I gave up on blogging on Jan. 3, 2017. The first week of Donald Trump’s actual occupation of the White House was a nightmare for me. I hadn’t been that scared since 1964, when I was doing my student teaching in a junior high in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing had prepared me for that experience. It might surprise some of you that this guy who made a 33 year career out of being an education professor almost failed student teaching, but I nearly did. It was doubly puzzling for me, because I had always loved school: I did well in school, I liked most of my teachers, I had a good circle of friends, and I avoided the inevitable few assholes that I occasionally encountered along the way.
But I know why it was that I almost failed student teaching in 1964. It was because during student teaching, you are finally stepping up out of the millieu of students and saying, “I want to become a part of this system. I not only want to reap the fruits of the process of learning, I want to help others to learn. I want to become an authority on learning some little piece of the curriculum. I want to join the school community of teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches, parents of children in school.” Despite the fact that I needed a job, being 26 years old, and despite the fact that this seemed to be a logical place for me to seek employment, I couldn’t step up to the plate.
I had a deep, dark secret. I knew I was gay. I knew I was always going to be gay, and I thought that actually, nobody knew this but me. I had no experience whatever with any social exchange, no matter how it was focused, that contained as part of the background information the fact that I, James Andris, could not be taken for granted as a heterosexual person. In that era—the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964—anyone who was identified as homosexual was automatically classified thusly: a sick, sinning criminal. I had learned to hide my deep, dark secret in all the years of practice as a student. But that was because students can be passive and hide when they need to. Teachers have a much harder time of being passive and hiding. And I just wasn’t ready to step up yet to that particular plate. I had too much learning and living yet to do.
I was renting the third floor apartment at the top of the big, charming old house at 1368 Neil Avenue owned by Mr. and Mrs. Brandt. I was on friendly terms with the owners and also with a couple of the roomers they had on the second floor. I had the run of their kitchen and they trusted me. But I never broached the subject of my gayness, just as I never confronted their very open hostility to black Americans. The N-word occasionally slipped from Mrs. Brandt’s lips, and the context was not flattering or enlightened.
I remember the horrible, paralyzing fear that gripped me each morning as I faced the new day of student teaching. I would awake with a gnawing in the pit of my stomach and a feeling of general apprehensiveness. I’d go ahead and get dressed in one of my two suits, five white shirts and three ties. I’d have something to eat, because if I didn’t I’d be ravenous by lunchtime. But I had to force myself to eat. I was hitching a ride with another student teacher, a nice guy like myself, and the ride to the school was pleasant enough. But as I got closer and closer to the junior high school in “inner city” Columbus, Ohio, I got tenser and tenser, and in fact, more wracked with dread. But then, once I got there, and started my day, met with my first class, with the supervising teacher there, I did calm down and conduct the business at hand: teaching. I wasn’t doing well. I dropped out. Finally, I did finish my student teaching the next semester in a different location in a suburban school in Franklin County .
There are times in our lives when we have a sense that “the sky is falling.” If you remember the children’s story, Henny-Penny was out for her morning breakfast of corn, when an acorn hit her on the head. Befuddled and confused, she cries out “The sky is falling.” She feels danger and a sense of urgency and suddenly decides she must warn the king. And so Henny-Penny sets out on her mission. In the process, she encounters several barnyard creatures: Cocky-Locky, Ducky-Daddles, Goosey-Poosey, Turky-Lurky, and eventually Foxy-Loxy. Foxy-Loxy manages to subvert the cause of Henny-Penny—misguided though it is—and manages to convince several of Henny’s fowl friends to enter his burrow, where he feasts on them. But, just as Henny-Penny is set to follow the foolish fowl path to dusty death, she remembers that it is dawn and it is time to lay her egg. And so she does lay her egg, and avoids Foxy-Loxy’s lair, but she never tells the King that the sky is falling.
And that’s the way I felt on January 3, 1018. My particular acorn, and the acorn of a lot of other people I know, was the occupation of the White House by Donald Trump, pretender to the throne, and erroneously called “President of the United States.” I say “erroneously” because we now know that had the Russians not intervened in our political process, and had the name of Hillary Clinton not been blackened to the unlettered masses by the likes of the National Enquirer and several tireless Republican congressmen, Trump would have remained just that, a pretender to a throne. Anyway, my liberal noggin was knocked real good, and I behaved in much the same way as I had when I flunked out of student teaching. I woke up every morning for a week with terror in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t eat much for breakfast. I spent a lot of time on the phone with a few of my more progressive friends, and we bemoaned the fate of the country. We knew it was going to get worse for a long time. And Trump and McConnell and Ryan and Sessions have not disappointed. For, you see, their good is my bad.
One of the things I just couldn’t seem to do was to write any more blog posts. I considered what I had been writing about in the period previous to January 3. I had a lot of assumptions going behind those posts that, of course, reflected my progressive values. Assumptions I had honed from years of working to protect my own civil rights and the civil rights of others. Assumptions like it was wrong to discriminate against a person for reason of their race or sex. Like in order to protect everyone’s right to religious liberty, the government must take no sides in any religious issue. Like every human being had a right to be treated with dignity, even prisoners, immigrants, refugees. Assumptions I had just absorbed from my parents and my small town schooling. Assumptions like in the eyes of God, I was no better or worse than any other human being struggling to make a life on a crowded planet. Like always reach out to help your neighbor, especially those who are less fortunate than you are. Like work hard first and have fun when your work is done, or when you need to rest from it for a while.
