big hill and when we got to the top Anna turned to me and in her thishastohappenrightnow voice said, “Papa, I have to go potty!”


Thankfully it wasn’t that, she only had to pee, so we found a rather large monument for privacy and I sized it up to guesstimate where the dearly departed may be and aimed Anna’s bottom away from that spot. I don’t know why I was worried about privacy in a grave yard, as we were the only people roaming around that night at 7:15. Anna did her business and I checked out the names on the monument. I said “Sorry about this” out loud and mentioned their names. Anna didn’t seem to be too concerned about the wrath of the pissed on and pissed off dead, and ran off to check out another large grave stone.

I however patted the stone and reminded them that they were kids once too and she meant no harm.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Afternoons with Carter

All of us want what’s best for our family, especially our children (whether furry or bipeds). Anna attends a weekly tumbling class for her age group called Tumble Tots. It’s an action-packed half hour taught by a saint of a woman and her assistant. The kids basically play Simon Says for the first half and work on gross motor skills and direction following. The second half is devoted to balance beams, trampolines, etc. and most of the kids leave each week tired and thoroughly entertained. I leave my hearing aids at home as the noise level approaches deafening at times.
Anna’s BFF Tessa attends and it’s their weekly get together to play and have fun. This session, a boy with Down’s syndrome started coming to the class and proved to be quite a delight. He had issues with his legs, as he was quite bull-legged and had hard times with coordination and the finer motor skills practiced. He was also very shy and when the teacher called his name, he would quickly cover his face with his hands and try and hide. He also had a smile that could light up a small town and was very happy to be playing alongside these other kids.
The boy communicated very little and used very crude sign language to communicate with his Dad each week during the lesson. The teacher would tell the kids what to do and then Dad would get the boy’s attention and sign the command to him. This Dad and I were the only two men in this session’s group, so we formed a quick bond and would quickly chat while waiting to use the balance beam or hop on the trampoline. We discussed the boy’s condition and what they were doing to help him get ready for school. For his age, he was pretty low functioning and that was a concern for the family as they enrolled him in the class. They knew that he was chronologically ready, but physically/mentally, he was still at about 18 months or lower. The Dad remarked one day that he was very happy that we had accepted his son and was grateful that we looked beyond his disability and viewed him as just another kid.
I had to check myself, as I got a little choked up as that is what Tod and worry about on a regular basis. How will Anna be accepted with two Dads that are Gay? How will she be treated by her friends and future school mates? Will she become the object of ridicule or mocking because of us? After I regained my composure, I realized that most of us worry about this, whether the kid has a disability or two Dads, but it took a young man with a killer smile and the desire to play to help me realize that fact.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Alice Update: NYC

So we made it to the Alice sculpture, and as predicted, we got the "I DON'T WANT TO SEE THE ALICE!" as we approached. But man oh man, once we were there, it was a totally different story.
These aren't the best pictures, and I am bummed. We had gone into the rain forest section of the Central Park Zoo and the lens got all fogged up. It was hard to see the streaks until we were home.

After frolicking on the piece for 45 minutes or so, I had to grab her and pull her off it kicking and screaming.