Sunday, February 10, 2013

Commencement, Prison, and All That Jazz (or blues)

I've mentioned this before, but I was talking to my boy the other day about my college commencement.  Because I was within a certain number of credit hours of graduation (or so I thought--I was actually done), I was entitled to "walk" with my class.  I was very excited--see, I'd spent a lifetime being told (by vocational counselors, even) that I didn't have what it took to finish anything.  Imagine that--a vocational counselor for the state looking into your eighteen year-old eyes and saying, "You're a loser--you never finish anything, any cash we might put toward your tuition would be wasted."  Kinda like Dr. May telling me I wasn't Psi Chi material (funny, how I went on to be the VP of our Psi Chi chapter).  Those things were very hurtful to me, and, while I wouldn't say they drove me, it was satisfying to look back and know they were wrong.

Anyway, so there I was, very psyched for my graduation.  I had TWO honor cords--one from Psi Chi and one for graduating with honors.  I had my fancy gold Psi Chi pin.  I reserved my cap and gown.

And then I didn't go.

See, L.D.S. President Ezra Taft Benson was going to be the commencement speaker.  He was also going to offer up the opening and closing PRAYERS.  Oh, and a contingent from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would be singing the HYMN.

At my STATE university's commencement.

I knew that, being Utah, my school was lumbering along under a lot more religious influence than a state university should.  Heck, I had a botany professor tell us that the guys in class should pay particularly close attention because, when they were the GODS OF THEIR OWN PLANETS, they'd want to know this stuff.  I had another professor tell me that, by Kohlberg's reckoning, people who don't believe in a deity can never achieve the "highest level of moral reasoning."  Remember, the highest level represents moving beyond appeals to authority, beyond fear of punishment or promise of reward, beyond rules and laws and into the realm of decision making based upon humanity and the common good.  I wound up outing myself as an atheist in that class when I wasn't even sure that was what I WAS.  I said, "Dr. S, doesn't religion represent the very pinnacle of looking to an ultimate authority for guidance and obeying laws based upon fear of punishment and hope for reward?"

Dr. S, whose pet I had been for a few years at that point, asked me to stay after class.  She then said she felt that perhaps the class and I weren't a good "fit."  I managed to fulfill my minor without ever taking another class from her.  I felt certain I wouldn't get a fair grade or equal treatment from her.

So I knew.  I knew, and would have even been able to handle a dippy little prayer somewhere in my state university's commencement to appease the natives.  But a multitude of prayers (not just the two offered by President Benson, but also student prayers), hymns, and our commencement address being given by the President of the Mormon Church?

No.  Absolutely not.  I couldn't do it.  No matter what faith you are, imagine yourself sitting through an entire STATE SPONSORED graduation ceremony enveloped in a faith that isn't yours. That's fine, if you're Catholic or Muslim but attended BYU.  That's fine if you're Sikh but attended Notre Dame.  But this wasn't a private religious campus.  This wasn't a church sponsored university.  This was a tax payer-funded state university.  And I wasn't going to do it.

See, I had a choice.  I could sit through four hours of being angry or I could choose to not engage.

I chose the latter.  As a result, I never walked across that stage.  I never was given my second honor cord (that one is put on during commencement by the Dean--if you don't attend, you don't get it).  And while I didn't partake, at least I'm not full of crappy, angry memories.

I'm not even particularly bitter, but it is a sad thing.  And it's a defining thing, I think.  It's a sacrifice made because I refused to compromise myself.

My  beautiful Psi Chi pin.

So, I came across a story today on some news site I frequent.  A story about our prison system and how totally screwed up it is (and we are).  Way back, in my college days, I took a fair number of criminal justice classes--a requirement for my emphasis, which was Victimology.  One of the things I learned early on was about the concept of cops as "gatekeepers."  I learned about the rather impressive leeway our police have when it comes to deciding whether to make an arrest or wag a finger.

I learned how much more often minority youths are arrested and dragged through the courts for crimes that white kids would be warned about, but kept out of the court system.

It makes a huge difference.  You toss a teenager in jail, get that on his record, expose him to the awfulness that is incarceration, and you've just dramatically increased the chances of his offending again.  You've made a criminal of one kid, while the other goes home with a "boys will be boys" wink and nod.

I'm not blaming "black crime" on our police.  But you'd have to blind not to see that our justice system is skewed to deal more harshly with minorities, especially blacks.  And there's no way that doesn't have an effect on behavior, attitudes, and the very chance that a kid is going to rise above rather than sink beneath.

Our prisons are out of control.  We've allowed them to become a business.  I read the other day about the concept of a "high school to prison pipeline" where black kids are arrested for being late to class, for skipping school, for "sassing" a teacher, for CRYING WHILE BEING BEATEN WITH A PADDLE.  Is it any wonder that kids in that sort of environment tend to go straight from school to prison?

Is that who we are?


I was taking our boy through the various incarnations of the Leadbelly classic "Black Betty."  No, he didn't write it, he's not even the first voice recorded singing it, but it's definitely strongly associated with him.  The Ram Jam version is probably the most well known, but we decided it was the Spiderbait version we like the best (which, in my opinion, only superficially like the musically slick Ministry version with its gawdawful vocals).  All the growly shouting and guitar-heaviness of Ram Jam with the banjo the song really does require (in our opinion).  Plus an edginess missing from the Ram Jam version.

Here--you decide:
Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter

Ram Jam


There are certainly other versions (including a mind-bending Tom Jones rendition), but these three are the faves, with Spiderbait coming out on top.

This brought us to Leadbelly's "Pick a Bale of Cotton," which really is wonderful:

I learned this song as a child without realizing just how deeply hurtful the roots are, how very meaningful this song is.  It's beautiful to hear, but man, the baggage it brings with it.  

We do this a lot--sort of free-association through music videos.  You have to be careful on YouTube, though--you're only ever one click away from some gawdawful carbuncle video or some other hideous thing.  

Today is a Walking Dead "marathon" (doesn't that bring about a mental image?).  We haven't been watching this season because we missed the first few episodes, figured we'd wait until it was available on DVD, but they're replaying everything, and starting today at 12:57, they'll be playing all of this season to date.  So we'll be caught up!  Hope they've ramped the gore down a little.  I know, wishes, horses, beggars, and all that.

Oh, a little note--we grabbed food from a little place called Adam's Pizza and Subs last night.  The pizzas were marvelous (I only had one piece), and the sub was terrific, though they did offer it up hot when I'd requested it cold.  Hubby and son say the wings were to die for--not sloppy and super-hot, but rather savory with a slow build.  The salad was marvelous, but the dressing?  Near-rancid, it was so vinegar-y.  Glad I tested it before pouring it on my salad.  That would have been tragic.

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