When I looked back at these old blog posts, so filled with assumptions that didn’t necessarily need to be articulated in the Obama Era, I saw that I had been completely naïve about life in these United States. I think it is true that for a long time, despite some difficult detours like the Bush/Cheney debacle they called a presidency, civil rights for people of color, women and LGBT people really had been going uphill. I had been thinking that my future would be like that. Just kind of a slow, uphill movement with some ups and downs in it. But nothing like this! In the Era of Trump/McConnell/Ryan the government no longer takes those civil rights for granted. I couldn’t write blog posts because I sometimes couldn’t even get out of bed until almost noon.
Well, I’m ba-a-ck! Thanks for the boiling ice water challenge, Vladimir Putin and Julian Osange. You kicked my pedestal right out from under me. Thanks for kicking immigrant childen when they’re down, cowards Trump/Sessions just to give Steve Miller and his Nazi ilk a bone. You woke me up to just how bad things are and getting worse. Thanks Mitch McConnell for recently gloating that the last 18 months have been the best for the conservative agenda in a long time. You reminded me of how badly you have lost your way. How far you are away from the shining city on a hill. And while I am extremely grateful for my tireless friends who constantly work on the very forefronts of political struggle for progressive causes—people I greatly admire, like Rebecca Turner, Faith Sandler, and Rev. Jon Stratton—I will be taking a somewhat different path.
When I finally came out at age 35, as one friend observed, “You didn’t just come out of the closet, you blew the door off the hinges.” Yes, I did. After I came out, I was just myself. No more hiding. I engaged in a decade of fierce activism. I still have people thanking me occasionally for raising their awareness level. But that fierce activism mellowed into a lasting marriage to another man, a career in education, and yes, a retirement. I got out of the habit of actively searching for and supporting all progressive causes, although I remained loyal to a few of them.
Today, I am engaged in a different kind of activism. It’s called living your truth where you find yourself planted, while respecting the truth that others are living. Yes, I did retire into a primarily white community of privilege. No sense denying it. Most of my friends are white. Most of my friends are heterosexual, at least for all intents and purposes. But here I am, the primary caregiver for my disabled male partner. He currently cannot walk anywhere unsupervised. And so we continue to live our lives. I care for him with as much grace as I can, and he accepts this help with grace. “Grace” in both the etiquette sense, and in the theological sense. We are well-liked by the people here, and we like them. I won’t dwell on it, but this is a community service, both ways. Here in the retirement center, people come and go with surprising frequency. Human beings are being recycled here. I’m continually surprised at how well we all do on this treadmill of life and loss. Human beings, each one of us, are truly amazing.
This has been my gift from God. We’re good friends here with some Trump supporters, some black lives matter devotees, one couple of color and a few other alternative sexuality folks. I see beyond their political façades. I see the them for the rainbow beings that they are. Here is the flaw that I see in all of us, however. We are really good to the people we trust, but we do not extend this hospitality to the people we don’t trust. To be honest, you’d have to be careless and stupid to trust everyone. There are plenty of people that you can’t trust with your welfare or your life. And you shouldn’t entrust such people with your welfare or your life.
However, you should entrust everyone with your compassion. Regardless of where you come down on the theological question of God’s existence, I’m convinced this is a valid principal to live by: All lives matter. In the eyes of God (or even in the absence of God’s eyes), all lives matter. All lives are hard, all lives are finite, all lives must end, all lives take nothing of their lifelong acquisitions with them when they die. Almost all lives dissolve into a sea of weakness, pain, reduced capacity, relentless release of the few privileges that have been accumulated. This is tragic. This is deserving of compassion. I get this. I really get it.
It seems to me that this fact should make us want to extend our compassion and hospitality to everyone without exception, even to the people we can’t entrust our welfare or our lives to. But not everyone agrees with me.
So like Henny-Penny, I finally woke up. It’s time to lay my egg, and so I’m laying it. My truth is my egg. Have it for breakfast if it pleases you, and if you’d like something else, so be it. I don’t even want to tell the King that the sky is falling. He’ll just tell me that that’s fake news. Meanwhile, I watch while one after another environmental protections are demolished, we play footsie with totalitarian regimes while scorning democracies, millionaires own 50% of the wealth in this country, the homeless line the streets, the state department is decimated and we are regarded as an untrustworth rogue nation. I really cannot list all the anti-progressive garbage that has come out of a year and a half of the current administration, because no list would be complete.
Newt Gingrich perfected it, and McConnell honed it to a fine art. Compassion and regard for other points of view are gone from politics. Gone. Completely absent. There is only winning for your side. There are no feelings of remorse. Only quiet celebration as you continue to get your way, backed by incredible wealth. Only lying and covering for each other, no matter how bad things get. Robots could do a better job.
Guys (and gals) I’m sorry you missed this important life lesson. I’m sure you are good to the people you trust. You’re not completely devoid of human characteristics. But you really need to develop a wider circle of friends. If it’s not already too late.
Unlike Henny-Penny, I realize that this time, the sky really is falling.